Bela Tarr’s last film could just as easily be retitled ‘The Wind’. Labels such as slow cinema insist we look at films in a certain way but here is another theory that seems to have run its course, duly causing a backlash. There is no denying for a film lasting over two hours and thirty minutes Tarr is preoccupied with real time, not screen time. If this is supposed to be the end, the apocalypse, then everything becomes distilled to the point of abstraction. Tarr relies on primal, ethereal textures so that we can taste the potatoes that they eat, feel the ferocity of the howling wind that envelops the house like some demonic possession and smell the pestilence ravaging the bodies of the exhausted man and his servile daughter. I’m inclined to say The Turin Horse is a film about textures. The perpetual storm, framed as an unholy harbinger is accentuated by the wind, an apocryphal force. Tarr’s strategy of repeating daily actions ritualises ordinariness to the point of exasperation. Amidst this routine enacted by both characters in the farmhouse, suspended in time, is a disrupting metaphysical unease conjuring an all-pervasive dread. Not sure if The Turin Horse is the Nietzsche inspired masterpiece that some have declared it to be but it is a mighty fine way to conclude what is an inimitable body of films.
|One of the posters to the film.|
Russian filmmaker Andrei Zvyagintsev first made an impact on the international film scene with his directorial debut The Return (2003). The Return was well received and took away the main prize at the Venice Film Festival. Being Russian and adopting an elliptical approach, comparisons to Andrei Tarkovky were inevitable but seemingly appropriate given the film’s allegorical qualities. The evasive father in The Return is played stoically by Russian theatre actor Konstantin Lavronenko who would also feature in the lead role in Zvyagintsev’s follow up The Banishment (2007). Although critics were not as unanimous in their praise for The Banishment, the film confirmed Zvyagintsev’s impressive visual mastery of framing and composition. Additionally, The Banishment extended Zvyagintsev’s interests in family and communication as key thematic preoccupations. The Banishment is a film that would sit comfortably with Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s pictorial Once Upon a time in Anatolia – both films are obsessive about documenting landscapes. Zvyagintsev’s latest film Elena departs from The Return and The Banishment in one significant way; by setting events firmly in contemporary Moscow society. In a way, Elena signals a shift away from the mythical rural to a more familiar urban concern with current social and political issues that take into account the on going economic crisis and the accelerated creation of a powerless underclass. By switching his gaze to the class divide, Elena is clearly Zvyagintsev’s most prescient film and he does so without compromising his meditative camera style. Whereas The Return and The Banishment deconstruct the patriarch, Zvyagintsev’s latest film Elena makes a woman in her late 50s the focus of the narrative. Elena has been married to Vladimir for ten years. They have both been married before and their relationship is built on needs rather than love. It soon becomes apparent from her habitual routine of looking after the house and caring for her husband that Elena is nothing more than a glorified housemaid. The apartment in which they live is a shiny postmodern space that wouldn’t look out of place in an IKEA catalogue spread. At first it appears Elena is alone except for Vladimir but her journey to the inner city ghetto of Moscow shows us her unemployed son lives with his wife and two children in a cramped apartment. Elena supports them financially and we discover that her grandson needs money so he can go to college and potentially achieve some level of social mobility.
When Vladimir has a stroke, he not only refuses Elena’s repeated pleas to help her son but begins to make out a will which effectively sidelines Elena and empowers his estranged daughter from his first marriage. Although it is not made explicitly clear whether or not Elena genuinely loves Vladimir, she realises that having given ten years of her life to effectively look after Vladimir, she cannot simply allow the daughter to inherit everything. Vladimir’s objections to offer financial support for Elena’s son stems from a class snobbery that is vindictive, cruel and representative of the way in which the rich will do anything to protect and preserve the status quo. Elena’s decision to accelerate the death of Vladimir not only ensures her of a share of the inheritance but transforms her into a radical political entity. Elena’s heinous actions might be cataclysmic in terms of morality but Zvyagintsev’s ending in which we find Elena and her son’s family occupying the apartment as their own suggests that murder can also be a strangely revolutionary act because in this case it brings with it the promise and perhaps even fulfilment of social mobility. Why social mobility? Mainly because it was the defining characteristic of a functioning capitalist society in which class could be attained if someone worked hard enough. Social mobility has been erased today, replaced by an inexplicable economic divide that has produced an antagonistic class conflict in which a tiny elitist minority reigns supreme while the underclass continues to grow unhealthily into yet another social problem as touted by the mainstream media. If this is true then why does Zvyagintsev opt to depict the underclass in the film as equally unsympathetic as the rich? Upon occupying the apartment, Zvyagintsev trains his camera on the reaction of Elena’s apathetic son who reiterates his zombified position of the fixated armchair television spectator, underlining social mobility as an aspiration has now been taken over by the numbing diversions of a one dimensional media circus. With Elena, director Andrei Zvyagintsev certainly demonstrates he has considerable range and is not afraid of remaining apolitical. In my opinion, Zvyagintsev is one of the best filmmakers at work today in the world. If you don’t believe me, just watch any of his films; they are mesmerising.
Mumbai is one of the great cities of the world, drawing in film makers so they can use the dense urban landscape as a canvas on to which they can endlessly inscribe dreams, nightmares and anxieties. A microcosm of cosmopolitan and secularist narratives, Mumbai is continually re-presented in the fantasies of Hindi cinema as the gateway to contemporary success or failure. Like New York, the Mumbai milieu was made for cinematic reinterpretation and performance – the geography of the city continues to be contested in the imagery of the media and whilst the urban slum has become a popular frame of reference, it celebrates a metropolis like pluralism that is dignified. Opening with an interior shot of a nondescript taxi making its way curiously through the rain swept streets of Mumbai; Kiran Rao’s directorial debut Dhobi Ghat immediately takes up the first person perspective of the first of four characters, this one is making a home video using a camcorder. As the taxi moves past the overcast Marine drive with the sea gazing back at us in the distance, the vehicle stops and for a brief moment the camera films the excited actions of a group of Mumbai street kids who begin performing for the car as though they were in an Indian film. It is a snapshot of urban reality and repeats a restless rhythm familiar to us, an elliptical momentum that just like the city of Mumbai fragments the new and entombs the old – but this snapshot is just one of many micro stories glimpsed in the episodic art film structure adopted by the film maker.
A sincere art house film Dhobi Ghat is typical of Aamir Khan as a producer – uncompromising in its aesthetic agenda, distinctively marketed, economically budgeted, sincerely directed and confidently performed. Inter relating the lives of four characters which deliberately represent the spectrum of contemporary Mumbai, Dhobi Ghat is a discourse on the city and its inhabitants. Played by Aamir Khan, Arun is a reclusive painter who grudgingly appears at the exhibitions of his own work. Somewhat of a womaniser, Arun guards his loneliness as it is the one thing that allows him to be creative. He transforms his pain and the pain of those around him into his work, deconstructing the private video tapes of an unhappy married woman leads Arun to shift from one place to another. A symbol of anonymity, Arun’s identity is in transit, nomadically connected to his refusal to become emotionally involved with anyone who attempts to reach out. Shai (the beautiful Monica Dogra), an investment banker from America who is visiting Mumbai as part of a sabbatical, is also suffering from a similar psychosis of rupture but unlike Arun who is a member of the city, Shai’s outsider status makes her a jaded symbol of the Indian Diaspora. She too is searching for a space from which she can create but her elitist trappings opens a level of discontinuity that prevents her from bridging an all too familiar class divide. A symbol of the authentic Mumbai urban slum, Munna (Prateik Babbar) works as a dhobi washing laundry for the middle class whilst pursuing an outlandish cinematic dream of becoming an actor. Unlike Arun who is an emerging painter and Shai a budding photographer, Munna’s gaze is altogether fixed in a stark reality from which he cannot escape – ideologically both Arun and Shai’s perceptions of reality are filtered through a shared visual gaze that is privileged.
The final character, Yasmin (Kriti Malhotra), a newly married Muslim woman, is part of the past, present and future whilst her gaze is hauntingly ubiquitous. Yasmin’s story is conveyed through a series of intimate video diaries that Arun discovers in his apartment – the videos detail Mumbai as a place in which the pain and suffering of women like Yasmin are simply rendered invisible. In many ways, this is a film about conflicting gazes; privileged and unprivileged gazes determined by the economics of the urban city.