PH at Ghent: From a Porous City

Anuj Malhotra

The following series was consolidated on the sidelines of the Young Critics’ Workshop organised at Ghent Film Festival by the excellent publication about cinephilia, Photogenie.

Jeanne Dielman

Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles


In Ghent, paintings of the 21st century: two persons, standing outside a swinging glass door, smoking; men on a third-floor balcony, Go-Pro trained on the street; yellow, tungsten nightlight in a fourth floor window; computer programmig students seated in neat diagonals in a classroom wrapped with one-way glass that converts them into a display: they can be seen, they cannot see. Similar instances of indoor spaces mixing, seeping into the outdoors (and vice-versa) abound in the city. A waiter at a tavern may walk upto you as he begins to clear the terrace around closing time and say, ‘Will you take your drinks inside?’ Portability is expected of an individual, of the company he keeps, his ware, his beverage – all engineered to immediate, easy transportation.

Even if Ghent may seem like a culture of the exteriors: people cycle, skate, walk, scooter, rowse rabble, drink (and the narratives of the city are constructed around its terraces, squares, bylanes and streets) – in a city of glass window, canals and bridges, all boundaries are but arbitrary. When the city hosts a film festival, therefore – a largely interior event – there is a tendency that it may overflow the allotted venue and flood the city-streets – banners, kiosks, booklets, posters, t-shirts everywhere – but also, the free-agent staff of the festival, students who one may spot at the local hostel the morning, and outside a festival nighttime screening as ushers, as travelers who carry the festival with them wherever they go. Ultimately, in a city so porous, no matter where one is, one is at the site of the festival.

The Lobster

Yorgos Lonthimos’ third feature, Cannes-certified, zoological-gagreel The Lobster is – alongwith Harun Farocki’s mini-masterpiece, Nothing Ventured (1996) and David Fincher’s Gone Girl (2014) – one of the most telling treatises about the gradual, inevitable reduction of contemporary life into a framework of simulations, performances, and institutionalized fraud. The adults in the film are placed inside a traditional power-structure called ‘The Hotel’ (nomenclature 101: typical, suitably devoid of specific characteristics, see: ‘The Syndicate’), which is an evil institution with a head-villainess, her stooges and rogue agents. The inmates have to, in order to resist certain devolution into an animal of their choosing, find a sexual, agreeing partner (‘a natural match’) within a stipulated time. The situation is desperate, true romance is a privilege – and this is where the film intersects with Farocki – this reduces human interaction into a series of cleverly engineered business transactions A significant revelation: a nosebleed that is the foundation of a seemingly perfect, aesthetically pleasing relationship between two young people is actually the result of self-inflicted nose-wounds, hard-bangs against walls, doors, table-tops, etc. Similar maneuvers afflict through the rest of the film, until there is the semblance of actual, emotional love – but gradually, the lovers begin to rehearse behavior, speech patterns, visual deceptions and finally,  in a bizarre, gratuitous gesture, makeup that allows them to sustain their relationship. Lonthimos adopts a system of extreme absurdity (to demonstrate a forged heartlessness, the lead protagonist kicks a little girl who wants to hug him in the shin) that is manifest also in his clean, geometric, diagonal compositions that truncate and guillotine human shapes in mysterious, obscure halves – a useful strategy for a film where actors speak in ironic, distant tones, and it’s almost impossible to comment on their true nature.


Eli Roth’s The Green Inferno is rendered in a curious duotone: it is emotional, unironic, brutal, entirely invested in its premise, but at the same time, exists as if in response to other contemporary films – as a result, it is also all a bit of a joke really. Roth extracts his hipster, student activist characters at the center of the film from the general, American indie landscape; its flood of teen-comedies, coming-of-age dramas, racism-treatises, self-discovery films and comic-book adaptations (see: The Diary of a Teenage Girl) and subjects them to a situation where they are herded inside a cage in an alien, exotic, poorer land and made anthropological witnesses to a life outside of their ego-bubble – this serves a dual purpose: a life-skills class but also, film criticism (topic of the day: American independent film). This allows the film to inherit its radical purpose from the wisemen of 70s Italian cannibal-film: Umberto Lenzi and Ruggero Deodato (who the film is dedicated to) but also less explicitly, its angry, hardtalking, tonal qualities from Koji Wakamatsu, John Boorman and Oliver Stone. Unlike them, however, Roth is self-aware, amused, comforted in contemporary cinema’s favourite safety-hatches: parody, homage, citation. His film, unlike theirs, is a bit half-assed in that while it is outrageous and its sadism casual – it is actually simulating these effects, as if from a distance, from under the regime of knowledge and of knowing. For instance, its inelegant, rudimentary shot-taking, exaggerated performances, drop-shadow credits exist not as a result of a natural impulse, but as smart-alec, giggling, tip-of-the-hats to earlier filmmakers. Influence, if any, is manifest in a film better if it appears intuitive, invisible ways – not as much if it results from facsimile reproduction.



Before anything else, her hand enters the frame. Manicured nails, covered in cherry-red nail shine, sturdy fingers, slightly stubby. A leather glove is placed on the shelf and becomes a device. In the first scene of the film, as she gets up to leave, she walks around the table, chest-up invisible and places her hand on the shoulder of the girl seated with her back to us (we do not know who she is yet, but we will find soon enough). Carol is after all the story of Carol’s hand: on the toy-store shelf, the forgotten glove, the hand on the shoulder, the first, sensuous, lustful touch. Haynes distills his film through minor, microscopic gestures that carve a distinction between the tenderness of the love story and the vulgarity that surrounds it. They touch, caress, kiss, gasp, graze; the others push, shove, barge in, slam doors and intrude violently. Most of it is in long-lensed close-ups that are actually Haynes’ gross, affected underlining of his own style (and this there is the difference between him and James Gray) but the one great moment of the film exists, quite ironically, in a wide-shot: having made her purchase at the toy-store, Carol begins to walk towards the exit, her salesgirl-lover looking after her and suddenly turns back to say: ‘I will see you around’ and Blanchette affects a gesture, a single, vertical eye-swipe that tears apart all pretense and fills the New York Christmas air with enough erotic charge to last a winter.

Kent Jones’ recent film about the legendary interview book, much revered reclamation project, Hitchcock/Truffaut is already unique in its conception: it is not a film based on abook, it is a film about a film book – as a result, some interesting choices: page-spreads become landscapes for the camera to swoop over, lines of text are highlighted as if in alternating simulations of iris-ins and close-ups, halftoned pictures from the book are scanned in high-resolution and subjected to different levels of magnifications – but the great achievement of it is that its initially stated premise is merely a ruse. Ultimately, it adopts the structure of any freewheeling cinephile discussion: the book, even Truffaut recede into the background and the subject of the book, the filmography of master Alfred Hitchcock is discussed at length (it starts as an aside but becomes the main subject – a testament to the sheer, irresistible seduction of Hitchcock’s control). The usual, tired faces: Martin Scorsese, Peter Bogdanovich, David Fincher, Richard Linklater, Olivier Assayas, Arnaud Desplechin (cinephile-director brigade) conduct a sports broadcast on Hitchcock and his films – they talk endlessly, very few smart observations are made but this allows Jones to instead construct a ‘best of Hitchcock’ showreel: a minor glance from Topaz, brunette being washed off in Marnie, the lodger walking on plexi-glass in The Lodger, the telephone operator’s voyeurism in Easy Virtue but also the iconic, ceremonial inclusions: the crop-duster scene, the shower-murder, the belltower. If anything, the film – much like the book – exists as a testament, and when it comes to Hitchcock, there are never enough.


The two best films at the festival were restorations; Chantal Akerman’s supermasterpiece Jeanne Dielman: 23 Quai Du Commerce 1080 Bruxelles and Hou-Hsiao-Hsien’s The Boys from Fengkeui – both instances of young prodigies announcing themselves to the world (Akerman with a foghorn). Both Akerman and Hou’s style intersect at various, visible levels but exists in the service of entirely different aims: in Jeanne Dielman, for instance, the incorruptible regime of static-camera images are employed  to create a tyranny of ritual and repetition that our character must rupture violently (through sudden, impulsive shifts in her daily routine: a trip to the market, a new dish, the refusal to make her hair, loveless cuddling of a baby – not merely murder). The Boys from Fengkeui will affect a cycle of similar, static, repeated images (an empty chair, the verandah of a neighbour, a doorway) to construct a system of echoes, resemblances, memories – a system of circulation that will let the past seep into the present, present into the past – precisely so that the young, dislocated protagonists can recreate the lives, routine, relationships of their village in the city too. The protagonist of Akerman’s film must combat familiarity, must escape the system imposed on her by her director’s unbroken, continuous stare, while the three boys, outsiders in the city, lost and miserable, yearn for familiar, recognizable patterns.