Bright Lights Film Journal

Love, or Something Close to It: Four Films from the 50th Thessaloniki International Film Festival

“There is always some madness in love; but, there is always some reason in madness.” — Nietzsche

Love and madness, those seemingly inseparable twins, were having themselves a grand time during last November’s 50th Thessaloniki International Film Festival’s Focus sidebar, aptly titled, “Post Romance.”

“Cinema is an act of romance,” claims Focus programmer Konstantine Kontrovrakis, adding emphatically that “it’s practically a structural component” of the art. Surely this must be the case. Given the enormous difficulties in bringing a project to the screen, only someone in love with cinema and its possibilities could withstand the trials, and only someone a little mad would set out on so quixotic a journey.

And if this slate of films is any indication, mad lovers of cinema not only abound but are hell-bent on seducing audiences with love stories that stand the conventional “boy meets girl” scenario on its head.

The Queen of Hearts (2009), by the former French architecture student turned filmmaker/actress Valérie Donzelli, is a pastiche of Nouvelle Vague and American indie sensibilities — think Demy’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg crossed with Jarmusch’s Stranger Than Paradise.

The protagonist, Adele (adroitly played by Donzelli), is a thirty-something woman who has been unceremoniously dumped by her live-in boyfriend Mathieu, the love of her life. On the verge of hysteria, flat broke, and homeless — it was his apartment — Adele finds herself on the doorstep of her neurotic cousin Rachel, who reluctantly takes her in. Over time, Rachel is moved by Adele’s emotional distress and tries to help her, offering the pithy advice: “You need to sleep with someone else to get over him; it’s the only way.” So begins Adele’s endless romp with Pierre, Paul, and Jacques (all played to perfection by Jérémie Elkaïm), crying and sniffling and singing all the way.

“The film is really about obsession, as well as confronting ourselves and the role we play in love,” says Donzelli. “And I wanted to create a character that is a little bit Candide and a little bit burlesque. We all need to be able to laugh at ourselves.” And Donzelli’s Adele comes across as just that: a charming waif with the heart of a chanteuse. What gives the film depth is Adele’s hilarious awkwardness and undisguised need to love and be loved — everyone has been in her predicament at one time or another. The low-key settings, natural lighting, and insertion of Super 8 footage depicting childhood scenes enhance the “it could have been me” feel.

At first blush, heartbreak and an inflatable sex doll would appear to have little, if anything, in common. Yet in the skilled hands of acclaimed Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-eda the two mesh seamlessly. Air Doll (2009), Kore-eda’s latest work, tells the deceptively simple story of a blow-up doll named Nozomi (Korean actress Bae Doo-na) and her lonely, middle-aged owner, Hideo (Itao Itsuji). Hideo lives in one of the older, run-down neighborhoods of Tokyo and works as a waiter in a café, where the chef routinely insults him. Every night he comes home to Nozomi, whom he dresses in frilly maid outfits and then arranges her at the dinner table with him. He holds imaginary conversations with her, telling her about the misery of his day. Later, he brings her to bed with him and makes love to her, all the while whispering sweet nothings in her ear. Nozomi, of course, is silent. That is, until one day when she comes to life. With otherworldly body language and the childish sense of discovery one might expect from a doll, Nozomi wanders the neighborhood learning to speak from an assorted group of solitary characters she meets. Somehow she lands a job in the local video shop and falls in love with the clerk, Junichi (Arata Furuta), and learns what it means to experience true emotions.

Inspiration for the film came from Yoshi Gouda’s manga The Pneumatic Figure of a Girl. And it was the erotic element of the story that intrigued Kore-eda the most, noting that “I hadn’t tried this kind of approach in my films before, [and] it was really a challenge to myself to see if I could pull it off.”

Kore-eda does pull off the eroticism, albeit in a very subtle manner. Pivotal scenes such as when Nozomi is accidentally cut and Junichi blows the breath of life back into her, or when Hideo washes the silicone sheath that functions as Nozomi’s genitals, or simply when he makes love to her, bring into play ideas about what it is to be a sex object — literally — and the desperate need for human touch, if not love.

On a less fantastic note, two people in urgent need of human kindness are the lead characters in Urszula Antoniak’s debut feature Nothing Personal (2009), a slim, perceptive portrait of extreme solitude and its trajectory. A young Dutch woman (fiercely played by Lotte Verbeek) drifts along the austere, inhospitable landscape of the Galway coast, her only possessions contained within an old rucksack she totes. She picks food out of rubbish bins, refuses all contact with people, and sleeps in a tent in whatever empty field happens to please her. She scowls a lot. Her background is unknown other than what the viewer can gather from an opening scene in Amsterdam, where she looks out the window of an empty apartment and then takes off her wedding ring.

After a long stretch of tramping through fields, she comes upon a secluded island cottage where she finds Martin (Stephen Rea), a forlorn widower and the island’s sole occupant. Hungry and tired, she agrees to work in Martin’s garden and around the cottage in exchange for food as long as there is no personal contact between them. Little by little, though, her stony silence begins to ebb and a tentative relationship forms.

With minimal dialogue and no back story, the imposing countryside, with its beautiful, rain-soaked valleys and gray-green sea, becomes the measure of the characters’ shifting emotions. Close-ups of hands at work in the garden, or a long shot of a walk along the coast, the characters small and helpless against the enormity of the horizon, suggest the fragility of human experience.

“Both characters are tabula rasa,” says Antoniak. “In real life we guess rather than know what moves people to do what they do.” In Nothing Personal, the characters may not give voice to their histories or feelings, but their capacity over time to relinquish their defenses tell us everything we need to know about love.

In a 180-degree emotional turn, Argentinean director Alexis Dos Santos’s second feature, Unmade Beds (2008), portrays a group of twentysomethings looking for love in the hip squats and punk bars of multi-culti London’s East End. The two leads — Axl (Fernando Tielve), a mop-headed 20-year-old Spaniard who’s come to London in search of a father who abandoned him as a child, and Vera (Déborah François), a mysterious young Belgian fleeing a broken love affair — cross paths intermittently while sharing the same squat with various other free spirits. Axl drinks to excess in music clubs every night, often waking up in a stranger’s bed without remembering how he got there. Vera works in a bookshop and eventually begins an affair with a charismatic stranger (Michiel Huisman) with whom she doesn’t exchange phone numbers or names. Both exude a bohemian cool and sexiness that is alluring.

The plot is thin but engaging as we watch the characters stumble from one bed or love affair to another, seeking true connection but seemingly happy even if it turns out to last only for a night. The lovemaking is uninhibited, the lack of cynicism touching.

To keep the film afloat, Dos Santos employs many formal techniques that heighten the fleeting, in-the-moment feel, including jump cuts, handheld camerawork, voice-over of philosophical musings about love, and different film stocks. The work has the visual impact of a collage. Lasting love is hard to come by in Unmade Beds, but, as in real life, the joy is in the hunt.