Day Two of AFI Fest also happens to be my birthday. November 7th. Every year. All day at work co-workers (and students) inquired as to my plans for the evening. They all expected detailed replies listing debauched plans, but the answer was never that. “AFI Fest,” I would say, receiving blank stares in return. Apparently when you’re in your 20’s you are supposed to celebrate another year by getting blackout drunk, but that has never been my thing. Sit me in front of three intense movies and I’ll be a happy camper. Make sure all of those films center around sex and violence and it’s like my birthday wish come true.
I began the evening with The Tribe, a Ukrainian film that made a big splash at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy’s feature debut – which is presented entirely in Ukrainian Sign Language, without subtitles or voice overs – is playing at AFI Fest in the “New Auteurs” section, and it is easy to see why. The film follows Sergey (Grigory Fesenko, though we have no real way of gleaning the character’s name) as he becomes indoctrinated into the criminal culture at a boarding school for the deaf. One of his duties involves pimping out a fellow student, Yana (Yana Novokova), with whom he quickly becomes infatuated. Sergey’s passion borders on obsession, and he and the audience are led down a dark path.
Obviously the film is immediately notable for its unique gimmick, though it does transcend that reductive label to become an affecting piece of art. Despite the lack of verbal communication, Slaboshpytskiy (who is not deaf) and his actors (who really are) manage to convey most of the plot’s necessary information. It is a celebration of the moving picture, which of course pre-dates synchronized sound recording.
But this isn’t Hugo we’re talking about. In fact The Tribe has more in common with one of Martin Scorsese’s mob films than it does the American director’s ode to cinema. The violence – which is at first portrayed in a cartoonish manner – eventually becomes incredibly intense and visceral. And Slaboshpytskiy’s long takes personalize this brutality even more.
Take Sergey’s obsession and dial it up to “weird,” and you’ll find yourself with Josephine Decker’s Thou Wast Mild and Lovely. Eligible for an audience award in the “American Independents” category, Thou Wast stars busiest-man-alive Joe Swanberg as a married farm hand whose attraction to the daughter (Sophie Traub) of the owner (Robert Longstreet) is seemingly mutual, but in ways that he should find concerning.
I’ll be honest with my motives here – I saw Thou Wast Mild and Lovely for two reasons. 1) It is only 76 minutes, leaving plenty of time to get in line for my final film of the evening; and 2) it is described in the program guide as being “filled with sexual tension.” Turns out that even though I turned 25 today, I am still easily titillated. I’m glad this was the film I chose, however, as it exposed me to Decker who is, at the very least, an interesting filmmaker.
Decker, who co-wrote the script, is also one of the three credited editors on the film, which may explain the film’s interesting style. The presence of Swanberg in the lead screams “MUMBLECORE,” but Decker cuts the film so rapidly that this moniker could never be appropriate here. Scenes are barely given enough time to breathe, let alone ramble for minutes on end. This break-neck pace keeps the picture moving, even when the script has nothing interesting to say. A particular high point is a sex scene cut in such a way that practically nothing is visible; this scene is still incredibly sensual, regardless. Traub’s unhinged but focused performance gets some of the credit, as do three separate scenes of Swanberg masturbating.
Much like The Tribe and Thou Wast Mild and Lovely, the violence in It Follows arises as a result of sex, but here the causation is far more direct. There is a concerted effort among critics to avoid spoiling the horror film’s mechanism of grisly death, but it has something to do with the deed. The “secret” is revealed relatively early in the film (to the extent that it can be), and young college student Jay (Maika Monroe) finds herself being stalked by “It” (no relation to Stephen King’s clown), a monster who slowly stalks its victims in whatever form It chooses.
I have been anticipating this film by David Robert Mitchell since its debut at Cannes as well, and a slot in the “Midnight” program is the perfect place for it. Mitchell’s sense of suspense is impeccable, using every aspect of the film to build a buzzing dread inside the audience. Just look at the shot compositions; there is always space around the focal characters, providing a clear line if sight to the background, just in case It slowly walks into the frame.
The only piece that doesn’t really work for me is the music by Disasterpiece (what a fucking name, huh?). An alternate title for the film could have been Melancholy Synthesizers: The Movie. I don’t really “get” the shift toward 80’s influenced synths since the release of Drive, but this is the first time that effect has actually taken me out of the movie.
Don’t get me wrong: It Follows is an excellent movie – truly scary without resorting to too many jump scares. It is easily the best film of Day Two, though The Tribe gives It Follows a run for its money. And Thou Wast Mild & Lovely, while lacking in a fascinating story, is at least an intriguing visual experience. Thumbs up all around for Day Two; I guess I like my sex violence-tinged. Or do I like sex-tinged violence? Who can remember during these trying times?