‘24 Frames’: Film Review | Cannes 2017

Courtesy of Cannes Film Festival
'24 Frames' by Abbas Kiarostami
An elegant and moving last bow.

The final film of Iranian master Abbas Kiarostami is a wordless series of sketches elaborating on his nature photography.

Cinema is truth at 24 frames a second, taught Godard, and that might be the tagline for 24 Frames, the final film of Abbas Kiarostami, which he edited and mixed before his untimely death last July. Based on his work as a photographer, the film unfolds as a series of 24 numbered sketches, each offering the fixed frame view of a scene from nature. The sheer purity of the imagery is entrancing and puts it among his finest, most uplifting works. But it is neither narrative nor documentary, and many audiences will see it as more art installation than film, suggesting a very limited release beyond festivals.

Although as unclassifiable as the director’s five shots in Five (Dedicated to Ozu) from 2003, here the effect is less meditative immersion in nature than a playful stimulation to construct a narrative around Rorschach images. Kiarostami virtually invites the viewer to anthropomorphize animal behavior, and to draw humanistic lessons from nature.

The first “frame” is filled with Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s 1565 masterpiece “The Hunters in the Snow,” an oil painting that has been cited by filmmakers from Andrei Tarkovsky to Lars von Trier, which depicts hunters and their dogs returning home on a wintry day. As we admire the scene, smoke begins to rise from chimneys and a “real” dog walks and sniffs around, even peeing against one of Bruegel’s trees. This touch of animation prepares the viewer for the next 23 frames, each taking one of the director’s acclaimed nature photos as its starting point. As Kiarostami states at the beginning of the film, each scene includes four and a half minutes of what he imagined “might have taken place before or after each image” that he had captured.  

Exactly how these poetic frames were created remains something of a mystery. Each captures animal activity onscreen, and sometimes the drama seems staged. A seagull and a deer, for instance, appear to be shot and killed by offscreen hunters. A lion and his lioness mate in long shot but still seem to be alarmingly close to the cameraman. Are they special effects? These are hard questions to answer from the evidence in the film, and no press book was available for the film's premiere in Cannes’ Special Event sidebar. What is certain is that the ravishing “natural” beauty of the scenes has been masterfully contrived by the camera lens, aperture and framing.

A bright winter day, sunlight streaming from behind gray storm clouds, the luminosity of immaculate white snow — all set a mood of joyful contemplation, in contrast to the howling wind, crashing waves and thunder that set nerves on edge. Into one of these landscapes, crossing screen left to screen right, shuffle a dozen dairy cattle, while one of their number, the outsider, the loner, looks on in wordless distress.  

Several frames seem to tell love stories. A big-antlered deer waits anxiously for its mate to appear amid a fleeing herd. Two horses in love court each other behind the trees. A duck stranded behind a wire fence is sought after by another duck that seems very concerned.

Many of the photos take birds as their subject. It’s surprising how much narrative can emerge from a crow interacting with another crow on a railing in the pouring rain. Frame after frame, different birds seem to form friendships and perhaps something more. The seagull that falls to the beach after a shot rings out (frame 13) is watched over by its mate, whose mournful cry is very sad to hear. Though music is used very sparingly, the divine notes of Ave Maria that are heard over the silhouette of a large bird ring with Franciscan respect for the feathery creatures.

Kiarostami often hired dogs for his early-morning photo shoots in the snowy hills around Tehran. His charming shot of a black dog guarding a flock of white sheep huddling together during a blizzard is narrated as a wolf attack. In a comic episode, a little dog frantically barks at a flag on the beach until it falls over.

This sea of nature imagery can get a bit repetitive after a while, and it is a relief to find human beings entering the picture in frame 15. The background is an extremely realistic blow-up of what looks like six elderly immigrants standing on a bridge with their backs to the camera as they stare at the Eiffel Tower. Then, in front of the picture, people walk past as snowflakes begin to fall and the tower lights up. It gives rise to an indescribable emotion.

The 24th frame comes as a delightful surprise:  a long-haired girl has fallen asleep in front of a computer, where an old movie is just finishing. In the film, a smiling woman and man kiss, and the man removes her hat, while a woman passionately sings “love will still remain.” This beautiful, short scene breaks three censorship taboos — an unveiled woman, men and women kissing, and a woman singing solo — and ends the film on a very moving note.

Production companies: CG Cinema, Kiarostami Foundation
Director-screenwriter: Abbas Kiarostami
Producers: Charles Gillibert, Ahmad Kiarostami
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Special Screenings)
120 minutes