MoMI's First Look Series Provides Rescues Orphaned Festival Films from Oblivion

vic and flo saw a bear

“First Look” — the title of the Museum of the Moving Image’s third annual two-weekend cross-section of lower-profile festival films — implies an ahead-of-the-curve chance to scope out movies that’ll be returning to New York City and possibly the wider theatrical world, or at least some form of VOD. In practice, the movies “First Look” shows may not make it back anywhere anytime soon, since the programmers demonstrate a welcome fondness for works that are basically undistributable: too oblique, easily pegged as “arty,” marginal in their appeal. They’re festival comets, traveling the world for a year and a half, trying to find a home before sometimes unjust relative historical oblivion comes for them.

I didn’t sample Godfrey Reggio’s “Visitors,” the highest-profile film shown this year (the movie is “presented by” Steven Soderbergh, whom Film.com recently interviewed along with Reggio). The next best-known title was probably Denis Côté’s “Vic + Flo Saw A Bear,” which actually has a week-long engagement at Manhattan’s Anthology Film Archives starting February 7, though no other distribution is set. “I don’t know if it’s a drama or a comedy or a horror film,” Côté said in his introduction, “so please help me understand what we did.”

For much of its running time, “Vic + Flo” is a deadpan comedy about a fragile lesbian couple making a go of it. Just out of jail, Victoria (Pierrette Robitaille) returns to her half-paralyzed uncle’s house and takes over. Soon she’s joined by Florence (Romane Bohringer), who finds rural isolation stifling rather than relaxing. The two bond by sniping at, then learning to hang out with, Florence’s improbably pert parole officer Guillaume (Marc-André Grondin).

Florence is first introduced under the covers with Victoria as the giddily reunited couple’s movements form odd contours and waves in the sheets above them, a ghostly image hinting at the direction the film’s eventually going in; their not-always-fond arguments remain rooted in an easy, credible physical attraction throughout. Côté likes to introduce minor characters or wordless extras with a head-on deadpan static shot: a close-up of an obese man staring/scowling furiously across a bar at an initially unseen provocation, a medium shot of the incongruous Chinese owners of a restaurant in regional Quebec.

The guiding tone is drollery until, seemingly terrified by the possibility of boredom, Côté abruptly introduces high degrees of unexpected physical violence at key moments, building with erratic illogic to an unexpectedly dark ending. This commitment to tonal muddling seems to stem from an understandable/commendable urge to destroy genre boundaries, but “Vic + Flo” eventually outfoxes itself, its self-conscious oddity never suggesting some kind of intuitive but difficult to articulate momentum (the kind that i.e. turns David Lynch’s work into an emotional horror show than a simple puzzle box). Most of the film is a smart, funny movie about a couple facing internal relationship problems and external obstacles, well worth a look.

If “Vic + Flo” is an attempted journey beyond genre, Juan Barrero introduced his feature “The Inner Jungle” as “a sort of origami: fragile, little and handmade.” A pro cinematographer for National Geographic TV specials, Barrero leaves Spain for five months on an expedition, during which time violinist girlfriend Gala Pérez Iñesta discovers she’s pregnant and brings the child to term, disregarding his repeated explicit statements that he has no desire to have kids ever and forcing his hand. For many people, this would constitute a really serious, messed-up breach of relationship trust, but Barrero more or less sucks it up.

On his return, his only way to try to fall back in love with his girlfriend is to film her constantly. She picks up on his thinking: “you keep recording and recording and recording just to see if you can love me again.” Throughout, Barrero photographs Iñesta in fragmented close-ups: just her lower legs, or her arms divorced from their shoulders, trying to find new ways to see someone he’s evidently been attached to for some time. Like Joaquim Pinto’s “What Now? Remind Me,” “The Inner Jungle” is the video diary of a really obsessive cineaste, someone who uses the camera to try to connect with an otherwise frustratingly inaccessible world.

Like Pinto, Barrero makes weird associational leaps between domestic scenes and other trains of thought in the outside world: church processions, Darwinian evolution in central America, whatever moves him. Operating on tenuously perceptible internal logic, it’s modestly hypnotic, though the sudden close-up introduction of Barrero’s penis during climactic-spurting and some other dressed-up sex tape bits are unnerving interpolations. The effect is like the scene in “Computer Chess” where a young computer programmer enters an older couple’s motel room expecting innocuous chatter about meditation, only to be propositioned for a swinging threesome: it feels like you’ve been bait-and-switch sucked into someone else’s exhibitionistic relationship drama. Occasionally creepy or not, “The Inner Jungle” is adventurously engaging, and (between this and “What Now?”) I have a suspicion we’re all in for many more video diaries made by confused, deeply passionate cinephiles who find it easier to re-enchant their life and the world around them through a camera than in any other way, a stance that’s both intriguing and precious.

The proliferation of more hybrid films comfortable with deliberately annihilating the distinction between documentary and fiction is also on the welcome upsurge, a trend sort of represented this year in “Rags And Tatters,” Ahmad Abdalla’s from-the-bottom look at the ongoing fallout from Hosni Mubarak’s overthrow that begins as formless chaos: a prisoner (Asser Yassin) and his companion on the run at night in Cairo’s outskirts, trying to make it to safety while dodging titanic amounts of gunfire. This part’s shot on lower-quality digital of some kind, and the look is very c. 2006, close to Michael Mann’s feature “Miami Vice.” When crawling towards the safety of a house, the bare light in its front glitches the camera out, imposing a narrow top-to-bottom blue-gold column on the screen.

It’s uncomfortably exciting, deadly revolutionary tumult as action movie. When the escapee grabs a ride into the city the next morning, the camera surveys the destruction from the slowly moving gaze of the right-side passenger seat (almost certainly a deliberate nod to similar shots observing post-earthquake devastation in Koker in Abbas Kiarostami’s “Life And Nothing More”). When the nameless prisoner walks the streets, he immediately gets a beatdown from a roving group of men wielding machetes. It’s not clear why, just a random incident on unsafely deserted city streets with the post-apocalyptic ambience of “Escape From New York.” Yassin’s nameless fugitive is always on the move, unable to maintain temporary safe posts in a friendly apartment or a mosque.

The lengths to which Abdalla goes to avoid dialogue can be ridiculous: in one especially irritating moment, Yassin can’t hear most of a fiery instigation to get to Tahrir Square because someone revs up their motorcycle a dozen-plus times right next to his head. Abdalla’s eye is terrific, if sometimes in service to fundamentally bad ideas: it’s clever to get a woman’s face into a static shot by having her suddenly appear in a van’s rear-view mirror when the right door, but still pretty rote to capture her face conspicuously falling from smiling farewell to haggard and worried. Abdalla largely succeeds in successfully aestheticizing what’s essentially cinema’s longest search for an internet connection. The prisoner wants to upload videos of a riot to “show what really happened”; this movie gives you all the chaos in a much slicker package.

A less successful program began with Kimi Takasue’s “Looking For Adventure,” which practically makes itself unprogrammable at many festivals by being 43 minutes long: too short to occupy a feature slot, too lengthy to easily attach in front of a feature. Takasue has a good enough on-the-fly eye to save a chronicle of the rotest possible group tourism in Peru from utter banality. Born out of a trip with her mother, the images are finely composed, but technically adept as they are they’re shapelessly assembled into a form that’s structurally mostly inseparable from what a particularly visually sharp tourist would choose to capture in their banal post-trip slideshow.

An odd film to pair with Sebastián Sepúlveda’s “The Quispe Girls,” whose embedded nature in its landscape is unquestionable. One of the producers is Chilean director Pablo Larraín, and the film serves as a nice geographical addendum to his Santiago-set “Tony Manero,” mapping out a dictatorship’s free-floating ambient menace on a new terrain.

Three sisters raise goats in rural Chile; whether in their cave shelter at night or herding during the dusty day, the sound of wind is a relentless constant whose only variable is volume. It’s a study of rural loneliness and dispossession the year after Augusto Pinochet came to power, in which rumors of police buying and killing goats as destructive eroders of the land precede the inadvertently comic arrival of a fleeing pedestrian who emerges from the wilderness to ask politely “Can you tell me the way to Argentina?” Most of “Quispe” slowly imbues a depopulated, undeveloped landscape with a dread as palpable as the constantly swirling dust; it’d also be far more compacted and morbidly terrifying at half the length.