The Face of the Jellyfish FNC review

FNC Reviews: The Face of the Jellyfish, About Dry Grasses, Our Body, Lost in the Night

Melisa Liebenthal addresses identity in digital realms, Claire Simon turns the camera on public healthcare, Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan makes one of the best films of 2023 & more.

The 52nd edition of Montreal’s Festival du Nouveau Cinéma runs from Oct. 4 to 15. Read our reviews from our first dispatches here and here.

The Face of the Jellyfish

In El Rostro de la Medusa (The Face of the Jellyfish), director Melisa Liebenthal embarks on an imaginative exploration of identity and the ever-advancing role of technology in our lives. Marina (Rocio Stellato), wakes up one day to a perplexing revelation: Her face has changed entirely. This isn’t metaphorical, it’s a literal transformation. Her voice, body and experiences all remain unchanged, but her face is entirely different. Notably, the film displays old photos of Marina, showing us archive photos of the director Melisa Liebenthal, cleverly juxtaposed with her new appearance, allowing the audience to see the stark contrast between Stellato and Liebenthal. 

Marina’s existential crisis unfolds in an elliptical narrative that keeps us engaged throughout. Her struggle to adapt to her new identity extends to struggling to change her ID, her online presence and contemplating life behind a mask. Alongside this narrative thread, Liebenthal intertwines a recurring motif: animals’ faces, which Marina scrutinizes at the zoo and the aquarium — even that of her own cat. These visual elements, with their intricate 2D/3D polygon patterns superimposed on the images with 2D line art animation, cut-ups, collages and photo montages, cleverly mirror the film’s themes of facial recognition and the loss of individual identity.

The film presents us with a profound exploration of identity in the digital age, where our unique DNA is overshadowed by data-driven analysis. Marina’s experience, although bizarre, highlights the reduction of individuals to a set of digital metrics — reminding us that in today’s hyper-digital world, our identity is increasingly shaped by algorithms, ratings, face filters and likes. Liebenthal opts for a personal, eccentric and open-ended approach with this indie inspired tone. Adding lo-fi animation, surveillance cameras and a meticulous sound design into the mix elevates it into a unique experience. At just 75 minutes, this captivating and unconventional film offers a unique perspective on the evolving concept of identity, leaving the audience with plenty to contemplate. (Chico Peres Smith)

The Face of the Jellyfish screens at Cinéplex Quartier Latin on Oct. 10, 6 p.m.

About Dry Grasses

About Dry Grasses (directed by Nuri Bilge Ceylan)

Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s novelesque About Dry Grasses is set in remote Anatolia. A young art teacher makes the best of his position in the rural area but hopes for a transfer to Istanbul. Samet (Deniz Celiloğlu) is handsome, and he’s the “cool” teacher many of the students love. Soon, though, his life will be turned upside down, as he’s accused (along with his colleague/roommate) of inappropriate contact with the students. The film unfolds with humour and venom as the image of the bright and charming Samet dissolves. Caught between conservative bureaucracy and his own inefficiency, Samet fails to rise to the occasion. His moral compass, already long broken, dove-tails as his self-image plummets amidst a clear mid-life crisis.

In a world of moral relativism and performative, ineffectual activism, Samet prefers to sit back and judge. He’s spiteful and egotistical; he has an inflated self-worth. Through his romantic narration, he searches for meaning in his fascination with his preteen students, painting his closeness to them as a yearning for what is good and pure rather than a self-serving ego-boost. The filmmaking is careful to tread a line, presenting Samet as a man who, by most measures, has only crossed a spiritual line of inappropriateness rather than something overtly immoral, but without any real spiritual or political purpose. Much of the film’s three-and-a-half-hour runtime unfolds as conversations that touch on the mundane and the essential question of what it means to live righteously. Though far more than a conversational film, About Dry Grasses highlights the vital drama, tensions and yearning in even the most ordinary discussions. Though Ceylan is often associated with slow cinema, as he prefers long shots and lengthy scenes, About Dry Grasses is gripping, poetic and self-reflective. The vast winter landscapes encase the drama in a sort of otherworldly snow globe, cut off from the “real” world. This is easily one of the best films of the year — essential cinema. (Justine Smith)

About Dry Grasses screens Cinéma du Parc (3575 Parc) on Oct. 11, 7:30 p.m.

Our Body

Our Body Claire Simon FNC review
Our Body (directed by Claire Simon)

Claire Simon’s latest documentary begins with a departure from her usual self-effacing style. Known for observational films that have an institutional flavour, not unlike Frederick Wiseman, Simon brings the audience into the gynaecology ward of a public French hospital. Our Body opens with voice-over narration as she explains what brought her to make this film and how, for the first time, she would soon find herself a documentary subject. A sprawling three hours, Our Body has been divided into broad sections examining different types of hospital care ranging from abortion, IVF, gender transitions, menopause, endometriosis, birth, cancer and death. We see many procedures and examinations, though much of the film focuses on conversations between doctors and patients. 

Simon opens the film by suggesting her fear of approaching the subject that entering the white, sterile space was inviting sickness into her life. More than anything, the film offers hope for someone who feels similar apprehensions about medical spaces. Without providing a merely rose-eyed perspective, we watch as doctors listen. The film takes a detour outside the hospital walls to women protesting their mistreatment at the hands of careless doctors who either didn’t hear or didn’t respect their patients’ autonomy, but that’s not what we see (perhaps it’s the presence of the camera, but one senses even in the speeches of the offended that the tides are turning).

Few films this year have been so compelling, but the film deals with the fundamentals of life and death: birth, sex and after. By the time Simon emerges in front of the camera, grappling with her breast cancer diagnosis, the film has prepared us to fear the unpredictability of our own bodies but not the care they will receive. It’s a beautiful, tender and occasionally funny portrait of public healthcare that shines with compassion and care. (Justine Smith)

Our Body screens at Cinéma du Parc (3575 Parc) on Oct. 15, 4:30 p.m.

Lost in the Night

Lost in the Night (directed by Amat Escalante)

Lost in the Night, at the Cannes Film Festival, is a noir-esque thriller set in a small mining town in Mexico. The film opens with a public debate over the location of the mine as activists fight to have it closed. In contrast, business interests and many residents see it as an opportunity to enrich the area. Hanging at the peripheries are those who are missing, residents who were “disappeared,” possibly by the owners of the mine. Emiliano (Juan Daniel Garcia Treviño) sets out on a quest to find his missing mother, getting a job working for the wealthy owners, and suspecting that his mother’s body might be buried somewhere on their property. He grows closer to the family, especially their precocious daughter.

The best parts of Lost in the Night are the over-the-top cheese of the wealthy. They’re cynical, absurd and soulless. In stark contrast to the rather bland lead character, they are larger-than-life villains, eclipsing almost all other aspects of the filmmaking. The movie has some other virtues — a compelling subject and beautiful photography — but overall, it lacks pacing and originality. Despite the implication that this might be an art film, the movie never rises above its conventional form and story, which wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing, as a by-the-numbers thriller can still be fun. The problem here is that the filmmaking lacks in both thrills and ideas. (Justine Smith)

Lost in the Night had its Canadian premiere at FNC and does not currently have a Montreal release date. 

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