Bullet Train

Credit: Fuenferfilm, Tita Productions

Joseph Owen

Notes from Locarno, 2022

This year Locarno Film Festival celebrated its diamond edition: 75 years of cinema in a small town tucked between Lake Maggiore and the Swiss Alps. It’s wet and warm, mostly at the same time. Stormy weather offers language. Dark and moody, like the sky. I’ve brought a thin, waterproof poncho, and a cap. The people are rich and the food is expensive. The festival’s artistic director, Giona A. Nazzaro, is two years into his premiership, and because he has written several books on Hong Kong action cinema, attendees speculate on the programme’s tilt towards genre moviemaking. A Coke Zero costs around five Swiss francs. 

The marriage between art and commerce forms part of the festival’s conundrum. David Leitch’s fists-and-banter epic Bullet Train opens Piazza Grande, the vast plein-air cinema in the main square. It stars Brad Pitt and Aaron Taylor-Johnson. No better time than to watch Fairytale (dir. Alexander Sokurov), an absurd CGI theatre that reanimates Churchill, Hitler, Mussolini, and Stalin onto purgatorial ruins. None of these characters can die, Sokurov tells us, because they’ll always be alive, and because they’re already dead. 

Competition films Stone Turtle (dir. Ming Jin Woo) and Tommy Guns (dir. Carlos Conceição), one Malaysian and the other Portuguese, confront the nature of violence by appealing to the mode of revenge thriller. Stone Turtle is about how men hurt women; Tommy Guns is about how soldiers colonise countries. Both intersperse ethnographic scene-setting with category stylings: the former employs a Groundhog Day mystery; the latter evokes the horror latent in the return of the repressed. A critic I speak with suggests that these films illustrate a prevailing, even permanent, “gentrification of genre.” I wonder if this phrase is right, wary that the artistic predilections of directors, programmers, festivals and audiences generally tend to fluctuate and dissipate, so that in time they can be resurrected.  

A Perfect Day for Caribou (dir. Jeff Rutherford) concerns the misery handed from father to son: how intergenerational failure deepens and transforms as time passes. A middle-aged man, Herman (Jeb Berrier), balding but otherwise hirsute, sits in his pick-up truck, recording a suicide note for his estranged son, Nate (Charlie Plummer). Nate calls to reconnect, setting in motion a subsequent two-hander of “remember when,” held across a sprawling backdrop of Oregon hills, peaks, and plains. Shot in black and white, the screen appears in a cramped 4:3 ratio, shading with irony the wide expanses of terrain and jagged rises. The concentrated, tasteful framing of situations, objects, and characters is distracting: the bisected cemetery where Nate arrives in his car; the display of household goods tied to Herman’s truck. The inarticulate dialogue insinuates authentic portrayal but is novelistic. Plummer has a difficult role as a young man struggling to reconcile with his wounded patriarch: his strained, tilted head, his self-conscious mumbling, and the inevitable moment of his climactic anger. This sad, lonely outsider is a classic figure illustrating the film’s own derivative nature. To derive is no bad thing, but the inspired moments in this work are purely imaginative. One abrupt shot of a family unit—Nate, Herman, and a woman whom they briefly encounter—offers a striking alternative reality of lives redeemed, or at least not yet destroyed.

Medusa Deluxe (dir. Thomas Hardiman) is a slick, shallow, serpentine debut feature high on bombast and short on plausibility. This is filmmaking as elevator pitch: a murder mystery set during a regional hairdressing competition, suddenly capsized by a gruesome scalping, igniting a carnival of restless, bickering grotesques. These wretched souls point fingers and elude interrogation, slinging blame into a cyclone-whip of opprobrium. This movie is not a polite retread of the static, classic whodunnit; rather it is a roving visual slalom, an ostensibly “one-take” showcase for prominent cinematographer Robbie Ryan. The cast is without household names, so Ryan’s bravura camerawork is the star performer, tagging his lens onto rival stylists and their coiffured models. The technical work is impressive, the acting haphazard, and the plot nonsensical. The film likes to insist on how fun it is: this tendency culminates in an encore dance number that’s valedictory and unearned. The snippy, quickfire dialogue is generally overengineered, thwarting the viewer’s amateur-detective efforts to decipher the killer or understand motivations of the accused and accusers. 

Human Flowers of Flesh (dir. Helena Wittmann) is a work heavy on images and light on exposition, harbouring a tendency to meditate rather than explicate. The story (as much as it is revealed) concerns Ida (Angeliki Papoulia) and her polylingual crew as they sail from Marseille to Corsica to Sidi-Bel-Abbes, following the trail of the French Foreign Legion. Their motivation for this trip is not just historical; it is spontaneous. The six-strong group possess an occasional curiosity: bodies of water constitute a stage upon which to wander and contemplate, the promise of an endless horizon. These people embody the romantic attitude, quoting poetic passages from Marguerite Duras, offering sparse narration to life on deck and onshore.

This is a film about looking. Ida leads the troop of five men (an ironic comparison Wittmann insinuates) across a rocky cliff-face. They observe the boat from afar, established within a glorious seascape. When the viewer sees them, we are afforded an abridged perspective. Wittmann, as cinematographer, deploys severe styles of framing: her camera follows only the succession of feet as they negotiate the coastal terrain. Elsewhere, the filmmaker tends to abstract picture-making, showing comparably small organisms on separate trajectories: a snail on its sticky path towards some watermelon; a spider cocooning a fly in its web; nebulous bacteria gestating under a microscope. Other shots are more conventional: white buoys are match-cut to nautical portholes.

Wittmann hangs her captain’s hat on a homage to Claire Denis’ 1999 film, Beau Travail, whose direct and literal influence extends to the port of Marseille, shadowboxing on the sand, and pedantic bed-making. Denis Lavant’s character, Galoup, is extraordinarily reintroduced. His short scenes—standout, comic, kinetic—break the formal austerity, reimagining the film’s unhurried treatise on colonial power, mythic legacy, and histories of extraction and conflict. These themes find a vessel in the figure of Galoup, presumed lost to a cinematic past, now juggling three eggs and acting the clown. This belated revelation expresses a kind of beauty, and it is even more striking given the meticulous, undulating visual grammar that preceded it. Galoup never died, I suppose, because he’ll always be alive, and because he’s already dead.

Cinema Year Zero is volunteer run. Our goal is to pay writers a fair fee for their work. So if you like what you find at Cinema Year Zero, please consider subscribing to our Patreon!