The Joycean Society: FIDMarseille Review

Captivatingly erudite mid-lengther nimbly straddles the worlds of cinema, television and art-installation.

Dora Garcia's Belgian documentary, world-premiering in competition at Marseille, pays a fly-on-the-bookcase visit to a Zurich reading-group.

In theory a "highbrow crowdpleaser" should be a contradiction in terms, but Dora Garcia's delightful featurette The Joycean Society comes mighty close to squaring that circle. In less than an hour, the film immerses us in the playfully erudite company of what must be one of the world's more rarefied reading-groups, a gathering of James Joyce enthusiasts who each week meet in Zurich to go through his experimental magnum opus Finnegans Wake page by page, line by line, word by word. The result is an accessible, original, amusing and thought-provoking enterprise, of a length ideal for small-screen slots and of a quality eminently deserving big-screen film-festival exposure.

Garcia has been a quietly prominent art-world presence for over a decade, and represented her native Spain at the 2010 Venice Biennale. Her work has often involved certain film-related elements and several of these have been shown in festivals such as Rotterdam, but The Joycean Society is the first time she's ventured beyond short durations. And while part of a typically adventurous multi-media project that involves an exhibition and a book, the film stands perfectly well on its own and can be enjoyed by those only dimly aware of Joyce, Ireland's titan of 20th century literature, best known for 1922's enduringly influential Ulysses. And while that novel is notoriously tough going even for hardened bookworms, it's airport-reading alongside his 1939 follow-up -- and swansong -- Finnegans Wake, a weighty compendium of arcane wordplay ("musquodoboits"), esoteric cultural-geographical-anthropological references and avant-garde flights of fancy ("Selina Susquehanna Stakelum").

The Zurich group shown in The Joycean Society has been reading Finnegans Wake since 1986, taking just over a decade to get through the volume before going back to page one again. They're therefore still quite near the start of what one member wryly terms the "third lap", each hour-long session combing a page or so at a time. Garcia focuses intently on this genial but rigorous example of hermeneutics, a term originally applied to the minute scrutiny of biblical and philosophical texts. The description is eminently applicable here -- as evidenced by the microscopic marginalia glimpsed in the dog-eared volumes that litter the group's table and which reveal a Zodiac-like zeal to penetrate hidden mysteries.

The Joyceans, many of them of advanced years and most of them men, seem to treat "the Wake" as a kind of nightmarishly elaborate multi-dimensional crossword puzzle, with countless cross-references and cross-pollenations adding up to an infinite web of possible "meanings." Speaking English with a variety of cultured accents, these puckish amateur scholars make for highly entertaining company as they engage in a bickering that's more chummy than rancorous -- and as one of them notes, if nothing else it makes for a cheap, harmless and pleasantly educational form of social activity.

Garcia, whose approach is intimate, discreet and self-effacing, occasionally cuts away for learned comment by an unidentified Joyce-expert, and punctuates the barrage of verbiage -- some of it recorded so low as to be semi-inaudible -- with sequences showing the writer's snow-covered grave elsewhere in the Swiss city. His poker face, as rendered in bronze by Milton Hebald, gazes quizzically on as the fruits of his labors drive his readers to an exquisite, particularly pleasurable form of distraction: "what a terrible book this is!" one exclaims, stranded in yet another cosy dead-end of speculative analysis.

Venue: FIDMarseille (International Competition)
Production company: Auguste Orts
Director / Screenwriter: Dora Garcia
Producer: 'Auguste Orts'
Director of photography: Arturo Solis
Editors: Dora Garcia, Inneke Van Waeyenberghe
Music: Jan Mech
Sales: Auguste Orts, Brussels
No MPAA rating, 52 minutes