Moment to Moment: The Short Films of Jacqueline Lentzou
Jacqueline Lentzou’s cinematic universe is one of subtle beauty and complex poetry. Dense with unspoken feeling, the Greek filmmaker’s eight shorts are characterized by their language of intimacy and empathy, a driving curiosity about the limits of form, and a preference for mood over plot. You could describe that mood as one of deepening introspection. From film to film she elaborates on her obsessions: unconventional family set-ups, the fluid boundaries between childhood and adulthood, and bringing our dreams to life. The characters who inhabit her films are bound together by a shared state of unmoored-ness. On the cusp of adulthood, they drift through life’s moments, carrying their confusion and complications with them. The archetypal Lentzou character is Sofia, a young Greek woman, not dissimilar to Lentzou herself, who can’t quite find her place in the world. Played by Sofia Kokkali, Sofia first appears in Lentzou’s ‘‘Hector Malot: The Last Day of the Year’’ (2018), and then reappears in her latest, ‘‘The End of Suffering (A Proposal)’’ (2020). Together with Kokkali, they have cultivated a character that, at this point, can’t just be read as a surrogate for Lentzou (if it ever could), but as a complex character in her own right, growing up and evolving as they do. A particularly rewarding feature of Lentzou’s filmography is that it has matured alongside her characters, the youthful rebellion of her earlier characters now giving way to Sofia’s ennui.
In ‘‘The End of Suffering (A Proposal),’’ which premiered at Locarno this year, Sofia’s sadness has reached a tipping point. She’s in the midst of another panic attack, and the universe reaches out to her. The cosmos alerts her to banal details that have escaped her attention: three dehydrated bougainvilleas and two dead eucalyptus on her balcony, a wounded pet, food rotting in the fridge. It ‘‘knows that she knows these things,’’ the cosmos says, berating her for the habit of trying to understand everything. In her Locarno Q&A, Lentzou revealed that what she finds most problematic and finally entertaining, in a cynical way, is the pretension of knowing, the infatuation with it. ‘‘In the end, what does it mean to know, what do you know, and why do you want to know?’’ she asked. Consequently, in ‘‘The End of Suffering (A Proposal),’’ Lentzou gently parodies some documentary conventions, its pretense to omniscience and authority, Mars’ ‘‘voice’’ delivered as if from on high. Evoking textures of the past by shooting on 16mm (the cinematography by Lentzou’s regular, Konstantinos Koukoulios, is as always spot-on), ‘‘The End of Suffering (A Proposal)’’ operates as an imaginary ethnography of the red planet. But if traditional ethnography is driven by the objective of making the unfamiliar comprehensible, this fantastical ethnography does the inverse as shots of animals and athletes are defamiliarized, their earthly associations abandoned for new ones. This imagined Mars is a place where people dream while they’re awake and fight in the name of love. And why not? What do we really know anyway? Is the film’s titillating proposition.
Texturally the film is densely cumulative, incorporating a CGI-created cosmos, 16mm observational scenes of life on Mars, all tinged slightly red (‘‘that impression of Mars is true,’’ confides the planet), and a final arthouse sequence that juxtaposes close-ups of flowers with the different parts of a woman’s body—‘‘image-objects’’ that create sensations that exceed the visual and travel to other zones of feeling, to touch and hapticity.
‘‘The End of Suffering (A Proposal)’’ functions as a sort of diptych with ‘‘Hector Malot: The Last Day Of The Year.’’ In this short, which took home the Leica Cine Discovery Award at Cannes Critics’ Week, Sofia’s ennui and uprootedness is poetically traced back in time. An opening prelude of home-movie style VHS footage introduces us to a young Sofia dressed as a fairy, asking pantomime-like, ‘‘Where am I?’’ She fell from the sky is the response she gets. Forlorn, she asks if others have also fallen; or ‘‘will no one walk by my side?’’ A spatio-temporal leap brings us to the present day, landing on Sofia’s similar forlorn expression. It’s New Year’s Eve, yet another year is drawing to an end, and Sofia finds herself alone, drifting around Athens and trying to find a place to belong. Someone once gave her Hector Malot’s 1878 novel Sans Famille as a gift. It’s a minor classic of the “unhappy child” school, of which Jules Verne was a leading light. Although there’s just a single off-hand reference made by Sofia in a moment of trying to fit in, the film elaborates on the book’s central themes of loneliness and neglect. Sofia longs to be understood, to belong, perhaps even to be loved. Midway through, she has a dream she tells no one: while walking in a desert, she finds out she is sick. A doctor asks for her heart to examine, but she can’t find it.
The film evokes Sofia’s emotional fragility and disconnect through a series of low-key and vivid vignettes: a moment of gently weeping in the pews of a church seems saved when someone kisses her on the back of her head, but when she turns around, she realizes they’ve mistaken her for someone else; later, learning that she can’t quite fit into her friends’ selfie, she gives up and looks on. Out in the street, she wanders alone, flanêur-like, trying to find a place to belong, heavy with the knowledge that belonging is ultimately utopian. She is detached from the crowd rather than a participant: a “central oyster of perceptiveness, an enormous eye,” as Virginia Woolf wrote in her 1927 essay ‘‘Street Haunting.’’
Like Sofia, the film’s emotional arc bends insistently from inarticulate sadness to gentle catharsis. In a post-show Q&A at the 2019 New Directors/New Films at the Film at Lincoln Center, Lentzou described her filmmaking practice as a need to reflect on the momentary experience, on feelings, rather than an objective depiction of the subject: ‘‘We might have a scene that is happy and then a scene that is not so happy. Every day is like a collage of moments, very different in texture, rather than a unity. I, personally, have never experienced a day which is one feeling or the other, there’s variation.’’
‘‘Hector Malot’’ is, above all, an achievement in variation, mood, and implication. By the end of the film, you feel you know Sophia and her world intimately without necessarily understanding it any better than she does. Relationships are ambiguous, and motives and actions mysterious, but not because she wants to mystify, but because she is a realist. Hers is a poetic realism, a surrealism that recognizes inner worlds as oneiric, strange, and ambivalent, a place of solace and solitude into which many of her characters retreat.
In fact, a central preoccupation of Lentzou’s work is the attempt to make visible the poetry of the dreaming subconscious. Her chimerical avant-garde short ‘‘Hiwa,’’ which had its world premiere at the Berlinale in 2017, opens with the description of a dream before launching into its visualization. A Filipino man, Jay (Melchor Lopez), dreams of his children lost in Athens, a city he has never visited. Against the half-light of the Athens sun—‘‘so weak you can look straight at it without going blind’’—Jay’s eyes scan the jagged rocks around the city, searching for his girls, frenetic with his disorientation. In the city proper, Lentzou succeeds in showing a defamiliarized Athens, refracted through Jay’s dream. Koukoulios’ camera crawls upwards over decrepit buildings, stubbornly sticking to their details—dilapidated shutters and oxidized iron balconies—and never opening up to the expected wide shot of the buildings in all their decadent glory. The upwards motion is as if Lentzou herself were coming up for breath, as if she were trying to wake Jay up from the dream. But the gesture, like the Athens sun, ‘‘isn’t enough,’’ and Jay, now a child, must rely on his own mother to find his girls. Wrapped in layers of poetic metaphor, the film gives life to Jay’s nocturnal vision, operating as an outlet for his parental anxieties and insecurities.
With ‘‘Hiwa,’’ Lentzou inaugurated a new interest in the language of dreams and film’s ability to depict dreams, abiding by a reality that, before movies, could only exist inside our heads. It builds upon a language of interiority that has been a driving force in Lentzou’s work from the very beginning, especially in her two thoughtful coming-of-age stories, ‘‘Fox’’ (2016) and ‘‘Thirteen Blue’’ (2013). With ‘‘Fox,’’ Lentzou offers a precise, sensuous look at the awkward transition between overgrown childhood and unknowing adulthood, tracing the impulses of youthful rebellion and its pivot to jaded maturity in its protagonist, Stefanos (Nikos Zeginoglou), with compassion and delicate care. After another argument with his mother, Stefanos is left alone to look after his two younger siblings and their sick dog. His mother drives off and is in a car crash. But rather than focus on the aftermath of this life-changing event, Lentzou concentrates on the children’s carefree day, lounging in the sun and ignoring the phone ringing incessantly in the background. The still, dusty, and sun-filled air wraps the story in nostalgia, aided by Koukoulios’ warm, grainy cinematography and bird-of-view shots that feel like an ‘‘entity’’ is now looking down on the young family. ‘‘Thirteen Blue’’ (2013), made during her time at the London Film School, centers on Ellie (Emmanuela Sfyridi), a thirteen-year-old trying to make sense of her surroundings during a heat wave. The film prioritizes its young protagonist’s inexpressible sense of estrangement and anger as she transitions into adolescence, a period typically marked by discovering (and intensely feeling) life’s shortcomings. Lentzou’s imagery is often too whimsical in this early film, lacking the ambiguity of her later, more mature work. Still, the balance between narrative and atmosphere bears the imprint of her indelible style, sharing a language of intimacy and sunny sadness that is unmistakably hers.
Lentzou has stated that she wants to give the audience space to enter the moment with the character: and then ‘‘whoever entered, entered. And whoever didn’t enter, didn’t enter.’’ She is adamant that her interests lie in the moment: growing up in small, casual moments, moments of transition and forced upon change, moments made tangible through filmic experiments with light, words, and objects. They are moments of life, so concrete they bruise on impact, and then slip away dreamlike in their ephemerality. Hers is a project of unearthing a potential world, an inner world and dream world, rooted within the one we currently live.
Top image: “The End of Suffering (A Proposal)”