2017 Women's Cinema Festival, Women's Cinema

2017 Women’s Cinema Festival – Day 8: On Body and Soul & You Were Never Really There

You Were Never Really Here 2017 1080p WEB-HD 1
You Were Never Really Here 2017 1080p WEB-HD 1

I might move Steven Universe review into next week so that I can squeeze 2 posts for this project this weekend (it also has to do with Steven Universe’s first season is 50 episode long), because I’m thrilled to after Day 8. Day 8 will remain as one of the highlights of this 2018 Women’s Cinema Festie. Not only both films are fantastic, they’re examples of arthouse female directors at the top of their game who don’t afraid take risk and demand the viewers’ attention, resulting in films with unique voice. Both films are character study of sort. Both films rely more on visual sense than linear narrative approach. Both films are haunting and beautiful at the same time. Two films from Day 8, I present you: On Body and Soul  and You Were Never Really Here

On Body and Soul

Ildikó Enyedi: born in 1955 in Budapest. She studied Economics and Filmmaking at the University of Budapest and later in Montpellier, France. In 1990 she founded her own production company, the “Three Rabbits Studio”, for which she has since worked as a screenwriter and director. Alongside this, she teaches filmmaking at the University of Budapest.

“I just had a very strong wish to make a film about this. About people sharing nothing on the surface, but all the passion and longing is underneath. [] and I swear I don’t have any idea how this idea of the shared dreams came. I just wanted to put them in a situation that they can’t ignore, where they are really forced to do something about it and not continue their life as it was beforehand. I just really followed them and wrote down what they were doing.”

On Body and Soul begins with two deer navigating in a whitest snowy forest, as they notice each other and their noses gently touch. What unfold next is a strange, offbeat but at times grounded tale about two people who share the same dream in a manner of a lucid dream. And like any lucid dream, the film benefits from its free-form, often magical-realism touch. The director Ildikó Enyedi returns to cinema after 18 years, but she commands all the frames effectively. Like the concept between body and soul, this film uses a lot of parallel pairings: between human and livestock (most evidently in its slaughterhouse settings), dream and reality, internal feeling and physical mean. How one contrasts the other and how they eventually meet. The film further reflects that theme through the characteristics of the main leads: Endre (Géza Morcsányi) is a man with a crippled hand, and the film hints on his sexual impotency, and his screen partner, Maria (the magnificent Alexandra Borbély) as a socially awkward quality inspector who doesn’t understand emotions. Both are disabled in some ways, but their connection goes beyond the limits of the physical body. More than anything, On Body and Soul shines on the way it displays the tender fragility of human connection.

There’s one factor that I only picked up this second time around. It’s the way the film addresses sexual desire (or the lack thereof). The event that kicks the main plot into gear comes from the investigation of a missing “mating powder” for cattle, the psychological questionnaire touches on many sexual questions (and those inappropriate leering from Endre), his best friend’s frustration at his wife’s constant cheating. The film even gives their sex act at the end as the way they overcome their initial hesitation of connecting with other people (or is it the film implies that it’s finally where the soul meets body?). The way On Body and Soul shots their characters, likewise, never overly sexually suggestive. Even when one is nude, the camera constrains itself just like the characters “who close off that chapter long time ago”. As such, this strange film feels like a jab at the masculinity in crisis and this even stranger romance really takes flight not when they physically attract to one another, but when they share something together – their shared dream. The film’s extensive use of close-up on characters’ face, and even animals’ face (it’s reported that Enyedi framed the deer exactly the way she frames her human characters, which paid off nicely) help us to catch up with the subtle changes in their expressions.

Although at times exquisite and poetic, On Body and Soul remains a film with uneven plotting. Exceptional as a free-form lucid dream, when it’s taken a form it unfortunately loses its magical touch. It establishes and resolves the investigation subplot too quickly that it feels cliché and half-baked. The film also moves away from its dreams later on that it becomes more as a conventional character study. In particular; the film meanders a bit too much on Maria dealing with her real life (the film makes it clear with the closing lines “what did you dream last night? No, I didn’t dream) in the last third that while it showcases Borbély’s acting chop and makes Maria a totally relatable character (this is how Violet Evergarden should be), it pads the premise way too thin. In the end, while On Body and Soul can’t deliver the final blow as hard as it could, its unique ethereal sense still makes it a film worthy of its Golden Bear Berlin Prize. Close your eyes, think of this movie and there are many memorable moments that come directly to mind, like when the song “What He Wrote” (“I’m broken too… left me alone when I needed the light”) playing that perfectly captures Maria’s emotional state.

You Were Never Really Here

Lynne Ramsay: Born in 1969, she studied photography at Napier College, Edinburgh, then entered the National Film and Television School, where she specialised in cinematography and direction. Her films are marked by a fascination with children and young people and the recurring, unresolvable themes of grief, guilt and, above all, death and its aftermath. They are low on dialogue and explicit story exposition; instead, they look to bold, unusual images, vivid details, an astute use of music and highly wrought sound design to create their unsettling worlds.

“The challenge of this was like, how can we show this, tell it, and be able to do it in the space of time? ‘Cause it felt overwhelming at first. It was always a short script, but I had to cut 20 pages when I got here just to make it within the timeframe, as well as all this crazy prep and seeing a hundred and odd locations. Joaquin was there really early as well, so I don’t think I slept, which maybe is why it’s such a trip.”

Haunting, bold and fragmented, You Were Never Really Here marks another towering achievement from Lynne Ramsay, a hit-you-in-the-gut noir-inspired film that more concern of displaying Joe’s mess-up headspace than the events of the story. At heart, this film is a character study of Joe (Joaquin Phoenix) as he struggles to fight the demon within himself, a suicidal urge that always occur in his mind. At that, the plot plays fairly straight-forward with few interesting twists and turns. It’s a bold decision then, that Ramsay never really informs us with backstory or overt details. The flashbacks are fragmented, just like Joe’s withdrawal state of mind. Like how we never know the full picture of Joe’s previous traumatic experience when he was a cop, but the images that were showed speak full volume. What Ramsay and Phoenix eventually raises the bar then, is how they avoid the usual tropes of the genre, making Joe’s decisions unpredictable and commanding.  Said in the interview that Ramsay recorded a distance firework and showed it to Phoenix as what’s going on in his head. We follow every frame with Joe, although he could rarely guess what he’s going to do next (the man might not know himself).

You could say the film goes at length to portray Joe’s perspective at a cost of other characters (especially the girl Nina (Ekaterina Samsonov), the 13-year-old girl who is in the paedophile ring that Joe needs to rescue), but what a perspective this guy has. Amor himself with thick-built body and scar, he feels detached from this current world. As the title might suggest his state of mind, he moves around his surrounding like a sleepy bear waiting for the coming winter. He cares for his Mom, apparently the only person who still has some attachment towards. But when you see him locking his Mom inside the house, you know that this relationship, too, has taken some form of twisted, sad bonding. In the duration of the film, Joe is like a bomb waiting to explode. The moments you see any kind of relationship he has with other people, are usually from the verge of life and death. There’s a scene (with I found the hand holding to be a bit cheesy – the only time Ramsay lets the sentiment slips out too obviously) where the guy he shot and him both humming over the radio song. The weird bond between him and Nina, both broken in their own ways, have an unexpected connection as they seem to rely on each other to move on with life.

Phoenix could never be better than this role. Here the man who commits 110% to the character he inhibits. “At one scene where he (Phoenix) walks into the camera, I saw the devil himself”, says Ramsay. This film is just a showcase of talents at their top of the games, be it Ramsay and her confidence vision, Phoenix and his committed performance, Jonny Greenwood and his haunting score, Thomas Townend and his unflinching camerawork… each component has a quality of its own. Also, the editing, especially the sound editing that makes the film flow seemingly and never loses its strength. The eerie sound keeps the tension throughout, imagine a scorpion that stings you and never leaves. The actually editing, especially the camera footage scene that cut abruptly between the footage and Joe’s approaching with the distorted Baby Angel in the background reminds strongly to David Lynch’s uncanny sense, for good reasons. Ramsay’s interested in the void in-between each action, on the power of what we can’t see instead of what appeared on screen, on the power of inner scream than the dialogues the characters say. All these make the film, an otherwise B-quality thin plot, a cinematic treat with one of the most vibrant character in years that gets under your skin and refuses to leave there.

While this Day 8 has some elements of male identity in crisis, the next post, Day 9, that “breakdown of masculinity” topic will be the central focus of both two films. Both in Western genre – a genre that specially about male dominant, we have a male-exclusive cast in modern day setting in… ahem… Western by Valeska Grisebach and a feminist take on the almost female-exclusive take on the 1966 Western novel The Beguiled by Sofia Coppola. Buckle up for a fun trip, guys.

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