Tofifest Day 1

Tofifest

My first day at Tofifest started with a first film: Instinct (2019) by Halina Reijn. She is an experienced actress in the theatre as well as in cinema and has worked with directors such as Paul Verhoeven, Alex van Warmerdam and Peter Greenaway. It is the first film co-produced by Man up. The company Reijn formed together with Carice van Houten. The latter also plays the lead Nicoline who is a psychologist who works in the prison system dealing with sexually aggressive men. In her current job, she is confronted with Idris (Marwan Kenzari) who is a rapist and one of the worst patients at the institution. Initially, she is highly sceptical of him and is the only one in the group that challenges the idea of granting probation. Well aware of the horrendous crimes Idris committed, she gradually becomes attracted to him and a kind of power play will ensue. Nicoline is a restless person. She changes workplaces frequently, and in an early scene, we see her refusing an offer of indefinite duration, opting instead for a temporary position. Her apartment is so impersonal, I actually mistook it for a hotel room the first time it was shown. It seems that she has been waiting for something to shake up her existence.

The film is written by Reijn together with Esther Gerritsen. The purpose of the Man Up production company is “to create films and television drama with high current value and relevance told from a female perspective. To explore darker, edgy stories that, through shame or fear, often remain untold. Quality, artistic integrity and openness to their audiences define the productions” It’s a bold statement and, in my mind, a very welcome one. The story reaches really dark corners and is not afraid to be complex, without overt explanations. Those looking for a third act that wraps things up neatly will be disappointed. If you, on the other hand, are open to a film that probes the psyche in a way that few other films do, this might be the thing. The acting is uniformly excellent. It’s hard to see that the film would work as well as it does with anyone else than Carice van Houten. Throwing terms like vulnerable and confident around would only scratch the surface of what Reijn and van Houten achieve here. During the opening of The Netherlands Film Festival, the director cheekily said that she paid van Houten in kind. They are, of course, immensely aided by the cinematography by Jasper Wolf, who also lensed Monos this year. The score by Ella van der Woude also deserves mentioning.

The first scene shows Nicoline taking part in an exercise playing a violent inmate who is supposed to be handled by some policemen. The scene doesn’t merely work as a presage of the role-playing between her and Idris but it ends in an interesting way. The policemen didn’t frisk Nicoline thoroughly enough and she shows them the cigarette lighter that they failed to find on her person. Whether it means they were just lazy or it is men being afraid of going too far is an open question. In any case, the film is eminently rewarding for anyone who is game.

Jessica Hausner’s Little Joe (2019) was a disappointment to me the first time around. The namesake flower didn’t bring me that much happiness. Now I went for a second inhalation to see if the scent of Little Joe would feel different. In some ways it did. There is still some stilted dialogue, notably by two characters, and I’m still not sure how profound the probing of the concepts actually is, but as a piece of cinema, I appreciated it more this time. The cinematography and the score seemed less discordant, or maybe I was just in a better mood. I still hope that Hausner will return to make films in German.

True merit, like a river, the deeper it is, the less noise it makes.

The River (Ozen 2018) by Emir Baigazin was the first film I saw by the director. It’s a film about a Kazakh family with five sons who live on a farm in a remote village. We follow their everyday life working on the farm, where the oldest brother Aslan carry out the orders of the father who is away for most of the time. Everything is planned and quite hierarchic. Suddenly an unknown cousin, Kanat appears unexpectedly. He arrives equipped with a tablet and other modern gadgets and the brothers are introduced to a new world. Obviously the newcomer brings temptations that threaten to ruin the family structure as it was. Then Kanat disappears during a visit to the titular river. Are any of the brothers responsible?

The river by Emir Baigazin.

The film that came to my mind was Arturo Ripstein’s The castle of purity (El castillo de la pureza 1973) A film that I suspect has influenced another director that is not my Favourite, but that I guess that some people might refer to when talking about this film even though we don’t see any lobster in the river. The film looks quite different to Ripstein’s. There is an austere rigour to the splendid images that sometimes verges on arthouse clichés, but are just on the right side of becoming stilted. There is not so much concentration on narrative, but the musical approach to rhythm is perfect. The headline shouldn’t be read as a position taken by the director, but rather a feeling I had while watching. The film itself is far less assertive. It makes me want to seek out Baigazin’s previous two films.

My impressions of the festival after the first day was quite positive. The films were well chosen and the atmosphere at the festival was relaxed. More reports will follow.

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.