Tofifest Day 3

My third day started with yet another first feature-length film. My thoughts are silent (2019) by Antonio Lukich. Vadim is 25 years old and more than two meters tall. He records sounds for a living which he sells to different companies. He gets a generous offer that will allow him to move to Canada and work there. To achieve this he must first record animal sounds in Western Ukraine. If Vadim manages to record the elusive Rakhiv mallard he will get a big bonus. When he arrives in his former hometown Uzhgorod he is picked up by a taxi driver who speaks to Vadim in a strange way. After a while, we understand that it’s actually his mother, and she will be his companion during the trip.

The journey will be filled with weird conversations between mother and son, filled with deadpan humour reminiscent of early Kaurismäki. (Andriy Lidagovskiy in the lead role even has a Matti Pellonpää thing going) with hilarious situations that nobody seems to react upon. The comic timing between Vadim and his mother (Irma Vitovska-Vantsa) is impeccable. The director never aims for cheap effects but keeps a steady rhythm of laconic observations. The film is constantly visually inventive. That goes for the aural aspects as well, not surprisingly, considering the subject. The film also boasts a nostalgic synth-based score. Another more recent comparison might be Gábor Reisz. even though Lukich never strives for the effects that his Hungarian counterpart achieves in his second film Bad poems. (rossz versek 2018) The film actually begins in Hungarian with a prologue set in medieval times. So once more I saw another film that I really liked and I started to wonder if there were any films during this festival that I wouldn’t like.

My thoughts are silent
Andriy Lidagovskiy in My thoughts are silent

Well, one can always cheat and rewatch a film I didn’t like at all the first time. Portrait of a lady on fire (Portrait d’une jeune fille en feu 2019) was really under fire the first time I saw it. What struck me the most when I saw it for the second time is that there are some really good scenes during the first 20 minutes, all of them indoors. One scene wouldn’t have been out of place in a Manoel de Oliveira film, and that’s one of the biggest compliments that I can give. The rest, however, felt exactly the same and the disappointment was heightened by the promise of those early scenes. That might have been why my negative reaction was so strong the first time around.

The Dardenne brothers haven’t managed to impress me for quite some time now. The last film I really appreciated by them was The child (Un fils 2005) Their latest film is Young Ahmed (Le jeune Ahmed 2019) The titular character is a 13-year-old boy who is being radicalized by an Iman. He sets out to kill one of his teachers, partly because she is dating a jew. After the failed attack, Ahmed ends up in an institution where people are trying to decide what would be best for him. One of his duties is to work on a farm where the farmer’s daughter Louise seems to take a shine to him. Some critics have labelled the film dangerous but to me, it rather feels naive. Then there are of course the ubiquitous complaints that the film shouldn’t have been directed by white men. Someone went so far as to say that “it wasn’t their story to tell”. Even if one ignores those critics it must be said that the brother’s style hasn’t changed much through the years and The Dardennes feels like one of the all-too-many usual suspects who have an open ticket to the Cannes competition. I rarely take festival awards too seriously but giving the film the prize for best direction is downright ludicrous. It would not be a hard task to pick a handful of films from the competition that would have been better suited for that award.

Le jeune Ahmed Young Ahmed Dardenne
Idiir Ben Addi and Victoria Bluck in Le jeune Ahmed.

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.