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  • Xavier Farrow-Francis

Whānau Mārama: New Zealand International Film Festival

For the ‘Academic’ issue, we paired up with the New Zealand International Film Festival (NZIFF) and gathered three VUW film students to review an NZIFF film each. First, they were shown a couple film stills to review the initial vibe and make a guess about what the film was about. Then, after watching, they wrote up their final thoughts.

Catch the films of the NZIFF on now at a cinema near you until 10 September. 

Carmen, Directed by Benjamin Millepied, Shown 31 July-6 August

Words by Xavier Farrow-Francis, Third-Year Film Student, Favourite Genre: Art Horror (any/all)

Film at a Glance

Right off the bat, I’m uncertain of what to expect from Carmen. The glitz and glamour  of some of the stills remind me of Chicago, but then the grittier stills make me think of Denis Villeneuve’s more down-to-earth work in the likes of Sicario, Enemy, or Prisoners.

I’m getting the impression the musical scenes may be fantasies, like that in Björk’s award-winning performance in Dancer in the Dark. All of these components are showing me that Carmen is going to take me on a thrilling, twisty-turny ride.

Film Review

Carmen is a bold and ambitious directorial debut from Benjamin Milliepied. Throughout its two-hour runtime, it boasts sequences and set pieces to be marvelled at. Its abstract dance sequences are compelling, and there’s some beautifully poetic dialogue to be found. Combined with large-scale cinematography and a hauntingly operatic score from the ever fantastic Nicolas Britell, Carmen is a film that oozes with grandeur… but unfortunately that’s about all it has to offer.

It kicks off with a highly promising and striking opening scene, full with fantastic dance choreography which is intentionally and tastefully vague, leaving the viewer in a wondrous and hungry state. It sets up its central characters interestingly, assuring a depth that unfortunately never arrives. And past the film’s first act, Carmen just gets progressively less engaging.

The vagueness and lack of depth is precisely Carmen’s downfall. What is meant to be a mystifying and epic tale of finding purpose in oneself through grief and disenfranchisement instead comes off as an underdeveloped and bewildering film that wasn’t quite thought through enough.

There is a definite likelihood that Carmen just wasn’t for me though. I think anyone interested in dance or musical theatre should check it out, as I think it may offer a unique take on the two art forms. My biggest warning would perhaps be to pre-empt yourself for a thin plot and more of a performance than a film.

L'Immensità, Directed by Emanuele Crialese, Shown on 3 August

Words by Willem Koller, Third-Year Film Student, Favourite Director: John Waters (he/they)

Film at a Glance

Once I get past staring into Penelope Cruz’s eyes and seeing the still of a queer teenager both slow dancing and staring knowingly into a microscope, I’m hoping for a trans, modernisation of High School Musical where t-boy Troy decides between a future in microbiology or dance. The production design and costumes are definitely 70s, which, next to the image of Penelope Cruz holding a candle in what looks like Catholic mass, makes me cross my fingers and hope L'Immensità will emulate the trends of sacreligious explorations of Catholism in 70ss films such as The Devils and Don’t Torture a Duckling

Film Review

Despite the fact that, surprisingly, my musical predictions weren’t as far off as I thought they would be, Emanuele Crialese’s L'Immensità is a film that completely took me by surprise. 

The film is a dramatic exploration of the impenetrable bond between Andrew, a young, bullheaded trans boy and his loving yet unorthodox mother Clara who live under an abusive patriarch. Perfectly balancing a combination of surreal performance sequences with a raw excavation of a suffocating, domestic space, the film is sunny and dream-like yet soberingly poignant. Moments of darkness and tension are elegantly framed, heavily saturated and dripping in warmth, tinged with normalcy, and undercut cleverly with sweetness. Under moments of calm and pure joy lingers a tingling feeling of melancholy for Andrew and his mother. 

The exploration of Catholicism is artfully done. The Christ allegory explores trans protagonist Andrew’s desire to transcend his physical body and perform supernatural feats of physical metamorphosis. It’s arresting to watch Andrew have so much self-awareness and self-assertion as to know himself and be loved is exceptional in stories about trans children. Andrew is afforded a remarkably conventional romance, rare for any trans character in film, regardless of age. Although there is frequent resistance to his transness, the ecstasy of being seen as he desires to be seen comes through in crucial moments like a punch to the gut. 

No one can depict the ephemeral connection to reality and the unique experiences of pleasure and distress created by the desperate aspiration for change like a trans director.  Crialese came out publicly as transgender when this film debuted at the 2022 Venice Film Festival, and notes that L’Immensita is strongly autobiographical. The ending reflects this, depicting the sprawling nature of a life in progress. So don’t expect a tidy, satisfying resolution. 

I don’t want this warning to deter you from watching this film, however. To me, the bittersweetness of the conclusion only strengthens the depiction of the transience of transness, leaning on the mechanism of escapism as so many of us do as we grow into a body that feels alien to us. As a viewer, I embraced this lack of stability, and I expect my feelings towards this film to fluctuate on every inevitable re-watch. As Crialese himself explained, “we are what we are in perpetual change”. 

Brainwashed: Sex-Camera-Power, Directed by Nina Menkes, Shown 3-6 AugustWords by Wes Brooke-White, Second-Year Film Student, Favourite Movie: Ghost World (he/him)

Film at a Glance

Opening my stills, I’m struck by a massive picture of Rita Hayworth’s face. I recognise the film without needing the helpful caption: that’s her in Orson Welles’s The Lady from Shanghai. It’s identified onscreen ‘as an example of gendered lighting’, which, combined with the woman watching from a cinema seat in the bottom right corner of the still, tells me this is a movie about movies. More specifically, at a guess, it’s an essay film like Los Angeles Plays Itself or Aotearoa’s own Out of the Mist, with questions to ask about how films shape reality by representing women. 

Film Review

For better and for worse, I was right. Brainwashed hits the classic stumbling block of being about too much to meaningfully develop any of its ideas. That’s true of many essay films. It’s hard to be systematic in a field which rewards sensational conclusions. The best make up for their academic shortcomings with strong rhetoric or emotional effect. Brainwashed is a scattershot recap of an interesting discourse, but the width of its lens makes it feel shallow. 

Filmmaker Nina Menkes cycles through dozens of examples suggested to reflect a mass cultural hypnosis: the arrangement of film techniques to code women as passive sexual objects. She breaks down elements of film form in helpful ways. Brainwashed is best as an autopsy, carefully identifying a technique and revealing its invisible significance. The issue is that she immediately jumps to her biggest claims without laying groundwork. 

During one of many montages, Menkes plays a clip from Julia Decournau’s Titane, a film lauded for nuanced, positive sexuality. Menkes erases this context to fit Titane’s images of nudity into her universal formula. Her claim is so broad that it collapses under its own weight, and her examples begin to feel cherry-picked. She highlights one queer film (Watermelon Woman, a far better movie about movies) and cites her own films no less than five times as positive examples. I don’t challenge the validity of some of her points (nor is it my place to) but her approach is self-sabotaging.            

Brainwashed is a presentation on how misogyny is baked into film language—an idea made famous by scholar Laura Mulvey in her 1975 essay. Mulvey’s often misread analysis of the male gaze is one of the most famous ideas in film criticism. Menkes interviews Mulvey, an incredibly articulate speaker. Based on Brainwashed alone, though, you'd be forgiven for thinking Mulvey’s theories had gone unchallenged over the last 50 years. Feminist film criticism isn’t a monolith, and later theorists have expanded and refuted Mulvey’s points. 

Brainwashed excludes scholars like Patrick Shuckmann, Karen Hollinger, and Camille Paglia. Brainwashed wasn’t on the hook to answer every interpretation of Mulvey’s work, but it flattens a living, breathing discourse and a rich body of queer and sex-positive cinema into a prepackaged headline. If you know these theories already, you’ll find no new insight. If this is your introduction, you’ll have missed the bus by about half a century. 


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