BIFF 2017 Day 1: Ghosts, Squares and Novitiates

Bergen International Film Festival

The first day of this year’s festival is officially over (the second, if you count yesterday’s opening screening of The Square), and it’s wonderful to be back. BIFF has been the highlight of my year every year for the past seven years. To see volunteers you see every year; to catch up with cinephiles you haven’t seen since last year’s fest; to be surrounded by people who love film. The atmosphere is as lovely as always. I started my day with four hours of sleep, and have gotten nutrition through a kebab, a dry baguette, and countless ounces of black coffee — and two lattes. I managed to watch five movies, and with the exception of one, they were all generally great experiences. The movies were The Square (re-watch), A Ghost Story, In the Fade, The Summit, and Novitiate.

First I had to re-visit The Square, which I saw at a press screening earlier this week. I’ve already published my review, which you can read here, but a quick summary for those in a hurry. With The Square, the always relevant and polarising Swedish director, Ruben Östlund has delivered his most refined film to date. It’s an utterly hilarious satire of pretty much the entirety of the Scandinavian condition, and it doesn’t hold back. It strikes in every direction with acute and truthful jabs at the contemporary art world, our ingrained prejudices, societal gender roles, and of course, the Scandinavian political correctness. I’ve spoken to a handful of people about it already, and the reactions vary from “perfect confrontational commentary” to “Östlund’s worldview is not one I like.” I haven’t had the time to really discuss it in between all the movies, but you can feel it in the air — this will be one that is talked about throughout the festival.

Second up was David Lowery’s critically acclaimed A Ghost Story. It’s hard to enter movies without any expectations or ideas of what you are about to see. As someone who does not watch trailers at all — I run out when they play before movies unless it’s for things like Transformers — I didn’t know much about the plot and themes of A Ghost Story, but I hadn’t been able to avoid its (almost) exclusively positive reactions from Sundance and the like. And, even with very high expectations, this did not disappoint at all. It’s a quiet meditation on death, love, time, existence and our space in the universe we inhabit. It’s a movie where the themes are wholly complimented by the form, and the symbiosis that occurs on-screen makes its visual poetry transcend into a deeply personal confession. It’s a movie that is so sparse on traditional narrative sensibilities that it becomes a space for you to project your own narrative; your own personal tragedies; philosophies on death and existence, time and spirituality. This is, of course, a deeply personal project for Lowery – he made a short titled A Ghost Story when he was seven years old, and the sheeted-ghost makes an appearance in most of his later shorts as well – but this is just as much a movie for you and me.

Sadly, In the Fade did not make a huge impression. Diane Kruger, who won Best Actress at Cannes for this role, deliveries a forceful exhibition of deep grief and desperation. Kruger doesn’t hold back, and the visceral pangs of sadness that wash over her character throughout the movie are truly moving, and at times cathartic. The troubles arise in the film’s inability to provoke a real reaction or even a discussion. It tries to provoke, but Fatih Akin’s direction is too aimless and disjointed for it to hit with any real force. There is one segment that works in the second act, as the movies borders on a tense and emotional chamber play, but when the first and third acts are as sporadic and affectless as they are, the end result is a forgettable experience.

The Summit was an odd one, and I feel a lot of it may have gotten lost in translation. It’s an Argentinian political drama, in which a handful of South American leaders (Presidents from Argentina, Chile, Brazil etc.) get together in Chile to discuss state matters and bring different proposals up for a vote. It’s heavily rooted in South American politics and identities, so I got lost in The Summit’s house of cards pretty quick. But that doesn’t mean I didn’t like it. It was such an odd and strange experience that continued to entertain in one way or another throughout. The first act feels like a political satire, while the second borders on a psychological thriller and the third becomes a full-blown political drama. I don’t know if it works or if it doesn’t, but it’s a movie I’d like to revisit, so that alone speaks volumes. It is all set at a luxurious hotel in the beautiful snowy mountains of Chile (very reminiscent of Ruben Östlund’s Force Majeure, actually).

The last movie of the day was Novitiate, which I have very conflicted feelings about. On the one hand, it seems to struggle to find a focus point. There are too many characters that are not given enough screen time, so it’s hard to form an emotional attachment to them. It doesn’t help that the score is constantly there, not allowing you to feel for yourself. On the other hand, it’s a tour de force of performances. Melissa Leo is as good as she always is and even better in a handful of scenes. Her Reverend Mother is a very flawed and troubled woman, and Leo conveys this beautifully. The mean-spiritedness she presents is deeply tragic and sad. Morgan Saylor feels miscast for large parts of the movie, as it’s not entirely clear what she’s going for, but she has a huge scene later in the film in which she delivers a performance that is so forceful and visceral that it leaves you shaken. Margaret Qualley shines as bright as she does in The Leftovers, and her ability to be in a range of emotional stages at once is truly extraordinary and under-appreciated. It seemed to go unrecognized by many in The Leftovers, but hopefully it won’t in this. Novitiate is a beautifully shot film with performances that will be hard to surpass, and it’s worth it for this alone.

The first day of BIFF 2017 was a good one. My revisit of The Square cemented my feelings about it, and it’s strange to have finally seen A Ghost Story – to not have to look forward to it anymore. I’m excited for the days to come, and the movies they contain.

Per Morten Mjolkeraaen

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