Venice Reviews: Golden Lion winner ‘Pigeon,’ ‘In the Basement,’ ‘Reality’

VENICE – As the festival wraps up for another year and prizes are announced, time for my final Venice 2014 report. On a personal note, I'd like to say I've had a blast writing for HitFix for the first time, and huge thanks to everyone who said that they enjoyed the coverage; it always means a lot.

“A Pigeon Sat On A Branch Contemplating Existence”
Grade: A+
Reaction: Given its Golden Lion-winning status, you'd be forgiven, sight unseen, for assuming that “A Pigeon Sat On A Branch Contemplating Existence” was one of those films that sends festival critics into paroxysms of delight while largely eluding a broader audience. You know, the sort of films where a pigeon actually does sit on a branch contemplating existence for a lively three-hour stint and then a jury says how refreshing it was to be freed from the shackles of conventional characterization, narrative or incident and gives it a prize. (Personally, I didn't get much out of “Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives.”)

As it turns out, “Pigeon” is nothing like that, apart from the prizewinning bit. From veteran Swedish director Roy Andersson, it's a species of existential comedy, playing out like a series of skits by Beckett, a sort of Saturday Night Live of the soul. It's unconventional, for sure, but it's also packed with gags, startling images, and even at one point, Charles XII and his army riding into a cafe, ordering all the women to leave and delicately but threateningly hitting on an attractive bartender. There is a current of mordant Swedish wit running through practically every scene.

Characters recur, but like two other entries in the fest this year (“Tales” and “Olive Kitteridge”), they recur as part of an overlapping interwoven mosaic narrative that meanders and detours. It feels more like a massive multiplayer online game than a film at times, with that “hey, it's you again!” sensation occurring as often as the fleeting thought “I wonder what happened to that dude?” Characters we've met before are glimpsed in the background of other character's scenes. The overall effect is indeed refreshingly free from the shackles of convention, but not, you know, boring. The only other film that made me laugh more here at Venice was “The Boxtrolls,” a film which has since been suggested to me is peculiarly British in its humor. “Pigeon” is, I'd venture to suggest, universal.

The stand-out scene, however, is not a humorous one. In it, British colonial types conduct a line of silent chained black people into an enormous bronze barrel the size of maybe two or three trailer park homes. It has what look like trumpets sticking out of it, but is otherwise sealed. Once the victims have been ushered inside, a trench of fire is lit beneath the barrels. After a minute or two, beautiful sounds begin emitting from the trumpets. It's a variation on the bronze bull, an execution device from ancient Greece, where victims were similarly placed inside the bronze bull and roasted alive. A complex system of tubes and valves would result in their screams emitting from the bull's mouth as what the bull's designer Perillos reportedly described as “the tenderest, most pathetic, most melodious of bellowings.”

This scene in “Pigeon” is horrifying in a completely different way to most horrifying scenes. There is no gore. Our eyes don't see anyone in pain. The music is rather beautiful. The implications — as a group of wealthy white people dressed in evening wear look on approvingly, listening to the haunting music born of others' suffering — are clear. To what extent are we complicit in pleasurable lifestyles reliant on the suffering of others? In an era of sweatshop clothing, forced labor in food factories and suicides by electronics workers, it's a question that needs answering.

“In the Basement (Im Keller)”
Grade: A-
Reaction: Ulrich Seidl enacts a different kind of moral probing in “In The Basement,” although it also has to do with the act of judgment. This doc, which pushes the boundaries of the talking head format in documentary, takes us into Austrians' private homes — specifically their basements — and gives us a little tour. What we find there toys with the notion of what it means to be ordinary. (The most famous basement in Austrian history, that in which Elisabeth Fritzl and her children were imprisoned, is not scrutinized directly, but casts a long shadow.)

The basements contain some people whose pastimes are what we might call eccentric, some people whose pastimes we might feel a passing affinity for, other people whose pastimes we instinctively condemn and a vast range of other activities and possible responses besides. They include, in no particular order: a couple with a private bar, a mistress and slave's S&M dungeon, a teenager playing drums, a Nazi memorabilia collector and his posse of Third Reich enthusiasts, an opera singer who owns a private shooting range, a woman who collects dolls that look exactly like dead newborn babies, and some general racists.

Some of these scenarios evoke a visceral response, which when we examine it, we're forced to retract. The dead baby dolls feel instinctively creepy. But actually, the woman in question isn't hurting anyone. It's just a hobby most people would consider odd. But our shudders can't be logically justified. Similarly, the man who likes to have his balls stretched to breaking point by his girlfriend might evoke winces, but each to their own.

More complex is the question of someone who is clearly a racist, but who appears to be keeping that racism closeted. I suppose it's unlikely that someone who holds these types of prejudices is able to leave them in the basement, and it;s unsurprising that one of these subjects figures on lists kept of problematic tourists in Berlin, but here the basement becomes almost a metaphor for people's own minds. Seidl forces us to ask to what extent society can expect to force its values into somebody's head, even as it quite legitimately demands certain standards of external behavior. It's provocative stuff from the Austrian director, and something I'll need to see again to attempt to fully wrap my head around its moral complexities.

Grade: C
Reaction: Existential dilemmas are about the only thing “Reality” has in common with “A Pigeon Sat On A Branch Contemplating Existence” and “In The Basement.” Otherwise, this breezy, enjoyable, smart, but also faintly smug comedy felt like a refreshing tonic in the programme — a cup of piquant lemon sorbet, just as your palate threatened to tire of all the complex textures and fibers of the fest's more wholegrain options. Excuse the arch tone of this metaphor — it's that kind of film.

In 1999 Mr. Oizo, aka Quentin Dupieux, released “Flat Beat,” a pop virus that swept Europe and ended up in a Levi's commercial with a certain yellow puppet. In 2010, Dupieux delighted some and irritated others with “Rubber.” “Wrong” and “Wrong Cops” duly followed in 2012 and 2013. Now he's back to divide opinions afresh with “Reality.” “Rubber” was a film whose short film style concept — a killer tyre on the rampage — just about stretched to 82 minutes. Indeed, “Rubber” fans should keep their eyes open for a brief sight gag in “Reality,” where we glimpse “Rubber 2” on the marquee outside a movie theater where one of the lead characters is having a crisis of reality colliding with fiction. “Reality” is more substantial than “Rubber” but is equally founded on whimsy and slight characterization.

It's not a film where plot summary will yield much, so I'll keep this as brief as possible. A young girl called Reality (Kyla Kenedy) sees her father shoot a hog. When he gets it home and guts it, a videotape plops out of its stomach and into the bin, along with all the offal. Reality's parents don't believe in the existence of the tape, which kicks off a quest on the part of the girl to find and view it. Meanwhile, a camera operator, Jason (Alain Chabat), on a cooking show fronted by a host wearing a rat outfit (Jon Heder), is trying to get funding signed off for a film he wants to direct. Not all of these characters are strictly real; there's some film-within-a-film type business going down, and boy does it get convoluted.

The main reason to see “Reality” is the comic punchlines to scenes which play out like sketches. It's not quite black humor; it's not realistic enough for that — at one point a film producer shoots a man, but there's no sense that we're supposed to respond as if it had any weight to it; it's a gag. And that's a fairly accurate summation of the film, too: it's insubstantial and at 87 minutes would find it hard to sustain a minute more, but a lot of fun.