Robert Horton is a Scarecrow board member and a longtime film critic. He will be contributing a series of “critic’s notes” to the Scarecrow blog—a chance to highlight worthy films playing locally and connecting them to the riches of Scarecrow’s collection.
Seasoned Ticket 174
The 2022 Seattle International Film Festival has arrived, staking out a new time of year for itself (mid-April rather than late May/early June) and streamlining down to 10 days. I got the chance to look at a few SIFF titles in advance, and here’s what I think.
In Front of Your Face. We should not describe what happens in a Hong Sang-soo film, because a large part of the experience of watching one is the gently unfolding realization that Oh, this is what this movie is about. And even then, it might not really be about that. So I will only say that In Front of Your Face (a return to form after the very minor Introduction) involves a woman (Lee Hye-young), probably in her fifties, who returns to Korea after years of living in the U.S.; she stays with her sister (Cho Yun-hee), visits an old family home, and takes a meeting with a film director (Kwan Hae-hyo). These are the main characters, although even fleeting appearances by other people, who may exist only in a single shot (the movie is made up of a handful of long-duration shots), feel significant. The movie bubbles with Hong’s appreciation of ordinary things—coffee and toast, cafe interiors, misunderstandings about scheduling—that elevate this day’s worth of incident to high drama. No shot appears random, no accident is minor; you never know where a spoonful of spilled spicy soup is going to lead. And there’s a great lead performance here, as Lee Hye-young has the regal bearing of a born movie star, and the explosive laughter of someone who sees the truth of what it’s all about.
Celts. What would Eastern European films be without cigarette smoking? In this Serbian black comedy, the sharing and stealing and gifting of smokes is as much a part of the storytelling as the action beats are in a Fast and Furious picture, a constant rhythm of self-care and denial. A little girl’s birthday party in 1993 Belgrade provides the structure of the picture, as the kids play at Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and the adults endure their own melodramas. It’s a bumpy night. The war in the former Yugoslavia is in the background; politics enter the conversation, but the foreground is mostly occupied by hostility and jealousy and bitter misunderstandings; also a certain amount of sex and smoking. Milica Tomovic’s film is a very fine balancing act, and it leaves room – especially in the saga of a young cousin whose hapless journey through the party gives the movie its ending – for something like mystery, too.
Hit the Road. The directing debut of Panah Panahi, the son of the Iranian master Jafar Panahi. As debuts go, this one is an instant classic: self-assured, beautifully paced, unfailing in its grasp of tone. That tone is somewhere between a classic sitcom where all the characters have perfected their sarcastic attitudes toward each other and a mystical road movie (in this case, a family drives to a drop-off point from which the oldest son will emigrate, for reasons not detailed). Panahi doesn’t just have a superb touch with actors and a great feeling for human behavior, he also sees with a terrific movie eye: hilarious/surreal bits of business involving a plastic chair in the desert, or a long-take treatment of a conversation between father and son as they sit at the side of a river – an initially casual talk that begins to feel like a towering life moment.
Ahed’s Knee. From the Israeli provocateur-director Nadav Lapid, a brusque study of an unpleasant filmmaker out for a screening of one of his films at a remote desert area, and the young woman who serves as his enthusiastic host but also as a representative of a culture ministry with a bent toward censorship. This limited situation expands in strange, deliberately awkward directions, including a long piece of storytelling from the director that might be his own harrowing experience in the Israeli army but might also be made up. A distinctive movie – furious, at times literally frothing at the mouth.
Only in Theaters. Documentary look at the branch of the Laemmle family that created a mighty arthouse movie-theater chain in Los Angeles (the other branch founded Universal Pictures). It’s a character study, but also a lament for a certain era of small-movie distribution, which, if you lived through it, is more poignant to watch than you might expect. (Seattle movie lovers will recognize certain ups and downs of the business, for sure.) The overall mood is bleak, as nobody is quite sure whether we’re going through a down phase or whether moviegoing itself is pretty much finished.
The Olive Trees of Justice. An extraordinary film from 1962, shot in Algeria by an American filmmaker, James Blue; he’d gone to film school in Paris and picked up the mood of neorealism and the French New Wave. The colonial era was coming to an end, and the story revolves around a young man who returns to Algeria after his French family has lost their wine business. That situation is compelling enough, but Blue’s eye for daily life in the street or on the farm is inspired; there are images here, like the sight of a group of donkeys clip-clopping down an urban staircase, that shine as documentary realism but also take on some kind of fairy-tale shimmer. This restoration should put this movie in its proper place in film history. Don’t miss it.
Petite Maman. Celine Sciamma’s follow-up to Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a small-scaled fantasia about a little girl whose week in the French countryside is transformed by her encounter with another little girl who seems very familiar – and who apparently exists within some kind of alternate-reality timeslip. Sciamma does not feel the need to explain this, and that is good, because the movie’s gentle style wouldn’t stand too much scrutiny. For all its summer-daydream quality, though, there is something authentic and searching about this bit of fantastique flummery, something to do with loss and connection. It’s almost too small to bear its own weight, but that is part of Sciamma’s design – the film suggests that a childhood reverie should last just exactly this long, lest the bubble burst.
April 15, 2022
Robert Horton is a member of the National Society of Film Critics.