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  • Reviewed from the 2021 Cannes Film Festival.

The omnibus film has often been a bastardised form in which directors put forth middling one-offs almost sheepishly, but – of all years – the pandemic era has fostered one of the strongest international collections in recent memory.

Organized by American producers who initially stipulated that shooting be confined to the location of the filmmaker’s quarantine, The Year of the Everlasting Storm leads  with a past master of confinement, Jafar Panahi, and has a grand finale by Apichatpong Weerasethakul that, typically enough, lets slip the bonds of conventional consciousness and perception.

Panahi and Apichatpong’s contributions alone would make the feature required viewing, but the whole succeeds because all seven filmmakers follow the most basic rule of staying utterly true to themselves.

Panahi’s short, titled ‘Life’, opens with a fleeting sense that humans have already vanished from the planet. A giant iguana in an apartment stares goggle-eyed at pigeons nesting outside the window. It’s amusing, but the waiting and the watching evoke the interminable pandemic sensation of anticipation (which gets a more hopeful twist later with the introduction of an egg). But the film’s promise is clinched by Panahi’s genius for fractaling wrinkles and nuances out of ordinary incidents: Panahi and his wife (‘playing’ themselves) get a surprise visit from her mother, albeit clad in a hazmat suit. The indefatigable older woman delightedly takes a call from Panahi’s daughter, Solmaz, and ends up hanging out with the iguana. The sequence suggests at once endurance across generations and the looming of mortality.

The entries from Anthony Chen (winner of the Cannes Camera d’Or for Ilo Ilo, 2013) and Malik Vitthal present two more looks at domesticity under quarantine, and particularly the exhausting upkeep required of a family.

Chen’s ‘The Breakaway’ susses out pressure points for a couple (Zhou Dongyu and Zhang Yu) and their toddler, as she works from home in customer service and as his parenting skills (and common sense) flag. Libido, fatigue and fear all bubble to the surface in the close quarters.

In ‘Little Measures’, Vitthal deploys Facetime viewpoints and animated flourishes to sketch a father’s struggles to hold onto his children, who were with social services.  The kinetic presentation underlines the sense of vulnerability and contingency, even if the short doesn’t quite gel.

Dominga Sotomayor and Laura Poitras effectively create microcosms of their past work with their entries.

Sotomayor’s wispy ‘Sin Titulo, 2020’ follows a woman as she hosts a daughter who seems to be camping her way through the pandemic and reunites with another daughter living in the city. The implied frictions in generational ideals and DP Inti Briones’s sun-kissed, faded palette together evoke Sotomayor’s Too Late to Die Young (2018), with a lovely finale involving a virtual choral group.

Poitras’s ‘Terror Contagion’ (with music by Brian Eno) creates a nonfiction fever dream out of an investigation into an invasive Israeli security company (“It’s like somebody sitting in your mind,” we hear at one point), populating the film with multi-window encrypted video interviews, outdoor and indoor drone shots and returning-the-gaze views of police in downtown New York. I confess to not fully grasping the company’s software products, but that in turn only increased the sense of anxiety as one ponders a world of threats impossible for civilians to describe, much less fend off.

One of the other guidelines for the omnibus was that fiction films had to be written in the present, and David Lowery seems to have taken this as a challenge. As if tapping into the frontier gothic of A Ghost Story (2017), his short ‘Dig Up My Darling’ centers on a nomadic woman (a hard-bitten Catherine Machovsky) who is fixated on a voice from the past: namely, a cache of wistful letters that speak of a body buried in the desert. Largely transpiring in a car – playing in its frequent role as a confessional space – the film turns into a kind of memento mori portrait, all too appropriate to an era with relentless, overwhelming mortal turnover.

The Year of the Everlasting Storm concludes with a segment by Apichatpong Weerasethakul, an exhilarating experimental piece that confirms the freedom afforded the omnibus participants (and from which the film takes inspiration for its name). Perhaps having more in common with Apichatpong’s installation works, ‘Night Colonies’ envisions a maelstrom of fluorescent lighting and the buzzy insects it attracts. Human beings don’t appear outside of a found soundtrack with recorded voices and clips from recent protests in Thailand. The elemental setup suggests the inversion of outside and inside and a generalized angst that dovetails with the troubled sleep endemic to the Thai filmmaker’s recent feature Cemetery of Splendour (2015). It’s an apt and bold ending after a year (and counting) spent in varying phases of suspended animation.

Further reading

Too Late to Die Young first look: a country comes of age

By Josh Slater-Williams

Too Late to Die Young first look: a country comes of age

Film of the week: A Ghost Story explores the delirium of grief

By Roger Clarke

Film of the week: A Ghost Story explores the delirium of grief

Film of the week: Cemetery of Splendour

By Tony Rayns

Film of the week: Cemetery of Splendour

Sight & Sound Summer 2021

In our current (double) issue we hand centre stage to 100 hidden heroes of cinema who have shaped film history. Plus Ben Wheatley on In the Earth, Emma Seligman’s Shiva Baby, Victor Kossakovsky’s pig portrait Gunda, Jane Fonda interviewed, Limbo and refugees on film, and a look back at My Own Private Idaho. Available in print and digitally.

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