Love Is Folly, Talk Is Cheap: Black Sea Dialogues

20 September 2017

In Varna, Bulgaria, on 'Nocturama', 'The Olive Tree', 'Anna Karenina' and more at the 25th edition of Love Is Folly.

Our presence on the yacht was compulsory. The film had finished, there was no time to waste. “We need to go.” A taxi to the harbour: clammy, cramped, no seatbelts. The boat trip was one more gift wedged into the schedule. We were seven, including the two-person crew; ten if you counted the cameraman, his assistant and the local news presenter. There would be photos, interviews for the telly, business cards handed to us on our way off.

I posed, played along, pointed at some imaginary, off-camera wonder. Then slept: and dreamt. The sea did its thing. I floated belly-up through the entire voyage. Later, back on land, we—Tommaso Tocci and I—caught up with Yoana, our friend and colleague. Yoana Pavlova was tutoring a youth jury that the festival, Love Is Folly, had put together; word on the street had our younger teammates fiercely divided over the competition screening earlier in the day. I had sat with Yoana for that showing—prior to being whisked off to play sailors and pirates with Tommaso.

Nocturama. My second viewing of Bertrand Bonello’s film in a fortnight: the joy of giving things another go. Tommaso, more sure-footed in such matters, had loved the film first time around, and recalled sufficient details—and supporting arguments—to join in the conversation between Yoana and me that evening.

He began to record it. In the hope, however slim, of salvaging a dialogue from somewhere beneath those intrusive basslines playing in the bar we were in. The day after, hours before I left the Black Sea port city of Varna, Tommaso and I sat down again and spoke, for 75 minutes, about the several days we’d spent there, attending the twenty-fifth edition of its international film festival. The conditions were decidedly more conducive to a recorded chat. What follows is a transcription of that sit-down—with, early on and where appropriate, fragments from the previous night’s spliced in.

Michael Pattison: Firstly I still don’t feel like I’ve properly seen Nocturama. I’d watched it once previously, on let’s say a bad quality stream from the internet, because I felt like there was this explosion of conversation around it that I wanted to be a part of. And so I thought, “Great, I’ll be able to see it on the big screen, in Bulgaria, with a local audience.” And I actually think it was an online screener again. It was this pixelated image, the credits and text looked like a bad jpeg. They had noise around them.

Tommaso Tocci: That would be bad for any film, but especially Nocturama. Which, as we said, is a formal exercise in many ways, and even more than that, it is about the allure of these objects and surfaces, and lights and reflections, in the department store in the second half of the film, which I think are very vividly portrayed by Bonello. So of all films that could suffer from being seen in those conditions, this one has got to be especially painful.

MP: Even in the first half of the film there’s this idea of seduction through the film form itself, the way it draws us in with this intriguing development of a situation, the way it compartmentalizes the city space of Paris into these very beautiful, very eloquently composed and designed shots. I don’t meant just the shots themselves, but the way they’re interweaved; this editorial pattern, its cross-cutting. I said to you yesterday that it had an energy, this film, it has a mood. A large part of that is taken from its ambiguity, and the ambiguity that comes from this cross-cutting.

TT: Especially in the first twenty minutes or so. All of that, the directorial choices and the editing, with the narrative unfolding in that very economical way, leaving much of the storytelling to the images. I don’t know if you knew anything about it going in; I didn’t know anything, I didn’t know it was about terrorism. And I remember working very well with a sense of puzzling difficulty in just understanding what was going on. Which, I think, is very beneficial to the film.

MP: It’s a pity in some ways because I did go into burdened with the knowledge of what it was about, and the style in which it’s done. I do think that it’s this narrative tension and this accumulation of details which don’t actually add up to anything—we’re still at the midpoint of the film when the bombs go off, we’re still none the wiser as to who these people are and why they’re doing what they’re doing—and adding to that and cementing that idea is the fact that, yes, this is disorienting in spatial terms.

TT: Yes, mainly spatially. Because immediately you sense that they’re planning something, but then it never changes from that because as you say, it doesn’t go into the intricacies of the attack and the motivations. So you get very quickly what they’re up to and then basically never go any further than that. But at first, there’s a sense of thinking, “Is this going to be the entire film?” Because when you go in, you don’t expect of course the sudden change in the second half. “How can this style be sustained?” Because then it becomes this dry, fragmented chronicle of an attack, and if you keep that up until the end then it would be pretty… boring?

MP: I think adding to that level of disorientation is the fact that I’ve never been to Paris. I don’t know how it is for you having been there, but the Paris Metro which is this massive internationally renowned transportation network—the film makes a point of being set there during the early stages, and all of the different interconnections that could be made and aren’t.

TT: It has a lasting effect on you, because it throws you in and then it gives you these geographical references which are then very fragmented because of the style in which they’re shown, but also because there are many different things going on at once, and they are moving through different parts of the city. I’ve been to Paris many times and I know some of the landmarks, and know some of the Metro stations but of course not to the extent of being able to draw a map in my head of what was going on in the film and where. But it would be interesting to see if would be accurate. Would someone like Yoana be able to know, just from the first few scenes, what sort of path they were following?

MP: I was going to ask that. All of that is all well and good and easy to kind of identify. My question would be to what effect is it? But I think it bleeds into this idea of needing to meticulously map out an attack of this scale; it needs to be coordinated, hence the time inscriptions that appear onscreen—which again, adds to the teasing element of the drama and actually it’s quite throwaway in the end because much as the plan unravels in the second half of the film anyway, and I think a large part of that is that we’re left in this labyrinthine spatial puzzle, but it’s also inevitably, by the end of the film, a narrative puzzle as well. Which makes it extremely suspenseful and simultaneously frustrating to watch. These characters are ciphers, we know nothing about them. We’re never really sure what they’re actually doing.

Yoana Pavlova: Actually we do know. They’re codes, in French society.

MP: But the codes are inherently stereotypical. They’re stereotypes.

TT: By design. The film is riffing on that.

MP: Of course. That’s why the film only makes sense to me as a primarily formal piece. When you start to interrogate the content, it falls apart.

TT: But I also find the film to be dealing with the very idea of mistaking form for content. And on the narrative level, it seems to be doubling down on the idea of substituting one for the other, even in the worldview of the characters.

MP: The key line with regard to this is, “We should have blown up Facebook.”

TT: Exactly. So it feels like by making these points you’d be chasing the film into a series of corners that already belong to Nocturama’s architecture.

MP: Yes, and it’s a key theme of the film. It’s in the editing, it’s in those shot-reverse shots in corridors, people walking out through one door and someone else coming through another.

YP: I think the film is actually very Godardian, in the way that it’s structured. Perhaps a sequel of sorts to what Godard would have made today.

MP: La Chinoise is certainly a reference point for me. And the fact that they’re occupying this mall, a place of labour, reminds me of Tout Va Bien, in which workers occupy a factory. They both become a cubist portrait of social space and physical architectural space.

YP: I wouldn’t call it a mall. In Paris this is something like the Galeries Lafayette, for instance. It’s the heart of the city and a very interesting territory—these are places that became common in the 1900s, and it’s a social space for people from different classes to mingle. When Christmas is approaching, you really feel like blowing up these places. Consumerism at its absolute ugly worst.

MP: What I don’t like in the film—and again, it’s a deliberate choice on Bonello’s part and it comes from my desire to see these protagonists portrayed as more knowing and self-aware and committed to their cause—is that they usher in their own downfall. One of them goes out for a cigarette and lets other people in. The guy with curly hair goes through the light aisle which they were specifically told not to go into. It seems like the film is suggesting—and it’s a suggestion I don’t like—that any mobilisation of youth that is counter-cultural will inevitably fail because of its clumsiness and its lack of organisation and principles. They’re all immediately like, “Oh God, what have we done?” I mean, commit to that, or don’t. It’s an easy target to bring youth into the picture like that.

TT: I agree about the implications, but if you flip that on its head, I think we see the opposite happening fairly often in films these days. A kind of hyper-radicalisation of kids playing up the dramatic conflict of their supposed innocence versus their actual, robotic dedication. If you take out all that from Nocturama and put in people who are totally committed and competent, the idea of the film falls apart.

MP: This is a depiction of terrorism without understanding the complex social currents that inform extremism and the state’s response to it. It’s interesting that Nocturama was made between these two attacks in Paris, yet is deliberately not a “social issues” film. When it came out, the controversy was all about whether Bonello crossed an ethical line in the context of the real attack, and I don’t get that at all.

TT: Because so much of it is wrapped up in this very prominent sense of ambiguity. Which I have no problem taking at face value—the fact that the film’s narrative ambiguity dovetails so perfectly with the formal layer of Bonello’s filmmaking justifies it for me—but I know that it’s something to be investigated a bit more thoroughly for you.

MP: The thing is, as soon as I commit to a certain standpoint, I immediately see the counterpoints. For instance, how do you account for the vulnerability of the kids in the final stages of the film, when the SWAT comes in? J. Hoberman’s review had this amazing last sentence. Having never mentioned the police before, he concedes these kids might still have something to live for and then wraps the review with: “That is, until the SWAT team arrives.”

TT: The thing is, I had stopped looking for motivations by the time they retreated into the department store. When things are done, and you see these characters removed and detached from the whole thing, I wasn’t thinking, “Okay, now that they’re all here, things are going to boil down and you’ll get a sense of what they think.” In fact, it’s a film defined by these absences. Once you know that, you think, “Well, what is the second half going to be about?” Because it’s clearly not just about their fate—are they going to be arrested or killed?—it’s also about what is going to fill this emotional space. The film is clearly not interested in giving us backstories and motivations. And that is, I think, what makes it such a powerful exploration of nothingness—what they go through. It puts you on the same level as the characters at that point.

MP: But I don’t read this as a film about nothingness, or a sense of ennui that’s felt by society, because I don’t feel that the film gives us any insight into the social character of these people. I mean it’s inevitably read by critics as a comment on the society we’re living in, and it’s obviously been made very deliberately at a certain historical juncture, but I actually find the film to be most powerful when it’s read as an essay on its own structural techniques. And of course it’s not just that, I know, but for me as soon as we begin to look into this as some kind of rhetorical response to an age of terrorism, or of urban asymmetric warfare, I don’t think it’s particularly strong.

TT: I completely agree. I guess that response, the need to socially contextualise the film, is inevitable because that’s just what people are drawn to. But I don’t agree that that’s the arena into which you should place the film immediately in order to dissect it. And that’s partly because of what the film does—because the film doesn’t seem interested in giving us that—and partly because, as you said, when I think of the film my first association is technique, formal structure and filmmaking. The joy I derive from the film is purely visual and formal—even if it’s nothing joyous of course; in fact it’s something you have to struggle with. But I think there’s joy in that struggle.

I mean, the film itself is taking these characters and closing down the blinds around them, and so metaphorically you’re moving them from that post-event space and you ask questions, and you reason, think, reflect: the movement there is quite fascinating, to go down and down into this place. I think that’s what the film itself is saying: let’s analyse how this resonates socially or politically. The film obviously has to be a part of that discussion, in terms of the people in the group being an expression of French—or even, I would say, European—society, in terms of class, in terms of gender, in terms of ethnicity, religion. So the film can’t get away from that. But that’s probably why it decides to be unrealistic.

MP: It’s very anti-psychological. There’s no social character given to these characters as people. It’s not a drama in that sense. It denies psychological readings.

TT: Which I find refreshing, though.

MP: Yes. Once we adjust to that idea. I mean, I think too much has been made of the film’s ambiguity. In general, I think critics fetishize ambiguity in terms of political ideologies, and they champion that as a sign of inherent strength in art. And I know that you were excited by this film as a very cleverly done Rorschach test.

This is why I find the film fascinating. I watched it first time around and rejected its ambiguity. I felt that as an artist entering this arena Bonello does have a responsibility to say something about it, to contribute to that discourse, whereas he’s actually holding a mirror up—similar to the way that Gus Van Sant’s Elephant did—he’s poking at all of the different causes that are at the root of terrorist acts, or let’s say extremism in general, and never actually privileges one as a single root cause, and so it becomes about the discourse around these events rather than the events themselves. But it just took me some time to adjust to that, and it took me some time to appreciate what he’s doing, and the skill with which he’s doing it.

TT: Let me ask you something. I feel that this idea of the author’s responsibility in social and political terms is crucial, both in general and in relation to this film in particular because we are not sure how Bonello acts or thinks with regard to that. I absolutely agree that any director—especially one who makes a film in this time, and with this setting and story—needs to be saying something about that time and setting.

But, this ambiguity that Nocturama appears to have—and I’ll allow that, as you say, we are fascinated by ambiguity beyond its merits—what do you feel about a lesser film with a more traditional story about a terrorist attack, which follows the expected steps by first of all creating characters of the terrorists, and going for sympathy and compassion in ways that we’ve seen multiple times—and then resolves the story by going through the usual steps? Seeing their motivations, how they prepare the attack, seeing the attack, and then seeing how it gets resolved—and then it can go through a number of levels on a scale of how close you are to the characters; are you on the side of the authorities; how the authorities respond. But would that be a stronger social response and position on the part of the director? And keep in mind we are talking about your standard thriller. Homeland on TV, for example, is a show which prides itself on telling you these things.

MP: Talking about dramas in the traditional sense, humanising or putting a face and psychological character to what is, essentially, an unknowable force—and by unknowable I don’t mean we can’t understand or come to an understanding of the social causes behind a certain political ideology—what I mean is, to go with your Homeland example, a face and a character is put to a terrorist only to then demonise them. So it’s an insidious way of humanising. So yes, I appreciate that.

Let’s segue here to The Olive Tree, because it contrasts very well. This is a film scripted by Paul Laverty and directed by Icíar Bollaín, who have collaborated twice previously—and Laverty, as we know, is the regular collaborator of Ken Loach. It’s impossible to read his work in any other way than that of an artist who is committed to social issues. This is a film in which a young Spanish woman living in an intergenerational household in rural Spain takes it upon herself to retrieve her grandfather’s 2000-year-old olive tree, which her family sold and which is in Dusseldorf, in the headquarters of some energy firm. And so, what begins as this granddaughter-grandfather bond is used as a window into a drama that centres in the end around corporate issues. Two things are happening: there’s the personal and the political.

We saw the film together. It wasn’t our first choice of film to see but we were thwarted by our attempts to see another film because there were no English subtitles. I really didn’t like this film. Which is interesting because the qualms that I’m trying to grapple with in regard to the Bonello film are ostensibly solved by The Olive Tree. Everything I’m wanting from Nocturama is there in The Olive Tree. And yet I felt it was embarrassingly thin.

TT: The Olive Tree is like the graveyard where all of these questions regarding Nocturama go to die, because it’s neatly and tragically organised in its emotional and narrative arc and there’s nothing else left to do. I would argue the only redeeming quality of the film—which, for the most part, is competently done, is inoffensive, but just not what I look for in films, and we have to remember that this was programmed and screened in a section about youth in cinema, and is being judged by a jury of teenagers—but the redeeming quality of the film, if there is one, is not that it’s basically a road movie that poses some corporate challenge at its end. But there’s something in the faces of the main actress and the grandfather that I think very belatedly saves that emotional link. There’s something in the way they are connected. I thought a lot about this figure of the father, who is caught between generations and who stays home—it’s the girl’s uncle who goes on the trip—and this father is completely cut out of this story, or this life. Even the grandfather, when he’s telling the usual mythological family progressions to the young girl—

MP: Through flashbacks.

TT: —and he’s telling her, “This is what we do,” and teaches her how to plant a new tree into the roots of an old one. “My grandfather taught my father and my father taught me.” Which is strange, because you’re skipping a generation there. Is it a wonder then, ten years later, that this father has sold the tree for €20,000, and is completely incapable of coming to terms emotionally with that? His life seems to have stopped the moment he was cut out of this tradition, much like the tree was cut out of its original location. I think this is treated by the film as not really a concern, but I thought it was its main point of interest, rather than the more plain and routinely executed main story.

MP: This is a film, again in contrast to Bonello’s, which is intentionally a crowd-pleaser. You can tell by the shifts in tone between charm and whimsy and then the broader, more serious points being made. My problem and frustration here—and I really didn’t like I, Daniel Blake either, but watching The Olive Tree you realise how much Loach’s direction and work with actors can really compensate for the thin material he’s given by Laverty—my frustration is compounded by the fact that I know Laverty is capable of moving work. Here, he sets it up, he makes choices where everything is contrived, as you said, to lead us to this neat, symmetrical conclusion. But the stones that he skips to get there are visible from the off. The central dramatic relationship between the young woman and the grandfather is completely undone for me by this non-performance by the grandfather to begin with. He’s suffering from Alzheimer’s, and is a somnambulant presence—or absence—in scenes. I don’t really know why it had to be that simplistic. I think the point would have been perhaps more nuanced and better made if the girl wasn’t in a position to speak for the grandfather.

TT: But then wouldn’t the grandfather’s agency be called into question? This is the girl’s story, and if the grandfather wasn’t out of this particular equation, then he would be expected to be the one searching for the tree.

MP: Yeah. Another problem. Laverty expressing the girl’s essential naivety and restlessness in life by having her go to a club and waking up in someone else’s bed the next morning. How many times have we seen that as a shorthand, like casual sex being some sort of self-punishment? To paint a character in such a manner is extremely clichéd.

TT: I agree. It’s a pity you didn’t see Victoria here, because it starts with this girl—who resembles the girl in The Olive Tree—who goes into this Berlin club. In the initial few scenes she appears as very naïve— Berlin is a city known for its extreme club culture—and she feels like she’s about to be swallowed up by this world, and something terrible is going to happen to her. Of course, we don’t know the story yet at this point, but she’s probably at best going to end up in someone’s bed, which will probably lead to some complications, and at worst she’s going to be killed or something. Then she gets approached by these locals who follow her, and it’s rather creepy—but the film doesn’t exploit it as such, which is one of the best things that the film does.

I say this because that film plays with that sort of expectation, which you have because you’ve been trained this way, and The Olive Tree uses it as a shorthand for a sort of confusion, a moment of passage. We should also say that its protagonist is in an on-off relationship with this guy—

MP: Who accompanies her on her road trip.

TT: —and this guy is stability personified. It’s like he gets abused by this girl who is moody, who has commitment issues, and he just stands there and takes it, because somehow he has resolved all of his conflicts—

MP: But we’re meant to be moved by that, because when she does finally commit to him at the end of the film, the implication that I took from it is that, well, all she needs is a stable force in her life, and of course it’s going to be a male. This guy is also creepy! In the club scene, he’s hung up on her and watches her kissing this other guy. Watching it, I was offended by the idea that all this girl needs is a comforting force—and that this guy is that.

TT: In the last scene, I was bracing myself for another neat conclusion, because the main emotional arc is about the tree and the relationship with the grandfather, which then turns into a relationship with the father. But then I thought there’s going to be another appendix to cap off her relationship with the boyfriend. But there isn’t. They sort of talk before the conclusion, and basically you assume they’re going to work this out. But when they go away after replanting the tree, I was relieved by the fact that she’s not associated with him. In that moment she’s alone.

MP: Because we see everybody walking away in the background of the shot.

TT: Yes, and it’s not the two of them. I don’t remember if she’s with her father or by herself.

MP: The family walks away from her, and the boyfriend figure is kind of between them, looking back at the girl but about to join the family and walk away, leaving her in the foreground.

TT: Which at least is not too strong of an association with him.

MP: This is a film explicitly set in a world that has a relationship to the reality that we know—in a way that Bonello plays with, teasingly. This commits to a certain level of plausible action, plausible drama, and therefore approaching it as such, I think it’s let down badly by small details. In the same way in which Daniel Blake was, like the scenes in the Job Centre, which had no real urgency, no immediacy. Its script was written only so certain things could happen. One scene I have in mind in the Loach film is when the protagonist, who hasn’t eaten for days, is in a foodbank and there’s fruit on the table, and she decides to open a can of beans anyway—just so we can have the whole emotional moment of seeing the beans going down her cheek.

In the small minutiae, it doesn’t really make sense. They’re going for the broader point but they’re not putting the work in. And there’s a similar moment in The Olive Tree when they do finally get to the headquarters of the energy company in Dusseldorf, and they’re merely looking at the tree after entering the lobby, and their behaviour and everything otherwise is nothing to be concerned about. And yet immediately, the receptionist—she’s German, she talks in English—says, “Can I help you? Do you have an appointment?” And the scene erupts only because we need that dramatic showdown where two of the characters realise that the mission has been under false pretences, that the protagonist’s led them there in this naïve assumption that the tree is able to be reclaimed. And so security is inevitably called and they’re kicked out. Fine, but the dramatic points in the dialogue, and the lines that get us there, are completely trivial and silly.

TT: I think it’s accelerating what would really happen. For example, they amplify the Germanness of the whole thing, as a foil to the protagonists. The Spaniards see the tree and the girl is transfixed by it and the other two are coming to grips with the fact they’ve been told a lie—so they’re all puzzled—and the German machine cuts the moment, as you say, very quickly. But I was wondering, “Is this one of those firms where you can just walk in and hang around a tree?”

MP: I mean, I’ve been to Dusseldorf, I’ve been to buildings like this, and was never accosted by security or receptionists or anything.

TT: I think they would give you a few more minutes, but then the receptionist would perceive you as a foreigner. Also, they start talking to each other in Spanish, so she begins to think that these three Spaniards have no business being there. And also, you can read on their faces that this is kind of a big deal.

MP: I don’t know. I feel like you’re playing devil’s advocate here.

TT: Of course I am!

MP: In those kinds of moments I’m thinking to myself, “Laverty has never stepped foot in the lobby of a corporation like that,” in the same way I felt he’d never stepped foot in a working-class convenience store while watching I, Daniel Blake. I mean, for many years I was defending the Laverty-Loach collaboration to many people who were criticising it, and I’m slowly coming to the realisation that, yes, perhaps there is a certain level of laziness involved in his scriptwriting. And an obviousness as well. Everything, text and subtext, in The Olive Tree is there when we watch it. Okay, that’s great, but what’s the point?

TT: Exactly.

MP: And I come out of the Bonello, and I have to unravel it. But I’m still coming to terms with, or trying to decode, what I expect and need from cinema in general, I suppose.

TT: For me, as you said, we see this example where everything is unravelled for you, and that it’s not particularly interesting. But I don’t think the Bonello—though it makes you feel the urge to unravel it—I don’t think it requires you to do it in order to make sense of the film. You can keep it tightly wrapped as it is. The joy is in entertaining the idea that there is some unravelling to do, but then the film doesn’t need to stand up to the test of the actual unravelling.

MP: And actually very much resists any single reading anyway. Which is maybe a good point at which to speak about a film that might be positioned somewhere between these two ends of the spectrum, which is the film that opened the festival: Anna Karenina: Vronsky's Story, which is the latest adaptation of Tolstoy’s novel. The only previous version, of the many that have been made, that I’ve seen is Greta Garbo’s. This is more than two hours, it’s Russian, and it opened the festival because of its strong Russian focus this year, alongside the Indonesian focus. I think you liked this film more than I did—although I wouldn’t go so far as to say I disliked it.

TT: It’s also middle of the road for me. But I was surprised. We were probably at fault having certain assumptions about the film when we came into the festival centre for the first time and we saw the poster, which really does a disservice to the film I think. It’s traditional in the worst ways, presenting the faces of the characters and actors—

MP: Digital floating heads!

TT: —just a bad stereotype of a film poster. So we presumed it was a film that wasn’t particularly well developed, just some perfunctory costume, period drama. And of course that’s what the film is, essentially, but it has something that I thought was noteworthy. We watched it sat in one of the first two rows, on apparently the biggest screen in Bulgaria, which is very tall. Funnily enough it reminded me of an IMAX screen at that angle, which maybe invites some kind of physiological links.

MP: I mean, we were in the front rows because we were guests of the festival and we had been allocated these seats for the opening ceremony which preceded the film. I noted that a few people did leave after the ceremony and didn’t stay for the film, and it would have perhaps been better for us to re-seat ourselves further back. But again, like you, I was surprised, having seen the poster, how much effort had gone into reconstructing the period details of the source material. It might be worth noting that the director of the film, Karen Shakhnazarov, is also the director of Mosfilm studios, which might go some way to suggest why the resources and budgets were evidently in place. Again, there’s an ambiguity about this film in its latter stages, about the character of Anna Karenina. Does she psychologically unravel, and are we meant to read it as such? She’s caught between her lover, Count Vronsky, who she can’t marry, and her husband, whom she can’t divorce.

TT: I think the film does a good job of illustrating those social constraints, and not in a partisan way. It really makes an effort to explain why this really is a shitty situation for everyone. In fact, one of the things that I liked most was this secondary character, who’s working behind the scenes as a facilitator, and at one point he finds the count and says, “How am I different to the Tsar?” and then in the end he says something to the effect of, “I made three people happier,” because he persuaded the husband to get a divorce. Which works with how the film treats the figure of the husband, who could have very easily been left in the background. He’s incredibly nasty, but at the same time the film explains how he’s doing the best he can, considering the constraints of the time.

MP: Sure. I would have maybe preferred a little more sympathy given to the husband figure. Because it’s a good performance as well by Kirill Grebenshchikov, so there’s room in which it could perhaps be even more nuanced, to really tease out the tortuous predicament that all of these characters are in. I think Max Matveev, the guy playing Vronsky, is incredibly handsome. He really lights up the screen. Like, wow.

TT: He ages very well!

MP: Hahaha! Yes, because the story is framed through scenes that take place thirty years on, and he’s looking back and telling this other soldier what happened—which lends the whole thing a structural inevitability, because we know the fallout of the Anna Karenina part of the story, or at least how it ends. And yet, for all of the resources invested in the period reconstruction—

TT: Yes, ha!

MP: —we must say at this point that the makeup with which he’s meant to age could have perhaps been a little more detailed.

TT: Perhaps he’s too handsome?

MP: Maybe.

TT: Because his handsomeness is a problem.

MP: A problem! Ha!

TT: Because, you know, aging actors is not always about what you can do, but what you are allowed to do in terms of playing with expectations, because people are conditioned to know how aging in films works and how far it can go. You could, for instance, have made him lose his hair perhaps? But then that would take away from his handsomeness. His moustache also stays the same.

MP: And he grows a beard as well.

TT: It’s true. It’s a very well-groomed beard. In a war!

MP: Right. It’s a pending battle scene basically, and he’s holed up waiting for the Japanese to attack, and he’s on crutches and everything else, and he’s got this beard—I want to go to the barber that this guy goes to, in 1904 Russia. It’s the most well-groomed silver beard I’ve seen on someone who’s meant to be at least sixty years old.

TT: But the film—as you said—and the central tragedy of inevitability that comes with the Anna Karenina story is fragmented into different pieces. The bulk rests on the recounting of the story of Anna Karenina to her son, from this older man, which allows the film to play with that, and to make it so that at the beginning we see the fallout of the tragedy, and then you go back and see how it unfolded. It culminates in this strangely powerful, even if a bit ridiculous, sequence in which she is rushing to the train station. It has this expressionistic vibe.

MP: Yes, all of a sudden we have two black horses galloping through the cobbled streets—in slow motion, for some reason—and an arbitrarily close-up shot of the carriage driver. Like something out of Dr. Caligari or something.

TT: Exactly. It stayed with me. It’s not done as one scene. It becomes this sort of dance between the horses, and the dark streets, and the guy, and then it goes to Anna Karenina, and then back to the horses.

MP: It’s almost like the slow-motion Grand Central scene at the end of De Palma’s The Untouchables, which itself was a throwback to Battleship Potemkin, but it’s as if that scene had been interspersed with dialogue scenes happening elsewhere around the station. It has this very strange energy to it. One thing I did note is the repetitive use of a certain shot—it’s obviously a deliberate framing choice, and it’s significant enough for me to have picked up on it. We have two actors speaking in close-up, in shot-reverse shot, and then we get a wider shot, a two-shot of both actors, and one actor will walk off into the distance leaving this other actor to kind of stew and mull over what’s just been said. It’s usually Anna Karenina, sometimes it’s the Count, sometimes it’s the husband, and we see the other person walking off and we’re left with this face, in profile and filling one half of the screen.

TT: It’s a common technique, in soap operas and on TV. And the film is making gorgeous use of these corridors in the mansion that they live in, and you get your typical shots where the room extends horizontally, but there’s also this verticality that gives it a lot of depth.

MP: And frames within frames, and characters in one room being looked at from another.

TT: And that of course invites the director to shoot one character from this room and leave the other going away into a corridor.

MP: On the one hand it’s entrenched in this melodramatic mode of storytelling. On the other hand, when it happens in TV I’m usually left wondering, “Well, where are they going?” Like a character will start to walk through a field and it’s like, “Why is he walking that way?” But it’s actually embedded into a certain spatial plausibility here because of the house. The production design here, and the mise-en-scène, are very well thought out. And you have that crisp sound of footsteps on wood, which is always very good.

TT: This is a film that you could expect to be almost exclusively set in a domestic interior setting, and they could own up to it and it could be that type of film. But then the film sometimes goes wild, sensorially. They have a number of such sequences. One is during the battle. One other is a long sequence in the middle of the film, a horse race.

MP: Oh yeah, the horse race!

TT: Again, this is completely unnecessary. The film does not need that. But instead, they do put this horse race in, and they shoot it in extensive detail. Even if you want to put it in because Vronsky is competing in it—and in the end his horse falls over and you get a moment in which Anna Karenina is concerned about his safety—you could do it without showing three laps of the race.

MP: Yes, it does have a narrative use but I agree it’s distractingly elaborate as a set piece. But it’s almost a throwback to the kinds of epics that were being made in the 1950s and ’60s where you’d have a certain level of scale for the sake of scale. Now, whether or not this film is successful in its inclusion of those, I don’t know. I think the technique that you’re also referring to in the battle scene and the horse race is where we get these micro cameras involved in the actual action, from the point of view of the horses for instance.

TT: Yes.

MP: It kind of takes you out, but it also adds to the energy of it.

TT: It’s in your face. But in a way that you wouldn’t expect from the rest of the story, which is very measured in the way it just focuses on the psychological stuff.

MP: It’s almost as if they were contracted, in making this intimate human story. “Okay, we’ll give you the funding, but we also have a lot of surplus horses that we need you to use up.”

TT: Ha! But at the same time I don’t think I’ve seen anything like that. This is a classical horse race with obstacles and all these soldiers—because they’re all soldiers—are competing, and you see them fall one after the other. It’s a ruthless affair. How many obstacles can your horse jump? After a while, they’re going to trip. And all these soldiers fall in the middle of the track, with all these horses coming right after them. And everything—the noises, the sound—the cracks—

MP: And crunches. In the slow-motion, actually, there’s one particular shot—I don’t think it’s the count’s horse that falls but the one just before it—of the horse falling. I did feel a little peculiar watching it. It’s unpleasant.

TT: Yes. They cancelled Michael Mann’s TV show Luck for less than that!

MP: I know. So, that was the opening film of the festival, and also the opening film of its Russian focus strand. It’s a shame last night that we went to see one of the other films in this section, Zoology, and it became apparent—as with many of the other films that we’ve tried to see—that there were no subtitles. A pity.

TT: I also saw one film in the Indonesian focus, Salawaku. There was a wonderful atmosphere in the screening. I found the film really interesting, especially as an opener of the section, because it gives you a primer—like, I’ve seen a lot of films at other festivals set in Jakarta, but this one really makes the most of the less well-known landscape. And this one is a road movie, fairly similar to The Olive Tree in terms of its scope.

MP: Has it given you an incentive to seek out more Indonesian films?

TT: It has. As the film ends there’s a difference between the city girl and another family living in a village on the water. Basically, the contrast between these characters is at the centre of the film. It’s not particularly deep, but it leaves you wanting more explorations of these spaces, which are incredible. And maybe I will see more.

MP: Because you’re staying until the end of the week. And I have a plane to catch.

TT: Did you want to say anything about Sunflower Spaceship?

MP: Sunflower Spaceship, which is the only feature-length Bulgarian film that I’ve seen here. I did really enjoy 88 MHz

TT: Me too.

MP: —which is a 45-minute non-fiction film about a blind radio host and theatre critic in Sofia.

TT: It’s a positive film about criticism, and how passionate you can be as a critic, and how multidisciplinary you can be as a critic.

MP: And how, as a critic, one must negotiate one’s limitations. And of course this critic’s limitations are sensorial, so we see him visit the beautiful sets of the theatre productions, where he’s invited by the director to feel the textures and to interact with them by touch. The set itself is wonderful. And then we see him at work, interviewing other practitioners. We have talking heads with his mother, who contextualises his upbringing. He lost his sight at four, four and a half years old, I think? And so we see how he just goes about a profession, or a practice, which is traditionally thought of as requiring sight.

TT: It’s not only the positivity towards art that this man displays. I mean, he doesn’t use a cane, so we see him moving about the city with some difficulties—though of course he’s incredibly adept.

MP: More adept than the protagonists of Nocturama.

TT: Yes. But no, a lovely documentary.

MP: And then later that day we saw Sunflower Spaceship, which is what, 60 minutes? This is a consciously busy film, conceptually and in terms of its visual and auditory information. I came out of it and the first thing I said to you, I think, was, “What was that about?” And I didn’t mean it as a criticism per se. But what is it about?

TT: The limits of perception? There’s a very complicated story, short little vignettes of different characters all tied together by this Dr. Cosmos character, who is the deciding agent and narrator, if I recall.

MP: This is a fictional psychiatrist who believes his patients are best treated through cinema.

TT: Not just through cinema, because then we see that some of the stories go beyond cinema, like the guy at the zoo. But I thought the first one was the best, in which this guy re-enacts, or re-lives, the suggestions and ingredients of Fellini’s life—going to Italy and following this girl, Giuleta, who he falls in love with. You see the areas in which Fellini was born, but also you see Rome. I thought it was endearingly accurate in its portrayal.

MP: There’s nothing pretentious about the film. It would be very easy, I think, to think this of a film that’s set up as a Fellini homage.

TT: You didn’t find it pretentious?

MP: I didn’t, actually. I found something quite endearing and charming about it. Although my response to it fluctuated from one vignette to the next. I thought some were stronger than others and I don’t think it quite coheres as a strong work in the end, but I did find there was something unpretentious in the director’s efforts to position himself in relation to his idols.

TT: The funny thing is that this is pretty much the blueprint, I think, of what people would call pretentious.

MP: I think maybe a year or two ago I would have very much dismissed it in that regard. But I think it’s a lazy criticism to make, to be honest.

TT: Yes. There’s a playfulness to the whole thing. It reminded me a bit, not in terms of anything specific but in terms of the vibe, of Alexey Fedorchenko, who is one of my favourite directors and who can be extremely serious but also just sometimes ridiculous. It sounds pretentious, but he’s able to construct a narrative within a narrative and still not make it sound like it’s completely preposterous.

MP: And Sunflower Spaceship makes us work. There’s a certain level of participation involved. I worried actually, when the filmmaker said his film was experimental, because in my experience to identify yourself as such is never a good sign—or rather I think too many filmmakers think their work is experimental when actually it isn’t—but it was pleasantly surprising to watch this feature-length work meander its way around. I was reminded somewhat of Miguel Gomes as well, especially his shorts, which play with non-sequiturs, which play with film form, which hark back to the origins of cinema. And yet, I don’t find it funny. In the same way I never find Gomes’s films funny.

TT: I thought the goofiness, from the off—

MP: Goofy is a great word here, yes.

TT: —was not meant to be directly funny, but sort of endearing, almost old-fashioned.

MP: And, which again reminded me of Gomes and the way he harks back to silent cinema, there’s this innocence at play, or a tonal innocence at play. Like its investment in romantic pursuits in the first vignette. But also this conscious distancing technique, where we see frames within frames and are always aware of the film as an artificial construct. Which prevents me, if it is intended to be a laugh-inducing comedy, from engaging with it as such.

TT: Yes, fair enough.

MP: It’s a shame that that’s the only other Bulgarian film I saw here, at least with subtitles. One thing I was really interested in is that there’s been no mention here in Varna of Ralitza Petrova’s Godless, nor of Kristina Grozeva and Petar Valchanov’s Glory. With regard to Godless, it’s funny that this film, which has been extremely successful as a Bulgarian feature on the international festival circuit, seems to have been met with an extremely critical response in Bulgaria itself. Which actually falls in line with this festival wanting to be perceived in a certain way. I mean, we’ve been treated here very well this week, and yet it’s also on the understanding that our responsibility is to now go back home and shine a light on this region.

TT: As ambassadors!

MP: But it’s counterintuitive, because critics need space in which to be critically supportive rather than PRs for a country. And it’s interesting that Godless has been perceived to be critical of Bulgarian culture. Whether or not that’s the right reading of this film, it has been read as such. And I know that Ralitza Petrova is drawing upon lineages that go way beyond Bulgarian cinema.

Oh, one last thing. We did have an opportunity last night to see Love Is Folly, which is the first Bulgarian film ever made—a 1917, sixteen-minute short. What happens five minutes before the festival’s only open-air film is about to begin? It begins to rain. Heavily.

TT: It’s a shame. It’s not often that you see a festival that takes its name from a film. So it’s a blow when atmospheric conditions come into play to prevent a screening like that from happening.

MP: Next year—

TT: Maybe—

MP: —there’ll be a beautiful 35mm print of Love is Folly. With English subtitles.

TT: One can hope!