The Infinite Happiness - review

by David Larsen / 19 May, 2016
Risky title, but there will be no "infinite must mean something smaller in Copenhagen" jibes here. I'm sold.

You'll have noticed we have a lot of film festivals these days. The national ones make a long and lengthening list - French and Italian have been around for a while, but now we can add Russian, Brazilian, Latin American, African... I am not attempting to be comprehensive, because the thing about these festivals is that there are always more of them than I can keep track of, and I'm in the business of keeping track. Take time out to read a novel and when you glance back at the events calendar, someone's programmed another continent's cinematic year, two weeks, three films a day, come on down. Then add in Out Takes (A Reel Queer Festival), Anime, Show Me Shorts, the Mountain Film Festival, the Architecture and Design film festival, and I'm going to stop with the Documentary Edge film festival, although I could keep going. This is, as the ghastly saying has it, a golden age for content.

What I've tended to wonder with these festivals - not Show Me Shorts, which is not in the feature game and seems to get better every year, but the others - is how they deal with the existence of the New Zealand International Film Festival. Are there really so many first rate films out there that a reliable 150-plus of them can be hoovered up every year by the big destination event for the Kiwi cinephile, and still leave good pickings for everyone else? In the first couple of years I was reviewing professionally, I tried to get to grips with the French and Italian festivals, and without in any way impugning their more recent offerings, I have to tell you there's a reason I haven't been back to sample their more recent offerings. In those first years they struck me as C-list festivals trying to pass for B-list.
Go out of your way to see this one. It's a film about a house. It's really quite something.

Then add this secondary question: how do all these smaller festivals cope with the existence of each other? Russia is not in competition with Brazil, when it comes to picking titles, though God knows they have to compete for film-goers' attention. But Documentary Edge is in competition with everyone, and Architecture and Design is very definitely in competition with Documentary Edge. As it happens, I went to the launch of this year's Architecture and Design film festival, and it was a well run event organised around a nice film -- Strange and Familiar: Architecture on Fogo Island, a beautifully shot examination of a community's attempt to revive itself through art and tourism. The rest of  Architecture and Design's line-up looked good too. Still: it's interesting to me that what has got to be the year's best film about a building, and also one of the year's best films overall, did not end up either in Architecture and Design or in NZIFF. Go out of your way to see this one. It's a film about a house. It's really quite something.

The first scene in The Infinite Happiness shows us a man mowing a lawn. He mows that lawn. It sure does get mowed. Oh, how we do see him mow. If you want a neat demonstration of the old yet much ignored principle that style is content, watch how this sequence is put together. The lawn covers a small hill, surrounded by smaller hills, filling a courtyard space framed by a building. Our lawn mower hoves into view over the brow of the hill, with the point of intersection of two angles of the building directly behind him, and walks downhill towards us, right down the middle of the screen. The lovely waltz Dance of the Hours plays in the background, the first in the film's endless stream of inspired wrong-for-context music tracks. (Actually the second; the mock-heroic titles music helps make the film's first few seconds arresting and weirdly hilarious.)

This is lawn mowing as abstract art. It's the first of 21 short filmic essays in life at The 8 House, a utopian experimental Copenhagen apartment complex. The concept behind the building is to combine different types and styles of apartment (at different price points) with retail outlets in such a way as to foster unforced community living: give people a life where they see more of their neighbours, in a village sort of way, rather than a compound sort of way. As an object, the building is beautiful and fascinating. As a community, its inhabitants are rather fascinating too; and also, in various ways, beautiful. Ila Bêka and Louise Lemoine's film looks for amusing and beautifully various ways to express this diversity. It's a study in the power of technique. It's gorgeous. It's very funny. It's light as a meringue, but don't mistake it for trivial.
It's gorgeous. It's very funny. It's light as a meringue, but don't mistake it for trivial.

My favourite sequences included the children's Halloween-themed treasure hunt, scored to eerie horror film music and ranging all over the building, during which the children get too scared and have to be reassured that the skeleton they're searching for is a nice skeleton.... the birder chapter, in which bird enthusiasts attempt to redress the building's unintended effect of combing passing birds out of the air... the sinister cat chapter, in which one of the building's cats demonstrates its own preffered approach to birds, and also to pesky cameras... the pizza delivery chapter, in which a delivery man gets progressively more and more lost attempting to navigate the building's inner passages...

But really, it's a mistake to emphasise out the particular bits that have stayed with me, because the whole thing has stayed with me. It's the grand design and the constant variety of approach and the consonance between style and subject that makes this so enjoyable to watch. I picked this because it sounded so unlikely. It's a selection protocol that can get you into all sorts of trouble, but in this case it came up trumps. The Infinite Happiness only lasts 85 minutes, but it still deserves its name.

Sunday May 22, 6.45pm and Saturday May 28, 8.30pm, Q Theatre. Book tickets.
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