CROSSING EUROPE (FilmFestival Linz) 2009 : mopup

italics = extracts from catalogue descriptions

"… an intellectual satire on the profession of film critic through the entertaining adventures of an aimless young man."
 – An arty, European take on the Shattered Glass phoney-journalist sub-genre in which our breezily amoral (anti-)hero plagiarises high-falutin' Cahiers du Cinema type articles – verbatim – to fill his column on a small-town rag. Credibility isn't really high on the agenda here, as the film-critic stuff is really just a means to an end – namely, the development of an illicit affair with a seductive femme fatale who writes under the pen-name 'Rosa Rouge' and actually is a proper film-reviewer.
   Though always striking to look at thanks to writer/director Baier's own monochrome camerawork, the picture can't really make its mind up whether it wants to be a dark, sardonic romance, a hommage to certain key figures from the French New Wave, or a deadpan comedy about slippery morals.
   There's also some heavily symbolic stuff involving predatory forest wildlife that feels like tacked-on existentialism. Indeed, the blandly hamdsome protagonist (who has little of the Machiavellian charms of, say, a Tom Ripley) quickly emerges as less fox than louse, so that it's pretty hard to care whether he ends up in the sack with his long-suffering girlfriend or with his tempestuous new fling - especially when his behaviour moves beyond solipstic, hypocritical horn-doggery into the realm of (brief but disturbing) domestic violence. Underneath it all, meanwhile, is what feels too much like cheap contempt for film critics and their work – dangerous territory for any director, unless he's really coming up with the goods himself.

"The life of Marieke is transformed by an act of violence. She decides to escape from her hometown and buys a remote and derlict cottage in the Zeeland countryside."

 – The emphasis is on character and mood than narrative in this intense but cumulatively grating journey into the thirtyish protagonist's damaged psyche.
   She throws herself into reparing a (convincingly) dilapidated rural cottage, though the most therapeutic aspect of her self-imposed exile might be the unlikely, very slow-budding romantic relationship she forms with a sympathetic middle-aged neighbour.
   Intimate camerawork, jagged deployment of zooms and smash-edits, and an ominously rumbling soundtrack combine to create a feeling of sensory overload, but this only gets us so far. The final third unravels into a confusing series of hallucination/dream/fantasy sequences in which our heroine imagines exacting brutal revenge on the rapist whose assault tipped her towards this state of psychosis verging on insanity.
   The premise and execution combines aspects of Repulsion and Morvern Callar, although the directorial box-of-tricks – while intermittently quite impressive – is ultimately too limited for the picture to sufficiently assert its own distinctive character.

"Dead Snow earns big points for enthusiasm, creativity and a powerful devotion to all things ultra-splattery." {Scott Weinberg}
 – Shock Waves meets The Descent – with a distinctly Nordic twist – in Dead Snow, whereby a photogenic gaggle of young-ish Norwegians on a break in the snowy wilds encounter hordes of revenant zombies. Bloody mayhem duly ensues in a fast-paced midnight-movie extravaganza of gory mutilation and amusingly tasteless Third Reich unpleasantness. Though delivering more laughs than chills, it's never quite as amusing as it wants to be, the director/co-writer falling back on quite a limited repertoire of horror/comedy tropes and tactics in order to achieve his effects. Competently handled on the crucial special-effects front, this is unpretentiously disposable fare that will satisfy indulgent, sensation-hungry youthful viewers – and it's certainly never dull.

"Eva Stotz projects a scenario of contemporary working worlds, in which some obstinately stay where they are no longer tolerated, and others don't know where they can get in: a managed mobbed by colleagues following an illegal dismissal; a young man humiliated as a public advertising figure; a schoolgirl anxiously asking about her professional chances."

  — Hour-long, documentary on the dysfunctions of the contemporary German – and, surely, European – workplace has become increasingly topical as the global economy has continued its downward skid. 
   Ruminatively low-key, the film reliant on direct testimony from a small handful of subjects. The one who gets the most screen-time is a "boss" who finds himself stuck in a well-paid but unrewarding sinecure of a job and expounds on his disgruntlement at considerable length – though without reflecting on how his own attitudes and behaviour might have contributed to the culture he now so bitterly rejects.
   There are, of course, many folk worse off than this well-heeled gent – including the articulately self-analytical but hapless individual employed to sit, several storeys up, at the centre of an advertising billboard, day and night – "HE WAVES BACK" written on the sign. He should really have been the focus of the film – especially when we discover, via closing title-cards, what happened to him after he completed his stint as a "living advertisement." In addition, the movie concentrates on the symptoms of economic and social malaise, instead of addressing the causes and underlying structural reasons.

"A small provincial town [in] Poland's countryside. Leon Okrasa, 40, is a stoker at the hospital crematory. In the past he witnessed – or perhaps committed? – the brutal rape of Anna, now 30 and working as a nurse at the same hospital. They live near one another as well, she in a hostel for workers next to the hospital, he in a dilapidated cottage a few [metres] away. He often spies on her in the streets by day and peeps at her window by night. But he wants more."

 – Amour fou, Polish style. To be precise, Polish village style: a sinister, queasy, oddly farce-inflected story of a sweaty, sadsack stalker who's surprisingly resourceful but unfortunately susceptible to pratfalling clumsiness. His obsession with Anna is unlikely in its elaborate scheming – what does he hope to gain from all this effort? Does he have some kind of death-wish, or perhaps a subconscious desire to return to prison? It's rather hard to tell, so complicated is the time-hopping structure that hops back and forth between chronological settings.
   And how seriously are we meant to take it? The sonorous, slightly heavy-handed music suggests a straight-faced approach on the part of the veteran auteur director – but quite a lot of the picture is played pretty much for laughs. Is this even some kind of a parody of stereotypically grim eastern-European art-cinema, with its slow, repetitive dialogue and morose characters? By the end, we're not much the wiser.

Gangster Girls creates an image of prison institutions from the different meanings they have in the lives of the various protagonists: an instrument for punishment or a school of crime, a desperately needed compulsory withdrawal treatment, a useful break for reflection, or simply bad company in an accursed home."
  — A series of testimonials from female prisoners – hardly "gangsters," despite that catchpenny title – structured around their involvement in a prison theatrical-revue. Little of what we learn about these women is exactly surprising or new, but they're each given space to express themselves and allow their distinct personalities to emerge.
   The "back-stage" format allows the participants – usually two by two – to appear in make-up or disguise, thus protecting their identities (presumably in accordance with Austrian laws on the depiction of offenders.) The exact nature of the play itself remains somewhat nebulous – who's written it? Who's directing? Who's watching? Are we seeing rehearsals or the actual end-product?
   These are, however, minor distractions in a film of clear empathy, where the film-makers have evidently won the trust and faith of their interviewees. Shot on crisp DV, it's essentially a small-screen enterprise – and a little trimming would helpfully reduce the slightly monotony of the talking-heads format.

"A broad and barren landscape is sliced by the empty asphalt of a highway. Since it was built ten years ago it has been abandoned and is gradually being reclaimed by nature. Only a few [metres] away from the rusty guard rail there is a little house with a vegetable garden… It is hardly surprising that the inhabitants of this place, father, mother, two adolescent daughters and a son, are not very pleased when construction work starts again on the highway…"
  — At certain junctures Home explores the intersection of the Bunuelian and the Ballardian – at other times, it can feel heavy-handed in its allegories or comes across as an extended, elaborate tribute to the noble bearing of its lead, Isabelle Huppert, who exudes regal froideur even when she's playing a lower-middle-class housewife.
   The picture works best in its early to middle stages, when it's simply being a somewhat daffy comedy about warm family life under extremely unusual circumstances – a live-action version of The Simpsons, even. But when the mood turns more serious, nightmarish and dark in the closing stages (as the individual family-members succumb to their various dysfunctions and neuroses) the whole thing threatens to veer off into a ditch of over-symbolic pretentiousness.
   [NB : a longer review of this film will be posted on this website during the week of its UK release]

"A mosaic, rich in contrasts, made up of training scenes – whether it is a birth course, exercises to minimize violence in police interventions, or studying the most erotic move at a striptease – illustrates how coping with the worst case scenario is made possible by simulating it."
  — Deadpan-droll 16mm documentary, in which West German life just before reunification is presented as a series of mediatiations and simulations, in which the citizens participate from their earliest childhood days: an endless series of dry runs and rehearsals. Film has the slightly stilted air of an instruction-movie itself, a detached observation of social phenomena that are seemingly quotidian but can appear deeply bizarre.
   There's no music, no captions, no commentary, just a series of dingily-lit interiors, sequences intercut with each other (what's added by such editing?), cumulatively indicting the stultifying dullness of the FRG/DDR via the evocation of a claustrophobic drab monotony. It's a kind of laborious nightmare in which nothing and nobody feels "real", and where precautions and preparations provide a form of pseudo-activity for cowed, obedient citizens. Salutary, stimulating stuff – if somewhat enervating to actually endure.

Inferno is a dazzling series of set-pieces designed to give the impression that the real world is terrifying, beautiful, erotic and dangerous" {Kim Newman}
  — Colour-coordinated insanity from Argento in the middle section of his 'Three Mothers' trilogy. And few films convey quite so strongly the impression that, entirely in control of his chosen medium as he may be, the director is himself very likely unhinged. Wildly imaginative editing, cinematography and production-design easily trump any concern for narrative, characterisation or coherent acting (male lead Leigh McCloskey makes Paul Walker look like John Malkovich), and the result is a hermetic, nightmarish cinematic universe where everything is artificial but somehow at the same time implacably menacing.
   The ramshackle plot concerns a pretty student uncovering the dark secrets of a diabolical Manhattan mansion, but is essentially a shameless pretext for a string of berserk set-pieces in which various loosely-connected characters are dispatched by the seemingly-invincible forces of darkness. And the victims aren't only human – cat-lovers are advised to keep away, especially as one specific incident of violence towards a feline looks and sounds all too plausibly un-faked.

"As soon as he discovers that he is not [his supposed son] Orban's father, Katalin Varga's husband throws her out of the house. Banished by her husband and her village, she is left with no other choice than to set out on a quest to find [Orban's] real father…"
  — A very 'Thomas Hardy' tale of rape, revenge, gossip and suicide – set in the present-day, but in an obscure corner of Europe where time appears to have stood still for some considerable time. It's a very scenic Transylvania of smoking hills, dark glades, glassy rivers – indeed, the line is crossed from the atmospherically picturesque to the tourist-board-type picture-postcard on several occasions. But every now and then, there's a passage of genuine transcendence – most notably a journey by boat where painful back-story exposition is filled in.
   Film-debutant Hilda Peter pretty much holds the picture together as Varga: the screen is often filled by oddly alluring, hawk-like features, as she guides us on through the heavy-weather, melodramatic plot all the way to its predictably grim, vengeance-is-mine-and-I-will-repay finale.
   [NB : a longer review of this film will be posted on this website during the week of its UK release]

"This film tells the story of a journey of two men, travelling light, searching for the truth beneath the facade, for fairy-tale moments in the heart of the countryside, and for a gay relationship far from the madding crowd. The more they walk the forests of Brandenburg, the stranger their adventure becomes."
  — Thin, unappealing tale of a dull, immature couple in their mid-twenties, and their slightly weird misadventures in the deep German woods. Presumably the elliptical, ultimately baffling story – they slightly menacingly stumble into the house of a woman and her son – is supposed to have some kind of mythic undertow. But it ends up feeling arbitrary and not a little pretentious: ingredients are assembled for a reasonably promising drama, but they're never really combined to make very much (something crucial seems to have been lost in the editing-process.)
   When in doubt, the director shifts his attention from his lost-boys protagonists to scrutinise the surrounding greenery – a sub-sub-Terence Mallick manoeuvre that yields little in the way of the hoped-for bosky transcendence. Narrative momentum is unforced to the point of lassitude, dribbling away in one bathetic scene after another, and the indulgent viewer receives scant ultimate payback for what seems like unneccessarily hard work. While some there's evidence of talent here, the frustrating film is ultimately of a waste of time for all concerned.

"This feature length documentary follows three muezzins and imams from Istanbul through a 'call to prayer contest' held in Turkey each year."
"The best invitation" to "the best religion" is sought via the competition chronicled in Muezzin, which delves into certain aspects of social and cultural life in Istanbul (a city, so we're told, of 2,944 mosques) at a time when western influences are becoming increasingly noticeable. There's a Thierry Henry football top here, a glimpse of Doctor Who on a TV there, YouTube proliferates. And the film itself dutifully adheres to the structure and format of countless sports and competition documentaries, following a small handful of contestants through various late rounds.
   Among several intriguing characters on view, the most vivid is perhaps the 'star' judge Habil Ondes – indeed, in its latter stages Muezzin feels more like an illustrated profile of Ondes as a record of the competition itself. Solidly crafted and edited, with a likeable strain of low-key, quietly quirky comedy along the way, the film succeeds within its limited intentions – it's fine as far as it goes – but might have provided a bit more in the way of background and analysis, especially given the current interest in Islam in general and Turkey's geo-political and religious development in particular.

"A former railroader who plunges into history, a teacher who spends the night looking for the police, an Afghan who hides, two quantum jobless men, a host with a moustache and his Eritrean wives… All these people cross paths, come into contact, avoid each other… The whole world is passing through Calais."
  – 127-minute, DV-shot documentary on a pressing, serious subject that deserves to be brought to wider attention – namely, how the forces of globalisation have inadvertently conspired to put enormous social pressure on the town of Calais, preferred jumping-off point for "asylum-seekers" with the UK as their ideal destination. Rather than a primer for the uninitiated, the film presumes considerable advance knowledge on the part of the viewer, devoting much time to extensive testimonies from concerned parties.
   Conducted at a leisurely pace, the repetitive picture is in need of a further edit or two in order to bring its positions more clearly into focus – as it is, the directors seem much too enamoured with the on-screen participants, and are largely content to let them ramble on as they wish (on several occasions, this results in tiresome verbosity.)
   There's strong material here that could and should be knocked into proper shape: much of the dialogue is unsubtitled, further background and context need to be provided (perhaps by external observers who aren't so directly involved with this specific locale), and the refugees who are at the crux of the situation remain shadowy, background presences. We need to hear much more from them: why are they so keen to get to the United Kingdom? What specific woes have they suffered in their home countries? As it is, North Coast feels like a hand-wringingly humanistic glance at various aspects of socio-economic phenomena: a surface-skimming examination of life's rough pageant.

"Kazakhstan, 1961. Daniel Pokrovsky, a medical officer, works for the first Soviet cosmonaut troop. Already married, Daniel finds himself in an incredibly complicated yet tender relationship with a young girl called Vera. He is in charge of the health of the future cosmonauts and can't agree with the fact that these young men could have to sacrifice their lives for the [country]."

   — Slow, stately film shows us the grinding monotony of life behind the scenes – and on the ground – of what the world regarded as a thrillingly exciting conjunction of scientific skill and geo-political ambition. In a way, it's a bit like the Russian equivalent of Robert Altman's 1969 Countdown, concentrating on the human interactions rather than the space-age machinery – and there's an Altmanish looseness to the way scenes flow along, conversations meander, the camera tracks its way through the big-sky Kazakh terrain (a camel here, a space-rocket there.)
   What plot there is is buried beneath acres of verbiage – the characters seldom seem to shut up, exchanging poetic/sarcastic platitudes and sinisterly droll non-sequiturs that are informed by their own private codes: evasive vocabularies and references from which the viewer is casually but forcibly excluded.
   The result is like stumbling through a poetic, snail-paced nightmare of talk, talk and more talk - punishing, perhaps unbearable for many – and though there are grace-notes and transcendent moments studded through the two-hour running-time, there are only just enough to maintain our interest and attention.
   Director/co-writer German delights in subverting expectation: Yuri Gagarin is really just "one of the lads", and he's been on screen several times before we even work out who he is. German is much more concerned with providing an eerily convincing simulacrum of this far-flung – but crucially important – corner of the USSR in 1961. He succeeds – but is that enough? There's a chilly brilliance to his virtuosity – one that, like some vast totalitarian gadget, seems to demand our surrender. Or perhaps to invite a mockingly absurdist response: "In 100 years, we'll all turn into rain or rainbows."

"… a very physical ensemble film, in which the (handheld) camera seems to dance with the young athletes. In the dressing-rooms, the gyms, on the racetrack of a Swiss athletic boarding school – the excitement can be felt everywhere: Will I make it?"
  — The travails of a teenage-girl athlete, all of it laid out fairly baldly and without much melodrama, sentiment or fuss. The film has an impressive feel of improvisation, and there's much to like about the way a slow-burning romance-plot is introduced ("he makes minute adjustments," our heroine sighs, observing from the middle-distance.) It's all quite 'Berlin school', an unadorned affair which eschews close-ups obtains a rough-edged intimacy via the use of video.
   Certain cliches of the genre are dutifully observed, however – the stereotypical hard-driving coach, the countdown-to-major-meeting structure (complete with predictable final on-track "twist") – and there's also a confusing, unneccessary subplot about how the girls sneak video-cameras into their clothing so they can film themselves in action. 
   Even worse is a final-act bit of character-development involving the lead and her use of sexual activity as a training-technique. Her bizarre, sympathy-alienating behaviour isn't sufficiently consistent with what we've seen of her up to this point, while the script further complicates matters with an extraneous subplot involving the disappearance of a secondary character. Overall: promising, even if the numerous directorial plusses are let down by script deficiencies.

Neil Young
15th July, 2009

Another Man : [5/10] : Un autre homme : Switzerland 2008 : Lionel BAIER : 89m : seen 25/4 at City-Kino
Can Go Through Skin : [5/10] : Kan door Huid heen : Netherlands 2009 : Esther ROTS : 94m : seen 21/4 at Moviemento
Dead Snow : [6/10] : Dod Sno : Norway 2009 : Tommy WIRKOLA : 90m : seen 22/4 at Moviemento
Devil Hides in Doubt : [6/10] : Sollbruchstelle : Germany 2008 : Eva STOTZ : 61m (timed) : seen 25/5 at Moviemento
Four Nights With Anna : [5/10] : Cztery noce z Anna : Poland(/Fr) 2008 : Jerzy SKOLIMOWSKI : 92m (timed) : seen 21/4 at City-Kino
Gangster Girls : [6/10] : Austria 2009 : Tina LEISCH : 78m (timed) : seen 23/4 at Moviemento
How To Live in the FRG : [6/10] : Leben/BRD : West Germany 1990 (copyright-dated 1989) : Harun FAROCKI : 79m : seen 22/4 at Moviemento
Home : [6/10] : Fr/Switz/Bel 2008 : Ursula MEIER : 97m : seen 23/4 at City-Kino
Inferno : [8/10] : Italy/US 1980 : Dario ARGENTO : 106m : seen 24/4 at Moviemento (German-dubbed print entitled Horror Infernal)
Katalin Varga : [6/10] : Romania(/Hun/UK) 2008 : Peter STRICKLAND : 83m (timed) : seen 21/4 at City-Kino
Light Gradient : [4/10] : Rûckenwind : Germany 2009 : Jan KRüGER  : 77m (timed) : seen 24/4 at Moviemento
Muezzin : [6/10] : Austria 2009 : Sebastian BRAMESHUBER : 83m (timed) : seen 26/4 at City-Kino
North Coast : [5?/10] : L'exil et le royaume : France 2008 : Jonathan LE FOURN & Andreï SCHTAKLEFF : 127m {walkout after 80m} : seen 25/4 at City-Kino
Paper Soldier : [6/10] : Bumažnyj soldat : Russia 2008 : Alexey GERMAN, Jr : 118m : seen 26/4 at City-Kino
Strong Shoulders : [6/10 TV] : Des épaules solides : Switzerland(/Fr/Bel) TV 2002 : Ursula MEIER : 96m : seen 22/4 at City-Kino

all films seen at Crossing Europe Film Festival, Linz, Austria (April 2009) – public screenings (complimentary tickets). Timings from festival-catalogue unless otherwise stated.