Thursday 19 November 2020

The hunt: "Cemetery"

Cemetery is a film made with French money by a Spanish director that drifts into territory commonly occupied by the work of Thailand's Apichatpong Weerasethakul before emerging, after a dark, mystical night, into a place all its own. No wonder it should strike us as so unmoored: even the synopsis currently being offered for it at its temporary home of MUBI UK floats the idea it may finally all be a dream. The curveball that synopsis throws is the suggestion Cemetery is all an elephant's dream. Slow cinema by definition, Carlos Casas's film follows a pachyderm - the last on the planet, according to an opening text - as he mournfully plods into a Sri Lankan jungle, pursued by poachers in search of the fabled elephants' graveyard. Of course, this narrative is but flimsy construction, literally mere pretext: the film provided Casas with the opportunity to get out in the wilds, call up an elephant handler, and shoot as much up-close coverage as one could of his magnificent charge, perhaps from the viewpoint there really aren't all that many elephants left for anyone, poacher or director, to shoot. There's barely a square inch of hide that isn't dwelled upon during Cemetery's first act. Elephant legs! Elephant jowls! The folds of a trunk! Folks used to pay a pretty premium at touring carnivals to witness such rare beasts in the flesh; something of that awe is visible in Casas's line of approach, but - this being a capital-A Artfilm - I was also reminded of the way Douglas Gordon obsessively trained his cameras on Zinedine Zidane for the ninety minutes of Zidane: a 21st Century Portrait. This lumbering subject doesn't have anything like Zidane's turn of pace, granted, but that only affords Casas more time to set his cameras running - as does the elephant's tendency to lie down in a river, or stop to grab his lunch from an overhanging tree.

If he doesn't take easy direction, does Jumbo hold our gaze for 85 minutes? While the all-singing troop led by Colonel Hathi in Disney's The Jungle Book shall forever remain my favourite screen elephants, the old warrior Casas looks towards displays some charisma: with his sleepy eyes, leathery skin and heavy tread, he's not unlike Robert Mitchum in his 70s dotage. (You probably wouldn't want to cross either of them, just to be on the safe side.) There's a tremendous sequence where the handler attempts to wash behind the elephant's ears, like a mother with a recalcitrant child - a process that in this instance involves folding the creature's flapping great lugholes back over half of its face. This is but several rituals we're made privy to en route to the film's ultimate destination, some of which (washing, shaving, food preparation) prove more explicable than others (a burning of documents). Casas also stokes the tension of those poachers closing in, albeit at a guarded distance, studying droppings, looking for evidence of trampling. Their plodding is less compelling than that of our tusked hero, because the movies have shown us men schlepping through woods a thousand times over. Their progress does, however, add to the sense we're watching a thriller in slow motion, which I think accounts for the film's genuine dreamlike quality. Brace yourself for a twenty-minute sequence towards the end shot in near-complete darkness, apparently with a camera strapped to the elephant's back. Yet the pockets of tranquility Casas carries us into are the real deal: see the man kneeling in prayer by the side of a lake as night falls, with no other signs of life around save the insects heard in the trees. Look up - as this camera does from time to time - and you can still see the stars; there are long, oddly fascinating stretches of Cemetery where we seem miles away from civilisation, the Coronavirus, and anything else currently playing.

Cemetery is now streaming via MUBI UK.

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