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Hiroshi Teshigahara, “Missing Victor Pellerin”

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By Michael Atkinson

IFC News

[Photo: “Woman in the Dunes,” part of the Criterion Collection’s Three Films From Hiroshi Teshigahara]

Call it art film nostalgia, but every newly forgotten, newly resurrected “classic” from the post-Truman era of international cinema still looks as bold, brave and original as the next, and is often more telling and pertinent than the frequently lugubrious art films of today. The new Criterion box of films by Japanese modernist Hiroshi Teshigahara proves the point, and not just with the justly hallowed, yet today mostly forgotten “Woman in the Dunes” (1964). Exactly the sort of confrontationally metaphoric movie that got heads buzzing in the day, “Woman” is both fearsomely tactile and abstract, with an ideogram for a plot: an unsuspecting entomologist (Eiji Okada) becomes trapped in an enormous dune pit and is kept there by a pack of mysterious villagers. In the pit with him, dumbly going about the Sisyphean task of shoveling away the sand that perpetually threatens to engulf them both, is a servile woman living in a driftwood shack; she is essentially the perpetual-motion device that prevents the villagers’ home from being buried, and he is her designated helpmate.

The harrowing dead-end existentialism belonged to avant-garde novelist/scripter Kobo Abe, who played Emeric Pressburger to Teshigahara’s Michael Powell with three more outlandish concepts/storylines, two included here. “Pitfall” (1962), never released in this country, was Teshigahara’s feature debut after a decade of short documentaries, and it’s just as startling in its concept and its priorities as the film that famously followed. A miner and his son, escaping from slave-like employment, wander into the remains of a deunionized coal-mining town, followed by a company assassin and soon faced with the town’s population of company-murdered ghosts. The melodrama that plays out is strictly pro-labor and anti-corporate in ways with which any nation’s history — including ours — can sympathize, but with the extra added frisson provided by angry, meddling ghosts and more than a few puzzling doppelgangers. By itself, the ghost town and the surrounding mountainsides offer existentialist fuel aplenty, all of it restlessly, inventively shot by Teshigahara as if this were his first film and last — it is by a substantial nose the most impressive film debut of 1962, beating out, I dare say, even Tarkovsky’s “Ivan’s Childhood.”

The third film is the intensely futurist “The Face of Another” (1966), in which Japanese New Wave icon Tatsuya Nakadai plays a burned man with psychotic issues who, once he’s given a temporary prosthetic face, constructs a new identity and suspiciously sets about seducing his own wife. Gimmickry and gadgetry are all but subsumed by Teshigahara and Abe’s philosophical concerns about identity, individualism and perception, as well as by a monstrous cataract of modernist design (authored by architect Arata Isozaki and Masao Yamazaki). The film is a gender-protagonist spin-around from Georges Franju’s “Eyes Without a Face” two years earlier — Teshigahara views obsession from the inside out, and the results are discomfiting and, as always, masterfully photographed by DP Hiroshi Segawa. The DVD box set comes with a thick battery of critical readings (mostly from Canadian crit James Quandt, in essay form and in a video piece), interviews, analytical docs and four of Teshigahara’s gorgeous early shorts, starting with 1953’s “Hokusai.”

Critics and artists are the merest puppets in the new Canadian meta-feature “Missing Victor Pellerin,” manufactured by (and featuring) a luscious rookie named Sophie Deraspe, though given the film itself we can’t be faulted for being suspicious of her identity and of whom the filmmaker(s) really is/are. First, the film appears to be a documentary about a 1990s Quebec art world phenomenon: a mysterious painter self-named Victor Pellerin appeared on the scene, got famous and wealthy, and then suddenly recalled all of his pictures, burned them and disappeared. Alright, but the film follows Pellerin’s fading circle — theater director/nicotine glutton Eudore Belzile, Pellerin’s sister and ex-girlfriend, various gallery owners, writers and naysaying painter compatriots — with such intimacy and sometimes shocking frankness that soon you suspect what Deraspe (or whomever) admits in the end credits: that although Pellerin is real, the entire film was scripted.

Maybe: you can’t find any mention of Pellerin on the Net that doesn’t involve the film, and even the dope escapade in which his circle of ex-friends, and Deraspe, indulge on camera — a “submarine” syringe application of belladonna to the back of the neck — has been wholly unheard of elsewhere. (And of course we never see any of Pellerin’s art — ostensibly, it’s all gone.) As the narrative progresses and Pellerin is revealed to be wanted for forgery by the Canadian authorities (the supercilious art detective makes ridiculous goo-goo eyes at Deraspe during his interview), the entire cast undergoes a kind of psychological striptease, and we end up in Colombia, no closer to knowing Pellerin’s whereabouts than when we began. What the hell happened? The film is apparently fiction, but it’s part of the point that we’ll never know how much, or what kind, or whether any of our categories matter — all questions that control the house of cards that is the international art sphere. “Missing Victor Pellerin” isn’t a hoax, or a documentary, or a mockumentary — it’s something for which we have no proper name, a kind of speculative tale told in non-fiction form, like a Borges story. Maybe.

Three Films From Hiroshi Teshigahara (Criterion) will be available on DVD on July 10th; “Missing Victor Pellerin” (Atopia) is now available on DVD.


Final Countdown

The Best Of The Last

Portlandia Goes Out With A Bang

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The end is near. In mere days Portlandia wraps up its final season, and oh what a season it’s been. Lucky for you, you can watch the entire season right now right here and on the IFC app, including this free episode courtesy of Subaru.

But now, let’s take a moment to look back at some of the new classics Fred and Carrie have so thoughtfully bestowed upon us. (We’ll be looking back through tear-blurred eyes, but you do you.)

Couples Dinner

It’s not that being single sucks, it’s that you suck if you’re single.

Cancel it!

A sketch for anyone who has cancelled more appointments than they’ve kept. Which is everyone.

Forgotten America

This one’s a “Serial” killer…everything both right and wrong about true crime podcasts.

Wedding Planners

The only bad wedding is a boring wedding.

Disaster Hut

It’s only the end of the world if your doomsday kit doesn’t include rosé.

Catch up on Portlandia’s final episodes on demand and at


Rev Up

Your Portlandia Personality Test

The New Portlandia Webseries Is Going Your Way

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Carrie and Fred understand that although we have so much in common, we’re each so beautifully unique and different. To help us navigate those differences, Portlandia has found an easy and honest way to embrace our special selves in the form of a progressive new traffic system: a specific lane for every kind of driver. It’s all in honor of the show’s 8th and final season, and it’s all presented by Subaru.

Ready to find out who you really are? Match your personality to a lane and hop on the expressway to self-understanding.

Lane 10: Trucks Piled With Junk

Your junk is falling out of your trunk. Shake a tail light, people — this lane is for you.

Lane 33: Twins

You’re like a Gemini, but waaaay more pedestrian. Maybe you and a friend just wear the same outfits a lot. Who cares, it’s just twinning enough to make you feel special.

Lane 27: Broken Windows

Bad luck follows you around and everyone knows it. Your proverbial seat is always damp from proverbial rain. Is this the universe telling you to swallow your pride? Yes.

Lane 69: Filthy Cars

You’re all about convenience. Getting your car washed while you drive is a no-brainer.

Lane 43: Newly Divorced Singles

It’s been a while since you’ve driven alone, and you don’t know the rules of the road anymore. What’s too fast? What’s too slow? Are you sending the right signals? Don’t worry, the breakdown lane is nearby if you need it.

Still can’t find a lane to match your personality? Check out all the videos here. And see the final season of Portlandia this spring on IFC.


Give Back

Last-Minute Holiday Gift Guide

Hits from the '80s are on repeat all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC.

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GIFs via Giphy, Photos via The Everett Collection

It’s the final countdown to Christmas and thanks to IFC’s movie marathon all Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, you can revel in classic ’80s films AND find inspiration for your last-minute gifts. Here are our recommendations, if you need a head start:

Musical Instrument

Great analog entertainment substitute when you refuse to give your kid the Nintendo Switch they’ve been drooling over.

Breakfast In Bed

Any significant other or child would appreciate these Uncle Buck-approved flapjacks. Just make sure you’re not stuck on clean up duty.

Cocktail Supplies

You’ll need them to get through the holidays.

Dance Lessons

So you can learn to shake-shake-shake (unless you know ghosts willing to lend a hand).

Comfy Clothes

With all the holiday meals, there may be some…embigenning.

Get even more great inspiration all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC, and remember…