Film

The Melbourne International Film Festival’s streaming program – brought to the fore under lockdown – boasts unexpected gems. By Anthony Carew.

MIFF play along at home

A scene from Ramon and Silvan Zürcher’s film The Girl and the Spider.
Credit: Zürcher Film

In a cute bit of pandemic-era branding, last year’s Melbourne International Film Festival was billed as edition 68½. More than a wink at Being John Malkovich, it was an acknowledgement that, taking place entirely online, this wasn’t your regular MIFF. This year the festival forged ahead with edition 69, planning to return proceedings to their rightful homes: cinemas.

Having MIFF back in-person was to be a symbol of things returning to normal: August again synonymous with long, cold queues snaking along footpaths.

Sadly, we know what happened next.

Luckily the festival had curated an online collection as a secondary programming and fallback option. So MIFF “Play” is what’s on offer: 65 films – with hopefully more to come – available to stream at home. Normally the festival program feels overwhelming due to its 300-plus films and tendency to sell out. Online there’s the paralysis of a streaming browser: so many titles, so little context.

Some planned MIFF programming strains – Iranian cinema, music films – have largely been transported online wholesale, but the understandable absence of the fest’s buzziest entries – Nitram, Titane and Annette – from the online edition may leave many feeling adrift as they attempt to navigate this virtual landscape.

As good a place to start as any is an unexpected MIFF standout: the Swiss picture The Girl and the Spider. There’s an incredible scene in See the Sea, hyper-prolific French filmmaker François Ozon’s 1997 debut, where a character – an interloper camping out on the lawn of a couple’s remote clifftop property – goes to the toilet and then, before flushing, dips her host’s toothbrush into the soiled water. It’s a tiny gesture, but it marks the crossing of a line, a breaking of social contracts that flags to the audience that all is not right with our guest.

The Girl and the Spider is filled with moments like this: recurring incidents of passive aggressiveness driven by darkness and disdain. Rather than escalating proceedings, writer-directors and twin brothers Ramon and Silvan Zürcher inhabit a feeling of sustained unease, with personal tensions and sexual tensions left to simmer. Audio-visual symbols add to the atmosphere: jackhammers, whistling kettles, thunderstorms, smashed glass, broken mugs, spilled wine. It’s essentially a film about the psychological state of being housemates: at once intimate and distant, where passive aggressiveness, such as the classic note on the fridge, can feel like the default mode.

Its story is simple: Lisa (Liliane Amuat) is moving from one Bern apartment to another, leaving behind two housemates, Markus (Ivan Georgiev) and Mara (Henriette Confurius). They’re helping Lisa move, but Mara is clearly filled with unspoken resentment, with a stare that can drill through stone. She scratches up a benchtop in the new house with a screwdriver, pours coffee on a dog, stays in the bathroom when Lisa’s mother needs to use the toilet. She tells minor lies to amuse herself and create confusion (“I lie without batting an eyelid,” she’ll eventually confess, when caught out). She has a cold sore on her lip and an adhesive plaster on her finger, physical wounds to symbolise her inner turmoil. When Mara fondly remembers an old bicycle trip with Lisa, we dissolve into the past with a sense of warmth and wonder. Otherwise, we’re almost entirely confined in these two apartments and in the painful now, trapped in Mara’s feelings of annoyance and abandonment.

The Zürchers give room and respect to this hurt, but there’s also a sense of mischief at play, the whole presented as a work of provocative contemporary theatre. The film has the bright colour palette of an Ikea catalogue – all blond wood, saturated blues and yellows and slightly overexposed to cast a wholesome, blissful glow – but it is a shrine to domestic disharmony, with clean interiors populated by messy humans. In turn, the presence of a community – old neighbours, new neighbours, friends, parents, handymen – isn’t reassuring, but rather a multiplier of anxieties, every relationship adding an additional complication.

Shot in 2019 and completed remotely last year, it’s not an obvious Covid-era film. But those who found themselves suddenly stuck in close confines with various housemates through 2020 might feel differently, especially given how claustrophobic The Girl and the Spider feels. Characters are only shown in uncomfortable midshots, neither situated wholly in their environment nor treated to the romanticism of a close-up. Frames feel too tight, the Zürchers creating a sense of compositional claustrophobia as multiple figures enter into the image, with mirrors cluttering things further, and dogs, cats and kids adding an element of chaos.

What to make of this tiny symphony of minor tensions is, really, up to the viewer; many may just feel frustrated by the whole. You could grant The Girl and the Spider some grand symbolic reading – all these different individuals coexisting uneasily, sometimes with hostility, and with resentment for those who are exiting … is this a European Union parable? – or just take it as a precise study of a particular domestic drama. It’s small and personal, but all the more intense for being so.

The Inheritance is another piece of provocative theatre situated within the walls of a shared domestic space, one in which petty housemate tensions threaten to derail idealist notions and hoped-for harmony, but its spirit is completely contrary. Ephraim Asili chronicles the personal and political ramifications of founding a Philadelphia commune built on radical Black politics. It’s a work at once playful and painful: a 100-minute homage to Jean-Luc Godard’s 1967 non-narrative taunt La Chinoise that doubles as a history lesson in the communal organisation MOVE, which was bombed by police in 1985.

Police brutality takes centre-stage in The Monopoly of Violence, a discussion of the gruesome shows of state force unleashed on gilet jaunes protesters in pre-pandemic Paris. Inviting a host of sociologists, historians and legal experts to discuss the ramifications, it’s a fascinating conversation piece on violence and who gets to decide whether it’s just or unjust. It’s particularly French – protests marching on monuments to republican glory, challenging a complacent nation founded on revolution – but it’s also dismayingly universal. And terrifyingly, painfully personal: the discussion is interspersed with mobile phone footage shot on the ground, often by victims of this legalised violence, who discuss the trauma inflicted on them on behalf of the state.

State and police power percolates beneath the surface of All Light, Everywhere, Theo Anthony’s essayistic follow-up to his 2016 banger, Rat Film. At first, its various strands – cognitive neuroscience observations, the 1874 transit of Venus, cameras strapped on pigeons, a tour around the Taser factory – feel loosely gathered, but slowly they constrict around viewers as we follow the manufacture of body cameras, their implementation with Baltimore police and the collection of their captured data. Both implicitly and explicitly, the film considers the historical context and ramifications of the recorded image, its hierarchies of legality and power and its fomentation of the surveillance state. One policeman training field officers in body-cam use blithely describes the camera as the “all-seeing eye”, offering due chills. As he studies the politics of image capture, Anthony has the self-awareness and sense of humour to indict himself along the way.

If the strands of All Light, Everywhere take a while to be woven into a satisfying cinematic braid, the scattershot elements of Rock Bottom Riser remain defiantly loose. Fern Silva’s film is billed in the MIFF program as an essay movie, but there’s no real cogent thesis. It’s about the Hawaiian islands, most amazingly on a primal and geological plane. We sit and observe flowing lava, see its fiery glow and hear its crackle, sometimes from an eye-of-god height, sometimes in close-up. Silva pirouettes through myth, astronomy, colonialism, decolonisation and – in one memorable and incongruous moment – a teacher excitedly playing her students Simon and Garfunkel’s “I Am a Rock” as exemplar of poetry.

Rock Bottom Riser (contrarily named after a Bill Callahan song) is a succession of strange, atomised interludes, which in its own way makes it a symbolic entry in the festival. Just as each viewer will interpret it as they wish, so too will each MIFF patron pick their own particular path through the program. It’s sad that this journey won’t involve getting to sit in cinemas but, as it did last year, online MIFF offers a glorious on-screen respite for those stuck deep in lockdown.

MIFF Play is streaming until August 22.

 

Arts Diary

LITERATURE Poetry Month

Red Room Poetry, Sydney, until August 31

EXHIBITION The Trevor Kennedy Collection: Highlights

National Museum of Australia, Canberra, until October 10

VISUAL ART Lyrical Landscapes: The Art of William Robinson

Home of the Arts, Gold Coast, until October 3

VISUAL ART Jacqui Ward: Un Momenta

Salamanca Arts Centre, Hobart, until August 31

EXHIBITION Ancient Greeks: Athletes, Warriors and Heroes

Western Australian Museum Boola Bardip, Perth, until November 7

Last chance

INSTALLATION Street Art Luminism

Throughout Perth, until August 14

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 14, 2021 as "Playing at home".

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Anthony Carew is a Melbourne-based critic