Neil Young’s Film Lounge – San Sebastian Film Festival 2003


Nazioarteko Zinemaldia DONOSTIA-SAN SEBASTIAN Festival Internacional de Cine

report by Neil Young

official website : San Sebastian Film Festival

Section one : Day 1, Day 2, Day 3
Section two : Day 4, Day 5
Section three : Day 6, Day 7
Section four : Day 8, Day 9, Day 10, Awards comment

format of reviews:
Title / rating / original title(s) : country(s) of origin : year : director(s) : length : section of festival
synopsis in italics taken directly from official festival brochure


Day 4 (21st Sept) : Donau Duna Dunaj Dunav Dunarea, Grimm, November, Extrano

Day 5 (22nd Sept) : The Weakness of the Bolshevik, The Story of Marie and Julien, What The Eye Doesnt See

Day 4 : Sunday 21st September



aka Danube : Austria 2003 : Goran REBIC : 89 mins : Zabaltegi

The second movie by Goran Rebic (Jugofilm, 1997) speaks out in favour of a Europe spliced through by the Danube as the unifying axis of a world fraught for the last 15 years by fratricidal wars. A song to the life of the people on a voyage along the Danube through Hungary, Serbia, Croatia, Bulgaria and Romania, ending in the Black Sea, telling a tale not unlike a little Odyssey of reconciliation.

Appropriately enough, this was the first film Id ever started watching in one cinema finished in another the movie was showing simultaneously in two cinemas on either side of San Sebastians old town, one with English subtitles and one with Castilian. A mix-up over which was which saw me hotfooting it from Theatre Principal to Cines Principe shortly after the first line of dialogue was spoken. The voyage of the characters is much more epic and arduous thousands of kilometres of the Danube from the European Union to the shores of the Black Sea. Itinerary distance marked by periodic on-screen countdown to zero KM, including the name of each city we stop off at en route. Striking spectacular landscapes along the way, with varied terrain, water, light, flora and fauna. For those who use cinema as substitute (or prelude) to travel, moneysworth is very much given. And its an original framing concept. As a drama, however, much more monotone (morose/bittersweet-tragic/sentimental) and uninspiring. Various stories along the journey, mostly concerning a search for origins and/or family: father-search/mystic-romantic aspects surface. Portentous philosophical voiceover. Impeccable intentions (very much film festival material) but execution very standard-issue: lots of significant looks and meaningful pauses. Florin Piersic Jr makes impact as cowboy drifter: looks like Emir Kusturicas younger brother. Moral: biological ties are less important than the ties we forge for ourselves. The waters of this river, it seems, are much, much thicker than blood.



Netherlands 2003 : Alex VAN WARMERDAM : 103 mins : Official Section (in competition)

With Grimm, Van Warmerdam travels from the cold, misty northern woods of his native country to the sunnier, yet still dark, vistas of Spain in telling a post-modern fairy-tale of Hansel and Gretel gone awry. But this time around its Jacob and his sister Marie who are abandoned in the woods by their family.

Odd, very Dutch humour in matter-of-fact update of fairytale situations. Euro-flavoured precursor of Tim Burtons Big Fish and Terry Gilliams Brothers Grimm? Hansel and Gretel escapades in modern surroundings. Icy Holland-set first section promises much: audacious, larkish, droll flights of imagination and moments of inspired physical comedy. Sensational scene where the pair escape from a meat-cooler: elaborate shenanigans involving farmer, wife, table, ropes and cow terrific pay-off. From this fertile northern-forest terrain, abrupt magical-realist shift to hot south. Pace noticeably drops (languid Mediterranean rhythms, if being charitable). Entanglement with sinister 40-ish aristo Don Diego, then escape again to wild-west type village (deserted movie set?) for final showdown, which sees blood mingling with eggnog. Original, but in need of rewrites to achieve full potential of mildly surreal conceits (cf Magonia). Necessarily episodic, of course, but the pacing goes all skew-whiff. Fitfully amusing adventures as they negotiate off-kilter world of sudden, irrational threat together Incest hints, but kept tastefully low-key. Terrific wordless Kees Prins cameo as drunken man late on almost saves the day. Takes its time and something of a stretch at 103 minutes.



Noviembre : Spain 2003 : Achero MANAS : 104 mins : Official Section (in competition)

Noviembre (November) focuses on a provocative street-theatre group. Told documentary style with interviews of veteran actors who recall their past in an avant-garde theatre group, alternating with the representation of this past, the film is a combination of spectacular street productions and totally contemporary political reflections. Noviembre (November) features a cast of young actors headed by Ingrid Rubio and Oscar Jaenada.

A pseudo-documentary on the rise and fall of a radical Madrid street-theater troupe, November sounded like the least appetising of the 16 films in competition for San Sebastians Golden Conch. But the film surpassed all expectations its a brilliantly original, dazzlingly confident and utterly unclassifiable delight. Imagine a Spanish, politically-charged Being John Malkovich and youre edging in the right direction. It stamps writer-director Manas as one of the few current Iberian film-makers capable of emerging from the Almodovar shadow. With a drum-tight (and extremely clever) script, deceptively freewheeling tone and ferociously committed performances especially from Jaenada as Novembers mercurial, messianic leader its impossible to say whether Manas is celebrating the gangs counter-cultural idealism, quite royally taking the piss or doing both at the same time. The results are hilarious, thought-provoking and, at the abrupt climax, surprisingly moving. A word in British distributors shell-like: buy this movie – it demands to be seen.

[review originally appeared in slightly extended form in Time Out as the Discovery of San Sebastian 2003]

For a full length feature on Achero Manas’ November click here



aka Strange : Argentina 2003 : Santiago LOZA : 87 mins : Horizontes Latinos

Axel has left his job as a surgeon. Wandering among people, he is able to feel their pain. One day meeting a pregnant girl, the couple establish a relationship of mutual companionship, not unlike love. Lozas movie, a compilation of timid gestures and words, of silences and glances, won one of the Tiger Awards at last years [sic] Rotterdam Festival after having been presented as part of Films in Progress [at San Sebastian 2002].

Julio Chavez star of A Red Bear is something of a Kevin Spacey lookalike. Appropriate enough for a film that might be called Argentinian Beauty, (as opposed to American Beauty) portrait of a professional man in mid-life crisis. Except this chilly, autumnal film is about a mans personal implosion, not explosion: surgeon quits job, goes from woman no woman (there are no other adult men in the film at all). Clearly post-traumatic (his crisis what caused him to quit some operating-table disaster?). Hes stunned into reflection landscape shots (many trees standing alone behind one, written in small graffiti on a wall, the word EXTRANO). Argentina gripped in a similar crisis of confidence cautious shoots of optimism visible among the grimness? Made up of extended shots, but very well edited to 84-minutes. Philosophical ruminations. Audience will either be seduced or anaesthetised.

Day 5 : Monday 22nd September



La flaqueza del bolchevique : Spain 2003 : Manuel Martin CUENCA : 100 mins approx : Zabaltegi

Based on Lorenzo Silvas prizewinning novel, Manuel Martinez Cuencas first work following the documentary El juego de Cuba is a contemporary love story. But its also set in todays Madrid, with its gridlocks, contained violence and hidden wealth. Luis Tosar is Pablo, an executive victimized by an unhinged society from which his salvation arrives in the shape of Rosana, a teenager played by the debuting Maria Valverde.

Appropriately enough, from Rioja Productions comes a movie that’s a good example of new wine in a very old bottle. Fixation of respectable fortyish businessman on schoolgirl after coup de foudre love-at-first-sight. All following a minor car crash that leaves the grille of his car dented: VW askew. Tragic consequences for all concerned. American Beauty scenario Tosars Pablo even plays loud rock in his car, looks a little like Spacey from certain angles. Twists : (1) he’s not married. (2) he’s not especially sympathetic (dog-faced Tosar also looks a little like Ross Kemp). Something of a creepy pervert when he loses his self-control. (3) Shes more than a match for him. The Bolsheviks weakness was for a pretty face, and Valverde shows real star quality in debut role (justifies the and presenting credit among opening titles that’s usually a reliable kiss of death to a young career.) Hes a bit of a blank, but she’s luminous: something of a young Kate Winslet, with fiery Winona Ryder eyes blazing when she’s roused. Lifts movie whenever she’s on screen, which isn’t enough. Unhurried movie, many longing looks accompanied by melancholy piano. Uncluttered visuals in character-study two-hander. Somewhat underpowered, though this is really setting us up for the violent finale (his comeuppance?) all the more jarring/numbing. In retrospect, occasionally daft convolutions of plot have in fact been part of a noirish inevitability. Nothing amazing, but does what it does pretty well.



Histoire de Marie et Julien : France (Fr/Ity) 2003 : Jacques RIVETTE : 145 mins : Official Section (in competition)

Julien, a mature, unmarried watchmaker, meets the young, beautiful and vulnerable Marie. The intense love sparked off between the two leads them to shelter in a place where neither life nor deathe exist, a house where dream and reality merge. Actors Emmanuelle Beart and Jerzy Radziwilowicz star in this latest work by the great moviemaker Jacques Rivette.

You don’t know me.
Its you who doesn’t know yourself.
I don’t want to know myself.

Etc, etc, for two-and-a-half hours. But for Rivette that counts pretty much as a short. When did he last turn in a movie at less than 145 minutes? Has he ever? His track record means benefit of doubt is given enough credit in the bank, even if Va Savoir, though widely praised, came as a dip after excellent recent works like 1997s (173-minute) Secret Defense. Reunited with SD leading-man Radziwilowicz. Here he’s dominant figure (previously second fiddle behind Sandrine Bonnaire). Film takes its cue from his doughy solidity. Hes a clocksmith its a matter of patience. Describes the workings of a clock as looking like an instrument of torture. Long film full of ticking clocks is this Rivettes idea of a joke (he is in his seventies. On record as saying Showgirls as one of best films of recent years. Losing his marbles?) Skilled clocksmith Radziwilowicz explains to Beart that clock repair is as much a matter of listening as looking: shows her how to detect when a clock is audibly limping. Flat look to movie bears this out, but Rivette seems oblivious to his mechanisms defective limp. Drags along to third-act left-turn into Solaris territory, of all things. Metaphysical romance most unconvincing. Beart climbs a chair and emits mumbo-jumbo speaking-in-tongues Somethings going to happen, she intones. Fat chance. Viewer can feel (hear?) Rivettes control of his material slipping inexorably away, his reputation starting to crumble. We should know were in trouble when sole source of energy and humour is from (black) cat. Best performance, though Nicole Garcia briefly brings movie to life when she comes on towards end and explains Bearts background. The black cats name is Nevermore. Not-so-subtle hint that were staggering towards Edgar Allan Poe territory (writer much loved in France). Poe once wrote a story How to write a Blackwood article deconstruction of supernatural tall tales. Rivette could be illustrating a story entitled How to make an arthouse movie: long silences, meaningful looks, overextended scenes (check out how long we watch Jerzy sweeping the floor!) portentous dialogue (nothing that’s what I like), hot but implausible sex between grizzled older bloke and younger gamine sex-bomb (whats Beart done to her lips, though?) As often happens with Magus type directors, Rivettes colossal reputation daunts all around him nobody dares tell him he’s lost it.

For a full-length rewrite of this review click here



Ojos que no ven : Peru (Per/Spn) 2003 : Francisco LOMBARDI : 149 mins : Official Section (in competition)

Lombardi tells us six tales set at a particularly harsh political moment in Peruvian history: the fall of the Fujimori regime as a result of what was known as the vladi-video scandal showing the presidential advisor Vladimiro Montesinos bribing people of national importance. A movie denouncing the hypocrisy, opportunism and corruption of political power.

Its a military soap opera! snorted The Guardians Derek Malcolm, who was sitting next to me in the cinema. Hard to disagree a Peruvian entry into the urban-intersections genre (Short Cuts, City of Hope etc), set in Lima. Novelistic knitting-together of stories. More explicitly topical/political than most in the genre: 2000s Vladi-video affair. Perhaps political telenovela would be closer to the mark: filmed by Costa-Gavras fan who’s seen Magnolia. Even uses Magnolia-ish instrumental interludes (as camera glides from participant to participant) to break up the action. Tendrils of corruption affect all strata of society, from army/law on down. Exploitation of women by men (not one but two moustachioed lechers one of them, scheming to have his wicked way with a teenage virgin, is straight from the Victorian-villain archives.) Blood on military blokes pristine white uniform: we get the point. All revolves around hospital, a sure sign of melodrama. Videos look explosive stuff, but relegated to background. Excess of incident, made bearable by comic relief (Walter Mitty monologues from geeky lovelorn nerd director has clearly seen Nashville as well; amusing Stadler & Waldorf pair of bickering old gents in hospital ward). Ambition commendable, and nothing much wrong with it, but would be much more effective on (Peruvian) TV, in three (or even four) fifty-minute segment. Lack of script/directorial flair all the more obvious when seen on big screen in one lengthy sitting. God-awful final freeze-frame of violated teen playing in orchestra, wind mysteriously blowing through her hair and sun bathing all in optimistic glow: unfortunate echoes of Hannibal finale presumably unintentional.

films seen at cinemas Principe, Principal, Astorias and Kursaal, San Sebastian/Donostia

by Neil Young