This Friday, The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston begins its new film series Celebrating World Cinema, featuring a variety of films culled from the museum’s other international festivals and programs. The curators of the series hope to present a sampling of the global culture represented in the films, and although The Lips and Lights Out are very different, they do share a focus on faithfully representing one particular society of their corner of the world: for Ivan Fund and Santiago Loza, directors of the docu-fiction hybrid The Lips, it’s the poor citizens of a countryside Argentine town, while Lights Out‘s Fabrice Gobert explores the social lives of rich teenagers in a French high school—and the murder mystery they find themselves in.
Active Ingredients: Realism; Small, authentic moments
Side Effects: Repetition; Tiresome mood swings
As many films last year proved (Exit Through the Gift Shop was the most popular; Our Beloved Month of August was the best), the nebulous border between documentary and fiction has eroded, if it ever existed at all. Increasingly, filmmakers are using the stylistic approaches of each medium to tell their stories, and ultimately neither one is more “real” than the other. In the right hands, documentary and fiction work together to create their own truth. Despite these aspirations, though, The Lips fails to justify its hybrid form and, rather than establish its own authenticity, calls into question its own apparatus.
The Lips is about 3 social workers who travel to an impoverished rural barrio of Argentina to assess the health and well-being of the villagers. The 3 leads are played by actresses, and when they’re not treating the real-life local people whose lives are fraught with real, serious problems, they’re struggling to cope with the hardships they witness. A formula is established early on, and throughout the film Fund and Loza alternate between village scenes and the social workers’ moments alone. The former are far stronger. The directors have an eye for small, affecting moments of tenderness among the authentic people, so much so that I wonder why they bothered staging the tired emotional ups and downs of the actresses. A simple, short documentary would have been preferable; in this case the presence of fiction doesn’t support reality, it robs it of its power.
Active Ingredients: Engrossing mystery; Convincing high school environment
Side Effects: Conclusion; Intersecting perspectives
High school can be tough. Navigating the complex, catty social structures, surviving gossip and satisfying hormones has surely claimed a few casualties, both among the high schoolers who experience these trials and the filmmakers who try to dramatize them. Luckily, there’s a lot to like in Gobert’s depiction of French high school life. It has a convincing cast of characters (they’re largely archetypes, but the sampling feels representative), authentic dialogue and the cliques you’re sure to recognize. It has enough of the carefully tuned details to be believable, but it even features an engrossing murder mystery.
Politely lifting both the setting and the narrative structure of Gus Van Sant’s masterful Elephant, Lights Out explores the mysterious disappearance of 3 classmates by showing the events from multiple perspectives, periodically winding back time to begin again with a new protagonist. Though the overlapped moments don’t work as well as they do in Elephant, the technique allows Gobert to flesh out his teen drama, fill in holes of the mystery and introduce mini-cliffhangers with each pass. Ultimately, though, the conclusion disappoints; when the answers do come, they feel trite and unsatisfying. Gobert successfully navigates the pitfalls of a high school film, showcases a compelling mystery and an empathy for his characters, only to be marked absent on graduation day.