BIFF 2017 The Final Days: The Killing of a Sacred Deer, Happy End and more

Bergen International Film Festival

It is always a bittersweet moment when the credits roll on the last film of a festival. It means you have to say farewell to the theatre and the people in and around it, but it also means you can finally get a good night’s rest and a decent meal for the first time in what feels like a month. A festival’s end is also when you can really reflect back on the experience as a whole, and better understand your opinion on certain films. It can be difficult to really process and figure out how you feel about one film before you have to run into the next, so it’s nice to finally have that space to think – sometimes your opinions can change quite drastically. But the end of a festival is first and foremost an excuse to look to the future and prepare for the next one.

120 Beats Per Minute, Robin Campillo (2017)

120 BPM (Beats Per Minute) is an essential film. It is a film that should be put on the school curriculum around the world. Robin Campillo’s latest film is an educational one, about the AIDS activism of the 90s, but it never compromises its cinematic flourishes. Campillo has taken from his own experiences as a member of ACT UP, which infuses the film with a rawness in material and individual stories that could’ve easily felt artificial. 120 BPM is a film that sees people and lets them speak. Campillo demonstrates this in the first 20 minutes of his 140-minute epic, as he introduces us to a classroom packed with different people and identities. In this sequence Campillo allows us to get to know these people – people who feel real, people Campillo quite possibly know from his past – without it feeling expositionary or constructed. 120 BPM is a euphoric ode to activism and people. It is a film where love is at the forefront, charged by an important political discourse that demands attention. Campillo’s sensibilities are a bit too sentimental for my tastes at certain vital moments in the film, but that is not important in the conversation about this film’s truer values. 120 BPM is a film that can be indispensable for future generations formative years, and I hope that it’s given this chance.

Next up was Alex Ross Perry’s latest film, Golden Exits. It’s easy to describe Perry as a disciple of Woody Allen and Noah Baumbach, but that is to overlook all his idiosyncrasies as a filmmaker in the American indie scene. Golden Exits is perhaps his most refined work to date, and as with all his films, it’s hard to put your finger on how it works (or how it doesn’t). Perry is a filmmaker that manages to say a lot with very little, and Golden Exits is a quiet soap opera about “normal” people who don’t do very much. It’s not as aggressively inspired or ambitious as Queen of Earth‘s genre-mix, nor is it as keen in its satirical bite as the tragi-hilarious Listen Up Phillip. Rather, it’s a film about moments. It captures simple glances — of desire, distrust, annoyance etc.. It sees and understands relationships — love, work, friendships etc. — in an entirely unsentimental and undramatic fashion. Perry’s foremost talent as a filmmaker is his skills of observations, and Golden Exits is very much about this. How we observe other people, and how we present ourselves for others to observe us.

Let the Sun Shine In, or Un beau soleil intérieur as it is more eloquently named in French, is the latest from the master director, Claire Denis. It is an unexpected genre shift for Denis. Not only is she inextricably linked to the New French Extremity movement of the past two decades (mainly for Trouble Every Day), but her entire oeuvre runs in a different direction than that of Let the Sun Shine In — a romantic tragicomedy with Juliette Binoche at the center. While it is a wildly different experience than any of Denis’ previous films, Let the Sun Shine In, is still a Denis film through and through. Her sensibilities as a director are translated beautifully into this sensuous epos on relationships and love. Denis understands the space that exists within the frames she creates, and specifically how the human body relates to this space in different ways. Let the Sun Shine In is a brilliant film albeit not one that resonates very much with me on an individual level. It is, however, easy to see that this is a film that will resonate with others. It’s a film which importance is impossible to overstate, as Denis’ and Binoche’s uncompromised look at womanhood and love is still too rare in cinema, and we still need more of it.

Let the Sunshine In, Claire Denis (2017)
Let the Sunshine In, Claire Denis (2017)

Like last year’s festival, there was a huge focus on the refugee crisis in the program this year — both in narrative and documentary work. More (Daha), is a two-hour fiction film that follows a teenage boy in Turkey, as he becomes more and more entangled in his father’s work as a human trafficker. Director Onur Saylak’s approach is cold and brutal, passive in a way that borders on complete indifference. It’s an attempt to highlight the very real circumstances in a way that doesn’t care about our comfort, and that’s admirable. A film about this subject matter should make us feel safe, or comfortable, or at ease. The problem with More is that it becomes too drained of humanity. Its brutalist expression beats you into submission not because your heart breaks for the characters (the people!) on screen, but because Saylak’s audiovisual presentation is so violently loud and bothersome. It’s a film that should feel more pressing than it does, and it’s a shame to see a lot of talent drowned out in the noise.

What Will People Say (Hva vil folk si) is a film that does feel more pressing than its fairly straight-forward narrative structure seems to demand, and it’s very much rooted in Iram Haq’s deeply personal direction. With her previous film, I Am Yours, Haq established herself as a very important voice in Norwegian cinema, and she continues to be with this semi-autobiographical film. It’s a film that manages to say a lot (about religion, culture, gender etc.) to a wide audience. Haq is a filmmaker that understands how to speak to different people, and her films are never exclusionary – they are never difficult to watch, even when they confront you head-on. It is not that they are simple or unconfrontational in their subject matter, but rather that Haq understands the importance of clarity and brevity, and she makes herself understood easily. The star of What Will People Say is newcomer Maria Mozhdah, who delivers a performance that’s as authentic and humanistic as the film she inhabits.

The biggest discovery at the festival, outside of Lea Mysius’ Ava, goes to Chloé Zhao’s The Rider. A film that exists somewhere between quiet realism and profound lyricism. The Rider takes a real story and casts its actual people in their own roles, and the profundity with which this hits is remarkable. The film follows Brady, an American rodeo cowboy who suffers a severe head injury that puts him on the ground – another accident on horse-back could kill him. Zhao explores how our identities shape us, and the devastation that comes with that being taken away. She captures it all with a delicate grace that takes root in your sub-conscious and grows and grows as the days go by. It’s a film that is, in every sense of the word, a personal exploration (and confession) that is universal despite its roots in American masculinity. Brady Jandreau’s ability to hold a close-up is quite astounding. On his face you see the pain of a life stopped dead in its tracks; you see a deep love for a life lived, and people around him; you see dreams for the future, and compassion for the now. Zhao’s direction allows one to feel and project one’s own identity onto Brady’s face, just as much as it makes you care deeply for him and his existential exploration.

The Rider, Chloé Zhao (2017)
The Rider, Chloé Zhao (2017)

Loving Vincent is a colorful ode to Vincent van Gogh. The hand-painted brush-strokes that mimic van Gogh’s style make up each and every frame of the film, in a process that took more than five years to complete. It feels redundant to say that the film is beyond beautiful. It is a visual experience unlike any other, and it’s hard to not recommend for this alone. Sadly, there’s not much else to speak of here. The story’s structure is reminiscent of a bad fantasy RPG, in which the protagonist walks from one under-developed side-character to the next, each of them with their own superfluous expository information dump. It’s still an experience I recommend to anyone, especially those who are fond of van Gogh’s paintings. It’s fun to see a plethora of his works re-created in living pictures, but as a narrative feature it’s too bland to be interesting, and as a meditation on van Gogh’s life, it’s too aimless to be enlightening.

Brexitannia is a documentary with democracy in its blood. Director Timothy George Kelly took to the road to talk to the people during the months after last year’s referendum, and the result is an incredible snapshot of the current climate. The film is divided into two parts: The People and The Experts – the former being considerably longer. Kelly has met with all kinds of people, whether they are Leave or Remain-voters, UK citizens (England, Scotland, Wales, Northern-Ireland), or Europeans who live there temporarily. He sits them down with a microphone and lets them speak. The result is a fascinating and revealing cacophony of testimonials and confessions. Kelly challenges the stereotypes that are associated with both camps, and he highlights – through clever juxtapositions of thoughts and ideas – how integral an actual discourse is to a functioning democracy. The Experts, who include Noam Chomsky and Saskia Sassen, are able to frame Brexit in a wider context. It isn’t given as much time (perhaps because there already exists brilliant works by Ian Dunt and others), but their insight is valuable to understand how and why Brexit happened the way it did. Brexitannia is the first documentary about Brexit, but it doesn’t feel like it. It is so refined, and it encompasses so much (especially valuable is how aware Kelly seems of the sociopolitical factors in who voted what) that it cements itself as an essential part of the conversation.

The Killing of a Sacred Deer, Yorgos Lanthimos (2017)
The Killing of a Sacred Deer, Yorgos Lanthimos (2017)

Yorgos Lanthimos burst onto the international stage and into the global consciousness in 2015 with The Lobster, and it seemed the Greek auteur finally attained the recognition he deserved. He evolved from an obscure cult-like figure to a widely recognized deity-like figure, and suddenly he started to attract more attention than he had ever done before. This shows in his latest film, The Killing of a Sacred Deerwhich is his first massive misstep in my eyes. With Sacred Deer, Lanthimos seems most concerned about telling his critics off. It’s hard to express how or why Sacred Deer doesn’t work for me in a format like this (short and spoiler free), but it comes down to two things. Firstly, I found the film’s themes to be utterly bland and uninspired. Lanthimos’ reflections on death are only dark in the sense that death is inherently dark, but the film never succeeds in any sort of confrontation of the audience. Whereas Lanthimos’ previous films are about ‘lesser’ themes (at least in philosophical terms), they are relentless where Sacred Deer is harmless.  Not only do they confront us and our conceptions and ideas, they also rebel against universal truths – they attack the absurdities inherent in our collective society; our rules, norms, ideals etc. My biggest issue with Sacred Deer isn’t this, however. A film can be incoherent and still be brilliant – sometimes incoherence can be part of the trick – but Sacred Deer is, above all else, boring. It is Lanthimos doing Lanthimos, and as someone who considers Dogtooth, Alps and The Lobster masterpieces, it’s a shame that it doesn’t work here. The issue is, again, Lanthimos’ desire to annoy his critics. He pulls all his trademarks so far that none of them work, but the saddest part is how he undermines the deadpan, monotonous, staccato-rhythm he has built up for years in favor of one or two sentimental collisions. It seems he suddenly understood there was no emotional core to the film (which isn’t necessarily a negative), and decided he had to add these scenes in an attempt to make the audience care about his characters, which is such a strange and uncharacteristic approach for him. Of course, Lanthimos expects (and even desires) these critiques. The film has been designed to provoke them and thus makes itself immune to them, so in a way, I guess it is a success. Just not for me. Not at all.

Another disappointment, yet still a great film, was Michael Haneke’s  Happy End (and yes, I saved this for last intentionally). It has already been 5 years since Haneke’s last film, Amour, but for some reason, Happy End seemed to appear from out of nowhere. Maybe because his initial Amour follow-up, Flashmob was canceled, but I also think it’s rooted in the expediency in which Happy End was assembled, and you can feel this in the film. It’s Haneke’s least focused and self-assured film (that I’ve seen), and its attempt to satirize the refugee crisis in the face of the European bourgeoisie felt like a first draft from Ruben Östlund. Even so, Happy End has some very sharp and morbidly funny observations on hand, and it delivers perhaps the best stand-alone scene of the entire festival. It feels like an “in-between” film for Haneke, but that is still better than most.


Per Morten Mjolkeraaen

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