Nowe Horyzonty 2019 Day 5

The fifth day started with another film from the Cannes competition. Once again I was treated to a genre film, or rather a weird mish-mash of genres. Kleber Mendonca Filho’s Bacurau is a film set in the eponymous village a few years from now. I’m not sure if that is the same thing as “the near future” where sci-fi films used to be set, but it might be. Teresa is going to the village to attend the funeral of her grandmother. One reviewer described the village as a place that time forgot. That might be true if you don’t consider film time. Once again we have a film that feels like a patchwork of numerous films that came before, and not much else. When György Szomjas made westerns set in Hungary, they were dubbed “goulash westerns” I’m not sure what the equivalent would be in Brazil, and in any case there are more things tossed in such as drones and Udo Kier. The presence of the latter is rarely a good sign for those who cross his path.

The whole affair is sometimes funny, but not that original or engaging. It is also way too long. An attribute that it shares with many films of the festival, with the glorious exception of Sátántangó. Sônia Braga shines in the role as village doctor Domingas.

Oliver Laxe’s first two films were set in Morocco, but for his third film Fire will come (O que arde) the location is Galicia, which happens to be his home region. Arsonist Amador (not an old-fashioned rapper name) returns home to his village after serving a prison sentence for causing a fire. He is welcome by nobody except his mother who has a farm. He doesn’t communicate that much and could almost have walked in from a Lisandro Alonso film.

The lifestyle of the villagers might be threatened by the modern world, as in Bacurau. Vehicles tearing down big trees, cars that seem about as natural as flying saucers in this context. However, this film can not be pared down to a single theme. It’s above all a piece of pure cinema. The cinematography in super 16 by Mauro Herce is gorgeous and creates a truly immersive experience. The narrative is quite minimalistic and never forced in any way. This is one of the highlights of the festival, and in contrast to the other film that has fire in the title, it understands how to use Vivaldi. This is a contender for one of the best films of the year.

Fatih Akin’s The golden glove (Der goldene Handschuh) caused quite a stir when it had its premiere during the Berlinale this year. It has been labelled “the most rancid film of the year” as well as “imbued with a contempt for humanity” These reactions, naturally sparked my interest, but I was not able to get a ticket then. The film is ostensibly a fairly accurate depiction of serial killer Fritz Honka, who killed numerous women in the early seventies. In fact, during the closing credits, we are shown pictures of Honka’s apartment as well as images of the people involved, seemingly to prove how well the film catches reality down to the, on the nose, prosthetics. However, the question that arises is why? What would this adaptation of the eponymous book, by Heinz Strunk, actually add to anything? The question remains unanswered after seeing the film. It feels oddly pointless, but on the other glove, I don’t understand the violent reactions against it either. It’s a film that is well-made, fairly engrossing, but quite forgettable. Not the first one of those from this director.

Nowe Horyzonty 2019 Day 4

The fourth day started with Zulawski’s first film made in France, L’important c’est d’aimer (1975). It will be covered in an upcoming Zulawski post. The next film was by a true veteran, Marco Bellochio. He is certainly not a favourite of mine, even if I like his debut Fists in the pocket (I pugni in tasca 1965) Who doesn’t? Then I lost interest in him until I stumbled on Vincere (2009), thanks to rave reviews in France. Since his latest film The traitor (Il traditore) got some recognition in Cannes, I decided to see this story about Tommaso Buscetta. He was a mafia guy who collaborated with a judge as an informant against Cosa Nostra. The film clocks in at 145 minutes, which makes it quite challenging. Not because it is slow since it isn’t, but because it feels so generic. It’s not only the feeling of déja vu that is the problem, but also the narration. Bellochio feels obligated to throw in titles constantly telling us where we are in time and space. They were actually more frequent than in an average episode of Law & order. If I was irritated by Ildikó Enyedi¨s use of titles, that was nothing compared to this. On a technical level, it is competent in every department, albeit a bit obvious, like the cinematography that conveys the darkness of the main character. The whole thing would probably work better as a miniseries.

Next up was the winner of last year’s Nowe Horyzonty competition. Holiday (2018) by Isabella Eklöf. The director, who also co-wrote the film with Johanne Algren, is probably most well-known for the screenplay of Border (Gräns 2018) which she penned with director Ali Abassi and the author of the source novel John Ajvide Lindqvist. Eklöf now resides in Denmark, and the film is a Danish production. Sascha is basically the trophy wife of mobster Michael, a man prone to use violence when he doesn’t get his way. During a visit to the Turkish holiday resort Bodrum, she runs into Thomas, a Dutch guy who is selling yachts for a living. She starts flirting with him in a light, playful way. Thus we supposedly have a love triangle, or do we?

According to the director, Johanne Algren lived the kind of life that Sascha does in the film. In fact, some scenes depict exactly what she experienced during her trophy wife years. Being a self-professed feminist, Eklöf doesn’t go for the obvious or tries to manipulate the viewer into sympathizing with her protagonist. In fact, I didn’t sympathize with anyone, while watching the film, and I mean that as a statement on the writing, not as a critique. The situations depicted are played for clarity, instead of an attempt to achieve cheap effects. We don’t really get to know Sascha all that well, and she doesn’t express in words what she thinks. A fact that lead to a rather animous question during the Q&A that the director answered in a very straightforward fashion, pointing out that expressing opinions in the situation Sascha was in, might actually be quite dangerous.

My expectations on this film were not that high (it is non-Hungarian after all) In some ways my prejudices were vindicated, notably when it came to the writing and the fearless choices that the writers went for. As a piece of cinema, I would call the cinematography unobtrusive, and there’s hardly an image that stuck in my mind, and it feels like the main asset is the body of Victoria Carmen Sonne. That goes for the character of Sascha as well, since our knowledge of her is only skin deep. On the other hand that is all she needs to control any situation, which she routinely does nimbly. So there one could see an affinity between Isabella Eklöf, and her creation. They may not use all the tools that are conceivably available, but they know exactly how to use the ones that they choose to apply. The fact that the film has elicited some hostile reactions from some critics is a sign of its success, and the director’s unwillingness to compromise.

Nowe Horyzonty 2019 Day 3D

Long day’s journey into night (Di qiu zui hou de ye wan 2018) is a film from last year, that I didn’t manage to watch until now. This is the second film by Gan Bi. The first being Kaili blues (2016) The new film is also mostly set in Kaili, but this time there is no blues, but rather Kaili freestyle jazz noir, or something to that effect. And this is a film that had a profound effect on me. The slightly noirish story is full of flashbacks, or just visual trapdoors that seem to lead nowhere, but at the same time open up new horizons, and that is after all, why we go to film festivals. I won’t even try to describe the plot, that seems to revolve around Hongwu Lou, who is searching for a woman who disappeared. He doesn’t remember her all that well. He visits places that may provide him with an answer, or maybe just make him drift further into darkness.

And that is only the first part. With an hour or so left he enters a cinema and puts on 3D-glasses, which is a cue for us in the audience to do the same. What follows is an hour-long tracking shot that is gorgeous beyond belief. With the exception of Godard’s Adieu au langage.(2014) I’ve never had any tolerance for 3D but if it works like in this film, I say – bring it on! Memories and dreams seem to slip through the protagonist’s fingers, and essays could be written about what the director achieves here. It’s a breathtaking achievement that ranks among the greatest studies on memory and fiction.

From that lofty experience, the next film brought me swiftly back to terra firma. I was home but (Ich war Zuhause aber…) won an award at the Berlinale festival. I saw it then and was less than excited. Since I found some merit in her earlier work, in particular, Der traumhafte Weg (2014) I decided to give the film another chance. Schanelec is repeatedly compared to Robert Bresson. With that in mind, it’s rather presumptuous to include a donkey in the opening sequence. The rest of the film is set in Berlin. Astrid (Schanelec regular Maren Eggert) is a high strung woman, and her temperament is not aided when her son Philip disappears. We follow her through a string of episodes. She buys a used bike and is unhappy with it. Her interactions with her kids are not perfect, to say the least. Halfway through the film, there is a long dialogue between Astrid and a director, where she lashes out on him for using genuinely sick people, with actors who just play their parts. Meanwhile, Philip has returned and is now acting in a school version of Hamlet.

Most of the film is shot from a distance, and the style is more akin to Michael Haneke and Roy Andersson, than Bresson. Sitting next to one of her students during the Berlinale screening, I was informed that she doesn’t approve of Andersson’s style of filmmaking. He suggested Akerman instead. When I snapped “She is certainly no Akerman” he got, understandably, quite irritated. A second screening only enhanced my first impressions. This is not a film made by a formalist in control of her means, even though the director seems very confident in what she’s doing. The single shots are certainly immaculately composed, but… Something is missing, and I don’t necessarily mean that the separate elements have to add up to something cohesive, but there should be more to the film than this. Or maybe I was still in the mind of the Gan BI film. For a different take on the film, Neil Young’s Berlinale review can be read right here Apparently it was the first film he saw by the director.

As I mentioned in my first festival post, one of the highlights is usually the retrospectives. Over the years there have been series covering the works of Jaques Rivette, Joao Cesar Monteiro, Ildikó Enyedi, Pedro Costa and Fred Kelemen, just to name a few. At a Q&A after a screening, Fred Kelemen was asked if he associates himself with Slow cinema, or if the expression means anything to him. His answer was a negative one. He said that he felt that many “slow films” are just boring and that one day he would make the fastest film in the world. I thought of his answer since Albert Serra is one of the directors being presented this year, besides Olivier Assayas and Shûji Terayama. I haven’t seen that many of Serra’s films before, but I was never that enthusiastic about what I saw. Now it was time to dive into his latest film, Liberté, which caused a bit of a stir in Cannes this year. The film is set in 1774. Some French libertines have assembled somewhere between Berlin and Potsdam, to meet the famous seducer and free thinker Duke of Walchen. The goal is to find a free space (mentally as well as geographically) for their thoughts and actions.

That is the “plot” and it is more or less told during the first minutes of the film. What follows is a seemingly endless array of debauchery. This is the kind of film where a critic should play it cool and say something like ” I wasn’t shocked, I was bored” After two hours, it’s exactly what I was. The film is based on Serra’s eponymous play, which was staged in Berlin. Sitting next to someone who saw that play, I was told that the film followed the play fairly well. I’m not the kind of person who uses the expression “filmed theatre” as a pejorative term, and I’m not going to start now. Serra has dubbed himself, the best director in Spain. Be that as it may, the technical aspects of the film can not be faulted, in particular not the cinematography by Artur Tort. Still, the effect was lost on me.

The last film of the day was Diabeł by Andrzej Zuławski, but since there is a mini-retrospective of his films, as well as a film he scripted, directed by his son Valery, I will leave those films for a later post. I keep asking myself if my reception of Schanelec’s and Serra’s films would have been different if I hadn’t seen Long day’s journey into night before. That, I will never know.

Nowe Horyzonty 2019 Day 2.

There was a disappointing absence of Hungarian films during this year’s edition. Apart from the restored version of Béla Tarr’s Sátántangó (1994) the sole film from Hungary was Deva by Petra Szöcz. In the director’s first feature, we follow Kató. a young albino girl who lives in an orphanage in the Romanian town of the film’s title. One day she is electrocuted while drying her hair. The event seems to, somewhat, change the world around her. “Your hair is even whiter than before” the children muse. Meanwhile, a new volunteer, Bogi, is hired for two months. Kató takes a shine to her and takes action to try to get rid of the regular volunteer Ana, played by Peter Strickland regular, Fatma Mohamed.

As far as the plot goes, that’s about it. Szöcz and cinematographer Zóltan Dévényi have a naturalistic style, which doesn’t prevent giving the film a good look, and it’s always attractive to watch. However, there is not so much more to the film than that. Former novelist Szöcz doesn’t really dig deep enough into the subject, and when the 76 minutes have passed, I’m not exactly sure what I just watched, but not in the good mind-blowing way. It should be said that she coaxes good performances out of her young cast. I will keep an eye on Petra Szöcz, but I will not go out of my way to see her upcoming films.

Bong Joon-Hoo has been a favourite of mine ever since his first film, Barking dogs never bite (Flandersui gae 2000) I was, however, less than thrilled with his two latest films, made in English. Therefore I was happy to learn that his upcoming film would be in Korean. It premiered in Cannes where it won the Palme d’Or. The reviews so far have been unanimous in their praise, and for once I will not disapprove. This is Bong’s return to form. The members of the family of Kim Ki-taek (Song Kang-Ho) are all unemployed and live in a basement. One day the son gets a job through a friend, teaching English to the daughter of rich family Park. Little by little, the whole household manages to manoeuvre themselves into the Park residence, in different capacities, without letting the Park’s in on the fact that they are related. During this part of the film I was amused, but also slightly sceptical. It felt like the Parks were too gullible, and that it was too easy for the Kims to weasel their way into the household. I asked myself where this was going.

Well, it turned out it was going somewhere. I am not the kind of person who worries about spoilers, but when it comes to this film, I would say that the less you know, the better. Suffice it to say that Bong fires on all cylinders in his writing (the script was co-written by Han Jin Won) Acting, direction, cinematography, editing, and even the music, that has been a weakness in the past, are all top-notch. This is a film I can not recommend enough.

Quentin Dupieux has made a name for himself with weird films like Rubber (2010), Wrong (2012) and Réalité (2014) Now he is back with Le Daim (Deerskin). Jean Dujardin plays George who is obsessed with his new, and fairly expensive, deerskin jacket. The seller of the garment gives George a camcorder as a bonus. This will come in handy later when he will pretend to be a filmmaker. To achieve this he manages to fool a bar waitress Denise (Adèle Haenel being much more interesting than in the Portrait of a woman misfire) to give him, virtually all her money. Meanwhile, his obsession with the jacket escalates to unhealthy proportions.

There is an obvious link to Georges obsession with his jacket and the likewise obsessive determination that a film director needs to realize his vision. It turns out that Denise dreams of becoming an editor. She has been training on her own, by re-arranging Pulp Fiction chronologically. Here it could work as a companion piece to Adam Rifkin’s Director’s cut (2016) where Penn Jillette plays a man who steals footage of a film being shot, kidnaps the star and proceeds to make his own Director’s cut, that, of course, looks terrible. Deerskin is possibly a slighter film than Dupieux’s previous films, but nevertheless entertaining and thought-provoking.

This will be the only film by a director named Quentin, covered in these reports.

Nowe Horyzonty 2019 Day 1

Wrocław in Poland is the city where the Nowe Horyzonty (New Horizons) festival takes place every year. This year marked the nineteenth edition. The festival stands out for many reasons. The selection is excellent, both when it comes to new films, as well as retrospectives. A particular highlight was the Fred Kelemen retrospective in 2017. The festival also has a dedicated audience that trusts the selectors, and are willing to take risks. It is more or less concentrated to a single multiplex, that actually serves as an art-house cinema all year long. This was my sixth consecutive year at the festival.

My first film was Little Joe by Jessica Hausner. A director I admire greatly. Her most recent film Amour fou (2014) was, in my mind at least, a neglected masterpiece. She is probably most well known for Lourdes (2009). Little Joe is her fifth feature and her first in English. As usual, it is co-produced by Coop99 where the cinematographer Martin Gschlacht is the managing director. The film takes place in a lab where Alice (Emily Beecham) works as a plant breeder. Now she has created a plant that emits a scent that will make people happy. She names the plant after her son Joe. Without going further into the plot, it suffices to say that things don’t go exactly as planned.

Little Joe. Ben Whishaw
Ben Whishaw in Little Joe.

It is quite difficult to have an opinion of Hausner’s latest offering. It might need more than one viewing, but to me, it seemed that her controlled formalism is slightly off-kilter here. There is gorgeous production design to spare, and Gschlact’s cinematography where the colour red dominates together with mint green is also impressive. It is obvious that Hausner wants to evoke a world where things are a bit out of balance, but I’m not sure if the film is calibrated enough to achieve that. Apparently the script was written in German and then translated to English. If that’s true that might account for some infelicities in the dialogue. The concepts are not really explored by the plotline that, if taken literally, is full of holes and inconsistencies. This is a film I will probably return to since I can’t believe that Hausner would do something that feels this vacuous. I’m rather hoping that I missed something.

Beecham walked away with the actress award at the Cannes film festival. Something that came as a surprise to many people, in particular, fans of Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a lady on fire. (Portrait de la jeune fille en feu) where many thought that Adèle Haenel and/or Noémi Merlant would win that award. This film, set in 1770 about Marianne (Merlant) who is commissioned to make a portrait of Héloise, has numerous fans. I am not one of them. I have always been sceptical about Sciamma as a director and always felt that her strength lies in her writing capabilities. She co-wrote the excellent script for André Techiné’s Being 17 (Quand on a 17 ans 2016) and also in her own films, the writing usually trumps the cinematic aspects of the films. The award she received in Cannes this year, was for the screenplay.

Portrait of a lady on fire
Adèle Haenel and Noémie Merlant in Portait de la jeune fille en feu.

In this film though, I feel that nothing works. The film is made up of scenes from other films ( The Piano 1993 is only one of the films that springs to mind during the first minutes) and an array of clichés. What Sciamma seems to be going for are that three scenes with diegetic music will compensate for the rest, and work as a payoff. That is the take Alex Billington has in his Letterboxd review of the film. I agree with this assessment. If you don’t feel that those three scenes work (which I don’t) then the film will not work at all. To me, the film was a negative surprise, even though my expectations were not that high. Alex Billington’s review can be found here

Peter Strickland is a Brittish director who has lived in Budapest for many years. His first feature Katalin Varga (2009) made me immediately interested in him. The outstanding feature of that film was the sound design. Something that’s been a trademark for the director ever since. His second film, Berberian sound studio (2012), even dealt with the subject specifically. In Fabric is his fourth feature and maybe his strangest to date. It basically follows a dress as it passes from person to person, and the effects it seems to have on them. When I read about the film, I instantly thought about Alex Van Warmerdam’s The dress (De jurk 1996), but that film, quirky as it is, almost feels like a documentary compared to In fabric. As in Little Joe, the dialogue is quite stylized, but here there is no question whether it works or not. There is an eerie mood established very quickly, that intensifies as the film moves along. It’s often funny, sometimes scary, but above all weird and wonderful. For me, this is Strickland’s best feature, and a constant visual and aural pleasure. A great way to end my first day at the festival.