London Film Festival 2011 Part 2: Imported Gems (Oct 12th-27th)

Certainly no newcomer to the festival, but definitely turning in a couple of the best performances is actor Jean-Pierre Daroussin. Both films in which he stars reflect our troubled times. EARLY ONE MORNING (right), from writer-director Jean-Marc Moutout has Daroussin as a Michael-Douglas-in-Falling-Down or Peter-Finch-in-Network type character who finds himself surplus to requirements and is as mad as hell and is not going to take it anymore.

It’s also a pretty caustic look at the dog-eat-dog financial world – including a priceless bit of business-speak to explain his demotion: “you’ve signed the internal mobility clause”. Starting with Daroussin pulling out a gun and executing several of his colleagues at their workplace, the film then tracks back to show his life unravelling, the good and the bad experiences, and the sessions with a counsellor, as he’s brought to the point of no return.

An altogether warmer, ensemble piece comes from the always-dependable Robert Guediguian and his Marseille-based group of actors in THE SNOWS OF KILIMANJARO. This time Daroussin is the grizzled docker who is suddenly out of work, despite being the union representative. At odds with modern life, but supported by his friends, his loyal wife (Ariane Ascaride), and their grown-up kids, Daroussin is forced to re-examine his values when robbed at gun-point, and he’s in the mood for revenge. Guediguian, as ever, champions community over individualism, and perhaps even makes the viewer question their own values.

Written and directed by sisters Delphine and Muriel Coulin, 17 GIRLS is based on the true story from 2008 of a group of Massachusetts schoolgirls who made a pact to become pregnant. Transplanted to Lorient in France, the narrative centres around a small clique led by Camille, whose own pregnancy leads to a snowball effect among her copycat chums, and would-be friends. During the long, boring, heady summer days, as they target the boys to impregnate them, and they plot and plan to bring up their respective kids together, their parents and teachers panic, the reality of their future lives hits home, and you begin to wonder whether the teenagers are taking or losing control?

If you enjoyed previous festival favourite, Persepolis, you will have high expectations of the same team’s new film, CHICKEN WITH PLUMS. Once again adapted from a graphic novel by Marjane Satrapi, but now using live action instead of animation, there is a magical realist quality to this love story. Mathieu Amalric stars as an Iranian violinist who has carried a torch for decades, despite having a wife and children, and there is a lightness of touch throughout the film, despite Amalric’s character contemplating all sorts of suicide methods.

Amalric makes his own directorial mark on the festival with THE SCREEN ILLUSION, based on a work with Pierre Corneille. And just as Ralph Fiennes with Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, he sticks reverently to the original, yet again with a contemporary thrust. The narrative is followed by hotel CCTV, and the infidelities, rivalries and passions seem to be choreographed and directed by those operating the spying cameras, making this a very modern morality tale. The only slight criticism is that by using this clever device, it can feel a bit alienating and uninvolving for the viewer.

More gritty realism comes from France in LOUISE WIMMER, featuring the magnificent Corinne Masiero (best known for TV crime series, Spiral) in the title role. Living on the margins, doing a crappy cleaning job for an unpleasant boss, sleeping in her car, unable to pay her debts, and disowned by her own daughter, this is not just a story of alienation, but a story for our times.

Also forced to live on the margins of society is Martin, the protagonist in Hans (Edukators) Weingartner’s HUT IN THE WOODS. After losing everything, his job, his mental health, his relationship, Martin is finally evicted from his home. The only thing that keeps him going is his friendship with another abandoned, lonely soul, Viktor. This young Ukrainian boy has a knack for survival and once the sectioned Martin has escaped, they team up to build a home in the woods. But how much of this is real and how much imagined?

You’d have to be made of pretty stern stuff not to succumb to the profoundly moving STOPPED ON TRACK (above-right), directed by Andreas Dresen, and starring Milan Peschel as a family man diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumour. Given only months to live, we witness his mind and body gradually break down, his increasing confusion about even the simplest things, and the differing attitudes of his wife, children and parents. Worth seeing for the remarkable Peschel alone, but be warned – it will make you weep.

But perhaps the main achievement for German film-making – and even of the festival itself – is the DREILEBEN trilogy of self-contained, but interlinked thrillers. Each film has a different director, respectively Christian Petzold, Dominik Graf, and Christoph Hochhausler, and each throws fresh light on different people involved in the same crime – bystander, victim, investigating psychologist, cop, even the escaped criminal himself. Try to catch the entire trilogy, preferably in the right order, as there is a massive twist in the final film, and an even bigger twist in the final frame. Highly recommended.

Another promising debut feature is Maria Kreutzer’s THE FATHERLESS, which focuses on a family gathering in a big old house in the middle of nowhere, much like Festen. Only this time it’s the funeral of the father, Hans, that his grown-up children and their partners must attend – and as with Festen, long-held secrets are stirred up and uncomfortable memories confronted. Flashbacks to Hans as the charismatic but flawed commune leader in the eighties add to the texture and mood of the film, aided by the performance of Johannes Krisch (of Revanche and this year’s 360 fame).

The one thing you can always rely on from Italy is variety, and this year is no exception. Broad satire comes from Nanni Moretti, who also gives himself one of the starring roles in WE HAVE A POPE (right) – and which is a fine return to form after the mixed reviews for The Cayman. The premise is that when the new Pope (Michel Piccoli on majestic form) is elected, he suddenly gets cold feet, but no-one must know until the situation is resolved. Cue great deceptions, bizarre international volleyball matches between teams of cardinals, and psychoanalysis from Moretti’s own character.

The always challenging, but never less than compelling director Paolo Sorrentino follows up Consequences of Love, Family Friend, and Il Divo with his first English language feature, THIS MUST BE THE PLACE. Starring Sean Penn as Cheyenne, an unlikely, reclusive rock star with more than a passing resemblance to The Cure’s frontman Robert Smith, it also boasts Frances McDormand as his firefighter wife, Judd Hirsch as a Nazi hunter, Talking Heads’ David Byrne in a cameo as himself (the film title comes from one of their songs), and locations from a stately home in rural Ireland to New Mexico and Utah. The enjoyable plot ambles along genially, encountering more eccentric characters, until the very last scenes, which variously offer revenge and redemption.

Sorrentino’s favourite leading man, the lugubrious Toni Servillo has the leading role in Andrea Molaioli’s THE JEWEL. Closely based on the recent true story of the Parmalat Food Company’s rise and fall, it follows the systemic corruption as it spreads through the business, with books being cooked and backhanders standard practice. But can chief financial officer Leda (Servillo) stop the rot, or will he become part of it?

Blind faith in religious ritual resonates through CORPO CELESTE, the debut dramatic feature from documentary maker Alice Rohrwacher. Her central character is 13-year-old Marta (Yle Vianello), who is struggling with her approaching confirmation into the church while being on the cusp of adolescence. And she’s also singled out to help the local priest on a mission to bring a massive religious artefact back from an abandoned village – which doesn’t quite go to plan. It’s a coming-of-age film that shows Rohrwacher and her young star, Vianello, both have great promise.

Another promising debut is Andrea Segre’s beautiful LI AND THE POET. Set in Venice, it covers the very modern fish-out-of-water scenario of an immigrant far from home, who is greeted by a mixture of open hostility and the odd burst of friendship. Li is a hardworking Chinese mother forced to leave her young son to make enough money to be reunited with him. But running a bar and gathering debts from her macho clientele – Italian fishermen and petty criminals – isn’t so easy. When her only real friend, the much older, self-styled “poet” Bepi – himself an immigrant not that many years before – tries to help, the consequences are bad for both of them.

A Bolivian immigrant, Marcela, is trying to make ends meet in Madrid, and is at the heart of AMADOR, directed by Fernando Leon de Aranoa. Selling flowers isn’t making enough money for Marcela and her unreliable boyfriend – especially now she’s fallen pregnant – so becoming a carer for an elderly gentleman becomes an additional, much-needed source of income. She strikes up an unlikely friendship with the bedridden man, and has already planned how to spend the money she’ll earn (on a fridge for the flowers), when he dies suddenly. So should she pretend that he’s still alive to get the fridge, or tell his daughter that he’s passed away and just get a pittance?

Ageing and coming to terms with his past haunts the protagonist of THE WAVES (above-right), with its writer-director Alberto Morais claiming that Spain is “a country that is a little blind about its past”. Carlos Alvarez-Novoa, better known as a theatre actor, is excellent as the recently-bereaved, troubled widower who cannot forget the concentration camp in Argeles-sur-Mer, where “he died” 60 years earlier – with frequent flashbacks reflecting his painful memories. He wants closure and is determined to go back there, despite his car breaking down. This has as its back-story the true, but largely unknown fact that hundreds of thousands of Spaniards were exiled into such camps, just over the border in France, as the Republic crumbled and Franco’s grip took hold at the end of the Spanish Civil War. Powerful stuff.

Czech Rep:
Perhaps another lesser-known story is of Czechoslovakia’s own version of the Stasi, and Radim Spacek’s WALKING TOO FAST shows that they were just as bad, if not worse than those famously portrayed in The Lives of Others. This film concentrates on the brutality and paranoia of the Czech Secret Service in the 1980s, filled with that decade’s inevitable mullets, big glasses and dodgy fashions, as they carry out their interrogations, affairs and random acts of violence. But there’s nothing comic about their dark exploits, and this should appeal to fans of John Le Carre’s Cold War novels.

Joint Czech and Slovak production, THE HOUSE is director Zuzana Liova’s feature debut, focusing on a father, Imrich, building a brand new home for his teenage daughter, Eva. He wants it to bind them, but it becomes more of a barrier, as she stubbornly aims to leave Slovakia for England. Frustration and lack of communication merely foreground the different generations’ ambitions, and Imrich can see history repeating itself, as he previously cut off his elder daughter, Jana, when she became pregnant.

Seventies life and love in Baku is the setting for Murad Ibragimbekov’s THERE WAS NEVER A BETTER BROTHER, based on his father’s novel, and focusing on brothers, beekeeping, bath-houses and bitter rivalry. If you need a further recommendation, then one of the brothers is played by Russian actor Sergei Puskepalis, who impressed in last year’s award-winning festival film, How I Ended This Summer.

Go to page 3 for more from London Film Festival 2011 Part 2: Imported Gems.


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