Lebanon’s leading avant-garde filmmaker Ghassan Salhab has always been unapologetically art house, scraping away at traditional forms of narrative to create elliptical works reliant on unfussy compositions and layered sound design. His films explore liminal emotional states connected with Lebanon’s troubled history, capturing a sense of disturbance that practically quivers with unexpressed tension. His latest, “The River,” concludes a trilogy consisting of “The Mountain” and “The Valley,” and while it’s his most objectively beautiful feature yet, it also gives nothing away, demanding a heightened engagement with both his artful mise-en-scène and his nation’s psychological state. As such, “The River” will meander through the more experimental waters of festivals and showcases where Salhab may even pick up new acolytes thanks to the film’s striking aesthetic.
Of the three films, “The Valley” had the most of what could vaguely be called a plot, though its concerns went beyond something as simply constructed as a storyline. “The River” is even more sphinxlike, foregrounding an atmosphere of poetical realism in which an autumnal forest in the Lebanese mountains takes on mythical proportions as a kind of crucible pervaded by unexpressed emotions. It’s not that the sylvan hills exist outside reality (military jets overhead and landmine signs stuck in the ground ensure this is identifiable territory), yet it’s equally connected to the rights-of-passage forests associated with legends and fairytales. It’s here that a woman (Yumna Marwan), nameless in that maddeningly contradictory way of denying individuality while still constructing a distinct personality, and a man called Hassan (Ali Suliman) are finishing up a meal at an outdoor restaurant.
Before then we hear her in voiceover, wondering if the person she was the night before might have undergone some kind of transformation: “Was I the same when I got up this morning? Who in the world am I?” Salhab isn’t really interested in that last question (if he were, he’d have given her a name), but he is preoccupied with how we face each new trauma, and how it changes the way we relate to others and the environment. In the case of this man and woman, whose communication is nonverbal or in hushed tones, we learn they once were in a relationship which she ended, though the sexual connection remains strong and his desire to resume their partnership has not diminished. She wanders off, and as leaves gently fall onto the dead foliage blanketing the forest floor, he sets out on a search.
Her reappearance on a cliff ledge is almost phantom-like, partly owing to fog that behaves like ectoplasm, but she’s real enough to gouge a line into a tree’s bark, leading him to tell her she’s drained its blood. Shortly thereafter, she throws rocks against an already breached chain-link fence, which he then batters with a stick. At one point, he films her with his camera phone, the colors appearing on his device in enhanced tonalities, from an emerald green grassy pathway to strong red and yellow plants. It’s all metaphor, but metaphor that’s not meant to be connected to a definite, identifiable event.
This woodland in its stripped autumnal garb is of course Lebanon, its fruit rotting in an undergrowth booby-trapped by mines, divided by broken-down fences and watched over by a wild dog of uncertain allegiance. As jets and helicopters invade the skies, in a cave in the forest’s bosom are cases of Israeli weapons and ammunition. Despite all this, it’s still possible to see a brighter picture, as he does with his phone, but it’s a willed illusion, one that disappears when clear eyes prevail, and in the end, the insecure landscape can’t heal the ruptures of either the couple or the country.
Salhab’s visual aesthetic for “The River” seems to have been guided in part by 19th-century Romantic illustrations of primeval forests, the muted, painterly earth tones enhancing the sense of a mythological limbo world that mimics reality, transforming the people who wander among its ancient trees and boulders. Fade-ins act as palimpsests, well-suited to graying sylvan settings, while black screens are used as disruptive devices, perhaps meant to mirror Lebanon’s tragic discontinuities. This is a film that comes from an exhausted sensibility, from a place of deep sadness beyond anger where only allegory can capture the full depth of Lebanon’s existential condition. Carefully composed soundscapes have always been a key element of Salhab’s work, very much in evidence here with ample use of non-diegetic sound; it’s not surprising to note the involvement of seven post-production sound engineers.