Neil Young’s Film Lounge – San Sebastian Film Festival 2003
51st SAN SEBASTIAN FILM FESTIVAL
Nazioarteko Zinemaldia DONOSTIA-SAN SEBASTIAN Festival Internacional de Cine
report by Neil Young
official website : San Sebastian Film Festival
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 8 (25th Sept) : Red Dusk, The Dreamers, In the City, The Bottom of the Sea
Day 9 (26th Sept) : Gun-Shy, Unfaithfully Yours, The Sin of Harold Diddlebock, Offside
Day 10 (27th Sept) : Open Range, Awards comment
Day 8 : Thursday 25th September
Dans le rouge du couchant aka Crepusculo rojo : France (Fr/Spn) 2003 : Edgardo COZARINSKY : 90 mins : Official Section (in competition)
Marisa Paredes, Feodor Atkine and Bruno Putzulu are the three stars of this tale set in Paris but with its roots in Buenos Aires. The cinema of Argentinean Edgardo Cozarinsky, a resident of France for several years, maintains a strange, attractive balance between both sides of the Atlantic. On this occasion embodied in the faces of three actors who bring vibrant life to the people who run into each other one red dusk.
Style overwhelms content with ultimately tiresome results in Red Dusk: audiences expecting a sequel to Red Dawn will rapidly head for the exits when they realise what an art-house self-indulgence they’ve stumbled into. DV-shot in Buenos Aires, Paris and Budapest: artworld intrigues of low-level, slow-burning sort. Presence of Putzulu (the well-dressed director from Godards Eloge dAmour) and Paredes (who played Huma Rojo – Red Smoke – in All About My Mother) promises much, but both deserve far better material. Paredes doesn’t appear until half-hour in. Early stretches concentrate on Putzulu (returns to France from Argentina with valuable painting he intends to get rid of on black market). Focus then switches to Paredes (former member of some kind of political underground organisation back in B.A.), then to Atkine (art-dealer, also perhaps a former member of Paredes group). Overcomplex plot, but director much more interested in stylistic exercises over-the-top music on soundtrack alternates between Herrmann-for-Hitchcock ominousness / smoky French horns / easy-listening muzak. Ill-advised fantasy sequence(s) in which dead appear and talk to living. Slow, pretentious stuff. Non-thriller, doesn’t deliver on any front plot too jumpy to carry us along over the bumps. Frustrating experience. Tedium sets in before the hour point. Amusingly daft, however, that they use one of the best-known Caspar David Friedrich paintings Woman at the Window as key part of the artworld intrigues. Finale involves heavily symbolic placing of clowns red nose on dying man, plus a couple of child performers who can’t act: classic litmus indicator of director who isn’t up to scratch.
UK (UK/Ita/Fr) 2003 : Bernardo BERTOLUCCI : 103 mins : Zabaltegi
Although The Dreamers is not actually based on the events of May 68, clearly remembered by Bertolucci, the story can only be understood when considered from that context. Cinema and life merge in this movie, an homage to a kind of young idealism and hymn to the search for new experiences as valid 35 years ago as they are today.
Bertolucci now in his 60s never exactly very cutting-edge in terms of his visuals (no matter how often content of his movies pushed the envelope). Seems an odd choice to adapt Gilbert Adairs novel of movie love, and passions of the more carnal variety set in Paris 1968, characters infected with very nouvelle vague temperament (one even claims her first words to have been New York Herald Tribune! a la Jean Seberg in Breathless). Spirit of Godardian revolution plot kicks off during protests at Henri Langlois sacking from the Cinematheque Francaise: Jean-Pierre Leaud seen in archive footage rabble-rousing, intercut with present-day Leaud apparently playing himself in dramatisations. Its here that raw American lad Michael Pitt (much closer to decadent camp of Hedwig than Sandra Bullock vehicle Murder By Numbers) meets Parisian brother-and-sister duo Philippe Garrel and Eva Green. They set about educating him in film and politics, culture, and sex. All are living in their own movie, but it certainly wouldn’t look like this picture (apart from the many clips that punctuate the action, best of which is Garbo in Queen Christina.) However, on reflection perhaps Bertolucci isn’t such an unlikely choice: the trios talk of revolution is just that: talk. Especially with Pitt, who narrates in vaguely Damon-as-Ripley style. All are much more bothered about sex – until violent revolution forcibly breaks their bourgeois, hermetic world: brick through the window. When bro and sis do commit to action, film instantly ends. Circular: finishes as it began, with Hendrixs terrific Third Rock from the Sun. In between Hendrix blasts, we get odd but beguiling mixture of social satire, sex film and freewheeling comedy. Very funny moments even Evas suicide attempt has very witty punchline. Doesnt outstay welcome, though essentially light stuff that doesn’t add up to a great deal.
En la ciudad : Spain 2003 : Cesc GAY : 110 mins : Official Section (in competition)
Following the success of Krampack (Nico and Dani) the Catalan director has chosen to make a completely different film. An urban, choral and wintry tale portraying from a particularly unconventional and harsh point of view a group of thirty-something year old friends, En la ciudad (In the City) is more of a contained melodrama than a custom comedy.
Short Cuts has a lot to answer for the urban intersections sub-genre, while potent in the right hands (Magnolia, City of Hope), has too often been an easy option for ambitious film-makers eager to try their hands at a wide-canvas vision of modern life. In the City is a typical example: as blandly generic as its title, ensemble tale of middle-class Barcelona couples and their friends is undemandingly watchable without ever managing to assert own identity or flavour. Even ends with balcony al-fresco lunch, perhaps ill-advised tribute to Altmans template. Much closer to tame chick-flick material like Whats Cooking? Broader comic touches and subplots work best, but otherwise this is largely uninvolving, lukewarm-tempo peek into a disappointingly narrow, well-heeled stratum of todays Catalan thirtysomethings. Whos who, in relation to who? Whats happening. Never catches fire. Before we know it, various plots have started unfolding. Struggle to catch up with them all. At one point two characters go to see 8 Women. Woman enthusiastic afterwards, bloke non-commital. You laughed! she points out, but we get his point. In the City similarly hard to get worked up about passes through viewer like glass of water. Done so much better elsewhere, so why bother. Also very cheeky to put Leonor Watling on the poster. Shes barely in it. Clever girl.
El Fondo del Mar : Argentina 2003 : Damian SZIFRON : 91 mins : Horizontes Latinos
A comedy-cum-unexpected peculiar thriller. Discovering that his girlfriend Ana is cheating on him, Toledo decides to find out with whom and why, setting off on the heels of her lover. An absurd persecution in which those involved are too close to see one another. And the bottom of the sea? The bottom of the sea is the only refuge left for Toledo on realizing that life will never be the same again for him.
Unassuming but very likeable little comedy with dramatic touches – loses way with ill-advised pretentious coda. Up to this point a fine, unpretentious chronicle of infidelity-paranoia. Boyfriend (bemused, scruffy, engaging Daniel Hendler) tails his girlfriends obnoxious, penny-pinching, sleazy lover (Gustavo Garzon, excellent in the showcase role). Inevitably, all isn’t my any means as it seems but writer-director makes a very old set-up seem fresh, funny and surprising. Quirky background details suspicious lover is an architect designing underwater hotel for divers, and he’s a diver himself as well. Builds to very satisfying finale, then (unwisely) keeps going: quirky background stuff emerges into foreground in bizarre, uneventful last five minutes. Insecurity of first-time director? He shouldn’t worry: control of tone sufficiently expert in first hour to bode well for future career. Like Toledo, Szifron just gets a little out of his depth.
Day 9 : Friday 26th September
Schussangst : Germany 2003 : Dito TSINTZADZE : 102 mins : Official Section (in competition)
The director of Lost Killers brings us a film hard to classify, full of a dark, surreal humour set in a realistic context. The tale of a man obliged to do something he never thought he’d do. A quiet, peaceable youngster doing social work to escape from doing his military service is inexorably drawn into taking vengeance. A movie shot through with extravagant characters, absurd and funny moments despite its darkness.
Like a Peter Handke novel filmed by Ioseliani (compatriot of Georgian writer-director Tsintzadze.) Very slow-burning comedy-drama described in some quarters as German Taxi Driver. Kind of much less action. Takes own sweet time to get to what is, admittedly, a very jarring, abrupt and effective conclusion that puts everything that’s gone before into a very different, rather darker light. Hapless Lukas (Fabian Hinrichs) tall, thin, good-looking bumbler in a rut. Meals-on-wheels as substitute for National Service (see Bungalow for a deserters tale). Amateur rower though noticeable that his arms are rather spindlier than such activity would produce. Delicate wisps of plot slowly coalesce around Lukass relationship with irritating Isabella (Lavinia Wilson) and her suavely menacing stepfather Romberg (Johan Leysen) motivational speaker whose speciality is in advising people to conquer their fears. Lukas and the girl meet cute when she drops a note onto his lap while he’s sitting in a bus note reads Help me (classic scriptwriters conceit). Lukas an easygoing blank, led astray by sinister/comic/flu-ridden cop Johanssen (Christoph Waltz) he meets while spying on girl and stepfather. Cop plants various ideas in Lukass head, and the lads character starts to change: buys rifle, but too jittery to shoot (shot-shy might be better translation of title, if only to avoid confusion with dire Hollywood movie of almost-identical name). Careful accumulation of detail, including some quirky comic stuff girlfriend does kendo; while rowing Lukas keeps meeting a nocturnal swimmer (Axel Prahl) whose preferred stroke is the toter mann or dead mans float (a reference to Christian Petzolds Toter Mann?); Lukass next-door neighbour (Thorsten Merten) is admirer of North Korea and Kim Jong-Il; there’s talk of a dog in Varanasi who survives with part of its head missing. Lukas clearly not all their either: slides into psychosis? Something bottled up. Effective vignettes, and probably will repay a second viewing. But overall impression is of a curio hovering between ambition and affectation.
USA 1948 : Preston STURGES : 105 mins : Preston Sturges Retrospective
Taken in by [20th Century] Fox, Sturges shot this irresistible chamber piece (less crowded than his films usually are) starring Rex Harrison in the role of a scornful orchestral conductor overcome with jealousy who plans how to get rid of his wife (the stupendous Linda Darnell) and in the process discovers the gulf between desire (homicide) and reality (see the final climactic scene).
Hard to think of many comedies many films full stop, in fact with structure so brilliant and original as Unfaithfully Yours, arguably Sturges most accomplished film. Very easy to forgive some glaring faults: slow music-heavy stretches early on; thin story; slightly limp finale. None of this really matters once the film suddenly clicks into place: as conductor leads orchestra through three very different classical pieces, he imagines how to deal with his supposedly unfaithful wife and her boyfriend. Bloody murder? Martyred resignation? Desperate suicide? All three outcomes are visualised. Then we see our hero attempt to put each into practice in turn, with farcical results. Harrison perhaps not obvious choice for collaboration with Sturges but this is very untypical Sturges his usual surging cast of characters kept firmly penned on the sidelines for one. Harrison triumphs: equally good at George Sanders-style acerbic putdowns and at slapstick. Sidesplitting highlight is his tangle with a recording machine (part of his fiendish homicide plot) which proves less than straightforward to operate: and that’s even before he checks the diagram on page six
(later re-edited and released in 1948 as Mad Wednesday)
USA 1947 : Preston STURGES : 90 mins : Preston Sturges Retrospective
Sturges left Paramount and teamed up with the eccentric millionaire and producer Howard Hughes, who then treated him even worse, by re-editing this film. The basic idea is irresisible: taking one of the geniuses of comic silent films (Harold Lloyd), and getting him to spread his dynamic personality, a bit worse for wear with age, all over Wall Street accompanied by a lion.
After watching Unfaithfully Yours (see above), jarring in the extreme to come across Diddlebock: from a superb, wonderfully clever script of innovative structure, now Sturges barely seems to be using any kind of script at all. Manic invention, extremely hit-and-miss. Cobbled together? Harold Lloyd collaboration misfires badly: loose, surrealistic developments, with comedy relying on repetitions and exaggerations. Cartoonishness rapidly loses appeal: bizarre bellowing noise made by drunken characters initially mildly amusing, finally grates. Lion on Wall St sequence: very few laughs, and animal in obvious distress on more than one occasion. All best comedy in first five minutes, which happens to be a single extended extract from another film: Lloyds silent 1920s classic The Freshman. Flashes of inspiration afterwards are few and far between: Lloyd and Sturges try far too hard.
Fuera de juego (aka Offsides) : Ecuador 2003 : Victor ARREGUI : 82 mins : Zabaltegi
This first feature by the Ecuadorian Victor Arregui was one of the most remarkable of those presented [at San Sebastian] last year in Films in Progress. Fuera de Juego tells the story of Juan. Young, innocent and sensitive, the desperation of the boys social surroundings leads to his involvement in murder. Arreguis movie portrays life, a collectivity, the moral and financial decomposition eating into South America.
Startling mismatch between opening titles and rest of movie. Titles reminiscent of and the best since – Panic Room as names appear among lights in copter-shot Michael Mann-ish nightscape of Quito. Then the movie itself turns out to be aggressively rough-edged, cheap-looking. Conspicuously low-resolution DV. All better to tell gritty tale of ordinary teens. Hes just a face in the crowd when trouble kicks off. Street chaos as indigent peoples organise themselves, march on the city. Feels shot on-hoof, with strong musical cuts of Ecuadorian rap and rock on the soundtrack. Film traces his specific problems (big-smiling innocent sort, he’s led astray into drugs and crime by classic bad influence pal) and juxtaposes them with those of his nation a pais de mierda (land of shit) as someone puts it. Government in crisis. Lazy brother couch-potato glued to the news, watches streets in foment. Economic way of widening out the story. Avoid melodrama in kids tale: instead, it all gets shunted over to his teenage female pal she has fancy dreams but they’re all (predictably) shattered by the end. His story more ambiguous and open-ended: optimism clearly thin on the ground, and only real hope is to escape but even this, as we see (experience of Ecuadorians in Spain) isn’t a passport to happiness/riches. Misleading football title there’s some kind of footy game at the end, but this isn’t enough to justify namin film after a soccer reference. Well-intentioned and performances are solid enough, but its a little draggy, even at 83 minutes.
Day 10 : Saturday 27th September
USA 2003 : Kevin COSTNER : 140 mins : Official Section (not in competition)
Kevin Costner has gone back to the great prairies in a western that reflects the legacy of the classics of the genre. It focuses on the clash between two completely different ways of life: between the cowboys, free men who live out in the open, and the new settlers from the cities who bring corruption and their thirst for power. Robert Duvall, Diego Luna and Annette Bening complete the cast of Open Range alongside Costner.
Western genre famously and fundamentally conservative: which means that were always at the end of an era, with the good days firmly in the past. Myth of Golden Age. This applies to the cowboy way of life shown, the cowboys themselves (theres usually at least one in the twilight of his years), and also even to the idea of the cowboy movie itself. Westerns are made all the time, but Hollywood always keen to present this ancient genre as limping on its last legs. Everything ends up so damn elegaic and bittersweet can’t imagine the cowboys themselves would have had much time for elegy. Genre doesn’t favour innovation or originality, either as with Bollywood, adherence to established form, images, and content is a badge of pride, not dishonor. Genre can be used for radical ends in certain hands (McCabe and Mrs Miller) but Costner a long way from radical intent. His disavowal of political angles, however, seem ingenuous at best: with George W Bush in the White House, any endorsement of the cowboy way can hardly be neutral in 2002/3. Perhaps director prefers not to think of such things : more bothered about showing respect to previous classics; clouds and horses in wide-screen; casting Duvall in iconic central role as sage old hand, though he’s by no means incapable of startling brutality when the situation arises. Little else to remark upon here, or to detain the non-initiate: Jean Brodies dictum applies. Costner and Duvall dominate little else for others (Luna, impeccably made-up Bening, Gambons two-dimensional villain; Michael Jeters helpful pixie) to do. Slow and predictable stuff, stretched out to 2hrs 20mins (main character is called Waite after all). Chatty blokes, these cowboys hardly very realistic view of life on the c19 range. Sentimental streak Costner (character and director) more bothered about death of dog than dog-owner, though latter had been a prominent figure up to that point. Fundamental paradox: film is about heroic little men in their stand against the controlling hand of big business. This is a $20m production small beer by current Hollywood measure but by no means an indie: Buena Vista / Touchstone: Disney corporation. Cowboy way would have been to do it for $20,000.
51st SAN SEBASTIAN FILM FESTIVAL : AWARDS
(no film was allowed to receive more than two awards)
Concha dOro for Best Picture : Schussangst
Noisy boos from the press when the announcement was made. Not hard to see why at times, hard to see why Tsintzadzes film was even in competition at all. When word got round that it was one of main candidates to win, many jaws hit the floor. On reflection, a second viewing is probably desirable. But even so, hard to feel that Achero Manas was short-changed for his marvellous November: only trophy won was the Premio Juventud, the prize awarded by a youth jury of 250 members.
Jury Prize (runner-up) : The Station Agent
Second best movie in competition? Perhaps Girl With A Pearl Earring or possibly Memories of Murder. Nothing wrong with Station Agent, however
Best Director : Memories of Murder
A very popular win for a much-liked film from a very promising young director. The ending baffled everybody, and the running-time could perhaps be trimmed a little, of course. (And Manas should have won).
Best Screenplay : Inheritance
More boos from the press, but this time they were well off the mark. Though not to everyones taste, this was a surprisingly gripping and powerful re-tread of supposedly familiar and predictable material. (November had the better script, though).
Best Cinematography : Girl With a Pearl Earring
The biggest round of applause at both the press conference and the awards ceremony, and the one category where everyone was in total, blissful accord.
Best Actor : Luis Tosar, You Have My Eyes
This would have been honour enough for a below-standard film, but hard to begrudge Tosar a very competent and consistent performer who did as well as could be expected with such a badly-written character. Easily the best performance in competition, however, was Oscar Jaegada as the messianic/egomaniac leader of November.
Best Actress : Laia Marull, You Have My Eyes
No boos, but this was the travesty of the whole show Scarlett Johansson from Pearl Earring was well and truly robbed, though compensation surely awaits when the Oscar nominations are announced. Hard to think of any female performance in the competition (even the annoying Lavinia Wilson from Schussangst) worse than Marulls horribly mannered, clich-ridden performance as the battered wife. Award presumably a sop to local sentiment Spanish jury member Silvia Munt quoted in next days paper as saying You Have My Eyes was the moral winner of the competition. Cojones!
films seen at cinemas Principe, Principal, Astorias and Kursaal, San Sebastian/Donostia
by Neil Young