What Are You Watching? is a weekly space for The A.V Club’s film critics and readers to share their thoughts, observations, and opinions on movies new and old.
For some time, I’d been curious about The Invader, a thriller or sorts that did the festival circuit back in 2011. The director, Nicolas Provost, is better known as a video artist. He’s interested in the same things a lot of self-described video artists and experimental filmmakers of the last generation seem to be into: the erosion of film and the projection of narrative, with the key works (to me, anyway) being Long Live The New Flesh, made from a very glitchy DVD-rip of Videodrome, and Plot Point, for which Provost secretly filmed pedestrians, cops, and cabbies around Times Square with a hidden camera and then edited them together into reverse shots, like characters in a thriller. You can watch an excerpt here—a good reminder that despite their reputation as a domain of Knox Harrington-esque snoots, a lot of gallery video art and contemporary experimental film consists of stuff that the average person would consider pretty cool.
Anyway, Provost seems to draw on this languorous, zoom-based guerrilla technique a lot in The Invader, seeing as a big chunk of the movie appears to have been filmed on the streets of Brussels with a concealed camera trained on the alienated protagonist, Amadou (Issaka Sawadogo). The opening shot of the film is the sort of unnecessarily elaborate, attention-getting folderol I tend to find irresistible against my better judgment: a slow-motion Steadicam tableau of the proverbial Modern Europe that starts as a Gustave Courbet-quoting close-up of a vulva and then pulls back to reveal the bodies of drowned African migrants washing up on a nudist beach. But the rest of the movie largely operates in a furtive, hidden-cam follow mode that shows that the difference between very resourceful low-budget exploitation filmmaking and artistic abstraction can be very small.
I think Provost was trying to make something like an undocumented immigrant Taxi Driver, and in that respect, his moody little neo-genre piece fares better than Jacques Audiard’s Dheepan. The result is too straightforward and minimalist to produce the sort of complicated internal dialogue that distinguished both Martin Scorsese’s direction and Paul Schrader’s script, but that’s true of basically every Taxi Driver wannabe. Amadou, who has come to Belgium from an unspecified African country, begins to unravel after the crooks who smuggled him into the country cover up the death of one of his friends from back home; what’s interesting is that, instead using expressionistic effects to convey his deteriorating mental state, Provost simply uses the unscripted reality of city foot traffic, framing Amadou from across the street as he lingers around intersections or benches, ignored by passersby.
I’d been meaning to revisit Christopher Nolan’s debut feature Following for a while and this seemed as good a time as any. Shot on black-and-white 16mm (a mood-enhancing choice that I assume was partly motivated by the fact that Nolan, who is color blind, had to shoot it himself), it’s got one of the most ingenious and intriguing openings of any micro-budgeted feature, but loses steam because no one in the cast is a good enough actor to actually carry the premise. It’s always interesting to see how director’s styles are shaped by early limitations—like the way Nolan still mostly films actors in singles and cuts around like he’s trying to cover up flubbed takes. Of course ragging on his editing is an old game. (See: The half-dozen angles it takes for Al Pacino to jump a fence in Insomnia.)
But let’s talk about something Following does very well and the reason I watched it as a chaser to The Invader: its evocative use of real crowds and busy streets. The condition under which the film was shot—again, guerrilla-style over a year’s worth of weekends, with no real crew and a handheld camera—puts it in conversation with its themes. It isn’t a very sophisticated film, but it is very self-reflexive, in the way that its limited means reflect both the misdirection and the voyeurism of the plot. And there is another innately self-reflexive quality, which is the fact that the movie audience is itself a crowd and the viewer is just another person in it. When a camera stalks a single-character narrative out of the crowd, you create a distorted mirror image of the movie-watching process—that whole business of the individual emotional response within the mass experience.