Two fearless filmmakers

Directors of these less prominent films combine a stark view of reality with a greatly nuanced and observed cinematic sense.

By DAVID STROMBERG
July 9, 2010 16:41
My Joy

311_Russian film (My Joy). (photo credit: Courtesy)

 
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The 27th annual Jerusalem Film Festival – which opened on Thursday and runs until July 17 – has descended upon the city with its varied offerings of feature, short, animated, experimental and documentary films from around the world.

Tucked into the festival’s massive program are two films – Catherine Breillat’s Barbe Bleu, or Bluebeard, (2009) and Sergei Loznitsa’s My Joy (2010) – by two innovative, fearless directors.

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The first is a French auteur working since the mid-1960s who made her international breakout a decade ago. Her films deal with female individuality as it contends with its own physical passion. The second is a Russian documentarian debuting his narrative fiction film. He brings his naturalist style to an imagined landscape that seems all too much to resemble reality.

Both of these independent directors combine a stark view of reality with a greatly nuanced and observed cinematic sense They are steeped in the culture of film and yet constantly keep a finger on the pulse of reality as it unfolds around them. A spotlight on each one’s work will put into context these two films, whose background might otherwise go unnoticed at this year’s festival.

Breillat’s most recent film, Bluebeard, is set largely in 18th-century France and tells the frightening folk tale of a nobleman who serially murders each of his wives. The story’s themes, for those familiar with Breillat’s work, fit her ever-growing body of work, which has long been occupied with violence and passion in relations between woman and man.

Born in 1948, Breillat started her film career as an extra alongside her sister, actress Marie-Hélène Breillat, in a scene from Bernardo Bertolucci’s infamous classic Last Tango in Paris (1972). Although she studied acting with her sibling, the slightly younger Breillat had already published her first novel by the age of 17 – a sexually explicit work banned in France for readers under 18 and published in English as A Man for the Asking (1969) – and by 28 had adapted her fourth novel into the film A Real Young Girl (1976). Due to its graphic portrayal of female sexuality, the work was set aside. It was only released in 2000, after her sixth feature film – Romance (1999), which portrays a woman’s sexual exploration after her boyfriend stops all physical relations – was banned in some countries and given an X-rating in others.

Between these two films Breillat wrote several novels, which she adapted to screenplays and made into films, remaining faithful to her artistic concerns while toning down the graphic scenes and reaching a wider audience. These included Nocturnal Uproar (1979), which featured Breillat’s starlet sister Marie-Hélène; 36 Fillette (1988), about a sexually curious teen who manipulates and is manipulated by an older man; Dirty Like an Angel (1991), about a bored policeman’s relationship and his partner’s young wife; and Perfect Love (1996), about a young man of ambivalent sexuality who seduces a slightly older woman whom he then murders. During this period, Breillat also penned several screenplays, including the original idea for Maurice Pialat’s Police (1985), starring Gérard Depardieu and Sophie Marceau.



But it was Breillat’s struggle with censorship on a worldwide scale after the release of Romance that brought newfound attention to a filmmaker who had yet to break into the international scene. Romance was also the first film in which her authorial voice – both the essayistic voiceover and the tightly controlled visual scene – took center stage and became the instantly identifiable work of an auteur.

Despite the difficulties encountered by the film, it created a new threshold for Breillat, resonating on a global scale her ever-present artistic preoccupation with the self and the body. And so her next film, Fat Girl (2001), which deals with a young girl’s first sexual experience and a subsequent act of rape, saw immediate international release and was written about by critics around the world.

The scene in which the young man takes the young woman’s virginity was so intense, it seems that Breillat put her experience of directing it at the center of another film, Sex Is Comedy (2002), about a director who manipulates her actors to the point of tears.

With the female body and sexual identity repeatedly at the epicenter of her films – and her fearlessness in dealing with this subject visually in the most poignant and graphic way – Breillat was eventually dubbed the “auteur of porn.” Having dealt with the pigeonhole of censorship since the age of 17, which reached global proportions with Romance, she wrote a novella called Pornocracy (2001), about a woman yearning for existential sexual recognition from a man. It is a poetic polemic against European (and Western) cultural misapprehensions regarding the female body. Breillat adapted the book into a dreamlike essay-film called Anatomy of Hell (2004), the most graphic presentation of her most radical concepts to date. Not long after that, she suffered a cerebral hemorrhage that paralyzed her left side.

Three years later, Breillat released The Last Mistress (2007), an adaptation of a 19th-century novel by Jules Amédée Barbey d’Aurevilly, starring Asia Argento. It was not only her first time working with source material that she hadn’t written, but it was also her first period piece. The film received critical acclaim and appeared at No. 5 on The New York Times best films of 2008. Bluebeard, her next film, returns to a historical setting to re-imagine the famous folk tale from Breillat’s unique and uncompromising point of view.

UNLIKE BREILLAT, Sergei Loznitsa set upon his own controversial path with his recent film My Joy, which premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in May. The film tells the story of truck driver Georgy. After escaping from predatory traffic police, listening to the wartime memories of an old man and being abandoned by a young prostitute he tried to help, he finds himself lost in a field, where he comes upon a band of robbers. The situation ends abruptly in violence and sets off a series of events that seem dreamlike and disconnected – except for the common thread of brutality which Georgy finally gives in to.

Born in 1964, Loznitsa started his filmmaking career as a documentarian trained in Moscow’s prestigious Russian State Institute of Cinematography, where he arrived in 1991 after a decade of studies in mathematics and engineering and a stint as a scientist at the Kiev Institute of Cybernetics.

In Moscow, Loznitsa studied under Georgian filmmaker Nana Dzhordzhadze, who had not only shown in Cannes but was also nominated for an Academy Award.

Loznitsa graduated in 1997, and by 2000 was working at the St. Petersburg Studio of Documentary Films. Up until this point, he’d made three documentary films – Today We Are Going To Build a House (1996), Life, Autumn (1998), and Train Station (2000) – and garnered 22 awards from a bevy of international film festivals.

In 2001, Loznitsa moved his family to Germany, while continuing to make documentary films about the Russian provinces. These films of varying length – Settlement (2001), Portrait (2002), Landscape (2003), Factory (2004), Artel (2006) and Northern Lights (2008) – continued to earn their creator awards in Europe.

They make up a body of work that took Loznitsa across Russia and, aside from the subject matter he filmed, exposed Loznitsa to experiences that had yet to be recorded in film. Alongside these documentaries, he accumulated stories and incidents that he filed for later use.

In the meantime, Loznitsa also came upon a different kind of cinematic treasure – archival footage from the Leningrad Blockade (1941-1944). The reels he found preserved everyday scenes that had been stored away as “boring” or “unsuitable” for newsreels. They showed buildings burning, lines for water, corpses on the street, people transporting their dead on sleds.

Rather than using voiceover or interviews, Loznitsa simply chose key scenes, arranged them in chronological order and added one key ingredient – sound. Adding footsteps, the screech of passing trams, the unintelligible mumbling of passers-by or the crackling of a giant blaze, Loznitsa amplified the sensations elicited by the moving images on the screen and created one of the most understated and horrific modern portraits of that difficult era. The subject matter of Blockade caught the attention of theatrical distributors, bringing his documentary as far as New York.

Loznitsa returned to his new-found strategy of adapting archival footage with his feature-length documentary Revue (2008), which he personally introduced two years ago at the Jerusalem Film Festival, where he won that year’s Award for the Preservation of Audio-Visual Memory. The film used Soviet propaganda footage from 1957-1965 to explore the post-Stalin period of expansion and supposed renewal as presented by the authorities of the USSR. Using the hindsight of several decades, the film presents the raw material itself – arranged and edited in a particular way – to expose how ideological agendas are forwarded by conscious lies.

The major breakthrough in Loznitsa’s steadily rising career was the premiere of his debut narrative film My Joy at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. The film, written and directed by Loznitsa, compiled and commented on his time traveling through the Russian provinces. It also gives a nod to his longtime interest in World War II.

Critics who were already familiar with his name were given a glimpse into the writer-director’s imagination and reflection on his experiences, and at least one considered him a possible candidate for the Palme d’Or. His ability to portray brutality – against the backdrop of his moral concerns with what differentiates a living person from a principled human – shocked and thrilled as many critics as it angered.

Indeed, the strongest aggression has come from a certain sector of the Russian establishment – including legendary filmmaker Nikita Mikhalkov, who said that Loznitsa’s film “has no resemblance whatsoever to art” – while Russian audiences gave the film a warm reception at the recent Sochi Film Festival, where Loznitsa received the Best Director and Critics’ Choice awards.

Catherine Breillat’s Bluebeard will be screened on July 10 at 10 a.m. at the Cinematheque. Sergei Loznitsa’s My Joy will be screened on July 16 at 2:15 p.m. at the Smadar and July 17 at 7 p.m. at the Cinematheque. For more information, see www.jff.co.il.

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