Sieranevada (2016): A Winter Wonderland

Although Romanian cinema has been ‘mainstreaming’ of late, this year has brought some old-school/new-school movies received to widespread critical acclaim, like Cristian Mungiu’s Bacalaureat (Graduation) or Bogdan Mirica’s Caini (Dogs). Both pictures, alongside Puiu’s Sieranevada, were premiered at Cannes and between them they picked up the Un Certain Regard prize (Dogs) and the best director prize (Mungiu). Interestingly enough, Sieranevada will be Romania’s push for the Academy Awards Foreign Film category, in spite of being the most demanding of the three movies.

sieranevada

At almost three hours’ breadth, preponderantly shot inside an apartment of fifty square meters and with more than ten characters coming together for a forty-day memorial service since the passing of the family’s patriarch, it amounts to a real-time experience of the event. There isn’t a lot of narrative to go about: we start with the oldest son, Lary, and his wife, Laura, dropping off some shopping and organizing the evening for their child, before setting off to the family apartment, where everyone else is gathering. In spite of being late, most guests arrive after them, until the apartment is overflowing with a heterogeneous, inter-generational group of people and their many opinions. The event takes place just around the Charlie Hebdo shooting, which sets the stage for a prolonged conspiracy theory discussion about 9/11. But seemingly countless topics are sprung to life, whether in the bedroom (the story of an abusive husband), in the kitchen (communism versus monarchy versus religion), in the small office (the memorial service traditions), the dining room (the convergence point for most discussions) or even the tight hallway (an inebriated stranger dropping in), from where we constantly pivot. We only escape the apartment once and, really, it makes you wish you were back inside, after a vicious public scene caused by a ridiculous triviality.

And so it goes on for most of its runtime, brimming with family tension, personal frustrations and everyday minutia. If anything, Sieranevada has no actual climax, but it elevates smalltalk to an art form, masterfully managing an engrossing and complex conversational ebb and flow between characters you struggle to familiarize yourself with. It will take quite a while to get to grips with who is who and how everyone is related, which is part of the reason why the movie is so demanding, requiring your attention throughout. But if you stay tough, you’ll figuratively be eating dinner with them by the end, as a member of this daunting family event.

Puiu creates a claustrophobic atmosphere within an oppressive, environment, whether inside or outside the apartment. To some degree, the viewer becomes attached to Lary, who leads us through the movie and mostly stays above the bickering and the conflicting undercurrents. He is a stoic figure and creates a sense of being the only ‘normal’ person in the room for most of the time, the adjudicator, in this fresco of the harrowing micro- and macrocosms of present-day Romanian society. The backdrop of the memorial service is decisive, because it sets the expectations of a sombre tone, yet the ensuing moments are anything but sombre. In essence, this contrast between excessive formalism and improvisational realism is the defining conflict of Sieranevada. It is also the cause for so much strife and malcontent in Romania, as we fail to either commit or compromise, feeding the urban anxiety of big-city life.

Still, this is not a movie for any time of day or any state of mind. The conversational authenticity is fascinating, but it wears you down, just like when you’re invited to a reunion with a bunch of strangers and sit silently in the corner. It makes you want to shout out, but you are too foreign to do so. The nearly 180 minutes it stretches over makes it hard to keep the momentum going at all times, with the last quarter suffering the most because of it. And with all the arising themes, you will need at least some understanding of Romanian clichés and history to get on board quickly.

Overall, however, I feel it is worth the time, because Sieranevada feels true. It’s a bit of a nightmare, sure, but it also manages to find and weave its story with quality fabric, highlighting meaningful contrasts between society, family and the individual and their ‘forced’ cohabitation. And it is ostensibly a universal story about the inner workings of family life, a hardcore version of movies like Margot at the Wedding or August: Osage County. With any luck, you will also share in Lary’s laughter at the end.

****

The Baby (1973): A Slight Phenomenon

Several months after first seeing it, it feels like The Baby has been an unassuming life lesson. I was in Brussels at the time and as chance would have it, a small film festival called Offscreen was taking place just across the street from my hotel. That’s as clear a sign as any, thought I, and made room in my oh-so-busy-wannabe-tourist schedule to go see something. High-Rise (2015) was premiering during my stay, but that felt too mainstream and potentially too busy, so through a process of elimination, I ended up with The Baby.

the baby.png
So here’s the movie poster…in Spanish.

If ever using this expression was justifiable, this is the place: Oh. My. God.

You know you’ve got something special on your hands when the votes to reviews ratio on IMdB is below one hundred. Let me detail with some examples: Star Wars Episode VII has a ratio of 1:143; Captain America has a ratio of 1:256; Finding Dory has a ratio of 1:404; Finding Nemo has a ratio of 1:794.

The Baby’s ratio is 1:35.

Sure, it’s likely that the more mainstream a movie is, the higher the ratio is going to be, but c’mon! One in thirty five people rating the movie just felt the urge to write something about it, that says something. Perhaps this is a reasonable measure for cult status (Manos: The Hands of Fate 1:47; Morvern Callar 1:62; Irma Vep 1:99). Or maybe all it does is highlight how bat-shit-crazy in a totally fascinating way The Baby is.

First released in 1973 in limited theaters, the movie got revived in 2000, when it came out on DVD and – oh, the sweet days of the last millenium – VHS. It has all the makings of a TV movie, in terms of budget, cast and production value, not to mention narrative ambitions. This was all nicely laid out for the thirty or so viewers gathered to enjoy a late night masterpiece in both Flemish and French, with the backdrop of a run down, industrial looking cinema adding to the charisma of the moment (it is actually the picture in the header). I recall someone took their shoes off and that also added a little something to the place.

The story is deceptively simple: a social worker, Ann, goes to look out for the wellbeing of a ‘child’ in a house run by the three Wadsworth women, the matriarch and her two post-adolescent daughters. The twist is that the child, referred to as ‘Baby’, is a grown man behaving like a toddler. Encountered with a healthy dose of hostility, Ann tries to establish whether Baby really is mentally hampered, or whether he has been conditioned throughout his upbringing to remain totally dependent. And that’s the struggle.

To be honest, this plot outline does not do the movie any justice. But it would take a lot of the disbelief away if I went any further into things. Let’s just say that not much is at it seems and there’s a brutal, almost Tarantino-esque ending to the story, with a crapload more absurdity to it.And yet, in spite of its bizarre characters and their equally strange behavior, the movie comes together into a real spectacle, constantly one-upping itself and keeping the viewer guessing as to what crazy stuff will come next.

Beyond the implicit (perhaps involuntary? I don’t know) humour of the movie, it also bears a heavy cross and builds a dark story around the theme of child abuse. That’s part of why it’s so fascinating, because The Baby goes from drama, to comedy, to thriller, to horror in a seamless manner and actually gets away with it by the end, with some glorious twists to boot. Ruth Roman, who plays the matriarch, portrays an excellent villain and manages to ground some of the more laughable moments that might otherwise have just been too much.

I was saying something about a life lesson. When the lights came on, I have to admit to feeling dazzled. And I kept wondering why, beyond the inherent craziness of the movie. So I ruminated deeply and found a pattern to so many of the films that I really enjoy: the not knowing what’s going to happen. A big part of that is going into a cinema blind, so literally not knowing what the movie is about. It’s not very practical, but then again, most of my favourite memories throughout the years have been about things that were not planned and ended up surprising me. So perhaps less control, more flow, is that the lesson?

Any way, you now know perhaps too much about what a weird thing you should expect if you ever watch The Baby, but I hope that not enough to spoil the fun out of it. Just get some friends together, don’t tell them what they are about to witness, and enjoy the shit out of it.

****

The Myth of the American Sleepover (2010): The Fetish Rises

Everybody fetishizes something. As much as I’d like to convince myself otherwise, I seem to fetishize over the American high school drama/comedy. Give me The Breakfast Club (1985), Dazed and Confused (1993), Clueless (1995), 10 Things I Hate About You (1999), Easy A (2010),  The Perks of Being a Wallflower (2012), Pitch Perfect (2012), hell give me Carrie (1976) at any time of the day! Or serve me up some Veronica Mars, some Freaks and Geeks, even a season or two of Glee and I’ll eat ’em up for breakfast, lunch and dinner. If there’s any film type that I consistently overrate, it has to be the American high school drama – although I was left unimpressed/really disliked some ‘classics’, like Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986), Mean Girls (2004), or the recent The Spectacular Now (2013).

Why this inclination? Guess someone else will have to do the psychoanalyzing by the end of this. But in order to get here, I first had to ask myself an important question a couple of weeks ago: what other movies did David Robert Mitchell direct? As an astute observer might have recognized by now, I am a quite the fan of Mitchell’s recent horror-masterpiece It Follows (2014). That was just…well, maybe I shouldn’t get into it now, as there is a time and a place for everything. But this was the connection that led me to The Myth of the American Sleepover, the first and only other feature film written and directed by Mitchell.

TMotAS

If It Follows is the poster child for the loss of innocence and the social stigma ensuing from sex and whatnot, then TMotAS represents the antithesis, it is the search and the obsession for a sexual/romantic ideal. Visually, it does feel like the two movies were shot almost back to back, with the same quaint suburban America providing the backdrop for a bunch of horny teenagers or teenager-have-beens to fulfill their cravings. And, as things usually go, especially around high school, everyone is interested in someone different to those interested in them.

The story revolves around three teens and an almost teen, who criss-cross throughout the movie in not particularly meaningful ways. What this does achieve though is to create a sense of claustrophobic closeness, a feeling that there are firm walls to the world in which these romantic entanglements occur. A pre-Tinder world, so to say. Each of the characters strives to draw the attention of one person or another. It is the end of summer, a new school year is set to begin, and there’s the thirst for setting a distinguishing mark in these last, eventful days. I’m not sure how popular sleepovers really are in the United States, but they’re frequently included in movies, and as movies always tell the truth, I can only conclude that they’re pretty popular. In Mitchell’s story though, the sleepover becomes a rite of passage, a faux ritual wherein the individual rejects the group in search for a personal connection, some sort of half-lurid gratification. So the goal becomes to break from conformity, to break from the confines of annoying peers and find something else.

The soulful, confusing, idealistic alcohol-infused journeys are laid out before the viewers in an overlapping melange of scenes, one the extension of the other, if not in content, then in spirit. And they blend well enough to feel accommodating and not too much so that they lose their individuality. Whether it’s Rob’s search for the perfect girl he met for a second in the supermarket, or Maggie’s craving for a loose and spirited pool boy, or Claudia’s attempt to integrate herself in a local high school clique, or Scott’s drive to find an ignored high school crush, or any of the other smaller side tales peppered throughout the movie, they fit the mellow and introspective frame of the wider story.

By the time it takes its final turns, the movie becomes a shameless exercise in wish-fulfillment, but it stands out because of the pacing and the familiarity of the experience. I would argue that’s part of the myth, the good guys and girls escaping the maze of misfits and mistimings and getting their due. And by ‘good’ I only really mean the protagonists, although the movie does imply that they are the principled ones who make choices to define them, usually in contrast to someone around them who just go for the romantic/sexual jugular. Mitchell’s achievement was that he made me root for all of them and anyone’s enjoyment of the movie will hinge to some degree on this. Not that it’s hard to like the dreamy-eyed, the naive, the brave/shy, the romantic, but it’s also a bit on the nose.

Going back to my not-quite-sexual fetish, upon further reflection I would say it is defined by the spirit of the movie (book), more than by its setting. TMofAS isn’t set in a school, but it has that glitter of bubbling, life-affirming craziness of youth associated with it. Important to me is that it stays some distance away from being overly dramatic and too ridiculously serious in tone or that it does not simply perpetuate some of the common tropes of high school movies.

Mitchell’s Myth is just a great throwback to a kind of simpler time, set, like It Follows, in an undefined past where technology did not rule our teenage minds. It’s pure fantasy.

****