Wednesday, June 16, 2010

The internal return: Liverpool

We never find out how long Farrel (Juan Fernández) has been out at sea. Long enough, it seems, for his visage to attain an almost inscrutable neutrality, to covey nothing of whatever degree of contentment or despair he’s accumulated by a life of landlessness and lonesomeness. I’d guess he’s in his late 30s, though his grey hair might argue with that. He’s also a tippler, which can do things to how a face wears its years.

Farrel’s cargo ship docks in Ushuaia, capital of the Argentine province of Tierra del Fuego and commonly regarded as the southernmost city in the world. So you could say he’s at the end of something. He tells his superior he wants to visit the village where he grew up, to see if his mother is still alive. But is there more to this? He packs a bag while onboard, only to stash it away somewhere near the docks before setting out to traverse a snowbound landscape that sees a minimum of human life. It is unclear to us whether or not he plans to return. It may very well be unclear to him, too.

Like the protagonists of Lisandro Alonso’s previous films, Farrel’s journey from one world to another supplies the bulk of
Liverpool’s decidedly spare narrative. The shift from sea to rough roads to a remote and wintry logging village offers countless images of stark, rugged beauty, while causing us to feel that we’re also somehow sliding deeper into Farrel’s hidden anxieties. When he comes home hardly anyone recognizes him. A young woman of ambiguous mental facilities seems to have taken up his role in the place where he used to live. He keeps drinking, remains reticent, though something in him seems to be changing in this place. By the time we arrive at the film’s final, pivotal image, we’ve gleaned just enough to understand what this journey was really all about.

I’ve seen Alonso’s two previous features, both of which share Liverpool’s rigorously detached, largely observational, almost anthropological formal strategy. I found
Los Muertos (2004), the story of an ex-con returning to the scene of the crime, a masterful example of this sort of filmmaking, as well as surprisingly moving. By contrast, I found Fantasmas (06), which I won’t bother to describe except to say it centers around a screening of Los Muertos, to be a turgid parody of this same style, as though Alonso wanted to take the piss out of his own work and do so in the most annoyingly pretentious and unfunny way possible.

I thus came to
Liverpool with a great deal of skepticism, but the film quickly won me over. Whatever pitfalls Alonso may stumble into as he develops his body of work, he clearly has a tremendous affinity for these stories of solitary, stoic figures working their way through the world. It’s interesting to write this after having just revisited Paris, Texas (84). That film’s vision of restlessness, masculine self-loathing, familial unease, and landscape as a metaphor for the vast and hostile unconscious seems to echo favourably in Liverpool. Perhaps the peculiar stories that grow out of one America are not so different than those of another.

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