International Weirdness : “Liverpool”

Posted: March 4, 2012 in movies
Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

One of the most stunningly beautiful films in recent years on a purely aesthetic level, Argentine director Lisandro Alonso’s 2008 offering, Liverpool, is the kind of film that many viewers will frankly find straight-up impenetrable due to its near-clinical austerity, yet it seems to linger in the mind for days, if not weeks, after you’ve seen it, and I freely confess to finding my own thoughts returning to it several times a day recently. Indeed, the spell it casts has me actively wondering if Alonso and company weren’t performing a cinematic act of ritual magick here, whether intentional or not, and while it couldn’t have less in common with the work of, say, a Kenneth Anger, it performs via means of  its minimalist subtlety a much more profound occult (in the strictest sense of the term) working than painstakingly outre fare of the Invocation Of My Demon Brother ilk.

The central character of the piece, a hard-drinking merchant sailor named Farrel (Juan Fernandez) deports his cargo vessel in Ushuaia, a port nearest-thing-to-a-city in Aregntina’s remote, almost-polar Tierra del Fuego region (Ushuaia is officially listed as the southernmost city in the world, I checked), and after spending an evening in town partaking in drunken debauchery, heads out to a distant logging camp to visit his ailing mother, who he apparently hasn’t seen in many years. As the trappings of the civilized world fall away, the parallels between Farrel’s interior and exterior journeys couldn’t be more apparent — he’s going further into his past, and by extension into himself, the further he goes out into the frozen, mountainous wilderness —but Alonso approaches his craft with such a precise sense of intentional distance, both visually and thematically, that you never feel like he’s drumming the point into your head, or even coming anywhere close to telling you what to think of his protagonist and the situation he’s immersing himself into, much less explicitly stating why.

This distance is something that I have absolutely no doubt many viewers are sure to find at the very least challenging, if not downright off-putting, and the film’s lack of dialogue (only The Artist has had less in recent years), lengthy, static takes (there are less than 80 shots total in the film), and insistence on filming everything at either medium or, more frequently, long range only compounds this sense of alienation from the central goings-on — so consider yourself duly warned : Liverpool is a film that quite literally dares you to get inside its hermetically-sealed interior universe.

Once Farrel arrives, he reacquaints himself, by a combination of both drunken accident and design, with a man named Trujillo (Nieves Cabrera), who has an undefined, though apparently quite close, relationship with Farrel’s aforementioned mother, and a severely mentally challenged young woman. While Alonso never specifically spells out just who this young lady is, and by this point you’re certainly not expecting him to, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure it out, nor to discern why she was born with her obvious developmental handicaps, and the implications are certainly less than pleasant — let’s just say that there aren’t too many women around at Tierra del Fuego logging camps and leave it al that. Still, the urge to cast  judgment is downright alien to this film, and Farrel is just shown going about his admittedly rather dubious activities through a sense of directorial detachment that’s both quietly, and breathtakingly, admirable.The film stages a rather dramatic, at least by its own starkly minimalist standards, turn when Farrel leaves and Alonso shifts his focus to the lives of the people at the camp and away from the guy who we thought this whole thing was about, but it’s certainly an effective transition, and fits in well overall with the film’s naturalist aesthetic — indeed, this feels much closer to unforced realism than anything I’ve seen in a long time and sometimes you have to actually remind yourself that this is a scripted story (albeit with probably a less-than-20-page screenplay) rather than a documentary, and when the movie ends with a lengthy take that finally reveals the source of its apparently-incongruous title, you’re left with all the questions you’ve had as the story progressed answered, even though Alonso never addressed any of them in anything like a direct fashion — frankly, to do so in a work of this nature would probably feel like an enormous cheat on his part, and there’s no need to worry on that score since if there’s one thing any viewer, whether they love this flick or hate it, can discern about his work, it’s that he certainly approaches it with a consummate level of , just to sound nauseatingly pretentious (go ahead, say it — again) for a moment, artistic integrity . The working complete, the spell is now cast, and I absolutely dare any thinking viewer to keep Liverpool (available as a bare-bones DVD release from Kino International with superb widescreen picture and 5.1 surround sound, and also, I’m told, in a more-recently-issued Region 2 version that does contain a selection of extras of some sort that I can’t fairly comment on not having seen it)  very far from their minds after having seen it. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it never forces its way inside your head, it just happens, much like the film itself seems to, and its primary impact is well and truly felt afterwards rather than during its running. Like the most skillful of boxers, Liverpool lands punch after punch without you feeling it much at first, but three days later they throb and sting like hell and leave some extremely tender, sore, and swollen bruises. Its every-shot-suitable-for-framing visual beauty wraps the iron fist in a velvet glove, as the old cliche goes, but its tremendous impact is in no way lessened by its almost painfully graceful delivery.

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