Tuesday, January 22, 2008

PSIFF08—Michael Hawley's Eurocentric Festival

Along with my own highlights dispatch from the 2008 Palm Springs International Festival ("PSIFF08") to The Greencine Daily, Evening Class contributing writer Michael Hawley summarizes his viewing pleasure of the European fare at this year's fest.

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PSIFF08 came to a close with my having seen 38 films—a relatively small number when you consider there were more than 200 on offer. At festival's end, I was surprised to see that nearly half the films I saw were European. It was never my intention to have a Eurocentric festival, but given my areas of interest and the vagaries of press ticket availability, that's how it turned out. So for my first report, here are some quick takes on the European films I saw at PSIFF08, presently in roughly west-to-east geographical order.

The reason for starting on Europe's western front is that it allows me to jump right to my two favorite films—Baltasar Kormákur's Icelandic Oscar submission Jar City (Mýrin), and Spanish director Jaime Rosales' Solitary Fragments (La Soledad). I had mixed feelings about Kormákur's 101 Reykjavík (2000) and its follow-up, The Sea (Hafið, 2002), which made the absolute perfection attained by this engrossing, complex police procedural all the more remarkable. The film's title refers to a facility in Reykjavík where specimens of human anomalies are stored, including the brain of a girl who died of a genetic disease in 1971. Over the film's tightly wound 94 minutes, we learn how this girl's brain is intricately linked to a present day murder. Flawlessly acted and beautifully shot to reflect the grainy, icy-grayness of Icelandic winter, Jar City also possesses a great deal of humor, albeit mostly of a visceral variety. For instance, who knew that Icelanders order sheep's heads from drive-thru windows like we order Big Macs—and then dig in, eyeballs first? And speaking as one who lives in gun-happy San Francisco (it was announced last week that there are over 60,000 handguns and 2400 assault rifles loose in the city of Dirty Harry), I was stunned at the total absence of firearms in a film about police and murder.

Solitary Fragments was also perfect, but in a completely different way. This measured, organic look at the lives of two women, takes its sweet time rifling through the mundane and exceptional events that make up a life. Adela is a divorced, single mom whose life is changed after crossing paths with an act of urban terrorism. Antonia is a widow with three grown daughters, each possessing problems and foibles that threaten her peace. Meals are prepared, clothes are ironed, card games played, buses ridden. People are petty and annoying one day, and quietly heroic the next. Not a moment of this organic film felt dishonest, which is why, unlike many in the audience, I remained absorbed for all of its two-hour-plus running time. Director Rosales employs the occasional use of split screen, using it almost exclusively for interior shots. The result is fractured architecture and some startling moments of actors inadvertently addressing the camera directly. I'm grateful to Michael Guillén for alerting me to this wonderful discovery.

In contrast, dishonesty is at work throughout all of Irina Palm, one of two British films I saw in the festival. The story is preposterous, the supporting characters broadly conceived and the music maddeningly repetitive. The film is also enormous fun. Marianne Faithfull stars as Maggie, a kindly grandmother who finances her sick grandson's life-saving operation by giving hand jobs through a glory hole in a London sex emporium. With her ultra smooth hands, she finds herself in hot demand, with a long line of customers and the stage name of Irina Palm. Maggie fashions her cubicle with homey pictures and plastic flowers, and does her work wearing a frumpy housecoat whilst flipping through magazines. Conflict comes in the form of disapproving friends and relatives, and a nasty case of "penis elbow." Faithfull is restrained, but fearless in the role.

I hadn't had the opportunity to see a Peter Greenaway film since 1999's 8½ Women, so I was excited to have a look at his latest work, Nightwatching. For my money, this is Greenaway at his most fascinating and accessible, which came as a relief at the end of a very long, five-film day. Nightwatching is the director's imagining of how Rembrandt came to create—and ultimately be destroyed by—his portrait of 31 Amsterdam guild members posing as militiamen in his celebrated painting, "The Nightwatch". Greenaway takes things further by unearthing a murder conspiracy he believes is contained in the painting, and everyone depicted on the canvas is assigned a salacious backstory. Earthy and ribald, lyrical and literate, Nightwatching's combination of natural and staged settings are seamlessly blended, then complemented with elegant tracking shots. Rembrandt is waggishly played by The Office's Martin Freeman (becoming the latest actor to do a Full Monty for Greenaway), and he speaks (as do all the film's characters) in a contemporary vernacular that is disarming and immediate. Everything is "bloody" this and "fucking" that. In one scene, Rembrandt whines to his wife, who is reluctant to have sex so soon after childbirth, "I'm tired of masturbating onto a paint rag." Girl With a Pearl Earring this ain't.

The five-film day that ended with Greenaway began early in the morning with Jacques Rivette's equally exquisite The Duchess of Langeais (Ne touchez pas la hache). I confess to being at a bit of a loss when it comes to this French master's work, which probably made my thorough enjoyment of this Balzac adaptation all the more considerable. In this chaste little chamber drama, Jeanne Balibar and Guillaume Depardieu skillfully portray a flirtatious married duchess and a stolid Napoleonic general. Initially, she toys mercilessly with his affections, until one day the tables are turned. "Steel against steel, we shall see which is the sharper." And see we do, as the couple's game of one-ups-manship results in nothing good for all concerned. Watching this film was like experiencing a sublime piece of theater, only with clever intertitles and no intermission.

I was less enthusiastic about the other French films I saw. Nicolas Klotz's long, dry-as-toast Heartbeat Detector (La Question humaine) tells the story of a corporate psychologist (Mathieu Amalric) assigned the task of ferreting out the reasons for his company CEO's (Michael Lonsdale) erratic behavior. We're given a break from the film's dreary corporate milieu only during two odd music sequences—one a flamenco concert and the other a debauched outdoor rave. Remorse over a past act of Nazi barbarism lends poignancy to the last act, but by then it had been too long a slog for me to care. Serge Bozon's middling musical dramedy La France, finds Sylvie Testud disguised in soldier drag as she tries to track down an errant husband across the battlefields of WWI. She attaches herself to a regiment (led by Pascal Greggory) with a big secret of its own, and there are some nicely observed moments of wartime camaraderie and forbearance. As for the film's Beatle-esque music sequences, in which the soldiers break out instruments and sing songs that do not even obliquely bear upon the rest of the film—I plead complete bewilderment. In Micha Wald's brutal revenge film, In the Arms of My Enemy (Voleurs de chevaux), 19th century Dnieper River cossack Gregoire Colin seeks to avenge the death of a younger brother. This one had the Palm Springs audience squirming and squealing with its excess of beating, stabbing, pummeling, goring, and plain old raping, murdering and pillaging. Thanks to languid pacing and gorgeous cinematography, all this mayhem is given a veneer of mystical transcendence. But in the end, I found it impossible to accept this cast of attractive French actors as bygone, salt of the earth Slavs.

Belgium's Oscar submission, Nic Balthazar's Ben X, was perhaps my least favorite film of the festival. An agitated and overwrought look at the serious issue of bullying, it was too cartoonish to affect much empathy for its main character, a teen who suffers from a form of autism called Asperger's Syndrome. Rabidly bullied by his classmates, Ben prefers to dwell in the on-line gaming world of ArchLord, where he always dominates his adversaries and always gets the girl. The script cooks up a real-world revenge scenario (irritatingly foreshadowed throughout the film), but it's utterly unconvincing when it finally arrives. As Ben, newcomer Greg Timmermans is directed into giving a one-note, stiff, bug-eyed performance. It would be unfair of me not to mention that the audience at Palm Springs loved this movie, and indeed at last year's Montreal World Film Festival it won the Grand Prix, Audience Favorite and the Ecumenical Jury Prize. Michael Guillén reports on the director's Palm Springs Q&A here.

Another audience favorite was Red Like the Sky (Rosso come il cielo), one of two Italian films I caught at the fest. I tend to steer clear of movies about children (or in this case, blind children), but I was curious because this one's based on the childhood experiences of real-life blind sound editor Mirco Mencacci. Although fairly sentimental and formulaic, I kept my gag reflex in check and even managed a smile at several key points. The story begins when 10-year-old Mirco loses his sight in a domestic gun accident and is shipped off to a Catholic boy's school for the blind. Reluctant to learn Braille, he begins capturing the great world of sound on a tape recorder he discovers in a closet. To the consternation of the crabby nuns and blind administrator who run the place, Mirco enlists the help of fellow students in creating an aural extravaganza to perform on Parents Day. Director Cristiano Bortone throws some interesting anti-clerical elements into the story (like the nun who tells the kiddies hellfire and damnation bedtime stories), but is less successful in relating Mirco's story to the social unrest of 1970's Italy.

One of my 10 favorite films of 2004 was Saverio Costanzo's Private, about a Palestinian family whose home is seized by the Israeli army for use as a lookout post. (Though completely filmed in Italy, it was disqualified as that country's Oscar submission because the dialogue was in Hebrew and Arabic). In his new film, In Memory of Myself (In memoria di me), the claustrophobic confines of a single house in Private are traded for the sterile expanse of a Benedictine monastery on Venice's San Giorgio Island. Andrea is a troubled young man who's ready to give up his secular life of "false freedom" by enlisting as a novitiate for the priesthood. He fits in well at first, but soon experiences a full-on spiritual crisis when confronted by the hypocrisy and deceit of monastery superiors. He also becomes distracted/obsessed by two fellow students, whom it is vaguely suggested are engaged in less than godly relations. In Memory of Myself is a fascinating meditation on issues of faith and blind obedience to church dogma, but I was disappointed in an ending that wants to have it both ways. Costanzo makes exquisite use of the immense San Giorgio Maggiore monastery interiors, particularly an endless, arched-ceiling corridor which is lined on both sides with identical novitiate cell doors. Through the windows at the end of this corridor, we see the surreal image of cruise ships passing though the Venice lagoon. If there was an indelible image I took away from the festival, this was it.

Macedonia's Oscar submission, Shadows (Senki), is a compelling metaphysical thriller in which a young ER doctor named Lazar comes back to life after a car wreck has left him clinically dead. When he returns to his apartment, there's an old woman inside speaking a forgotten Aegean dialect of Macedonian. He records her words and has them translated: "Have respect and return what is not yours." Thus, a fevered narrative is set in motion in which Lazar seeks to discover what it is that needs to be returned. Following an endless series of paranormal encounters and the discovery of a box of bones owned by his mother, Lazar finally leads us to the film's extremely moving resolution. Director Milcho Manchevski shows tremendous visual flair and imagination, but I could have done with a good half-hour less of the histrionic booga-booga that tends to subtract from the film's power. At the very least, I'm now encouraged to seek out the director's 1994 Before the Rain, which won a Golden Lion at Venice and was nominated for an Oscar.

As part of its Archival Treasures series, the festival screened Romanian director Lucian Pintilie's long-banned 1968 film,
Reenactment (Reconstituirea). According to film historian Milos Stehlik, who introduced the film, Pintilie is considered the spiritual father of today's Romanian new wave directors. At a riverside beach café, two young ruffians are forced to reenact a drunken melee which resulted in the demolition of a meatball kiosk and a waiter's head. The filmed reenactment is directed by a short-tempered district attorney, who plans to use it as a cautionary tale for potential juvenile delinquents. Reasons for the film's banishment seem pretty clear, the most obvious being its depiction of bureaucratic involvement in filmmaking. Then there's a moment where a character asks, "What's the difference between men and monkeys?" and the answer is "Monkeys don't carry ID cards." There's a literal goose chase, and I was particularly intrigued by a recurring cryptic image of changing room doors swinging open and closed in the breeze. Reenactment has a loose, inventive feel that characterized much of European cinema in the 60's, and I'm grateful to the festival for acquiring and screening such a flawless print. This is the kind of festival fare that separates the film fanatics from the mere fans.

I saw three Scandinavian films at the festival, including two Norwegian comedies; Bård Breien's
The Art of Negative Thinking (Kunsten å tenke negativt) and Petter Næss' Gone with the Woman (Tatt av kvinnen), Norway's official Oscar submission. The former is an intermittently funny, politically incorrect black comedy that attempts to skewer society's attitudes towards the handicapped. Things get off to a great start when we're introduced to the main character—a young man who's passed out in his wheelchair with a clothespin clamped to each nipple, a revolver in his lap and Johnny Cash's "Folsom Prison Blues" blasting on the stereo. Today's the day members of a positive-thinking therapy group for the disabled are coming to the house, and this guy's having none of it. In short order, emotional and physical abuse is heaped upon the participants, culminating in a reenactment of the Russian roulette scene from The Deer Hunter. Now I like my comedies as black as the next degenerate, but for some reason I mostly failed to connect to this one.

Petter Næss is best known in the US as the director of 2002's Oscar-nominated art-house hit Elling. His Gone with the Woman is even better, but due to the abysmal state of US theatrical distribution of foreign films, the best he can hope for this time is selling the rights for a stinky Hollywood remake. Inspired and madcap, Gone with the Woman is a farcical look at the psychological minefield heterosexual men tiptoe across in order to co-exist with the female of the species. The film's hapless everyman, identified only as "him", seems OK with being single until the day when manipulative and unbalanced Marianne (Marian Saastad Ottesen, who also appears in The Art of Negative Thinking) inserts herself into his life without invitation or warning. We follow the downs and ups of their relationship, from first-time sex (she's turned on by him wearing swim goggles) to co-habitation (she comes with a hideous yellow chest of drawers that takes on a symbolic life of its own). A disastrous European back-packing trip is followed by breakup, reconciliation, a stab at maintaining a long distance relationship, infidelity and potential parenthood. It all moves along at a swift clip, aided by a clever visual style that will remind some of Jean-Pierre Jeunet. At times the director tries too hard, and a bit more subtlety would not have been unwelcome. In the Q&A, Næss jokingly confessed that the story is all based on personal experience. One day I'd love to see a woman director tackle the opposing P.O.V. in a similar style.

I was largely ambivalent about Swedish director Roy Andersson's last film, 2000's acclaimed Songs from the Second Floor (Sånger från andra våningen), but not enough to keep me from checking out You, the Living (Du levande, Sweden's 2007 Oscar entry). Once again the director has assembled a string of vaguely connected absurdist vignettes that are at once comically deadpan and melancholic. Had the entire film delighted me as much as its first half hour, it might have been my favorite of the festival. I especially loved the tale of the man who gets the electric chair for his disastrous performance of the tablecloth trick, as well as the corpulent biker chick who continuously bellows that nobody understands her. The last two-thirds, however, felt much less inspired, becoming a full-on celebration of dreariness. The exception here is the film's most outstanding set-piece, during which a groupie dreams that she has finally married the lead guitarist of the Black Devils band. Dressed in her wedding gown, she moons over him as he plays an extended blues riff at her kitchen table. After several hypnotic minutes you realize that objects are moving past the kitchen window, and indeed, the kitchen eventually pulls into a train station where the newlyweds are greeted by a cheering mob. I'm not sure what Andersson means by all this, but moments from this film have continued to haunt my waking life ever since I saw it.

Finally, we come to Nikita Mikhalkov's 12 (12 razgnevannyh muzhchin), a Russian adaptation of the classic 1957 Sidney Lumet film 12 Angry Men. Mikhalkov, who co-wrote the script, also stars as the foreman of a jury that must unanimously decide the fate of a young Chechen accused of murdering his adoptive Russian father. The claustrophobic jury room of the original film is now a more cinematically-friendly school gymnasium, and the narrative has been opened up even further to include scenes of the accused's backstory. Each of the 12 jurors represent a different aspect of contemporary Russian society, from the "typical Jew" who is the first to change his vote to not-guilty, to the Georgian surgeon who knows first-hand about the racism experienced by non-Russians. The densely literate script gives each actor an opportunity to show his stuff, and the film is so smart and entertaining that its 160-minute running time whizzes by. This was one of my favorite films of the festival, and I would be very pleased should it go on to win an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film.

Cross-published on


Brian Darr said...

Thanks for the word on these, Michael. Hope some of them get a fair shake in the San Francisco market...

I remember loving Before the Rain when I saw it on its initial release. I don't know what I'd think today.

Anonymous said...

Brian, I hope the best of these European films come to the Bay Area as well. Meanwhile, one of my favorites from Palm Springs, Chris Smith's Hindi-language, Goa-set The Pool will be screening at IndieFest next month.

I was amazed to learn that Macedonian director Milcho Manchevski (Before the Rain, Shadows) also directed the music video for Arrested Development's Tennessee and an episode of The Wire.