Zurich Film Festival showcases bold voices with 'Lady Macbeth,' 'I Am Not Madame Bovary,' 'A Taste of Ink'

ScreenerBlog

My final two days at the Zurich Film Festival was marked by an unintentional double bill of movies inspired by scandalous ladies of literature: William Oldroyd’s Lady Macbeth and Xiaogang Feng’s I Am Not Madame Bovary. Toss those two in with my final film of the fest, Morgan Simon’s A Taste of Ink, and it’s fair to say that my time at the Zurich Film Festival ended on a high note. (The festival itself continues on through October 2nd.)

Lady Macbeth takes as its direct inspiration not the "Scottish play" but Nikolai Leskov’s Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk, a 19th century novella about a young woman determined to escape a loveless marriage by any means necessary. Florence Pugh stars as Katherine, whom we meet as she’s being wedded to the dour Alexander (Paul Hilton), a man twice her age who seeks to control every aspect of his new wife’s life. Not that there’s much to that life. Stuck in a house in the middle of nowhere, with only her maid (Naomi Ackie) for company, Katherine soon grows bored and resentful. When an accident at a local mill calls her husband and father-in-law (Christopher Fairbanks) away for a long stretch of time, Katherine strikes up an affair with rough-hewn groomsman Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis). If you think this is your typical romance about star-crossed lovers, suffice to say Lady Macbeth is just about as brutal as its Shakespearean progenitor.

Director William Oldroyd and DP Ari Wegner do a masterful job of marrying the visuals of Lady Macbeth with the reality of Katherine’s existence: dull and claustrophobic. At times there barely seems to be any color in the film at all, and music is used sparingly. At times the film is too dull, with shots that go on just this side of too long inducing a mild stupor. That echoes Katherine’s humdrum pre-Sebastian life—one of the things her father-in-law constantly needles her about is falling asleep at the drop of a hat, but with so little to occupy her time, how could she not?even if it doesn’t make the experience of watching Lady Macbeth a particularly engaging one.

Still, Katherine’s transformation from unhappy wife to murderess (That’s not a spoiler, right? You see the title.) is handled deftly both by Oldroyd and Pugh. And Lady Macbeth is a welcome addition to the genre of feminist-leaning period movies about how few options were available to women in eras past. Katherine is no tragic victim, destined to be taken advantage of by men and led as a result to an early grave. You mess with Lady Macbeth? You’d best watch out.

Fitting better into the “tragic victim” archetype is Li Xuelian (Fan Bingbing) of the Chinese satire I Am Not Madame Bovary. Li and her husband Qin have a seemingly foolproof plan to be eligible for a second apartment in the center of town: They’ll get a divorce, Qin will apply for and receive the new apartment, and then they’ll get remarried. Except Qin skips out on that third step, marrying another woman and leaving Li not only a divorcee, but saddled with the reputation of being unfaithful. (I Am Not Madame Bovary opens with a retelling of the story of Pan Jinlian, an infamous character from 17th-century Chinese literature who cheats on and murders her husband. The English-subtitled version of the movie changes Pan Jinlian to Gustave Flaubert's Madame Bovary, who is more known to Western audiences.)

For the next ten years, Li tirelessly seeks to restore her reputation by proving in court that her divorce from her husband was invalid. It should be a fairly open-and-shut case, because (as a character acknowledges late in the movie), there’s really nothing to Li’s argument. Her husband lied to her, which is scummy, but not illegal—the divorce is legitimate. But a few government officials get fired because of their inability to put the case to bed, and before you know it every bureaucrat in a hundred-mile radius is treating this random peasant woman’s refusal to stop harping on about her ex-husband like it’s Armageddon.

Steeped as it is in elements of Chinese culture and government, I Am Not Madame Bovary can be a tough movie to get into if you’re not familiar with what, exactly, director Xiaogang Feng is satirizing. But red tape is universal, after all. And I Am Not Madame Bovary’s juxtaposition of an unsophisticated, somewhat naive David against Big Government Goliath—and the way the comparison reveals the latter to be more and more ridiculous as the movie goes on—brings out shades of Hal Ashby’s Being There. Cinematographer Luo Pan adds visual interest by playing around with aspect ratios; scenes set in Li’s village are set within a circular frame, while parts of the film set in Beijing get a more expansive, but still claustrophobic-feeling, vertical rectangle. This odd formatting gives I Am Not Madame Bovary an artificial feel, calling attention to itself and lending the film an almost fable-like quality. 

Moving away from female protagonists, we come to my final ZFF film, the French drama A Taste of Ink. Kévin Azaïs (Love at First Fight) stars as Vincent, an aimless 24-year-old who lives with his father Hervé (Nathan Willcocks) and releases his frustrations by singing in a heavy-metal band. And oh, there are frustrations, most of them stemming from Hervé's seeming inability to spend more than ten seconds in his son's presence without belittling him about one thing or another. Another complication: Hervé’s moved on from Vincent’s late mother fairly quickly, striking up a relationship with a younger woman, Julia (Monia Chokri). Vincent is stymied in his attempts to dislike his father’s new paramour by the fact that Julia’s actually pretty nice, attending one of his gigs and expressing more interest in his life than his father ever has. Soon, a mutual attraction develops, and this already less-than-“Leave It to Beaver”esque family begins to head inexorably towards a meltdown.

Writer/director Morgan Simon’s first feature-length film, A Taste of Ink is assured and tightly controlled, clocking in at a swift 80 minutes. The relationship between Vincent, Julia and Hervé is set out deftly and without any storytelling fat or unnecessary detours. You get a real sense of the turmoil felt by all three characters, even the emotionally distant Hervé. The real find here is Azaïs, who superbly gets across the sensitivity and desire for approval hidden under Vincent’s heavily tattooed skin. The lascivious love triangle may be the flashiest thing A Taste of Ink has going, but really, it’s just a movie about people trying to figure themselves out. We see that in Vincent, who’s in that terrifying time of life when childhood is well and truly over and it’s time to start being an adult, even if you have no clue what you’re supposed to be doing. (There’s a detail that I found particularly telling and somewhat endearing: Vincent, reading a book on the cruelty of slaughterhouses, uses a flyer from what appears to be a fast-food chicken restaurant as a bookmark.) It’s true of Hervé, too, a middle-aged widower with a career that’s heading nowhere (he wanted to be a biologist, he says, but he didn’t have the grades, so he became a fishmonger) and a child whom he’s utterly unable to relate to. A Taste of Ink has no U.S. distribution yet, but one hopes someone snaps it up soon; the film, and the talents of Simon, deserve to be seen by a wider audience.