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The Tree of Cinema:
The 46th Karlovy Vary International Film Festival (2011)

The Turin Horse

In any good film festival, one’s life flashes before one’s eyes.  And the history of cinema.  Karlovy Vary International Film Festival (KVIFF) is a good film festival.


It is big enough to encompass a variety of things, both good and bad: some glitz, numerous middling new films, latest works from recognised auteurs, and a number of retrospective programs.


It does this (as I noted last year) in the very uncinematic context of an old Czech spa town, but there are benefits to this setting too: the festival proceeds in a very relaxed fashion, there is always time to savour the films, one never feels rushed or pressured.


A focus on “Young Greek Cinema” in this year’s festival was of particular interest to me, as I have been living in Greece the last couple of years, and was curious to re-visit the films.  The programme was presented by Thessaloniki International Film Festival programmer Dimitris Kerkinos, and consisted of seven titles:  Istoria 52 (Tale 52, d. Alexis Alexiou, 2008), Strella (A Woman’s Way, d. Panos H. Koutras, 2009), Kynodontas (Dogtooth, d. Giorgos Lanthimos, 2009) Akadimia Platonos (Plato’s Academy, d. Filippos Tsitos, 2009), Hora proelefsis (Homeland, d. Syllas Tzoumerkas, 2010), Attenberg (Athina Rachel Tsangari, 2010) and Wasted Youth (Argyris Papadimitropoulos & Jan Vogel, 2010).  To my pleasant surprise, the films stood up well to a 2nd viewing (but please note I haven’t seen Strella at all so far).  There is a confidence in these films that does indeed indicate a fresh, invigorated cinematic practice here (though it must also be noted that none of the directors are “Young” as such – most are late 30s and with other features behind them).  For me, the three titles that are the sharpest and most successful are Dogtooth, Homeland and Wasted Youth.


Dogtooth is the known film here, with festival and Oscar success behind it since its unveiling at Cannes in May 2009.  It is a strange film.  On the one hand it has a suspiciously art-cinema-by-numbers feel to it (riffing off a Michael Haneke template), but on the other hand it is full of original, startling, daring moments and provocations.  It has a severity and absurdity that remind one of Buñuel, or Pasolini’s Teorema (1968), for example.  This tale of a perverted family living on the outskirts of Athens is an allegory of course, but only of its own themes: family, patriarchy, insularity.  And so it’s ironic that this film has penetrated the world market/consciousness, with an essay on … insularity.  The family is a big theme for Greek artists, especially in conjunction with religion and politics.  Lanthimos keeps it strictly within the parameters of personal dynamics, and that’s the beauty of the film, the way it teases out the characters’ abuses, repressions, rebellions.  In the end, Dogtooth is a modern Greek masterpiece, a worthy companion to another Greek perverted-family-in-the-woods masterpiece, Oi Tembelides tis Eforis Koiladas (The Idlers of the Fertile Valley, d. Nikos Panayotopoulos, 1978).


Homeland is also about a perverted family, but this time the family is placed squarely within the context of actual Greek modern history (the Junta, the regeneration, the bloating, the Crisis), but without having an overt connection to it, plot-wise.  The film shows how the entry and exit points of life (the birth of a baby, the hospitalisation of a grandparent) can cause havoc to an already-troubled matrix of family members.  It is a curious and ambitious film, but not fully successful.  It has a frenetic pace, utilising a Dogme-like technique of layering fragments on top of each other, and this is a little overwhelming and monotonous at times.  But director Tzoumerkas has one great thing up his sleeve here: a brilliant set-piece (a teacher passionately breaking down the lyrics of the Greek National Anthem to a class of schoolkids) which he intersperses in the film here and there, giving the film a wonderful Godardian dynamism.  The film lapses again towards the end (the melodrama and tragedy don’t quite work), but overall it’s a great whirlpool of a movie – prickly, incisive, stirring.


Wasted Youth doesn’t have the formal solidity and bravura confidence of Dogtooth and Homeland, but it has its own special qualities that make it noteworthy and very enjoyable.  In parallel stories, it observes the lives of a 16-year-old boy, and a policeman.  It has a sure-footed low-key realist style, with occasional expressionistic flourishes (music, movement, etc.).  The performances are great, the directors clearly letting their charges infect the film with their own kind of nuances, in an improvised way.  (Though the down-side here is that this also gives the film an “unfinished” feel, as certain feelings or tensions are brought up fleetingly and not explored fully.)  The film is actually a fictionalised account of the real-life incident of December 6, 2008, when a policeman fatally shot a teenage kid.  Which is actually more of a fuel for the current riots than the austerity measures are.  Wasted Youth impressively creates human figures out of the two main protagonists of this tragic December 6 event.


Homeland, Wasted Youth and Attenberg are actually still “new” films, part of the current “festival season” as it were, but it was certainly interesting to see them grouped with the older films in this “Young Greek Cinema” section.  Many of the filmmakers were also present at the festival, participating in a “Masterclass” on Greek cinema.  But while these filmmakers are set for some more attention soon (new films by Lanthimos and Tsitos in upcoming festivals), let’s not forget that some other/older Greek directors are also producing some great films at the moment: Constantine Giannaris, Dimitris Athanitis, Angelos Frantzis, Nikos Panayotopoulos, Yannis Economides.  But at the Masterclass at the festival, the “Young Greek Cinema” filmmakers all agreed that times and conditions are now tough for Greek filmmakers, but that that would not deter them.


One other Greek feature film played at this year’s KVIFF, in the “Documentary Films in Competition” section.  Proti ili (Raw Material, d. Christos Karakepelis) is a visual essay on the dank, desperate environment of a number of scrap-metal collectors, and an emotional essay on their inner lives, their sorrow, resignation, and optimistic visions.  It’s a brave film.  This is not the image of beautiful “Greece” as we know it.  This is not even the image of “troubled Greece”, as we are getting to know it.  This is something else.  These people are quiet desperadoes, scouring the streets in the wee hours, or burning themselves black in the metal furnaces, and then “living” in a bare-minimum way in shanty-buildings (with a view of the Parthenon!).  This is the underground of Greece.  These are illegal migrants, most of them.  Removed from mainstream Greek society by one very thin line at the moment, as everyday Greeks are now also starting to look into rubbish bins.  It is a bleak film, one that does not pull its punches regarding the implications of what it is showing.  But it is also a very dignified film, as it seeks to give something to its protagonists: a voice, a space, a regard, a … something.  Karakepelis’ style is an art one: static camera, formal compositions, neutral tone.  And adding the people’s first person voice-overs in there is a masterstroke – it offsets the film’s cool images with an absolutely heart-rending human misery.  A wonderful film.


There were some great Retrospectives at this year’s KVIFF: Samuel Fuller, Denis Villeneuve, and several old Czech films.  The Fuller Retrospective was 11 films strong, and I caught three of them: The Steel Helmet (1951), Underworld U.S.A. (1961), and White Dog (1982), which are all compact, riveting, and very “direct”, as Fuller’s films were.  His wife Christa was in attendance, and she was a generous presenter of the films, in tandem with writer/academic Lisa Dombrowski, who upstaged Christa by telling the meek Czech audience what Sam wants to do to them – “grab you by the balls” and “give you a hard-on”.


Denis Villeneuve is a name I’ve heard, but never seen any work from.  KVIFF’s Tribute to him contained all his films (two shorts, four features) and I decided to watch them all.  A French Canadian, Villeneuve has had a stuttered career, with some early films from the ‘90s, and some recent ones from the late ‘00s, and a gap of nothing from 2000 to 2008.  A humble and generous guest of the festival, he explained to audiences that during those years he underwent an existential reflection and cinematic re-education.  An admirable move from a man seemingly in top flying gear at an early point in his career.  And the films?  They are of interest.  The first two features, Un 32 août sur terre (32nd Day of August on Earth, 1998) and Maelström (2000), show a director in love with cinematic play, but also a director who wants to please the audience.  There are: strong female protagonists, zany plot moves, unusual music montages, but in the end a very light, mainstream aura engulfs the films.  His comeback film, Polytechnique (2009), seems almost intentionally pared-back: B&W, short running time, clipped emotions.  It’s pretty impossible these days to try and make another left-field high-school massacre film after Gus Van Sant’s Elephant (2003) but Villeneuve succeeds in giving us something fresh with the genre, especially in the portrait of one of the survivors.  It is, however, Villeneuve’s most recent film, Incendies (2010), that suddenly spotlights his talent.  An ambitious, serious film, spread over two generations and two countries, it is spectacular visually and grandiloquent emotionally.  But, again, as in the early films: great cinematic play, but also this pathological need to please the audience (Incendies is designed to leave the audience gasping at the end).  Overall, Villeneuve seems like a milder, more mainstream version of Claire Denis to me.


There were three old Czech films presented at KVIFF this year: Marketa Lazarová (František Vláčil, 1967), Světáci (Man About Town, d. Zdeněk Podskalský, 1969), and Evžen mezi námi (Eugene Among Us, d. Petr Nýdrle, 1981).  Unfortunately, I didn’t get to see Marketa Lazarová, considered by critics to be the best Czech film of all time, but it should be noted that the festival presented a digitally restored version of the film.  Man About Town had a wonderful screening, with the three lead actresses in attendance.  Jiřina Jirásková, Jiřina Bohdalová, and Iva Janžurová turned 80, 80 and 70 respectively this year, so this was a fine tribute to them.  The film itself is nothing special, a light, if at times incisive, social comedy about status, money and sex.  Eugene Among Us is an enjoyable Candide-like sweet satire about a young country hick of a man and his exploits in flashy Prague.  Director Petr Nýdrle was still a film school student at the time, so the film was made outside the official Czech system and never released (until the Velvet Revolution of 1989).  And indeed, it has a cheeky, ribbing quality to it, in its portrayal of the absurdity of social norms.


One of the beauties of KVIFF is that one has the opportunity to catch films from Cannes, Berlin and other festivals.  The two standout films here were undoubtedly The Tree of Life (Terrence Malick) and A torinói (The Turin Horse, Béla Tarr). Both films are epic, bold, cosmic, and … flawed.  Late works from solitary, genius directors (in fact, Tarr has announced The Turin Horse as his last film), they have such a magnetic force that one is transfixed to the screen and dazzled and moved and shocked … but only up to about the half-way mark in each film.  The Tree of Life is like a dream, or an alien film: its meshing of the intimate with the cosmic, its extraordinarily fresh visual style, its breathless wonder, its daring mosaic form, but then something happens: it shifts.  It shifts into a more conventional style, with more conventional dialogue scenes, and one’s heart sinks.  It loses its own form!  And the New Agey ending has many of us still shaking our heads.  The Turin Horse is just as ambitious a film, but this time in a minimal, extreme-art-cinema style, and in B&W.  For me, this is now my favourite Tarr film (but it must be noted I have not seen Satantango, 1994).  Everything is bold set-pieces, with nothing much happening, and yet everything feels essential.  There is gravitas, sure, this is Béla Tarr we’re talking about, but there is great beauty too – the way Tarr modulates the sound (alternating music, direct sound, and silence) is a particular highlight.  But, again, something goes wrong.  Unlike in The Tree of Life, the form doesn’t change – Tarr sticks to his powerful template.  I think it is more a question of narrative here, and of duration.  Is it a hubris that leads artists like Malick and Tarr to the 150-minute-plus canvas?  Nothing against long films, but both of these could have benefited by having a 120-minute timeframe.


Other auteurs: Bruno Dumont, Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne, Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Monte Hellman, Kim Ki-duk.  Dumont’s Hors Satan (Outside Satan) is a slight disappointment after the seeming “opening up” of his style in his previous film Hadewijch (2009).  And so we have the typical Dumontian landscapes, people, primal urges, though this time with a huge added dose of mysticism.  Dumont side-actor David Dewaele this time takes the lead honours, but can’t quite pull it off.  The Dardenne brothers’ Le gamin au vélo (The Kid with a Bike) is a welcome return to form for them after Le silence de Lorna (Lorna’s Silence, 2008) seemed to be creeping into worrying territory (a more middlebrow type of art cinema).  This tale of an 11-year-old kid struggling with his relations with his elders has a wonderful urgency and realism to it.  Ceylan’s Bir zamanlar Anadolu'da (Once Upon a Time in Anatolia) opens with a confident, very long and slow-burning sequence, where a group of men look for a particular location in the dark.  The film then teases out these men’s psyches, in an often surprising, intelligent and haunting way.  Hellman’s The Road to Nowhere is, for me, a film that is interesting but always flat.  It has a convoluted story and form that just don’t come alive for me.  But I am pleased that Hellman is in the spotlight again, and he presented a wonderful Masterclass at KVIFF, where he outlined his cinematic practice.  Kim’s film Arirang is a video-essay on himself, his current state of mind, his phobias, inertia, dreams.  While it’s interesting to see such a work from this filmmaker (or any filmmaker for that matter), he’s no Jean-Luc Godard with the genre.


I saw a few more films at KVIFF, but I think only one deserves a mention: Blue Bird, by 25-year-old Belgian filmmaker Gust Van Den Berghe, who made an unexpected splash at last year’s Cannes festival with his debut feature En waar de sterre bleef stille staan (Little Baby Jesus of Flandr, 2010), a brilliant low-budget Christmas tale acted out by Downs Syndrome people.  Van Den Berghe clearly has his confidence up, as Blue Bird is an impressive jump up in style, to a more conventional “art” style, but nevertheless with positive qualities retained.  Namely, a kind of innocence, and joy, in both the content and the form.  A director to watch.


I, of course, wish that I could have seen more films at the festival.  It’s a big festival.  Apart from a lack of experimental cinema, it has a broad range of selections on offer.  Not forgetting its own Competition sections, with films making their premiere at the festival.

© Bill Mousoulis 2011
This report first appeared in Senses of Cinema, No.60, October 2011.