Film Review – Level Five

Level Five

Level Five

You would think that because I went to art school, I might enjoy films on the more experimental side of things. Turns out, I don’t. Watching endless self-indulgent art films did not foster a love of the form in me. I like my films to have a fairly traditional narrative and a coherent plot, although I can get crazy sometimes and enjoy something like Memento. I like my documentaries straightforward with no frills and a direct approach to presenting information. I am not so traditional that I can’t enjoy an Errol Morris film, but he’s as far out there as I am generally going to enjoy. I love a bad film, but I’m not a fan of one that tinkers wildly with the form. To be honest, I usually find such films tedious. I can’t find a way in, and so sit there wishing I was anywhere else. I figured out pretty quickly while watching Chris Marker’s 1997 film Level Five – just getting its U.S. release now, two years after the filmmaker’s death – that I was going to have problems with the film. And then I didn’t. It’s great, and I feel like a dumbass for not knowing anything about the director.

Laura (Catherine Belkhodja) is a game designer working on a game about the Battle of Okinawa, a particularly brutal moment in World War II. The Allies wanted the islands in order to have a base close to Japan for invasion purposes. (Okinawa has been a prefecture of Japan since 1879 but is historically and culturally distinct.) Estimates suggest that up to 1/3 of the civilian population was killed through military action or mass suicide encouraged by the Japanese army. As Laura digs deeper into her research, she longs to change history by subverting the game a little. She also carries on long conversations with her lost lover and collaborator by videotaping herself talking directly into the camera. She muses on their relationship, the nature of knowledge, game mechanics, movies, songs, single socks, and reads a very annoying story about a parrot named Cocoloco. Her research is presented using archival footage and more modern interviews with people who survived the battle and those who grew up in its shadow. It’s a marriage between a documentary about Okinawa and a French mediation on life, which as far as I’m concerned should suck, but is actually pretty awesome.

Level Five Movie Still 1

It is however too long buy at least half an hour. You are messing with the goodwill of your audience when you play around with form, and one needs to keep that goodwill by tightening things up a little, not extending every scene beyond reasonable limits. (I guess if that is what your film is about, go for it, but it’s going to hurt people to watch it. And while that is a perfectly valid goal for art, I am probably not going to be super excited about it. Not that very many people make their art for me, but this is my review, and I hate that stuff. Write your own manifesto.) Level Five clocks in at 106 minutes, and I occasionally found myself wandering off mentally during some of the more self-indulgent scenes. And there are some cringe-worthy moments: the episode with the parrot is particularly painful and feels like it goes on forever. And there are some computer art sequences that are there to contribute to the cyber-punky structure of the story, but which kinda drove me nuts.

It’s a low fi endeavor, but I found that added to the confessional tone of the film rather than distracted from it. Marker jumps from image to image, subject to subject, as though the film were made of hyperlinks and the audience was able to click through and back at will. (I was in college at the time this film was made and we spent a nontrivial amount of time studying how hypertext changes the way we receive information. The Internet was fairly new for most people and kind of exciting.) Catherine Belkhodja imbues Laura with an engaging intelligence and emotional resonance, which gives the viewer a solid place to rest and contemplate the ideas presented. She also gives voice to Marker’s analysis of the events in Okinawa, sometimes responding to his more fact-based narration and sometimes making completely unexpected leaps of logic. At its best, Level Five is a profoundly moving account of horrendous events. At its worst, it’s a sometimes- annoying treatise on the structure and meaning of knowledge. I found it best to just sit back, let the information pour over me, and enjoy the pleasures of the unexpected.




Adelaide enjoys watching all kinds of movies, but is never going to see Titanic unless there is a sizable amount of money involved.

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