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BFI London Film Festival 2022, Dispatch #11: Decision to Leave, Saint Omer, Pacifiction

Park Hae Il, Decision to Leave, Park Chan Wook
Park Hae Il in Decision to Leave

The success of Park Chan Wook's movies tends to rest less on the quality of his directing than on its capability to prove that there's something worth investing in within it. And so Decision to Leave ranks, perhaps, a little lowly among Park movies, its success as a feature of fabulous technical ingenuity and vivid, buoyant verve somewhat undermined by its relative paucity of meaningful material beyond all that brilliant technique. If previous Park has dazzled with the mysteries placed in plain sight and the shocking secrets hidden therein, Decision to Leave plays its game almost entirely with the former pieces and without the latter. It's not really a mystery movie, to be fair, but a twisted and twisty romantic thriller, but it's edited and shot like a mystery movie, which seems to me like a mistake. Without a puzzle to solve, all these scattered pieces have a distracting effect and obscure the emotional core of the movie. It's a smart, sensitive, exciting movie, and Park is never less than completely in control, but his control here is over an unwieldy beast, a multi-genre-spanning melodrama with a big heart, but a few too many extraneous ambitions to boot.

All of which is to say that Decision to Leave is too much the movie it wants to be, rather than not enough, and I'll be forever grateful for filmmakers like Park, willing to overindulge their audience before they'd dare leave us wanting. There's abundant vigour in every gesture here, right from the start - the first few snapshot scenes, crammed with information, progress with an assaultive energy, launching the movie at breakneck speed through its myriad, refracted quirks and concerns. It's more like a collage of ideas and suggestions, significant little teases of a bigger picture that never fully comes into view, even if the most salient points are covered. In the end, it boldly elides clarity in favour of unknowability; if we, the audience, are at least clearer than the protagonist on the details of what has happened, we're hardly any clearer on why. Maybe that's the mystery of this movie, and the meaning beneath all the stylistic flair and flamboyancy. But it's a mystery I'm oddly disinterested in investigating, which is what disappoints me most about Decision to Leave - this is a movie whose success rests not on the what but on the why, on the reason to invest anything in it beyond momentary admiration and enjoyment. In this regard, I'm not certain I can consider it much of a success at all.

Guslagie Malanga, Saint Omer, Alice Diop
Guslagie Malanga in Saint Omer

I'm in awe a little at what Alice Diop achieves in Saint Omer, enough to be distinctly disappointed again - this time not by any significant quality underlying the movie's action, as in Decision to Leave, but by a specific decision Diop takes in its home stretch. She's an exquisitely perceptive filmmaker, and she's constructed here a scenario perfectly calibrated to engendering a single consistent artistic perspective, so that she can modulate the tone, style and rhythm of her directing to best serve each new narrative inflection without veering off too suddenly or too wildly. Consider her Park Chan Wook's antithesis - where he covers every inch of the surface, she focuses on one single area and drills it as deep as she can. The accuracy of her dialogue, evidently informed by considerable research and awareness, and the personal understanding she equally evidently holds regarding stories around how Black women are appraised in modern France, bury any overarching machinations in her scenario, legitimizing its purposes as a feature while simultaneously making all its momentary objectives feel organic and reasonable. Everything is designed with the same rigour in the same style toward the same outcome, and everything is accomplished with the same level of excellence... well, almost everything.

It's not the startlingly melodramatic turn the movie takes in its climactic scene that jarred - that aspect of it actually feels earnt, despite its apparent incongruity. It's the political ugliness of this scene, where Diop's appeal to a sense of moral accountability is expanded beyond racial issues to encompass gender issues more broadly. It's eloquent and persuasive, but also exclusive, and it's unforgivable in a fictionalized story, even if it's one based on factual events. I thought about overlooking it, of dismissing my concerns as over-sensitive and unsympathetic, but decided against doing so, since that's just me responding to the same societal pressures that have permitted filmmakers like Diop to commit some overlooking of their own. Saint Omer is astute and compassionate, and it understands marginalized, demonized minority figures as keenly as any movie I've ever seen, I think. But its understanding only extends so far, and it fumbles what could have been one of 2022's most impressive artistic statements by engaging in casual transphobia.

Benoit Magimel, Pacifiction, Albert Serra
Benoit Magimel in Pacifiction

The slowest slow-burn horror movie, a rotten sore in waters claimed by Europe even now as its paradisiacal playground; a coruscating swipe at well-meaning white people, reminding everyone of the futility of good intentions in the face of bad faith. Albert Serra understands that, in order to properly critique the slimy, seedy arrogance and cruelty of white people worldwide, one has to engage with it. Pacifiction is possessed of a queer kind of glamour, a sweaty, neon peach-hued sense of lazy resignation among its white colonizers and their indigenous subjects, the most prosperous inevitably those most seduced by the chintzy luxury they've seen toxify their land and culture and turn it into some warped idea of an elitist utopia. Sell your souls and your bodies and maybe you too can wriggle your way up to a moderately less demeaning servile status. Serra won't let you forget it, though: in the end, we all get fucked.

This is a long, gradual swooning sigh of a movie, initially a sweet relief, eventually a panicked wheeze. People talk and talk and talk, ever about things to come, ever without addressing it directly; things happen, no doubt, but almost never in full view of us, nor even of most of the affected parties. It's all deadly serious, and it's all a joke; it's all real life, and it's all made up; the more important it is, the more pointless the effort will be. Those with the means will exercise them, and even those with similar means can play the game exactly the same and yet fail miserably. Because the game is rigged in favour of those who made a game of it in the first place, and the rest of us are just patsies and/or victims. It has the outward appearance of objectivity, but Pacifiction is a movie fashioned out of pure judgement, handing it down upon every last figure with the misfortune of falling under its purview. I love Albert Serra's movies, full disclosure, and I love this one.


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