May 13, 2011

Film Comment Selects Presents the Gratifying and Grotesque

If Alex DeLarge, the ultra-violence and Beethoven-loving anti-hero of Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange (and Anthony Burgess’1962 source novel of the same name) had leapt off the celluloid and assembled a collection of vile but artistic films that he felt represented essential viewing – or “viddying” – for devoted cinephiles, he would have likely composed something quite similar to the 2011 line-up for Film Comment Selects. This annual two-week screening event, now in its eleventh year of existence, features an eclectic assemblage of domestic and international films handpicked by the editors and writers of Film Comment, the prestigious cinema journal published bi-monthly by the Film Society of Lincoln Center.

While the film series often features a wide variety of independent films, lost cinematic treasures and foreign imports without current U.S. distribution, each touching upon various genres and subject matters, a staggering majority of this year’s films contain plot-lines and themes that lean toward the grim and disturbing. As Gavin Smith, editor of Film Comment and one of the programmers of Film Comment Selects, has noted, “There’s no denying that this year’s selection is pretty dark: serial killers, Nazis… grave robbers, real-life hit men… What can we say? Death sells tickets” (Smith 1). But this year’s Film Comment Selects is not some cinematic “death-fest” looking to draw in horror fans and other connoisseurs of gore. In fact, as certain programs such as the thought-provoking and somewhat stomach-turning “Three by Isild Le Besco” clearly represents, the programmers of Film Comment Selects have carefully chosen films that exhibit a unique and unexpected blend of “art and abjection”; a fusion between the cinematically alluring and the morally repugnant (Smith 1).

The 2011 series runs from February 18th through March 3rd and features twenty-six films divided into four venues: “Opening Night Films,” “Closing Night Films,” the “Main Program” and “Special Programs,” all of which screen at the Film Society’s Walter Reade Theater, located in Lincoln Center. The exhibition that I attended, “Three by Isild Le Besco,” was held on February 19th, the second day of the series, and was the first of five “Special Programs” scheduled for the two-week event. The program was originally advertised to consist of three films by twenty-nine-year-old actress-turned-fledgling-auteur, Isild Le Besco, with the director participating in Q&A sessions following each of the individual screenings (Foundas 36). Unfortunately, the director was forced to cancel her appearance at the last minute due to personal obligations, and her work – though briefly introduced by programmer Gavin Smith – was left to speak for itself. The three films shown included Le Besco’s 2003 debut work Demi-tarif, her first feature-length narrative, Charly (2007) and her latest (and inarguably most disturbing) film, Bas-fonds or The Dregs (2010). While each of the films reflect various levels of technical skill, production value, and personal/artistic growth on behalf of the director, together they represent what Le Besco (as quoted by Smith) considers to be her “outsider trilogy,” a bleak and unsettling triptych dealing with characters living abnormal lives on the fringes of society.

Le Besco’s films, all projected from a Beta tape format,[1] were presented in chronological order, beginning with the amateurish, yet relatively accessible, Demi-tarif. Originally released when the director was twenty-one, Demi-tarif follows the lives of three Parisian children, ages 7-9, left to care for themselves by an absent mother (Foundas 36). Le Besco uses a hand-held “digital video” camera to record the adventures and mishaps of these children as they pan-handle in the subway, steal food from local grocers and spend nights running naked through their filthy apartment, squealing with glee (36). The resolution of the images captured on Le Besco’s shaking hand-held camera are of poor quality when compared with more polished-looking studio productions, but there is also an uninhibited and free-flowing feel to her camerawork that aptly reflects the impulsive, devil-may-care lifestyle of her young subjects. In addition, Demi-tarif, like Charly and Bas-fonds, features a French-language soundtrack with English subtitles, but Demi-tarif is the most verbally rudimentary of the three films in terms of its sparse translation. Aside from a few instances of voiceover narration and scenes in which the children converse with adults (all of which are clearly translated), roughly two-thirds of the film depict scenes without subtitles in which the viewer must carefully study the children’s behavior and emotional reactions to develop any understanding of the scene’s trajectory.

Both Charly and Bas-fonds reflect evidence of Le Besco’s growth as a director. The content and subject matter of the films are clearly the work of someone willing to take serious artistic risks and the significant improvement in visual and audio quality – along with the enhanced set-design and appearance of professional actors – suggest that Le Besco’s shooting budget had greatly increased since the release of her first film. In addition, both films are fully subtitled for English-speaking viewers and special credit is given to the translators at the close of each work. Charly follows the story of an adolescent boy (played by Le Besco’s younger brother) who runs away from home and winds up living in a trailer with the title character, a young prostitute with symptoms of obsessive-compulsive disorder, played by French actress Julie-Marie Parmentier. With its slight resemblance to the coming-of-age film and the employment of a seasoned actress (compared to the novice or non-actors Le Besco often uses), Charly represents Le Besco’s most mainstream work and its placement as the second film in the program provided a nice transition into the final piece of the day, Bas-fonds.

In many ways, Bas-fonds, like Charly, is a work of professional studio quality in terms of its technical execution, but unlike its slightly more conventional predecessor, Bas-fonds returns to the themes of estrangement and isolation dealt with in Demi-tarif, tackling them with an unflinching brutality that exemplifies the director’s artistic maturity. The final film of Le Besco’s “outsider trilogy” studies a trio of highly-disturbed women whose days are characterized by screaming matches, bouts of heavy drinking, and a nearly constant consumption of pornography; however, on one particular evening, the women break away from their normal routine, venturing to a nearby town where they rob a local patisserie and murder the business’ young proprietor. Considering that Bas-fonds (with its highly grotesque and unsavory nature) is a startling representation of Le Besco’s work – and cinema itself – at its most unexpected and disturbing, it seems fitting that this particular film was selected by the programmers of this provocative series to screen the previous evening as part of the “Opening Night Films” presentation along with Jia Zhangke’s I Wish I Knew (2010) and Jason Eisener’s Hobo with a Shotgun (2011). Bas-fonds was the only film by Le Besco to screen twice within the entire two-week series (Demi-tarif and Charly were each shown exclusively as part of the special program on the 19th), and the controversial film’s second and final showing at the close of the “Three by Isild Le Besco” exhibition left viewers wondering what the director (and the Film Comment Selects series) might have planned for the future.

While it is uncertain where Le Besco’s next project will take her, the listings and descriptions of the remaining works scheduled for the 2011 Film Comment Selects series suggested that the programmers intended to continue exploring films that blended art, violence and repulsion with the same adeptness exhibited by Le Besco’s work. Films slated to screen over the remaining eleven days of the series included Kim Ji-Woon’s I Saw the Devil (2010), banned in the director’s native South Korea for what the series’ program notes euphemize as “its meticulous attention to bloody detail,” Sion Sono’s 144-minute exploitation-fest, Cold Fish (2010) and a special screening of Alex Cox’s 1987 film Straight to Hell Returns, featuring “‘digitally improved violence and cruelty.’”[2] In addition to this sampling of grisly fare, the series was also scheduled to screen less violent but equally provocative works such as Domaine (2009), “John Waters’ favorite movie of 2010”[3] and Klaus Kinski: Jesus Christ Savior, Peter Geyer’s 2008 film chronicling the German actor’s performance as Jesus Christ and his subsequent breakdown at the hands of a heckling crowd.

While these titles only represent a small portion of the work being presented as part of the 2011 Film Comment Selects lineup, this group of films reflects core themes of the programmers’ mission. Both the Film Society of Lincoln Center and the editors and writers of the affiliated journal, Film Comment, are dedicated to drawing attention to influential directors and noteworthy “cinematic trends” that are changing the face of the seventh art – for better or worse ( As Gavin Smith states in reference to the philosophy behind both Film Comment and the Film Comment Selects series, the journal staff and programmers of this event “don’t buy the artificial distinctions of the cine-snobs” but choose to “celebrate genre fare…right alongside the work of certified art-house luminaries” (Smith 1). Thus films without current U.S. distribution are screened alongside exciting new works with upcoming release dates. Movies by veteran directors are juxtaposed with features by emerging auteurs and potential Oscar-contenders are exhibited in the same series as low-budget, B-grade, splatter films.

So what type of patronage is drawn in for such a challenging and unconventional festival? In general, it seemed as if the “Three by Isild Le Besco” exhibition attracted an audience that was both young and old, with little attendance by the thirty to forty-year-old crowd. Demi-tarif’s viewership was mostly over the age of fifty with only one or two twenty-somethings in attendance. Though this was probably my favorite piece of the day, the rest of the audience did not seem to be particularly riveted by this inventive, quirky film; in fact, some patrons fell asleep and began snoring around the half-hour mark, unable to sustain an active interest in the movie throughout its brief sixty-three minute runtime. Charly drew a slightly larger viewership with some women excitedly conversing and flipping through program notes before the screening and later nodding at one another in approval of the work. Bas-fonds undoubtedly attracted the largest audience of the day, which was to be expected since the film had been featured as an “Opening Night” selection the previous evening. A number of younger viewers attended this presentation, some of whom studied the film with great intensity or scribbled notes throughout the screening. Given the unsettling nature of the film, it was not surprising that certain scenes were met with gasps of horror and nervous laughter from certain viewers; Bas-fonds certainly seemed to have the most vocal crowd, but it was also Le Besco’s most visceral and provoking film, designed to elicit a certain response on behalf of the viewer.

While other series events such as the “Closing Night Films” presentation of Burke and Hare (John Landis, 2010) and Insidious (James Wan, 2010) will most likely draw in a larger and more diverse audience because the films feature more mainstream stories and popular stars such as Simon Pegg, Tim Curry, Patrick Wilson and Rose Byrne, “Three by Isild Le Besco,” seemed to have reached its intended audience. After all, the Le Besco program was not designed to be a sell-out show; rather it was a unique opportunity for genuinely interested viewers to see three films by a challenging young director whose work currently has no U.S. distribution, and is therefore unlikely to be screened again in the near future.

In general, the programming at the Walter Reade Theater, whether catering to the Film Comment Selects audience or otherwise, is often designed for serious and inquisitive viewers with specialized interests. Due to this, the programmers, who likely expected a modest turn-out for the “Three by Isild Le Besco” presentation, remained conscious of a need to supply their viewers with information about the films, the filmmaker and the festival itself. One way that this was accomplished was through the use of pamphlets – available in the theater lobby – containing titles, showtimes and brief summaries of the films involved in this year’s program. Prior to each screening, the projectionist also ran a series of slides advertising other films in the series with summaries and showtime information. In addition, though Le Besco was not present to discuss her work, programmer Gavin Smith suggested that interested viewers who would like to learn more about the director and her films could purchase a copy of the current issue of Film Comment – on sale in the lobby – which features a short article on Le Besco by contributing editor Scott Foundas. In this way, the article by Foundas also served as an additional set of “program notes,” providing viewers with a slightly more detailed look at Le Besco’s films, and an argument about how one might consider them to be works of “marginal cinema” (Foundas 36).

Looking at the exhibition from a critical perspective, Le Besco’s films were probably presented in a group of three, arranged chronologically, in order to gradually immerse viewers in her work. Demi-tarif is not just Le Besco’s first film, it is also her most tame – the piece that is likely to seduce the viewer and entice them to learn more about the director’s subsequent work. Charly shows what Le Besco can do with a larger budget and professional quality equipment, further whetting our appetite, and Bas-fonds provides such a relentless assault on the audience’s senses that it not only provokes interest in the artist’s future endeavors, but raises curiosity – and some apprehension – about the other movies in Film Comment Selects’ bold series.

Overall, the “Three by Isild Le Besco” presentation – in conjunction with the other films slated for the series – seems to support the programmers’ governing argument that not all films have to be aesthetically pleasing or even voyeuristically enjoyable to serve as important cinematic works. Just because a film might deal with a subject that is generally deemed artistically, historically or sociologically taboo, a serious and educated lover of cinema cannot simply disregard this work as a “bad” movie with no cultural significance or worth.

While I personally believe that the curators succeeded in proving their overall argument, it is difficult to determine if all of the viewers felt the same way. The films presented in the “Three by Isild Le Besco” program aptly demonstrated that art can exist within the aberrant, but Le Besco’s absence certainly had a detrimental affect on the programmers’ ability to contextualize the films in the best possible manner. Smith’s attempt to provide a brief introduction to the opening and closing films in the program, as well as his suggestion to peruse Film Comment’s latest issue to learn more about Le Besco, were helpful, but no doubt paled in comparison to the explanation and insight that Le Besco could have provided in regard to her own work. Following the screening of Demi-tarif, two patrons vocalized their disappointment that Le Besco could not appear to answer inquiries that they had in reference to the film, and at the conclusion of Bas-fonds, two women were left puzzling over what the “most disgusting thing” in the film was – a conversation that may have been led down a more critically constructive path if Le Besco had been present to lend some directorial guidance. This, however, was the program’s only drawback, and even though the programmers were essentially forced to let Le Besco’s work speak for itself, the staff should be given credit for having the precognition to select a distinct group of films that had such bold and interesting things to say.

Works Cited

Foundas, Scott. “Wildlife: The Marginal Cinema of Actress-Turned-Auteur Isild Le Besco.” Film Comment. 47.1 (2011): 36-37.

“Our Mission.” The Film Society of Lincoln Center. 22 February 2011. <>.

Smith, Gavin. “Gavin Smith on Film Comment Selects at 11.” Online posting. 18 February 2011. Film Society of Lincoln Center Blog. 22 February 2011. <>.

[1] Information regarding the media used for the screenings was provided by a representative of the Walter Reade Theater.

[2] All direct quotations are taken from the film descriptions printed in the program notes for the 2011 Film Comment Selects series.

[3] Ibid.

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