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Venice Film Festival 2015: "Equals," "Francofonia"

As is true of many international film festivals (New York’s being one notable exception), Venice has a competition, and this year twenty-one pictures are competing. I’ve seen three so far, and it’s likely I’ll see three more, maybe four, which would be about a third of them—not really what you’d call a representative sample. I do know that the competition films aren’t as rabidly scrutinized by journalists prior to the festival as the Cannes competitions are; maybe because Cannes, Sundance’s January position notwithstanding, signifies the beginning of festival season, and because critics like to carp about the arguably old-school routines of Cannes’ heads.

In any event, the three Venice competition films I’ve seen thus far are each exceptionally distinctive to say the least, and each one represents a different mode of filmmaking. “The Danish Girl,” which I discussed at length in my last entry, is the most conventionally polished and self-consciously important of the three, and not without its rewards. “Francofonia,” a new film from the Russian master Alexander Sokurov, on the other hand, finds the 64-year-old filmmaker in a formally playful mood, doing work that’s as elastic and freewheeling and unpredictable as anything he’s put his name to. 

The subject here is Paris’ Louvre, so, of course, the expected thing to do would be some kind of variant of his amazing 2002 “Russian Ark,” an exhaustingly elaborate single-take exploration of the Hermitage and the various historical figures in its past. There’s a hint of the eccentricity of “Ark,” what with Sokurov conjuring a Napoleon who walks through its corridors and remarks “C’est moi” of every painting he takes note of, including Leonardo’s “Giaconda.” But rather than re-attempt single-shot virtuosity, the director here instead makes a choppy, multi-layered essay film, expanding and contracting the screen, focusing intermittently on the fate of the Louvre during World War II, when the German army and the bureaucrats and fascist muckey-mucks above that army were eager to ransack its treasures, and how that ransacking was prevented through an alliance between one Frenchman and one German. The Frenchman being Jacques Jaujard, a head administrator of the Louvre, the German Franz Wolff-Metternich, a rarity in the Nazi party: a man of ethics and refinement, of both manners and aesthetics. In fictionalized footage Sokurov delves into their dealings with each other and uses their story as a springboard for a larger consideration of the horrors of European history and art’s function within a historical context that can’t help but deliver a withering verdict on mankind itself. It’s a truly bracing, provocative movie, and of course, as is always true with Sokurov, it’s a visual feast.

The visuals in Drake Doremus“Equals” are, at the very least, notable. At the beginning, they are very cool and contained. But as the characters in the film change, new visual tones introduce themselves; a kind of warning orange will encroach from one side of a frame, like a kind of alarm. Once certain characters fully reveal themselves to each other, their flesh tones warm up. That sounds neat, maybe, but as it plays on-screen it’s, well, numbingly obvious. This is a movie that really nails the seemingly oxymoronic phrase “profoundly dumb.”

Which rather let me down, as I am an admirer of Doremus’ heated, relatively acute portrayal of long-distance love and estrangement, 2011’s “Like Crazy.” This movie is something of a breakout for him, as it’s a science-fiction story. A story of a faux-utopian future in which emotion—especially that emotion that the girl groups and the New York Dolls used to spell L-U-V—is outlawed. This future’s citizens are supposedly genetically engineered to be tidy and robotic, and if they start getting the feelings it means they have a virus called “Switched On Syndrome,” and they’re gonna be exiled to a place called “The Den,” where they’ll be encouraged to kill themselves. Really committed rebels will make their way to a wild territory called “The Peninsula,” and…good grief, as I type this, I’m thinking all over again: this is a “Mystery Science Theater 3000” movie. The fact that Doremus keeps a committed enough perspective and his cast keeps on a committed straight face is, I suppose, commendable, but it also saps the movie of whatever entertainment value it might have.

Am I being unfair? I was thinking I might: after all, two films generally considered classics, one of which is a longtime favorite of mine, take place in Futuristic Worlds Without Love. Godard’s “Alphaville,” of course (my fave) and George Lucas’ “THX-1138.” But Godard’s film had a pulp heart and a wicked sense of humor, while Lucas’ film had an admirable albeit almost punishing austerity. And, by now, this concept has been tried out so many times that one has to ask, especially when it’s an American movie: when, exactly, in all of our history have their ever been social and political conditions whose logical outcome would be a society in which emotion is forbidden? I mean, at least Orwell’s vision in “1984” had the example of the Soviet Union going for it. All “Equals” has got, conceptually and intellectually, is (as far as I can tell) a couple of artistically inclined bro-dudes (the screenplay is by Nathan Parker, from a story by Doremus) getting worried about having their precious feels taken away from them by…something. Something that’s against their feels. It’s a thoroughly solipsistic kind of woolgathering, right down to the fact that in this scenario it’s the two prettiest people in a given room (Nicholas Hoult and Kristen Stewart) who come down with the “virus.” And whose skin tones come to life after they get down to it. And who then proceed to act like…well, like the characters in “Like Crazy” (right down to having lots of feelings while showering), until The Man (there isn’t any “The Man,” actually—the bros didn’t really think things out that far) comes for them.

The movie gives away its empty-headedness right off the bat. The drones of each “Living Block” inhabit these empty spaces that fill up accordingly when they choose to “eat,” “sleep” and “live.” When it’s “sleep,” a horizontal module with a bed on it slides out from the wall, horizontally. When it’s “eat,” a horizontal kitchen module also slides out from the wall. And so on. Again, this looks super-futuristic and stuff, but if you’re positing a future society in which some form of maximum efficiency is a goal, why would you incorporate an apartment block design that wastes so much space? As Crow T. Robot, I think it was, used to say on “MST3K,” “They just didn’t care.” Or, rather, in this case, they did care, and cared deeply…just about the wrong things. 

Glenn Kenny

Glenn Kenny was the chief film critic of Premiere magazine for almost half of its existence. He has written for a host of other publications and resides in Brooklyn. Read his answers to our Movie Love Questionnaire here.

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