He’s spent his life behind the lens: observing, archiving, sharing and seeing. In The Story of Looking, documentarian and film scholar Mark Cousins flips the focus, asking himself and viewers: what does it mean to look, and what happens to images? It’s not one of his best works, but perhaps his most personal, which says a lot for an artist ever willing to bare his soul.
Cousins traces the history of the visual image and the act of looking
The movie starts with Cousins in bed watching a video of Ray Charles discussing sight (or the lack thereof) and the interior image. Cousins then tells us that tomorrow, he will undergo surgery on a badly damaged cataract. His plan for the day is laid out. He will get up early, go out into the city of Edinburgh and explore it with his camera. Or maybe he will lie in bed and imagine it.
He does both. And so much more. From the comfort of his bed and during familiar peregrinations around his home city to the imagined archive of his interior images, Cousins traces the history of the visual image and the act of looking. The result is a deeply felt encounter of motion and emotion: a personal yet universal reenactment of the movies we play in our heads.
Cousins’s intimate observations and encyclopaedic knowledge allow the movie to take a potentially hackneyed concept and play it out with casual and only occasionally flawed profundity. After watching it, you just might appreciate what you see – or what has been in front of your eyes the whole time.
Another exploration of process and an artist dealing with the realities of human decline comes this month in Tár. That is to say: after a 16-year hiatus, Todd Field is back, and the sheer austerity of his return offering is intoxicating.
After a 16-year hiatus, Todd Field is back
A story about the process of creation and the poetics of power, it sets up a character around a certain axis and lets it play out to the nth degree. That character is world-renowned musician Lydia Tár. She’s at the apex of her powers, days away from recording the symphony that will canonise her.
Cate Blanchett’s performance in the titular role is so convincing that you’ll be surprised to learn that Tár is a fictive protagonist. Field puts her at the centre of an original and uncompromising commentary on the nature of power structures and their dynamics in a post #metoo era. Nuances build up as the main character becomes a source of compulsion and revulsion. As ever, Field has captured not only the dark undercurrent of now but laid bare the future. It was worth the wait.
The same must be said for French documentarian Alice Diop’s dramatic debut feature Saint Omer, an award-winning courtroom drama in which the director extends her unfettered documentarian’s gaze and burning social interest onto new narrative terrain.
Based on grim events that took place on a cold November day in 2013, when Fabienne Kanou surrendered her 15-month-old daughter to the sea, Diop explores the unexplorable with precision and compassion, contextualising her fictionalised version of the court case that followed within a history of immigration, motherhood and colonialism that puts society itself on trial.
Saint Omer is an inventive courtroom drama, undertaken with the pseudo-clinical approach of Haneke. Beneath the endless mirrors and multi-layers there shines the solid integrity of a hard, pure filmmaker.
A master practitioner in documentary and dramatic film, Ukrainian director Sergei Loznitsa returns with a devastating look at the aerial bombing campaigns against German cities during World War II – the destruction not just of infrastructure but of civilian life.
Inspired by W.G. Sebald’s collection of essays The Natural History of Destruction, Loznitsa’s documentary Luftkrieg – die Naturgeschichte der Zerstörung collates and reconstructs found fragments, taking snippets of footage and splicing them together with signature dexterity and an empathetic eye until they reverberate into a bird’s-eye view of horror and tragedy.
There are no winners here, but Loznitsa finds courage in his craft, translating his own experience of bombardment into a commentary on the death of innocent bystanders to conflict. Unnarrated, the film speaks through images that are difficult, disturbing and definitive. Images that need to be seen. Remembered, not forgotten.
- The Story of Looking ★★★★ Starts Mar 2 D: Mark Cousins (UK, 2021)
- Tár ★★★★★ Starts Mar 2 D: Todd Field (US, 2022)
- Saint Omer ★★★★ Starts Mar 9 D: Alice Diop (France, 2022)
- Luftkrieg – die Naturgeschichte der Zerstörung ★★★★ Starts Mar 16 D: Sergei Lotznitsa (Germany, 2022)