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L.A. Film Fest Reviews: Herzog-ian 'Family Instinct' & The Quiet Tragedy Of 'The Salesman'

by James Rocchi
June 24, 2011 6:03 AM
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"Family Instinct"
Director Andris Gauja seems to be taking a page out of Werner Herzog's "ecstatic truth" playbook with "Family Instinct," a film about Zanda, a Latvian woman waiting for her husband and father of her children to come home from prison. But he's only in prison because she told the police of the abuse she and her children were receiving. Still, she says she'll let him back and be happy if he behaves. After all he is her husband. And her brother.

That backstory is nothing compared to the chaos of her everyday life which most of the film is devoted to. She lives in a small village made up of characters straight out of a Harmony Korine film, where everybody seems to know everyone else. Episodes include an old woman gleefully taking the beer out of the hands of someone whose clearly had more than a few and a neighbor putting a screw in his chest and fake blood all over his face to prove his love to the woman. Careful viewers will start to notice a certain amount of unreality to the proceedings. The camera is getting so much coverage and with few exceptions no one ever looks directly at the camera as they would in a traditional documentary. The director freely admitted his process included talking to his subjects about what had happened in their life and then setting up a scene to act it out. At times, the film feels so calibrated, we assumed that some of the scenes are things the characters wished would've happened, instead of a document of how it actually played out.

The result is a film offbeat but strangely alluring. The amazing cinematography by Aleksandrs Grebnevs emphasizes the melancholy lying beneath the outrageous of the story. You will laugh out of disbelief while admiring Zanda for how strong she is. You certainly have seen nothing like this before. [A-]

"The Salesman"
Marcel (Gilbert Sicotte) is a good man. In his late 60s he has been the top automobile salesman at the Dolbeau-Mistassini, Quebec dealership for the past sixteen years. He buys the mechanics soda everyday (even saying "None for you," with a smile to the one who doesn't like soda is part of the routine). He has a beautiful daughter and grandson who love him. She asks him to retire but he says without her mother still alive, he has nothing to do but sell cars.

"The Salesman" is essentially about slow death both literally and figuratively. Marcel is not getting any younger and while he is selling his cars, the industry of his town is dying as well. The local plant has laid off a large section of its workforce, leaving many unemployed. As each day starts in the film, a title card pops up telling us how many days the plant has been closed (ex: "256 days"). Yet, despite the crumbling economy of the town, Marcel continues to ply his trade and much of the movie focuses on his sale to an unemployed worker whose old car broke down. Otherwise, we see Marcel carry on with his routine, secretly lonely and confused, in the bleakest winter bleakest winter his town has seen yet. We know something bad is going to happen. And it does.

What follows is an accident that is so random that in the context of the rest of the movie it seems sadistic. Director Sébastien Pilote's severe plot turn hardly seems justified and while the film is directed in a very subtle manner, the actual events of the movie are not. Ultimately heavy-handed, Pilote would have been better served by a more ambiguous approach, one that treats the unfolding tragedy with sincerity that than as a soapbox for a political statement about the fragile economy -- both emotional and financial -- of small town life. [C]

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