29 Oct 2010

Bipedality (2010) Film Review by Maximilian Le Cain

Bipedality (2010 dir: Rouzbeh Rashidi)

(Film review)

By Maximilian Le Cain

The standard modus operandi of mainstream film is to lead the viewer by the hand through the events and feelings that it causes to unfold, to steadily unveil its trajectories in carefully regulated phases that ensure the audience is never lost. Not just lost in terms of what is going on at a narrative level but, perhaps more crucially, in terms of what it should be feeling at any given moment.

By contrast, it is rare and thrilling to encounter a film that seems to pre-exist the viewer’s presence, one which pitches the audience into a disturbingly private universe and trusts it to find its bearings within an alien environment that belongs more to the characters than the spectator. There is no better example of this than Rouzbeh Rashidi’s magnificent and profoundly mysterious new underground feature Bipedality (2010). A two-hander focusing exclusively on a young couple played by Dean Kavanagh and Julia Gelezova, it troublingly articulates the way in which two people, even while sharing an intimate relationship, can remain mysterious to each other- and perhaps also to themselves.

Bipedality is structured around three long dialogue scenes between the couple. The first and last concern the unexplained disappearance of a neighbour’s small child, and are both set in a park. The central conversation takes place in the couple’s kitchen and largely involves the frustrated man questioning the noncommital woman about why their sex life seems to have petered out. All three conversations, well improvised by the actors, become painful studies in how inadequate language is to communicate feeling, or to grapple with the mysteries of existing in any given moment in relation to another person or simply to the world that surrounds one.

In contrast to the frailty of speech, Rashidi surrounds his characters with a vision of the world that is almost overwhelmingly vivid and sensuous. The conversations are frequently interrupted and fragmented almost at random by richly textured landscape shots, both urban and rural, of a brooding painterly intensity worthy of Sokurov. These are not spatially connected with the dialogue scenes, at least not in any immediately discernable way. Nor are they clearly connected to any of the characters, in the way specific mental images would be. Yet they somehow remain emotionally relevant to the characters’ states of mind: lost, fragile, isolated…

For a spectator, the relationship with the couple is almost one of eavesdropping as Rashidi keeps us at a distance from them, hindering the sort of vicarious identification found in most films. Equal weight is given to the landscapes which the viewer is given ample time to contemplate. Therefore, whichever way the audience turns, towards the couple or the world, it is called on to exercise its own sensitivities rather than be guided by a narrative that remains too opaque to drive the experience. Yet this is not a cold, intellectual distance- Rashidi’s film is viscerally emotional and demands an emotional response. What this results in is the audience finding itself in a position almost akin to that of the couple: emotionally embroiled yet profoundly mystified and engaged in a crisis of communication. And the mystification is not chiefly a case of wondering what is happening narratively, even though the dialogues are full of suspense. Nothing is more suspenseful than the duel between the couple’s drama, which itself feels so vulnerable because it can only rely on words to unfold, and the presence of the world around them, which is, in contrast, so imposingly rendered.

Rashidi is emerging as one of cinema’s poets of isolation, and communication, or its lack, is a constant concern. This can take the form of films dealing with characters that are isolated, often exploring the relationship between a character and his environment. But it can also take the form of more abstract films in which any type of traditional character is dispensed with and the troubled gaze of the filmer assumes central importance. It is perhaps in these that one can discern most clearly what Rashidi might be getting at: he is not interested in cinema as a record or replication of communication, but in what cinema can itself best communicate through sound and image. Time and again, Rashidi demonstrates the power of film to give the viewer direct access to radically subjectified impressions of the world, always moody, often fragmented and with only the most minimal narrative scaffolding. Or sometimes with none at all. He is concerned with the intensely private experiences of perception that perhaps cinema alone has the tools to communicate adequately.

With one notable exception (Now and Forever, 2008), speech in Rashidi is, by and large, treated with suspicion, viewed as inadequate to communicate essential feelings. Indeed, Rashidi makes masterful use of the absence of speech in films such as Flooded Meadow (2007) in which shots of people talking have their soundtracks replaced with subtle, wordless soundscapes. This effect creates a general sense of yearning and alienation that tends to linger in the mind long after viewing.

The sound design in Bipedality reflects this tendency with the dialogue track often sounding deliberately fragile against the rich ambient mix. Rashidi’s apparent distrust of speech becomes a key part of the film’s ambiguous conclusion. The last dialogue scene shows the woman, obviously in a disturbed state, making what appear to be incoherent stabs at confessing to knowing where the missing child is while also recounting fragments of an autobiographical incident. There seems to be some obscure connection between the two events in her mind. The man’s response is to question her urgently: Is she okay? Where is the child? The conversation goes in circles, but the tension heightens. The film moves again and again away from the couple to images of forests and beaches, this time inhabited. The concluding shot is of the couple embracing intensely under a tree, the only shot in the film in which they appear to inhabit the set of landscape-images.  Whether this cathartically moving image belongs to the same realm of reality as the conversations is beside the point. It radically abolishes the necessity of understanding as prerequisite to love. The irrepressible force of deep feeling triumphs over the futility of verbalization as the intensity of sound, image and gesture triumph over the hellish prolixity of narrative. Which is not, of course, to propose that Rashidi is claiming that a gesture, however intense, can solve the couple’s issues or banish their demons. But their love does not depend on the outcome of a process of mutual deciphering; they accept the mystery. A highly unusual conclusion to a love story and a wonderful manifesto for Rashidi’s cinema, which consistently offers deeply felt, present-moment experience over the questionable mechanics of plot.

Maximilian Le Cain is an Irish filmmaker, cinephile and film critic living in Cork City Ireland. He’s written for many magazines such as Senses of CinemaFilm Ireland and Rouge. He is also the editor of the online magazine devoted to experimental cinema called Experimental Conversations. “