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Cosmic Delight:
The 47th Karlovy Vary International Film Festival (2012)


One film stood (no, it veritably flew) over all others for me in this year’s Karlovy Vary International Film Festival (KVIFF): Kosmos (Reha Erdem, 2010).  It was the highlight film of the “Tribute to Reha Erdem”, which presented all six features of this developing Turkish filmmaker’s work.  I caught four of the films, and now know that there is a challenger to Nuri Bilge Ceylan as the country’s top film director.


Erdem was present at the festival, but barely.  The softly-spoken director offered succinct yet telling answers to audience questions, impressing with his modesty and intelligence, but clearly he was letting the films speak for themselves.  And, dare I say, he is now at a master level of filmmaking, this latest film Kosmos being the magnificent culmination of a steady improvement in his work over the last decade.


Kaç para kaç (A Run for Money), from 1999, is impressive, but only as a vibrant example of an existential-type thriller, where a man’s morality is challenged by a freak occurrence (in this case, the landing of much money in his lap).  The film is limited, but at least Erdem takes this limitation to a zenith, keeping the tension heightened all the way throughout (where even Hollywood thrillers relax/modulate it), releasing it only with an ultimate mad moment in the narrative.  Lead actor Taner Birsel serves the film well in all this, holding our attention.


But it is with the films Beş vakit (Times and Winds, 2006) and Hayat var (My Only Sunshine, 2008) that Reha Erdem the director truly flowers.  In a way, these are typical art films, harsh yet hopeful mosaics of adolescent life, yet Erdem invests them with something his own, something hard to describe, a “poetic élan” perhaps.  This means: poetic cinematics (beautiful fragments of visuals, sounds, feelings), together with the joy in presenting such, but also seemingly a joy within Erdem himself that is a priori, and also a posteriori, as a final “result” of the films.


But, despite this tremendous artistic quality within the director, both films are patchy, sections of brilliance interspersed with (or spoiled by) misjudgments in design (overdone sound, dispersed narrative) or editing (indulgent shots, irrelevant shots).  Of the two films, Hayat var is the most successful, it has a more tightened and effective structure.


Kosmos, however, is Erdem’s “crystallisation” moment.  Here, Erdem relinquishes the vibrant colours of his previous work, for a more monotone, consistent visual patterning.  Which suits this film set in winter down to a tee.  Kosmos, brilliantly played by Sermet Yesil, is a shamanistic drifter who frantically trudges through snow-capped hills into a small city and duly proceeds to affect numerous people in the city, for better or for worse.  Away from his beloved Bosphorus and Istanbul, Erdem seems to gain a new focus in this film, as all the cinematic elements are now harmonised, compacted and powerful.  In the end, it’s as if Tarkovsky had made Singin’ in the Rain: the mysticism is “high as a kite”, as Kosmos and Neptün (Türkü Turan) fly in the spheres of raptural love.  Nothing is clear in the film – who Kosmos is, what he has done – but Erdem’s vision, his abundant joy, is complete.


If only Greek cinema at the moment was this magical.  Yes, the current Greek New Wave is producing a stack of interesting films, but it is sorely lacking any “soulful” work (à la Gatlif , Weerasethakul, Garrel), as the three new Greek features in the KVIFF program manifestly highlighted.


Firstly, and foremostly, we have the new film from Giorgos Lanthimos, the director of the celebrated Kynodontas (Dogtooth, 2009), called Alpeis (Alps, 2011).  Where Dogtooth had a severity and stylisation to it, in the mode of a Haneke-like “theatre of cruelty” art film, Alps is a looser affair, more realistic, more playful, yet still blackly ironic and provocative.  It is like Godard circa Détective (1985) in fact: all oblique angles, performance gestures, abrupt cuts, and plenty of cinema metaphors flying around.  Whilst this is exciting on the surface, deep down it feels like an existential cul-de-sac: granted this is not a conventional film, but that does not mean subjects like death and mourning need solely be slaves to black humour.  This is where Lanthimos’ vision is narrow compared to Godard’s, who knows how to inject the sublime into his dark cinematic vistas.  Finishing Alps with an upbeat rendition of the “Popcorn” tune is not sublimity.  Dissolution only goes so far.


Then again, Alps comes across like the greatest film ever made next to Babis Makridis’ effort L.  Again, we are in ironic mode here, but this time with straight humour.  Greek cinema, in fact, has never been like this before – it has specialised in art cinema (Angelopoulos) or gritty social dramas (Giannaris) or conventional comedy films.  So a film like L, with its Wes Anderson-like palette, is a real breakthrough.  But, two negatives: its jokes are so threadbare that it is like a car spluttering to a stop, and this kind of post-modern ironic “hip” type of film is just not that interesting anyway.  (Unless of course one is Wes Anderson.)


The third Greek film in the KVIFF program was To agori troi to fagito tou pouliou (Boy Eating the Bird’s Food), directed by Ektoras Lygizos.  Maddeningly minimalist at first, this tale of an insular young man is a film of some integrity and conviction.  In the template of Dardenne brothers films such as Rosetta (1999) and The Son (2002), the film is all close-ups and hand-held movement shots, following our wilful hero around, capturing his strange self-created world.  Lygizos cleverly uses the Greek Crisis to detour the film to another plane, albeit one of folly.  The film doesn’t really add up to much in the end, but it’s an interesting concoction in the context of current Greek cinema.


If Lanthimos’ vision of death lacks gravity and grace, that doesn’t necessarily mean more conventional renderings of death and mourning are free of problems.  KVIFF had two films about ageing and dying in the program: Amour (Love) by Michael Haneke, and La lapidation de Saint Etienne by Pere Vilà i Barceló.  Both these films are flawed, yet both are brilliant in parts.  La lapidation features Lou Castel as an intransigent old man living alone in his apartment, uncompromisingly following his chosen lifestyle, to the point of death.  The film has a tour-de-force closing sequence, as the man agonisingly expires in what feels like an eternity of screen time.  Brave stuff, except that much of the rest of the film is pedestrian.


Haneke’s Amour has the clean, sharp design we expect from this brilliant director, but this is far from his best work.  Emmanuelle Riva and Jean-Louis Trintignant are stunning as a cultured old couple living together harmoniously in their retirement.  This patent grace on the screen earned Haneke another Palme D’or recently, but it seems to me that Haneke works far better with material that is dark and disturbing.  The film’s set-up is poor: we don’t see much of the “love” of the title in the couple’s life – only a certain care, dignity, intelligence.  And the obligatory Hanekian “moment of violence” feels unwarranted in this film when it comes along.  That said, it is still a fine film, especially for Riva’s performance.


The best new feature in KVIFF this year was Tabu, directed by Miguel Gomes.  Now this is a playful art cinema, like the work of Weerasethakul and Hong, for example.  It’s actually quite astounding that more filmmakers do not play with form, primarily with a film’s structure.  The thrall of the box office keeps them sedated apparently.  Anyway, Gomes is cool, he knows about the power of cinema, the power of the image, and he’s unafraid to try things out, like an Academy aspect ratio for example.  The story?  It’s interesting enough, about a sexual taboo/scandal in the heightened context of colonial Africa.  Time passes, people change, events happen, but the moment of transgression lingers, a diamond moment that cuts through time.  Actually, this is an acute observation about human nature, so it’s a film of depth, despite its beautifully light touch.


Gomes is from Portugal, which is the home country of the legendary Manoel de Oliveira, who was the subject of a documentary at this year’s festival, called 101: Manoel de Oliveira očima Luise Miñarra (101: Manoel de Oliveira as seen by Luis Miñarro).  Directed by Luis Miñarro, the documentary is just a 20-minute piece, a beautiful teaser in a way, to this extraordinary director’s life.  It focuses on de Oliveira’s film O Estranho Caso de Angélica (The Strange Case of Angelica, 2010), of which Miñarro is a co-producer.  (Miñarro is actually one of the world’s great producers at the moment.  Apart from working with de Oliveira on a couple of his films, he has produced films by such talents such as Guerin, Alonso, Weerasethakul.)  There are behind-the-scenes moments, and de Oliveira being interviewed.  But the real highlight of the presentation of the film at KVIFF was that Miñarro himself was present and spoke for almost an hour about de Oliveira and his working techniques.  Miñarro spoke so enthusiastically, modestly and generously, that it was the perfect complement (and compliment) to the spirit of this amazing director (who turns 104 in mid-December).


Heading to Hollywood, which is something I don’t really like to do, KVIFF screened the film Margaret, directed by Kenneth Lonergan (who made the excellent You Can Count on Me in 2000).  The film has had a troubled production history, being shot in 2005, then shelved, thus creating an aura around itself as a “lost classic”.  And then I saw (in the festival’s daily paper) programmer/critic Gabe Klinger call it a masterpiece and perhaps the best American film of the last 10 years, so I thought to myself: I better see this!  I think Anna Paquin puts in a great performance as the troubled 17-year-old, and the film has a good basic idea to it, but I also think it is quite a sloppy film, far too verbose, under-developed and inconsistent.  It comes across as a weird hybrid of a film – a little like a maverick indie type film (in the mould of Cassavetes or other ‘70s directors like Rafelson or Hellman), and also a little like a conventional Hollywood film (in the manner of, say, Good Will Hunting or The Ice Storm).  An engaging film, for sure, but a film that doesn’t quite hit its mark.


I’m afraid to say that this year I didn’t get to see the several old, restored Czech films the festival likes screening each year, as I have found them to be a great highlight of KVIFF (in the previous two years I have attended).  I caught some of the Michelangelo Antonioni and Jean-Pierre Melville retrospectives, including seeing for the first time ever Antonioni’s terrific documentary on China, Chung KuoCina (1972).


As ever, KVIFF is a great festival to attend, with its relaxed atmosphere and wide range of films, including highlights from Cannes and Berlin.  The appointment of Karel Och as artistic director in 2011 doesn’t seem to have changed KVIFF’s template much, and that is a good thing.

© Bill Mousoulis 2012
This report first appeared in Senses of Cinema, No.64, August 2012.