European Union Film Festival 2015: Part Four, by Aaron Pinkston
Never Die Young, dir. Pol Cruchten (Luxembourg)
The best thing about the European Union Film Festival is having access to films from countries you wouldn’t consider in the global film culture. Yes, there are plenty of films from the UK, France, Germany and Italy that play each year, but it is an equal stage for the Czech Republic, Finland, Estonia, Cyprus and Croatia. Unlike the major film-producing countries, the festival is able to secure the very best from these burgeoning film markets. Since I started attending the festival in 2011, I’ve seen my first films from Romania, Bulgaria, Portugal, and now the tiny nation of Luxembourg.
Luxembourg’s official nomination for this past year’s Oscars, Never Die Young is a fictionalized documentary that consists wholly of a narrated personal story matched with images. This is a filmmaking style that I’ve always found interesting because it isn’t inherently cinematic – telling a long form story is usually more suited for radio or in print. When the filmmaker understands that they are not just subject to an audio story and use the screen in unique, supplemental ways, the results are usually wonderful. I’ve also noticed that these types are stories tend to deal with trauma, depression, addiction and death. Never Die Young keeps with that perception, telling the story of a young man’s journey into heroin addiction, paralysis, attempted suicide and isolation.
With a few exceptions, the film stays away from direct reenactments. Instead, it explores the environments told throughout the story, but disconnected from it. When we are told about the narrator’s experience in boarding school, we see empty classrooms and halls instead of young people attentively listening to their school master or any other usual scene. For this particular example, it effectively relays the idea of this place feeling more like a prison than a center of development. As the story becomes more about his drug abuse, with the narrator moving from institution to institution, this effect only becomes more reinforced.
The technique also has a slight travelogue quality, which is especially interesting in this world cinema context. Perhaps I only felt this because of my specific experience in consuming the film or because Luxembourg is a small country that I know little about, but it felt like a tour. More aptly, it is a tour through the places in the story’s life – the neighborhood streets, facilities, wilderness, train stations, etc. that meant something to this character. It looks like a quaint, quiet, nice place to be. With the tragic story it tells, however, a wonderful disconnect arises.
When we do see people in the frame, they often wear elaborate and strange handmade masks, disguising their identities. They aren’t actors as much as they are props in the story, even metaphors for the narrator’s damage and rehabilitation. The masked characters reinforce the artificiality of the film’s presentation. This only makes the narrated story feel more personal and authentic, smartly allowing the images to present context and mood over content.
Part tragedy, part love letter to heroin, Never Die Young is a brutally honest take on what its like to be an addict. By the end of the film, heroin is a literal character, the most important love in the narrator’s life. Many films about addiction are personal and vibrant, but I can’t think of any that tell the love/hate relationship any addict must feel in such a clear, yet artistic way.
Eden, dir. Mia Hansen-Løve (France)
Eden is mainly the story of Paul Vallée, an inspired and talented young man whose love for electronica music translates into a successful career as a DJ. Along with his equally nerdy friend, he creates a group called Cheers and rising through the French underground, becoming one of the key members of the movement. The film is casual with most of its plot details. It is certainly a narrative film, but is more focused on the music and the passage of time. Eden covers an incredible amount of time, over 20 years altogether, often jumping ahead a few years at a time and making its viewer fill in the gaps. It’s almost too ambitious, as its young cast can’t quite pull off the transition from 18 to late 30s. One could say they don’t age well, right along with their underground electronica scene.
Most of Paul’s narrative transitions through the girlfriends in his life – the music is the only constant. He starts with Julia (Greta Gerwig, in a surprising cameo), an American novice writer in Paris away from her husband. Their romance is short (only shown in the film in one scene, and then a later return), but has a lot of impact on the young man. The bulk of the film is spent with Louise, a rebellious girl who was previously the spurned lover of Paul’s best friend. Louise is the emotional antithesis of Paul’s mopey, uneffective state, and that obviously leads to equal amounts passion and anger.
But, really, Eden and Paul’s real relationship is with music. I can’t say I’m really much of a fan of electronica music, especially of its even more esoteric subgenres, but there is no doubt that the music is infectious throughout the film. I’m not really sure if the songs created by the fictitious group are old standbys from the genre’s roots – if yes, it is very well curated, if no, it has made great efforts to created a consistent sound. The style of Cheers is called “garage,” which shouldn’t be confused with garage rock. Rather, it uses electronic beats and are described as robotic or cold with soulful samples from old R&B singers.
There are many singers, dancers and DJs that are featured throughout Eden. I wouldn’t be one to recognize them, but they are all given screentime that indicates they are obviously important to this subculture. The one exception is Daft Punk, who come up at the same time as Paul and Cheers, and are featured prominently in the film. Their music plays throughout, they are mentioned increasingly as their presence grows, ultimately becoming far and away the most popular figures in France’s electronica scene. They are even characters in the film (played by actors, as if one of the biggest music groups in the world would make an appearance in this film). There is a funny running joke where they can’t get into clubs because doormen don’t recognize who they are.
Strangely, the most narratively and emotionally impactful section of the film are in its third act, after Paul has washed out of the music scene and tries to get his life back on track. He’s deep into debt and doesn’t have skills to get a better job than hocking vacuum cleaners over the phone. It is the only part of the film that really feels aligned, the only time I could really see into Paul’s character and want him to work it out. Most films about a struggling artist would hit this point sooner and stretch these emotional stakes. It’s sort of a weird move for Eden to brush away its mish-mash, music driven tour only in its last 20 minutes, but it leaves on a hopeful and necessary note.
How Strange to be Named Federico: Scola Narrates Fellini, dir. Ettore Scola (Italy)
Aptly, the 2015 European Union Film Festival closed with a wonderful tribute to one of Europe’s finest filmmakers, How Strange to be Named Federico. Full disclosure: Federico Fellini is my favorite filmmaker. No other filmmaker is able to nail down both the joys and despairs of humanity as well as the Italian auteur, all with his trademark wistful debauchery. If for some reason you could only see films made by one filmmaker for the rest of your life, there would be few (if any) that could give you such a broad set of emotions. His filmmaking style changed throughout his career, from his neorealism roots to the completely over-the-top circus-like pictures, but his interest in the scope of humanity never changed. This spirit is perfectly captured in the dedication/biopic/profile documentary from another great filmmaker from the big boot.
How Strange to be Named Federico is a difficult film to describe. It is a joyous mix of reenactments, vignettes, clips, behind the scenes footage, stylized narration, fantasy and reality, all with a light touch and loving gaze upon Fellini. Anyone who has come to hate info dump docs or rote artist biopics for their lack of creativity and cinematic form, this is a stunning alternative. It is far from a complete biography on the man or the artist. In fact, the film spends so little energy actually giving any real representation of Fellini. There are no talking heads, no stories about growing up in Rimini, no talk of his lovers or affairs or family. At most, we learn of Fellini’s first job in entertainment, as a young writer and artist for the popular comedy magazine Marc’Aurelio – which Scola tells in a fictionalized short in the style of a I Vitelloni–Amarcord hybrid. While How Strange to be Named Federico isn’t a blow-by-blow account of Fellini’s life or a critical analysis of his work, it is truly a spiritual reflection on both.
There are so many wonderful nuggets for fans of Fellini, from casting tapes of Casanova (Alberto Sordi’s screen test, in particular, is incredible) and dozens of early drawings and character designs. The film captures Fellini’s life as if it was a Fellini film, which makes some sense given how many of his films contained autobiographical elements blown up to the bizarre. It all comes fast and furiously, chopped up and mixed together, in a 90-minute whirlwind.
This film couldn’t have been made by anyone but Ettore Scola. Not only does he obviously have a deep love for the auteur, but also a personal stake. Fellini was Scola’s idol from a young age – he even recalls reading Fellini’s first published story as a 9-year-old boy, a silly farce about a man at a public bath who is too embarrassed to ask for access to a toilet because he’s attracted to the attendant. This short story has made such an impression on Scola that he even filmed it as part of How Strange to be Named Federico, filled will characters spawned from early Fellini caricatures. Scola eventually followed in Fellini’s footsteps at Marc’Aurelio, which would lead to a meeting and a longtime friendship. This film’s tone isn’t typical of one made by a contemporary colleague and friend, though. They may have been close, but Scola clearly continued to admire Fellini.
If you’ve never seen a Fellini film or just don’t jive with his charms, How Strange to be Named Federico probably isn’t for you. Because its aim isn’t to teach but to admire, Fellini novices may be more perplexed than anything. The silly jokes will still work and the wild filmmaking style may entertain, but diehards like me will find so much more.