Kris Rothstein's Blog

VIFF 2019: L.A. Tea Time

Kris Rothstein

L.A. Tea Time, the latest documentary by the young French-Canadian filmmaker Sophie Bédard Marcotte, is a charming combination of haphazard amateurism and sophisticated consideration.

We first encounter Marcotte mounting and then dismantling an art show, visiting her mother in rural Quebec, filming quiet fields and commenting on the quality of discarded beer cans. She is a thirty-year-old documentarian who isn’t quite sure what she should do next. So, she looks to her heroes for guidance. Chantal Akerman is dead, so not much help. Miranda July though, is alive and well in Los Angeles.

Marcotte records a series of videos for July, gushing about how much she loves the American filmmaker’s work, and proposing that maybe they could meet for tea so that July can give her some professional advice. She is optimistic enough to make the video messages, but not naive enough to think that they are a good idea (why would the famous July meet up with an enthusiastic fan?), and she knows she will never send them. “I should probably just write you a really nice email,” Marcotte decides during the final attempt at a video message.

So begins an unconventional road movie. Little is spelled out, allowing the viewer to follow hints about what is happening and why, and to connect the dots. Marcotte, we eventually discover, is driving Route 66 (an homage to Bruce McDonald’s classic Canadian road film Highway 61?) with her cinematographer, Isabelle Stachtchenko.

Since there is no explicit decision to hit the road and try their luck with Miranda July, their journey is somewhat leisurely and aimless; the two drive around, playing at being filmmakers, while still not really knowing what to do. If this sounds boring or meaningless, it isn’t. The structure is held together by the larger idea that there is an authority somewhere out in the world who can tell Marcotte if she is making art correctly, if she is living her life correctly. Marcotte knows that this is simplistic, but she’s doing it anyway. The pair cross North America, at first just filming themselves, but then decide that they need to get out and meet people, like in ‘real’ documentaries. They encounter a lecherous old singer, a young man who suggests they all travel to Japan, a meditation teacher and a university student who demonstrates a dance routine.

The combination of chance encounters, shots from the car window, and conversations between the women is more cinematic than it sounds, and is disconcerting and beguiling compared to the aesthetic and pace of most road trip documentaries. Perhaps this is because it is an intensely personal story. L.A. Tea Time feels undirected and exploratory in a genuine way, open to experience and happenstance. It is not a story about self-realization, or about discovering an America full of bizarre characters. Rather it is just scenes unfolding—thoughtful, still, curiously unfixed to any place. Marcotte uses sound effectively, blending audio from one scene far into the next and giving prominence to ambient noise. She also uses some obviously artificial touches (a pink glow in the sky, a gaudy backdrop to indicate Los Angeles) to remind us that this is a carefully-created world and not cinéma vérité.

A further example of the juxtaposition of sly knowingness with inexperience is demonstrated in a couple of scenes in which Marcotte and Stachtchenko discuss the songs they are listening to on the radio, and how actually maybe they shouldn’t be filming them because they might not be able to afford the license fees. In a later scene they say to each other that the song playing then is less popular and they should be able to afford it. These scenes are entirely silent, with subtitles.

As they hike through the stark desert landscape near Los Angeles, Stachtchenko asks, “What are you looking for?” “A frame,” answers Marcotte . “A purpose for my life.” The two are one and the same. Tellingly, the two get lost. But despite what may or may not happen once they get to Los Angeles, the home of Miranda July, Marcotte has given her artistic idea the freedom to wander and meander, and created something beautiful in the process.

The film plays Sunday, September 29th at 8:30 PM at International Village 8 and Tuesday, October 1st at 1:30 PM at International Village 10. Watch the trailer.



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