Friday, May 10, 2013

Great Directors: Julia Loktev

It's an awesome coincidence that only a few days after posting my top ten films directed by women I should get my first exposure to the films of Julia Loktev, a Russian-American director of incredible promise. In some ways she feels like a spiritual successor to Bela Tarr, her films refusing to spell out the details of their enigmatic stories, and using long takes to force the audience to think actively about what they're observing. Unlike Tarr's work, Loktev's has a stronger emotional pulse, and can be unnervingly intense.  Her two feature films to date have both been shockingly distinctive works, and I can't wait to see where she goes from here.

Loktev is very much a formalist, which is a film-critic term that I ought to explain. Much of mainstream entertainment expects the camera to capture the action unobtrusively, while the acting, dialogue and plot carry the artistic weight. Formalist filmmakers put less emphasis on these traditional elements, using unorthodox editing, direction and plot structure to make their primary statements. That doesn't mean the films don't have characters, dialogue and so forth, but that the filmmakers are playing around with our cinematic expectations to get their point across.

As debut films go, you can't do much better than  "Day Night Day Night" (2006). It's a bit rough, but it's splashy, controversial, and attention-grabbing. The unnamed main character is a 19 year old female who has decided to become a suicide bomber. We follow what are likely to be the last two days of her life as she prepares for, then attempts to carry out her task. Her ideology is never specified, making this an existential film rather than a political one. Thankfully we don't get any "idiot plot dumps": we become a fly on the wall as a clandestine operation is carried out, so it would be unbelievable to have a character spell out all the details for our benefit.

Loktev's debut is almost suffocating in its intensity, as befits the subject at hand. For a solid day the would-be bomber sits in a hotel room waiting agonizingly for her instructions. Each awkward silence with her masked associates becomes more uncomfortable which means that when she finally takes to the streets of New York strapped with explosives we're already wound up in knots. The camera stays frequently within a few feet of her face staring directly into it, implying that all of her thoughts are directed towards keeping her cool and finishing her mission. One moment is perhaps the tensest I've ever experienced in a film, my heart pounding so hard in my chest that it echoed in my ears.

All the while we wonder, if not about her beliefs, her resolve. How much of her willingness to carry out such a suicidal act comes from her own convictions, as opposed to pressure from others? She's obviously under the expected stress of nervousness and second thoughts, but it's never quite clear if this is an act of true belief or cultish indoctrination. Day Night Day Night is a fascinating debut, though it is rough around the edges, and relies so heavily on suspense that I'm not sure it would reward repeat viewings.

While Loktev's next film "The Loneliest Planet" (2011) lacks the attention-grabbing plot hook of her debut, it is a leap forward in technique. The two main characters are a pair of young lovers who have come to Georgia (the Eastern European country, not the U.S. state) apparently to visit the man's family. The couple decides it would be fun to take a backtracking tour of the Georgian countryside and hires a local guide to show them around. They hike further and further into the wilderness chit-chatting inanely with their guide and swapping stories as the camera frequently cuts to extremely distant landscape shots, the three characters mere bobbing dots on the horizon. The pleasures of the film are sensory, the scenery beautiful and the soundtrack conveying the satisfying crunch of every step on the grass beneath their feet.

Then a sudden, unexpected occurrence spins the movie around 180 degrees. Arguably nothing significant actually happens, but the couple's relationship may be forever altered. From this point on the chit-chat ceases as an invisible wall of silence is erected between the two lovers. The script now becomes familiar to anyone who's inadvertently hurt a spouse or girl/boyfriend, then tried in vain to cut through the tension and get back to the love that they pray isn't dead. What is amazing is how this healing process is communicated almost solely with images. Since much of the film is shots of people walking, the placement and movement of actors in the scene takes the place of dialogue.

Much as in "Day Night Day Night", the characters refuse to spew plot for our benefit. Nobody sits down and monologues about their feelings. Instead we see them put physical distance between each other, occasionally trying to bridge the gap but faltering. One memorable shot has a character reaching out timidly to put their hand on the other's shoulder for an eternal moment. That moment is filmed like something out of a thriller film, only instead of an unseen knife pointed at someone's back it's an open hand in a gesture of apology. It's weird to think how tense I felt at that moment, given the almost comically low stakes of the story.

Julia Loktev is a rising star, I'm certain of it. Many directors have one powerful, original work of art in them. So far, she is running two for two. Neither film is perfect, but I love where's she's coming from as a filmmaker. I love directors who want to show me something I've never seen before. So tack these two movies onto my list from last week, and count my butt in the seat for anything Ms. Loktev puts out

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