The European Union Film Festival opened at the Gene Siskel Film Center on Friday, March 1st and runs through the month of March. 61 films will be presented, and I’ll be reviewing as many as I can throughout the month.
Your notions of when a comedy crosses the line into something much darker and more serious will be tested by Rade Jude’s Everybody In Our Family (Toata Lumea Din Familia Noastra) (Romania, 2012). The film is about Marius (Serban Pavlu), who is preparing to pick up his daughter Sofia (an endearingly animated Sofia Nicolaescu) for a weekend at the seaside. He collects his belongings in his messy but functional apartment, borrows his parents’ car (after exchanging both warmly affectionate laughs and heated verbal daggers with them – parents…kids…whaddya gonna do…?), picks up a few presents, and arrives at the apartment of his estranged wife, Otilia (Mihaela Sirbu). Otilia lives with her mother Coca (Tamara Buciuceanu-Botez) and her new boyfriend, Aurel (Gabriel Spahiu), a mild-mannered accountant. Marius is anxious to spend some solo time with his daughter, and hopes to pick up Sofia quickly and head out for the vacation. But Otilia is not home yet, and Coca and Aurel want Marius to wait for her before leaving with Sofia. As the girl’s father, he feels he has every right to leave with her now, but he deferentially agrees to wait. But an hour or so later, with no word from Otilia, Marius becomes insistent, and there’s a little dust-up between he and Aurel. The discomfort thickens when Otilia finally arrives, and declares there’s no way Sofia is going anywhere.
I don’t want to tell you much else past that; the potential for ugliness is high, and it most certainly appears, but director Jude has very slowly but surely demonstrated to us the genuine passions, intelligence and good intentions of his characters. Jude’s screenplay (written with Corina Sabau) presents a great deal of precise character detailing, and I suspect it was enhanced with a fair amount of improvisation from his talented cast. This is also another one of those rare films that uses Steadicam with real visual purpose and flair, rather than just to manufacture immediacy and urgency – cinematographer Andrei Butica works a miraculous balance between the claustrophobia of the small apartment and the expansive fireworks that the characters’ passions entail. Are we seeing a genuinely dangerous psychodrama? Or are we witnessing black-comic extremes of near-cartoonishness? If Sofia wasn’t in the middle of it all, would we be pointing and laughing at these ridiculous adults? At what point doesn't it feel like a comedy anymore? I suspect each audience members’ reaction will be different, and Jude’s oddly open-ended conclusion will have you rethinking whatever you've decided before. It’s a brilliantly engaging, and at times terrifying, film, but Jude is presenting some irreproachable truths here about the power of love as both redeeming and deranging. As exhausted as you may feel at the end, you’ll be very glad you saw it. It’s a superb film.
‘Everybody In Our Family’ will be shown on Sunday, March 3rd at 7:00 p.m. and Monday, March 4th at 6:00 p.m.
A film with a lot to admire, and involve yourself in, The Fifth Season (La Cinquième Saison) (Belgium, 2012), is Peter Brosens and Jessica Woodworth’s gorgeous and spooky film about humanity out of balance with nature. You may find it to be a familiar story, surveyed in a number of other films, but Brosens and Woodworth bring a dark elegance, pictorial richness and depth of character development that many of its predecessors would envy.
In a remote Belgian village (in present day), the community of farmers, food industry workers and shopkeepers have immense respect for the nature that surrounds them and provides them with resources and expansive domicile. Every year, at winter’s end, they participate in a community gathering, a ritual, centered on a bonfire, which serves to chase away and bid farewell to the long, cold winter they've all shared, and to celebrate the arrival of spring, new growth and fecundity. But the damndest thing happens – no matter how many torches are thrust into the huge pile of brush and wood, the bonfire won’t light. After many attempts, the townspeople go home, perplexed and ruminative. Spring arrives, chronologically, but Fred the Cock won’t crow in the morning for its master, bees never awaken from their hives, cows no longer give milk, and freshly-planted seeds refuse to sprout. The mysterious sterility is apparently widespread; government officials arrive to take away their animals for quarantine, and are never heard from again. Inevitably, the close bonds of community, family and friendship start to fray, and suspicion, dread and fear start to hold, as Poe would say, ‘illimitable dominion,’.
It’s a post-apocalyptic vision based on an apocalypse that doesn't actually seem to have occurred, yet its erosive ontological and psychological results are undeniable. The overall tone is reminiscent of works like Lord Of The Flies, The Wicker Man, and the films of M. Night Shyamalan and Bruno Dumont. It would be easy to dismiss the film for the derivative nature of its conceits – haven’t others done this sort of thing better? My honest answer would be “y’know, I don’t think so.” Brosens and Woodworth bring astonishingly precise and evocative artistry to practically every frame of the film, pictorially, thematically, and conceptually, and they evince some confident and startling performances from their ensemble cast. Even their attention to the soundtrack is scrupulous, mixing Bach and Mozart opera effectively with Michel Schöpping’s impressive modern scoring - and pay close attention to how they use quotidian sounds within the characters’ daily lives as a kind of music as well. Hans Bruch Jr. is the cinematographer; there aren't many films on his seemingly fledgling resumé, but if this film is any indication, he’ll never need for work again. It’s gorgeous.
Brosens and Woodworth start to overreach a little bit when the Bird Masks start showing up and people start saying things like “You must have chaos within you to give birth to a dancing star,” but their overall conception holds up resiliently well. This film pulled me in early and kept me rapt throughout. It’s well worth you’re checking out, and I strongly recommend it.
‘The Fifth Season’ will be shown on Sunday, March 3rd at 7:15 p.m. and Wednesday, March 6th at 8:15 p.m.
Ahh, the Europeans love their existential meditations. Man against God, Man against Nature, Man against Man, or, in this case, woman against the above, and/or herself. Whether it’s Cornel Wilde in The Naked Prey or Tom Hanks in Cast Away, or, here, the always-impressive German actress Martina Gedeck in The Wall (Die Wand) (Austria/Germany, 2012), it’s always fascinating to watch a person from one set of life circumstances adapt themselves to a completely different sort of existence. What have they brought with them that will hold them in good stead, practically, strategically, morally? And what must they give up in order to tend to the necessities of simple, brutal survival?
Gedeck is an unnamed urban woman who has accepted the invitation of her older married friends Hugo and Luise to join them in their secluded hunting cabin in the wooded mountains. After arriving and settling in, Hugo and Luise decide to hike into the nearby village to pick up a few more provisions for the stay. They don’t return - and the woman merely assumes that they decided, uncharacteristically but not unfathomably, to spend the night in the village. Waking early in the morning, she decides to explore the area, accompanied by the couple’s dog, Lynx. As they walk along the dirt road, surveying the mountains, the forests along the hills and the river moving beside them, Lynx cowers – something has unsettled him. She, moving forward, discovers the source of Lynx’ confusion – she’s stopped by an invisible barrier, like glass or some science-fiction force field. She tests it numerous times, disbelieving, and, quite a while later, treks back. She encounters another cabin, off the road on the way back, and finds its inhabitants frozen, he with a hand in a still-running spigot from the well-pump, his wife completely still with a transitional expression on her face, as if captured mid-sentence during a conversation. And as she ventures around the area slowly, hour-to-hour, day-to-day, week-to-week, month-to-month, seemingly alone and abandoned, she comes to terms with what she must do to persevere, since she can’t leave ( in a burst of hopeful abandon, she crashes Hugo’s car against The Wall) and no one is returning, or entering, at all. It’s a gorgeous imprisonment, and she has the company of Lynx, a cow, a few cats, the flora, the fauna, and some spectacularly unblemished surroundings.
A story like this, of course, carries myriad associations, from Jack London stories to Star Trek: TNG episodes (remember when everyone on the Enterprise disappeared on the perplexed Dr. Crusher …? Remember when Picard lived another entire life in a few cosmic seconds…?). But stories like this are also immensely rewarding showcases for the actors who can pull it off, and if Mostly Martha, The Lives Of Others, and The Baader Meinhof Complex didn’t convince you of Martina Gedeck’s bona fides, this film most certainly will.
Director Julian Roman Pölsler has adapted a pretty well-known novel by Marlen Haushofer for his film (written in the sixties). Pölsler relies a little too much on voice-over narration, an understandable loyalty to the source material, but there are many scenes here that would have been improved, enriched, had they simply occurred silently, visually, rather than as part of an overt ongoing told story. And I think lots of people will find the context pretty soft – she has no lack of food, firewood or fresh water, and the rustic redoubt seems to have no annoying biting or stinging insects, or tiny, slimy scavenger critters whatsoever. There are no confrontations with wolves, coyotes or bears, nor is weather any kind of unpredictable issue. It’s an idyllic oasis for navel-gazing white people, some may rightfully snort. Nonetheless, his adaptation is admirable, and, assisted by the technical skill and good taste of his six cinematographers (I suspect the principal photography, dependent on the fixed location, needed to start and stop seasonally, with subsequent availability snafus), it looks beautiful, and is artfully composed overall according to the dictates of the larger story, occurring over, by my estimation, at least three years.
Some films are designed to scoop you up and sweep you along. Others present themselves as they are and invite you to join in. This is one of the latter cases. Even with, perhaps, a surplus of telling and a surfeit of showing, we honestly feel like we’re re-examining things about ourselves as we watch this woman explore her, and, by extrapolation, our own, sense of capacity, self-reliance and metaphysical value. A very good, not great, film that you’ll be pleased you made some time for.
‘The Wall’ will be shown on Sunday, March 3rd at 5:00 p.m. and Wednesday, March 6th at 6:00 p.m.
Oh, well, I knew it was inevitable – the lousy film. A slapdash conglomeration of glib pronouncements, mainstream hipster consumer references, sniggering clichés and last-minute manipulation, The Day I Saw Your Heart (Et Soudain Tout Le Monde Me Manqué, which translates to And Suddenly I Miss Everyone) (France, 2011) is far more an excuse for director Jennifer Devoldère to parade her superficial cleverness than a genuine vehicle to present real people leading real lives.
Eli Dhrey (Michel Blanc) is a successful older Jewish man in the ‘rag trade’ who has remarried a younger woman, Suzanne (Claude Perron), who is pregnant with Eli’s next child. (The first wife? Dunno…), and he has two grown daughters: Dom (Florence Loiret Caille), who is also married and is thinking of adopting, and Justine (Mélanie Laurent), a single-girl medical imagist who wants to aspire to better things. (Individually, they’re interesting characters, but the structure and mechanics of Devoldère’s narrative do them no favors whatsoever.) The daughters are taken aback at Suzanne’s pregnancy – Eli was never the world’s best father to begin with, and their own experiences as his offspring lead them to conclude that enough is enough, Dad.
Devoldère and her writing accomplices, Romain Lévy and Cécile Sellam, obviously feel that Sex And The City is the height of sexual-political sophistication – the situations are tamer, but the socio-consumerist self-esteem issues fairly reek from these people. And did you know women feel unfulfilled if they don’t have a man in their lives? Eli becomes good friends with all of Justine’s exes, but still grills her latest boyfriend-project mercilessly, behind her back, because he loves her and he’s concerned. How charmingly eccentric. The script covers all of the sprightly family comedy bases – some of the familial problems are familiar and relatable, but plot contrivances are used as excuses for not communicating honestly with each other as adults. Life’s hard enough – the issues raised can be important ones, but these people deflect their true feelings with glibness and self-involvement. True to life? Sure. A new and interesting idea for comedies? Zzzzzz… Seasoned veterans Mélanie Laurent and Michel Blanc do what they can to underplay their formulaic, overthought roles – the cast overall is a capably professional one – but if something’s not obviously spelled out about them right away, don’t worry; the characters will explain away any subtext ten minutes later.
Mélanie Laurent must deliver the line “We’re talking about parents on the first date! How retarded! What losers!” Really?! Eli worries that having a pig’s heart valve transplanted to correct a cardiac defect won’t be kosher. Jews…go figure… Hey, when the negroes show up, let’s stick a Nina Simone song underneath for authenticity. Emotional turmoil in the face of tragedy? Unleash the 360° spinning camera! And what the hell is Mélanie Laurent wearing to her father’s funeral?! I could go on. The ‘let me entertain you!’ fundamentals are checked off, but the underlying details are so slapdash and kneejerk that genuinely caring about any of these people becomes a kind of work. Any single episode of Modern Family, or any film by Arnaud Desplechin, blows this lame shit right out of the water. The only people in the film who don’t need therapy or contrived ‘redemption’ are Dom and her husband, Bertrand (Sébastien Castro) and the likable Suzanne; luckily, their roles are so underwritten as to be almost superfluous to the rest of the story, save their functions in the formula. This is Laurent’s second film with Devoldère – she’s apparently a pleasant-enough filmmaker to work with. But, man oh man; she’d better get better at this if she’s looking to aspire to anything more than romantic fluff that reinforces the worst complacent aspects of her audience.
‘The Day I Saw Your Heart'’ will be shown on Sunday, March 3rd at 3:00 p.m. and Thursday, March 7th at 6:00 p.m.