Jacques (Pierre Deladonchamps) is a writer — which means he’s also writerly. When on a call with Arthur (Vincent Lacoste), a man he likes but can’t quite commit to, he imagines Arthur is by his side — we see them both together, the way the scene is playing out in his head. Even the way he speaks reveals his profession. The film opens with Jacques learning that an on-and-off boyfriend may be leaving town for good. “You don’t need me like I need you,” he says. “I prefer it that way. I like that imbalance.” The sentiment won’t make it to a Valentine’s Day card, but boy will it sound good in a brooding romance. (We aren’t exactly told what kind of books Jacques writes, but he does sound the brooding-romance type.)
Now, consider Arthur. His girlfriend asks him, “Are we in love or not?” His response is a shrug. Is he a man of few words? Or does he only open up with men? For he launches into a long monologue (“people think sex is less noble than feelings, etc.) after getting together with Jacques. Or maybe the latter’s literariness has rubbed off on him. Christophe Honoré’s plangent Plaire, aimer et courir vite (Sorry Angel; French), set in 1993, cannot be pigeonholed as a gay romance. It’s more like a fluid-sexuality relationship drama. Jacques has an ex-wife, a son. In a film stuffed with film references (a visit to Truffaut’s grave; a theatre playing The Piano, the only woman-directed Palme D’Or winner ever), the poster of Leos Carax’s Boy Meets Girl hangs a few feet from a bed where two boys are making love.
The narrative trajectory sounds a bit like The Accidental Tourist: inward-looking man is drawn out of his shell by a younger, extroverted person. But instead of a sequential journey, together, we get snapshots of two separate lives. Honoré’s staging is beautiful — watch out for the long walk where Arthur follows Jacques, and the dance-like cruising sequence — and the result is a not-always-easy but rewarding film about what the heart wants… or doesn’t. In a devastating scene, Arthur’s girlfriend finds a love note from Jacques and realises that what she shared with Arthur wasn’t a fraction of what he has with Jacques. In a story about LGBTQ men, the straight girl’s plight breaks your heart.
Jianghu. That’s the word that drives Jia Zhangke’s Jiang Hu Er Nv (Ash is Purest White). It refers to the underworld and its codes, and it explains at least some of the head-scrambling decisions the characters make. The film follows a gangster and his girl — Bin (Liao Fan) and Qiao (Zhao Tao) — from 2001 to 2018. As China changes, so does the relationship. The director said, in an interview, “Jianghu folk still cling to their own code of conduct and values, functioning in their own ways. The contrast is ironic, but also attractive to me.” This codified way of life can cause untold misery, which is hinted to us in an early metaphor. Talking about volcanic ash — yes, this is the kind of story where lovers talk about volcanic ash — Qiao says, “Anything that burns at a high temperature is pure.” Given her high-degree travails then, she’s purer than white.
The best portion of Ash is the mid-section that resembles a “women’s picture” from 1950s Hollywood. Qiao has been away from Bin, and now she is finding her way back. Her money is stolen. Worse, Bin is with someone else. But he is not a bad man. “Being penniless changes you,” he says. A little later, to the swells of a Vangelis-meets-Tangerine Dream score, Qiao sees… UFOs. I wanted to see where this was going, but the payoff doesn’t match the setup. “We are prisoners of the cosmos,” says a man Qiao meets on a train. And? Ash has at least five endings, but its ups and downs are as riveting as they are exhausting. Plus, we get this great line: “There are only two things I like: animal documentaries and ballroom dancing.” Had this been a more mainstream movie, we might have found it on a T-shirt.
It’s surely some sort of irony that Christopher Nolan introduced the 50th anniversary screening of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Nolan is a great ideas man — perhaps one of the greatest — but his writing is so over-expository that you feel he’s paranoid about not being understood even by the dimmest bulb on the planet. On the other hand, here’s Kubrick: “You’re free to speculate as you wish about the philosophical and allegorical meaning of the film — and such speculation is one indication that it has succeeded in gripping the audience at a deep level — but I don’t want to spell out a verbal road map for 2001 that every viewer will feel obligated to pursue or else fear he’s missed the point.” Five decades on, when the stewardess, slowly, walks 180 degrees and stands upside down, the effect is still hypnotic.
That’s not a word you use often with special-effects or sci-fi films. You’d use “dazzling.” Or “spectacular” (Or in the case of Solo, which premiered here, “been there seen that.” What’s next in this rapidly deteriorating franchise? Jabba: The Untold Story?) In 2001, the effects are inevitably dated. The apes look like men in masks and hairy suits. Some of the matte work appears primitive. But when a film grabs you, none of this matters. If Solo is the shiny-new iPhone photo of your latest holiday, 2001 is a yellowed picture in a family album. You carry it with you. People often call the film cold and clinical, but the apes’ discovery of weapons or HAL’s prolonged “death scene” are as emotionally gripping as ever.
Nolan said this was a restored print, “the closest we could get (including the sound mix) of the original that played in 1968.” A few years ago, the Berlinale celebrated Technicolor by showing restored prints. It was a goosefleshy experience to watch Niagara and The African Queen the way audiences of the time saw these films. The 2001 screening left me with a similar time-travel feel. The visuals don’t gleam like the frames in restored DVD prints do. 2001 looks like a 50-year-old movie — but also one that’s somehow timeless. And the sound — oh, dear God, the sound! (Nolan said this was one of the few theatres in the world that was equipped to play this print.) It crashes over you like waves in a stormy sea. And suddenly, you’re enveloped by the ghostly silence of outer space. Very few films are a must-see on the big screen. This one’s right up there.