After last year’s hit-and-miss transition, the 66th edition offered an impressive bounty of excellent films. David Cairns, Pamela Jahn and Virginie Sélavy report on their festival highlights.
This delirious, absurdist three-hour-long Russian film set in a Crimean seaside resort revolves around four intersecting stories: a pretty, lively young girl goes on holiday with a socially-challenged, grumpy, chubby geek she met online; a deaf-dumb singer leaves his deaf-dumb friends behind to join a troupe of street performers; an ageing famous actor takes his estranged son on a trip; a hapless Warhol-inspired music producer tries to make a star of a Russian Elvis lookalike.
The narrative is pleasurably intricate and brilliantly constructed, with characters, scenes and themes recurring from different viewpoints. In each story, a character is taken out of their usual environment and placed in a new one in which they are uncomfortable: the film treats the difficulty of going out into the world and creating relationships light-heartedly and with offbeat humour, and pokes gentle fun at people’s self-importance and thwarted ambitions.
The stories are interspersed with musical interludes and they all converge into the final show taking place in a mysterious circus tent set up at the resort: for the filmmakers, as for the troupe of street interventionists who provide anarchic fun throughout, life is a permanent spectacle of small dramas and surreal ordinariness. VS
Berberian Sound Studio
Berberian Sound Studio is the latest from Peter Strickland, whose Katalin Varga combined horror genre and art-house tropes to considerable acclaim. Here Toby Jones plays a put-upon sound mixer at work on the audio tracks of a nasty giallo-type horror film, his personality disintegrating under a barrage of bullying from his bosses. Rather than having life imitate art, the violence of the film-within-the-film infecting ‘reality’, Strickland keeps the movie bloodless and focuses on the psychological disintegration of his hapless protagonist. This is an even more relentlessly interior film than Polanski’s apartment horrors Repulsion and The Tenant, confined to a couple of rooms and a corridor, and to Jones’s fragmented point of view. Strickland’s throbbing analogue soundscapes and fetishistic ECUs of decaying vegetables and shiny audio knobs combine to create a hypnotic film that’s more melancholy than scary. His evident love of Italian horror has paradoxically produced a film that’s quite the obverse of the savage cinema of Argento and friends. DC
By far one of the most bizarre and excitedly discussed true-life stories to be revealed on screen recently is told in Bart Layton’s The Imposter. It’s the story of Nicholas Barclay, who, in 1994, went missing from his home in San Antonio, Texas, and, to everyone’s surprise, was found in Spain three years later – or at least it seemed that way, despite the fact that the blond, blue-eyed, 13-year-old American suddenly had brown eyes, dark stubble and a French accent. The Imposter is the story of a 23-year-old drifter who pretended to be Nicholas Barclay, in the hope of finding a new home and the family he never had. Mixing dramatic re-enactments, interviews and archival footage to detail the key events of the baffling case, from the moment the interloper hatched his plan up to the point when the identity of the man known as ‘The Chameleon’ was revealed, Layton has crafted a gripping, powerful and eye-opening documentary that surpasses many wannabe fiction thrillers produced in recent years. PJ
Sun Don’t Shine
This dark, poetic American indie road movie was one of the great surprises of the festival. Crystal (Kate Lyn Sheil) and Leo (Kentucker Audley) are young lovers on the run in humid, summery Florida. They are getting away from a dark secret in their past, the nature of which is only very slowly revealed. Crystal is instinctive, impulsive and sensual; she simply reacts to what happens around her. Leo is calm and tries to organise their chaotic lives, as much as he can. Elliptical, hazy and dreamy, the film tells their story in an impressionistic way, through small gestures, looks and atmospheres as well as contrasting juxtapositions – between what we see on screen and what the voice-overs tell us, or in a sequence intercutting a scene of almost childish innocence with one of inevitable violence. Despite the obvious influence of Badlands (1973), Sun Don’t Shine creates its own world and the dynamic of Crystal and Leo’s relationship develops according to its own fatal logic, making this impressive debut mesmerising to the end. VS
Brake, directed by Gabe Torres, offered a largely enjoyable, adrenaline-charged thrill ride that at first seemed reminiscent of Rodrigo Cortés’s Buried, but ultimately didn’t live up to its promise. Stephen Dorff gives a ferocious performance as Secret Service agent Jeremy Reins, who finds himself confined in a plastic box in the trunk of a moving car, with no memory of what happened and how he got there. From that point on, his time is running out, inescapably controlled by the terrorists who have taken him captive as part of their mission to assassinate the president. The set-up follows all the rules of an asphyxiating, claustrophobic thriller, with absurd but compelling plot twists coming fast and furious along the way. But Brake inevitably loses momentum in the last 20 minutes of the film, when the story becomes all too ridiculous, phasing out in an unnecessarily wound-up twister of an ending that beggars belief. PJ
Demain? is the work of Christine Laurent, long time script collaborator of Jacques Rivette (e.g. La Belle Noiseuse, 1991). It’s far from a conventional biopic, but it does cover part of the short life of Uruguyan poet Delmira Agustini. The film seems bathed in summer light, and moves in either floating, dreamy fashion or more vigorous bursts of energy: Laurent’s style can be abruptly playful when you least expect it. Like Shinji Somai (see below), she has a feeling for adolescent yearnings and explosions of passion, and blurs the line between reality and dream without making a manifesto out of it. DC
Breaking classic genre conventions in the most apt and eloquent way, while consistently subverting them with bold narrative choices and a beautifully dreamlike visual style, Miguel Gomes’s Tabu turned out to be the special treat of the festival. In his third feature, the Portuguese director combines the story of an impossible love affair with a quirkily surreal, poetic view of colonial history. The film is formally divided into two different narrative parts – one set in contemporary Lisbon, the other in Mozambique in the late 1960s – but revolves around one central heroine: the elderly Aurora (Laura Soveral), a compulsive gambler with a mysterious past. The prologue, which in itself offers another superb small film within a film, captures the caustic politics that make Tabu such a unique and compelling cinematic experience. PJ
Think you know about neo-colonial corruption in Africa? Think again. Yes, we’ve all heard about blood diamonds, dodgy politicians and the involvement of Western countries. But in his jaw-dropping documentary, Danish provocateur Mads Brügger reveals the cynical extent of the dangerous political and economic games played. To do this, he buys a Liberian diplomatic assignment to the Central African Republic and attempts to organise a diamond-smuggling operation, setting up a match factory employing Pygmies to cover up his real activities. Astoundingly brave/reckless, Brügger arrives in CAR in stereotypical colonial attire, complete with white suite and permanent cigar. As he reveals the mind-bending ramifications of corruption in the country – including the brutal, ruthless manoeuvring of France to control CAR’s resources, particularly shocking in contrast to their official discourse – his situation as a ‘freelance diplomat’ becomes more and more precarious and it becomes clear that the people he is trying to manipulate are playing their own game. And yet, despite the perils of the situation he has engineered, to his credit and unlike many shock reporters, Brügger never once comments on how much danger he is in. With a great sense of the absurd, he takes his set-up as far as he can, exposing the appalling farce of corruption that plagues Africa. VS
The Shinji Somai retrospective unearthed a filmmaker almost wholly unknown in the West, a distinctive personal voice whose short career spanned both commercial genre works (especially teen movies) and purely personal dramas, with a visual style based around stunning long takes and a love of fireworks, water and rain. There’s also a mysterious mythological or supernatural quality, which bleeds through even in quite realistic stories. A perfect fit for a complete retrospective, Somai’s cinema can encompass both The Catch (1983), a largely, even grittily realistic drama about tuna fishermen, and Luminous Woman (1987), which seems to combine the most operatic elements of Fassbinder, Fellini and even Tarkovsky. It also feels like Somai somehow blended One from the Heart and Diva and made it work. Apart from these strikingly different extremes, the retrospective included Somai’s masterpieces Typhoon Club (1985), Moving (1993) and The Friends (1994). Heady stuff. DC
Gregory La Cava
Gregory La Cava is better known than Somai, but his films are rarely gathered in one place. The festival screened six, ranging from the bittersweet comedy drama Unfinished Business (1941), which attains depths of emotion and maturity startling in its genre, and the knockabout romantic farce Feel My Pulse (1928), which eschews such niceties altogether – but its rollicking inventiveness had more than one audience member declaring it the highlight of the Fest. Both films touch on the subject of alcoholism, which blighted La Cava’s life but also informed much of his art. DC
Festival report by David Cairns, Pamela Jahn and Virginie Sélavy