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Heavy Eyes: 2004 Palm Springs Int'l Film Fest wrap-up, Part 1

For more info, visit http://www.psfilmfest.org/
by Greg Muskewitz

As exhausting and endless the days of watching four or five movies a day at the Palm Springs International Film Festival, there is still something I miss about it. I miss the opportunity to so regularly have an eclectic and diverse mix of foreign language films, and I appreciate the emptiness in knowing that the cost of seeing some films meant the inability to see others. As I’ve said earlier, a film festival such as this is one of the few occasions a critic can actually pursue a film that inveigles their interests over and above what a general week of theatrical releases can offer. Sure, in the latter scenario, the critic may have to choose between a conflicting showing of Along Came Polly and Torque (or in an easier case, The Company versus Chasing Liberty). And despite some criticisms or notices about the general festival-going audience at Palm Springs, that has no bearing on the festival itself, along with its comprehensive coverage of Oscar submissions from most countries (that statistic, again, being 53 films out of 56), which is a valuable asset alone. Though my interests within the fest do not cross over to the galas and honoree ceremonies (for Anthony Minghella, Danny Elfman, Scarlett Johansson, etc.), outside of the possible Academy Awards contenders, there still is no dearth of worldwide films from both highly revered and tyro filmmakers on display in their contemporary selection. How many of the 200-plus films screened, or of the 30 I saw, will make it to a local theatrical booking, I have no idea. And the chance of seeing them, versus waiting (possibly forever), was not a risk I wanted to take.

Heavy Eyes
The chance of seeing them, versus waiting possibly forever, was not a risk I wanted to take.


As exhausting and endless the days of watching four or five movies a day at the Palm Springs International Film Festival, there is still something I miss about it. I miss the opportunity to so regularly have an eclectic and diverse mix of foreign language films, and I appreciate the emptiness in knowing that the cost of seeing some films meant the inability to see others. As I’ve said earlier, a film festival such as this is one of the few occasions a critic can actually pursue a film that inveigles their interests over and above what a general week of theatrical releases can offer. Sure, in the latter scenario, the critic may have to choose between a conflicting showing of Along Came Polly and Torque (or in an easier case, The Company versus Chasing Liberty). And despite some criticisms or notices about the general festival-going audience at Palm Springs, that has no bearing on the festival itself, along with its comprehensive coverage of Oscar submissions from most countries (that statistic, again, being 53 films out of 56), which is a valuable asset alone. Though my interests within the fest do not cross over to the galas and honoree ceremonies (for Anthony Minghella, Danny Elfman, Scarlett Johansson, etc.), outside of the possible Academy Awards contenders, there still is no dearth of worldwide films from both highly revered and tyro filmmakers on display in their contemporary selection. How many of the 200-plus films screened, or of the 30 I saw, will make it to a local theatrical booking, I have no idea. And the chance of seeing them, versus waiting (possibly forever), was not a risk I wanted to take.

Of those I missed — that I really wanted to see — I will keep my fingers crossed rather than hold my breath that, eventually, they will turn up. They included Jacques Rivette’s The Story of Marie and Julien, Armenia’s Vodka Lemon, Facing Window from Italy, Green Tea, Søren Kragh-Jacobsen’s Skaggerak, The Galíndez Mystery, Reconstruction, Lebanon’s submission The Kite, Germany’s Rosenstrasse, Samantha Makhmalbaf’s At Five in the Afternoon, and Kim Ki-duk’s Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter … and Spring.

Before getting on to the films I did see, I still wanted to make note of several occurrences throughout the festival that stuck with me. First of all, was the handling of sex and/or nudity. 19 out of the 30 films I saw had some dealing or combination of sex (explicit or concealed) and nudity (from innocent heinie shots, to both female and male full frontal). As is commonly associated with foreign films, it goes to show not only the comfort and ease in the filmmakers’ decision to employ such, but also to so strongly counter the United States’ uptight prudishness. With all of the on-screen flesh and simulation (and in one or two cases, non-simulation), it is only surprising for not being surprising. For the most part, another surprising fact was that most of the older audience — at least in most cases — were not swayed or shocked either. Gasps and “oooohs,” sure (though the erection in Twentynine Palms had a reaction of more than just bulging eyes), but the past has shown that films high in sexual content generally do attract an older (and more often male) audience. (Think Romance or Y Tu Mamá También or Baise-moi.)

Although I’ve already spent some time on the older (a/k/a, elderly) audience that built up the bulk of attendance at the festival, there were still some other points that came to mind. Naturally, outside of Palm Springs being predominantly a retirement community (yes, there is actually a high school, but the youngest people at the theaters were those working behind the concession stands), I can wonder aloud whether the subtitling of the films had any bearing on attracting such an audience. Regardless of the film’s language, by having the dialogue displayed on the screen, it defers the need for couples to lean over to each other and ask, “What did s/he say?” (It really was a large preventative measure.) Ironically, the one film I was in attendance of that talking throughout was the norm, Tsai Ming-liang’s Goodbye Dragon Inn, was nearly dialogueless with the exception of a couple words shared at the middle of the film, and near the end, along with some interspersed dialogue from the film an audience was watching within. While such frivolous and inconsiderate talking is completely unjustifiable in my book, the best supposition I can make for the widespread disapproval — not just for Dragon Inn, but any film that more than a quarter of the audience walked out on — is that such an undiscriminating audience didn’t know what they were getting into. As I mentioned earlier, these are not people who know and love film, but instead love the motions of going to the movies, the people who watch Ebert and Roeper (née Siskel and Ebert) not for what they had to say on the movies, but for which direction their thumbs were designated. Impressive as it may be that Ming-liang’s film was sold out, as were Manoel de Oliveira’s, Bruno Dumont’s, and nearly Raoul Ruiz’s, I can say only a very limited percentage had any idea of what they were getting into. (The same small percentage that actually showed up for the Peter Greenaway duo and the Takashi Miike film, although it makes me curious what the disguised synopses didn’t do to fill those up.) Finally, complement is also due for the most part to the patrons for listening to the announcement before every screening and turning off their cell phones; the track record there wasn’t perfect, but the few exceptions could be counted on one hand.

Good use was made of my festival pass, as corny and cliché as it sounds, serving as a passport to France (obviously the country I spent the most time in), Germany, Poland, Holland, Austria, Hungary, Morocco, Iran, Japan, Taiwan, Chile, Argentina, Mexico, Egypt, Sweden, Portugal — all the countries occupied in Greenaway’s Tulse Luper Suitcases — etc. And truth be told, I can’t wait to go back.

Who Killed Bambi?. Directorial debut of Gilles Marchand, who co-writes here (with “technical assistance” from Dominik Moll, who directed alone and co-wrote With a Friend Like Harry with Marchand), about a nurse-in-training (Sophie Quinton) who stumbles onto some major issues of malpractice. The film, which debuted at least year’s Festival de Cannes, is a strong examination into the minimalist practice of filmmaking, adeptly applying less as more. (Less pretense, less ego, less razzle-dazzle, less clutter, but more suspense, more straight-faced and surefootedness.) Slick in its presentation, a sterile, antiseptic atmosphere (lots of white on white), appropriate to the hospital environment, Marchand manipulates with great effect the path mystery is to take. Having used similar tactics in Harry, so barren in its minimalism as to remove all signs of suspense, the direction of his own material is rewarding in that as slowly as the expectancy in events are to rise, his use of flirting and seducing certain elements only to temporarily pause their impetus, have a greater effect later when the motion has been reactivated. Bambi’s heroine is Isabelle, naïve but plucky; anesthesia she administers has been tampered with, diluted. The doctor who is secretly siphoning the liquid drug (Laurent Lucas, title character of the Moll film) is using it to induce sleep on patients and molest them post-operatively. His motives, not his identity, are the mystery, or the cause for suspense, initially. And once Isabelle, whom he dubs Bambi (after all, Quinton is doe-eyed and deer-like), is given probable cause for suspicion, despite the meager steely warmth the doctor emits to her, when he begins to investigate an ear ailment she has just begun to suffer from, it warrants both hers and our skepticism in his sincerity. Yet for all the soft-footing and awareness in dealing with the tension, Marchand still capably gets the pulse-rate to accelerate through the doubt of conviction in the story’s rejection to be certain of its actions at each and every moment. Our doubt may be solidified at a much earlier period, insofar as we have witnessed the doctor’s drug-lifting and patient molestation, but the protagonist must get to that level herself. One of the advantages, or unexpected positions Marchand takes, is not to employ Isabelle as a full-fledged sleuth. Only once the implication is without a doubt in her mind does she try to take things into her own hands; the film isn’t as interested by the search for the truth, it’s interested in her journey into confusion — confusion of her condition, reservations about her profession, discomfort and betrayal of an expected honorable figure. And at all times, Marchand is cool-headed and relaxant in his control of the film as a production, with its anesthetic lull — a preferable restraint at which to watch this unfold — as well as his control of generating tension that seeps under your skin. The grounded performance of Quinton makes her someone to keep an eye on, and Lucas’ villainy is always kept to a realistic size, rejecting the notion to blow it up to movie monster size, which is no less appreciated. With Catherine Jacob and Yasmine Belmadi.

Twentynine Palms. Scenes without a story; in other words, a free-flowing non-narrative from Bruno Dumont, which follows a pair (David Wissak, hiding behind a grass skirt of hair, and Katia Golubeva, no less sexually exposed here than in Pola X) in their Hummer to 29 Palms for Dieu sait pourqoui. Mostly, it seems, the trip’s goal is to fuck in the desert with no evident connection to tanning their white fannies. (Golubeva isn’t fully awake until she can pop a squat in the sand; Wissak isn’t allowed to watch, but we are.) Aside from fucking (when it doesn’t go wrong, that is; Golubeva to Wissak while trying to enter from behind: “I’m too dry, my love”), they also fight often for no apparent reason, although it allows Katia to show off in an unbroken close-up how well she can break down, quivering chin and all. Consisting predominantly of static shots, it minimally displays Dumont’s half-cocked compositional skills — the desert or motel room scenery, Katia floating in a swimming pool in a palm tree’s shadow — but he often takes the unrewarding position of backseat spectator on their dusty sojourns while quirky Japanese music plays on the stereo. Apart from the various choices of sex (on the bed, on the rocks, from behind, face-fucking, man-on-man anal rape, all usually consummated by laughable come tantrums), there’s not much else going on. It’s billed as an erotic horror film, which neither title properly describes, though its moment of shock or horror is apposite in multiple ways to Fat Girl and Trouble Every Day — and not only because of their revelations. I appreciated the other two films far more, mostly because they had an underlying point or skill that didn’t just hinge on its moment-of-cringe, but the overall challenge here seems to be an endurance test for the audience. With two breaks in the film during its screening, at least half of the audience lost their stamina.

The Mystery of the Yellow Room. A remake of, and based on the Gaston Leroux novel by the same name, Bruno Podalydès’ film is a quaintly anachronistic whodunit in 1920s France. Comparisons have been made to Alain Resnais’ Life Is a Bed of Roses, one of his I haven’t seen, though I do know it’s also set in the Twenties, with its stars Sabine Azéma and Pierre Arditi (salient Resnais staples regardless) as two of the key elements here in Yellow Room. Azéma is nearly murdered after retiring to sleep in the yellow room as her tinkerer father and his assistant work in the adjoining room; the culprit’s impossible escape prompts a thorough investigation led by Arditi, who focuses on Olivier Gourmet, Azéma’s fiancé. A secondary investigation is stirred up by the journalist Rouletabille (Denis Podalydès, Bruno’s brother) and his photographer-sidekick, who believe otherwise. A lot of attention is paid to texture, generating the right feel and look to the film, but at the same time, blending and mixing ahead-of-its-time technology and ingenuity, such as the solar-powered car that runs in silence. (I don’t know if that’s a liberty Podalydès has taken, or if Leroux was prescient.) In the same sense, the structure is so as to highlight the inventiveness in getting to the heart of the mystery: the solution. Even if such becomes slightly disingenuous — tangled, cockeyed, indecipherable without Rouletabille’s key — there is an irresistible ludic and participatory thrill in the movie’s Clue-like hunt. (As a cute gimmick, the press kit unfolds on one side to be in the fashion of a board game.) The disingenuousness continues along that route as Rouletabille and the movie choose to keep the hand of cards under the table and out of view from the viewer, opting instead to augment the deficiency by melting around a layer of humor (a cloud that temporarily stalls said solar-powered car, etc.). The infusion goes deeper than just the surface, because at the heart of the material, there’s a lot to find funny in the way the investigation is run like a chicken with its head chopped off. Formidable cast and production aside, and notwithstanding the pleasantly air-popped fun of getting to the root of the crime, The Mystery of the Yellow Room is much too light and forgettable to share more in common with a Resnais film. With Michael Lonsdale, Julos Beaucarne, Jean-Noël Brouté, and Claude Rich.

Twin Sisters. Cologne, 1925, a pair of twins is separated following their father’s death. The healthier of the two stays with an aunt and uncle on their farm to do manual labor, while the girl with consumption is taken to Holland where she can live a life refinement. Despite their individual attempts to write each other, their bull-headed guardians prevent it for fear of losing their half to the other family. A brief segment is seen in contemporary time; a haggard-looking old woman holds back from waking another elderly lady at a spa. Assuming these must be the twins, why doesn’t she wake her, we wonder? The past is again shuffled to, 1939, separated by a desaturated color scheme; Hitler is rising to power, and one teen is caught up in his propaganda, whereas the other in Holland has only begun to fear what he might do. Both have love interests: Anna, the poor girl, goes against her step-parents’ wishes by getting involved with a Hitler proponent, and Lotte, by now resolved from consumption, is smitten with a well-off Jewish boy. Time passes before Lotte finally discovers all the letters she wrote to her sister were never sent (“They thought I was a quiet child, but I was talking to my sister all day long”); a concerted effort is made, and contact has finally been initiated. Before another break to the present can be made, through the excitement of their impending reunion, the question looms as to why the old lady hesitated to speak. Director Ben Sombogaart has set up a balance, a triplicate of points in reference to the twins’ turning points shared by both. It becomes increasingly clear, particularly through the middle segment in their teens and twenties, how the separation remained permanent. When the old ladies are returned to, Anna reveals who she is only for Lotte to walk away, and when Anna pursues her into a park, Lotte makes it clear that she wants to be left alone. To make the reason why understandable, Sombogaart returns to the time of the war for the longest, yet most revelatory, stretch. For as each girl has led a totally autonomous life from the other, in experiences, education, societal influences, the togetherness of any ideals they shared as children have been pried apart. And because of the society, at least on Lotte’s behalf, the ideas she has of her own sister being a part of that other society colors her perception. We learn, in fact, that after contact has been made, they do meet in Germany. (Touching moment: as a present, Lotte gives her sister the bundle of letters never sent.) An offhand comment by Anna about a Jew colors her sister’s impression and retracts her desire for the reunion to be a permanent one. It still isn’t till later in the park that the psychology and rationalizations are really laid out between the sisters and both are given the chance to talk and explain (though it is Anna who does most of the talking), bringing clarity to the enraptured but inquisitive viewer. It is not without a certain level of patience that the answers are attained, primarily because Sombogaart uses the function of the present to increasingly hold back information. As the storyline during World War II gets deeper into the rift of the sisters, the stretches are longer and longer without returning to the present to advance that storyline. The good that comes from the deprivation of answers-on-demand is it allows a much stronger wallop once full disclosure has been made, before any further explication of the past can detract in the total amount of knowledge gained. For at all times, Sombogaart is thorough in his storytelling, reservedly economic especially within the three sets of actresses used for Anna and Lotte. The most amount of dramatic weight is placed on the shoulders of Nadja Uhl (The Legend of Rita) and Thekla Reuten (Everybody’s Famous), both of whom vividly embrace the separational distinctions that cause irreparable damage to the direction their relationship could have taken. Rarely does it feel sentimental, but Sombogaart is sympathetic to the characters and stresses the emotion in their plight at the same time as making the dual growths apart from each other palpable in their sad situations. It’s clenching and gripping cinema, exhibiting how far the monstrosities of war can trickle down to have such a personal effect, yet without downplaying the reach of its effects, either. Strong performances also from Gudrun Okras, Ellen Vogel, Sina Richardt, and Julia Koopmans.

Fear and Trembling. One of the lighter moments of the festival, a comedy of wills and schadenfreude, a sort of French Office Space about a Japanese-born Belgium named Amélie (Sylvie Testud), who returns to Japan to work as a translator. Her boss is dissatisfied, so she is demoted to the tea delivery girl, which she is then criticized for being too gregarious during. The funniest sequence has her changing the dates on office calendars (at the change of the month: “Bonsai!”), before being reassigned the never-ending task of copying documents. She is befriended by a higher-up to assist on a report, but is betrayed by her believed friend Fubuki (Kaori Tsuji), who cannot stand to see her rise within the company when she has fought so long to get where she is. And so continues the battle of wills as Fubuki dispenses the most deprecating tasks, from working in accounting (“I found my Zen of copying invoices”) to bathroom attendant. There is a certain claustrophobia from any closed-in office setting, which assists in the frustrating anomie Amélie finds herself in, and the feeling is generally conveyed by the overload of close-ups and edited conversation. But the story itself, concerning Amélie sticking to her guns and playing to the malicious treatment of her superiors to enhance their satisfaction, is a tone and theme that director Alain Corneau does not betray. There are any number of ways to get the bigger laugh, the more audience-friendly reaction, the ultimate revenge, but he stays true to author Amélie Nothomb’s autobiographical story, which means there will be no comeuppance in the typical sense. It’s well enough explained what the character’s motivations are, even if at times the descent is difficult to tolerate; but the office-place war parallels itself with Nagisa Oshima’s Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence as the clash of cultures and the outsider’s fervent attempts to fit within the customs of where she works are rejected. Testud (Murderous Maids) is superb in the role, perpetually flustered with a messy mop of hair, and her mastery of Japanese (which she learned only for the part) is impressively unrestrictive. With Yasunari Kondo.

9 Souls. Japanese prison break movie, concerning nine soi-disant misfits (you have the mad bomber, the porn king, the general loose canon, the born delinquent, etc.) who seek to escape “the asshole of the world” for another crack at real life. The band of outsiders begin disbanding one by one in their habitat of choice (the escape artist-midget stays with the stripper he donated a kidney to; the oaf gets a job at a restaurant, and so forth), with a meaningless attempt by director Toshiaka Toyoda to inexplicably and arbitrarily determine the sincerity of their reintroductions to society. And at that, over the course of time, their own efforts are thwarted and rejected — with the exception of the midget — to be tracked down or break down all on their own. (It seems that the midget was the only sympathetic character to begin with, unfairly punished for assisting in euthanasia. The rest of the bunch were unredemptive murderers and malevolent reprobates.) If Toyoda’s pith was to show that these individuals could not re-enter society, in most cases, there is not conclusive evidence to support that; the oaf only breaks down once he’s been recognized. In other scenarios, most of their issues were irrelevant to the ills of the nation in the first place; it’s not the society to blame, but the person’s own choice of people they’re surrounded by. Toyoda is just as unsympathetic and ignorant to his characters as he blames the Japanese culture for being. With Kôji Chihara, Yoshio Harada, Itsuji Itao, Kee, Ryuhei Matsuda, Onimaru, and Mame Yamada.

Broken up into a series of three, the reviews continue in Part 2 with A Thousand Months.


link directly to this feature at http://www.efilmcritic.com/feature.php?feature=964
originally posted: 01/29/04 19:50:27
last updated: 02/02/04 15:46:07
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