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A 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

Olivier 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.

This 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.

IT 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 civilian massacres.

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.

FOLLOWING 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.




CineScene, 2000