JUNGLE SPIRITS, RENDEZVOUS IN PARIS, RIVERS OF GRIEF .

THE ORNITHOLOGIST(2016)

Joao Pedro Rodrigues’ 2016 feature is essentially about the titular bird watcher’s innate connect with nature, a fearlessly innocent bond with an unspoilt, beautiful expanse of land, complete with its flora and fauna, that makes for an observant, enchanting and close to documentary realism.

This bond suffers a cleave as an accident within this reserve of natural landscape renders him unconscious. As he wakes up and is aided by human support, the innocence, piety of this space comes under the spell of a fervour for faith, fraudulent and hypocritical as it is, from his fellow mortals, numbered and isolated as they are. Visual motifs in THE ORNITHOLOGIST too mimic this progression. Human arrival has a way of encroaching on and tending to conquer nature’s truthful unraveling in itself. That is the way events, episodic in their placement here, unravel as solitude and contentment sought among birds and the scenery for Fernando eventually make way for the stone cold impositions of uncivilized human nature.

It’s in how the two pseudo-religious girls who revive him end up tying him with ropes and plotting sinister outcomes, in how the seemingly innocent shepherd by the name of Jesus turns out to be a grifter of sorts while three enigmatic hunter women and the ominous presence of men in costumes who stoke danger with their nocturnal rituals involving fire blend in the absurdity and apprehensive veracity of this extraordinary jungle odyssey. Man is the ultimate beast and the subtlety of that realisation is contained within the screenplay. Fernando is the observer, walker- wanderer and only source of sanity in this saga where myths transmute to surrealism while the bounds of mental receptions buoyed by isolation take an unpredictable turn in the final half.




A forested area positioned with lifelike replicas of wild animals, a derelict villa or church with biblical imagery in terms of sculptures, a tunnel from where the protagonist passes through and a dove whose point of view looks at the protagonist in the image of another man are just some of the other standouts here.

In my opinion, that passage through the tunnel, the tense musical cue and use of light are all in the service of a horror that pitches the ornithologist as a discoverer slowly unraveling. Post this ominous, portentous reckoning in the dark, barriers of life and death, fantasy and lucidity, even pure reason  become opaque and a lot less interesting in the final stretch. But until then, there’s a beauty in the journey of survival undertaken here, an effusion of the senses in more instances than few while the contours of becoming a literal ghost when far from civilization, in the lap of nature, is quietly propelled without sensationalism. Paul Hamy as Fernando is a vessel imbibing his surroundings and he succeeds in this elemental, naturalistic, sensual manner befitting the spirit of exploration, warts and all.



****

IRMA VEP(1996)

All the cinematic works constituting this essay have a direct relationship with the spaces that individuals occupy and are defined by. Each instance is different and unique.

In Olivier Assayas’ IRMA VEP, the film within a film trope presents a fly on the wall or direct distillation of those basic structures that go into the making of cinema itself. So the film set is a mental and interpersonal space. It’s often one that alienates the lead protagonist of the film not just because she’s an Asian megastar thrust into the world of French cinema’s iconic trappings and stilted translation. Maggie Cheung plays her naturally and without guiles or expectations. She plays herself so that’s another block of ego that is broken as far as on-screen interpretations go.

She is the lead here but is mostly peripheral to the people involved in production duties except as the unusual casting choice rather than as the international figure straddling global sensibilities. Given the expert staging in this film within a film conceit, she is a work in progress to these native creative souls. An individual performer who disarms and instantly charms with her humility, her willingness to let go of luxuries and be at ease with the people around her, whether she’s taking a subway or cab ride with them en route to her hotel.  Seen objectively, the shooting schedules and cast of characters across the board on IRMA VEP are frantic at their worst and begrudgingly sincere at best.



Monsieur Assayas shoots his film in unbroken takes where each interaction makes sense. It is almost like a documentary. In a way, Maggie is the unlikely star portraying a character who is quintessentially French especially given Irma Vep’s almost century old positioning as a pop culture phenomenon. Then there’s the affixation of art and commerce, the fact that arthouse ideals have to be mired with the concept of pulling in more mainstream audiences. The social and cultural expectations put her not as a direct casualty of the director’s choice but as someone who gives in the hours and is then booted out of the production at the last minute owing to the ethnic and national barriers some intellectuals say she poses to the authenticity of Irma Vep.

I loved Cheung here just as much as in Wong Kar Wai’s IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE which I enjoyed watching just a few months ago. A great scene is where she employs the method acting mechanics to sink deeper into the latex clad anti-heroine and negotiates the space around her hotel, to ultimately give in to her impulses and be drenched in rain, on the balcony. She is tired and has overslept the next morning. Her disorientation is felt by us as the director who hired her quits, the production is stalled and she eventually gets a ticket to fly back to Hong Kong.  It’s a heartbreaking scenario.

But Assayas gives IRMA VEP a feel, an orientation of authenticity where a film set functions not as a bastion of creativity and art per se but is overruled by clashing egos, unrequited desires, jealousies and petty rivalries. It’s mostly affable even with the simmers of negative energy felt throughout.  The casualty then is the outsider who is desired, condescended to one moment as an exotic wunderkind and is made the ‘other’ just as easily. Talent goes out of the frame. That way, the cultural commentary is subtle and runs deep. In a world of consumption, we are all dispensible, even the most celebrated icons. IRMA VEP gives us that strong understanding.



***

BEGINNING (2020)

Cinema is a psychological space. A space where unresolved emotions and traumas find a canvas to be represented implicitly or with sordid details, all to crack open the shells which affect our collective unwillingness to engage with the ‘truth’. If this statement makes a strong indication for why we cinephiles hold on to hope for cinema with each new affecting work of art that skews closest to our living truth,  BEGINNING is a concrete example.

Dea Kulumbegashvili’s drama set in her native Georgian hometown is a study of life-long grief and resignation that festers like an untended wound, to then get internalised with any hue of trauma that we have been holding close to our experiences.





This is again a work that is pitched, and powerfully so, at the intersection between mental and locational spaces. The supposed lethargy of its pacing and unbroken long takes all help its framing of a trauma that is often unseen and unexpected. We are able to be drowned in the unraveling of its protagonist as she grapples with a savage attack at the church she presides over, motivated by an opposition to her faith. She gets away unscathed there. The war at home, with an overbearing other half who doesn’t give her individual space to be herself and constantly tries to overplay his own role as a man of faith, social relevance and her rescuer of sorts from her former life as a struggling actress, makes her go under.

The lion’s share of her unraveling creeps in our skins and cores as physical violation by a stranger possibly masquerading as a policeman investigating the hate crime at the church guarantees an implosion. The trauma cannot be expressed openly or shared, be it with the men in her life or even her own mother who is burdened by the failure of having another younger daughter lose her education and future prospects to pregnancy. Each life is marked by a burden, colossal and soul-sapping. Corrupt officials who already have not acted upon the violence at the church cannot be an alternative either. One among them, possibly, now is a serial offender, having done the deed twice.

BEGINNING is a study of that implosion where faith, society and family close in on you from all sides. The vastness of nature then too imprisons further. Watch this one to be haunted forever by the imagery of purple flowers and rocks by a river where a child is seen and then the space becomes the site for a sexual assault. Or that eight minute scene where our beleaguered protagonist rests her head on Mother Earth and goes into a deep meditative state, a trance that’s at once akin to a peaceful death and an extended moment to unburden her grief and trauma.


Violence is borne by human nature. The spaces in and around home constructs a study of mental implosion here, made more stark by their juxtapositions with the natural landscape. There is children’s laughter in this scenario and communal gatherings. But the individual soul is singed. A leftover in a society where pain is too costly a commodity for the patriarchy. That’s why it haunts us.

*****

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s