The most innovative foreign-language films often are not the ones jostling for the five coveted slots on the Academy Award ballot. They’re the films with miniscule if any distribution, that drop on DVD or a streaming service with little fanfare.
Memory House (Film Movement, $24.95 DVD, $3.99 digital rental), the stunning debut from Brazilian writer-director João Paulo Miranda Maria, typifies the art-house discoveries that await cinephiles eager to dive beyond algorithms and Redbox.
Conjuring a dangerous dance between madness, magical realism and nativist politics, Memory House is set in an Austrian colony in southern Brazil, where the soft-spoken Cristovam (Antonio Pitanga), a Black native from the northern hinterlands, works at a dairy processing plant. He is surrounded by callous, German-speaking employees who establish their Aryan superiority over Cristovam both in the factory and the local bar.
His boss, too, announces that because of an economic “crisis,” he will be slashing Cristovam’s pay — a “temporary measure.” But as he relates to his assistant in German, Cristovam is “an old and Black man” — what other opportunities will come his way? It’s a transcendent truth, no less observant for the bluntness of its delivery.
At one point, all of the plant’s employees are required to attend a propagandistic lecture saluting their “honest, hardworking nature” in contrast to the lazy freeloaders of the north. The seeds of a kind of secession, it seems, are being planted. But in his depictions of Cristovam’s everyday life and its accumulation of cruelties, filmmaker Maria puts a lie to the notion of this southern colony as somehow virtuous.
Cristovam, new to the area and essentially homeless on a peasant’s salary, squats at an abandoned shack littered with remnants of the region’s ethnic past, from photographs to an African musical instrument. He stays there with his three-legged dog, and given the presence of little Austrian sociopaths with BB guns who spend their leisure time at Cristovam’s adopted home, we can guess how the dog ended up that way, with more punishment soon to be doled out to its owner.
Eventually, every man reaches his breaking point, but at what cost? Memory House plays like a slow-burning horror-Western, a simmering parable of the individual protecting his homestead, such as it is, against encroaching monsters. The results are shocking in their brutal rigor, and thrillingly filmed in long takes, with slow dolly shots contracting Cristovam in a prison or expanding to unshackle him.
It’s a film not without its jagged spikes of humor, but in the whole Memory House is an appropriately heavy viewing. It forces us to confront state-sanctioned racism at its most pernicious. When Cristovam’s Austrian colleagues at the factory emotionlessly euthanize a now-ineffective cow, we see the beast crumble to the floor through a reflection in Cristovam’s face shield — and we realize that in this rotten outpost of colonialism, Cristovam may well be staring at his own fate.
Relationship ennui, that perennial staple of Western European cinema, is the subject of Benoît Jacquot’s latest film, Suzanna Andler (Icarus Films, $19.99 DVD, $3.99 digital rental). The chamber drama is set in a most elegant chamber — a $2 million-a-month rental property on the French Riviera — which Charlotte Gainsbourg’s leopard-skin-coated title character is considering for a summer sojourn, should her husband, Jean, agree.
Jean is nowhere to be seen, however. A serial philander, he’s out on one of his many escapes from what has become, for both spouses, a marriage in name only. As Suzanna phrases it to the property’s real estate agent, “I’m the French Riviera’s most cheated-on wife.” For once, though, Suzanna has struck up an affair of her own, with a brooding journalist (Niels Schneider) many orders of magnitude less wealthy than her husband.
Though the characters, liberated from duty for one sprawling afternoon-turned-evening, have the waterfront manse to themselves, don’t expect much steam to fog up Jacquot’s lens. Suzanna and her paramour, Michel, are far too busy talking, and talking, and talking, to let animal instincts intrude. The film is essentially composed of five extended dialogues, an approach betraying its origins as a play, by the experimental writer Marguerite Duras.
On its surface, the experience invariably evokes both the central bedroom scene in Godard’s Breathless and the long-take relationship autopsy of Dreyer’s Gertrud. The problem is, Jacquot’s drama is neither as playful as the former nor as existentially hefty as the latter. Rather, his discursive, beat-around-the bush formalism feels stillborn, and it fails to provide a reason for us to care too deeply about Suzanna or Michel’s travails.
Given that it’s based on a play from the screenwriter of Hiroshima Mon Amour, we can expect a degree of elliptical writing, and the collapsing of cinematic time that is its result. But when Suzanna comments, as day begrudgingly, painstakingly, allows evening to overtake the malaise, that she cannot believe she’s only been in the room for a few hours — “it feels like I’ve been staying here for months” — the movie’s audience will likely agree.