Had it been a non-aligned “Third World” country and not the spiritual center of capitalist civilization, Switzerland is the kind of place that would have liberals salivating in disbelief. A bastion of religious intolerance, its hillsides are marked by the kind of racism that would be the envy of white supremacists everywhere; the last Swiss canton to grant women the right to vote did so in 1991 (28 years after Iran, 26 after Afghanistan), a maimed “universal” suffrage having been previously approved only in 1971. From Adolf Hitler to apartheid South Africa, from Wall Street to dictatorships of all stripes (flamboyant Bedouins included…), Switzerland boasts an unparalleled record. That one of the world's most interesting and exploratory film festivals on the marketplace takes place here is a testament to the infinite power of money, our one true spiritual compass.
Under the third and final mandate of former Quinzane head Olivier Père, Locarno confirmed its position on the festival circuit as a place for fine discoveries: the most cogent offerings from Sundance, Asian gems (People’s Park) and platitudes (multi-awarded fib When Night Falls), as well as Old Europe fare that fell through Cannes’ glamorous meshes. While the gates of this ethnically cleansed country remain firmly closed, the festival showcases independent filmmakers from developing countries every year in a sidebar called, with unintentional irony, Open Doors. This year was Francophone Sub-Saharan Africa’s turn; next year, another primitive area will be honored by the blessings of Swiss cinematic tolerance.
Without being oversaturated, the screening schedule is rich in proposition and varied in range. One of several noteworthy examples was Motorway by Soi Cheang, a pistons affaire full of passionate potholes and lascivious clutches. Unlike many recent genre films (Drive, Machete), Chaeng’s film is unfiltered cinematic pleasure without fetishistic references or academic justifications. Displaying a genuine love for B-movie vernacular, Motorway’s functional immediacy is palpable. Craft is here at the service of audiences’ lechery, not their encyclopedic knowledge and quiz-show prurience. A straightforwardly engaging plot houses a refined ballet of car chases and inspired stunts underpinned by a fuel-injected prose, winsome but never fulsome.
Ape by Joel Potrykus was one of the most stimulating if imperfect American entries premiering in Locarno. Heavily relying on its charismatic protagonist from whom the camera hardly ever strays, Ape stands out for its credible existential intensity. Trevor (Joshua Burge) is a second-rate standup comedian with pyromaniac tendencies who is endowed with a naïve kindness, unlimited free time, and the occasional match. Virtually plotless, Ape convincingly captures the void of post-adolescent boredom and anguished indifference towards “success.” The Michigan suburb Trevor lives in seems to be caught in a temporal standstill, Nineties outfits adorning his lanky figure as extras (who could easily be from Slacker) randomly walk in and out of frame. The film’s meditative apathy makes it both authentic and hard to watch.
Screened in Locarno’s most exclusive cinema, the open-air Piazza Grande located in the main square, Camille Rewinds is a charming and inconspicuous piece of French filmmaking. In a simple and potentially trite story, director Noémie Lvovsky stars as Camille Vaillant who, after a particularly boozy New Year’s Eve party, passes out to wake up in a hospital to discover that she has been catapulted back in time to her teen years. Though remaining her middle-aged self in appearance, she relives her teens once again with her parents, school friends, and the boyfriend with whom she was busy breaking up in the present day. The main strength of Camille Rewinds lies in its ability to turn a relatively “silly” story into a convincing reflection on the sardonic jibes of the passage of time. Without taking itself too seriously, the film shows the very tight space that regrets occupy in day-to-day experience and how very little second chances matter. Choices in life, just like romances, are to be fully lived, even in their painful and unexpected complications. Understandably, Camille Rewinds received the Variety prize, which seeks to recognize those films that successfully combine crowd-pleasing attitudes with artistic intentions.
In 1966 British Marxist ethno-musicologist, translator, broadcaster, and journalist Al Lloyd released an LP, Leviathan. The autodidact polymath had boarded whaling ships in the 1930s to record whaling songs and sea shanties that would eventually go into the aforementioned record. Almost a century later, filmmakers Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel likewise spent time aboard another ship off the coast of Massachusetts to film their new documentary, Leviathan. Ideally watched on the big screen, the film opens in the middle of a pitch-dark night as fishermen pull in nets overflowing with sea creatures. Constantly focused on the fishing procedures taking place on the ship, which are often observed via very detailed close-ups, the film is an abstract documentary with impressionistic overtones. Painted with vivid reds against the pervasive black of the night, this docu-fresco is striking for an utter detachment from its filmed subjects: unstructured anthropology by means of black-metal iconography. Though the filmmakers diligently list the Latin names of the fished species in the closing credits, they seem unable (or unwilling) to convey the loneliness of manual labor in this postindustrial sea. Meticulously composed shots explore life on board and off, but we never smell the life of that boat. Overstylized, Leviathan resembles a lifeless artifact, a formal experiment whose sensory impact transcends the tactile specificities of its subject without ever motivating its formal choice, if such a choice was indeed ever made…
Along with great films, festivals like Locarno reveal the quandaries of contemporary cinephilia: who does a festival that necessitates red-carpet material in order to push an unbranded vision of cinema serve? Film enthusiasts, no doubt, but if we consider the small number and kind of people that make it to international festivals, the aforementioned target group acquires an almost incestuous connotation. Needless to say, it is legitimate to resist mainstreaming mediocrity and the viral assault of celebrity culture—which includes using them to fund more audacious choices—but is this a sustainable model in the long run? As the commercial space and, most crucially, audience reception for nonconformist cinema shrink in strict economic terms, what will the future role of festivals like Locarno be? Are cutting-edge festivals like this one to become exclusive ghettos for the discerning cinephile, or laboratories to elaborate possible ways to break out of those ghettos to return cinema to the world from which it originates?