Monday, November 25, 2019

Weekend at RIDM

A weekend in Montreal for RIDM is a real cinephile pleasure. The city’s documentary festival leans more towards the avant-garde so, unlike more pedestrian doc fests, they tend to spotlight auteurs of the film fest circuit that are exploring new cinematic territories in interesting ways. 
I specifically went for their Luc Moullet retrospective. In the nine years that I’ve lived in Toronto I don’t think any Moullet films have ever screened theatrically. This speaks to the worth of RIDM and the Cinémathèque Québécoise that they would not only present a retrospective but also invite Moullet to give a masterclass and introduce his films. The director is already in his eighties so this will probably be his last trip abroad. And RIDM really made an event out of the retrospective by getting new digitisations of many of his films, organizing them into thematic programs and having lengthy discussions with Moullet at every opportunity.

The masterclass was really good. Its moderator Bruno Dequen split the two-hour discussion between his early years at Cahiers du Cinéma and his filmmaking. Being already familiar with Moullet, I can say that I was really impressed with the territory that was covered. 
Moullet shared some interesting anecdotes about his cinephile origins: At the age of ten, around the time of the fiftieth anniversary of cinema in Paris, Moullet discovered classics like Dreyer’s Day of Wrath. Later he would be able to see new films before others since at the time cinema owners, they wouldn’t actually go see the movies that they would book, so they would give their tickets to their staff, which Moullet would inevitably befriend and accompany.
Moullet had interesting stories from when he joined Cahiers in 1956: Their articles had to be written on typewriters in which the movie titles had to be underlined (which were then converted to italics during printing) and couldn’t be submitted on two-sided paper (la règle du recto-verso). Jacques Rivette was the leader and François Truffaut was his right-hand man. The À bout de souffle producer Georges de Beauregard was so inspired by Jean-Luc Godard after their success that he produced Moullet on his recommendation.
Then the conversation turned towards his films that included some interesting observations about his documentaries: Just like how Moullet’s earlier film reviews explored little known subjects in an encyclopedic and ironic fashion, this would also be a trait that he would bring to his documentary practice. Moullet describes his own presence in his films as a heightened exaggeration of his own quirky characteristics. Over the years, he has to worked with a lot with French television broadcasters, especially Canal Plus, as they were the ones who most frequently funded his projects.

Of Moullet’s fortyish films, which date as far back as 1960, he has only made around ten full-length features, some fiction but many documentaries, while most of the others are either shorts or medium lengths. Moullet’s oeuvre is discreet. I wouldn’t necessarily say that it’s mainstream, but I wouldn’t say its esoteric either. Having seen some of his TV work back-to-back I would probably put forward that he’s the closest thing to a French Jerry Seinfeld. The films are usually organized around a comedic bit (just like Jerry’s concluding stand-up sketches) that takes something very mundane and specific and then analyzes it to the point of the nonsensical. 
While at RIDM I got to see eight of Moullet’s films. I’ll rank them in order of how much I liked them and how much they made me laugh (how else should you judge comedies?): In La cabale des oursins he explores mountains made from abandoned coal mine detritus as if they were ideal tourist destinations. In Foix he fines the most decrepit town in all of France and a narrator in a dead-pan and ironic voice-over then speaks to its “qualities”. In Imphy, capitale de la France, along with his wife Antonietta Pizzorno, they search the countryside for an anonymous town to relocate the nation’s capital. Barres is about sneaking past the metro fares in Paris. In Essai d’ouverture Moullet struggles to open a Coke bottle. In Toujours plus he explores the bourgeoning and excessive new supermarket culture. And Le ventre de l’Amérique, the closest thing I saw of his there to a more traditional documentary, he explores small-town Iowa. 
They all made for really interesting programs. I tended to prefer the more eccentric and witty documentaries. And there was a Laurel and Hardy aspect to them where the laughs came from the stubbornness and childish conflict of two exaggerated and opposing personalities. 
As I already mentioned, it was just great seeing these in a cinema and with Moullet there to talk about them. I think it was an experience of a lifetime.

I had already seen Une aventure de Billy le Kid, which isn’t necessarily one of my favorites (I don’t think Jean-Pierre Léaud is that funny in it) and it still isn’t, but re-watching I couldn’t help but notice how the film nicely illustrates Moullet’s ideas on Samuel Fuller: that his westerns aren’t about reflection but about action and how this instinctive quality, which is distinctively American, comes out through his chase scenes. You can see a bit of this in Une aventure de Billy le Kid through all of the Léaud scenes where he’s struggling to make his way through the desert. As well, the film’s particular landscape of the French mountainous countryside is a reoccurring geography in all of Moullet’s work from Terres noire in 1961 to his most recent documentaries. Moullet makes work that only resembles himself: of curious ecosystems, either directly in cities or in the middle of nowhere, that really benefit from a close inspection to best reveal their charm, edges and life.

At RIDM I also got to see Frank Beauvais’ Ne croyez surtour pas que je hurle and a documentary on the modern dancer Merce Cunningham. The Beauvais film was interesting. It consists of him reading in voice-over his diary-like observations of living in the countryside for seven years where he experienced a break-up, the death of his father, and a frustration with French society as he retreated more and more towards living in isolation. While the visuals were taken from short clips from hundreds of different films to illustrate the mood or idea of what he’s talking about. It’s quite an original idea. And the film feels therapeutic: You hear Beauvais talks about his depression all while you see the art that he was able to create through it. And there’s something healthy and positive about its ending where you hear about how he’s finally able to re-find a community and he returns to Paris. I was surprised by Cunningham. It was nice tribute to mid-century New York modernism – Cunningham regularly collaborated with such artists like Robert Rauschenberg, John Cage and Andy Warhol – and the many gestures and new human movements that he created. Not that I know anything about modern dance, but there was something stunning about the 3D scenes of the contemporary dancers putting on their shows. Its something like Yvonne Rainer meets Wim Wenders’ Pina.  

I can’t really speak to the other films that played at RIDM since I didn’t see them but there was good word-of-mouth buzz for the prize-winning films (except one that Denis Côté really didn’t like; and whose Wilcox will be screening in Toronto in January). And the evening parties at the cinémathèque, where I got to see some friends and other cinephiles, were fun. 
But when in Montreal it’s well worth checking out what’s playing at the other cinemas. Their cineplexes screen films that rarely get distribution outside of Quebec. In Montreal you can see more Québécois, French and European films in general. At the Cineplex Quartier Latin, I got to see Nicolas Pariser’s Alice et le Maire, which stars Anaïs Demoustier as a new consultant to the mayor of Lyon (Fabrice Luchini). It has some interesting things to say about a certain careerism and dullness that has affected their political class and what happens when the desire for inspiration strikes. There was something distinct about it in terms of recent French comedies and I liked how it told its story and treated its characters. 
And then I finally got to discover Cinéma Moderrne, which is further north on St. Laurent, to check out Marriage Story. Not as good as Baumbach’s The Meyerowitz Stories, I would still say it’s worth seeing, even though it has a few frustrating Netflix-tropes (its images are too pristine, accepts a mediocre naturalism, too theatrical), for the performances Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson give. Like in all of Baumbach’s films there’s something especially affecting about the characters’ vulnerability and desperateness. And it asks some interesting questions: How do you really see your partner once habits takeover in long-term relationships? What’s listening and communicating when you’re just seen as an extension of your husband? How come expectations, in both relationships and in society, are different for women? How do you still love someone while you’re no longer together?
It’s worth seeing Marriage Story, and it gives me great pleasure to see a renaissance in repertory cinema attendance that comes from this sort of programming, but I would still say it’s not as subtle or deep as Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage which it’s clearly riffing on. Instead of Bergman now we get Baumbach. 

Anyways here’s a short report on my weekend trip to Montreal. Still my favorite city in the country for moviegoing: I go there to spend time with films, as one would travel to spend time with friends. It’s so easy to see up to three movies in a day there and get a microcosm of the diversity of cinema in general. That’s why the city’s film culture is so great. The experiences and the discourse are far richer and kinder than the hermetic yelling that usually takes place on social media. What works so well in Montreal is that things are smaller, therefore nimbler and more efficient, you can do more. It becomes more about the people who are there and their experiences with the films and each other. There’s less institutional mediation, so there’s less interval between watching films and life. Moviegoing just feels more natural, like a way of living.

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