Our correspondent returns to the Dutch festival after a break, and launches into an experiential French film.
29 Jan 2013 - 11:16 AM  UPDATED 4 Feb 2013 - 12:30 PM

Returning to Rotterdam for the first time in six years, one was struck by the changes on display. Not only to the town—the new Centraal Station, still under re-construction a decade on, now looking like a super-sized version of the Star Trek logo; entire blocks of ugly public buildings replaced by even uglier (though more modern) apartment towers—but to the festival itself. The industry centre, in the Doelen, seemed distinctly underpopulated; likewise, the press shows, dramatically cut back from previous years.

The reason, one British critic assured me, was a steady decline in ticket sales. Attendances last year were down (he claimed) by over 15 percent; to arrest the decline, the festival had taken stock, and elected to make everything more public- than industry-oriented.

A duty of disclosure obliges me to note that the reason for my visit was personal: a feature film I'd written was included in the Bright Futures (ha!) strand of the program. But that didn't prevent me from cramming as many films as I could fit into my six-day visit.

To start with White Epilepsy (pictured), however, the latest work from French outlier Philippe Grandrieux, was perhaps to set the bar unreasonably high. Grandrieux's three previous features—Sombre (1998), Un vie nouvelle (2002) and Un lac (2008)—have established him as one of the most singular and remarkable voices in contemporary European cinema; this one, intended to function both as a theatrical event and as a gallery installation, was constructed in a vertical rather than horizontal ratio, so as to frame the film's subjects completely; we watched as a succession of pale bodies emerged, one by one, out of blackness, to move in a wordless, attenuated slow-motion.

The performers were dancers, and the discipline showed in their every gesture. Intensely corporeal, too weighted to seem spectral, we studied every detail of their musculature; we saw the bunched ridges of their spines. Viewed mostly from behind, or from slightly above, these figures were accompanied, on one of Grandrieux's typically meticulous soundtracks, not only by the sounds of the natural world—the buzzing of crickets, the faint sea-noises of the wind—but by amplified, almost animalistic sounds of respiration.

The filmmaker's aesthetic here closely recalls the work of photographer Bill Henson: the same sense of arcane, sexualised rituals, enacted by night in some remote wilderness. He claimed, however, in a post-screening Q&A, to have become familiar with Henson's work only since shooting the film. And the sexuality, in this case, had much to do with reverse-penetration, the female entering the male in the manner of certain species of insects Grandrieux had studied, who implant their larvae into male hosts from other species; the latter unwittingly gestate their young, before being devoured by them. But the monumentality of the figures, occupying almost the entire frame, as well as the desaturated palette reminded me most of the paintings of Courbet. At sixty-nine minutes, it was a transfixing, almost overwhelming experience.

Rather less satisfying was The Complex, which marked the long-awaited return to J-horror for Hideo Nakata, director of the original 'Ring' sequence, following a brief, disastrous foray into English-language filmmaking with 2010's internet-bogeyman Chatroom. This one, set in a down-at-heel Tokyo apartment block, began extremely well, with some carefully-calibrated mise-en-scene, and occasional, elegant shifts from third- to first-person narration; watching, you had the itchy sense that something here was badly awry. Why did student nurse Asuka, cheerily greeting her (offscreen) family as she returned home each night, not realise that she was living alone? Was she dead herself? Had she somehow come unstuck in time? “Time stops for the dead,” mused another character. “Their temporal plane is different.” With such airy ambiguities, a rich mood of dread was evoked.

But as soon as actual supernatural elements began to manifest (via, yes, another evil ghost-child, à la Shimizu's The Grudge), the film went badly off the rails—turning first ludicrous, and finally laughable, thanks in no small part to a male lead who looked like one of Arashi (his haircut, perfectly-tousled throughout, was the movie's most obvious special-effect), and an exorcism ceremony which resembled a Wiccan Wimmin's Workshop, to which the film kept cutting back at the most ill-judged moments. Worst of all, the latter proved totally irrelevant to the main plot . . . not only did their exorcism affect the narrative not one whit, we never even saw them again.

Fat Shaker, from Iran, was the Rotterdam movie par excellence: a hermetic little example of arthouse onanism, boasting no end-credits whatsoever apart from the director's name (which, as a rebuke to his egotism, I refuse to provide here) and that of the festival's Hubert Bals Foundation, whose financial support, perverse as ever, had enabled it.

Or at least, so I'm told, having walked out—along with much of the audience—long before the end. Ugly to behold, utterly incoherent, it consisted mostly of disconnected scenes of a morbidly obese Iranian man undergoing cupping and bleeding treatments (with leeches), vomiting into toilets, sweating uncontrollably, and repeatedly falling over—all the while trying to track down a young man who may or may not have been his son. (Given the older man's habits, the kid's elusiveness made a certain kind of sense.) The director's editing seemed deliberately obtuse, a way of obscuring rather than illuminating whatever point was attempting to be made.

A local entry, Ricky Rijneke's Silent Ones, with Hungarian actress Orsi Tóth as a woman searching for her lost younger brother, at least looked gorgeous, all mist-shrouded landscapes and deep-focus compositions. (And a sequence involving heavy farm machinery managed to be more viscerally disturbing than anything Nakata managed to put onscreen.) One could only imagine how extraordinary it might have been had Rijneke bothered to write an actual script. Instead, we had a string of images and moods, accompanied by whispered, first-person voiceover, as the woman repeated the same banal phrases again and again: “I have to find Isti . . .”, “I'll never go back . . .” (How could she, when she'd already told us she was “from nowhere”?)

For some reason, her quest took her onto a ship, where she was menaced by the captain, Hungarian like herself, and wandered the corridors endlessly like a rat in a maze. (And, lest we missed the point, her voiceover duly noted that she felt “trapped in a maze.”) By now, a distinct note of unreality had crept into proceedings—and the sense of Toth as a kind of Magyar equivalent to Germany's Nina Hoss (the same skinny frame, the same wary hauteur) was only amplified by a narrative that recalled the latter's work in Christian Petzold's Yella—right down to its initiating incident (a car crash, from which the heroine 'wakes') and central conceit (she doesn't realise she's already dead). As a screen presence, Toth is magnetic, but without a story to work with, she simply wasn't enough. Still, Rijneke can undoubtedly direct; hopefully his next films will prove more substantial and less frustrating.