Electric Sheep‘s first visit to the beautiful Czech spa resort of Karlovy Vary for the 46th edition of its multi-stranded festival was a five-day marathon that offered a wonderfully mixed bag of hidden gems and charming low-key works, with only a few disappointments. Sadly, part of the latter category was the official opening film, Cary Fukunaga’s Jane Eyre. Similar to the 1944 version starring Joan Fontaine and Orson Welles, Fukunaga’s adaptation offers an atmospheric, moody and finely tuned Gothic take on Charlotte Brontë’s famous novel about the plight of an orphaned governess who disastrously falls in love with her enigmatic employer. But although everything in this tragedy is adroitly done, it falls short of the brilliance and verve of the director’s 2009 debut Sin Nombre and, ultimately, feels no more ambitious than a compelling and well-performed British television drama.
By contrast, Pedro Almodóvar’s The Skin I Live In (La piel que habito), which, like Jane Eyre, screened out of competition, sees the Spanish master on excellent form. Based loosely on French crime author Thierry Jonquet’s dark novel Tarantula, the film tells the story of celebrated plastic surgeon Robert Ledgard (Antonio Banderas), who becomes dangerously obsessed with creating the perfect form of artificial skin after the death of his wife, who was burnt alive in a car crash. Serving as his guinea pig is the beautiful Vera (Elena Anaya), whom he keeps locked up like a prisoner in his isolated mansion run by a doting servant, his former nanny Marilia (Marisa Paredes), who has her own secrets to conceal. To reveal more of the story here would spoil the joy of discovering this heady brew of deep passion, family horrors and dizzyingly uninhibited revenge. Though it might not be as daring and unruly as Almodóvar’s earlier work, The Skin I Live In is an absorbing, savage and grotesque, yet beautifully shot tale that finds the filmmaker vividly reworking his favourite themes of obsession, desire and sexual identity, while artfully borrowing from and playing with the great tradition of horror-infused melodramas.
Aside from the big headliners, where Karlovy Vary excelled was in its selection of distinctive, often small-scale art-house films. Veteran Polish director Lech Majewski’s The Mill and the Cross is a carefully crafted study of Pieter Bruegel’s 1564 Procession to Calvary, which takes the audience both inside and behind the scenes of the painting, in all its meticulous detail. In Kim Ki-duk’s distraught Arirang, one of three Korean entries in this year’s selection, the esteemed director points the camera at himself in a confessional and heart-rending, yet at times undeniably annoying, attempt to overcome his personal and professional crisis. The superbly deadpan and physically intense Enemy at the Dead End (Jugigo ci-peun), by writer-director duo Owen Cho and Kim Sang-hwa, was one of the true standouts of the festival. It is a taut, unsentimental, tightly plotted revenge thriller about two bed-ridden men whose mysterious pasts and ill-shaped memories are linked by an unsolved murder that sees them turning their small hospital room into a deadly battlefield, as they desperately try to torture and, eventually, kill each other. Remaining consistently unpredictable right up to its nail-biting last act, the film offers a dazzling mix of pitch-black humour and off-kilter suspense, and proves that there is still zest and energy in Korean independent cinema beyond its more established front-runners.
All three films screened in the Another View strand, which turned out to be the most reliable for discoveries. The most striking debut was Breathing (Atmen), directed by Austrian actor Karl Markovics (best known for his lead performance in The Counterfeiters). The film premiered in the Directors’ Fortnight section in Cannes this year, where it picked up the Europa Cinemas Label award, which includes promotion and programming support, raising hopes for a UK release. The story revolves around the rebellious and solitary Roman, who is trying to reintegrate society after serving time in a juvenile detention centre for murder. Soon after he picks up a job at the city mortuary, to avoid a life spent behind bars, he discovers the body of a nameless woman, whose outward appearance triggers a need to search for his mother. Though inadvertently similar in its minimalistic accuracy and disquieting sense of normality to Austrian filmmaker Markus Schleinzer’s Michael, which also premiered in Cannes and played at KVIFF, Breathing is a compelling and consistently impressive first feature in its own right, which deserves to be seen widely. Out of Variety’s selection of ‘Ten Euro Directors to Watch’ (presented as another sidebar of the main programme) the best films I saw were Lisa Aschan’s deft coming-of-age tale She Monkeys (Apflickorna) and Ben Wheatley’s eagerly awaited, impressive genre flick Kill List.
In addition to the main programme strands, this year Sam Fuller and Denis Villeneuve were given retrospectives, and although the contrast between the director of Shock Corridor and The Street Helmet and the maker of Oscar-nominated Incendies is striking, the range of Villeneuve’s work revealed a tough sensibility that isn’t so far from Fuller’s hard-edged themes and stories. Also worthy of note was a selection of ‘Out of the Past’ titles, including a rare screening of Barbara Loden’s wonderfully unwieldy directorial debut Wanda and a restored version of Czech classic Marketa Lazarová, a breathtaking, mesmerising epic directed by František Vláčil, either of which would have made the trip worthwhile.
Owing to such an intriguing range of classic films, I regrettably didn’t see as much contemporary Czech cinema as I had planned, and in particular missed Vladimir Blaževski’s PunkÂ´s Not Dead (Pankot ne e mrtov), the winner of the East of the West section, a programme dedicated to films from Eastern Europe and the Balkans. The two competition films I did see – German director Christian Schochow’s Crack in the Shell (Die Unsichtbare) and the Danish Birgitte Stærmose’s Room 304 (Værelse 304) – were both disappointing.
Without doubt, the highlight of the trip was the masterclass given by legendary American director Monte Hellman. He was on magnificent, passionate form as he unpicked his latest film, Road to Nowhere, about a young filmmaker who gets involved in a crime while shooting his latest project, based on a true story. During the absorbing session Hellman also gave an insight into the vagaries of a career that has spanned 50 years and, according to the director, revolves around making A-movies on a Z-movie budget. Or, as Hellman put it: ‘The producer thinks I’m making an exploitation movie and in my mind I’m making Gone with the Wind.’