Beginning on a muted note, thanks to some gale force winds and rain that dampened the usual rowdy Saturday mood, the opening weekend of the 13th Dallas International Film Festival again finds itself sprawling across several theaters in the area.
Perennial favorites like the Texas Competition, LatinX and World Cinema rub elbows with new divisions such as the college short films showcase, a Czech cinema sidebar and musical documentaries from regional acts called Deep Ellum Sounds. In addition to the eclectic scheduling, it’s also the first year the event is completely subsidized by Atom Tickets, which means an incredibly orderly seating process and not a single line to any movie. Other events, take note.
Still in place for the odd, weird and downright disturbing is the Midnight Special selections. My first choice, Peter Strickland’s In Fabric (pictured above), proved to be a bit of a dud, especially because I loved his previous film, The Duke of Burgundy (2014), so much.
The reclamation of 70s Euro thriller and soft-core sleaze is all the rage these days. American filmmakers like Anna Biller and Italians Helene Cattat and Bruno Forzani (Let the Corpses Tan 2017 and Amer, 2009) have ingested the color-tinted rages of Jean Rollin and the breathy sexuality of Jess Franco and crafted some out there hallmarks for a new generation of filmmakers exploring and excavating past tropes.
Another one of the archaeologists is British born Strickland, who burst onto the scene with Berberian Sound Studio (2012) and has yet to look back. His latest film, In Fabric, is just as concerned with the fetishization of image and sound as his previous films, perhaps even more so this time, since it’s a horror film about the ‘evilization’ of actual thread and fiber … a red dress that passes from person to person and wrecks havoc on their lives. Naturally, the dress catalog describes the material color as “artery” red.
Beginning with lonely divorcee Sheila (Marianna-Jean Baptiste) and her interactions with various suitors and moving onto the homely and homey Reg (Leo Bill) and fiancee Babs (Hayley Squires), In Fabric traces the violent path of the dress between these people. Actually, it’s not as demonic as it sounds. Favoring stilted humor and kinky designs of human sexuality over the more bruising aspects of the horror genre, the film understands its ‘giallo’ roots and proceeds to play with them. If nothing else, Strickland remains in complete control of image and sound, flexing his proclivity for the outlandish. From actress Fatma Mohamad’s arched performance (and even archer syntax and accent) as a witchy saleswoman to the soundtrack by a band called Cavern of Anti Matter, whose influence must be Goblin, In Fabric swirls with a major WTF attitude.
What the film can’t overcome, however, is a leaden pace that drains the energy at times and slapdash swipes at consumerism that feel more prominent in something like George Romero’s living-dead series. Unlike his previous (and best film) The Duke of Burgundy, Strickland appropriates the past and makes it feel only half alive before reminding us why it’s so hard to fully emulate the cheekiness that made them timeless.
The opening scene of Juan Pablo Gonzales’ Caballerango (The Horse Wrangler) sets the pensive tone for the remainder of this wonderful documentary. A horse meanders at the tip of a hill, half obscured by shrubbery while the sun breaks in orange and light blue shards in the sky behind it. The simple act of observing this animal leads into a larger examination of one family’s queasy remembrance about the suicide of one of their sons.
Interspersing their conversations with the director while continually capturing them involved in the mundane tasks of daily life (cooking, cutting up meat, painting fingernails), Caballerango is also careful to document the specific place they reside within. Emotionally charged memories juxtaposed with an unbroken, minutes-long shot of the sun gently setting behind a mountain range not only expresses our very temporary partnership with our landscape, but reminds us that, perhaps, something remains long after we’re gone.
Outside of the immediate family, Caballerango is also an anthropological study. Other events, such as a footrace between two men or the nocturnal displays of faith (a silent street procession) and celebration (a fireworks spectacle), permeate the film as seemingly spontaneous context for a larger exploration of community.
Always returning to the grief of a family, though, the film’s visual style is built upon medium and long static shots, lulling us into a state of church-like penance before cracking the mood with two shattering camera movements that jar us back into the fact we’re watching a movie. The first is when a vehicle carrying a man who’s been relaying the state of suicides in this small village begins to take off and slowly climb a hill and we realize the entire conversation has happened with Gonzales crouched just feet away from him inside the bed of the truck.
The second is the final shot as it watches two horses from a distance before they gently move out of camera range as if they’re aware of our obtrusive gaze. Caught off guard by the movement, the camera jerks to the right as it’s pulled off a tripod and follows them. The horses eventually settle before a sharp cut to black. I doubt the horses stayed in view much longer. If anything, Gonzales’ heartbreaking film proves no matter how hard we try, the soul can’t be bottled up, whether it is man or beast.
Deciding to try out the LatinX scheduling this year (after being routinely underwhelmed by the previous few years’ Texas Showcase selections), if Gabriel Mascaro’s Divine Love is any indication of the state of affairs, I may have made a dubious decision. If one has seen his previous film Neon Bull (2015), then Divine Love doesn’t stray too far from his mandated ideas of uninterrupted sex scenes and methodical plotting.
In his latest film, some wry humor is derived from the film’s depiction of Brazil in 2027, a society on the brink of Orwellian futurism where everyone is treated like bar codes and religion exists in a sphere of devotion where drive thru confessional booths are patterned after Las Vegas marriage chapels and faith is released in Daft Punk-like rock concerts.
Following a couple (Dira Paes and Julio Machado) as they attempt to procreate and make themselves whole in the religious self-help group Divine Love, of course nothing goes as planned.
Even when I figured out where the film was headed after a certain point, Mascaro takes his profoundly glacial time getting there. I felt trapped and suffocated by this film, bored even by the film’s sexually explicit inversion of the duties of a religious group that plays like a secret New York swingers club.
The festival continues to run through Thursday, April 18. See here for tickets and showtimes.