Thursday, October 7, 2010

NYFF Day 5 Mysteries of Lisbon, Black Venus and audience death threats

It was a long day at the NYFF today.

I was on the train at 6:50am so I could catch two LONG films at the festival.

First up was the press screening for the film Mysteries of Lisbon. This is the 4 and a half hour version of a six part TV film where each part runs 55 minutes.

The film is based upon The Homonymous Novel by Camilo Castelo Branco. It was written in a serial fashion in I believe they said weekly installments. When it was put together the book filled well over one thousand pages.

The film is like being trapped in a pinball machine filled with mayo. The story and film immerse you deeply into the time and place that the film takes place but it's construction pings you around constantly from pillar to post as character after character stops the present story to tell you a story about the past. It's wheels with in wheels and stories with in stories.

The primary focus of the story is a young boy named Pedro daSilva who living in an orphanage that is run by a Father Dinis. As the film unfolds we are primarily following his story, but with long detours into the lives of everyone around him, all of whom have multiple identities and some connection to nobility. There are love affairs, duels, death, revenge, convents,rescues and several other things I'm forgetting.

Is it exciting?

Not particularly. The trouble is that the story is so fractured that it never seems to build up a real head of steam. Honestly I was bored for much of the first hour. It finally clicked, I think because it was throwing so much out it had to hit the mark eventually. The blame is partly the source novel which was written on the fly to fill a page count and had to keep readers interested. This leads to weird turns and some inconsistencies in the story (The time frames are messed up).

The film is also very silly. I know some of it, like the servant who is a refugee from The Ministry of Silly Walks was intentionally put in there, other things I'm not too sure about. A suicide of an unnamed character brought chuckles from the people behind me.

I'm not sure what director Raul Ruiz was up to at times since listening to the screenwriter talk he said that the director added bits to make things memorable. However other things like long takes that don't seem to end or serve a point confuse me since they seemed more like filler.

The film itself ends on a note of uncertainty, at least as far as I'm concerned. Its one of those was it real or was it all a fevered dream sort of things that feel like a cop out. I don't know how the book ends so I can't say. What I can say was that the ending kind of sent the film crashing down for me. I think I could have taken the numerous WTF moments that pop up here and there during the preceding four hours and twenty five minutes had the ending lead to something. It doesn't and your left with a story that just sort of hangs there with all of these odd moments that make no sense (the previous mentioned suicide).

I know the problem with the incestuous nature of all of the characters somehow knowing everyone in a manner that is way too neat comes from the book, but the rest of just weird.

I know that I could have forgiven the film had the film been about something, other than the notion of identity which is obvious and too small a notion to fill five hours of screen time. It would have worked in a 90 minute movie, but almost five hours was too much to ask. Had the film not had an aire of being about something more it could have worked, I mean the old movie serials run about as long and are about nothing but motion. This film is touted to be about something, but I find it's about...nothing.

This film also raised several questions about what the programmers at the NYFF have been up to this year since the films I've seen have been disappointments. But I'll leave that for a later post since I want to jump into a review of Black Venus, which had many in the audience plotting to kill the director.(The line, my favorite piece of criticism I've ever heard in a theater was "We should find who ever is responsible for the film and kill them")

The film is about the Hottentot Venus, an African woman with a big bottom and enlarged genitals, who was a sensation and a scandal around 1810. She was portrayed on stage as a savage, however she really wasn't. The British people tried to put a stop to it, but it didn't happen and she eventually ended up in France where things took a turn for the worse.

The film concerns her time in London through her death and dissection (yes you read that correctly). The film begins with a French scientific discussion of Saartjie Baartman after her death during which her pickled body parts (privates included) are passed around.

I'm going to tell you if that paragraph upset you it only gets worse on any number of levels.

From the lecture the film flashes back to 1810 when Saartjie is in London, having come from South Africa. She is gaining notoriety as an attraction. She pretends to be savage as the crowd oogles her. He partner/lover lets people touch her which she hates and they fight. Mostly she drinks. For the first hour of the film we see her time in London which consists mostly of the act, her sulking, the act again and again and again as she gets drunk. Eventually they end up in court .

The next 45 minutes of the film the group is in Paris. Its more variations on the act and getting drunk.

Then the film shifts gear. The scientists want to see her and they pay big bucks to study Saartjie. They strip her, the measure her and they try desperately to see her privates, which she won't show them. We've gone from the public abusing her to science doing it.

Since she won't show her privates her "partners" have to give the money back and their chances of playing for the crowned heads of Europe are gone. So what do they do? They do a variation of the old act but its turned into a sex show.

Yes boys and girls we're well past the two hour mark and the nonstop abuse has just gotten worse and worse.

But it's not over, oh not by a long shot....

The sex show tanks because Saartjie still has dignity left, but that quickly goes by the wayside as she ends up in a brothel, until she is discovered with VD and is turned out. She then becomes a streetwalker until she dies.

But wait there's more.

It's at this point one of her friends and a former lover sells her body to the scientists who wanted to study her. They then make a cast of her before dissecting her.

as the end credits role we see news footage of Saartjie's remains finally going home for burial a few years ago.

At this point almost three hours have passed and the monotony of the abuse has taken it's toll.

In Alice Tully Hall earlier tonight the audience applauded politely before walking out (those that didn't leave during the film). People around me wanted to find the director and kill him. Everyone else I talked to or overheard couldn't believe how awful the film was. The refrain I heard over and over again was "it would have at least been a good film if..."

I don't quite hate the film with the passion that many did. I have lots of reservations.

The one thing I don't have a problem with is the cast, especially Yahima Torres who was amazing as Saartjie. I only wish the director had given her more to do then get drunk, do the act, and be humiliated. The performance is great, but any notion of a character as a most basic human being is lacking. We end up knowing almost nothing about our heroine, we just watch her debased for THREE HOURS.

Why is this film three hours? I don't know.

Frankly there is nothing but the graphic and ever worsening debasement of Saartjie. What are we suppose to get from it? I don't know. Worse the sequences are so repetitive, other than the worsening nature of the torment, that you turn off. I was dead to the film twenty minutes in as one London show bled into another and another.

The film is often like watching paint dry.

The story could work shorter but you'd need less repetition and some form of characters that develop. Unfortunately the film is structured in such away that the film can't be cut because the long nasty bits can't really be cut down.

I'm told the film has no US release. I'm guessing that the film's sexuality which is extremely strong but not graphic is part of the reason. The other reason is I think the film is bad. Only so many people would want to see this film, and most of those would just want to oogle the films star.

I had been told by a critic earlier in the day that most people at the press screening last week HATED the film. This fellow, who shall remain nameless, said that for the film to work you have to work with the film and react to it and think about what its doing. Frankly he was out of his mind since there is nothing to react to, just three hours of abuse. I think that the people who hated it had the right idea, maybe not the right ball park, but the right idea.

And in the aftermath of seeing the film and being with a pissed off crowd of people I have to ask what have the NYFF programmers been thinking?

Hold that thought. I'll come back to it next week once I've gotten through the next five days.

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