“We will see whose heart is sharpest!”
Every film festival creates its own evanescent bubble of visiting celebrities and must-see movies, hopefully justifying the long lines and endurance-test waits while providing welcome relief from multiplex fare of star-based sitcoms and superhero power fantasies. As it has done for 43 years, this year’s Chicago International Film Festival finally achieved lift-off, but it was touch and go for a while, with the film schedule published barely ten days before opening night.
It may seem a little late for Chicago to have teething pains, but then each year the event dials back the clock to zero, training completely new management. This writer has seen innumerable functionaries pass through the festival’s revolving doors, meaning that I’ve never dealt with the same people twice in six years. Festival guests — directors, producers, stars — get similar treatment, sometimes being hustled from airport to Q&A sessions, with only glancing regard for red carpet politics. Infamously, this year Malcolm McDowell arrived to discuss his mentor Lindsay Anderson’s If, but found himself hustled out of the theatre after answering only the first question, his appearance sacrificed to maintaining an iron schedule.
It’s also ironic that the festival seems to make less and less use of Chicago’s film writers every year, even while mounting a tribute to local hero Roger Ebert, but also relegating other critics to wait for admission until fifteen minutes before showtime, in the hope of selling every available seat. In practice, “Sold Out” signs bloomed, yet sometimes entire rows were empty, casting some doubt on the festival’s official version of reality.
A wind-up toy that’s in imminent danger of breaking down, the festival needs to ramp up its engagement with Chicago ‘s cinema community, above all by increasing opportunities for context. Consistent hiring of personnel with ample energy, sufficient lead time, and adequate budgets to do their work spells the only answer to rein in the chaos.
Luckily, it was a banner year for worldwide film product, and no one could doubt the vitality of the films on display or the excitement they set off. Below are comments on eight festival offerings, though only half of them have won U.S. distribution contracts, proving more than ever the need for festival-type screenings.
“I am God. I was the first living being,” announces a delirious mental patient as she’s lowered into a pool from hooks embedded in her clothes in Opium: Diary of a Madwoman. The sulphur-yellow wards of this 1913 Hungarian madhouse resound with new success stories of lobotomies that free the inmates of their demons by chiseling a nail through the eye, though the film specializes in other instances of penetration, including via hypodermic (administered to both patient and doctor) as well as sexual intercourse. Using the diaries of real-life 1919 suicide József Brenner, the film introduces the brand new psychoanalyst to one female patient, and watches them draw inexorably closer until they achieve a codependence as husband and wife. Wreathed in blue smoke, Ulrich Thomsen (one-time Beverly Hills pizza delivery boy, and Danish star of Thomas Vinterberg’s Festen and Susanne Biers’s Brothers) proceeds from craggy face and tormented eyes to naked writhing on the stone floor in a morphine trance, while Norwegian actress Kirsti Stubø scribbles messages obsessively on walls, enduring carnal compulsions on racks, chains, and electroshock contraptions (she won best actress at Moscow’s International Film Festival). Dedicated to presenting extremes and mounting levels of hysteria — both mental and visual — with elaborate sound design, director János Szász can claim some success in painting an expressionist nightmare where humanity gets lost in the massive dimensions of the nineteenth-century imperial architecture, though somewhat eluding the lacerating psychodrama intended.
With his clear-eyed and uncompromising Before I Forget (Avant que j’oublie), director Jacques Nolot appears naked in more senses than one as he charts the sweaty and turbulent, yet somehow persevering, progress of his aging HIV-positive protagonist (played by himself), all while encountering old friends, new rent boys, and assorted lawyers and doctors in the underground economy where legal advice gets paid with an in-office blow job. Once a gigolo himself, the hero stops taking his meds out of vanity (they’re making him bald), accepts problematic early-morning screws from several hired young men, but has to endure humiliating physical side effects as well. Without any soft-pedaling of his suicidal despair, Nolot still maintains a very funny distance from his woes and a haunting balance of positive and negative impulses, confidently establishing a unique tone recognizable from his 2002 film Porn Theater. “I like being miserable,” he says, “but I believe in happiness, especially other people’s” (cruising companion Roland Barthès called him “a whore in the semantic sense”). Halfway through the film comes a long, quiet interlude of writing a letter that deepens the proceedings considerably, until the finale finds the no-nonsense auteur en route, in despairing but triumphant drag, to a Pigalle cinema.
Balzac’s classic novel about erotic obsession, Ne touchez pas la hache (called here The Duchess of Langeais, though literally the title means “Don’t Touch the Axe”) tells us less about love than power games, above all the need to be in control. In 1948, Max Ophuls almost shot this formal dance of intimacy in color with Greta Garbo and James Mason. When that project fell through, it took Jacques Rivette another sixty years before this period production set in the early nineteenth century reached the cameras, now with passionately proud Jeanne Balibar and splendidly glowering Guillaume Depardieu as the lovers behaving badly. Steel against steel (“We will see whose heart is sharpest!”), they mutually assent to distant but obsessive challenges, with the heroine kidnapped from a ball at midnight, after which she turns pursuer, parking her empty carriage in front of his house to scandalize “all Paris ,” which remains ready to believe the worst. In William Lubtchansky’s darkly brilliant images, Rivette etches Balzac’s immature lovers as they counter each other’s dangerous pursuits until years later a song in a Mallorcan convent revives her emotions too late. In Rivette’s unsparing vision and under the unforgiving eye of the Enlightenment, “She was a woman and now she’s nothing.”
The Witnesses (Les Témoins) keeps moving via striking filmmaking from director André Téchiné and dedicated performances by its stylish players, though its history of the emergence of AIDS in France during the summer of 1984 (“People don’t know it but we’re at war,” says one character) might seem old hat to viewers of previous American productions like Roger Spottiswoode’s And the Band Played On. Following a quartet of characters who variously support or challenge the sought-after yet doomed young man Manu, the film furnishes him with a surprise lover in Vice Squad policeman Mehdi, an otherwise confirmed family man dedicated to raiding gay clubs. The honest emotion grows amidst the scourge of the disease, until the young man’s last Christmas, as a doctor leads him to the opera to hear his sister’s début, though he can no longer see anything beyond lights, then to the Bois de Boulogne to enjoy one final, unapologetic (and condom-protected) screw before ingesting a fatal dose of tranquilizers. Beyond the dictates of history, though, what one remembers most are the freshly striking colors of Emanuelle Béart’s flaming red house and typewriter, or the summer seaside retreat all burnished in turquoise and gold.
Other notable titles included Cristian Petzold’s striking Yella, Christoph Honoré’s adventurous Love Songs (Les chansons d’amour), and Béla Tarr’s polyglot The Man from London (A Londini férfini), not to mention Andrei Zvagintsev’s The Banishment (Izgnanie) and Ermano Olmi’s One Hundred Nails (Centochiodi).
English-language films (all released) included Sidney Lumet’s memorably tumultuous Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, but also Craig Gillespie’s charming Lars and the Real Girl, Ben Affleck’s uncompromising Gone Baby Gone, and Tony Gilroy’s entertaining Michael Clayton, plus John Sayles’s Honeydripper and Tamara Jenkins’s The Savages.
For the grand prizes, the juries selected Carlos Reygadas’ masterly Silent Lights (Stelle Licht) from Mexico as Best Film, while Best Documentary was Taxi to the Dark Side (see above). Chicago filmgoers gave the audience award to Anton Corbijn’s Control. (See the complete list of awards here).