Generationally speaking, it’s pretty hard to think of anyone under forty who can realistically conceive of any kind of solid grounding in society. Part of it is surely related to an increasingly uncertain economic landscape characterized by labor precarity and erosion of the middle class, but even those with a financial cushion are eventually confronted with a crisis of meaning. Meta-narratives have been dead and gone for a while. Hyper-connectivity and information overload killed most of what remained of the “sense of wonder”. The globalized “American Dream” of post-Cold War civilization has been nothing more than a cul-de-sac of disillusionment. At the end of the day, what’s actually left to do?
Three different films playing at the 50th International Film Festival Rotterdam’s Tiger Competition and Big Screen section find their own particular ways of framing this sense of adriftness. With their characters caught in strenuous loops bouncing from one odd job to another, going on bourgeois pilgrimages of self-imposed discovery, or wandering aimlessly fueled by ennui, they present contrasting portraits of displacement that touch upon a shared contemporary experience.
The most openly melancholic film in the bunch is without a doubt acclaimed Argentine filmmaker Ana Katz’s latest, El perro que no calla. In this black and white portrait of existential anxiety, Katz switches the more lighthearted tone and comedic flourishes of her usual forays into female psychology for an intimate examination of a young man seeing his life slipping by. From the film’s opening, Sebastián (Daniel Katz) is seen navel-gazing and compliantly taking in every gut punch life throws at him. Whether he faces self-victimizing neighbors confronting him about mundane nuisances, or spineless heads of staff gaslighting him until they see to his resignation, his expression remains the same weary eyed numbness reminiscent of Aki Kaurismäki’s leads.
As the film breezes by the first third of its brief 74-minute running time Katz’s play with ellipsis becomes more and more apparent. We see Sebastián go through an almost fantastical collection of darkly humorous misfortunes without really getting to know more about him than his general candidness. Suddenly, his facial hair begins to change abruptly from scene to scene, the people around him become a revolving cast of outsiders and/or oblivious upper middle class yuppies, and he finds himself in medias res most of the time. He might be El perro que no calla’s central figure, yet his role is closer to an avatar for millennial dissociation than an actual protagonist; the hectic vignettes in which he finds himself create an assortment of disappointments that closely mirror modern young adulthood, and imbue Ana Katz’s feature with an immersive atmosphere of normalized doom.
Queena Li’s Bipolar takes a similar kaleidoscopic approach to editing and expands it into the pseudo-psychedelic journey of a fretful young woman in Tibet. Like Sebastián in El perro que no calla, we don’t get to know much about the life of this enigmatic singer, but her demeanor does play more of an active role here. Instead of just stumbling upon external circumstances, the unnamed main character’s quest is one of self-determination; a graceless attempt to capture some of the spiritual balance that forms the basis on which Lhasa is so exoticized.
Her fable-like adventure plunges her in a chaotic array of outlandish encounters and impulsive decisions, adventurously depicted by way of an expressionistic use of special effects and different aspect ratios and recording methods. Like her protagonist, Li seems to embrace the classical road movie archetypes and structures as an opportunity for self-discovery; an excuse to let it all out and see if what sticks is actually to her liking. This also means that, once again paralleling her heroine, her inquiries might come out at times as excessive and disjointed, and still, it’s that same hyperkinetic punk attitude that makes this first time feature one of the festival’s standouts. Also, her case for oversaturation as a healing process for inner turmoil is probably the most aligned with contemporary sensibilities.
Australian filmmaker James Vaughan’s Friends and Strangers follows a similar rationale, albeit in considerably dryer fashion. This post-millennial comedy of manners takes what in most hands would be a stereotypical mumblecore set-up, and drowns it in ironic detachment. Similarly to El perro que no calla, Friends and Strangers’ starring duo of Ray (Fergus Wilson) and Alice (Emma Diaz) also seem to just go through the motions carelessly, minus Sebastián’s muted urgency as a victim of neoliberal austerity. These people are truly deprived of a driving force, comfortably meandering around in unfiltered unawareness and unaudited privilege. Shrewdly, Vaughan lets them inhabit the screen fully with no attempt at moral pronouncements. One of his most inspired decisions is to make the whole universe the characters inhabit one of pure artifice. Shots are symmetrically composed, the color palette is pastel and sunny, and the grainy 16mm aesthetic clamors to be tagged #Dreamy in an early 2010s Tumblr post.
Like El perro que no calla and Bipolar, Friends and Strangers experiments with ellipsis in an attempt to replicate a very current sense of scattered temporality. No scene “really” matters in strict narrative terms, yet their cumulative effect is intoxicating. By the end of these films, one is immersed in their world of emotional stasis and nonchalant demeanor, doing like the characters in trying to just ignore the dissonance that constantly looms in the background. No one wants to face “that”.