MAMI 2016: Of sex, crime and dhokhaa

MUNMUN GHOSH sifts through the MAMI 2016 cache to select a few films that moved, as opposed to those that merely shocked or induced sleep.

When you wished to feel good about life and relax, you booked yourself into the world of commercial cinema, rife with engaging fantasies, what-could-or-should be stories wound around life’s happy twists and turns, all glitzily wrapped up. And when you were in a mood to learn and confront life’s darker realities, mostly kept out of public gaze, you accessed the world of arthouse cinema, Indian or foreign. This was the general expectation with which we approached cinema for a long time. Certainly it was the expectation which has made me an ardent consumer of MAMI, Mumbai’s international film festival, for the past 15 years. Showcasing the best of world cinema every year, MAMI has seemed like an easy trope to delve into the lives of people inhabiting different geographies across the world; to haul valuable insights into their realities, mostly uncomfortable, and their ways of coping; and to come away, elevated, enriched, reassured of the essential triumph of the human spirit over life’s assorted challenges.

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Like its other editions, MAMI 2016 put out the best of world cinema comprising most of the prestigious Cannes and Berlin film festival winners. And the festival was also very well-organised and literally glitch-free. However, increasingly, it is becoming difficult to strain even a few films from the festival that deliver new insights into the human condition and different societies or even move you. Most seem kitted out expressly to shock you, heavily stuffed with bizarre, grotesque and even repulsive images and sequences that hold little significance and lead to no epiphanies. Or almost nothing happens in the films with the plots frozen as icebergs and the camera dozing over images, leaving you wondering what the game is about.

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One of the few films that spoke to me this time and triggered some ponder, was THE COMMUNE by Danish filmmaker Thomas Vinterberg. Set in 1970s Copenhagen, it shows up the failure of communal living to save its initiator – middle-aged television newsreader Anna – when she is hit by a severe emotional crisis. Persuading her architect-teacher husband to open up his huge ancestral house upon inheritance, to their friends and to live together, Anna is thrown off balance soon by her husband’s confession of his affair with his 24-year-old student Emma. Straining every nerve to be brave, just and magnanimous to the young girl and to her husband, Anna invites Emma to move into the commune, with disastrous consequences for herself. This study in modern experimental lifestyles and a woman’s effort to stretch boundaries in every way is interesting though it suffers from many of the common pitfalls of arthouse cinema like an absolutely redundant scene of all the commune members bathing and marching together in the nude – clearly a gambit used to shock and no more. But at least the film moves you to an extent, largely because of the consummate performance by Trine Dyrholm as Anna.

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I cannot say the same of the French offering THINGS TO COME, a Berlin festival winner, which casts its protagonist Nathalie into the same situation and which is equally commandingly fronted by well-known actor Isabelle Hupert. Unlike Anna, Nathalie, a passionate teacher of Philosophy, does not crumble at her husband’s move-on, even if she is shaken up; she readjusts her life to suit the new circumstances with minimal fuss. In fact, the film disappoints as virtually nothing of consequence happens after the husband’s confession of his new romantic entanglement and his exit from the house with bag and baggage. Even Nathalie’s bonding with an anarchist male student goes nowhere.

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What appears to emerge from these films is that women are expected to treat infidelity as a middle-age phenomenon which, even if not as certain as menopause, is probable as hypertension or arthritis and has to be dealt with objectively and calmly, without tantrums, self-pity or expectations of social support. It is no surprise that many marriages in Europe are not consecrated in church any longer for the traditional wedding vow ‘Till death do us part’ would have to be revised to ‘Till either finds another partner’.

 

With most films globally reflecting a materialistic world-view that sees the mind as a function of the body and is shorn of ideas of the ilk of soul, eternity, rebirth, sin, heaven or hell, sexual pleasure is predictably at the centre of things, next only to the pursuit of money and power. As such, sex is conspicuously built into the themes and textures of almost all the festival films. Sex has figured majorly in festival films down the years with many festival films, high in erotic content, sparking off stampedes in queues outside theatres screening the same. I remember watching LAST TANGO IN PARIS at a packed YB Chavan auditorium (in MAMI) years back, aware of a massive crowd gathered outside, irate at not being able to get in. The sexual liaison between a young girl and a stranger in LAST TANGO IN PARIS was intense, graphic, extraordinary, and had its own beauty; the film burnt images into your mind time could not erase.

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However, increasingly and definitely so in MAMI films this year, the sex on display, while being predictably normless as befits festival films, appeared downright redundant many a time. You suspect it has been bunged in to shock you; filmmakers seem to be wrangling with one another to rustle up sex scenes with partner combinations not seen before. Like the 2016 Chilean/French film, ENDLESS POETRY, a visual extravaganza steeped in magical realism bombards you with sex scenes, carefully unravelled in departure from the otherwise prevailing high-speed, action-filled, frenetic momentum of the film. The poet as a teenage boy being kissed languorously on the lips by his teenage cousin brother; the poet as a grown-up handsome hunk, humping his first love and muse, the hugely-built Stella with red flaming hair and red painted nipples, from the back; and finally the poet engaging in intercourse with a woman dwarf who offers herself to him and reveals before the act that she is bleeding to which the poet replies: “Blood is sacred” and makes love to her. The 2016 American film THE GREASY STRANGLER revels in sexual depravity with a plethora of outrageous sex acts like one between Ronnie the father – who is proud of his elephantine member – and his son’s girlfriend. Ronnie’s elephantine penis rules the film virtually. Giving it close competition would be the 2016 French film STAYING VERTICAL that contours a young gay writer’s journey and indulges in debauchery with a vengeance. The film is replete with long close-ups of genitalia, both male and female and all sorts of sexual encounters, ending with a coupling scene between the writer and an old man just before the latter breathes his last. And all the sex looks forced, false, and sad – of mere sensational value.

 

Thankfully, the film HOUNDS OF LOVE, more-than-a-crime-thriller by Australian filmmaker Ben Young remains free of excess in depiction, even as it plays out the gory story of a serial-killer disturbed couple who abduct, brutalise and then kill young girls. Apparently, the writer-director was influenced by two real-life serial-killing sprees in Perth that left a mark on him as a youngster. Teenage student, Vicky Maloney, rebellious and perturbed upon her parents’ separation, sneaks away for a party at night, unknown to her mother. She is tricked by Evelyn and John White, a couple living in the neighbourhood, into their house and then held captive in their guest room and tortured. The director creates an atmosphere of almost unbearable tension, as the story unfolds with many layers and leads to a climax that is at once chilling and cathartic. Shots of brutality, almost all suggestive, intertwine regularly with passionate love-making between the White couple, persuading contemplation on the curious, complex and darkest depths of the human heart.

 

In fact, human brutality comes to the fore in film after film, secreting a sense of deep despair and hair-line hope. The much-awarded Bulgarian/ Danish/ French film GODLESS zeroes in on Gana, a gloomy young woman who had been given away by her father at the age of ten as a bribe to security guards and who now works in a home for the elderly and also traffics their ID cards on the black market in active collusion with her mechanic boyfriend. There is nothing to elevate her in life except drugs. Disgusted, she hisses to her hooked-to-drugs partner one day, “I am fed up of us not having sex.” He retorts, “Sex does not sex me up any more,” to which she responds with “I am fed up of getting high.” Eventually, she experiences a faint stirring of hope and joy while listening to singing by a church choir and attempts to sing. Though she finally reaches a point of wanting to pull out of crime and “to love,” the climax shows her headed for more misery, with no hint of real salvation.

 

Blood spills on the screen with terrifying frequency in the 2013 Chinese film A TOUCH OF SIN that weaves together four stories, with a common thread of desperation and rage at various kinds of injustice – a trenchant comment on contemporary China. In the first, a miner is driven to take up the gun by the corruption of his village leaders. In the second, a migrant worker awakens to the power of arms and ruthlessly kills off an innocent woman. A dainty, amiable receptionist reacts violently when assaulted by a wealthy client in the sauna in the third tale. In the last loop of this quartet, a young factory worker meanders from job to job to ameliorate his economic condition, and finally seeing no light, commits suicide.

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Indeed, it was hard to catch a film at the festival that did not duck into the alley of crime. Such being the case, it was a joy when one stumbled into the 2016 American “comedy of discomfort” DONALD CRIED and listened to its central character, the childlike weirdo Donald, essaying to regain empathy and respect of his childhood friend Peter who has moved up in life significantly and would rather disown their common past. The film bubbles with cringe-inducing humour and Donald is an absolute delight to witness with his knack for mouthing and doing the most embarrassing things. Another film that coasted softly on my consciousness and brought a tear and a smile on my face was the 2016 French film ALBA – a sensitive delineation of a young girl coming to puberty, her gradual build-up of rapport with her estranged father, and her acceptance of her new economic situation following her mother’s serious illness.

 

Of greater beauty was the Turkish film WINTER SLEEP – 2014 Palme d’Or winner. However, the beauty on which one feasts is largely physical, the jaw-droppingly majestic snow-lathered, stony Turkish landscape in which WINTER SLEEP sits. The action is located in a hotel which is built in a cave with the owner, a middle-aged actor spending his winter in the same along with his young wife and newly divorced sister. The plot is built on the age-old conflict between the rich and the poor and the difficulties in bridging the gap on both sides. While this conflict is reeled out in convincing detail, the actor’s conflicts with his divorced sister and his young wife seem stretched and venial; the conversations between them are prolonged to the point of tediousness and the climax lacks heft and punch. The film still appealed to me because of the sense it yielded of Turkish society and its generous offerings of natural beauty.

 

Altogether, MAMI 2016 gave me the impression of a thickly troubled, violent world, seething with both physical and emotional violence in which pills alone offer respite. And this, though there were no films on the horrors of World War II that made a popular leitmotif for films for many years, or on the recent global menace of terrorism. I would like to think that these festival films – at least the ones I could manage to see of the big spread – are not representative of the whole truth or the more widely prevalent reality of lives across the world.

 

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