Two Upcoming Fims Not Coming to a Theater Near You

‘Francofonia’ and ‘Cemetery of Splendour’ are worth tracking down

Michael Atkinson March 30, 2016

Weerasethakul explores dreams and reality through young Thai soldiers in an endless slumber. (Chai Siris/Courtesy of Kick the Machine Films)

World cin­e­ma grows and seethes out­side of our Amer­i­can dome; if a movie doesn’t adhere to a par­tic­u­lar nar­ra­tive and for­mal struc­ture, Amer­i­cans will not pay it much mind.

The one-man meta-New Wave from Thailand, Weerasethakul may be the most original working filmmaker alive, which is to say that his gentle, ironic, magical-realist idylls are radically different from both mainstream multiplex fare and Euro-Asian “art films.”

(It’s like many oth­er things in this way.) At the world’s film fes­ti­vals, how­ev­er, any­thing is pos­si­ble, and that’s where new films by Alexsan­dr Sokurov and Apichat­pong Weerasethakul are news­mak­ing events. Sure, their films get small art­house releas­es here, and may even show up on Net­flix (as has Weerasethakul’s mes­mer­iz­ing 2010 mas­ter­work Uncle Boon­mee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, pre­sum­ably to the baf­fled cha­grin of the aver­age Net­flix and chill view­er). Nev­er­the­less, their films are strange-smelling hot­house flow­ers lost in a land­scape of indus­tri­al­ized corn fields and feedlots.

Russ­ian-born Sokurov is one of the globe’s most pro­tean voic­es: In a 40-year career so far, his films range from 10 min­utes to over five hours, from unearth­ly phan­tasias to psy­cho Flaubert adap­ta­tions to grit­ty documentary.

Fran­co­fo­nia is a rumi­na­tive essay about the Lou­vre, which to Sokurov isn’t mere­ly the cen­ter of Paris but the cen­ter of the world. Sokurov is a his­to­ri­an for whom art and muse­ums are essen­tial to our aware­ness of our past and our cul­tur­al selves. The moment for him here is the 1940 Ger­man occu­pa­tion of Paris, and the face-off between Nazi com­man­der Franz von Wolff-Met­ter­nich, com­mis­sioned to safe­guard the art, and Lou­vre direc­tor Jacques Jau­jard. Wolff-Met­ter­nich, a sym­pa­thet­ic aris­to­crat and art expert who presents an ele­gant foil to the work­ing-class bureau­crat Jau­jard, both seen in archival pho­tos and embod­ied by actors.

Sokurov doesn’t dra­ma­tize the sto­ry. He folds into his col­lage first-per­son revery (a friend Skypes him from a storm-beset freighter car­ry­ing art), a vis­it from Napoleon (“C’est moi!” he exclaims before var­i­ous por­traits), drone shots over Parisian rooftops, the ghosts of Messer­schmitts fly­ing past win­dows, and archival footage, from Chekhov’s death bed to Hitler eye­balling the Eif­fel Tow­er to the build­ing of the Lou­vre Pyra­mid. And then there are the paint­ings, into which Sokurov falls, chang­ing the light on them and seem­ing to give them three-dimen­sion­al life.

Who would we be with­out muse­ums?” he asks, mak­ing Fran­co­fo­nia a semi-doc­u­men­tary, not only a com­pan­ion piece to his Her­mitage Muse­um epic Russ­ian Ark, but also recent paeans to muse­um-ness like Jem Cohen’s Muse­um Hours (2012) and Fred­er­ick Wiseman’s Nation­al Gallery (2014).

The one-man meta-New Wave from Thai­land, Weerasethakul may be the most orig­i­nal work­ing film­mak­er alive, which is to say that his gen­tle, iron­ic, mag­i­cal-real­ist idylls are rad­i­cal­ly dif­fer­ent from both main­stream mul­ti­plex fare and Euro-Asian art films.”

His lat­est, Ceme­tery of Splen­dour, is a poet­ic tis­sue of trop­i­cal moments, haunt­ed by the irre­press­ible past. The set­ting is a coun­try hos­pi­tal set up inside an old school — and, we learn, atop an ancient bur­ial ground for Thai kings. Occu­py­ing the beds are dozens of young sol­diers beset by sleep­ing sick­ness, which does not pre­vent them from wak­ing and then pass­ing out again, mus­ter­ing erec­tions, or hav­ing their dreams plumbed by a young psy­chic. Vol­un­teer­ing at the hos­pi­tal is an aging woman on crutch­es (the filmmaker’s go-to favorite, Jen­ji­ra Pong­pas Wid­ner), who bonds with one sleep­ing sol­dier and accom­pa­nies him when he wakes into the world outside.

Are dead souls keep­ing the sol­diers doz­ing? Could be. The sleep­ers are equipped in their beds with ther­a­peu­tic columns of chang­ing light; lat­er in the film, entire scenes start to change col­or, too, sug­gest­ing that we’re in a dream that has infect­ed real­i­ty — a dream of psy­chic mem­o­ries of demol­ished palaces to a play­ground made of dinosaurs to tsuna­mi rings on a banyan tree.

At one point, a giant para­me­ci­um crawls across a clear blue sky. God­dess­es appear at pic­nic tables. On the sound­track, chirring jun­gle insects and windy rum­bles roll on unabat­ed. What hap­pens next” — the be-all and end-all for Amer­i­can movies — is not a con­cern. Instead, the ten­der­ness of the present moment, how­ev­er bizarre and bewitch­ing it may be, is the meat of the mat­ter, in fine Bud­dhist tra­di­tion. Life is like can­dle­light,” some­one says deep in, and it feels just about right.

Michael Atkin­son is a film review­er for In These Times. He has writ­ten or edit­ed many books, includ­ing Exile Cin­e­ma: Film­mak­ers at Work Beyond Hol­ly­wood (2008) and the mys­tery nov­els Hem­ing­way Dead­lights (2009) and Hem­ing­way Cut­throat (2010). He blogs at Zero For Con­duct.
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