Monday, October 31, 2011


Le gamin au vélo (The Kid With A Bike, 2011)—the latest achievement by Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne—arrived at the 36th edition of the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) after a successful premiere at Cannes, where Danny Kasman dispatched to MUBI and David Hudson followed suit with a suite of reviews. Continuing their coverage of the film, MUBI published Dan Sallitt's dispatch from TIFF and Hudson's aggregate of follow-up reviews from the New York Film Festival (NYFF). It's now positioned in the San Francisco Film Society's French Cinema Now.

The Dardenne Brothers return to form in their engaging
The Kid With A Bike, the tale of young Cyril abandoned by his deadbeat father (Jérémie Renier, whose performance salutes his own youthful debut 15 years earlier in the Dardenne's La Promesse). The film tracks Cyril's ensuing emotional delinquency. Angry, nearly feral, and desperate for his father's love, Cyril (in a volatile turn by Thomas Doret) has to learn that lashing out at the world will not bring him love. Cécile de France—last seen swept away by an unusual destiny in the blue sea of Eastwood (Hereafter, 2010)—plays Samantha, a hairdresser who befriends Cyril and strives to contain his volatility; a tsunami of a different sort.

Though The Kid With A Bike harbors now-familiar Dardenne themes of culpability and consequence, its narrative is delivered with a lighter, less realistic touch, and enhanced by a bright palette, emotionally informed by primary hues. Cyril's bright red jacket becomes an indelible image of his frantic pedaling to find a place where he belongs. and the punctuated usage of Beethoven's "Emperor Concerto" suggests the larger spheres of feeling that this small boy is hungry to access.

One notable review not included in Hudson's round-ups is Girish Shambu's capsule wherein he enthusiastically "responded to this film with a primal force because it's about ceaseless movement. Running, pedaling, chasing, being chased, climbing, falling, ducking, darting, hurrying: the film is a virtual catalogue of these (and other) dramatically urgent forms of movement. There's a great moment when the kid shows off his prowess on his bike by stopping it and balancing himself to a point of complete stillness for an instant. It's a quietly humorous moment—an apotheosis—because it tells us that movement is the natural state; it is stillness that must be achieved with the special application of skill." Revisiting the film after TIFF, Girish "was struck by how fully formed the Dardennes' stylistic approach and command were fifteen years ago [with
La Promesse]. There's a fantastic moment when Igor, unable to tell the African woman (Assita) the truth, lunges for her and wraps himself around her mid-section in a tight hug, not letting go. The same gesture is repeated in Kid in the boy's first encounter with the woman at the medical office, where he heads straight for her (never having seen her before) and wraps himself around her waist. (He's on the run from pursuers.) I love her split-second response: 'You can hold on to me, but don't squeeze so tight.' "

Girish's sole critique concerned the use of Beethoven, which "seemed like the only false step ... underscoring what the film had already accomplished by other means." In her wrap-up from NYFF, our favorite Self-Styled Siren reported that The Dardennes declared in their on-stage presentation that—though they have admittedly not used music in their previous films—they felt it appropriate in The Kid With A Bike. "They thought of the music," Farran reported, "as a caress: 'It's what Cyril is missing in his life, which is love.' "

Cross-published on Twitch in an earlier edit.

Sunday, October 30, 2011


While the San Francisco Film Society places its finger on the pulse of contemporary French cinema with its ongoing French Cinema Now (affectionately previewed here at The Evening Class by Michael Hawley), the musical yesteryear of France is explored through the personage of Serge Gainsbourg in two projects likewise screening in the Bay Area. First up is the theatrical rollout of Joann Sfar's feature debut Gainsbourg: Vie héroïque (Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life, 2010), currently at the Landmark Cinemas. Earlier this year, I spoke with Sfar who noted how beloved Gainsbourg is among the French and—judging from the superlative reviews of Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life—it appears his cinematic introduction to the American public has whetted appetites.

What better way to satisfy that new craving than with Gainsbourg, L'Homme Qui Aimait Les Femmes (Gainsbourg: The Man Who Loved Women, 2010), Pascal Forneri's documentary treatment of the controversial career of the beloved
chanteur who elevated the chanson to new lyrical levels? Currently playing at the Roxie, Pamela Alexander-Beutler outlines in their program notes: "The title The Man Who Loved Women references director François Truffaut's 1977 film in which Bertrand tells his own life story. In Gainsbourg: The Man Who Loved Women (Gainsbourg, l'homme qui aimait les femmes) director Pascal Forneri uses the same technique to great effect as Serge Gainsbourg tells his life story through TV clips, interviews, photos, music videos and archival footage. Life as art is made complete with additional interviews by and archival footage of Gainsbourg's muses in this wonderful docudrama. As the title implies, the film chronicles Gainsbourg's love relationships as a lens into his 30+ year career as the French singer-songwriter, actor and director and superstar. His complete disregard for taboos and the delight he took in scandalous behavior made him famous, but his musical genius made him a legend. His relationships served as both inspiration and muse. Because his relationships were such an important part of who he was, Gainsbourg: The Man Who Loved Women exposes not only Gainsbourg's creative genius, but also his charm and passion, his insecurities and vulnerability."

Narrated by actor / writer Pierre Lescure with supplemental scoring by Aphex Twin, Forneri's television documentary excels at providing archival footage of Gainsbourg in action with voiceover recollections by the likes of Caroline von Paulus (aka Bambou), Brigitte Bardot, Jane Birkin, Catherine Deneuve, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Juliette Gréco, Françoise Hardy, Vanessa Paradis, Bernard Pivot and Michel Sardou. In many ways the archival footage speaks for itself and is wholly worth the price of admission. Whereas Joann Sfar's film is a cinematic fantasy of one man's reaction to Gainsbourg, Forneri's treatment is the real thing. Between the two lies a heady measure of enjoyment reserved for San Franciscan Francophiles. Neither are to be missed.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

FCN 2011—Michael Hawley Previews the Lineup

Showcasing a mix of auteur blockbusters and auspicious upstarters—including three North American premieres—the San Francisco Film Society's French Cinema Now (FCN) launches its fourth annual edition this Thursday, October 27. The majority of this year's 11 films were nowhere on my radar, an exciting prospect given that past FCN treasures like Stella, The Wolberg Family and Love Like Poison were similarly unknown entities.

By my estimation, most of this year's FCN selections won't return to the Bay Area or see a Region 1 DVD release—rendering the week-long festival even more of an imperative for local Francophilic cinemaniacs. Note that all but Opening Night takes place at the SF Film Society / New People Cinema, a smaller venue than those employed in past years. This might result in sell-outs, so advance tickets are duly advised. I'm also happy to report that while festivals increasingly lean towards digital exhibition, eight of this year's FCN entries will be screened in 35mm (see the Film on Film Foundation calendar for specifics). What follows are observations and gleaned tidbits on this year's films, from someone who has only read about them.

The two standout FCN titles are undoubtedly Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne's The Kid with a Bike (Le gamin au vélo) and Aki Kaurismaki's Le Havre. Both were in competition at Cannes, with the Dardennes brothers taking a second-place Grand Prix (thereby losing an unprecedented third Palme d'or to
The Tree of Life). Compared to 2008's somewhat disappointing Lorna's Silence, reviews for The Kid with a Bike have been stellar. It's the first time the Belgian neo-realists have employed a bona fide movie star (Cécile de France) and it's their fourth outing with actor Jérémie Renier, who began his career 15 years ago with the Dardenne's La Promesse. Perhaps an equally bright future awaits newcomer Thomas Doret, who's said to give an astounding performance as a boy coming to terms with his deadbeat father's rejection. The Kid with a Bike has distribution through IFC, so I'd expect it to be in local theaters soon.

A different kid is at the center of Finnish director Kaurismaki's
Le Havre. He's an illegal African refugee who's being sheltered from police by sympathetic working-class denizens in the titular port city. Le Havre is said to represent a kinder, gentler Kaurismaki, almost fairytale-like in its shortage of the his trademarked deadpan glumness. Though entirely in French, the film is Finland's 2011 Oscar® submission and Kaurismaki has promised to attend the ceremony should it land him a Best Foreign Language Film nomination. The director famously withdrew 2006's Lights in the Dusk (the only Kaurismaki film I've really liked, of the few I've seen) from Oscar® consideration, due to his opposition to the Iraq War. Le Havre is scheduled to open in Bay Area Landmark Theaters on November 11 and is being distributed by iconic Janus Films. Nice to know they're still around. Keep your eyes peeled for a cameo by Jean-Pierre Léaud.

A third high-profile film at FCN is Mia Hansen-Løve's Goodbye First Love. I wasn't all that taken with Hansen-Løve's 2007 debut
All is Forgiven, but I sure came around after seeing the exceptional Father of My Children at this year's SF International Film Festival (SFIFF). Goodbye First Love had its international premiere this summer at Locarno, garnering rave reviews and a Special Mention from the jury. Repeating the bifurcated structure of Father of My Children, the film details the obsession of a girl's first love and the repercussions it causes later in life. Actress Lola Créton (the sister who went to live with Catherine Breillat's Blue Beard) plays the lead character at ages 15 and 24. Goodbye First Love is being distributed by IFC Sundance Selects, which guarantees it a VOD and DVD release, but not necessarily a local theatrical run.

Amongst the remaining FCN films, I'm most excited about The Long Falling (Où va la nuit), the latest collaboration between director Martin Provost and actress Yolande Moreau. Their last partnership was
Séraphine, the portrait of a naïve 20th century artist which resulted in seven César Awards including Best Picture and Best Actress. Here Moreau plays a farmwife who murders her brutish husband. She flees first to the Brussels apartment of her estranged gay son and then to a boarding house run by a sympathetic widow (Edith Scob)—at which point this understated, noir-ish thriller is intriguingly said to take on Thelma and Louise overtones. Provost adapted the story from Keith Ridgway's best-selling novel and cinematography is by the incomparable Agnès Godard. Reviews are great.

Another one loved by critics is Angèle and Tony (Angèle et Toni), which premiered at last year's Venice Film Festival and won Best Debut Film at Deauville for its writer / director Alix Delaport. Friends who caught it at this summer's Sacramento French Film Festival also came back raving. Clothilde Hesme (
Mysteries of Lisbon, Regular Lovers) plays an attractive, resolute single mother with a past who hooks up with a coarse Normandy fisherman (Comédie Française actor Grégory Gadebois). In Variety, Boyd Van Hoeij describes the film as "a work of subtle intimacy about the need for a human connection, with the bulk of heavy lifting done by pitch-perfect, wholly naturalistic performances."

One of my favorite contemporary French actors is Emmanuelle Devos, so it's nice to see her represented twice at FCN. First up is Opening Night film Bachelor Days are Over (Pourquoi tu pleures?), a comedy of manners in which a groom-to-be encounters untold doubts and roadblocks en route to the "happy" day. The film closed out Cannes' Critics Week sidebar and is a first directorial effort by actress Katia Lewcowicz. Singer / songwriter / producer Benjamin Biolay (last seen at FCN as the father in
Stella) stars, with support from Devos as his prickly sister and Valérie Donzelli as the fiancé. Donzelli, incidentally, directs and stars in France's 2011 Oscar® submission, Declaration of War, which would have been a swell addition to this year's FCN line-up.

Devos turns up again in Delphine Gleize's The Moon Child (La permission de minuit). It stars Vincent Lindon (
Mademoiselle Chambon, Welcome) as the life-long doctor of a boy who's unable to endure sunlight. Conflict arises when the doctor leaves for a position in Geneva working for W.H.O. and Devos arrives as his replacement. There's virtually nothing about this film to be found on-line, at least in English. I notice that Gleize also directed 2002's Carnage, a highly stylized film about the aftermath of a bullfight. While I had reservations about that one, the combination of Lindon and Devos makes The Moon Child a priority.

Another actor I never tire of seeing is Olivier Gourmet. He plays a small role in
The Kid with a Bike (his sixth Dardenne brothers' film) and also stars in Pierre Schoeller's The Minister (L'exercice de l'état), which won the FIPRESCI prize in Cannes' Un Certain Regard sidebar. In this film we'll see Gourmet in an atypical white-collar role, playing a conflicted Minister of Transportation who's given the task of implementing privatization of the French railway system. The Minister is said to be a detached, yet absorbing observation of the behind-the-scenes machinations of French politicos. The always welcome Michel Blanc plays his secretary. Schoeller's last film was the Guillaume Depardieu-starring Versailles, which played the SFIFF in 2009.

The phenomenon of actors becoming film directors seems more prevalent in France than in any other national cinema. This year's SFIFF closed with Mathieu Amalric's
On Tour and now FCN brings us his latest work, The Screen Illusion (L'illusion comique). This reworking of Pierre Corneille's 17th century play is the third in a series of TV films commissioned by the Comédie Française and chosen from their repertoire. In his rave review for Variety, Jay Weissberg reveals that three rules were imposed on the director: "No additional words, use only thesps who've played the parts onstage, and film in locations away from the theater in no more than 12 days." (That sounds like four rules, but never mind). Having found Amalric's largely improvised On Tour a bit ragged and only occasionally inspired, I think a set of rules could serve him well. His script retains the original's Alexandrine couplets (mercifully not made to rhyme in the English subtitles), while relocating the story to Paris' 5-star Hôtel du Louvre. And though the cast might be well known to French theater-goers, I failed to recognize a single name.

Finally, two very different films in this year's FCN have received almost unvaryingly bad reviews. Their common factor is that each stars one of my favorite French-Arab actors, namely Sami Bouajila and Roschdy Zem. Bouajila finds himself being romantically pursued by a mother and daughter (Nathalie Baye and Audrey Tautou) in Pierre Salvadori's shrill-sounding farce, Beautiful Lies (De vrai mensonges). Salvadori also wrote and directed 2003's painful
Après vous (the film which convinced me Daniel Auteuil is French cinema's biggest jambon). Writing in Variety, Jordan Mintzer complains about "the script's vaudeville-like scenarios" and how the film's "long-winded assembly of quid pro quos and borderline sexist banter goes only to the most predictable places." He does, however, have praise for Bouajila, "the film's one redeeming character." So I may want to check it out after all.

As for Roschdy Zem, he plays one-quarter of an upper-class bohemian wife-swapping quartet in Anthony Cordier's Four Lovers (Aimez qui vous voulez). Originally titled
Happy Few when it premiered at last year's Venice Film Festival, it co-stars Marina Foïs, Élodie Bouchez (Wild Reeds, The Imperialists are Still Alive!) and Nicolas Duvauchelle (Isabelle Huppert's crazy son in White Material). SBS Film's Simon Foster declares it "the sort of film that people who never watch French films think all French films are like." And over at Variety, Boyd Van Hoeij finds Four Lovers "essentially an exercise in bourgeois navel (and further downwards) gazing that doesn't add anything new to the genre. Lovers of middlebrow French relationship dramas and subtitled smut might be happy." On the plus side, he notes how the film "neatly showcases the thesps' no-problemo attitude towards nudity," with only Zem forgoing going full frontal. As a connoisseur of subtitled smut, I wouldn't dream of missing this.

Cross-published on film-415.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

BERLIN & BEYOND 2011—If Not Us, Who? (Wer wenn nicht wir)

[Our thanks to Kurtiss Hare for his review of the West Coast premiere of Berlin & Beyond's closing night entry If Not Us, Who? (Wer wenn nicht wir), directed by Andres Veiel (in attendance on closing night).]

This year's Berlin & Beyond festival, hosted at the ever magnificent Castro Theatre, is in progress, running from Oct. 20th-26th. As I'm set to begin day three of the festival, I'm carving some time out to preview the closing night film, If Not Us, Who?

Books, it seems, can be burnt. But the stories we're told and the lessons we learn as children have a sort of dogged persistence—a way of pinning our sleeves to the cork, whether we stretch this way or that. Bernward Vesper grew up in the half-light of post Nazi Germany. His father was an author and editor whose career choices allowed him to flourish under the authoritarian, deeply revisionist regime that defined a previous generation. When Will Vesper passes away, he leaves Bernward a messy inheritance: an insubordinate love for the opposite literature of radical resistance, an abiding sense of shame around his father's body of fascist work, and a self-sworn promise to republish a handful of his dad's propagandist pamphlets. When Bernward meets Gudrun Ensslin at the University of Tübingen, the two form a troubled publishing company and a more troubled romance.
If Not Us, Who? outlines the embroiled personal milestones along Bernward's path toward becoming one of the fundamental voices of revolution in 1960s Germany.

What is most interesting in
If Not Us, Who? is the manner in which a set of conflicted attitudes find their home in Bernward, who might be called a rebel son of the Reich. The question, "Why should a triangle shrink into a straight line?” issued flippantly by Gudrun before initiating a lusty threesome, could reasonably be posed of Bernward's inward motivations. As he descends into a wall-scribbling madness, I only wish that some of his neurotic energy had infected the cinematics. The camera swung with a gravitas and convention that made me wish it too was railing against some dumb quotidien or hostile occupier.

Cross-published on Cinefrisco.

Friday, October 21, 2011

FANTASIA 2011 / TAD 2011: THE DIVIDEThe Evening Class Interview With Xavier Gens, Michael Biehn, Michael Eklund & Jennifer Blanc-Biehn

At its world premiere earlier this year at SXSW, Xavier Gens' apocalyptic morality tale The Divide met with divisive reviews.

At Quiet Earth, Rochefort ranked the film 9 out of 10 and enthused, "As much as I loved
Frontiere(s), The Divide tops it in every way; bleaker, more brutal and intense, and disconcertingly plausible." At The Criterion Cast, Joshua Brunstling fairly warned that The Divide would not be for everyone judging from the film's polarizing effect at SXSW but crowned Xavier Gens "the film's biggest star" for forcing a view "into the depths of human nature, through the guise of a neo-religious allegory."

At Twitch, Peter Martin wryly complained that "radiation poisoning will make you stupid, obnoxious, and repellent" and offset his appreciation of the film's sensational opening sequence with criticism of the film's characterizations, which "generally speaking, start off bad and simply get worse, descending into outright Comic Book Evil or its (arguably) lesser cousins, Passivity and Complicity." He suggested, "If the film had probed the characters to better effect, or if Gens had been able to modulate the performances to a greater degree, maybe the result would have been devastating and powerful."

At, Scott Weinberg shared Martin's complaint about the film's characterizations: "For all its effectively feral performances and bleakly compelling ideas,
The Divide quickly starts to feel like a very angry and self-important rendition of Gilligan's Island: the characters are duly disparate and confrontational, but nothing they do seems to matter all that much."

At Critic's Notebook, Tim Hayes considered the film's "inherent nihilism problem" as "a path that has been worn smooth. It's a closed loop of narrative from which all surprise has drained." Hayes concluded that
The Divide was "a visually strong slice of screen misanthropy and an unnecessary reminder that if a nuclear missile comes your way, the best bet is to stand under it."

And at indieWIRE, Christopher Campbell hammered the nails on the coffin: "
The Divide ... is entirely disrespectful to all men, women and maybe all living creatures, as well as canned beans, stuffed rabbits, basements and anything non-living that makes an appearance in the film."

The Divide is a film that some critics love to hate; but, I consider such a response to be a near sub-categorization of the term "genre."

I caught
The Divide at this summer's edition of Fantasia, where it boasted its Canadian premiere. Bookended by two sublimely horrific visages of destruction, The Divide immediately recalled me to the episode "The Shelter" in the third season of The Twilight Zone where, similarly, ordinary folks are reduced to animalistic behavior under extraordinary duress. The presiding image for both narratives becomes the door between the safety of the interior and the threat of the exterior, underscoring that—in such a scenario of nuclear destruction—a door is a false and somewhat flimsy delimitation whose value lies only as a metaphor. By comparison, "The Shelter" takes on a naïve charm in its depiction of the moral dilemma faced by formerly civilized individuals reduced by panic and fear to their worst nature. The Divide amplifies that scenario and shades it with all the hues of a brutal bruise. Unflinching, unrelenting, The Divide descends claustrophobically into a bleak study of hopelessness. Frustrating spectatorial expectation, I've no doubt that The Divide will polarize audiences at its upcoming screening at Toronto After Dark (TAD).

My thanks to Susan Curran of Anchor Bay Entertainment for arranging an interview with
The Divide's director Xavier Gens and its actors Michael Biehn, Michael Eklund and Jennifer Blanc-Biehn. Further thanks to Mitch Davis for his consummate moderation of the Q&A after Fantasia's Canadian premiere, some of whose questions I've incorporated into this transcript.

* * *

Michael Guillén: I want to thank all of you for taking the time to speak with me just before going into your screening. I know that's somewhat hectic. Unfortunately, I haven't had a chance to watch the movie yet, but didn't want to miss the opportunity to speak with you. So we'll negotiate our conversation in a somewhat anticipatory fashion more than a direct response to the film, if that's okay with you? That being the case, The Divide opened at SXSW and has been on the festival circuit. What is your general feeling about how audiences are receiving the film?

Xavier Gens: My first feeling is that there is a real divide in the audience because the film is very bleak; but, I wanted to feel free making the movie. There are some people who love the movie and are fascinated by it and some people whose immediate response is to take a shower after watching it. That makes me happy.

Guillén: You're used to this kind of spectatorial response, aren't you? You're used to your films generating this kind of reaction?

Gens: It's a human reaction. When you're making films, it's to create emotions. If the emotions are only soft, then there is no meaning to making movies. For me, it was really important to show what I have inside and what I love to say about humanity. I have a very dark point of view about it.

Guillén: I don't really consider myself a film critic, but I have noted that—when critics don't like a film—it seems to cause audiences to flock to the movie. There's no such thing as bad publicity, I guess. Case in point, you have a sold-out house tonight. That must make you feel good to know that audiences still want to see your film despite the divisive critical response from SXSW?

Michael Biehn: I firmly believe there are no "critics" anymore because everyone's a critic now. Rotten Tomatoes has, like, 300 different critics. Everybody's a critic now. All you have to do is start up a website and you're a critic. These days I don't think critics mean as much as they used to.

Guillén: So you feel no need to negotiate with critical response?

Biehn: No, not at all. This movie reminds me in a way of Darren Aronovsky's
Requiem For A Dream. I'm not directly comparing it to Requiem For A Dream, but—like that film—it doesn't make you feel good about humanity. You don't feel good when you leave the theater. It's a brutal, psychological movie—there's some tough physical stuff in there that goes on too—but, psychologically, it's one of the most brutal movies I've ever seen.

Jennifer Blanc-Biehn: It gets happier and happier as the film goes along. [Laughs.]

Biehn: But it's beautifully shot [by Laurent Barès] and the music [by Jean-Pierre Taieb] is beautiful and so there's this juxtaposition between the horror on camera and the way it's shot and scored. From an actor's standpoint, we were given the freedom to write and rewrite our own characters, to improv while we were shooting the movie, always improvising, always coming up with new things, so that the character that I play in the movie is completely different than the character in the script as he was originally written. Xavier let us play with the characters and allowed us to take them wherever we wanted to take them. So the movie would start to go off from the script to different places that we were all exploring as actors while improvising in rehearsals and on camera.

We shot
The Divide in sequence, which is the first time ever in my 35 years as an actor that I've shot a film in sequence. It got to be really really exciting because we didn't know where we were going or what we would be doing the next day. We were living it. We would go home at night, but Michael and Milo [Ventimiglia] and myself to a certain extent, were still committed to the film even when we were at the hotel, always talking about it, always involved in it. People always ask me, "Is it hard to shed your character? Isn't it hard to get out of character?" But I'm like, "Naw, man, it's easy. You just walk off the set and you're yourself. It's acting, y'know?" But in this particular situation it was a little different. We kind of carried it home. Definitely, Michael and Milo and Iván [González] and me, we'd all get together and—as soon as we'd leave the set—we'd be in front of the hotel smoking and talking about the movie, talking about our characters, talking about where we were going to go. It was the most exciting experience an actor could ever have. For me, in 35 years of making movies, this film was the most exciting, the most enjoyable, and I think I made the closest friends on set than on any other movie I've ever done.

Guillén: That's saying something! This strategy to shoot in sequence that Michael's describing, why did you decide to do that, Xavier?

Gens: Because for me it was very important. For example, Michael Eklund's character goes through a lot of physical change in the film. It was impossible to shoot scenes out of sequence. There's a scene where Michael gets trapped and from that moment on in the movie there is a strong physical transformation for each actor. If we were shooting in a non-chronological order, everyone would have to go to make-up all the time and it would be a very big mess. What we decided finally was to put the actors on strong diets. So we'd shoot the actor in sequence and evolve the script as the characters develop in the narrative to see what would happen.

Michael Eklund: Xavier gave us five weeks to lose as much weight as we could possibly lose. We ate a piece of chicken once a day. As actors, that kept us hungry and on edge. We weren't in a good mood most of the time.

Biehn: We lost 20 pounds in that small frame of time. You'll see it in the film when he takes his shirt off.

Guillén: Ouch! Did you have fun gaining it back?

Eklund: That was the best part! It took five weeks to lose it but only took a week to put it back on. The advantage of shooting it in continuity from day one to the last day—as Michael spoke of before—was that relationships would develop on screen that weren't in the script and that you couldn't plan if we were shooting all over the place. If we were starting at the end of the movie, then the beginning, then somewhere in the middle, we wouldn't have had the opportunity to develop these relationships that—as an actor—you didn't see coming. That's what happens when you work in a sequential way like that.

For example, my relationship with Rosanna Arquette on script was not what it became on screen. In the script my character Bobby abused Rosanna's character Marilyn from the beginning. When I got on set with Rosanna, we clicked. We liked each other and became friends so that—at the beginning of the film when she brings me a necklace—we have a moment together. That was something Rosanna and I just did because we liked each other as people off set and thought it would be kind of nice if Bobby and Marilyn found a connection at the beginning. By the end, it gets taken to a more brutal place. Not to give too much away, but in the film I end up wearing Marilyn's purple dress because after she dies I felt Bobby probably cared a lot about Marilyn. So one Wednesday morning at 6:00AM, I popped the dress on and came out on set and asked Xavier, "What do you think?" He said, "You look like Marilyn ... Manson." That's what it was like working with Xavier. Everyone was always bringing ideas. If Xavier didn't like it, he would say, "No, that's too much."

Guillén: Earlier, Michael said something I really liked, which is that—despite their horrific violence—your films are commensurately beautiful. I'm a relatively quiet, non-violent kind of guy and yet I find myself running to watch your films, which I guess speaks to the compensatory nature of film. Why do you treasure that beauty in horror? Why is that important for your vision as a filmmaker?

Gens: I think it's much more a European influence. When I was a child, I drew a lot and was well on my way to becoming a storyboard artist or a comic book illustrator; but, finally, I was very lazy and put my caricatures aside and decided to pick up a camera and shoot people. I love framing. My passion is really about framing and taking pictures and I love spending time in the forest taking pictures of things. For me it is a pleasure to beautifully shoot a movie because it brings poetry to a film. You can talk about the emotions of a dark story, but you get so much more when you add poetry inside such a narrative. In France, for example, I think of the poetry of Charles Baudelaire who wrote Les Fleurs du mal and—though it's sad and depressing—it's so beautiful. When you watch
The Divide tonight, you will see that it is very dark. The very first scene is bleak but by the end I think the film is beautiful. That's why the emotional quality of the movie is so important because it brings something to the audience. If it were only brutal, I would have no interest in telling this story. It would only be dark and dirty and it would be like I was saying to the audience, "Look, it's only shit that I'm giving you." I feel protective of my audience and I want to tell them, "Look, it is sad what these people are doing to each other." The Divide is dark and bleak, yes, but it is also beautiful.

Eklund: I agree that
The Divide is a beautiful film. Also, there are no good guys or bad guys, just ordinary people under extreme situations and what they have to go through to survive. That's how I see it anyway. There are no good guys or bad guys, just people pushed to the limit.

Biehn: I think people turn into who they turn into. My character Mickey ended up in a different place than where he started out because of this process. I was going to end up in a darker place but ended up in not quite-so-dark a place. Some of the other characters in the movie end up in a much darker place because they have to make choices in order to survive. Do they want to live or do they want to die? It gets bad when the food and the water start running out and the men become territorial about the women and people begin taking sides, form groups, and the men begin to compete over who's dominant, who's in charge. It gets fucking nasty really fast. But it's a beautiful movie to watch. It's like watching insanity painted by a great painter. Michael can say there aren't bad guys, but I would have to say there are some insane people, or people that have been driven insane.

Eklund: The insanity that's captured on film was happening on set and off set as well, with the starvation and the improvisational journey that everyone was on with their own characters and together. Seven people put into a room together as characters and actors have to, of course, deal with each other.

Biehn: There was some division among the actors and a lot of hostility and tension on the set. The producers had to be called down to straighten people out. It felt like there was violence in the air. We were imitating off set what was on camera. My character was a loner in the film so as an actor I stayed somewhat a loner on the set and there were times when I had to grab other actors and say, "Come with me. Sit down. Listen, we're making a movie here. You're the professional." There were times when I seriously felt that somebody was going to get hurt. There was a lot of fighting and bickering and bitching. There was some real hate going on in that set between the actors. It was a nasty environment. Coming onto that set was like living in Hell; you could feel the hatred. That's what Xavier wanted! [Gens is grinning ear to ear.] He set it up that way on purpose, I think.

Blanc-Biehn: He was schizophrenic! [Laughs.]

Biehn: I've worked with James Cameron three times, with Billy Friedkin twice, with Michael Bay, and none of those sets were as intense as this set.

Eklund: Friendships were made and enemies were made.

Biehn: But the three of us are still friends. At the same time, I had never had the experience of creating like that. Most directors would tell you, "Say these words and—even if they don't make sense—say them anyway." But Xavier was more like, "Say whatever you want. Do whatever you want." So we did. We went with it and we started playing off of each other. It got really thick in there. For example, when you first read the script you didn't hardly notice Michael Eklund's character Bobby at all. He had a couple of lines here and there. But Michael showed up and was so fucking talented that the performance you see on screen is what we ended up with.

Guillén: One of my thematic interests at this year's Fantasia Film Festival is how both genre and art house cinema(s) negotiate a national identity. Now, Xavier, you've made films both in France and in Hollywood and The Divide, I understand, was filmed in Winnepeg, so I have to ask: did you ever intend to represent France in your filmmaking? Or did you always intend to aim for an international audience with genre films?

Gens: The Divide is not really an art film; it's more a sci-fi psychological thriller. Finally, I consider it an auteur film. My nationality and identity in France has more to do with the freedom with which I've made this film. I didn't have any freedom when I was making The Hitman in Hollywood. It was impossible to change the script, which wasn't very good.

Guillén: Yes, I understand there were some issues with your involvement in that film.

Gens: Yes. It was like I was shooting a commercial. And so that film is truly an American film.
The Divide is just a film. It's not nationally specific. It's a film that doesn't need to be identified with a nationality. It needs more to be a reflection of the author who is behind it. The Divide is my big "fuck you" to Hollywood.

Guillén: [Laughs.] May I quote you on that? I don't necessarily agree that The Divide is dispossessed of art house elements, from what I've read. Without having seen it yet, it appears to fall within the realm of elevated genre in that it provides—again, in accounts I've read—all the visceral stuff expected out of a genre film, even as it also approaches psychological and philosophical concerns. Fundamentally, it seems to me that The Divide forces audiences to consider the true nature of an apocalypse. What is an apocalypse? Different filmmakers have approached the apocalyptic in various ways.

Gens: It's much more about emotions than the apocalypse.

Biehn: It's about people and where
you would go if you were there.

Blanc-Biehn: It's about the downfall of humanity.

The Divide definitely does make you feel.

Blanc-Biehn: It's intense.

Biehn: It's horrifying to try to put yourself in that situation and ask, "Where would
you go?" We all would like to think that we would be the good guys and the heroes and all die for the little girl that's in the movie. We all would like to think we would be the first to sacrifice ourselves for others; but, when it really gets down to it, we know that society is not like that. Just look around at any place in the world outside of Western civilization and you'll see people killing each other, torturing each other, jailing each other. You could name 30 places around the world right now where mass death is taking place. This kind of violence is going on around us all the time.

Guillén: Well, I doubt that "Western civilization" could claim to walk away with clean hands; but, I know what you mean. The atrocities people commit against each other seem hard-wired into the human psyche. That being arguably the case, do you think it is the responsibility of cinema to remind audiences of these hard-wired tendencies?

Gens: No. We can only offer the stories and allow audiences to come up with their own reasons for why these things happen. Everyone who watches the news needs to make the world better. We have a short time and we try to do the best that we can but some people use their time for destruction.

Eklund: I was mentioning in another interview yesterday how Vancouver—a town known for being peaceful—lost a hockey game and people nearly burned the city down. These were the same people who the day before never dreamed they would do something like that. They went to work, sent their children to school, thought of themselves as good people and—wham!—they lose a hockey game and start setting cars on fire and tipping over police cars. They lose their minds.

Biehn: We're really just that close to it. Because we live in a Western civilized country, I don't think we realize how close we are to being able to destroy somebody else, kill or be killed, live or die. We don't understand what they're living like in Libya right now or in Iran or China. The Divide asks you, "Who are you? Where do you stand? Would you stand in front of a tank? Or would you run away?"

Guillén: And is that question the basis for the title of The Divide? Where you stand on this side or that side?

Gens: You will see when you watch
The Divide that it is symbolic. We play a lot with the American flag, for example. Just as there is division within the group, the American flag divides the group from a hidden cache of food. The door that Michael Biehn's character closes at the beginning of the film divides that group of survivors off from those outside, who will probably die because of his choice; but, he has to make a choice. He can't save everybody. "The Divide" is everywhere. It's a symbol.

Interview photography courtesy of Jaffer Hasan.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

BERLIN & BEYOND 2011—Michael Hawley Previews the Lineup

Last year's Berlin & Beyond Film Festival (B&B) was deemed festival non grata by a number of Bay Area cinephiles. Troubled by the Goethe Institut's forced retirement of B&B founder Ingrid Eggers and annoyed at B&B's shift from January to an already festival-stuffed October, they lent support to an unofficial boycott. The weak-willed amongst us, however, couldn't resist skulking into the Castro Theatre for at least a taste of the latest German-language cinema, including the outstanding duo of The Robber and The Silence, plus Germany's Oscar® submission When We Leave (which, in a decidedly minority opinion, I ended up really, really hating).

Fast forward one year and it looks like the fences have been mended. At the press conference announcing this year's line-up, both Festival President Sabine Erlenwein and Director Sophoan Sorn made a point of mentioning that Eggers was in the audience. Now everyone is free to enjoy a guiltless 16th annual Berlin & Beyond, which runs from October 20 to 26 in San Francisco, with a San Jose Encore Day on October 29. As for Ingrid Eggers' three-year-old counter-fest, German Gems, it's slated for a full-day Castro takeover on January 14, 2012. Several important new German-language films are missing from this year's B&B, so let's hope Ingrid has gotten her hands on them.

There are 23 narrative and documentary features in this year's fest, of which I've seen seven (via DVD screener except where noted). The strongest is The Day I Was Not Born (Das Lied in mir), an intense, noteworthy debut from director Florian Cossen. While waiting for a connecting flight in Buenos Aires, a young German woman mysteriously recognizes a Spanish lullaby. She learns that not only is she the child of parents "disappeared" by Argentina's military dictatorship, but the circumstance of her adoption by German parents is reprehensible at best. Cossen ups the ante by giving us a somewhat unsympathetic heroine who is aided in her search by a suspicious, German-speaking cop (effectively played by Rafael Ferro, the long-distance swimmer in Veronica Chen's
Agua). Equally memorable is Beatriz Spelzini as an aunt who demands justice. Her scenes are heartbreaking.

A newish trend at Bay Area festivals has been the screening of genre films in Late Show time slots, with 3rd i South Asian and SF Jewish Film Festivals being recent examples. B&B gets into the act with Michael Steiner's Sennentuntschi, an atmospheric Swiss creep-fest. It's a film I'm certain many non-genre fans like myself will be happy they stayed up late for. The
Sennentuntschi is a woman of Alpine folklore, created to service men's "needs" and constructed from straw, rag and a broom. She's given life by Satan and her revenge is a bitch. In a wordless performance, French actress Roxane Mesquida (Catherine Breillat's Sex is Comedy and Fat Girl) perfectly embodies the creature's ferity and vulnerability. While never less than engaging as a solid genre piece, the film isn't immune to goofing around. Serge Gainsbourg and T. Rex pop up on the soundtrack and the plot embraces absinthe consumption, psychotic priests, stillborn babies and worse.

There's also a macabre element at play in Chris Kraus' (
Four Minutes) The Poll Diaries, a historic epic set on the shores of the Baltic Sea. In the days leading up to WWI, a spirited teenage girl hides a wounded Estonian anarchist not only from the Russian and German armies, but also from her disciplinarian father, a disgraced scientist with a penchant for human dissection. The film ultimately becomes a bit silly and laborious, but the real attraction here is the setting—an enormous mansion built on stilts overlooking the sea. I caught The Poll Diaries at the Palm Springs International Film Festival and can only imagine how great it will look on the Castro's big screen in 35mm. It's the most sumptuously photographed film I've seen this year. And speaking of 35mm, B&B deserves big kudos for once again making its audience privy to every film's screening format.

This year's opening night film is Yasemin Samdereli's Almanya—Welcome to Germany (Almanya—Willkommen in Deutschland), a big-hearted family dramedy about three generations of Turkish Germans road-tripping to Anatolia whilst flashbacking upon family history. It'll provide crowd-pleasing entertainment on opening night, but those looking for a thoughtful depiction of immigration, cultural identity and assimilation are advised to look elsewhere. The festival closes a week later with Andres Veiel's If Not Us, Who (Wer wenn nicht wir ), which was screened at the B&B press conference. It follows the path of 60s / 70s revolutionary Gudrun Ensslin (an intensely watchable Lena Lauzemis)—from her complicated relationship with radical writer / publisher Bernward Vesper, right up to her infamous association with militant RAF leader Andreas Baader. The telling is rather flat, however, lacking the urgency and dynamism that made The Baader Meinhof Complex a compelling watch.

If Not Us, Who co-stars Alexander Fehling as Andreas Baader. The popular actor reappears in the title role of Young Goethe in Love, which is the main event of B&B's Encore Day in San Jose. The festival desperately wanted to show this new Philipp Stölzl (Northface) film at the Castro, but distributor Music Box Films nixed screening it in any theater with more than 500 seats (the film opens at Landmark's Clay Theater on November 18 and recently played the Mill Valley Film Festival). According to Festival Director Sorn, the Castro's size is also the reason why Tom Tykwer's 3 (Drei) got relegated to San Jose. This is rather weird considering the film's June Frameline showing at the Castro, as well as a recent theatrical run at the Sundance Kabuki. (My Frameline review of 3 is here). Filling out the San Jose line-up are the aforementioned The Poll Diaries and Peter Luisi's The Sandman (Der Sandmann ), an absurdist tale about a priggish stamp dealer whose body starts excreting mountains of sand. While reasonably entertaining and well acted, The Sandman's titular metaphor is overburdened and would probably work best as a short.

Of all the films I hope to see during the festival proper, Andreas Dresen's Stopped On Track (Halt auf freier Strecke) sits at the top. Dresen is no stranger to B&B. His film
Cloud 9 (aka "the geriatric sex movie") played here in 2009 and I believe one or two others have been featured at the fest. Stopped on Track employs a mix of actors and non-professionals—all speaking improvised dialogue—to tell the story of a postal worker's last months before dying of a brain tumor. The film was co-winner (with Kim Ki-duk's Arirang) of the top prize in Cannes 2011's Un Certain Regard sidebar. Of possible related interest is Michael Schaerer's Bold Heroes (Stationspiraten), B&B's 2011 Centerpiece Film about five teenage boys with terminal diseases all living together in a Swiss clinic.

Documentaries are generally a good bet at B&B and this year's festival offers seven. All five German docs are personal profiles of sorts: urban guerilla turned Foreign Minister Joseph Fischer (Joschka & Mr. Fischer (Joschka und Herr Fischer)), Universal Pictures founder Carl Laemmle (100 Years Hollywood: The Carl Laemmle Story (100 Jahre Hollywood)), wildlife conservationist Jane Goodall (Jane's Journey (Die Lebensreise der Jane Goodall)), championship boxing brothers Vitali and Wladimir Klitschko (Klitschko) and five former East German citizens incarcerated for attempting to flee to the West (Face the Wall (Gesicht zur Wand)). From Austria there's a look at teenage immigrants who've left crisis regions for a home in Europe (Little Alien) and a story of extreme mountain skiing (Mount St. Elias). Finally, six German language shorts will be screened before select features, in lieu of being grouped into one program. This is a welcome format for folks like me who (regrettably) rarely attend shorts programs.

Cross-published on film-415.