Sex, beauty and role play at IFFR 2016

Last year, I participated in International Film Festival Rotterdam’s Trainee Programme for Young Film Critics. It was my first visit to a film festival outside the UK and it opened up a world of cinema I’d yet to see at that point. Going back this year has been a very different experience, not least of all for navigating the programme without the structure of jury screenings to attend. When faced with a programme as massive as IFFR’s, it can be daunting to know what to see. I took the opportunity to see some celebrated work by established directors (Ben Rivers, Lucille Hadzihalilovic, Laurie Anderson, and Whit Stillman) and was drawn to new work by female filmmakers considering issues of representation, compliance, gender, and sexuality.

Melisa Liebenthal’s Las Lindas, which had its world premiere screening in the Bright Future section, is an autobiographical essay film, focused on her adolescence and that of her friends, how they developed into young women and the societal expectations they felt to be attractive.

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Las Lindas (The Pretty Ones)

Chronicling the shifting loyalties among her school friends, Liebenthal explains how, between the ages of 9-12, she and her friend Camilla were very close, slightly apart from a group of girls they would later bond with, who referred to themselves as the ‘Little She Stars.’ The ‘Stars’ were popular, confident and close with the boys from their class. By contrast, Liebenthal states that, ‘at the age of 12 I decided to stop smiling in photographs.’ A montage of pictures attests to this, with Liebenthal seen at the beach, or a museum or with family, each time with the same half blank, half serious expression. The smile is this director’s first target for critiquing the conditioning of young women to be compliantly attractive to men. “You’re prettier if you smile” – and other persuasion tactics – are here identified as absurd but extremely effective manipulations, seen in the countless photos of smiling girls shown, that contrast with Liebenthal’s straight-faced rebellion.

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The young Melisa Liebenthal

It’s an entertainingly frank, clear and witty self-portrait that neatly places the filmmaker’s own experience within the context of wider issues around gender inequality, relying more on personal testimony than statistics or academic theory. Liebenthal’s willingness to expose her own insecurities, her inviting self-awareness, combined with editor Sofia Mele’s efficient handling of each sequence, make Las Lindas not just a film every teenager should see, but a thoughtful and worthy contribution to the essay-film genre.

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Actor Martinez l-r: Mike Ott, Arthur Martinez, Lindsay Burdge, Nathan Silver

In five years, prolific American director Nathan Silver has made six feature films and five short films. I saw Stinking Heaven at IFFR last year, where the director has been well featured over the years. That film looked at the use of role play as therapy in a communal living situation, and with his new work, Actor Martinez, Silver has teamed up with co-director Mike Ott, to take the concept of role play as far as possible. Seen in the film as themselves – or versions of themselves – Ott and Silver follow actor/full time computer repairman, Arthur Martinez as he goes about his daily life; you might call such scenes documentary. Arthur also performs as himself in scenes constructed by Ott and Silver, and the three of them hold auditions for the part of Arthur’s love interest. Actor Martinez frequently works with set ups and reveals, between what is presented as ‘document’ and what is play, even its two directors set up scenes where they read lines as themselves, playing almost Machiavellian overlords to Arthur’s life. The latter complains consistently that the experience is ruining his life, and that he no longer knows what is real and what is play, and appears to evade revealing his ‘true’ self to his tormentors, who, frustrated, push the limits of what is tolerable not only for Arthur, but for his co-star, Lindsay Burdge. What is ultimately ‘actual’ and what is constructed remains a puzzle that Ott and Silver clearly want their audience to enjoy trying to solve.

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Maggie Siff in A Woman, A Part

Also interested in role play, is Elisabeth Subrin’s A Woman, A Part, which had its world premiere at the festival. Maggie Siff (Mad Men, Sons of Anarchy) plays Anna Baskin, an actor who takes an abrupt leave from her successful TV role to go back to her old apartment in New York. There she meets up with two friends with whom she once collaborated in the ‘90s; Kate (Cara Seymour, American Psycho, The Knick) who is less than happy to see her, and Isaac (John Ortiz, Silver Linings Playbook) who welcomes her, but isn’t altogether honest. The three friend’s fractured relationship then becomes the film’s focus, with as much time spent on Kate’s internal struggles – showcasing Seymour’s incredible performance – as Anna’s journey back to stability. A Woman, A Part is perhaps flawed in not allowing enough of the comic moments its cast are clearly capable of delivering, but it’s refreshing to see an adult drama where the protagonist’s lives feel authentically written, they have real flaws, which mean you can’t like them all the time. Each of them is still trying to find their role, and seeing the process of them push each other is often very thoughtfully done. Still, the ending is perhaps too neat for all that’s gone before.

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I saw two very different approaches to female sexuality in Nicolette Krebitz’s Wild and Anna Biller’s The Love Witch. In the former, writer/director Krebitz extracts a compelling performance from her lead, Lilith Stangenberg as Ania, a young woman who one day sees a wolf in the woods near her apartment and becomes obsessed with capturing it. Much is made of Ania’s sad and repetitive life, and her introverted personality, enhanced by a palette of grey blue and her somewhat girlish clothes, all the more to demonstrate the change that affects her when she and the wolf become housemates. There’s a level of absurdity to some sequences, notably when Ania’s sexual fantasies play out, but this seems to come more from a knowing sense of humour than unintentional clumsiness. Stangenberg’s performance remains one of conviction, and very much carries the film to its inevitable conclusion. Krebitz is playing with the theme of the instinctual, wild woman supressed by the expectations of the patriarchy, and she does so with a kind of gleeful wickedness that is actually, a lot of fun.

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Samantha Robinson as Elaine and Jeffrey Vincent Parise as Wayne in The Love Witch

Fun, also is The Love Witch in which writer/director/editor/producer Anna Biller (who also did production and costume design) has created a present-day scenario where young lovelorn witch Elaine (Samantha Robinson) is intent on embodying the ultimate male sexual fantasy. Using the aesthetics of 1960s sexploitation cinema and shot on 35mm, Biller envelopes the viewer in a completely realised, technicolour world, at once removed from, and inherently familiar as, ‘real’. Real in the sense that Elaine’s entirely constructed femininity, functioning to give pleasure to the men she gives her love potion to, is only a slight exaggeration from the everyday standard of beauty with which women are still conditioned to comply, as is demonstrable from Las Lindas.

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Elaine with Laura Waddell as Trish in The Love Witch

Despite Elaine’s layers of artificiality and obliviousness, Biller is sympathetic to her brainwashed central character, making clear that it’s the men in her life who have led her to follow this path, and who will, finally and tragically, oppose her. Along the way, the sheer beauty and level of attention to detail in The Love Witch is stunning, and Robinson’s performance shows an astonishing commitment to the physicality of the role, which requires great restraint and poise (utilising her background in dancing). The Love Witch was a particular highlight of IFFR 2016 – a gloriously seductive feminist work, and a distinctly pleasurable viewing experience.


Also seen: Heart of a Dog, Laurie Anderson
The Sky Trembles and the Earth is Afraid and the two Eyes are not Brothers, Ben Rivers
A Woman, A Part, Elizabeth Subrin
Strange Love, Natasha Mendonca
Love & Friendship, Whit Stillman
Evolution, Lucille Hadzihalilovic
Sixty Six, Lewis Klahr
History’s Future, Fiona Tan
Arianna, Carlo Lavanga

IFFR 2015: The Chambermaid Lynn, interview with director Ingo Haeb

Approaching his adaptation of Markus Orths’ novel, director Ingo Haeb knew that he couldn’t take the narrative of a cleaning-obsessed chambermaid only at face-value; ‘’it was clear that it was a modern, adult, fairy-tale’’ says Haeb. Whereas the novel presented the experience of Lynn plainly, without any doubt as to the actuality of her experiences, when envisioning the source as a more ambiguous, cinematic work, for Haeb; ‘’the distance between the audience and the character is gone, so I wanted to keep it open.’’

The Chambermaid Lynn follows its titular heroine as she goes about her weekly routine, working at the Eden Hotel cleaning the rooms with a fastidiousness that outstrips the efforts made by the other chambermaids. Lynn (Vicky Krieps) is fascinated by the lives of the hotel’s guests, and examines the remnants of their lives – clothes, books, etc. that they leave behind when they go out. One day hiding under the bed to avoid detection, Lynn is immediately hooked on another aspect of one guest’s life, when he hires dominatrix, Chiara (Lena Lauzemis). Having compartmentalised her sexual life, much like work, exercise and cleaning, Lynn is desperate to know what it would be like disrupt the order that she has created, and so makes a date with Chiara too.

Visualising Lynn’s world involved meticulous planning by Haeb, who focused on the smallest details, such as the colour of a telephone, or the way Lynn’s hair is parted, in order to convey the structures that the character has put in place in order to go unnoticed, which meant that for the production design; ‘’everything becomes important.’’ This careful approach also extended to making sure the audience could understand the origin of Lynn’s obsessiveness, through the relationship with her mother (Christine Schorn). To do so, Haeb consulted a psychologist/philosopher, who could advise what kind of maternal relationship would produce Lynn’s particular coping methods, and her attitude to sex – says Haeb; ‘’with this kind of mother, she [Lynn] would have the psyche that ‘I never had sex, but sex is done to me’.’’ Such an important relationship becomes key to understanding Lynn’s initial reticence when attempting a less passive approach to intimacy with Chiara.

Far from being the familiar story of a sexual awakening however, The Chambermaid Lynn is successful in showing the shifting power dynamic between Lynn and Chiara. For someone for whom sex is simply a perfunctory activity, it is feeling at all – rather than feeling for a woman – that is important. Says Haeb; ‘’this is not a coming out story’’ rather, Lena was cast as Chiara for her androgyny, having neither the particular energy of a man or a woman; ‘’she’s neutral [to Lynn].’’ While Lynn begins to gains confidence in the new feelings she’s experienced, for Chiara, her feelings – and Lynn’s – make her vulnerable. Plunging into something new is all part of human nature for the director however, and though we see Lynn grow and take risks in the film, for Haeb; ‘’getting what you want and going too far’’ is inevitable.

Originally published in the Daily Tiger, 28 January 2015. Republished with permission from International Film Festival Rotterdam.

IFFR 2015: Director Nicolas Steiner’s Above and Below

For his second feature film, director Nicolas Steiner set out to discover people hidden from the world. Those who have chosen a life away from the cities and communities – and the luxuries therein – that most ordinary folk take for granted. Above and Below documents the lives of Cindy, Rick, and Lalo who live in the flood tunnels below Las Vegas, David, who lives in a reclaimed military bunker in the Californian desert, and April, a geologist living out a red planet expedition simulation for the Mars-Society. Though each protagonist seems to be wilfully rejecting a normal life, for Steiner, they represent the will to survive that is natural to all of us, and created their own kind of ‘normal’ by which to do this; ‘’It’s amazing how fast a human being attaches to its surroundings and what the formula of three walls and a ceiling can be.’’

What’s striking about Above and Below is how successfully it makes seemingly ignored lives cinematically epic, whilst retaining an intimacy with the protagonists. Shooting wide and employing strategic use of a crane, Steiner and DoP Markus Nestroy convey the scale of the desert, the Mars-like terrain and the Las Vegas skyline, in such a way that the individuals who inhabit these mostly forgotten lands, appear heroic in their choice to live apart from the mainstream. For Steiner, this wide scope was essential to the concept of Above and Below, allowing him to visualise the connections between his star-gazing and tunnel dwelling protagonists. For the most part however, a looser, more spontaneous approach was needed, in order to remain discrete; ‘’we didn’t want to attract too much attention from the “outside” world, because especially in the underground of Las Vegas we were shooting illegally. We were constantly trespassing.’’

Building an intimacy with his subjects was also vital to achieving Steiner’s vision for the film. Before shooting he spent months with each protagonist without the film’s crew, which allowed the director to gain their trust, and whilst filming, this effort to respect their lives remained important; ‘’[During the] shooting period (which was over 2.5 months), we didn’t shoot that much daily, instead we spent a lot of time with them as well. Often times we went down into the tunnels for example, without any equipment. It was more “to hang out” and helping them: driving around, organizing stuff, collecting bottles, trying to help fix Dave’s RV etc. We did what we could to be part of the whole life system within.’’

Such respect and empathy for the subject is what makes Above and Below so effective, allowing for moments in which the protagonists reveal the difficulties that have come from their life choices. For Steiner, this closeness dismantled what he had imagined such hidden lives to involve; ‘’the true story is sometimes so much harder than anything that you could possibly even think of.’’

Originally published in the Daily Tiger, 26 January 2015. Republished with permission from International Film Festival Rotterdam.