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KVIFF: A Sudden Glimpse to Deeper Things, Stranger, Rude to Love

No matter how many films I see at a festival, I almost always miss the big prize winner. It’s almost as if the jury is purposefully picking the one film I either haven’t seen or had never heard until their name was announced at the awards ceremony. This time, at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival, however, it was different. I managed to catch both the Grand Prix - Crystal Globe winner and the top film in the Proxima competition. Both of those films are the bulk of this dispatch, while another one I wish received some love on the performance side is also included.    

Mark Cousins’ 24th film, the stylish documentary essay “A Sudden Glimpse to Deeper Things," won KVIFF’s Crystal Globe after its world premiere. About Scottish abstract artist Wilhelmina Barns-Graham, the affecting and engrossing filmmade with the help of her namesake trust, biographer Lynne Green, and Tilda Swinton (who performs narration as Barns-Graham)—delves into her work, journals, and photos to both carve her spot as among the era’s foremost artists and to get inside her mind. 

Cousins takes viewers from cradle to grave, retracing Barns-Graham’s origins in St. Andrews, Scotland, to her life-changing visit to the Grindelwald Glaciers—which informed her bending, abstract landscapes—and her later life. He attributes her unique point of view to her synesthesia, and he often returns to her journal entries. There is one entry where she associates the color of elephants with socks and rocks, which he considers a binding cipher for her aesthetic language. Cousins also demonstrates how the misogyny of the era relegated her obvious importance in art to a footnote. 

Much is accomplished through form and style. The score veers between prickly, ethereal, and languid—soothingly articulating the stacked levels of this artist’s mind. The visual presentation of Barns-Graham’s works has a similar dynamic energy, presented through simple slide shows, time-lapse, and animated movement. Through these visual and auditory tricks, along with Swinton’s calm voicing of Barns-Graham and the director’s narration prompting viewers to consider further questions—Cousins is deftly pulling us closer to the synaptic charges that powered the artist’s ethos, process, and vision of the world. 

It makes you wish he employed her biographical information with the same witty dexterity. Rather, he uses the barest of details about her difficult father and mother, her later conversion to Bahá’í, her thoughts about the women’s liberation movement, and her two partnerships (her short-lived marriage to David Lewis and her companionship with Rowan James) solely as jumping off points back into her work. To an extent, it’s an understandable decision. Cousins is uniquely intrigued by Barns-Graham’s mind. But it’s odd how he brushes past her bisexuality as if that couldn't have influenced her outlook on the world, thereby feeding into her art. There is certainly a slippery slope when applying the sexual identity of someone to their work—maybe Barns-Graham didn’t associate her identity with her art—but making those connections in the present can equally enliven the past.  

That desire notwithstanding, Cousins’ film is still imperative. It beautifully shines a light on a critical and visionary artist who, hopefully, with this documentary’s caring eyes and voice, inspires more to seek out Wilhelmina Barns-Graham's work and genius. 

The Grand Prix winner of the festival’s Proxima competition, Chinese director Zhengfan Yang’s “Stranger” is an absorbing, though at times, uneven omnibus whose interest in liminal spaces explains much about how we define home and identity. There are seven separate stories, mostly taking place in hotel rooms, that make up the tapestry of this film. The first sees a woman seemingly dressed as a stewardess, sitting on her bed, staring forlornly at the wall. She is summoned out of her stupor by a radio call asking for a room to be cleaned. She gets up and sets about cleaning the room she is in. By the bed, fascinatingly, is a bathroom encased by glass walls. She enters the space to wash the tub. Then she steps into the glass shower and cleans that, too. Her being three spaces deep in the frame signals the nesting doll structure of this work. Other parts see two men being questioned by police (possibly for being queer), a married couple practicing the wife’s answers to American border security, a woman quarantined due to COVID, and so forth. 

In each scenario, the scene begins ambiguously—who are these people, and what are their roles?—slowly revealing their secrets through winking pieces of dialogue. Often, the protagonists are either pretending to be something they’re not or literally wearing a mask. There are also very few cuts. Sometimes, the camera will remain static, fixed to one position (such as the police questioning skit), while others will rely on tracks and pans to visually reveal more (such as a part set at a wedding party that divulges a groom’s secret lover). 

“Stranger” is often strongest when it’s being coy, quietly bringing us into the fold and leaving room for interpretation. It loses steam, however, when it attempts to beat one over the head. That happens in the COVID scenario, which stretches on far too long, losing its efficiency while not saying much. There’s a version of this film without that scenario, which is invested in showing how the strain of isolation wrought immeasurable angst on people—that subtraction would allow the viewer to feel the themes rather than having them lectured at them. As such, “Stranger” is sometimes too familiar, undercutting its intended desire for the bizarre. 

Japanese filmmakers have so perfected the melodrama that, even when the film is far less than perfect, it still manages to be incredibly affecting. Such is the case with Yukihiro Morigaki’s intense breakup film “Rude to Love,” a knotty story about dedicated housewife Momoko (Noriko Eguchi) learning her husband Mamoru (Kotaro Koizumi) has fathered a child with a younger woman. Mamoru wants a divorce so he might begin a new life with his lover. But Momoko—who long ago gave up her job and cares for Mamoru’s mother (Jun Fubuki)—isn’t willing to go quietly. She spends much of the film cajoling him to return, regretting the decisions she made in the past and looking worryingly toward an increasingly bleak future. 

Along the way, “Rude to Love” takes plenty of diversions: a band of hooligans is burning up trash sites, a young man working at the local supermarket casts anxious glances at her, and Momoko continually looks for a cat who might’ve run away. Some of these threads are tied together; others are left blissfully dangling. Mamoru’s infidelity weighs even heavier on Momoko because of her dwindling job options (she teaches a how-to-class for making your own hand soap). And Morigaki puts the viewer through a kind of anxiety, too, by showing Momoko looking back on texts that seem to signal her husband’s philandering. These narrative breadcrumbs become a tad lost in the tonal shifts that seem to occur with the randomness of falling sesame seeds. 

Without the binding force that is Eguchi, much of this would fall apart. When Momoko goes to buy a chainsaw, forcing its blades to gnash into the floor of her living room, there is a sense of campiness to the affair mixed with real emotional pain that is firmly rooted in the character despite the silliness of the situation. It’s the blending of the two, carried by Eguchi’s hardened exterior, that clearly signals the kind of profound remorse that gives the melodrama of “Rude to Love” an invigorating edge.      

Robert Daniels

Robert Daniels is an Associate Editor at RogerEbert.com. Based in Chicago, he is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association (CFCA) and Critics Choice Association (CCA) and regularly contributes to the New York TimesIndieWire, and Screen Daily. He has covered film festivals ranging from Cannes to Sundance to Toronto. He has also written for the Criterion Collection, the Los Angeles Times, and Rolling Stone about Black American pop culture and issues of representation.

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