Full disclosure: Max Nelson works as an intern for Film Comment, the magazine which curates this film series at Lincoln Center.
Sébastien Betbeder’s Nights with Theodore
, which screens this month as part of the 13th annual Film Comment Selects series, opens with an unexpected history lesson. A female narrator muses on the legacy of Paris’ sprawling Parc des Buttes-Chaumont over a montage of archival prints, drawings, and film clips, her train of thought chugging from the park’s origin in the utopian dreams of Napoleon III to its sinister significance for modern-day occultists. It’s a left-field introduction for a film that seems then to veer into more conventional territory: young and attractive Parisians, Theodore and Anna, hit it off at a party and end up spending the night together in one of the park’s secluded sylvan getaways. They come back the next night and the night after that; the park starts to exert a strange hold on them, and the film veers off again—this time for good.
Nights with Theodore’s young heroes end up conferring so much of their passion, curiosity and sensitivity onto the park itself that those jungle-like canopies, fairy-tale grottos, and candlelighted pavilions eventually start to look like the inside of a lover’s head. In films less wily than this one, such instantly evocative background markers might serve as convenient substitutes for actual character psychology; Theodore’s punchline is to make that substitution literal. Once we get to a talking-head interview with an “environmental psychologist” who suggests that the Parc des Buttes-Chaumont is capable of physically siphoning away the life-energy of its inhabitants, we’ve forgotten all about Anna and Theodore’s puppy love—the real amour fou here is between a person and a place.
is one of several offerings at this year’s Film Comment Selects founded on the belief that places can relate the twists and turns of human psychology often better than humans can themselves. Ben Wheatley’s berserk black comedy Sightseers
follows two love-struck misfits named Tina and Chris—she, a repressed veterinarian craving a break from the influence of her controlling mother; he, a struggling writer with some deep-set class resentment and a violent answer to Britain’s litter problem—on an increasingly bloody camping holiday through the hills, valleys and tourist spots of northern England. In this desolate, mountainous landscape speckled with bizarre rock formations and oddball tourist spots (including real-life museums devoted entirely to trams and pencils), Wheatley found a perfect visual stand-in for his heroes’ increasingly disturbed psyches. “I’m just making inroads into my own mind,” Chris says of his nonexistent book as a shaman drum circle sounds in the hills behind him.
As Chris and Tina transform from social outcasts into avenging opponents of the civilized world—specifically that of contemporary Britain, which Wheatley regards with equal parts fond bemusement and ruthless cynicism—the landscape darkens and deadens. By the end of the trip, the lovers find themselves in a sort of hell, complete with fire and brimstone. Wheatley’s brought us to similar extremes before, but where in Kill List his tonal schizophrenia and fondness for unexpected U-turns felt primed to burst nerves, here he’s after something funnier and more tender. Sightseers inspires the sort of nervous laugher that doubles as a coping mechanism: the product of being too close to, too invested in, and too fond of a couple so unpredictable.
Other selections in this year’s lineup address states of mind whose environmental parallels are just as vivid but less tangible. For the first 55 minutes of Philippe Grandrieux’s White Epilepsy
, two figures, one male and one female, drift through a pitch-black void as their bodies recede farther and farther into shadow. The soundtrack is a hushed howl somewhere between the movement of wind through trees, heavy male breathing, and the roar of a turbine. There’s nothing in sight to restrict the movement of those bodies, but also nothing to suggest that their world extends an inch beyond the frame: as in the paintings of Francis Bacon, one of this film’s closest visual and tonal reference-points, empty space is made to suggest not freedom but lostness, paralysis, constraint. And here, again as in Bacon, our inability to orient ourselves within the frame forces us to consider bodily life in isolation, to directly confront its dimensions, its limitations, and above all its susceptibility to death. We barely notice how much tension ends up accumulating between these charged bodies and their lifeless surroundings, until that delicate balance is broken by a decisive and shocking late-film cut.
suggested that the threat of death could perhaps best be represented onscreen by the conflict between light and dark, and that the movies, by keeping their subjects illuminated, somehow manage to keep them alive. That’s the hope behind Manoel de Oliveira’s quietly stunning Gebo and the Shadow
, which plays out entirely in a space not too different from Grandrieux’s directionless void—a decrepit room of incalculable depth, its edges murky and indistinct, lighted only by the flame of a candle. Elderly couple Gebo and Doroteia sit up late each night: he calculates endless strings of numbers, she grieves over their meager life and tight means. The return of their prodigal son kicks off a family crisis, but the real drama lies not in what is spoken but what is seen: watching the candlelight flit over the faces of a white-haired Michael Lonsdale and an unrecognizable Claudia Cardinale, we seem to be staving off death frame by frame.
That makes Gebo sound grim. It is. Almost every spoken line is a complaint or lament; the plot is tragic; the shots long and static; the atmosphere thick and dour. It’s not surprising that a filmmaker who made his first shorts before Chaplin had transitioned to sound now has death on his mind; more unexpected is that he has made a film that, for all its grave trappings, reflects so urgently on what it means to be alive. A final gesture of compassion and self-sacrifice on Gebo’s part is accompanied by a sudden influx of light and immortalized by the oldest of cinematic tricks: a modest, well-deserved freeze-frame. Oliveira lets this moment of triumph slip out almost grudgingly: his moral universe is tough, stoic, unfuzzy, positive almost in spite of itself. Gebo gets no glory for doing his duty—his pathetic gesture comes without fanfare, though it stops death itself in its tracks. It’s an appropriate finale for a festival so full of trauma and anxiety: an affirmation spoken through gritted teeth.
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