Tromsø highlights : TRUCE (S.Proskurina), INCENDIES (D.Villeneuve), etc

Published on: January 26th, 2011

Reviews of shorts Autumn Man, Concerts for Maria and Zakariassen Must Die, and features Blessed Events, The Four Times, Incendies and Truce.
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Autumn Man ….. ****/5
Höstmannen : Jonas Selberg Augustsén : Finland/Sweden 2010 [(c)2009] : 29m : {11/13}
Atmospherically shot (in near-monochrome sepia), quirky-toned adventures of two bumpkin-bozo criminals (perhaps brothers) in various rural spots around the Finnish/Swedish borderland. Tone of agreeably nightmarish absurdity prevails, with several running jokes operating through sections of the episodic narrative (the episodes divided by witty, well-timed cuts to black.) Very ‘Nordic’ and quite ‘Kaurismakian’, hovering just on the brink of excessively oddball mannerism, but proceeding with a sure foot through such hazardous terrain.
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BLESSED EVENTS …..
7/10
Glückliche Fügung : Isabelle Stever : Germany 2010 : 90m : {18/28}
Five years after writer/director Stever’s fine Gisela (2005), this is a deliberately uncomfortable study of Simone (Annika Kuhl) a reclusive, introverted woman in her mid-thirties who becomes pregnant after a one-night stand. Later bumping into the bloke (Stefan Rudolf) by chance, the pair edge into a relationship – Simone intermittently agonising over whether to through with the pregnancy. Unpredictable and unsettling, with minimal dialogue, the rewardingly ambiguous Blessed Events (co-written with Anke Stelling) at least matches Maren Ade’s more-ballyhooed Everyone Else (2009) as a spiky study of lovers barely managing to communicate and connect on emotional and verbal levels – their struggles hindered by the proximity of another, seemingly happier couple. Strongest, queasiest sequence is a bike-ride during which Simone semi-impulsively decides to cause a miscarriage. The repeated use of certain “found” pop-tunes on the soundtrack, meanwhile, recalls Christian Petzold – another current German exponent of chilly, character-based mood-pieces.
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Concerts for Maria ….. ****/5
Konsert for Maria : Torfinn Iversen : Norway 2011 : 19m : {10/13}
A performance of sexy, sharp (and impressively trilingual!) star-quality by twentysomething French actress Marie-Stéphane Cattaneo is a crucial trump-card in this economic, oblique study of how jealousy imperils/enlivens/sustains the stormy romance between a toothsome, bickering young couple. Set in scenic Mexican locales and shot with the pin-sharp Canon 7D camera, the short has a non-chronological structure that’s initially confusing but ultimately pays dividends. Overall represents a promising calling-card for both writer/director Iversen (who co-wrote the script with Espen Nomedal) and, in particular, his leading lady.
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THE FOUR TIMES …..
7/10
Le quattro volte : Michelangelo Frammartino : Italy 2010 : 88m : {19/28}
Reliant on images and sounds rather than dialogue, this ambitiously understated study of life in and around a tiny, hilltop Italian village observes proceedings with an almost documentary-style detachment. Demanding in ways that may well perplex and infuriate some – especially on a first viewing, when it’s perhaps difficult to grasp exactly what’s going on and why – the picture is sustained by a delightful, original strain of humour that prevents it from becoming excessively ponderous or precious, and by writer/director Frammartino’s skill at choreographing non-human protagonists to become key players in his narrative. The main “story”, such as it is, concerns an elderly, ailing, religious goat-herd, his goats, and his jaw-droppingly smart dog, though there are other sections devoted to the weird rituals of a local festival and to the laborious work of the district’s charcoal-burners. Scene by scene,The Four Times builds into an offbeat, deceptively complex study of how communities are created and sustained, the interconnectedness of all things, and the droll weirdness of both natural and human phenomena.
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INCENDIES …..
7/10
Denis Villeneuve : Canada 2010 : 130m : {18/28}
At an early stage in the utterly gripping, politically-charged page-turner Incendies, a professor of Pure Mathematics describes his field as comprising “insoluble problems that will lead to further insoluble problems … [of] mind-boggling complexity.” And that also just about sums up the painfully thorny interfaces between past and present which constitute the terrain traversed both by the picture’s protagonists – Nawal (Lubna Azabal) and her grown-up children Jeanne (Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin) and Simon (Maxim Gaudette) – and also by scriptwriter/director Villeneuve, adapting Wadji Mouawad’s play with the assistance of Valérie Beaugrand-Champagne.

Indeed, it’s a major point in the picture’s favour that the end-credits information that it has a theatrical source at all – so comprehensively “opened out” has it been to encompass a range of rural and urban middle-Eastern exteriors – will come as a considerable surprise to many viewers. And it won’t have been the only one, as the screenplay’s ambitious structure first sets up an intriguing mystery (involving Nawal’s engagement in her region’s turbulent events during the 1970s and 1980s, and the complex circumstances behind the conception and birth of her children), develops it along twin chronological parallels (as first Jeanne and then Simon leave their Canadian homes to follow the traces left by their recently-deceased mother, in accordance with the instructions of her will), then resolves it via several startling final-reel revelations.

The last of these – as well as being perhaps somewhat “guessable” some way in advance – may strike many as being overly reliant on coincidences that are too contrived and too horrifically ironic to be fit alongside the deeply serious real-life backdrop chosen for this fictional tale. But the denouement could validly be construed as endowing these specifically contemporary proceedings with some of the inevitability and grandeur – within a tight, specific, domestic focus – of ancient tragedies. But in either case, there’s absolutely no quibbling with the terrific force and intensity of Azabal’s performance as a principled, intelligent, engaged woman who ages decades over the course of the picture’s two-and-a-bit hours, and who along the way experiences the most gruellingly savage extremes of human barbarity.
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TRUCE …..8/10
Peremirie aka The Truce : Svetlana Proskurina : Russia 2010 95m : {21/28}
It’s tempting to call Truce “very Russian”, whatever that means – in this case, a picaresque, absurdist narrative in which lugubrious blokes traverse scenic but industry-damaged landscapes populated by weirdos and criminals, where guns and vodka are seldom far from one’s shaky grasp, and where grim, casual violence is juxtaposed with transcendent moments of soulful/despairing contemplation and fleeting glimpses of romantic/financial escape-routes.

Similar examples can be found in pictures from several eastern and central European countries, but in Russian hands – in this case veteran director Proskurina, adapting a screenplay from newcomer Dmitri Sobolev, with luminously limpid but disarmingly unfussy 35mm images from outstanding cinematographer Oleg Lukichev – the results can often be transportingly magical, albeit in a beautiful-nightmare sort of way (the closest recent reference, tonally speaking, is perhaps Alexey Balabanov’s darkly brilliant, eighties-set Cargo 200 [2007].)

There’s certainly no hope of quickly summing up the wispy story, involving twentyish lout Egor (Ivan Dobronravov) and his semi-random wanderings in an underpopulated, unspecified, crumbling backwater (“it’s been a dead end for a long time”). Along the way he’s aided/hindered by his bearish old pal Sobokin, played by noted ska-punk star Sergei ‘Shnur’ Shnurov in a performance of magnetically truculent charisma (think Russell Crowe verbally pummelling his way out of a bad Stolichnaya hangover).

This is a blighted, benighted zone where there’s an ungoing, unspecified conflict between representatives of the local factory and the local (coal?)mine – one whose temporary suspension provides the movie with its title (“the war is crap, it’s the manoeuvres that matter”). Social structures seem to have long since broken down, while representatives of national/regional “authority” – army, police – are often visible, but are at best ineffective, at worst brutal and capricious (there’s a tough-watch torture scene later on in which a hapless Tartar farm-hand gets his feet dunked in boiling water).

Constantly hovering on the brink of caricatured, nihilistic quirkiness but sustaining a generalised air of anything-can-happen nefariousness whose freewheeling rhythms prove quickly intoxicating, Truce is a baffling but stimulating cosmic-joke comedy of the very blackest hue.
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Zakariassen Must Die ….. ****/5
Zakariassen må dø : Magne Pettersen : Norway 2011 : 20m : {11/13}
A stylishly-shot, mordantly witty short. Zakariassen (Hallvard Holmen) a racist, obnoxiously boorish, overstressed manager of a Norwegian fish-processing factory, receives his just desserts – in a cartoonishly violent climax that nods to the more extravagant moments from the Coen brothers’ oeuvre. It’s not exactly groundbreaking material – the moment in which our anti-hero stumbles across his wife in flagrante with her lover is pure sitc0mmish farce, and Zakariassen’s (topically anti-capitalist) comeuppance is a matter of “when” rather than “if”. But the execution is spot-on, writer/director Pettersen amping up Zakariassen’s invective-fuelled, bile-spewing unpleasantness and choreographing his various mishaps and misadventures with a pleasingly full-blooded brio.
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Neil Young
25th/26th January, 2011

all films seen in Tromsø, Norway at the 21st Tromsø International Film Festival
public screenings – complimentary staff admission