From the London Film Festival, two films depicting relations between (largely male) groups where complexities emerge, where codes of sociability were subverted or compromised, by factors both external and internal. Below, an exploration of how ideas of individuality and community functions in both films.
"Violence isn't my thing", says the lead of Valeska Grisebach's stunning Western, Meinhard (Meinhard Neumann, a brilliant non-professional), contradicting his earlier admission that he was a former soldier in the French Legion. A conflicted man, he's the enigmatic central presence in a film about mystification. In Western language is constantly codified, and communication occurs as much through gestures, looks and signals as through verbal means. As much about connection as disconnect, Grisebach's slyly remarkable film explores, through the assumption (and transgression) of masculine roles, the distances between people, but also between versions of themselves.
One of a group of German migrant construction workers placed with the task of establishing the foundations of a hydro-electric plant in a Bulgarian village, Meinhard is the individual within the group that attempts to bridge the various gaps - of language, culture and community - that divide the existing community and the new fringe settlers he represents. It is he who travels over, drinks with the village people at night, has stunted conversations with them in fragments of a secondary language, befriends some, alienates others, and eventually, attempts to seduce their women. He reveals little of himself, but they let him in to their world, latching on to fragments of a presumed personality that he plays up.
Already outsiders in essence, the workers position is further compromised by being patrons of a 'civilising' mission they don't entirely believe in, the provision of an advanced water system to a provincial, self-sufficient town - economic colonialism presented as mutually beneficially modernisation. They are just here to build what they are tasked to, and the meaning of their construct isn't important, that is, until it is. As Meinhard says, "life isn't that simple," an idle line that returns to haunt him. A lack of access to resources in the town means they can no longer build, and Meinhard seems the natural go-between to resolve this with the townspeople, much to the frustration of the work-unit's official leader. Roles shifted, ranks undermined, the order broken. Meinhard stands alone.
Codes of conduct between male groups - especially one as traditionally and visibly masculine as this - are unwritten and omnipresent. They rely on the assertion of roles, on expected behaviours, and on the establishment of a dynamic between members of the pack that is not compromised. Meinhard arrives as a fringe member, a new worker on his first away-from-home job, unknown to the group and to himself. This provides him with an opportunity, the chance to not be himself but to manufacture a character, to mount the horse, to smoke the cigarettes, sport the grizzled moustache, to look silently into the distance and to perform the person he might not be. Only it isn't so simple, a character emerges and he falls into it, and before long he's too far in. "Life isn't that simple."
The second film, Robin Campillo's 120 Beats Per Minute, operated at a much higher register, an emotionally draining but utterly essential ensemble portrait of the men and women of the Parisian division of NYC advocacy-org ACT UP that follows their tireless work to pressurise and protest against negligent pharmaceutical companies, uncaring governments and a hostile, hateful public at the height of the AIDS crisis.
Starting almost as a procedural thriller, much of the film's gripping first half is dedicated to depicting the dynamics of activism, the organisational processes behind activating change, as well as the sources of conflict and unrest between group members. During meetings, at any one time only one member speaks, with finger clicking from the audience used to connote approval and hissing to convey the opposite. Debate must not occur outside of this context, or cogency is lost. Acts of resistance are proposed, their specifics agreed upon, volunteers assigned and the action executed, with post-game analysis about the activity and its effectiveness to follow.
Obviously, this doesn't always work in reality, but overall, the picture is of a well oiled machine and a cohesive agitating unit, a community of activists with a shared objective (the progression of the effort to treat HIV, available to everyone, regardless of the source of their infection and the lifestyle they lead) and a shared urgency (most are HIV positive themselves, so have a stake in the effectiveness of the activity). Much initial debate comes over the severity of action required, after an initial mission intensifies beyond the planned directives, ending with a pharmaceutical company's CEO, chained to a stage and soaked in fake-blood, visibly shaken, a message more than made. Some of ACT UP's members think it was a step too far, but scanning the press coverage, few can deny the effectiveness of this path.These kind of negotiations, the planning of activities and their execution are all depicted with a filmmaking precision and rigour that recalls both David Fincher, particularly in the procedural, mathematical procedural mode of Zodiac, and indeed the first half of Bertrand Bonello's Nocturama, another French film that surrounds the organisation and execution of group activities. Everything is streamlined, shot leads into shot, scenes, places and scenarios merge into each other, and the narrative slides along.
Somewhere in the film, a switch occurs. Though the film's procedural elements remain as the protest activity continues and intensifies - the increasing urgency of the need for results manifested palpably in the group member's rapidly declining T-cell counts - Campillo's focus moves towards the human element of the story, the individual desires within the collective entity. This is activism with an agenda more urgent than most, so fractures will occur. Any breakthrough will save countless lives; but failure, distraction or even hesitation means watching your friends die around you, faster than you can bare. Unsurprisingly, this is devastating to watch, let alone live, and the film's central relationship, a fledgling union between two men, one who is HIV negative and the other positive and rapidly declining, is almost unbearable to see develop. This intimacy - one that is fittingly physical and primal, all wrapped up in the collisions of bodies and of ideas - is a relationship tinged with the sourness of mortality. A key scene features the weaker of the pair hospitalised and bed-bound. His partner smuggles him a smoke and gifts him with a handjob, something to diminish his life expectancy and something else to extend it. The viewer knows where this relationship is going, but like those involved, can't help be consumed by it. One man's pain spreads onto another, and before long the whole group is subsumed by a kind of radial suffering.
Much of the film's power comes from its ability to seamlessly transition between states of being, to show the parts of a life not as separate entities but as helplessly and sometimes hopelessly intertwined. After a particularly eventful action, shot full of adrenaline and energy, hearts racing as the film's title suggests, some members of the group head to the club. As they rave, fists pumping, lips locked, bodies in transcendent motion, dripping in sweat, soundtrack pulsating to 120 beats of a different measure; the camera drifts away from their euphoric faces and into the air above, shifting focus onto specks of dust floating in the air, captured vividly with that fidelity that digital cinematography affords. From here, the focus drifts into blurry abandon, before, in a trick of light, it refocuses to reveal that the dust particles have become, gradually and imperceptibly, molecules in a cell, the fibrous microscopic material of a white blood cell as viewed by a doctor's eye. All the while, Bronski Beat's "Smalltown Boy" hammers in the background. Night into day, from the club floor to the hospital waiting room. Out of the meeting room and into the streets. Worlds conflate, people come together, bodies entwine, and everything becomes inseparable, in sickness and in health. It's tragic, it's wonderful, it's devastating.
This article was originally posted on The Shooting People blog