Fantasma (2006/Lisandro Alonso/Netherlands/France/Argentina) +++
Opening Sequence : Long stationary shot in front of a shoe-repair shop window pane, inside Vargas awaits, one shoe in hand, his nose stuck to the glass. Cut to pitch black. Saturated electric guitar soundtrack for a couple of minutes in the dark. Cut to wide shot of an immense hall after a ceremony with empty glasses on the tables. Vargas slowly wanders around searching his way to the
main entrance downstairs. There, a poster of Los Muertos. The title, Fantasma, red on black slate, will only be intercut later.
A succession of long plan sequence, immobile or moving really slowly. Characters err along the neon-lit corridors, stairs and elevators. Nobody notices. Endless accumulation of levels and rooms. Marble walls. Carpet. Cement. Steel doors. Distant camera dwarfing onscreen people by the huge scale of the building. Silence. Or more precisely, impersceptible murmur from a waking city outside. This steady viewpoint captures the immensity of solitude and the absence of time.
We realize after a while Vargas has never been in a cinema theatre before and was invited to attend a projection of his film. He visits the premises halfway from awe to circumspection, like a child in a strange place. Not quite as familiar as his home jungle, although unrushed and never worried of getting lost or wasting time, two precious things in city life.
Finally the film is projected for only three people. Vargas, the housekeeper, and a young woman working in the building (secretary or PR). We see Los Muertos' oniric opening scene from behind Vargas discovering the film for the first time. Series of reaction shots of Vargas' face, equally impassible yet fascinated. The full screen projection takes us entirely into another film for a moment as the country nature fills the screen. Like an echoe of Vargas and Alonso's interest inside the multiplex. Like a shameless plug to his previous work.
Argentino Vargas, 56 yold, was the single protagonist of Lisandro Alonso's second feature film Los Muertos (2004), a somptuous wordless contemplative journey through the watery forest of Argentine's back country. Misael Saavedra was the lumberjack in La Libertad (2001), which I haven't seen yet.
Both are non-professional first-time actors from a countryside far away from Buenos Aires. The capital city is summarized here by the Teatro San Martin, the only location the film visits during an hour, a concert Hall multiplex of labyrintine architecture. We could see there a dichotomy opposing rural and urban, ancestral forest tradition and cold city anonymity, the personal and the industrial, and even, why not, Alonso's lonely Avant Garde cinema and the indifferent commercial mainstream industry.
Tsai Ming-Liang's Good Bye, Dragon Inn (2003) comes to mind immediately. Is it a conscious homage? a filmic response? Likewise, speachless characters err in an empty auditorium while a film (not one of Tsai's in this case) is projected on a huge screen. Tsai's film inspires nostalgia and admiration for this old theatre about to shut down, pertaining to a forgotten era. Whereas Fantasma feels indifferent for this lifeless multiplex, and its extensive bewildered visit of a displaced person would rather translate a critique of what represents the place.
His actors are alienated in Buenos Aires, and nobody shows up at the premiere. Quite a paradoxal picture for what is the popular culture of instant screen celebrity, Star System or 15-min fame on real TV.
What does suggest this thinly veiled allegory? Maybe the filmmaker shares with his protagonists the sentiment of not belonging there, in the official establishment of culture venues and movie business. They are more comfortable with simple people in the pampa. So the Buenos Aires audience was alienated by La Libertad and Los Muertos, so their very protagonists feel equally unwelcomed once brought to this unfriendly city, like images of remote locations were brought all the way to urban movie theatres.
Is it a complaint that his cinema is ignored by his own people? A complaint that might only be heard by festival crowds and passionate cinephiles though. Kaurismaki echoed this fatalistic grief by giving a surrealist press conference (Cannes 2006) with absurd answers, conscious nobody cares about the exploration of boredom in his art.
Abstracted wordless scenes. Plotless narration essentially carried by images. Careful sense of pace. Tangible appropriation of time. Maybe his Mexican neighbor Carlos Reygadas would share similar concerns about filmcraft. I could only compare this cinema to Apichatpong Weerasethakul from Thailand or Tsai Ming-liang from Taiwan, much less to the other filmmakers of Argentine's Nuevo Cine. As if the new generations of truly creative auteurs formed today beyond the outdated idea of "national cinema" confined by geographical bounderies.
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Lisandro Alonso introduced briefly the projection. This film closes a trilogy, a urban and indoor installment mirroring the first two rural and open air films, apparently to move on towards something different... Arranging a meeting of their lives with his "actors" in the city : a way of thanking them for the critical recognition he received. His next project will take place in Tierra del Fuego, another remote region of Argentina, the utter south of inhabited land on the globe, again with simple, taciturn non-actors.
Despite the unanimous applause of an half-full auditorium at the end, the final Q & A was timed out unfortunately. It's a shame I wasn't bold enough to ask him a few questions in the street... I admit it took me some time to begin making sense of the experience.
Special Screening, off competition, at La Quinzaine des Réalisateurs (Directors' Fortnight), Cannes 2006.(s) ++ (w) ++ (m) +++ (i) +++ (c) ++++