Rhymes of Goodbye: Posthumous Films at MIFF

06/08/2016 at 12:00 pm / 0 Comments

Andréas Giannopoulos, Critics Campus 2016

The MIFF 2016 program features a number of filmmaker debuts, including Joe Cinque’s Consolation, Sotiris Dounoukos’s first feature; Indignation, the directorial debut of veteran US producer James Schamus; and all the shorts screening in the Accelerator program. This year’s program also features filmmaker departures, in the form of Andrzej Żuławski’s Cosmos and Chantal Akerman’s No Home Movie: two final films by two deceased directors, both acclaimed and unique figures of cinema. It is difficult to resist the impulse to read these works in relation not just to the rest of their respective directors’ bodies of work, but also to their creators’ deaths. Is it really right, however, to consider a last film a last word? 

Żuławski died of cancer earlier this year, and in many ways Cosmos is imbued with ideas of death. An adaptation of the 1965 novel of the same name by Witold Gombrowicz, the film concerns drop-outs Witold and Fuchs, who have moved into a French family’s guesthouse. When they find dead animals hung from trees in the house’s garden – first a bird, then later a cat – the family and guests wonder if a human will be next.

Cosmos contains the same kind of hysterical excess found in Żuławski’s earlier work, including The Devil (1972) and Possession (1981). So late in his career, Żuławski still displays a keenness to experiment with his own form and push it to the point of the filmmaking process almost collapsing in on itself. The lighting equipment and camera dolly tracks become visible in the frame near the end of the film, and a final passage that intercuts between alternate takes suggests two very different possible endings for the narrative. The completely wild conversations between Witold and Fuchs flow so seamlessly that they avoid the risk of seeming merely a clever play of references and associations, instead affirming the genuine rapport between the two. Meanwhile, the interactions between the two boarders and their host family tackle class, age and gender differences in an ecstatic, nervous, and anything but conventional fashion. Żuławski displays remarkable control and assurance as the camera slowly and subtly moves around the perfectly timed chaos. 

As loose and freewheeling as the film appears to be, these very qualities contribute towards making Cosmos a meditation on human mortality and a work that seems to call out to be read as a final testament. In this reading, the all-encompassing idea of the cosmos the film constantly references and the wide array of character types that appear in the film provide a final summation of human existence. The breaking of the fourth wall by showing film equipment forces us to question the filmmaking process, and by extension the director’s own life spent constructing fictional worlds for the screen. The alternate endings reflect Żuławski’s uncertainty in the face of his own oncoming death.

In the case of No Home Movie, Chantal Akerman’s suicide shortly after the premiere of the film makes the dialogue between the film itself and the director’s death more complicated. At first glance, No Home Movie can seem like a summation of her life’s work. The film is a documentary directly concerning Akerman’s increasingly ailing mother, Natalia, and is composed largely of conversations between the two, both in-person and via Skype (in screen-within-a-screen sequences). As her mother continues to fade away mentally and physically, Akerman intercuts the conversations with still shots of empty rooms, some of them lasting minutes. (I wondered about all the empty rooms in my city, my country, the world, and the increase and decrease in the number of empty rooms as people die, only for younger people to grow up and refill them.)

The theme of the mother is familiar from some of Akerman’s best films, including Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975), a story told over three days in the life of a single mother who survives financially via prostitution, and News From Home (1977), a documentary that combines visuals of New York City, shot while Akerman was living and working there, with voice-overs of the director reading aloud the letters her mother sent her during that time. The mother-child relationship is so essential to Akerman’s work that it could be said that her more direct confrontation with her mother in No Home Movie is a kind of elegy for her own life as a filmmaker as much as it is for her mother.

As much as we might want No Home Movie to seem like a summation, I worry about the danger of viewing it as a suicide note. The film is concerned with the director’s mother’s death, not her own. As important as the figure of the mother is in Akerman’s cinema, it would be presumptuous to assume that Akerman had said her last word on the subject in this film, just as it’s impossible either to say how she might have gone on to explore the other concerns of her complex oeuvre, or what new preoccupations might have motivated subsequent films.

Most people don’t choose when they will die, and so most artists can’t really choose what their last work will be. Even in the case of an artist who commits suicide, it feels presumptuous and invasive to link her final work to her death, as we might be tempted to do in the case of Akerman and No Home Movie. It’s almost irresistible to take Cosmos’s last line, “There is nothing more to see,” as a knowing farewell, but we can only do that precisely because of Żuławski’s death.

At the end of Radiohead’s album Kid A, Thom Yorke tells the listener that he’ll “see [them] in the next life”. Had he died afterwards, the obituaries would have virtually written themselves.  As difficult as it may be to prevent our responses to Cosmos and No Home Movie from being informed by our knowledge of the directors’ deaths, we should also keep in mind, as Żuławski’s film encourages us to do, that it’s necessary to take things as they come, accepting their spiralling arbitrariness. There may always be more to see, and there will always be a necessary silence.

You can catch No Home Movie on Sun 7 Aug 1.30pm at ACMI.

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