Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Denver Film Festival - Viktoria

It's been a long time since I've seen such a visually exquisite film. Every frame is a breathtaking still. If you're after a narrative - beginning, middle, end, with a nicely-tied-up conclusion - Viktoria, the debut film by Bulgarian Maya Vitkova, is not for you. Cinematographer Krum Rodriguez, who brings her expression to life, is one to watch - what arresting imagery!

Three generations of women are featured: Boryana, daughter of a silent (eventually we learn: mute) mother, lives with her husband in the mother's apartment. In 1979 the film opens with Boryana longing to leave Iron Curtain Bulgaria - but she is pregnant, and the connection who arranges escapes will not risk her passage. Though her husband is thrilled, Boryana  tries to miscarry. Still, Viktoria is born - with no navel. The baby is hailed as a Socialist hero, and her parents are given a car and a new apartment. You might think Boryana would be happy to live away from her mother, whom she despises, but she asks the Party chief if she can have the money instead. No deal, but Viktoria is the Party chief's godchild, lavished with gifts and privileges, spoiled and nasty because the other children don't dare touch her. As Viktoria gets older, she loses her hauteur - when the regime fails and the Party chief cannot protect her, she learns to live a more normal life, finding love with her grandmother, who communicates through embraces and notes.

A sampling of images:
A poster of Venice becomes the city: night falls, and lights wink on in the buildings.
Milk emptied from a packet onto the ground puddles, slowly soaking in, a close-range image showing the bubbles, earth receiving, grass stubble emerging as the milk absorbs.
Viktoria bicycles at night down a forested path, each streetlight catching her features, then her forward motion returning her to darkness.
Boryana, driving the red car on the day she and her lover attempt to emigrate, comes to a roadblock, a camera shot from above of a circular-patterned dark stone plaza with red car in the center, white cars converging from three directions.
Another time, the husband drives with a neighbor woman (his refuge after Boryana's rejection), the windshield reflecting trees and sky, giving us glimpses of their contented faces.
After the grandmother's death, Boryana, her husband, and Viktoria struggle up a long snowy slope and stand at the top, the landscape black-and-white except one sunset-rosy cloud.

Symbols: blood, milk: red, white. Boryana, 6 months pregnant, lies in the bath, and blood begins to seep from her and spread through the water. She has nosebleeds, as does Viktoria. Viktoria lies dreaming, and a snaking line of blood curls from where her navel should be, up to her red phone (her personal hotline to the Party chief). Viktoria wears a red coat and carries a red satchel to school. The car Viktoria's parents are awarded is red.

When Boryana is far along in her pregnancy, she abruptly craves milk (before this, we see her consume only cigarettes and Coke), and when she has drunk all the milk in the house, accuses her husband of using too much in his coffee, thereby depriving her. But Boryana's breasts are barren - in one sequence she dreams of a fountain of milk exploding from one nipple - her husband is the one who nurses the baby, with a bottle.

Viktoria regularly visits her grandmother, and the old woman gives her packets of milk to take home. But Boryana has demanded no milk be brought into the apartment, so after leaving her grandmother, Viktoria pours the milk onto the ground. After the old woman's death, Boryana comes to her apartment and cuts the night-dress off her, then gives her exposed body a loving sponge-bath, much as the grandmother bathed Viktoria earlier. As Boryana washes the belly, she finds a scar running from her mother's navel to her right side. Is this why Viktoria had no navel? Is this scar the reason mother could not love daughter, for three generations?

Near the end, after the grandmother's death, Boryana stands in a rain of milk, high contrast to her black hair and dark clothes. Thwarted in expressing it, nevertheless these women do finally love each other - at the end Viktoria sends a postcard to Boryana from Venice, telling her it is only 1243 km away - which brings us full circle to Boryana's musing at the beginning - though the poster she treasures is of the Statue of Liberty, her first longing was to escape to Venice.

If you get a chance, see this film. Leave your expectations at home, come with your eyes and ears open, your heart receptive. Let the images wash over you, and be glad for film festivals - likely your only chance to view such beauty on the big screen where it belongs.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Hiroshima Mon Amour

A beautifully restored version of Alain Resnais' 1959 black-and-white film Hiroshima Mon Amour is making the rounds, and you should see it. In a time of noisy, violent, in-your-face cinema, step into a story with a jarring reality - stones that burned in the 10,000 degree A-Bomb blast, iron that melted, people whose hair fell out and skin sloughed off, deformed babies and disfigured burn victims - presented calmly. The horror is not in gore, but in realization that humans did these things to each other.

Intercut with these images is the lovemaking, in a Hiroshima hotel room, of a French woman and a Japanese man. Gradually their story unfolds: she is an actress, finishing an international film about peace; only last night did she invite him to her room, and tomorrow she returns to Paris. They are in love, and yet she intends to leave. She describes herself as a woman of dubious morals, then jokes she is dubious of morals. Both say they are happily married.

As he questions, she talks about her youth in Nevers, a French city on the Loire. During the war, she and a German soldier fell in love, and met wherever they could. On the day France was liberated someone shot him, and as she lay with the dying man she was found out, her hair hacked off, humiliated and scorned, and descended into madness. Two years later, restored to sanity, she made her way to Paris and never went back, and blocked out the experience.

Marguerite Duras, who won the Prix Goncourt for the script, asks us to think about memory, about how forgetting is both healing - allowing us to continue with life - and ravaging - we lose what matters most when we can no longer bring its details to mind. The touch of a lover's hand, his warmth, their full hearts - when these fade, we lose something precious. Not to remember is not to have lived.

The French woman makes a gift of her secret loss to this stranger/lover, this Japanese man she will never see again, and in the process he allows her to re-experience that first momentous love. When she tells him she has never shared this story with her husband, the Japanese man is thrilled and elated - only he holds this potent memory, feels its power over her. Through her last night in Hiroshima they sit in a tea-house where he plies her with beer while she confesses, then we think maybe she will stay with him - we know it's impossible and they both agree it's impossible but so is love: surely there is a way to sustain this experience They want it, we want it for them, we know it can't happen.

Many masterfully-composed images benefit from the restoration - the patterns made by overlapping palm fronds against the sky while the lovers fill the foreground; long dolly-shots through a series of high-roofed market buildings; a vertical bar of light reflected off the river behind her as they sit in the tea-house; the peeping of frogs, that same soundtrack in her Nevers memories. Hiroshima Mon Amour touches heart and mind profoundly - see it on a big screen.