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Karlovy Vary 2010: A Bohemian Rhapsody

For 351 days of the year the average age of Karlovy Vary’s tourists could be conservatively estimated at 60. The tiny resort town (a two hour bus ride from Prague) is famous for its hot springs and spas and host to predominantly Russian, Israeli and German pensioners who come to imbibe the town’s waters which play doctor to various digestive ailments. So it comes as a surprise when for nine days at the beginning of each July, as if struck by the magic power of its own waters, Karlovy Vary rejuvenates itself, becoming a cinephilic playground, the average age dropping to 20. Journalists, filmmakers, and industry professionals aside, nearly everyone else is a student. They descend from different parts of the country to camp out (in parks, at nearby schools), forming a Bedouin village of cinephiles.

The Karlovy Vary International Film Festival is a winery in which the aged wines and those bottled throughout the past year stand shoulder to shoulder along the shelf. In its numerous sidebars the festival pools films from as far back as the previous year’s Venice and Toronto (thus the opportunity to catch the sublimely taut Femme Fatale-esque thriller The Double Hour, which premiered at the former and played the latter). It’s the first semi-major international festival after Cannes and has a special sidebar entitled Open Eyes, dedicated exclusively to featuring films still freshly salted by the Mediterranean waves off the Croisette (Certified Copy, My Joy, Le quattro volte...). There’s an official competition slate as well as a separate competition dedicated to Eastern European filmmaking. And, of course, retrospective tributes (this year, Karel Vachek, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger), archival treasures (Fellini, Visconti, Malick, Clouzot, Ophuls and Delmer Daves) and focuses on national cinemas (Belgium and Ozploitation).

Given the scrumptious promise of the above retro offerings I was desperate not to have the experience that’s become popularly bemoaned as of lateeverything that’s worth seeing playing in retro sidebars with only one or two contemporary films bioluminescent in otherwise murky depths.  But given the likes of Heartbeats, The Strange Case of Angelica, R, How I Ended This Summer, Certified Copy, Teenage Paparazzo, The Double, Mr. Nobody, and Hitler in Hollywood, amongst others, contemporary cinema emits a vital light.

But before discovering the new, my first few days were spent glimpsing into the past. The Red Shoes (1948) opens with students nearly breaking down the doors of a theater, rushing madly to find seats and arguing loudly before the performance. A ballet performance. I saw this on the second day of the festival and way highly bemused at the though of college students nearly causing a stampede for the ballet, for art. In what country? What century? Well, as it turns out, here and now. There was a swarm of ticketless 20-somethings waiting outside the Manoel de Oliveira screening of his latest, The Strange Case of Angelica, who flooded into the theater searching for remaining seats and then watched in reverential tones. All screenings here are like this. The young care, they flock, careen, shove, elbow and argue.

The Red Shoes is precisely about that, about single-minded, explosive passion for art. Lermontov’s (Anton Walbrook) the grand architect of the ballet, Victoria (Moira Shearer) the prima ballerina, and Julian (Marius Goring) the composer. If they draw breath it is for the sake of their art. Yet, eventually, after reaching some success Victoria and Julian begin to breathe for each other too. And this indignation, this heretical denunciation of Art in having to share place with another, Lermontov cannot abide. Lermontov acts as scythe, slashing at their love, trying to keep them apart, pining Victoria’s heart to her ballet shoes. He is, as far as the love between Julian and Victoria is concerned, the villain. But, if he’s villain then he’s victim too. For, his great love, mistress and companion, is the ballet. And Victoria and Julian’s romance threatens the success of the ballet, or, at least, in Lermontov’s besotted mind it does. Their love stands in the way of his love.

Although quite different in tone and style, Terence Malick’s second film, too, ruminates on love and the obstacles it must face. Linda (Linda Manz) and Bill (Richard Gere) are siblings, Bill and Abby (Brooke Adams) lovers. It’s the Depression and everything’s scarce. The three hop on a train and end up finding jobs harvesting wheat on the lands of the farmer (Sam Shepard). Days of Heaven is subtly moralistic, yet almost Biblically so. Bill overhears that the farmer doesn’t have long to live and convinces Abby to marry the farmer (who loves her), wait for him to die and inherit his fortune. Their act is met with plague and death. The farmer has his suspicions about Abby and Bill, catching them in stolen moments of intimacy quite strange for a brother and sister to share. When a plague of locusts descends on the wheat, in his rage of jealousy and pain he sets the fields ablaze. But in the midst of the tornado of greed and selfishness is the eye of simple truth as uttered by Linda; “she loved the farmer.” For somewhere in the game-playing it becomes reality, and Abby does fall in love with the other man. There are seconds of shy smiles and carefree frolics at the beach; life at its sweetest and most golden ripe. And that’s what I remember about the filmits twilight elegance, its harmonious quiet. Almendros’ camera lingering and extending the expiring day at its most beautiful, putting up a fight against the nighttime, same as the farmer, bolstered by Abby’s love; love makes one have something to live for, something to want to hold on to. The wheat lazily moving in the breeze. Bill’s easy smile, the farmer’s sad, intelligent eyes. I remember the elegance of the film, but not the noise, the violence, the abrasion. The grinding of the tractor piercing through the soundtrack, the hellfire birds rising out of the fiery wheat fields, the screams of the workmen. I remember that only when directly confronted, like a nightmare purposefully forgotten. Otherwise, I remember the softness of the light.

Fellini’s cinema isn’t truth at twenty-four frames per second, but life itself. Nearly each one of his frames and shots teems with life. In Il bidone (1955) the frame is hardly ever at rest, people go in and out of view, every level of space is set into motion; his cinema is bursting, it wants to capture and contain as much of existence as it can. Fellini is one of the grandmaster cobblers of the fantastique found not only in fever dreams but in regular life. He started making films (directing his first one in 1950) right around the time of Neo-Realism, and up until 1960, with La dolce vita, they all contain traces of the movement. His realism is certainly different from that of Rossellini or De Sica; he doesn’t seem to be as outwardly concerned with it, but it’s still triumphantly there, wrapped in the greater concerns of his filmmaking—of the marvelous in the inanity of modern life. Il bidone tells the story of a trio of swindlers, cunning and ruthless charmers. They travel from town to town coming up with schemes to bleed dry the bloodless—poverty stricken villagers living in a shanty town, two sisters running a barren farm, a family with a crippled girl. He sets out to show a grand performance, the trio perfectly slipping into their respective roles (priest, tenement overseer, chauffer—whatever the situation calls for) to dupe the town/family, but in the process, casually and as if almost by coincidence exposes the hardships faced by a staggering majority of rural Italians in 1955. And, when contrasted to a lavish New Year’s Eve party attended by the mink-clad champagne-swilling upper classes, the social consciousness of the film reaches an angry pulse.

Fellini is not an iron-fisted moralizer; he accepts everyone and everything into his cinema and loves people and their idiosyncrasies too much to judge too harshly, but the last sequence of this film is one of the sternest and most unforgiving in all his art. In the last swindle depicted, Augusto (Broderick Crawford) has found new compatriots to work with. He poses as a priest and takes money from the family of a crippled girl and then precedes to lie to his fellow con artists, swearing up and down that he took pity on the family and returned the money. They don’t believe him, a scuffle ensues and he’s pushed down a hillside, badly hurting his back. They leave him to die. The camera stares as he, battered and bleeding, writhes in the dirt, attempting to climb up. His strength runs out and he expires just at the top of the hill, the foreground littered with stones as the camera pulls back on this solitary figure, not seeing fit to give him the honor of being the last image of the film, cutting instead to a group of children walking along the road.

Not yet an auteur on the scale of Fellini—though he may very well prove to be—Xavier Dolan’s first film, I Killed My Mother (2009), is a masterpiece. It’s a film keenly aware of the love-hate trappings, the waged battles and sunken battleships that are familial relations, perfect in mood and style. Heartbeats, his sophomore effort, is the story of a love triangle between one flirty, asexual boy (Niels Schneider) and two best friends Francis (Xavier Dolan) and Marie (Monia Chokri). Not a particularly new idea paired with color filters, slow motion, smoky rooms: familiar trappings. But, there are moments which make the film singular. The camera swirls and gazes up into lime and yellow leaves, leaving the two friends to tousle on the ground, finally exposing their anger and jealousy over their Adonis. Chokri’s big doe-eyes, at once hopeful and earnest, yet already holding the moment of heartbreak in their depths. The film is peppered with “real life” talking head interviews of people expounding on their relationships. Most of the accounts are droll and suggest that we’re all the same when it comes to love; stalkers, worriers, maniacs, egoists and dreamers all. For raw emotion the film is a step back from his first, and now and then I wish he’d taken away the colored filters and let it run at a regular speed—sometimes stylization doesn’t highlight subtleties but suffocates them. Yet, of all the films that I saw at the festival this is one of the few whose images still come to play in my mind.

Of the three competition films I took in, only one, Hitler in Hollywood, really stood out. Frédéric Sojcher’s Hitler in Hollywood mixes fact and fiction: a documentary film crew, with Maria de Medeiros (playing herself) as interviewer-turned-detective sets out to make a film on legendary French star Micheline Presle, who in turn asks them to find a missing film early on in her career directed by a man who disappeared decades ago. De Medeiros plays at being amateur detective in unraveling the mystery while the film elaborates on its central conceit that when European film was beginning to gather a stronger foothold in the market Hollywood staged a surreptitious war to sabotage the European film industry. My favorite hypothesis to that effect comes as a one-off line suggesting that Raoul Coutard worked for the CIA and was sent to France with the direct order to shoot weird looking actors like Leaud and Karina and use awkward angles and lurid gels (to wit, all of 60s Godard a Hollywood victory!). This film pulses with love for cinema and was made by people who seem to remember that film—and filmmaking—can still be fun, and once in a while that’s enough of a raison d’être.

Two of the greatest revelations of the festival came in the last few days, Aleksei Popogrebsky’s How I Ended This Summer and Tobias Lindholm and Michael Noer’s R (both having premiered earlier in the year at Berlin and Rotterdam respectively). The latter film follows a prisoner, Rune (Johan Philip Asbæk), as he serves out his two-year jail sentence, trying to keep his head down and stoically bear through being the new guy at the heels of the other prisoners. Lindholm and Noer like tracking shots following the back of prisoner’s heads as they walk—the back of the head, because here the face, the expresser of feelings, hardly matters. Lindholm and Noer present a world in which morality and justice are dying words. How can a person make the moral choice—to not kill another human being, to protect a friend—when faced with the imminent likelihood that any such display of humanity will result in their own death? What’s most harrowing is that even if against all odds something like a conscience or a higher appeal to God still flickers and the choice is made to act in the aide of justice, the scope of punishment faced at the hands of the other prisoners is unimaginably cruel, far worse than death.

The concern of the Popogrebsky is two men, Pasha (Grigoriy Dobrygin), young and jovial, blasting rock on his headphones, and Sergei (Sergei Puskepalis), stern and experienced, the only two souls on an Arctic base tasked with taking meteorological readings. One day, while Sergei is out fishing, Pasha gets a tragic message from headquarters concerning Sergei that he is to relay right away. But, either through cowardice, fear, or emotional laziness, he doesn’t. The pressure to tell Sergei increasingly builds, finally leading to an unforeseen emotional explosion on the part of both men which gives the film a bifurcated structure. The first half is laconic; wide shots of mountains and empty spaces. Serenity of style, a certain coldness even, as Sergei and Pasha are neither friend nor foe, the elder picking upon the younger a little, but otherwise at an emotional neutral. The second half, after the message is revealed, seems to come from an entirely different film. There’s billowing and bloodthirsty rage, angry and frenzied paranoia. The reactions of the two men are over the top, but then again, when isolated from all other people there’s no one around to serve as a barometer for normalcy—nothing seems out of the ordinary. After the formal grace of the first half of the film a momentarily hand-held camera and rapid editing comes to feel like a dozen bullets fired at close range. Both R and How I Ended This Summer were created by people acutely, painfully, interested in character—in the psychology of people as they’re confronted with the fragmentation, maybe the impossibility of the human, of humanity, surviving when cut off from the world, isolated by white prison walls or snowy mountains. R recognizes the urge for friendship; the ability of people to do what’s right—and makes it impossible. How I Ended This Summer proves that even when pushed to the brink of humanity, there’s still hope for coming off the ledge into a fumbling, but shared understanding of one another.

There’s more to write about, but I’ll close with Joan Fontaine in a ball gown in Letter from an Unknown (1948), her expression faltering when she realizes that the love of her life is a charlatan of a smooth talker and could hardly pick her out amongst a crowd of the adoring legions of women he’s been with. The question raised by Certified Copy of whether a copy of a work of art (or a relationship) can claim to be just as worthy and affecting as its original. (Yes.) And the still tableaus in the first twenty minutes of The Strange Case of Angelica—soft light reflected off water, rain—which are some of the most beautiful images in contemporary cinema made by a man who has lived through the classical, modern and post-modern and has created something that fits no mold.

AC
One note: DAYS OF HEAVEN doesn’t take place during the Depression. It’s set around the time of World War I. The characters see a train carrying President Wilson passing through the Texas Panhandle, and at the end Brooke Adams goes off with a train of doughboys.
You’re absolutely right. That was erroneous projection on my part; it just feels/looks so much like the Depression, especially with the opening montage of stills.

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