DUBAI: “Rather than Beirut in its reality, my head is full of images,” the voice of Japanese filmmaker Masao Adachi echoes through the cinema. On screen, a jumbled ensemble of concrete walls and electrical cables – Shatila refugee camp, anonymous here – crowds the frame.“Everything I saw there has been fossilized,” Adachi continues, anticipating the images of a handheld camera being walked through the camp’s enclosed alleyways. The voice ruminates upon the Civil War and the Israeli invasion of 1982. “The city changed so much ... The streets were weeping.”
So commences “The Ugly One,” Eric Baudelaire’s beautifully stark, intellectually taxing feature film debut. The work is the French filmmaker’s second collaboration with the 74-year-old Adachi, who wrote the script – one that, as he warned his younger colleague, could not possibly be filmed.
At its simplest, Baudelaire and Adachi’s work is a series of snapshots of the relationship of Lili and Michel (Juliette Navis and Rabih Mroué). The couple live in Beirut and are in the habit of bilingual communication. Lili prefers to speak French; Michel generally speaks to her in English, though it is not his first language.
In fact noncommunication best describes Lili and Michel’s relationship. The camera introduces them in bed one morning, separately fumbling through the nonverbal communication that precedes lovemaking, an act that remains unaccomplished.
“A woman appears on the landscape,” Adachi’s voice remarks. “I’ll call her Lili for now. Another woman watches over her. Maria. A soldier of the revolution. A daughter of refugees.”
The second scene Lili inhabits sets her and Maria (Manal Khader) upon a beach. Here she is abject. With a woolen cap yanked down over her head, she collects bits of garbage from the sand, shrugging off Maria’s efforts to drape a coat over her shoulders. When a warplane suddenly roars overhead, she panics and Michel has to chase her down like an escaping prisoner.
There is something hollowed-out about both Lily and Michel. The same is true of their circle of friends – Maria, Salim (Fadi Abi Samra), Khalil (Rodney El Haddad) and Khaled (Hassan Mrad). One-time leftist militants, fragments of a secular left shattered by the rise of sectarian politics, their friendships have fractured.
These characters’ politics are as stalled as personal lives. At one point, Michel proposes to his former comrades that they carry out an operation they know as “Fog in Daylight.” The others dismiss the idea of a return to militancy as ridiculous.
Known to film historians as the pioneer of the landscape theory of cinema, Masao Adachi was an aesthetic and political radical in the heady days of international revolution.
He and his then-collaborator Koji Wakamastu (1936-2012) sympathized with the Japanese Red Army, which Fusako Shigenobu had founded in Beirut in 1971.
That year, Adachi and Wakamastu traveled to Lebanon to shoot a documentary in support of the Palestinian resistance, “Red Army/PLFP: Declaration of World War.”
Three years later, Adachi abandoned filmmaking, returned to Lebanon and became an active member of the JRA.
Baudelaire’s 2011 documentary “The Anabasis of May and Fusako Shigenobu, Masao Adachi and 27 Years Without Images” is an impressionistic exploration of the Japanese filmmaker’s journey from cinema to militancy and back, focusing on his relationship with Shigenobu and his daughter May.
That work was the French filmmaker’s first collaboration with Adachi. Baudelaire describes “The Ugly One” as the fictive sequel of “The Anabasis.”
The new work was shot earlier this year over 12 days, while “The Anabasis” was being projected in installation form at the Beirut Art Center. It premiered in August at the Locarno Film Festival and has had its Middle East debut at the Dubai International Film Festival, where it’s screening in the Arabian Nights program.
Anyone familiar with cinema’s love affair with Lebanon’s Civil War, and the documentary films emerging since that conflict was ended, will recognize many of the themes evoked in “The Ugly One.”
Perhaps the most-successful homegrown film to scrutinize the Civil War in an experimental dialect is Ghassan Salhab’s 1998 feature “Beyrouth Fantôme.” The film, which is also premised on the strained relations of former comrades, periodically interrupts itself so that cast members – who, like Mroué, were leftist activists – can share their recollections of the Civil War era.
More recently it became fashionable for formerly leftists to embrace the global critique of the left, and militancy in particular. This soul-searching found expression in a number of highly personal feature-length docs – Maher Abi Samra’s 2010 “We Were Communists,” for instance.
In 2007 Adachi’s former collaborator Koji Wakamastu threw himself into this cinematic wave with his scalding 190-minute docudrama “United Red Army,” which depicts the Japanese Red Army’s organizational antecedent as a cult.
Patches of its turf have been covered before but “The Ugly One” remains unique thanks to Baudelaire’s distinctive approach, which seeks to assemble several international voices.
This makes for a highly modular work. Actors distance themselves from the characters they are meant to portray. Improvisation offsets scripting. Contemporary documentary realities interrogate the story’s fictive premises.
At one point in his voiceover, Adachi notes that he imagines Lili and Michel’s relationship as starting anew with each of their encounters.
This rings true in the principal actors’ choices in depicting their characters. In Navis’ hands, Lili veers wildly from mature sensuality to childish fragility.
Mroué’s representation of Michel is more disparate still. Though he has appeared in several feature films, Mroué is better known for his stage work, having participated in creating a number of powerful, conceptually driven theater pieces. Like several other Lebanese artists working in performance, Mroué works in Arabic at home and in English overseas, but rarely are his characters made to inhabit both languages simultaneously as Michel does.
The effect here is startling. Michel’s possession of English makes his interactions with his lover seem much more wobbly than his improvised Arabic-language scenes later in the film. He is never more self-possessed than during a whiskey-fueled suppertime argument among the former comrades about Syria’s civil war – specifically whether to support the nominally secular regime or the increasingly Islamist-looking opposition.
Sieving their loud disagreements through the failure of their own past militancy only reminds the characters of how betraying their principles undermined the thing that once gave their lives meaning.
As if emulating Adachi’s own career arc, the film represents the actor’s efforts to depict a character and political activism (particularly militancy) as variations on a theme. Forging a political program, it suggests, is not so far removed from writing a script.
The film’s restless scrutiny of its nature is taxing on audiences – even those accustomed to the rarefied dialects of fine art, who are most likely to appreciate Baudelaire’s modular approach to character development and narrative.
Yet in several aspects the beauty of “The Ugly One” is unassailable. Cinematographer Claire Mathon (who also lensed Abi Samra’s “Communists”) has a unique grasp of stark landscape. In Mathon’s hands, the jumble of Shatila, an anonymous, bullet-riddled bomb shelter and the obsolescent modernism of Oscar Niemeyer’s unfinished Tripoli international fairground are all worthy counterpoints to the characters’ spiritual desolation.
Complementing these landscapes, in turn, is the calm assurance of Masao Adachi’s voice – whether remarking upon the impossible task of staging a scenario he has just detailed, or alluding to something of his characters’ affliction.
“Love, I think,” he remarks after one of the lovers’ inconclusive exchanges, “is when we accept something that does not exist within us.”
DIFF continues until Dec. 14. For more information see: http://dubaifilmfest.com.