They saw what you did!
Could anyone foresee, when six nations signed the Treaty of Rome in 1957, that this economic agreement would evolve into the unprecedented political experiment called the European Union, one that would transform historic antagonists and enemies into partners and would keep the continental peace for half a century? Now 50 years later the E.U. membership has swelled to 27 countries that, despite employing 23 official languages, practically constitute a cinematic republic that produces both commercial product and more than its share of alternatives to herd-instinct film-going.
For the European Union Film Festival’s tenth season as a presence on Chicago’s cultural scene, the gadfly programmers of the Gene Siskel Film Center have intrepidly collected 55 feature films from 24 member countries (missing only Malta, Cyprus, and the newly joined Bulgaria from the complete roster), works by and large made not to console but to question. Offered this glimpse into the filmic state of the Union, audiences responded with sell-out crowds for premieres of the latest Resnais and Ruiz plus the rarely seen Garrel.
According to this particular selection of stories, everyone in the EU seems to have something to hide. If last year’s festival offerings seemed to focus on concerns about aliens immigrating into the heart of Europe, this year film after film probed the new surveillance society and the immediacy of street-sited cameras that publicly expose dramas that would once have unfolded indoors.
Several selections here prove that the Dogme 95 movement, the Danish marketing opportunity and aesthetic conceit that spawned a thousand jiggly camera shots, on the arbitrary theory that shakycam images confer authenticity, apparently refuses to die. Even as its proponents cheat on the rules by sneaking in enhanced lighting or bits of “impure” background music, it is the extraordinary acting full of tumultuous emotions that remains the strength of these productions, though more than a few viewers hope that directors will put their cameras back on the tripod and stop making everyday tableaux tremble as if occurring during an earthquake.
As the digital era is now well underway, it’s notable that only six of the features here were conceived for digital video, enabling the festival, whether wittingly or not, to celebrate the luxurious detail and clarity of film while mindful of video’s Faustian bargain trading freedom from profiteering and interference for flattened and often grubby visuals. Along with such popular and well-received offerings as Germany’s Four Minutes, Austria’s Falling and Grbavica: The Land of My Dreams, the Czech Republic’s Beauty in Trouble, and Estonia’s Men at Arms, there were also the titles discussed below.
“Do not think of cameras as intrusive or threatening,” instructs the unseen narrator of Chris Petit’s Unrequited Love: On Stalking and Being Stalked. “They are submissive . . . watching over you like a child watched by someone who loves you.” Enacting a drama about the mechanics and motivations of stalking, itself the ultimate pursuit of control, the director records it all on passive surveillance cameras, and through a blur of new forms of communication like e-mailing and texting, with everything experienced at a remove, forbidding us to slip mindlessly into a theatrical narrative. Calling it “a love story in long shot,” but uniquely one where the two principals never actually appear together, Petit films from rooftop sniper perspectives, views his characters through door peepholes, and even maps out their movements marked in red, blue, and green strokes. Sometimes the camera of Martin Schäfer, longtime collaborator of both Petit and Wim Wenders, feels too close for comfort, many times too far, capturing the locations in London and Leipzig with scope yet no depth through foreshortened telephoto images. Even as the film threatens to be more a blueprint for a movie than a dramatically emotional experience, its intensely original structure concentrates on revealing a traveling, unstable existence that persuasively captures the mindset of the woman stalking her unresponsive object of affection. As in a vampire story, these are characters without shadows in the bright industrial video, unmirrored with reverse angles. Matched to intrusive close-ups of her face, the stalker (a “fundamentalist of love”) fills the soundtrack with accusations and imprecations (“I have nothing but contempt for your cruelty. Any feelings I had for you are gone”), while from another distant but co-existing sphere the objective narrator invokes Goethe and Stendhal, as well as literary experts on obsession like Jean Rhys and Patricia Highsmith, while ranging across the intellectual landscape with comments on, say, the impossibility of romance in the modern world (“Now in the west there is only money. Money has become the common dream of all, hollow values, who dream only of possession”). Petit haunts past film locations, revisiting the places where once the cameras rolled on Peeping Tom, Frenzy, Repulsion, and Blow-Up. With style (and vision) to burn, Petit helps to frame a societal debate that has barely begun but will surely burgeon, and proves once again that there’s no substitute for a brain behind the camera.
Surveillance footage also permeates Andrea Arnold’s intensely immediate Red Road (as does the Dogme aesthetic’s palsied camerawork), which at first encourages identification with a woman whose job requires vigilant scrutiny of live street activities captured on Scotland’s public spycams from multitudinous angles, especially a public housing monolith that houses ex-cons. As she sympathetically tracks a man walking an elderly bulldog on its last legs, she begins to stalk another rowdy inhabitant for her own reasons, at which point we must re-evaluate what we are seeing: this freshly released criminal’s treatment of her (including during a scorching sex episode) seems decent enough even as she busily sets up a questionable entrapment scheme. Meanwhile, the movie hums with machines busily capturing human foibles, while gripping tracking shots and shallow focus surprises cement our involvement. The cries of wild foxes amidst the urban rubble and the hot neon clarity of a red-purple lava lamp stand out as shockingly aesthetic moments in the faux naturalism of Dogme (though the film usefully comes equipped with English-language subtitles to explicate the Glasgow accents and slang), and two other directors are planning films that will follow the same three principal characters (though it’s unclear whether these include Roger the woman-hating budgerigar).
The opening credits of Denmark’s Flies on the Wall (Fluerne Pa Vaeggen) buzz with anticipation amidst more surveillance video as a filmmaker accepts an offer from an old boyfriend to document the reign of a local mayor. Reluctantly going on the payroll of the political party, she barges right into a sauna with her camera for incontestably complete coverage, but when secret financial skullduggery turns up, she has already entangled herself romantically with the charismatic and complex politico (his philosophy: “The world is full of contradictions and I’ve accepted that”). Faster than you can say “Michael Haneke,” it develops that director Ake Sandgren has fashioned a variation on Caché, plunging us into suspense about exactly which of the characters is in control of the film we are watching, the one who owns the camera or another who owns the editing equipment?
It’s hard out there for a shrink, as Vera Chytilová’s sarcastically titled Pleasant Moments (Hezké Chvilky Bez Záruky) amply demonstrates. The Czech New Wave auteur of Daisies follows the harried personal and professional life of a Prague psychotherapist, from losing a hubcap in traffic, to getting groped in a movie theatre, to submitting her body to a stranger on a park bench, all as her own marriage falls to pieces. While an unending stream of desperate people invade her office to unburden their urgent secrets of spousal abuse, incest, and public rape, she must summon the calm to address male and female sufferers who prove alternately abusive, insecure, jealous, self-destructive, and cocksure (one fellow boasts “I have the hormones of one man in a thousand”). Another seeking a suicide pill bemoans that “the whole world’s just one big stop sign. I don’t want to live in such a world.” Tough and unafraid of contradictions, Chytilová applies a bracing black humor to temper her doctor’s withstanding the accumulated waves of spite and despair, and swings her freewheeling camera across space in a loose-limbed jazzy style that actually embodies her final lesson: “You have to learn to live with risk.”
Set during massive anti-globalization demonstrations in Madrid, Marcelo Piñeyro’s gripping The Method (El Método) centers on a handful of top management-savvy candidates who assemble to compete for a coveted job in the corporate fishbowl, but find they are actually participants in a group dynamics experiment to winnow and exclude their number down to one finalist. Not unlike a reality TV show, the tricky strategy includes loaded questions (“If the company asked you, would you do something illegal?”) and round-robin votes to expose and expel weaker members from the group. Not surprisingly, they rapidly uncover a secret agenda in the corporate game plan, with a concealed mole steering them into informing on each other, not to mention clandestine doings in the men’s room. Headed by Eduardo Noriega (the fascist heartthrob in Guillermo Del Toro’s The Devil’s Backbone), the deft cast also features imaginative performances by Najwa Nimri and Natalia Verbeke, with the eventual winner emerging on the post-demo street full of burning cars, smoldering tires, and globalized detritus spread across the boulevards.
Also competing for a job, the hero of Costa-Gavras’s black comedy hit The Ax (Le Couperet) hits on the clever idea of soliciting his rivals’ resumés via a bogus ad, then eliminating them one by one, not unlike the homicidal procedure in the wicked British classic Kind Hearts and Coronets. José Garcia, eyes like black olives emitting exasperation and guilt equally, seethes over the injustices of “turbo-capitalism” and rages against suburban utopias (“under those well-kept lawns the earth is shaking!”). Aggressing his way through corporate interviews (“the land of the compulsory smile”), he still cannot admit his unemployment to his family (like the hero of Laurence Cantet’s Time Out; in fact, Karin Viard ably repeats her exact same role from that film of perpetually puzzled wife, only flavored here with more humor). As this beleaguered salaryman alternately accomplishes and botches the killings, he finds that he’s hardly alone in his predicament: one victim opines that “These are criminal times. We should lock arms, not fight for crumbs while CEOs laugh.” Co-produced by the Dardenne brothers (and featuring their frequent collaborator Olivier Gourmet as a top dog on the corporate heap), this French adaptation of a Donald E. Westlake novel makes for a slickly effective socio-economic comedy, pointing to a cycle of misbehavior that must be interrupted somehow.
Delicate, light, mysterious, and hands down the year’s most elegant film,Private Fears in Public Places (Coeurs) glows with sophistication in the pastel cocktail hues captured by the peerless cinematographer Eric Gautier. Opening on a majestic shot of the Eiffel Tower shrouded in dense blizzard clouds, revered maestro Alain Resnais introduces the film’s unifying motif whereby every scene ends enveloped in a curtain of snowfall, while the characters enact a kind of dance of real estate, crossing paths in search of the ideal space that will promise a settled existence, yet each proposed apartment is found wanting and wrongly configured. But the characters’ myriad secrets (concealed motives, histories, and infatuations) cannot hide in the film’s public spaces, whether the real estate office’s light, open cubicles parted by plexiglass, with street activities and perpetual snowstorm exposed through floor-to-ceiling glass walls, or the spacious shocking pink and mauve bar which becomes a theatre for revelations. The characters moving in and out of focus, no one seems completely at home, not the slacker drummed out of the military (“What my chaps did was wrong. I don’t dispute that. But I didn’t know it was happening”), nor the bartender who cares for his demented and offensive invalid father (warehoused offscreen but well within shouting distance). Lubitsch himself seems like the third party during a The Shop Around the Corner-like blind date by two correspondents who conceal even their names from each other, while the effortlessly glamorous Sabine Azéma (Madame Resnais offscreen) plays a Bible-fueled do-gooder who enacts leather-clad shimmies of seduction, a kind of reverse Salome who dances to exorcise the devil. When the snow starts falling inside a room, we know that we are in the hands of one of the 20th century’s most sophisticated filmmakers.
What are the chances of seeing two films in a row with indoor snowfalls? It happens again in Klimt, the latest from Chilean-born experimentalist (and one of Europe’s last working surrealists) Raul Ruiz, who rarely disappoints those seeking playful paradox, disarming originality, or eccentric imagery. Aside from the interior precipitation (which soon transmutes into fluttering blossom petals), his daringly poetic take on the work of Gustav Klimt, the Austrian ornamentalist and Art Nouveau pioneer, also observes without comment a woman who enigmatically sports precisely half a moustache. The English-language script by Gilbert Adair begins with the artist (played by John Malkovich) lying on his deathbed (just where Ruiz introduced Proust in his masterly Time Regained), only here presided over by his hovering protégé Egon Schiele (played by Nikolai Kinski, California-bred son of Klaus). Immediately Ricardo Aronovich’s camera turns sideways above Klimt, then swivels upside down, as if to signal that the film will proceed topsy-turvy through disrupted dimensions and parallel universes. It’s 1918 in a Vienna of cafés and ateliers, still haunted by the killing fields of the Great War, but do not suppose that the fin-de-siècle setting precludes any surveillance activity as Klimt soon finds himself in an erotic interlude witnessed by a stranger through one-way glass. In fact, the mirroring of a duplicate world becomes a central device, echoed via cinematic doppelgangers fashioned by Georges Méliès himself, the father of film trickery. Klimt, unable to distinguish between a lover and her false double, smashes a mirror, causing “a whole century of bad luck.” This dizzying fantasia coupled with the absence of any biographical through-line may perplex the linear-minded (at least in the 99-minute producer’s cut), while the performances do leave a shouty, in-your-face impression, with Malkovich working at such a surface level that we never forget that he’s acting (only once, late in the film, does the technician recede and the calculation fall away, whereupon the character immediately springs to cinematic life). More successfully, Ruiz imagines a scene where Klimt sits at work applying his trademark gilt to a canvas when a slammed door suddenly lifts a cloud of gold leaf from his worktable that then swirls suspended in midair around the artist. With a surrealist’s embrace of irreverence amidst the artistic splendors, Ruiz indulges sudden outbreaks of vulgarity that betray no sense of playing safe and no taste for pontificating, unless you count Klimt’s contrarian line that “Too much beauty is far worse than too little. We simply don’t have enough space for all this beauty.”
A witty but guardedly nostalgic look back to Luxembourg in 1962, Little Secrets (Perl Oder Pica) follows how the secrets of adulthood are gradually revealed to Norbi, impish twelve-year-old son of a disciplinarian typewriter merchant (Perl and Pica are the two font choices, in U.S. terms Pica and Elite). Crass altar boy by day (estimating the tips he’ll earn serving at funerals), he’s a miserable bedwetter by night who gives pep talks to his bladder (“No puddles tonight!”), alas with little success. Trying to crack a mysterious code of secret references in his father’s account books, Norbi must also endure his mother’s excruciatingly solicitous talk about the birds and the bees (though he later sneaks into a porn movie which we watch reflected on his cornea, as handsomely and imaginatively shot by Jerzy Palacz). Hard as it is to credit that anything real happened before he was born, Norbi also discovers that his town still harbors resentments about wartime Nazi collaborators and that an Italian couple are early harbingers of the coming wave of immigrants who will soon outnumber the natives of the grand duchy. The kind of movie that’s unafraid to show a dad and son impulsively deciding to skip happily down the street, Pol Cruchten’s sixth feature suggests that Luxembourg’s unfairly neglected film industry, straddling France, Belgium, and Germany, could turn out to be next year’s cinematic discovery.
Unintentionally, a small-town metalworker and volunteer fireman in Longing (Sehnsucht) throws his life into chaos when he can’t quite choose between two women. This is a chamber drama suffused with an unusual intimacy, where each of the unassuming, average-looking characters, non-professional actors all, never stop discovering and exploring their desires. They are not theatrically articulate (we only deduce what the hero is thinking from observing his actions, such as his solitary drunken dance in a bar that exposes his aching physical need), though his wife at one besotted moment confesses, “When I look at you, it takes my breath away. I think of things we don’t normally do,” yet later tensely regrets that “I never thought I’d have feelings like this about you.” Director Valeska Grisebach has an eloquent eye for how people really look at each other, and guides the story with no hint of calculation, until the cycle begins anew in an inventive ending that satisfies yet keeps the narrative ball in the air, with all options open in this affecting gem from Germany.
The Rorschach images that adorn the credits for Britain’s The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema look entirely appropriate for Slavoj Žižek’s psychoanalytic take on modern film classics as he hunts the “raw incestuous rage” in Hitchcock and unpeels the Oedipal layers inside Kubrick, Haneke, Kieslowski, and Tarkovsky. With his Daffy Duck lisp, and eyes that don’t quite seem to match, this celebrated Marxist-Lacanian is Slovenia’s imp of the perverse, plunging off the cliffs of academe with sweeping generalities, throwing off impulsively provocative assertions (“Tulips are inherently disgusting,” he cries), while investigating topics like the dimension of the voice (Mulholland Drive and Persona) or the “partial object” (the titular footwear in The Red Shoes, the arm with a mind of its own in Dr. Strangelove). To enliven the discussion between aptly chosen film clips, director Sophie Fiennes wittily inlays the theorist right into the films, with Žižek turning up in the backseat of James Stewart’s sedan inVertigo, perched on the bed beside Regan in The Exorcist, and even alongside the remains of Mother Bates in Psycho‘s cellar, while the bearded maestro expounds on how “cinema arouses desire but keeps it at a safe distance.” Dissipating the academic lingo with his post-communist embrace of campy Stalin-era tractor musicals, Žižek teasingly keeps his audience smiling — faced with choosing the blue pill or the red pill in The Matrix, he characteristically demands a third pill — but does not dispel suspicion that he may have pushed the psychoanalytic devotion to unconscious libidinal forces to the limit of its usefulness. Thus, framing the Marx Brothers as representing the ego (Chico), the rationalizing superego (Groucho) and the rampaging id (Harpo) is persuasive, but assigning the same Freudian ranking to the three floors of Psycho‘s old dark house seems like overreaching, constructing a trinity of convenience. Still, his approach serves to revivify films of the past, making them feel dangerously alive (perhaps more than they did to contemporary audiences), and exposing their secret messages to us today. It may well be, as Žižek suggests, that cinematic fiction is more real than reality itself. Can you prove otherwise?
Another wild card dealt by Slovenia is Bullets Miss the Fool (Norega Se Metek Ogni), a mordantly comic tale “for connoisseurs of other people’s misery” ruled by deadpan director Mitya Novljan’s droll impudence. One pair of rubes newly moved to the big city insert themselves into the scrappy relationship of the couple next door (he’s a soulful keyboard player whose legs have just been broken by still-unsatisfied debt collectors and she’s single-mindedly occupied with enlivening their noisy, bruising sex life with steel-studded masks and the occasional touch of the lash). Observed in non-stop shakycam, the country mouse hits on a novel defense to neutralize the thugs by declaring a separatist republic within the apartment building (supplemented with a judicious dose of poison). Boasting unsightly production values inferior to the bottom-dwelling standards set by Pink Flamingos, added to foully jaundiced color that suggests the camcorder needs dialysis treatment, the rough-hewn and raw-knuckled visuals nonetheless match its punk sensibility.
“Morning is Italian, night is German” says an artist in Philippe Garrel’s much-honored (Fipresci Prize and Silver Lion at Venice Film Festival) Regular Lovers (Les Amants réguliers), but he could have added that sunset is international. This rarely-screened director’s latest work charts the waning dusk of France’s May 1968 insurrections and strikes, following the young turks’ slide into passivity, seduced and immobilized by drugs and frustrated romantic couplings until all that remains is the choice between individualism and despair. Beginning with fiery street confrontations against police goon squads and internecine political squabbles, Garrel traps his players behind burning autos, facing locked doors and confined in tight spaces, all rendered in ultra-high contrast monochrome images of stark beauty by cinematographer William Lubtschansky, who achieves an impressive stylization that looks historical yet abstractly modern. Covering similar territory to Bertolucci’s The Dreamers, only without clips from landmark Nouvelle Vague films, Garrel proposes a corrective to that film’s moist nostalgia with a touchingly underplayed romance as his lovers drift apart: the poet who refuses draft induction and the sculptress who honors her illiterate father who was never allowed to develop into an artist. “It’s unbelievable,” she observes, “the solitude in every man’s heart.”
Hell hath no fury like art-porn actresses scorned, argues The Exterminating Angels (Les Anges exterminateurs), the colossally disingenuous yet very fancy highbrow production wherein director Jean-Claude Brisseau takes the real-life sexual harassment lawsuits brought against him by four actresses whom he put through their erotic paces for Secret Things (2005 in the U.S.) and turns this experience into a dotty and risibly self-justifying portrait of innocence damaged, i.e., his innocence. Choosing the doe-eyed Frédéric Van Den Driessche as his alter ego, he depicts himself as a dedicated investigator of erotic taboos, though confined to ones that involve female-on-female performance in tastefully glazed lighting and costumed where possible in nothing more than stiletto heels. In his office the director entertains a parade of hilariously hot-to-trot young foxes, exhibitionists in hormonal overdrive who gamely volunteer to flesh out his research by stripping off and inviting him to witness (and film) their sexual solos and duos (even trios). Unlike the findings of the actual court case, where the off-screen Brisseau was convicted of pleasuring himself repeatedly in these situations, the only sexual exertion the onscreen Brisseau enjoys is expended on his somewhat surprised spouse. Otherwise, he’s a choirboy bathed in sympathetic light, 100% sinned against and zero percent sinning, who eyes the goings-on with simpering objectivity, like a wary soccer dad interviewing nubile au pairs while his wife watches from the next room. This would all play out as an absurdly literal indulgence, like a Euro-Ed Wood exploitationer with color and a lavish budget for his facile images, but Brisseau adds shrewd touches of faux surrealism, in which the titular “angels,” a pair of baleful young women in the shadows, with chignons pulled tight and severe black leotards, appear and disappear at will, glaring at him like grim modern dancers whose paychecks bounced. What is the honey-coated secret they are waiting to impart? That his actresses were all in love with him, the clueless lug! After Brisseau stages an eleventh-hour attack by black-clad Euro-ninjas with baseball bats, some viewers will feel he should be prosecuted for this movie too.
As history’s first Chinese-Polish co-production, the absorbing Love in the Year of the Tiger (Kochankowie Roku Tygrysa) teaches that you “can’t kill a tiger in the year of the tiger.” Narrated by a 91-year-old Chinese man recalling his bygone youth near the Siberian border, a densely-forested and still unstrip-mined countryside in an altogether more leisurely world based on personal relationships, the story follows a Pole (handsome Michal Zabrowski) escaping the czar’s militia and taking refuge with a family in a Manchurian forest. The Chinese couple try to protect their only child, a virginal daughter, from this strapping foreign male by disguising her as a boy, with uneven results. Sheltered by the community — complete with itinerant merchants, nosy neighbors, and shamans who make house calls to bring tree-bark poultices — the Pole gradually overcomes linguistic and cultural misunderstandings, learns to catch fish with his bare hands, and ultimately twigs onto the deception. Adding a shadow puppet play and even a fireworks-spitting paper dragon paraded through the snowy new year’s countryside, director Jacek Bromski elicits great warmth from his mostly Chinese performers, and while by no means approaching the poetry of Kurosawa’s Dersu Uzala, still conveys the spectacle of his pastoral locations.
In After the Wedding (Efter Bryllupet), a Danish aid worker in a Bombay orphanage reluctantly returns to Copenhagen at the behest of a multi-millionaire who wants to bestow cold cash on the struggling social institution. Needless to say, all is not what it seems. Caught in the plutocrat’s tailwind, his plans detour when he’s pressed to attend a wedding that will involve him in unexpected ways. You don’t need a surveillance camera to see the plot twists ahead, but if the events tend to be predictable, how we experience them is fresh. Director Susanne Bier stakes her film on the unshakable intelligence and dignity of Mads Mikkelsen, the former professional dancer who exudes screen presence, speaks perfect English where necessary, and supplies a strong but flexible spine for the film. As it moves from the discovery of relationships to a chain of outsize climaxes, the script throws into question our reassuring markers of moral approval and disapproval, though the fireworks are all emotional, not intellectual. The film’s operatic finale sweeps extravagantly through successive eruptions of pulverizing rage, intense pain, and impassioned reconciliations, all persuasively sustained and unforced. Reviving all the naked emotionality of Hollywood’s 1940s melodrama, Bier adds a distinctive poetic texture through micro-cuts that quicken and heighten scene progressions, plus insistent cutaways to extreme close-ups of eyes and lips and fingers on skin, stylistic moves that temper and pace the emotionalism, though the director might have spared us quite so many.
In the end, audiences voted After the Wedding as their favorite, with Love in the Year of the Tiger as the runner-up, and Lithuania’s upbeat documentary Before Flying Back to Earth in third place.
Films slated for some kind of release include Red Road, Private Fears in Public Places, Klimt, The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema, The Exterminating Angels, After the Wedding, and Grbavica: The Land of My Dreams. Make noise to demand more releases.