Friday, September 30, 2011

Fantastic Fest 2011 day five & six: BULLHEAD, BODY TEMPERATURE, MELANCHOLIA

Bullhead (dir. Michael R. Roskam, 2011, Belgium)
An incredible first feature by Michael Roskam, who expresses his love of classic '20s and '30s crime thrillers via injections of black humor and cultural conflict whilst elucidating a unique take on the genre. I.e. Belgium's underground bovine hormone mafia. The brawny physicality and beating heart of Bullhead rests in man-mountain lead Jacky (an almost unrecognizable, bulked-up Matthias Schoenaerts, star of Flemish blockbuster Loft and its upcoming American remake). He is as much a bull as the cattle he tends, severely addicted as he is to testosterone shots and paranoid ultra-masculinity. Because despite his swaggering physique as enforcer amid a whirlwind of gangsters and opportunists, Jacky's incredibly, uncomfortably awkward around women — in person and in subject. I'll not give away the big backstory (it's a tough one, particularly for dudes!), but it's the crux of Jacky's personal demons, and equals a very dangerous, drug-dependent man. Roskam won Fantastic Fest's "Next Wave" best director and picture awards for Bullhead, and Schoenaerts rightly received the best actor award. His transformation into a snuffling, head-butting, berzerking beast both potentially violent and simultaneously terribly frightened arouses our sympathy as much as it freaks us out. Let's hope Bullhead gains wider recognition for this accomplished work.

Body Temperature (dir. Takaomi Ogata, 2011, Japan)
I befriended young Tokyo-based director Takaomi Ogata during the festival. We're the same age and both dig Shiner Bock and similar films (Beatrice Dalle in Betty Blue! Katsuhito Ishii!). He warned me ahead of time that Body Temperature, his second feature film after Endless Blue, is a subtle and gentle film, with little dialogue and even less soundtrack, so please try not to fall asleep! Mind you, I kept rapt attention throughout this brief, bittersweet film, centered on lonely Rintaro (Chavetaro Ishizaki), his love-doll Ibuki (played for the first 3/4 of the film by AV idol Rin Sakuragi) and, eventually, his new hostess love interest Rinko (Sakuragi again). Rintaro's daily routine with Ibuki, helping her dress, taking her around in a wheelchair throughout town, bowling and photo-taking and celebrating her birthday — all this seems innocent enough, like she's a convalescent. Yet unless you've read absolutely ZERO on Body Temperature, you understand her to be "just" a latex sex doll, despite Sakuragi's skilled, immobile presence. And yeah, he goes "all the way" with her, too. So when meeting Rinko by chance outside a boutique and following her to the posh Roppongi hostess bar where she works — and against all odds they actually hit it off! — we feel a bit of relief for Rintaro. He abandons Ibuki and goes bowling with Rinko, meets her at a bar elsewhere (looks like Kabukicho's border to me, but I could be wrong), and eventually they wind up at his place making out. His comment on how warm her hands are (get the film title now?) is sad and sweet at the same time — like he's finally got a chance at "real" love, but Rinko's discovery of Ibuki (now shown as "just" a doll) is as anticipated as it is necessary.

Melancholia (dir. Lars von Trier, 2011, Denmark)
The denouement of Lars von Trier's incredible new film Melancholia, which rightfully earned a best actress award at Cannes for Kirsten Dunst's role, had me contacting friends in NYC and Tokyo with promises of visiting them as soon as possible. Because if the world were to end tomorrow, or in the manner of von Trier's stunning achievement — despite his awkward, Nazi-riddled speech at a Cannes press conference, I encourage you to see Melancholia nonetheless — then I'd want to see my most loved one last time. Post-apocalyptic films are one thing (something awful happens to the Earth, maybe it's never quite explained like in The Day, yet people persevere on), apocalyptic, like pure apocalyptic as in Melancholia, that's something else. The world does indeed end, and I needn't put spoiler bookends around that as we see the collision w/ the massive rogue planet Melancholia less than 10 minutes into the film, after long dream-like sequences with main characters Justine (Dunst), her sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg, heartrendingly expressive here) and Claire's little son Leo (Cameron Spurr). So we KNOW what's going to happen at the end — i.e. the earth's destruction — but we don't yet know how von Trier's going to do that.

SPOILERS! (kinda, though I tried to keep it vague…)
The first half of Melancholia follows a lavish wedding reception b/w Justine and Michael (the towering Alexander SkarsgĂ„rd) in a castle-like country estate adjacent to rolling fields of golf courses. Claire's husband John (a charming and caustic Kiefer Sutherland, whose astronomy connections have him very excited about Melancholia's impending "fly-by") hosts the thing, doling out extreme amounts of cash for a suitably end-of-days bash — except of course this isn't meant to be an end of days, the rogue telluric planet hidden behind the sun is approaching Earth only to pass by it, at least that's what experts are claiming. Lots of unexpected and warm humor here b/w Justine and Michael, beginning w/ trying to navigate their stretch limo through the bends and turns leading up to the castle. It becomes clear quickly that Justine's unhappy, once they're immersed in family and friends at the reception, as she grows sad, despondent, prickly and desperate amid her divorced parents' blatant arguments (her mother can't believe she got married) and even Michael's own attempts at affection. Claire meanwhile is always there, trying to comfort her sister. But when the party concludes, Michael leaves separately, unofficially nullifying the wedding. In part two, a now totally depressed Justine rejoins Claire and family at the estate, and the women ride horses and tend the garden in sublime moments of respite. We quickly understand that Claire has her own demons: she's deathly afraid of Melancholia, so much so that she distrusts John's prediction that it'll fly past them unscathed and has locked away a bottle of some unknown pills, assumedly so they can painlessly kill themselves. Justine is calm and cynical about the whole situation, growingly accepting of their eventual doom while accepting little Leo's affection in stride. And it's these final few minutes, with the thrum of the approaching Melancholia, the bass and then bass heat blasting from the speakers into our chests, the blue-white glare off the screen and sisters embrace: it's an image and experience I'll not forget anytime soon.