Sons and lovers

by Philip Matthews / 31 July, 2004

THE RETURN (directed by Andrey Zvyagintsev).

Declaration of interest: if I ever had to name the greatest film director of, well, all time, my vote would go to Andrei Tarkovsky. Which means that I was always going to be a sucker for this film, a newly minted masterpiece that plays like a Russian film from a different age. This stunning debut from director Andrey Zvyagintsev plays out in a world of crumbling buildings, empty landscapes, abandoned towers and wrecked ships - as a dreamscape with a perpetual sense of menace at its edges, it feels like the allegorical zone of Tarkovsky's Stalker, only without the philosophical overlay, the science-fiction baggage. Zvyagintsev's ideas seem simpler, almost primal - the film takes place over seven days, with each new day identified, and addresses the dynamics of fathers and sons. The word that most commonly occurs in discussions of The Return is "elemental" - there is the sea, the forest, the island; there is the rain that keeps appearing out of nowhere, from blue skies.

After 12 years away, the father of Andrey (Vladimir Garin) and Ivan (Ivan Dobronravov) returns to a nameless town. Andrey was a toddler when their father - he also goes unnamed - left and Ivan doesn't even remember him; they consult their sole photo of their father, which is kept in the attic between the pages of a book - some have noticed that the photo sits against an illustration of Abraham's sacrifice of Isaac. With their mother's blessing, dad takes the boys on a road trip - they pack tents, fishing rods - during which their father (the brooding, Billy Bob Thornton-like actor Konstantin Lavronenko) also seems to be educating them in the ways of being a man, which requires much unpredictable tough-love cruelty - hence, perhaps, the Abraham reference. He has another mysterious purpose for this trip, too, which draws him towards the abandoned island - and as for that purpose, the best thing to say is, what's Russian for "McGuffin"? Never less than completely engrossing, and beautifully shot by Mikhail Kritchman, Zvyagintsev's film also contains sensational performances, especially from the two boys. His images are nearly as strong as Tarkovsky's, even if the spirit of his film is closer to a secular realism - until a small but very effective Stalker-like flourish at the end.

Wellington: July 25; Dunedin: July 30, August 1; Christchurch: August 4, 6 and 8.

ANATOMY OF HELL (directed by Catherine Breillat).

As usual, being the target of the futile obsession of censorship busybody David Lane proves to be the best publicity that the festival doesn't have to buy: after the usual Lane furore, this difficult French film sold out at least one Auckland screening, which handed a captive audience to director Catherine Breillat. Like last year's Lane-assisted sell-out, the French sensation Irreversible, Breillat's porno show-and-tell is also a philosophical meditation. "Time destroys" was the message of Irreversible. "Men destroy" might be the message here. Like a feminist De Sade, Breillat frames her story - adapted from her own novel, Pornocratie - as a "story", broken down into episodic sections and distanced by voice-over (messing with gender, Breillat reads the male voice-over).

At once obscure and confrontational, Anatomy of Hell has a lonely woman (Amira Casar) making a De Sade-like arrangement: she pays a gay man (porn star Rocco Siffredi) to come to her house over three nights, where he will face up to what Breillat perceives as the male disgust at the female body. You could say that the film-within-a-film experimentation of Breillat's last film, Sex Is Comedy - which was predicated on going behind the sex scene in Breillat's brilliant 2001 film, À Ma Soeur - continues here, with Breillat analogous to the woman on screen, as the director paid Siffredi to get up close and personal with her own abiding obsessions. The chief obsession is what sex means for men and for women, but the Catholic Church also comes in for some De Sade-like roasting. Just consider the title: to the church, the female body is the devil, so look out for a strategically placed pitchfork.

Wellington: July 25 and 28; Dunedin: August 1 and 2; Christchurch: August 6 and 8.

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