Atlas

***1/2

Reviewed by: Andrew Robertson

Atlas
"It is a disturbing experience, but a powerful and well constructed one."

One hesitates to use words like "unflinching" but Antoine D'Agata's camera does not look away. It does not look away from users fixing, it does not look away from dragon-chasing or crack-smoking, and it does not look away from depictions of sex that cease to be sex, rhythmic confluence of bodies in the same direction as the dozens of instances where drugs are consumed - towards oblivion.

Filmed in so many cities so quickly presented in the credits that it became difficult to keep count - your reviewer caught Paris, Pnomh Pen, Kiev, Tblisi, Mumbai, San Jose, Kuala Lumpur, Bangkok, Perth, San Francisco, Oslo but missed some. An almost always static camera, sometimes close, sometimes just in the same room, narration by the women over the top in their native language, subtitled with the occasional forgiveable transcription error, and unrelenting.

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Each passage is preceded by an establishing shot - sometimes tower blocks obscured by the vaseline-smear of clouds, sometimes focus slowly moving through a square window looking out over the harbour to turn distant colours into boats at rest, sometimes market-crowds, sometimes empty streets. To see more than two, three people is unusual, differently discomfiting, all part of the uneasiness that Atlas carries with it. The screening Eye For Film attended had at least four walk-outs, which in truth was not a surprise. Atlas has a measured pace, a consistent tone, small slow shots of sometimes striking composition, narration by the women we see with flattened affect, and again and again and seemingly endlessly uncomfortable juxtapositions.

There are moments of filmic beauty - a ruffled black bird in silhouette in a grey underpass is a cubist carrion crow. There are moments of oneiric poetry - the narration of a dream of scorpions is a hazy glimpse of something one could romanticise with opium as muse, but there is no romance here. There are difficult sexual politics - "it's not about saying yes, it's about not saying no".

There are scenes in an abbatoir, a bloody dogfight, and it is in and of itself distressing to countenance that those may be more distressing to audiences than scenes where addicts trace invisible patterns in the floor, where lungfuls of heroin or yama or ICE or any of a litany of substances that can be heated through foil and drawn into sweating bodies in dark rooms leave those we see nodding, helpless. These are not the only instances of harm done to the self in desperation, from wrist-cutting to auto-asphyxiation. There are scenes of female masturbation, even some underwater, but so pervasive is the atmosphere that Atlas has created that it is completely de-eroticised. There is sex here, but as power.

That it's directed by a man potentially adds to the discomfort, but that's external to the camera - before it frequent intermediation, fog, cloud, dark, noise, smoke, plastic bags, water, the act of focus itself, all serve to add distance in unmeasurable increments. These are underworlds, certainly, but all part of a global one, a mirror mappa mundi - it is a disturbing experience, but a powerful and well constructed one. Gilles Benerdeua's sound contributes markedly, and while Antoine seems to have shot all of this himself credit must go to editor Dounia Sichov for stitching something out of his footage.

It starts, and then it ends, and if escape feels like relief then one assumes that that is the point - Atlas is undeniably a test of endurance, and one would hesitate to recommend it, save that it is, as documentary should be, honest and well-constructed. These are real voices we hear, the women themselves, and they deserve to be heard.

Reviewed on: 19 Jun 2014
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Nocturnal images of prostitutes and recorded monologues in which they speak of their lives.

Director: Antoine d'Agata

Writer: Antoine d'Agata

Year: 2013

Runtime: 77 minutes

Country: France

Festivals:

EIFF 2014

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