The third and final weekend of First Look gets underway with a road movie about showing movies on the road—because how else are you going to wrap up a festival that this year has focused on films about films? That’s not to say, however, that the tour on display in Pawel and Wawel necessarily bears much resemblance to the Museum of the Moving Image’s last few weeks of climate-controlled exhibition—in the diary film, a volcanic eruption spews bad air everywhere, turning the landscape lunar and forcing the cancellation of a scheduled screening.
The playfully droll Pawel and Wawel documents a camper trek around the ever-photogenic nation of Iceland during the summer months, when the snow melts to reveal the ground’s still there and the sun doesn’t really go down at all. In 2011, artists Krzysztof Kaczmarek and Lukasz Jastrubczak touched down on the island toting a handful of black-and-white classics from their homeland of Poland, organizing pop-up events at cultural centers and restaurants and churches along the coast. On the evidence of his film, Kaczmarek might often be a seat-of-the-pants cultural ambassador—“We kind of knew that no one would come,” he says at one unattended screening—but he certainly possesses a discerning eye for local color. In this travelogue, we see a pack of teens beatboxing in the half-lit woods, a guitar player howling away with his “singing” dog, and a small plane taking off as if yanked up by a string. The atmosphere, light as air, intoxicates.
Pawel and Wawel runs scarcely over an hour long, and the only hour-and-a-half-plus feature you’ll find this weekend shows right alongside it on Friday evening (7:30pm)—Jerzy Kawalerowicz’s Night Train (1959), which Kaczmarek and Jastrubczak took along with them to Iceland (the digital restoration showing at MoMI also came through Lincoln Center last year as part of “Martin Scorsese Presents: Masterpieces of Polish Cinema”). As for the very-short end of the spectrum, intriguing under-half-hour offerings can be found in two of First Look’s more avant-garde-leaning programs. A selection of 35mm experiments by Vienna-based artist Björn Kämmerer (Saturday, 2pm) exposes light as at base a rhythmic element. Meanwhile, the late Chantal Akerman makes an appearance in the all-female-filmmaker “A Matter of Visibility” program (Saturday, 6:30pm), the 11-minute-long Trois strophes sur le nom de Sacher (1989) observing a cellist playing in her dramatically lit stage-set home, her grappling with the instrument a contrast to the autopilot domesticity visible through the windows behind her. An even more striking film made decades ago appears among the program’s newer material: Londoner Lis Rhodes’s collage work Light Reading (1978)—in which a stream of letters flies by the camera, like runaway microfilm, between a searchingly poetic voiceover and murky still-photo close-ups—explores the making (and unmaking) of meaning.
For a more substantial helping of ambiguous terror, see Philippe Grandrieux’s Meurtrière, the highlight of a Sunday evening program (6:30pm) that also features Jet Lag, a good old-fashioned quasi-doc about the graveyard shift at a Galician gas station, and Lenz Elegy, a modern-dress adaptation of Georg Büchner’s 1836 shard of a novella that features a lot of first-person follow shots (and a little bit of Spacemen 3). For the middle part of his Unrest trilogy, Grandrieux—a French filmmaker who specializes in writhing bodies and crepuscular light (and who is currently serving as a visiting professor at Harvard)—has crafted a work of exquisite disquiet, a dread-drenched provocation that’s worth the wading through.
Meurtrière—the title refers to a hole in a fortification through which a projectile can be fired—is a movie of almost unalloyed unease. Over the course of an hour, four nude female forms thrash through the void in slow motion. (The actresses are all dancers.) As if buffeted by an underwater current, they occasionally float together in what appears to be a reluctant—not to mention basically indistinguishable—sexual congress, but the most primal horror comes when they’re glimpsed drifting alone: Nothing appears more painful here than the very act of respiration, a sort of full-body contortion that repeats over and over and over again. Not to suggest that the agony ballet Meurtrière has a particular “story”—for one thing, we hardly see anyone’s face—but in narrative-feature terms, it feels like an extended visit to the black-pool depths where alien predator Scarlett Johansson led her human-male victims in Under the Skin (only, obviously, gender-reversed). Grandrieux tightens the frame so that the image, in its slo-mo pulsing, resembles a vertically hanging canvas come to life; he shoots in a color palette so blanched that the swaying and tensing mortals come to look like ready-made corpses. It might appear that these people are swimming in some sort of preservative—a vat of formaldehyde, or amniotic fluid even—but the resounding theme here is nonetheless the body’s inevitable fate in time.
Until Grandrieux’s 154-minute Despite the Night makes its local premiere next month at Lincoln Center during the annual Film Comment Selects series, you can content yourself with the less complicated painterly pleasures of Maestà (Sunday, 1:30pm), which adapts for the widescreen a 14th-century polyptych by Sienese painter Duccio di Buoninsegna. The medium-to-medium transfer French director Andy Guérif makes is amusingly direct: He subdivides the frame into 26 perspectivally correct (i.e., flat-looking) boxes, and live actors reenact the story of the Passion one panel at a time, progressing gradually from one side of the screen to the other. The rendering of one of the world’s more durable narratives with dialogue that’s almost breezy (“So you’re Jesus of Nazareth?”), and the presence of this casually spoken French in a scene that looks so deeply medieval-Italian, makes Guérif’s film a pleasant spell of dislocation. This fifth installment of First Look, then, ends largely as it began—with cinema that’s unafraid of throwing its viewers just a little bit off-balance.