Words

Justine Smith

Is this the world’s sexiest film festival?

Montreal’s Festival du Nouveau Cinéma presented erotic tales from around the world this year.

Montreal is never more itself than in early October. Autumn has set in and the leaves are starting to turn bright crimson and golden yellow, eating has moved from outdoor terraces to steamy cafes, and long nights have overtaken summer days. October this year was unseasonably warm, with temperatures climbing into the early twenties but this did little to discourage sweater ritual of the season, as women preferred to go bare-legged than to forego their wool. It is the best season of earthly pleasures; listening to Leonard Cohen’s gravely voice, eating fresh bagels and watching movies. Representing the season’s sensuality and transformation, the Festival du Nouveau Cinéma epitomises fall in the city by creating a platform where community, self-discovery, and pleasure take centre stage.

FNC might not have the power or prestige to draw in as many notable premieres as TIFF or NYFF, which run around the same time, but it more than makes up for it in concise programming and atmosphere. There is a spirit of newness to the selection, which focuses as much on established auteurs as it does on future filmmakers and emerging mediums. The festival continues to push and pull at the boundaries of what cinema is, featuring a range of multi-media art, performances and events as part of their programming.

Over the last few years, they have expanded to include television series, an expansive VR component (running under the FNC Explore banner) and cinema-concerts that invite live musicians to rescore films in front of a live audience (this year there were cine-concerts for Kwaidan, Le Golem, and Sweet Movie). There is an undercurrent of disruption within the festival as it encourages the audience to take note of their role within the performance, transforming the cinematic experience from a passive into an active experience.

One way the festival brings attention to the audience is by not shying away from sex and sensuality on screen. In a year where Playboy had to ask, ‘Where Have All the Sexy Movies Gone?’, sexual situations on screen are difficult to avoid at the FNC. Sex is one of the few subjects that still can perturb an audience, whether it is depicted graphically or merely suggested. There remains an aura of discomfort around the subject and a reticence to give yourself over to the screen. Unlike laughter or fear, arousal somehow does not feel like it should be a communal experience.

In Tehran Taboo, the politics of sex take centre stage. This rotoscoped animated feature from director Ali Soozandeh explores the untold stories of sex in Tehran as they interact with religion, politics, and culture. Depicting the intersecting story of various city residents, the film explores how a society with a strict and enforceable sexual moral code creates a culture of shame and violence. The film does not portray a culture gripped with religious zealotry or ignorance, but rather a scared populous unable to stand-up to a corrupt system that uses the pressures of shame to stall progress, in particular for women.

The rotoscope style means that the sex is not something you can get lost in; instead, it becomes a platform for bigger ideas. Framing and light become as integral as the act themselves, as in one scene where a prostitute has an accidental run-in with a neighbour. Her work while embroidered with shame is also seen as an important service for shy and frustrated men. Cast in darkness, she lounges like Olympia in a Manet painting and shifts into a performance of a seductress. It may be the day, but the fear and uncertainty are reflected in the amber settings that literally drives the interactions underground, in a kind of cavernous reunion.

Tehran Taboo is a film that comfortably justifies its sexual depictions as representative of a cultural, religious and political landscape. For sex in cinema, unlike many other aspects of life, is still easily dismissed as gratuitous on screen – something that is better suggested than depicted, it is easier for audiences to grapple with sex within a socio-political context than on its own terms.

More challenging was Les Garçons Sauvages, an experimental feature about unruly young men taking under the tutelage of a sea captain who says he can reform any child. If Guy Maddin and Kenneth Anger teamed up to make a film inspired by the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch, you would get something close to this. Bertrand Mandico’s fever dream revels in a twisted and uncompromised sexuality that opens with a graphic but dreamy rape. All the young men are played by young women and the exaggerated violence evokes a Renaissance depiction of Leda (who was raped by a swan) and a dash of Fairy Queen from ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’. The sequence caps off with streams of cum floating through the air in maybe the only beautiful bukkake scene ever committed to screen.

Mandico’s art is in how he diffuses sexuality by approaching it within a dreamscape. Casting women in the roles of violent aggressors also underscore some of the film’s discomfort, while heightening its humour. It seems impossible that such a film could exist and what a pleasure that it does, especially once the character’s reach a kind of Isle of Eden where all plant life graphically embodies a yonic or phallic existence. Taken to such extremes (penis shaped plants squirt delicious white liquids, one of the young men makes love to a vagina mouthed flower) the film channels a playful, rather than aggressive sexual energy. It is sexy for diving so deep into a fantasy that it renders sexual prudism absurd. Les Garçons Sauvages picked up a well-earned award for the best film within the experimental New Alchemist strand (what a beautiful programme name, by the way, treating experimental cinema as a modern form of witchcraft).

Beyond the more esoteric titles at this year’s programme, a lot of sexual energy was provided by the festival’s Cannes holdovers. Joachim’s Thelma about a young woman’s love affair disturbed by her burgeoning supernatural powers feels at home at the FNC. The film tackles sexuality as an intense psychic connection that breaks down barriers of free will and dream. Through supernatural imagery, Trier achieves a mind-state of eroticism that evokes the best of Luis Buñuel.

There is a special intimacy at work at the Festival du Nouveau Cinéma. In bringing together different generations to watch beautiful and often challenging films from all over the world, there is a special kinship that emerges within viewers. It is a festival that feels very much part of the fabric of Montreal, a city between worlds: one foot in Europe and another in North America, a city of immigrants and students, and a city that thrives in the autumn months, rich in culture and sensations.

For more info on this year’s festival visit nouveaucinema.ca

Tags: Joachim Trier

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