Carlo Chatrian

A personal blog of Festival del film Locarno's Artistic Director

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In retrospect

Chantal Akerman in Locarno. Photo by Sandro Baebler, agency: modds

Chantal Akerman in Locarno.
Photo by Sandro Baebler, agency:

I think back to the faces of all those people attending the recent edition of the festival. Most of them are smiling. As it should be. Festivals are happy, celebratory occasions. But today those smiles seem shadowy. Scarily, more like grimaces.

Today, I can’t help but overlay them with Chantal’s slight yet so very genuine smile just after the screening of her last film, No Home Movie. She asked: “It went well didn’t it?” And I replied that it had. And it was true, the massive FEVI auditorium had responded well to her film, which is so powerfully hard-hitting that at times it can be difficult to get into.

Today, now that she is no longer with us, I think back to that moment of joy, of sharing, when she added, “I’m happy to be here”. I tell myself I should have overcome my shyness and embraced her. Shame on me!
But what remains with me is her film.

What remains with me is that image of the little tree, withstanding the buffeting wind, which fills me with a sudden tenderness. What remains with me is that gentle voice of hers, when she is talking to her mother via the computer screen. What remains with me is that lightning bolt remark, (“Today I want to talk about how these days there are no distances left in the world”). What remains with me is her body of work, which speaks so resonantly, and more than any other, about the world and about images at the end of the age of cinema. No Home Movie, like all her preceding films, opens doors and imagines new ways of dramatizing the eternal question of what a presence before the camera means. Of how to give meaning to that presence, which is a way of giving meaning to existence.

I look back through notes I made about her films. From the overwhelming discovery of Jeanne Dielman (1975), a film that offers very little (in terms of powerful images and its story) yet which is so singularly powerful: its impact growing so quickly after seeing it. That’s how it is with most of her films: it is only when they are over that they start working on us.

I find a note of something she said: “The way I film is closer to the sacred than to idolatry. I ought to be able to explain myself better in this respect, but I don’t think I ever will be.”

What strikes me in Chantal’s work is precisely that notion of mystery, the mystery of being. What we are shown might have something of the sacred about it because it is anchored in existence, because it goes beyond what we see to reach a zone that is so very precious to us precisely because it is invisible, whereas so much of what we see today is, like the biblical golden calf, resplendent but empty.

That is why the loss of Chantal is already such a great loss to us all.

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The home of images

BOMBAY VELVET by Anurag Kashyap

BOMBAY VELVET by Anurag Kashyap

Let’s start with the Piazza Grande films: Ricki and the Flash tells a story that is extraordinary for American cinema, to wit, a mother who, having abandoned the home (the classical luxury villa) for a modest apartment to pursue her independent dreams, returns when it is in crisis, and, even if walking
on eggshells, animates it with her personality, her look, her spirit. A family home, solid as a rock, is at the center of Philippe Le Guay’s new film, Floride. The man who lives there (an extraordinary performance by Jean Rochefort) seems, on the other hand, as fragile as his failing memory; and those walls are perhaps the only things he can hang onto… A home in Ibiza is where the protagonist of Barbet Schroeder’s Amnesia, played by Marthe Keller, takes refuge. And it is a home, even if only seen from the outside, on a winter evening, that features what to my mind is the most beautiful scene in Lionel Baier’s La Vanité

So, homes. Once they were in which sites expressed paternal authority was expressed, and as such were a notable target for that cinema movement which accompanied the desire to change society; now, today, the home has become an emotionally charged space. How can one not make the connection with the mood of uncertainty we are currently experiencing? Against the backdrop of the many homes that feature in the films in the program and in competition – there for you to discover – there are images of those multitudes who abandon their homes to take to the road. Or even more simply, those people who look anxiously at their homes, fearing to lose them from one day to the next.

Overtaken by the orgy of images in which we are constantly immersed, cinema may no longer be a home for the world; and yet the world still desperately needs a home. It is Chantal Akerman who most clearly articulates how this word can resonate. Her No Home Movie is a film about the end of a relationship that becomes an image of the end of a home. It is at the same time perhaps the finest tribute that can paid to a home as a place without any particular qualities yet endowed with enormous emotional value. Home is a space for sharing an emotion. In this sense, home functions to an extent as a frame, taking a portion of space, (and time) and confers a particular value upon it. So then film is perhaps the home we lack in terms of being able to read our very confusing present era.

Locarno is a home for film like every other festival – even if every director has the illusion that “his” festival is one that provides a more welcoming home than the others, and in our case a giant step forward will be taken when the new “home” becomes available. Like every other festival (well… maybe not really like all the others), Locarno is the place which preserves and renews that exchange between the gaze and a community, between a story that is shared and stories to be discovered. Hence our insistence that every year the Festival program gives due space to the re-reading of film history via awards, tributes, special programs. There is no home without a hearth, a place to come together, and listen to stories that come from all over the world and end up moving us deeply. Histoire(s) du cinéma, which this year expands to include all the retrospective programs, is precisely that hearth, full of the many stories we have encountered over a year’s work which we have decided to share with you. Locarno’s stories this year bear the names of Marco Bellocchio and Michael Cimino, Marlen Khutsiev and Bulle Ogier, Edward Norton and Andy Garcia, Walter Murch and Georges Schwizgebel. We are grateful to them for having accepted our invitation.

Finally, I like the thought that the filmmaker least likely to evoke the idea of home should be the subject of our major tribute within this program. As you know, #Locarno68 is devoting its retrospective to Sam Peckinpah, who, when he filmed a home, in The Osterman Weekend turned it into a theater of modern warfare! And yet the films of this director, whose name evokes deserts and guns, outlaws and punch-ups, have also become a home, in their own way, in the sense that many people all over the world have elected to make it theirs. And I believe that if Peckinpah has so many admirers it is not only because he is an extraordinary director but because at the heart of his stories there is a palpable feeling of belonging that is the basis for every union. One has only to watch that unforgettable sequence in Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid, accompanied by the lyrical “Knockin’on Heaven’s Door”, which depicts a woman’s farewell to her partner, for us to understand that home is far more than merely four walls.

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Michael Cimino

“We are the product of an incredible cultural and racial mix. And the more we accept this, the stronger we are; the more we refute it, the weaker we are. We still have to learn to live together in America”.
Michael Cimino made this statement to Cahiers du Cinéma in 1996, when Sunchaser, his last film to date, was about to be released. Some twenty years later his words still resonate in their accuracy. This applies far beyond that particular (underrated) film, which turned the desperate flight of a terminally ill individual into a mystical ascension. The flight from civilization on which Blue and the doctor who accompanies him embark is not a rejection of society but a rite of passage. Everything else needs to be blotted out in order to take a different look at the same everyday things. Drawing a parallel between hip-hop music and the legacy of Indian culture, between the rhythms and visions that these two forms of expression bring with them, Sunchaser seeks a new way to represent that nation which Cimino has always viewed with both love and disenchantment. The same feeling informs his first film Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, another road-movie, sui generis, whose very title bears the stamp of an Indian past.

The immense lucidity with which Cimino has read American culture and society makes his work one of the most impressive important representations of that country. Viewed as a whole – and it is possible to do so because it comes down to only 7 feature films which, regardless of their production vicissitudes, audience successes and critical re-evaluation, are every one of them a unique experience – like one of those series of late 15th century painters that take the breath away as much for their precision of detail as for the complexity of the way they work together. Every character is a different hue in the national body; Cimino reads their histories, seeking to make of them something more than an individual story.
In the late 15th century the relationship between the Story (commissioned) and the stories (created) is the pretext that allows the “painter” to bring out what interests him most; one of the focal points of Cimino’s filmmaking is found in the relationship between men and the landscape they inhabit. This man who could have been an architect, who seems totally uninterested in the volume and line of buildings, sees natural spaces as a theater in which a twofold action develops, one that is passive, whose observing gaze frames, or rather, creates a landscape; and one that is active, shown as a specific action, able to dissect the space. In Cimino’s films space as nature and space as story bear witness to one another.

As occurs in the work of the classical film storytellers – I am thinking of John Ford and Raoul Walsh, to name just two of the greatest landscape creators – and as with Cimino, the action becomes epic because of this daunting duel between man and his environment, between man and history. It is probably in Heaven’s Gate that we find the purest expression of this feeling. Even when characters are gathered in a more enclosed space, the space appears bigger than them, and while the cutting links faces and bodies, as in the famous ‘Ella’s waltz’ scene, this does not lessen the feeling of an unequal match. As if the embrace of the music, played and danced by the men, could not continue beyond that particular sequence. The theme of the frontier as a site of confrontation with an extreme dimension looms large behind the door and leads man to confront his condition, which is to be alone.
Cimino’s characters are all, in their own ways, solitary beings, seeking friendship and its possible offshoots, – conflict, betrayal, coupledom – as a kind of remedy. They laboriously build relationships which fate will inevitably destroy. The starting point is that of an error already made, that weighs on every action, thought and gesture. This sense of tragedy is conveyed in the best moments with a lacerating poetic subtlety, in a manner not so dissimilar from what happens in the films of Sam Peckinpah, another of the greats featured in the forthcoming edition of the Locarno Festival.

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Edward Norton

Like all the great actors, Edward Norton has something that allows him to withhold something from his characters, thus maintaining an element of mystery in every performance. Primal Fear the film that made his name in 1996 and which won him the first of three Oscar nominations is emblematic in this regard. His character, Aaron Stampler, the altar-boy accused of murdering the archbishop of Chicago, is full of opacities, and also allowed the young actor to play across a range of different registers, preventing the film from falling into facile oppositions of good and evil. After this auspicious debut Edward Norton was to find himself, on several occasions, playing individuals with spit personalities. One might say that Norton’s singularity consists precisely in his reliance on his physical appearance to go beyond it. The prototype of a model youth, but one ready at any moment to flip into something dangerous, is just the first layer of ambiguity that the American actor has had the skill to develop in the most diverse contexts. Norton has a way of acting that embraces improvised variations in rhythm, tone and mood. Be that a little smile after an outburst of shocking violence (American History X) or a slightly prolonged silence in a long courtroom speech (The People vs. Larry Flynt) the result is invariable: his performance always confounds expectations and tend to blindside the viewer.

There is something both perverse and salutary in this approach. His characters remind us that cinema is fiction and that performance is about making something believable. The unconditional cleaving to reality from which American cinema has found it difficult to break free, – paradoxically, the move to digital has strengthened this encroachment of realism – needs actors like Norton who are able to break through it, even if only for a moment. In a context in which imagination has given way to representation, it is all the more essential that we have actors whose personae can suggest the image is based on the idea of the double, the specter, the simulacrum; to mislead signifies not only to dupe, but also to make it understood that the earth on which we think we stand so firmly is also a con: it is in fact ever-shifting ground.

In his twenty-year career Edward Norton has performed alongside major actors (Brando, Gere, De Niro, Pitt, Keaton, Harrelson, Willis), has adapted that presence of his to a highly diverse range of styles of performance and direction; taken all together, his characters are like a map that tells us a great deal about the times we live in, an era so confused, and so ready to take the first option that presents itself, as the right one. The poker-player in Dahl’s film, the scoutmaster in Moonrise Kingdom, the violent neo-Nazi, the unconventional lawyer, the white-collar worker in Fight Club right up to the schizophrenic star in Birdman… Every one of these characters is, in a sense, bi-polar. Or rather, it is the reality he is confronted with that determines his bi-polarity. The characters that Norton has depicted on film tell us about a being who, just to survive, has developed a high degree of irony, who struggles to believe in reality but nevertheless always manages to seem to be surprised by it. Not all are winners: even when they have learned to navigate the rules of society, they feel a certain dissatisfaction stirring within, evidenced by the constant gleam of melancholy in his eyes, like slight fissures in the clear blue sky. They are all, in their various ways, victims of an all-encroaching reality; all, for various reasons, seem about to hit their limits.

They are like Monty, the pusher who is given a day to settle up with those who inhabit his world, before starting a long prison sentence. In this 25-hour journey, which becomes a metaphor for an existence, a city and an era, I find a great deal, indeed perhaps the very essence, if not of the actor, then of what feeds into the various characters played by Norton. Tenderness and violence, eloquence and silence, the lyricism with which the city is viewed, and the cynicism of a viewpoint that has never been innocent, caught between things and people, and a irretrievably solitary existence… At least until a new story starts the cycle off again.

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Bellocchio d’onore

“The effect that produced I pugni in tasca in 1965 can only be called disturbing in every sense of the word. Disturbing because it divided couples and friends, forcing them to take a stand in regards to their cinematic passions. Disturbing for the established values of Italian cinema at the time. Disturbing for the big names, because in one fell swoop, the arrival of Marco Bellocchio on the scene suddenly aged them.”

Fifty years after the film premiered at the Festival del film Locarno, the words of Alberto Moravia preserve all of their flavour and at the same time have the ring of a manifesto for a film festival aiming for the avant-garde. Marco Bellocchio’s film belongs to the history of Locarno as a place of discovery and for launching films that can, without any fear of misunderstanding, be considered uncomfortable.

In addition to this important anniversary, the happy coincidence of an important restoration project by the Cineteca di Bologna offers the opportunity not only to rescreen this extraordinary film in Piazza Grande, but also to celebrate its director, Marco Bellocchio, given that the work condenses many of the themes that he went on to develop during the rest of his career. There is no doubt: I pugni in tasca is a pivotal film, not only for its director, who would return many times to its concepts of family, madness and rebellion, but also for many other films that came after it, both in Italy and further afield. The decision to give the Pardo d’onore Swisscom to Marco Bellocchio is based on the awareness that his way of making movies has a lot to say to those who live in Italy but also to filmmakers in the rest of the world. Since Locarno dedicated an important retrospective to Marco Bellocchio in 1997, he has directed eight feature films and more than ten shorts, developing a path that shows a strong coherence, though divided into two main threads. The more intimate trajectory based in his home town of Bobbio (think of the Sorelle and Sorelle Mai diptych) meets other trajectories that investigate Italian society and its past more broadly. Just as in his debut film, shot at his own home, the family – explored in its disconnects and instabilities – becomes the ideal prism for reflecting the idiosyncrasies if not of a country, then at least of a generation.

Marco Bellocchio has continued to observe Italy during recent years with a unique lucidity, alternating films that look towards the past (La balia, Buongiorno notte, Vincere) with others immersed in the present (L’ora di religione, Il regista di matrimoni, Bella addormentata). For Bellocchio, the past is never the past and the present is never just the present. After all, the director, who has dedicated a good portion of his work to the archives of the past, knows all too well the power of images as both the precipitate of a precise moment and at the same time the metaphor of a condition. It is no coincidence that in this most recent phase of his career, the archive has acquired a new function, moving from documentary material to a narrative tool in dialogue with the rest of the fictional subject matter. These aesthetic choices once again reveal a filmmaker whose modernity is always discomfiting, his voice more necessary and vital than ever before.

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Bulle Ogier

Bulle Ogier has a brilliance all of her own. It is something quite interior, and thus difficult to define. Her screen presence has something of the apparition about it: perhaps due to those silences, prolonged just a touch longer than necessary, that half-closed mouth, that hesitation to speak out, that gaze which seems to be acutely focused on a point just beyond her interlocutor… Like mother-of-pearl, Bulle Ogier’s beauty is unshowy and multi-faceted.

Bulle Ogier does not belong to that generation of actresses discovered in the streets and launched by the Nouvelle Vague. Although she started out in fashion, her career really began with her work with Marc’O. She made her feature film debut in 1967 with Les idoles, an adaptation of the play of the same name, highlighting its visionary aspects. The film not only represented the avant-garde work of that particular theater group, but also an attitude of that era: a critique of bourgeois society as reflected in showbiz. Bulle Ogier plays crazy Gigi: she radiates beauty, with a combination of irony and talent, alongside Pierre Clementi and Jean-Pierre Kalfon. She was subsequently to co-star with the latter in a film that remains one of the finest, purest of that period, Jacques Rivette’s L’amour fou. Rivette, who had previously wanted her for La réligieuse, found in her both a muse and an alter ego. L’amour fou, about a couple whose relationship moves seamlessly between the stage and their private lives, is a film of piercing lyricism. And one in which the triangulation of looks exchanged between the actors, that of the camera and that of the director are in perfect balance. Following the rigid, relentless mise en scène of La réligieuse, which reinforces the claustrophobic dimension of Suzanne Simonin’s story, Rivette chose to take a step back, and position himself as an interested observer of a performance that his cast perform for him. It was the first step in a strategy that the director continued to employ, with unique results, a strategy that would have been inconceivable without the complicity of Bulle Ogier, who was more than once credited as his co-writer. The next film was a venture taken to extremes. Called Out 1, it was an attempt to reconcile an attraction to the theme of conspiracy (continuing on from Paris nous appartient) with a passion for the actor’s work in theater. In this film, which took its impetus from a mere few pages written by Balzac for his Histoire des treize and widened out to follow two theater troupes and a handful of actors over a period of 13 hours, Bulle Ogier played the role of a completely free spirit. She and, on another level, Jean-Pierre Leaud, had the task of bringing together the various narrative strands and weaving a web that forms the framework of this epic-length film.

In addition to her collaboration with Jacques Rivette (which continued until the 1990s), the 70s were a fantastic period for Bulle Ogier, working on films that remain classics today (and with directors ranging from Bunuel to Fassbinder). Among so many that should be mentioned, there are two that are, in my view, absolutely essential: Alain Tanner’s La Salamandre, in which she played Rosamunde, one of those characters who get under your skin and stay with you for ever; and, for Barbet Schroeder, who cast her in two roles as different as they are complementary: the bourgeois woman who chooses to lose herself in the forest in La Vale and the dominatrix in Maîtresse. In both, Bulle Ogier is pure seduction, her body and facial expressions filmed with relentless intensity: and indeed Barbet Schroeder was to remain fascinated for life.

Her collaboration with Marguerite Duras was unique and extended beyond the purely professional. With her, Bulle would perform on stage in the evening and then the next morning be filming an adaptation of the same play (Des journées entières dans les arbres). For her, Bulle once again performed alongside Madeleine Renaud in Savannah Bay, a splendid meditation on acting and actors. With her, Bulle is the body/face onto whom Duras projected her own voice in Le navire night and Agatha, both phantasmal and discursively freewheeling films.

For Bulle Ogier there was never a sharp distinction between performing for theater or film, she moved between them all the time, her experience in one feeding the other. This parallel trajectory should not be misconstrued, however, because there is never any overlap between the two activities. The experience of the distance inherent to a stage performance is something that at times Bulle Ogier deliberately used to give form and substance to her screen performances. Maybe because of this, watching her, I’ve never had that feeling, prompted by generations of actors launched by the Nouvelle Vague, of a brazen offering of the self to the camera. Her way of distancing herself from the traditional performance mode – that art which seeks to make a character credible and realistic – took another direction. I see few other actresses so able to draw on the legacy of silent cinema: in which a single gesture or frame manages to convey the essence of a character. Go and see how she makes an entrance in Edoardo de Gregorio’s film Sérail to see what I mean. Her work with Duras, however, demonstrates another, quite different aspect to her approach. It is something to do with the timing of her performance, as if Bulle manages to bring to the big screen that tension of the silence that precedes action (be it a word or a gesture) that is proper to the stage. The pauses become more weighted with meaning, the sound of the voice assumes as much importance as the meaning of the words… But the most extraordinary thing is that throughout her career, which is still on-going, Bulle Ogier has been able to make her presence felt on screen without ever losing that lightness of touch suggested by her name and which Marguerite Duras described better than anyone else: “Bulle, ce n’est pas la nouvelle vague, c’est le vague absolu.”