London 2014 round-up: Viggo goes west

Poster boy for the pioneer spirit of the western at this year’s London Film Festival was Denmark’s Viggo Mortensen, who rode from the Algerian Civil War, in David Oelhoffen’s Far from Men, to the Patagonian Conquest of the Desert in Lisandro Alonso’s Jauja.

Thirza Wakefield
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Far from Men (Loin des hommes, 2014)

Far from Men (Loin des hommes, 2014)

The last paragraph of this report discusses the ending of Jauja.

This year’s London Film Festival saw such a spike in the western genre that it might have had a strand all to itself. A 4K restoration of John Ford’s matchless My Darling Clementine screened in the Treasures section. There were two films centred on siblings confronted with the dangers of the big, bad wild: Naji Abu Nowar’s debut Theeb, about a boy separated from his older, wiser brother when guiding a lost British officer to his outpost in the Arabian desert, and The Keeping Room, with Brit Marling, who takes up a shotgun to protect her sister from pillaging Yankee scouts. Director Kristian Levring meanwhile weighed in with his silvered-HD pioneer western The Salvation, which stars Mads Mikkelson as marksman and Eva Green as his delayed gratification.

Mikkelson though was not the only Dane to try on the western hero. Actor Viggo Mortensen – also co-producer on Jauja – headed the programme’s two most successful and innovative derivatives of the genre.

Set in 1954, ahead of the Algerian War of Independence, Far from Men (Loin des Hommes) stars Mortensen as schoolmaster Daru, whose tuition of exclusively Algerian children has blotted his copybook with loyalists. Not that Daru cares for politics, happily disappeared in his world of the schoolhouse and its surrounds where he hunts for wildfowl. A former commandant during the Italian campaign, he is the typical western hero: aloof, unattached, inured in the land, abiding by his own law – and quick on the draw.

Far from Men (Loin des hommes, 2014)

Far from Men (Loin des hommes, 2014)

Coerced into delivering an Algerian Muslim criminal to French authorities in Tinguit, Daru – reluctantly – steers the detainee the day’s journey over desert terrain and to certain death at the hands of French military. It soon becomes clear that Daru must be more than just a minder to Mohammed, who – at pains to protect his poverty-stricken family from starvation – killed his cousin for raiding his crop. Before even leaving the schoolhouse, Daru defends his charge against a Frenchman who arbitrarily accuses Mohammed of the unrelated slaughter of his cattle. One Muslim scapegoat is as good as another in this cutthroat period of the country’s history.

Based on a short story by Albert Camus, David Oelhoffen’s film is beautifully shot and observant of Algeria’s piebald landscape: its grey-green plateau and fawn dirt underfoot, and the more verdant country of the crags above Berzina.

The sound design is equally sensitive. Watchful for adversaries, the men are forced off trail, and Oelhoffen close-mics the shingle shifting perilously beneath their tread. It’s an unpleasant sound and portent of another – when the pair, taken captive by armed insurgents, come under fire from the French. The enemy salvo is near ear-splitting, amplified by caves that offer scant shelter from the more organised, uniformed forces about their so-called ‘cleanup’. The suspense of this action sequence is almost entirely dependent on sound: the needle-sharp rebounding of bullets off bedrock, and their pitting into flesh with a horrid dull thud that a viewer quickly grows accustomed to dread. Two rebels surrender, their arms upraised – a pause – and that sound again.

Far from Men (Loin des hommes, 2014)

Far from Men (Loin des hommes, 2014)

Oelhoffen sculpts the straightforward here-to-there narrative not out of dialogue, which is spare, but out of the characters’ developing relationship: perfunctory at first, changing with time to warmth and mutual obligation. Cinematographer Guillaume Deffontaines (who photographed Bruno Dumont’s Camille Claudel 1915) plots its progression on the topography of the land, drawing our attention to qualities of light and alternate atmospheres. Near the film’s beginning, when Daru is undecided about making the trip, he sits at the edge of his bed; Mohammed, in a fever, in the foreground. Facing profile, he’s lit from both sides: the warm-yellow lamp at his back; face-front to the cold, white light from the window – a man of two halves and two minds.

In the bond that forms between the characters, the film takes after the revisionist western, which permitted compassion between the cowboy-protagonist and the Native American Indian. “You don’t speak Arabic like a settler,” observes Mohammed of his white-skinned, blond-haired companion. He doesn’t because he was born in Berzina, his parents Andalusians who worked the halfah harvest. He too has belonged to a minority.

If Daru’s empathy is down to experience and not altruistic, imaginative projection, he’s nonetheless easy to like, thanks to Mortensen’s measured performance. “That’s a war crime,” he insists, risking his skin, to the soldier who shot the surrendering rebels. But his onetime officer’s status is no currency any longer. This is a new war, a civil war, and “you have to pick a side,” says an old comrade, making fresh enemies of countrymen indifferent to liberation.

This setting of conflict is undercurrent in Lisandro Alonso’s Jauja – which screened at the festival following its premiere at Cannes and stars Mortensen in the lead. Here, he plays quite a different personality: a Danish Don Quixote, tilting at windmills in the Patagonian desert.

Jauja (2014)

Jauja (2014)

The film, set in the late nineteenth century and summoning for subtext the brutal 1882 campaign to purge the region of its indigenous people, shows none of it. Its focus, instead, are the vain exertions of engineer-Captain Dinesen – posted with his 15-year-old daughter Inge to a far-flung, shoreline settlement. There’s nothing to do there but share the fool-company of his allies in the Argentine army, and talk in circular Beckettian dialogue about the Minister of War’s ball. Until, that is, Inge elopes with boyish soldier Corto, leaving no trace.

Dinesen rides into the desert alone – not before placing his pistol in his pants’ front and trying his sword, which sticks in the sheath. This hiccup is typical of Dinesen, who is gauche and unequal to the land, which is maddeningly impassable to a man of his logical mind. He can ride his horse horizon-to-horizon, but the land speaks nothing of Inge’s whereabouts. He registers the signs – a painted toy soldier, a Tarkovskian dog – but cannot read them; they dazzle his rational eye – and ours.

Shot on film and framed in the old Academy 4:3 ratio – a near-perfect square with smoothed edges – Jauja’s landscapes are coquettishly scenic and almost unnaturally coloured. (They are not unnatural; they are real locations, scouted by Alonso himself.) Nature’s talent for harmony of colour is not here; instead, too-vivid algae, rocks limed with lichen, and fluoro-yellow-splotched terracotta-red stones. He sleeps a purple night under stars that could be pinholes pricked in the sky, showing through to an all-white atmosphere beyond.

Jauja (2014)

Jauja (2014)

This idea of beyond is everywhere in Jauja, and is especially suggested by the narrowed frame. Alonso uses long takes and keeps his camera static, letting action pass in and out of its compass. When Inge and Corto leave their horse to graze and she leads him away by the hand, the sounds of their moving besides or behind us sign to another film unfurling elsewhere – as if the characters could opt in or out of being storied.

There is a serious film and an un-serious film in Jauja – one placed on top the other like a lens filter. When the film opens with father and daughter sitting side-by-side on a rock, and Inge asks her father why she cannot have a dog, a pale bug crawls on her blue dress unnoticed. The insect’s presence seems pursuant to the toying, teasing nature of Alonso’s filmmaking. It vexes the painterly seriousness of the pose: their sitting as if for an artist; her pre-Raphaelite hair. It’s a flaw, but one that suggests the material film had a mind of its own – or that the creature has, uncannily, crawled between the breach of the film’s two moods to run amok in its curated spaces.

Whichever, even such a detail adds to the weird otherworldliness of Alonso’s Patagonia. According to Mortensen, who attended the screening, Alonso shot on short ends of film he’d collected in Chile and Argentina. These one-take-only scraps of fixed amounts of time were almost asking for such accidents and interventions.

Jauja (2014)

Jauja (2014)

Alonso’s Jauja is a deflation of the western, emptying it out of the excitement of combat and making mockery of the classical western hero with his sober, maladroit lead. Possibly it has more in common with western-genre literature, particularly the work of Cormac McCarthy. Before Dinesen begins his journey, there’s talk in the tented camp of a deserting soldier whose name – Zuluaga – becomes a shibboleth. Variously described as the best of men and as rumouredly leading a band of thieves “dressed as a woman”, Zuluaga is like Blood Meridian’s The Judge: a boogieman; a spectral, preternatural enemy; a man like heat-haze on the horizon whose reputation precedes him. In keeping with the film’s regard for Dinesen, he never sees the enigmatic Zuluaga – though we of course do.

The film’s end [plot spoiler!] is without comparison to any precedent in the western genre, cutting from Martian Patagonia to a parallel or projected universe – when Inge wakes, in modern dress, into an enormous bed in a country house, furnished with magnetic knife rack and oil painting period portraiture. This loophole in time has more to say about the atrocities of this era of Argentine history than all the film so far. One could read in the collapse of chronology the moral collapse of large-scale massacre. To commit an evil of this enormity is to make history, or – to put it another way – to warp or break time, which is just what happens here. For Dinesen, a loveable character for all his unseen complicity, the bottom has dropped out of the world.

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