Feast at the Fest
by Chris Dashiell
For someone who has a day job (like me), a film festival is like a big
buffet. I get to pick and choose among a variety of tasty treats. Well,
we actually have a film festival here in Tucson. It's not a big one
like they have in sunny Cannes or Venice, but it'll do. This year I
saw five movies in a one-week span, an exciting but also somewhat draining
experience that I would not recommend to anyone who doesn't use caffeine.
Below are three of them:
LATE AUGUST, EARLY SEPTEMBER
Assayas' latest picture is a sharply observed, affectionate portrait
of a group of young friends clustered around a writer in his 40s named
Adrien (Francois Cluzet). Adrien has never quite achieved the success
he desired - his books have gained critical respect but not popularity.
He is moody, taciturn, filled with self-doubt and anxiety about his
age. Secretly he is having an affair with an adolescent girl (Mia Hansen-Love).
The film's main focus is on Gabriel, one of the writer's young admirers
and promoters. As played by Mathieu Amalric, Gabriel has a kind of sheepish
charm and gentleness that, along with his good looks, attracts women to
him. But he is also afraid of being engulfed and tends to push them away
when they want his attention. He still spends time with his old girlfriend
Jenny (Jeanne Baliban - endearing with her self-consciousness and marvelous
crooked smile) because they are trying to sell their old apartment. His
new girlfriend Anne (the impossibly beautiful Virginie Ledoyen) is a lot
more messed up than she lets on. And there are a half dozen other characters,
major and minor, all portrayed with great naturalness.
description may make the film sound like a sort of soap opera or relationship
drama - one idiotic writer called it "a French The Big Chill"
which they're using as a tagline, but is totally unfair because this
movie has the kind of intelligence and depth which the overrated Kasdan
flick couldn't even approach. Assayas' style is fluid and expressive.
The camera moves as if it were a character in the story - quick hand-held
movement when emotions are high, steady and leisurely during thoughtful
moments. The director knows how to understate rather than underline
- some of the most affecting sequences are startlingly brief, and all
the more moving for it. This is most of all a film of conversations
- showing people expressing their conscious thoughts to each other,
their wishes peeping out between the lines, the expressions and body
movements often saying much more. The writer, Adrien, becomes ill, and
this is a catalyst for the younger characters' sense of transition to,
if not maturity, a more seasoned stage of their lives, with all the
complex changes in attitude that this implies. The most commonplace
events are also opportunities, life-determining choices made or not
made. The details of relationship are delicious and funny and true to
life. There is no real plot to the film in a conventional sense. Assayas
even refers to this fact up front, in a conversation between Gabriel
with a publishing agent concerning Adrien's work - the agent remarks
that fiction is not accessible enough unless it has a clear story line
that the reader can focus on. The thought reflects on the film itself
and on Assayas' own aesthetic, more interested in the subtle interplay
of character than in drama. And throughout the picture, the challenges
of fiction exemplified by Adrien's career are touchstones for the themes
of wish and regret and striving and attraction with which the young
people around him are grappling.
Late August, Early September was my favorite treat of the festival.
This kind of work, honest and human, with nothing mechanical or overbearing
in its style, is what sustains my belief in the movies, in their real
promises and possibilities.
HAPPENED HERE played in the retro section - it's an English film
from 1964, and a very interesting and novel idea. The premise is that
Nazi Germany invades England in 1940 and occupies it. The war continues
with America and Russia, and the occupiers also have their hands full
rooting out local underground resistance. The English fascists head
a puppet collaborationist government which institutes massive ideological
training. Meanwhile, the Nazis establish Jewish ghettos and perpetrate
The film was directed by a teenager - Kevin Brownlow, who was later
to become a famous film historian, as well as a promoter and restorer
of silent films. His production designer was even younger - Andrew Mollo,
who with fanatical skill recreated period detail from the war era, right
down to the type of tickets used on the buses. They received support
and encouragement from Tony Richardson and Stanley Kubrick, including
the donation of film stock, and the result is a rather amazing bit of
work done for something like twenty thousand dollars.
The story concerns an apolitical nurse (Pauline Murray), a basically
good, decent person, who unfortunately joins the Party, in order to
find work in her profession, and through a passive but understandable
belief that one must get along with the way things are for the sake
of order. She experiences a series of extremely rude awakenings. The
actors are all amateurs, and so the film sometimes has a rough quality,
but it's always competent and sometimes quite good, especially considering
the age of the filmmakers. The best sections are the ones that Jewish
groups at the time protested against - Brownlow cast actual English
fascists to play the nurse's superiors, and the scenes where they indoctrinate
her in their racist ideology are fascinating and very valuable because
they illuminate the actual thinking and beliefs of Nazism, rather than
just the brutal behavior. The protesters thought that this gave these
fascists a public platform that might influence impressionable viewers,
and United Artists cut the scenes from its release. Now, thankfully,
they are restored. It Happened Here is a real eye-opener, and
a great example of how much can really be done with very little, provided
the filmmaker has enough courage and tenacity.
is a kind of English film noir, a black-and-white tidbit from first-time
director Christopher Nolan. A bored and isolated young man named Bill
(Jeremy Theobald) gets in the habit of following strangers around that
he sees in the street. He wonders and speculates about the details of
their lives, creating a sense of voyeuristic mystery in order to fill
a vaguely perceived void inside of him. Then one of his subjects, a
blithely arrogant cad named Cobb (Alex Haw) notices that Bill is following
him, and confronts him. It turns out that Cobb gets his kicks burglarizing
homes, not so much to steal as to experience violating someone else's
space - and Bill ends up joining him in his adventures. He then gets
emotionally involved with another of his subjects, a woman (Lucy Russell)
who is under the thumb of a seedy underworld figure.
Nolan keeps things interesting for a while by scrambling the time structure.
Scenes that take place at various points in the timeline are rearranged
so that we see later scenes before we understand their meaning - and
then a scene which occurred earlier in time reveals more clues. This
gives the film a pleasantly disjunctive rhythm which fits the strange
mood of isolation and voyeurism. Unfortunately, the picture's intriguing
premise leads to more familiar, well-trod territory. The psychological
theme is left unexplored - abandoned in favor of the old double and
triple-cross, the dry satisfaction of the plot twist. As such I suppose
it is entertaining, but also negligible - a mere few hours after Following,
I had practically forgotten it. Nolan shows promise - I just hope he
gets more ambitious next time.