This is my fourth summer in Finland, mainly based in and around Helsinki, and I’m beginning to wonder why. I still find the language incomprehensible, the weather this August has been pretty bad, and most of my friends have been away, so there is little stimulus here for me apart from music and films. Fortunately there are two film festivals at this time of year, so the weather doesn’t matter too much. The Espoo film festival takes place in Finland’s second largest city, which is just outside Helsinki, and a rather strange place full of lakes, islands and forests – 96 lakes, 165 islands, and miles and miles of forests – as well as 58km of coastline. Otherwise it’s reminiscent of Canberra in its soullessness, and the Espoo Cultural centre where the film festival is based is situated on a muddy artificial lake which reminds me of a run-down version of Australia’s capital.
Kids hang around the shopping malls drinking beer, and there seems to be little to do here if you’re not into cycling (600km of cyclic routes through picturesque forests), boating or other outdoor pursuits. The crime writer Leena Lehtolainen used to live here, and set a number of her books here, so the crime rate must be worth writing about. I just finished reading her Death Spiral, recently translated into English after almost a 20 year time lag, which focuses on her other main interest, ice skating. Espoo is apparently a hub for the sport, and Death Spiral deals with the murder of an up-and-coming teenage ice skater. Lehtolainen has long since moved away to more salubrious parts of Finland, but her books have made their mark on Espoo.
The film festival specialises in European cinema, and it’s a huge relief to get away from US cinema which dominates everywhere else, including in Finland, although a couple of US films slipped into this year’s program – a documentary on Brian De Palma, Genius, about the writer Thomas Wolfe, and the closing film, which also closed the Sydney Film Festival, Whit Stillman’s Jane Austen mash-up, Love and Freindship, which I avoided like the plague. Genius, however, was a fascinating literary film about Thomas Scribners editor Max Perkins (Colin Firth), who was a mentor to Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway as well as Wolfe, and it also starred an unrecognisable Nicole Kidman as Wolfe’s theatre designer lover (unrecognisable to me anyway, as I generally avoid her films). The debut feature of theatre director Michael Grandage, it was panned by the Guardian reviewer, who thought it badly in need of an edit, nodding towards Perkins’ reduction of Wolfe’s 5,000 page manuscript of Of Time and the River (1935). The length didn’t bother me, as it was a great surprise to see an intelligent US film for a change, even if Jude Law’s portrayal of Wolfe was completely over the top. The film’s portrayal of depression era New York was intriguing as well, and Australian Guy Pearce has a cameo role as a burnt-out Fitzerald.
My first day was consumed by three French films, all engrossing in their different ways: Philippe Claudel’s A Childhood, Bruno Dumont’s Ma Loute (execrably re-titled by the US distributors as ‘Slack Bay’) and Belgian-French Joachim Lafosse’s ‘White Nights’, which has already been shown at the French film festival earlier this year in Sydney and elsewhere in Australia. A footnote here: why are English subtitles to foreign films so regularly done in the USA, and to inappropriate US idioms when US audiences don’t watch films with subtitles? And why do the first releases of new foreign films shown at film festivals invariably get reviewed first either in the Hollywood Reporter or Variety, together with crass predications of their lack of marketability in the USA? Agreed, most, if not all, of these films, are doing the rounds of a series of film festivals all over the world for at least a year, often before, if ever, they go on general release, but why does this form of US colonialism persist in their English language reception, especially as many of them never get released in the USA? The French director Matthieu Kassovitz had the subtitled version of his legendary 1995 hip hop film La Haine (Hate) re-done in 2007 because he thought the US expressions inappropriate, and this should happen more often. SBS is a world leader here as they do their own subtitles when they can in Australian idioms, and in yellow so they don’t get blotted out by light.
Claudel’s Une Enfance (A Childhood) is an intelligent, low-key film by one of my favourite French directors – he directed Kristin Scott-Thomas in a sublime film, I Have Loved You So Long (the title comes from a well-known French children’s song, A la clair fontaine). He is also a prize-winning novelist in France, Sweden and the UK, where his novel Brodek’s Report won the 2010 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize. He lives in a small town near Nancy, and is a professor of literature at the University of Nancy. Before that, he taught creative writing in prisons, where he says he learned his craft. A Childhood is set in his hometown, a run-down but sometimes picturesque place outside Nancy where Jimmy, the protagonist, spends a lonely summer separated from his younger brother Kevin, who is staying with his grandmother. Nothing much happens, as can be expected, but it is a nuanced study of telling everyday details. Claudel plays a cameo role as a tennis teacher whose lessons Jimmy knows his parents can’t afford. His mother Pris has just got out of prison on a drug charge, and has taken up with a small-time drug dealer boyfriend, Duke, who is not above getting Jimmy to be his delivery boy. His neighbour Lison has a bit of a crush on him, and invites him to her birthday party, and he steals a pair of his mother’s necklaces as a present, but Lison’s life style is way too out of reach for him, and she goes off to Italy for the summer with her parents. Jimmy tries to look after a kitten, which he has to hide from Duke, who hates cats, and the climax of the film involves drug overdoses by both adults. Unfortunately the music for the film is provided in English by indie U.S. singer Ray LaMontagne, with soppy, maudlin lyrics and a clichéd folk style, which ruin some otherwise good moments. Variety found the film ‘bleakly predictable’, although it won the main prize at the Chicago Film Festival, while the Hollywood Reporter compared it to Linklater’s US film Boyhood, a totally different affair, and it deserves, along with its director, to be more widely appreciated.
Ma Loute – the name of the central character who indulges in a bit of killing for family cannibalism – is another totally bizarre film from Bruno Dumont, whose TV miniseries P’tit Quinquin I raved about last year. Dumont started making terribly solemn films like The Life of Jesus, then suddenly switched to comedy, which he seems to have a natural inclination for. Ma Loute is not quite as assured as P’tit Quinquin, but has similar ingredients, although this time things go a bit too over the top. It’s a period seaside piece, set in 1910, with a touch of Fellini’s Armacord about it, with a star-studded cast this time – Fabrice Luchini, Valerie Bruni-Tedeschi and Juliette Binoche play a bumbling aristocratic family – all in high burlesque style. A laurel and Hardy-like duo of cops, the fat one of which keeps rolling down the dunes, arrives on the scene from Calais after ‘disappearances’ are reported from the rather bleak but enigmatic beach, where the hangdog Ma Loute spends most of his time either carrying the holidaymakers over the water or ferrying them around in a rowboat. He strikes up an unlikely love affair with the gorgeous Billie, who switches roles between boy and girl, which leads to some awkward family encounters on both sides, but also to grisly death. Ma Loute, dressed in a French sailor suit, is wreaking his class revenge on the bourgeois twits, and assumes something of a Fassbinderish heroic role.
I had to watch the film in French with Finnish subtitles, so I probably missed some of its subtleties, although its droll, black humour was fairly obvious most of the time. Pratfalls abound, and there’s a spectacular sand yacht crash, so its slapstick elements are prominent.
The White Knights is based on the Zoé’s Ark case of 2007, in which a French charity organization, L’Arche de Zoé, attempted to fly 103 children out of Chad in Africa, and were convicted and charged of child abduction by the government of Chad. It feels like a docu-drama, as we attend meetings and discussions of the NGO (called Move for Kids) in an un-named African country (it was filmed in Morocco), led by the charismatic Vincent Lindon as Jacques Arnault, and with a journalist in attendance filming their every movement. It won the best director and best film awards at the San Sebastian film festival, along with other festival awards, and is a gripping drama in which it is difficult for the viewer not to get involved, as the members of the NGO negotiate with African chiefs to secure orphans they can transport to France for adoption – although they don’t tell the Africans that until the last moment, which is where things go wrong. So the title is ironic, and these assumed do-gooders, despite claims of integrity, are actually involved in child trafficking. There is an almost continuous sense of tension in the film, with a key role played by the group’s enigmatic African interpreter, Bintou (Bintou Rimtobaye), and a sparely-used music soundtrack by French electronic group Apparat – not to be confused with the Icelandic Apparat Organ Quartet.
Not all the French films were up to this standard, though. The established duo of writer-directors Benoît Delépine and Gustave Kervern, whose 2012 film Le grand soir won the Un certain regard special jury prize at Cannes, co-directed Saint Amour named after a brand of Beaujolais, which has already had an airing at the Sydney Film Festival. Starring Gerard Depardieu as the gross livestock farmer father of Bruno (Benoît Poelvoorde), a gauche, middle aged unmarried, self-conscious hick and professional drunk, who set off on a wine-tasting Odyssey of sorts with a Parisian taxi driver, Mike (Vincent Lacoste), a mendacious womaniser, who takes advantage of the tour to visit a few of his exes along the way. It’s a likeable enough film, although the humour is very broad and unsubtle, and the trio’s sexual conquests very unlikely, especially the last one where they all impregnate a Lady Godiva figure called Venus (Celine Sallette). They originally wanted Tilda Swinton for this role, but understandably she turned it down. They escape from an agricultural fair where Depardieu’s character is entering a prize bull in competition (it comes second), and hit the road for a series of adventures, some amorous, some not, some involving Depardieu’s gross naked body, with varying degrees of comedy. Comparisons have inevitably been made with Sideways, although the wine is definitely secondary in this film – at one point Bruno expounds on the ten stages of drunkenness, which inevitably get increasingly unpleasant – with a predictable music by the very popular but untalented Sebastian Teller. The highlight is a cameo by controversial writer Michel Houellebecq as a bizarre hotelier surprised sleeping on the floor with his children, and the film somehow succeeds in being likeable despite its very macho focus.
Another French road movie, this time set in the USA, is Fabienne Berthaud’s Sky, with her usual leading actress Diane Kruger. It was panned by US critics, which made me want to like it, but it’s a clichéd melodrama which badly needs a bit of humour. Romy, a Parisian belle, thinks she’s killed her obnoxious husband after he tries to rape her in a hick town in the west, and buys a car and drives off, only to discover when she turns herself in that he’s still alive and in hospital. She visits him, gives him the car, and hitchhikes to Las Vegas, where she does a brief unsuccessful stint as a bunny, sharing a hotel room with a burnt-out fellow bunny who models with Elvis look-alikes, before hooking up with Diego (The Walking Dead’s Norman Reedus), a louche war veteran who works as a park ranger and lives in the desert with an iguana in Barstow California, and claims he only has sex with prostitutes. Romy gets pregnant, seeks refuge with a native American waitress colleague and her elderly mother who counsels her and gives her the name Sky. Diego dies from a tuberculoid illness picked up in the war, and the last image shows Sky with her daughter happily settled in Barstow. It’s a highly unlikely outcome, and despite some good photography from Nathalie Durand, it’s pretty banal.
There have been some good documentaries. I finally got to see B-Movie, Lust and Sound about the Berlin music scene in the 1980s, which was shown at this year’s Melbourne film festival, and has been doing the rounds for a while. Featurig a huge list of clips from other documentaries about Berlin music, it is narrated on screen and off by Mark Reeder, the Berlin representative of Factory Records, and a sometime manager and scenester. He rather dominates things, along with a Reeder lookalike (Marius Weber) in staged scenes, with his fetish for archaic German uniforms which he wears continuously, and his role as a scene guide for British TV is overdone. He gets his just desserts when Nick Cave turns up on his doorstep with a suitcase and camps in his main room, and then proceeds to show us round. Nonetheless there are some great historical clips of people like Blixa Bargeld and Einsturzende Neubaten, the all female band Malaria!, which Reeder ‘sort-of’ managed, with their mentor Gudrun Gut, who states she is thoroughly sick of Joy Division in one scene, and then later joins forces with pop electronica DJ Westbam in another. There are also cameos from New Order, Tilda Swinton on her bike, graffiti artist Keith Haring and others, but they don’t amount to much. I guess you had to be there. I’ve never been a fan of Die Toten Hosen, who get a lot of exposure, or Die Ärzte, who basically admit they’ll never make it big in German, although Nena proved them wrong. The film covers the period from 1979 until the fall of the wall in 1989, and we get a glimpse of the first Love Parade, but there is little or no analysis of the political aspects of the music scene beyond the obvious. We get glimpses of street conflicts between squatters and police, but little context apart from Reeder’s gossip and his tours around trendy bars. I’ve always been a bit sceptical about Berlin’s reputation for all-night revelry and hedonism, and this film does nothing to alleviate it.
Susan Glatzer’s documentary on the swing revival in the USA, Alive and Kicking, was in contrast, everything a music documentary should be. It had copious interviews with protagonists and lots of footage of their crazy dancing, which succeeded in putting this worldwide revival in perspective. Although historically it was an African American dance form which flourished in the 1920s and 1930s and died out after WW2, it is now largely dominated by white people. Nonetheless Glatzer gives space to some of the pioneers, such as Frankie Manning, who died in 2009 after his career had been rehabilitated during the 1990s swing revival, Norma Miller, and a number of other over-90s who are involved in the revival. Swing dance is described as a ‘three minute romance’ which is contrasted heavily with texting and facebook, with its worldwide sense of family and community which provides a refuge for the shy and depressed and a form of therapy as well. There is definitely a competitive side to it, but the sense of community and conviviality and fun overcomes that. I especially liked the two Swedish sisters who had adopted each other and dance together, breaking down gender stereotypes and emphasising the total fun aspect of it all. It’s definitely a feel good movie, even if one wonders what the life span is for such an energetic form of dancing which incorporates a myriad of sub-genres from lindy hop to jitterbug and numerous others, many involving free improvisation and total trust between partners.
The Emperor’s New Clothes is a British documentary by Michael Winterbottom featuring stand-up comedian Russell Brand. I wasn’t familiar with him, but he is in your face everywhere in the UK. Brand attempts to do a Mike Moore on capitalism in the UK, recruiting a bunch of schoolkids to do the maths about the fairness of income levels in the country. Although he reveals towards the end that he is definitely in the upper income group himself, he plays at being on the side of the poor, joining tenants’ struggles in his home town in Essex, and besieging banks and investment companies who rarely let him past security. The Guardian called the film ‘schoolboy’ in its simplicity, but Brand has a mass following, and the film definitely raises awareness about the gross levels of inequality and tax avoidance in the UK, which can only be a good thing.
The Bride (La Novia) was a Spanish adaptation of Federico Garcia Lorca’s 1932 play Blood Wedding by director Paula Ortiz She changes its setting to the desert of central Turkey, complete with shots of cave-like dwellings and pointed boulders, which leaves the story rather adrift, but allows focus on Lorca’s poetry and an attractive range of actors, with Inma Cuesta as the Bride, Alex Garcia as Leonardo, the man she rides off with, Leticia Dolera as his betrayed wife, and Asier Etxeandia as the cuckolded groom. Luisa Gavasa plays the Bride’s mother-in-law with a passion and anger which outclasses the other players. The soundtrack includes the Leonard Cohen song ‘Take This Waltz’ — the lyrics of which were adapted from verses of Lorca’s 1930 A Poet in New York, which probably strikes an odd note of familiarity with Anglophone viewers. The degree of passion in Lorca’s play and this film is also rather odd to contemporary viewers, probably more suited to Carlos Saura’s 1981 flamenco version.
Another adapted play, also dealing with a wedding, arguably much more effectively, was the Polish film Demon, directed by Marcin Wrona – who died at the age of 42 last September – and adapted it with screenwriter Pawel Maslona from the 2008 play Adherence by Piotr Rowicki. It involves a re-working of the Jewish legend of the Dybbuk, and the film is a co-production with Israel. Itay Tiran plays Piotr, or Peter, also known as Python – probably from Monty Python – a Polish-speaking Englishman who comes to a small island in Poland to marry Zaneta (Agnieszka Zulewska), but before the wedding finds he human bones in shallow grave in the house she is inheriting from her father, and decides to just cover them up without telling anyone. At this point things start going wrong – a downpour starts, and he loses his wedding ring after making love with his new bride, and then he gets atrociously drunk at the reception – or is it just drunkenness? He then throws what looks like an epileptic fit, but he has actually been possessed by a young woman, who mysteriously disappeared during World War II, just before her own wedding. His Jerzy Grotowski-like physical contortions, as he goes through speaking in tongues to embodying the dead woman in outpourings of Yiddish, are fascinating, as the bride’s father and brother try to cover up his possession by getting all the guests as drunk as possible on vodka. There are a number of other intriguing characters, such as the doctor, the priest and the only Jewish man attending the wedding, a professor who remembers the young woman, and the cinematography by Pawel Flis is excellent, full of mist and rain, as is the choice of chamber works by Poland’s greatest 20th century composer Krzysztof Penderecki, which totally suit the mood of disintegration. The film is occasionally reminiscent of Bunuel’s Exterminating Angel, in which guests are trapped in a party. Marcin Wrona committed suicide shortly before the film’s premiere at the Gdynia Film Festival in Poland last year and he is a great loss to the international film community. Demon was a stand-out film at the festival.
In contrast, Eyes of a Thief was Palestine’s 2015 entry for the foreign language Oscars, made by writer-director Najwa Najjar after her acclaimed debut Pomegranates and Myrrh. It stars Egyptian celebrity Khaled Abol Naga and gorgeous Algerian musician Souad Massi, who contributes three original songs to the soundtrack. It was filmed in the West Bank under constant surveillance by Israeli soldiers, and its plot involves diversion of water by Adel, a corrupt Palestinian city boss to Israeli settlements, rather in the manner of Polanski’s Chinatown. Set in 2002, Naga is Tareq, a water engineer who moves to Sebastia after being imprisoned for ten years by the Israelis. His wife has been killed, but he suspects his daughter Nour is still alive, and he tracks her down to where she is living with her adopted mother Lila (Massi, with her hair constantly in a mess, but looking beautiful nonetheless), who is abut to marry the corrupt boss. Tareq has been writing letters to Nour, who is now Malak (Malak Ermili), who gives the film its title. She is a wild delinquent schoolgirl who steals things for the local boys, as being a girl helps her get away with it. Tareq befriends her, offering to teach her billiards so she can win a championship (which never eventuates), and there are some lovely moments with Tareq, Malak and her younger brother. Lila suspects Tareq is Malak’s father, and Adel researches his background, but Tareq manages to derail the wedding by publically confronting Adel with his corruption. He is helped by Malak who has stolen a gun, in what is a bit like a wild west denouement. There is an unspoken bond between Tareq and Lila which is unresolved, and it’s a delightful film, made under constant harassment by Israeli soldiers.
Another film involving semi-delinquent teenagers is the German film The Nightmare (Der Nachtmahr), directed and written by Akiz, a painter and sculptor who must be of Turkish extraction whose art has been praised by both Banksy and David Lynch. The film, made on a paltry budget of 100,000 US dollars, comes with a warning about strobe lighting for epileptics and instructions to play it loud. Tina, a 17 year old schoolgirl who seems to spend most of her time snorting coke and going to deafening techno rave parties (thudding music courtesy of Steffen Kahles and Christoph Blaser) with her semi-delinquent schoolfriends, discovers an ET-like creature raiding her parents’ fridge and is persuaded by an earnest therapist to befriend him, to the horror of her parents, but also her friends, who abandon her as a freak. A showdown occurs when she dresses to the nines on her 18th, after she has been sedated, with white makeup, a hairpiece and high boots, and confronts everyone with her new companion, who then drives her off into the night. It’s all a bit silly, but great fun, like an extended music video.
A much quieter film is Lilting, a first film from 2014 by Cambodian-born, London-based film-maker Hong Khaou, which is also a low budget (£120,000, as part of the UK Microwave scheme) but highly effective and affecting first outing. It won a cinematography award at Sundance’s World Cinema Dramatic Competition for Urszula Pontikos. Richard’s (Ben Whishaw) gay Chinese lover Kai (Andrew Leung) is killed in a car accident on his way to come out to his prickly widowed mother Junn (Pei-Pei Cheng, a wuxia action film star from the 60s) who is in a home. Junn has struck up an affection for Alan (noted British actor Paul Bowles) whom she cannot understand, and Richard hires Vann (a delightful bilingual performance by Naomi Christie) to translate for them. This goes badly wrong when Alan complains of Junn’s garlic breath and Junn says that Alan smells of urine, but Richard is eventually able to tell Junn that Kai was gay, and give her his ashes. It’s a very quiet, low-key film, with sparing use of subtitles, but thoroughly enjoyable, and the soundtrack uses the Chinese version of Dean Martin’s song ‘Sway’ – Junn’s favourite song – as Wong Kar-wai did in his film 2046. The film has obviously been around for a while – it premiered at Sundance in January 2014 – but I was grateful to see it. It was slightly reminiscent of Clara Law’s 1996 Hong Kong Australian film Floating Life.