The State of Things:
On the 28th Edition of FIDMarseille
by Ela Bittencourt
The international film festival FIDMarseille, which takes place in France’s scenic port town of Marseille, marked its 28th edition this July. With a strong focus on debut films in both international and national competitions, and the parallel FIDLab dedicated to developing young talents, the festival retains a fairly youthful air. And while the selection includes both fiction and nonfiction films, the slant toward documentaries is pronounced: this year, out of the 15 films presented in the international competition, the vast majority were documentaries or fiction/nonfiction hybrids.
Following in the footsteps of Locarno last year, this year’s FIDMarseille honored the American maverick director and producer Roger Corman, who was given a career-spanning retrospective (last year FIDMarseille honored Hong Sang-soo). The festival’s general delegate, Jean-Pierre Rehm, stated in the program notes that the choice of Corman was motivated both by the filmmaker’s fearless openness to genres and formal invention and his fostering of young filmmakers in his role as producer.
Corman’s The Masque of the Red Death (1964), which opened the festival, is visually flashy and narratively brazen, an expanded adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe’s tale of carnal pleasure and immodest desire for immortality. In the film, innocent village girl Francesca (Jane Asher) is brought by force to the court of a Satan worshipper, Prince Prospero (Vincent Price). Meanwhile in the woods, a mysterious visitor clad in red prophesies the end of Prospero’s tyranny. A deadly plague spreads, and justice and morality prevail, but the point of Corman’s film lies rather in the delicious textures and luscious colors of his mise-en-scène. The key moment comes when the righteous Francesca, rescued by her lover, bestows a mournful parting kiss on Prospero that suggests she is better off for the sweet perversity he has introduced her to. The gesture illustrates Corman’s boundless talent for never taking himself—or his characters, for that matter—too seriously.
One of the few new films at FIDMarseille to display the sheer chutzpah of Corman’s cinema was certainly the international competition winner, Let the Summer Never Come Again (2017), a mysterious, crepuscular love story by young Georgian filmmaker Alexandre Koberidze. He shot his entire film in low resolution on a pocket-size Sony camera and then blew up the image. The result is so grainy that at times it comes across as swaths of garish color, as pulsation and rudimentary plays of shadow and light. Koberidze’s film often veers towards abstract expressionism; indeed, Koberidze’s craft often lies in teasing out the details from near-pitch darkness. On the narrative level, the film is a seamless blend of fiction and documentary. The story, whose details Koberidze keeps to a minimum, is of a young man who arrives in a Georgian city hoping to dance in a traditional folk company. When he fails to find work, he resorts to prostitution. Then, by chance, he befriends a married policeman, and the two become lovers. We never learn what brings these two together or why, when offered a post in a faraway location, the policeman accepts, thus cutting their ties.
Koberidze’s film isn’t therefore so much about the denouement of this romantic relationship as it is about the small everyday incidents that he observes and films for hours, to then tease out the few morsels. In this sense, he harks back to the wonder of early cinema, particularly Dziga Vertov's roving, omnivorous camera. Yet unlike Vertov, Koberidze keeps his montage to a minimum. He does not manipulate the image, but his sound design is fairly conceptual. Certain scenes are mute, others are spoken in Georgian and not translated; still others contain action that is summarized in a narration in which one voice speaks the dialogue for every character. Asked about his choices, Koberidze explained that when he was growing up watching films in Georgia on television, they were all dubbed in Russian, in a single voice, “So that’s what cinema sounds like to me.”
The estrangement this method creates, combined with the raw yet affecting footage, reveals a penchant for a playful mix of poetry and irony, also present in Nicolas Wackerbarth’s Casting (2017), which was shown in the French film competition. The film is a gem of scriptwriting and ensemble acting. Admittedly, since almost the action all takes place inside a television studio, shot in a Dogme-like style, the mise-en-scène is exceedingly plain. The film centers on a director, Vera (Judith Engel), who wants to shoot a television remake of Fassbinder’s The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, yet cannot decide on the female lead. Complications ensue, and we find Vera bucking heads with everyone on her team, from the potential lead actresses to her producer and casting director, who lose faith in her. As in Koberidze’s film, Casting’s drama revolves around minute yet exquisitely depicted moments. Each character follows a carefully thought-out arc. In one case, this arc is a veritable tour-de-force: when the star male lead fails to show up to the casting reading, a minor actor, Gerwin (Andreas Lust), is called up to read the script alongside a number of famous actresses. He is, by turns, berated for being second-rate, blithely dismissed, then suddenly reinstituted when no one else auditions, and then unexpectedly cast in the title role and, finally, just as unexpectedly, recast as a mere extra. The docile Gerwin turns cruel when he gains the upper hand, and nearly unravels when his hopes for a big break are crushed. Similarly, none of Casting’s characters are fixed—their behavior (grandiosity, respect, meanness, or unspeakable pettiness) all depend on circumstance.
Another gem at FIDMarseille was Braguino (2017), a nonfiction hybrid by French filmmaker Clément Cogitore, featured in the international competition. This story of the Braguines, a tight-knit family that for many years has occupied a picturesque, remote part of the Russian taiga, but now must suddenly deal with the threat of armed poachers, is piercing, understated, and gorgeously shot. Cogitore’s camera is subtle and unobtrusive, yet it gets close enough for us to capture the emotions and the fleeting expressions of the family members, and to create a sense of drama—we are present as the small Braguine children pluck feathers off of ducks while expressing their innocent love for the animals, or as the elder son helps his father hunt and then skin a wild bear.
The natural world the Braguines inhabit and clearly respect and love, though also dominate, is violent enough—yet its biological laws of survival are transparent and easy to comprehend. This is unlike the threat that slowly creeps in, from outside. Through dinner-table conservations, in which family members refer to “them,” we come to understand that their land is being increasingly invaded, mostly because their neighbors, the Kilines, have allowed poachers to make use of the surrounding area. The Braguines spy the Kilines across the river that divides the two families, and the tension slowly rises, in the exchange of weary, furtive glances. The poachers come in helicopters, bringing with them noise, guns, and a general disrespect for any sense of boundaries, courtesy, or rights. The narrative astutely teases out the tension in how Russia’s moneyed elites treat the “country bumpkins,” eyeing any natural resource as both disposable and up for grabs.
Thus Braguino is first and foremost a tender portrait of a defenseless people, left to their own resources, in a remote place where the government is not willing to protect them. We have seen stories like these from Russia before—but unlike the more vocal films, such as Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Leviathan (2014) or Yuriy Bykov’s The Fool (2014), or Sergei Loznitsa’s morbid My Joy (2010), Braguino does not so much decry political or social injustice as place us is in the midst of it, making us experience fear and hopelessness and wariness of the future. Braguino’s sense of foreboding fits in with the festival’s overall thematic preoccupation: from Juliana Antunes’s Baronesa, capturing the strife of women in Brazil’s favelas; to Eric Baudelaire’s Also Known as Jihadi, delving into the psychiatric evaluations of a troubled young man; or Nicolas Klotz and Élisabeth Perceval’s L’Héroique land: La Frontière brûle, about the crushed hopes and dire living conditions of refugees in a camp in Calais, a good number of films in the international competition conveyed a profound unease with the current state of affairs.