Festivals: Karlovy Vary
While some veterans of the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival claimed that the atmosphere this year did not live up to previous standards, to a newcomer this was extremely hard to believe. A feverish and infectious spirit pervaded the tiny thermal town for the entire week, with streets and public venues devoted to the festival and packed with crowds chiefly made up of young people. All screenings were accessible to the public for little more than $3 a ticket, and every morning saw lengthy queues at the box offices (along with a few sleeping bags). Audiences didn’t shy from showing their enthusiasm, not least during the deliciously self-deprecating trailers starring previous lifetime achievement award winners such as Helen Mirren, John Malkovich, and Miloš Forman. Combined with the distinct ambience offered by each venue, which ranged from a lavish 19th-century opera house to an inflatable outdoor cinema, this all made for a refreshing experience untainted by the exclusivity and snobbery prevalent at the A-list festivals.
When it came to the films, the main competition presented a mixed bag. Disappointingly few entries pushed the envelope, particularly in narrative terms, and most of the attempts at social comment were trite. The latter weakness marked two of the top award winners, both from Eastern Europe. Hungarian film and stage director János Szász received the festival’s Grand Prix for The Notebook, an adaptation of Agota Kristof’s bestselling World War II novel, told from the perspective of 13-year-old twins living in an unnamed Eastern European country. Sent to live with their tyrannical grandmother and witnessing nothing but hate and violence in the world, they decide to expunge all their emotions through severe physical and psychological self-training as a means of surviving the horror that surrounds them. The film has grandiose allegorical aspirations, withholding characters’ given names and nationalities (apart from the Nazis) and offering the twins as emblematic of the postwar generation. But the symbolism is heavy-handed, and the story overuses tropes to the point of banality. The cinematography by Michael Haneke’s regular DP Christian Berger, however, is superb, and the beautifully expressive lighting supplies much-needed nuance.
Jan Hřebejk won the Best Director award with Honeymoon, the only Czech film in competition. An intruder crashes a wedding reception claiming to be an old schoolmate of the groom. Unconvincingly, considering his awkwardly hostile conduct, he is allowed to stay. After antagonizing the entire reception, he reveals that he has come to seek revenge for the brutal sexual abuse suffered by his boyfriend at the hands of the groom and his friends at school. Here too the story serves a bluntly metaphorical function: the men attended an elite art school where the children of the rich and powerful were awarded high grades and faced no repercussions for their actions, whereas those accepted on artistic merit alone were left to fend for themselves. Unelaborated, the film’s routine commentary on the Communist legacy of corruption and oppression fails to strike a chord, and as an indictment of homophobia, it’s even less successful.
Chauvinism and corruption received a far more expressive lashing in Marteinn Þórsson’s XL, which articulates the widespread outrage against the political elite sparked by the Icelandic economic crisis while simultaneously providing a scathing condemnation of Nordic drinking culture. After videos of his latest drunken brawl find their way online, a high-ranking politician and hopeless alcoholic named Leifur is forced by the prime minister to check into rehab to placate the public. Resentful of being sent to a state clinic while the rest of his colleagues (including the PM) got to do their penance at cushy luxury clinics, he spends the next 24 hours indulging in every vice he can before his enforced detox. The film sticks to Leifur’s perspective, with heavy use of POV camerawork and lens distortion effects. Together with the highly elliptical narrative, which jumps back and forth in time and mixes real and imagined events, XL very effectively simulates the disorientation of a permanently intoxicated mind. Ólafur Ólafsson, who received the Best Actor award for his performance, plays the rampaging Leifur with magnetic brio—a reprehensible and thoroughly pitiable character, stuck emptily chasing extremes.
A Field in England
Ben Wheatley’s A Field in England, winner of the Special Jury Prize, was the boldest film in competition and also the most exhilarating. By far Wheatley’s most experimental work to date, it constitutes one of those felicitous instances in which a talented director is given a relatively small budget and free rein, resulting in a wildly inventive film bursting with contagious energy. The action takes place entirely on the titular field during the English Civil War and involves four deserters forced by an evil alchemist to search for an occult treasure. Cursed, tortured, and fed psychotropic mushrooms, they find their search spiraling into a nightmare hallucination that ends up costing them a lot more than just their sanity. In a manner reminiscent of Ken Russell at his best, Wheatley comes out with guns blazing, indulging in extreme slow-motion, stroboscopic editing, hyperactive use of zoom, doomsday visions rendered in CGI, bewildering tableaux vivants, and countless other whims to glorious results. The film’s gorgeous monochrome aesthetic invests the scenery with an epic quality rarely bestowed upon the British countryside and rather than sap the vitality of the psychedelic images, these gain a timelessness that situates the story as much in 17th-century England as in purgatory or the post-apocalypse. Screened late in the festival, Wheatley’s film came as a most welcome breath of fresh air.
The festival’s East of the West sidebar generally fell short of its reputation as a treasure trove of budding Central and Eastern European filmmaking talent. One exception was the sophomore feature by Estonian provocatrice Kadri Kõusaar, The Arbiter, a pitch-black social satire that despite its flaws stood out for its ambition and vigor. Employing a premise similar to Wheatley’s Sightseers, the film follows a meek Cambridge academic as he sets off on a mission to wipe out the “useless and parasitic” in society—a definition that extends from child molesters to the mentally disabled—after his girlfriend has an abortion and he loses his research job. Strong production values, controlled camerawork, and an evocatively muted color palette generate a sinister atmosphere that couples nicely with the escalation of the protagonist’s insanity. After a captivating first half, however, tonal consistency is increasingly sacrificed for the sake of provocation, weakening the satire.
Finally, Miracle by Slovak director Juraj Lehotský begins firmly planted in familiar bleak-realism territory but distinguishes itself through its impressive lead, Michaela Bendulová, a nonprofessional discovered at a reformatory for adolescent girls like the one that serves as the film’s central setting. Brought there by her family, 15-year-old Ela (Bendulová) breaks out to rejoin her boyfriend, an addict twice her age who lives in a garage. Although she is pregnant with his child, he subjects her to increasing abuse and misery, culminating in his attempt to sell her to pimps to repay his drug debts. Left no alternative, Ela returns to the center, and the film’s strongest scenes show her caring for terminal patients at a hospital as part of her re-education. Here Bendulova truly shines as Ela’s desperate yearning for kindness and affection is finally requited, her quiet, loving care of a dying man bringing into stark perspective the promising new life she carries within.