Nov 30, 2023

Best Premiere Viewings of November 2023

1. Bitterroot Episode 1: Greed’s Dream (Johnny Clyde, 2023)

Initially conceived as a feature film, ‘Bitterroot’ has been transmuted into an online series, and its first episode is a pure surrealist bliss! A mesmerizing blend of photo-novel, painting, and 2D animation, it utilizes a dazzling barrage of phantasmagorical imagery to reach your subconscious mind. Elevating the viewing experience – akin to a hypnagogic trance – is an ethereal, mystifying score synergized with a cryptic, distorted voice-over. Johnny Clyde (The Forgotten Colours of Dreams) once again proves to be one of the most distinct voices of independent cinema.

2. Les chambres rouges / Red Rooms (Pascal Plante, 2023)

If I were asked to describe ‘Red Rooms’ in a single word, I would probably opt for ‘anti-sensationalist’, which also perfectly suits the author’s measured approach to the razor-sharp dissection of modern society, or rather, its evils, collective and individual alike, as well as to the stark, mystery-imbued study of a character fascinated by a heinous crime. Firmly anchored in the central, utterly magnetic performance from Juliette Gariépy whose micro-acting skills give Mads Mikkelsen a good run for his money, this stellar, thought-provoking, impressively cold, steely unnerving and formally ingenious psycho-drama/thriller needs no Hollywood-style ‘fireworks’ to keep you glued to screen. Right from the get-go set in a featureless, yet instantly captivating courtroom, it snatches your attention by virtue of extraordinary camerawork, especially the expert use of long takes, at once immersive and chillingly uncanny sound design, elaborate music score which elevates the bleakness of the atmosphere, and above all, incredibly pedantic direction marked by eerie, Haneke-like austerity, and to a certain degree, methodical mannerism of late Schrader. Beneath its ‘frigid’ surface of brilliantly played understatements, simmers a well of intense emotions, lending a refined patina to the proceedings...

3. Diabły, diabły / Devils, Devils (Dorota Kędzierzawska, 1991)

Dorota Kędzierzawska gently blurs the boundaries between innocence and eroticism in her feature debut – a highly poeticized coming-of-age drama that explores the budding sexuality of a teenage girl, Mała (lit. little one), against the backdrop of the tension between villagers and Romani nomads – ostracized and demonized by country bumpkins – in 60’s Poland. Eschewing dialogue in favor of stunningly beautiful, psychologically penetrating close-ups, she also paints one of the most romantic portraits of Roma people, immersing herself, the young heroine (Justyna Ciemny, absolutely wonderful in the central role) and the viewer in their songs and dancing. From the largely non-professional cast who give off Pasoliniesque vibes at times, she acquires a great deal of authenticity, as well as a strong sense of freedom, delivering the film of pristine energies and meaningful silences, with every look, smile, touch and step impregnated with keen lyricism.

4. La fiancée du pirate / A Very Curious Girl (Nelly Kaplan, 1969)

Chytilova’s feminist radicalism, Buñuelian gleeful irreverence, Papatakis’s anarchic verve, and Godard’s bold use of primary colors coalesce in one of the most entertaining cine-humiliations of capitalist patriarchy. Nelly Kaplan directs her feature debut with playful audacity and rebellious openness, channeling her confrontational zeal through Bernadette Lafont in the central role. Her vibrantly farcical story of a young woman’s liberation from the confines of provincial hypocrisy sees the weaponization of female sexuality as a form of modern-day witchcraft whose practitioner ‘doesn’t let herself to be burned’, in the words of the director herself. ‘A Very Curious Girl’ makes me very curious about other Kaplan’s films.

5. Scavengers Reign (Joseph Bennett & Charles Huettner, 2023)

Taking cues from Mœbius’s artwork, and Laloux’s cult favorites such as ‘Gandahar’, Miyazaki’s adaptation of ‘Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind’ manga, and Dudok de Wit’s masterpiece ‘The Red Turtle’, as well as from a number of movies involving a spaceship crew lost in an alien environment, Bennett & Huettner deliver one of the most imaginative pieces of science-fiction in recent years! ‘Scavengers Reign’ follows a group of survivors from a space freighter Demeter 227 who find themselves stranded on a gorgeous, yet not quite welcoming planet Vesta, and the utterly impressive world building alone is reason enough to visit this short series. Brimming with outlandish vistas and bizarre creatures that make up the setting’s intricate, not to mention awe-inspiring eco-system, it strikes you hard with its surreal-like qualities that are further enhanced by dream sequences and hallucinations, all presented in charmingly (and refreshingly!) quaint 2D animation accompanied by a mesmerizing score.

6. Žuvies diena (Algimantas Puipa, 1990)

Veronika’s reality resembles a disorienting dream, and her dreams are almost as tangible as off-kilter reality. In-between the two indistinguishable ‘extremes’ lies her writing with ‘imaginary exotic setting’, ‘characters who aren’t real’, and ‘everything messed-up on purpose’, in the words of her editor. ‘Why not talk to a film director?’, he asks, hinting at the meta-quality of the fragmented, freewheeling narrative, and quite probably referencing to Jolita Skablauskaitė’s work which served as the source of inspiration for Liucia Armonaitė and Regina Vosyliutė’s screenplay. Whimsically poetic, decidedly meandering and starkly intuitive in its stream-of-consciousness rapture, ‘The Day of the Fish’ stubbornly refuses to conform, placing the viewer in the heroine’s disjointed point of view, and employing a combined barrage of borderline oneiric imagery, dissonantly eclectic soundtrack, and often allusive dialogue to a hypnotizing effect. 

7. Papa les petits bateaux... / Papa, the Lil’ Boats (Nelly Kaplan, 1971)

Nelly Kaplan and her crew must’ve had a whale of a time on the set, because ‘Papa, the Lil’ Boats’ sizzles with their sparkling energies combined in a most fascinating way! Insanely farcical, cartoonishly silly, and brimming with a cult potential, this comedy sees a rich, not to mention shrewd heiress, Vénus ‘Cookie’ De Palma (outlandishly funny Sheila White!), transforming from a victim into a kicking, screaming, scheming and dancing, or simply put, seductively misbehaving nightmare for an unlikely band of  kidnappers. As they fall one after another in a series of ‘accidents’, unaware that their ‘brilliant’ plan is doomed right from the chloroformless start, Kaplan gleefully mocks greed, stupidity, possessiveness, and a capitalist paternal figure embodied by Sydney ‘son of Charlie’ Chaplin in a superb supporting role. She makes the most of the limited locations, with DoP Ricardo Aronovich (who filmed ‘Jaune le soleil’ by Marguerite Duras in the same year) capturing all the deliciously colorful zaniness with aplomb.

8. La giornata balorda / From a Roman Balcony (Mauro Bolognini, 1960)

Opening with a dizzyingly beautiful long, low-angle take that captures not only the dilapidation and poverty of a slum tenement, but its very soul as well, ‘From a Roman Balcony’ immediately pulls you into a bold deglamorization of Rome, as it follows a sexed-up ne’er-do-well protagonist, Davide Saraceno (Jean Sorel, his talent matched with good looks), in the seemingly futile search for a job. More interested in women than work, with a teenage fiancée (angelic Valeria Ciangottini) and newborn son waiting at home, Davide crosses paths with three gorgeous paramours-to-be, manicurist Marina (Jeanne Valérie), prostitute Sabina (Isabelle Corey) and mysterious, truck-driving Freja (Lea Massari), approaching his goal in most unexpected ways, through the Roman underbelly. Heavily censored at the time, Bolognini’s social drama appears like a bridge between neorealism and modernism, seducing the viewer with Piero Piccioni’s smoky jazz score, and Aldo Scavarda’s brilliant cinematography, all the while thematically anticipating one of its co-writer’s debut – Pasolini’s ‘Accattone’ (1961). 

9. Finský nůž / The Finnish Knife (Zdenek Sirový, 1965)

From Věra Chytilová and František Vláčil to Juraj Herz and Juraj Jakubisko, the Czechoslovak cinema of the 60’s holds a number of must-see titles for any true cinephile. Even the lesser known / overlooked films such as ‘The Finnish Knife’ tend to leave a strong impression. Co-written by director Zdenek Sirový, and Pavel Juráček who would work alongside Chytilová’s on her cult feature ‘Daisies’ in the following year, this psychological drama / road movie belongs to the ‘misguided youth’ drawer in the New Wave archives. A taut examination of guilt, it revolves around two adolescents, Tonda (Karel Meister) and Honza (Jaromír Hanzlík), who flee from justice believing the latter is responsible for murdering a man with the titular knife. On the way to Poland, the boys’ friendship is put to a severe test, because apart from the (unproven) crime, they don’t share much in common, with their disparate inner states and insecurities externalized through the beautiful chiaroscuro cinematography of Jan Čuřík (The White Dove, Joseph Killian, Valerie and Her Week of Wonders), editor Jan Chaloupek’s insightful cuts, and Wiliam Bukový’s mood-swinging score. At times, it appears that Sirový leans on Jan Němec’s masterful debut ‘Diamonds of the Night’ (1964), although his piece is not nearly as bleak, nor does it slip into surrealism, with tonal oscillations handled deftly.

10. Jowita / Jovita (Janusz Morgenstern, 1967)

Daniel Olbrychski – memorable as a leading protagonist in Andrzej Wajda’s masterful epic ‘The Ashes’ – brings playboyish charm to the role of an architect and athlete, Marek Arens, whose obsession with an enigmatic woman from a masquerade party leads him down the spiral of frustration and self-pity. His flings, as well as an ostensibly meaningful romance with Agnieszka (Barbara Lass, utterly delightful), and frequent visits to concerts of classical music, are all captured in captivating B&W (Jan Laskowski, who was also behind the camera of Morgenstern’s sparkly debut ‘Good Bye, Till Tomorrow’), accompanied by mood-establishing, if slightly underused jazzing by saxophonist Jerzy Matuszkiewicz. Helmed with a keen sense of modernity characteristic of the European cinema of the time, Jowita is a delectable treat for any 60’s-loving movie buff.

11. L’ordre et la sécurité du monde / Last In, First Out (Claude D’Anna, 1978)

“Where imperialism is retreating, it is robbing, destroying and starving. Rich countries are preparing a bloody future for themselves.”

Three years after ‘Trompe l’oeil’, Marie-France Bonin (aka Laure Dechasnel) and Claude D’Anna come up with another mystery as co-writers and star + director duo, but this time, they take cues from Hitchcock and Melville, with some proto-Lynchian vibes channelled through Dennis Hopper’s Methadrine-sniffing, Frank Booth-anticipating baddie, Medford. Set against some shady dealings involving higher-ups from European and American fractions opposed over a vague Third World exploitation business, the opaque thriller-drama revolves around Hélène Lehman (Bonin), a young woman mistaken for a spy after a passport mix-up with Bruno Cremer’s journalist hero, Lucas Richter, on the railway line from Paris to Zurich. Although dialogue-heavy, and reliant on long-distance calls turned leitmotif of sorts, the film is fraught with tension simmering under its ‘autumnal’ surface, and establishing an atmosphere at once gravely conspiratorial and frigidly melancholic, permeated with the oppressive sense of urgency, paranoia and danger. Emphasizing the gloom is Eduard van der Enden’s neo-noirish cinematography of predominantly muted colors, and clickety-clack humming of a train sparsely interrupted by a jazzy / electronic score intermittently elegiac and foreboding. 

12. Slike iz života udarnika / Life of a Shock Force Worker (Bahrudin ‘Bato’ Čengić, 1972)

Brimming with bitter irony and unwavering determination, ‘Life of a Shock Force Worker’ employs acerbic humor and meticulously composed vignettes somewhat reminiscent of Parajanov’s tableaux vivants or rather, pieces of naïve art to tell the story of the rise and fall of proletariat, focusing on a Bosnian coal miner, Adem. Based on a script co-written by director Bahrudin Čengić, and Branko Vučićević (Love Affair, or The Case of the Missing Switchboard Operator / Innocence Unprotected / Early Works), this satirical dramedy is beautifully lensed by acclaimed cinematographer and filmmaker Karpo Aćimović Godina (The Medusa Raft, also penned by the aforementioned Vučićević), featuring an authentic cast of both professional and non-professional actors.

13. La vocation suspendue / The Suspended Vocation (Raúl Ruiz, 1978)

Watching a film signed by Raúl Ruiz always poses a challenge, and ‘The Suspended Vocation’ situates itself in the pantheon of the most difficult ones. Semantically complex and formally playful, this unconventional drama is – on the surface – about ideological disputes between two fractions, the Devotion and Black Party, within French Catholic Church. However, it delves much deeper than that, into the (left-wing) politics, the nature of cinema, philosophical conundrums, as well as into one’s own dichotomies reflected in the film’s ‘dual’ structure, with Pascal Bonitzer and Didier Flamand portraying a protagonist, father Jérôme, in color and B&W parts, respectively. Add to that the fact that Ruiz operated in exile, and you’re in for a Borgesian treat, impossible to grasp in one viewing, and too heady in its intricacies to be approached again. One thing is sure, though, and that is the beauty of cinematography by Sacha Vierny of ‘Hiroshima Mon Amour’ fame, and Maurice Perrimond who collaborated with Ruiz on ‘The Hypothesis of the Stolen Painting’ released in the same year.

14. Plaisir d’amour / The Pleasure of Love (Nelly Kaplan, 1991)

Cécile Sanz de Alba, Dominique Blanc and Françoise Fabian are all superb as witty seductresses Jo, Clo and Do in Nelly Kaplan’s sexy, campy, quirky, surreal, visually stunning and most elegantly directed comedy.

15. Lekcja martwego języka / Lesson of a Dead Language (Janusz Majewski, 1979)

“I cannot fight evil. What shall we fight and what for anyway? We live in void. We have impressions and hallucinations sometimes, but no one really knows, what it is.”

An allegorical, stunningly framed chronicle of a dying, morally ambiguous soldier at the end of the Great War, operating as a moody meditation on death.

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