Bright Lights Film Journal

Tickets to the Dark Side: The 43rd Chicago International Film Festival

“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.

As it follows the downward trajectory of U.S. moral standing in the world, the first-rate and elegantly assembled Taxi to the Dark Side reveals, among many other points, that Guantanamo prison has a gift shop that sells a “Behavior Modification Instructor” T-shirt. This peculiar American unconcern, a critical disconnect from human rights matters more characteristic of crocodiles than advanced societies, provides context for the central narrative built around the fate of one Afghan cab driver. First imprisoned at Bagram detention facility, he dies of “internal causes” within eight days of his arrest (“They were very frail people,” according to the testimony of American MPs). Director (and narrator) Alex Gibney, who made Enron: the Smartest Guys in the Room, follows the dismal trail of the crime investigation subsequent to the man’s death, observing that culpability always moves down the command chain, never up. With 105 dead in detention and 37 officially classified even by the Army as “homicides,” the guilt spreads like ink, and Gibney stints not at all in naming names and tracking down exact statements. Most amazingly, he unearths a storehouse of photos, videos, audiotapes, and confidential files from Army investigations, leaving little doubt that although out-of-control prison guards specialized in sexual humiliation and beating heads against prison stone, they had the cagey but tacit approval of their superiors, certainly Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney for starters. Bush, of course, engineered the clampdown that not only took away the inmates’ right to habeas corpus, but also put up a shield to pardon any administrators from prosecution, back-dated to 2001. While also implicating TV torture porn (such as 24), Gibney reliably aims high to exorcize the “madness” and to release us from the hideous chain of concealed decisions so that life can go on. No one would say it’s pretty, but the blood is on our shoes.

“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.

Dazzling and unpredictable, proceeding through all genres from musical to sex movie to thriller to marital comedy, Pen-Ek Ratanaruang’s Ploy continuously revises itself in an elegant acrostic. A Thai couple checks in at a sleek Bangkok hotel, returning from running a restaurant in the U.S., for a funeral. Trying to overcome their jet lag, the husband runs into a young girl musician (named Ploy) in a bar before dawn; in another room (maybe), a hotel maid keeps a liaison with the bartender; while the wife, a former local movie star, allows a film fan to bring her to his warehouse (not unlike Citizen Kane’s collected treasures at Xanadu). With surges of oceanic music and an internal logic that springs constant surprises, discovering invisible lines of relationships and possible murders, the Thai auteur makes his best film yet. He endows his characters with respect, yet who are they? The maid sings a song that embodies the narrative mystery: “Tell me that you’re not just an illusion.” Which story is the dream? Which character is dreaming up all the others?

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.

The Flight of the Red Balloon (Le Voyage du ballon rouge) opens with a boy talking to the titular balloon, which seems to obey him by scooting down to his level, then racing back upwards into the Parisian clouds. Applying a completely fresh eye and a nimble camera positioned just so, director Hou Hsiao-Hsien makes his movie work like a perfectly balanced mobile, alternately dipping and rising, to catch his characters at various crossroads. Squeezing them topsy-turvy into limited interior spaces (while the balloon itself floats and dips and pauses overhead), Hou spins his chaotic human story against an atmosphere of supreme calm and balance. Starting with a blowsy blonde Juliette Binoche as the good-natured mother, plus her preteen son and his film-student governess from Beijing, the film turns into a paean to unseen and unremarked forces around us, but operating at a sensuous level of fountains, water, and mirrors. Computer images, a blind piano tuner, and an absent father all make a mark, while the apartment windows reveal sublime reflections of the red balloon hovering, peeking inside, and knocking against the glass. Perhaps not as risky (or compelling) as Hou’s earlier Café Lumière, this still proceeds with rich sound design and inexplicable authority.

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.”

Director-artist Julien Schanbel and Spielberg’s cinematographer Janusz Kaminski wrest some striking images out of the opening of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (Le Scaphandre et le papillon), including a sense of uncontrollable forces determining our lives. Yet the film glossily remains at the surface, without evoking the tragic waste of a body that must succumb to a stroke. Brief glimpses of Mathieu Amalric as victimized fashion editor Jean-Dominique Bauby tell us nothing compelling about the man, but the director still presses all emotional buttons, right down to trading on the hero’s death, saving the wrenching drama of the disabling stroke for the film’s pièce de resistance. Artists constitutionally create ambivalent images with complex meanings, but Schnabel cannot hide the straightforward desperation in relying on Max von Sydow as the hero’s aged father, making the Swedish trouper’s heartfelt stab at his two scenes resonate more powerfully than the hero’s dilemma. Neither weighted down with much knowledge of French (the film’s language) nor much background insight about his protagonist, Schnabel rather shallowly manages to savor the improbably gorgeous women who tend to the unfortunate Bauby. Though the title imagery does not register strongly, in some ways the end credits, with icebergs reassembling themselves in reverse, rebuilding their frozen integrity, function as the film’s finest moment.

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.

Revivals included looks at new color restorations of Rouben Mamoulian’s Becky Sharp (1935, right) and Jean Renoir’s The River (1951), as well as the newly discovered collaboration of Colleen Moore and Marshall Neilan, Her Wild Oat.

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).