European Union Film Festival Part Four, by Aaron Pinkston
Everyday (United Kingdom, dir. Michael Winterbottom)
Michael Winterbottom’s other film at this year’s European Union Film Festival, Everyday, is a micro-budget drama about the lives of a woman and her four kids after her husband is imprisoned on drug charges. Using a barebones documentary style, Everyday was filmed over five years with actors Shirley Henderson (Harry Potter, Meek’s Cutoff), John Simm (Doctor Who) and four real-life siblings. The production is certainly ambitious, with few (but growing number of) projects taking this approach to show time on film, but the results here are particularly modest. The film is in the traditional British “kitchen sink” style, focusing on normal people living normal lives and dealing with normal issues.
Partially because of the long span of time Winterbottom is trying to capture, the film plays more in snapshots than in scenes. Much of the film’s plot involves the characters travelling great distance to visit the father in prison, nearly spending as much time with them on buses and in taxis as in the visitation room. There are surprisingly few major events that a plot typically relies upon, which gives Everyday more of a bittersweet mood than heavy drama. Even when Ian is given a short leave to spend the day with his family, the film doesn’t seem to make the sequence feel like a special event. In this way, the title Everyday is apt.
This style may be frustrating to someone looking for a film with a full story, as it doesn’t strain to build or round itself out. For instance, a subplot that leads directly to the film’s final dramatic beat is given one scene to develop and without much attention paid. This subplot could ostensibly be a major focus of the film, and perhaps that would lead to a more emotionally dramatic film, but that just isn’t Everyday’s aim. At times, Everyday feels like a much longer film or mini-series that was chopped up to leave out significant plot points. Winterbottom, of course, isn’t a stranger to this style of filmmaking (The Trip is precisely that), but the results here aren’t as wholly satisfying.
Everyday doesn’t sacrifice character development, however, as all the characters are well drawn and grow, both figuratively and literally. Though we don’t spend a lot of time with the children in any specific way, each of their personalities come through — especially the two sons, who are more active in the film’s more dramatic plotlines. The children give good performances, as well, while not really seeming to be “acting” — this is particularly important given the film’s need to strike a realistic feel. Still, the children, especially the boys, are given the heaviest outwardly emotional loads of the film, as the adult characters play in hopelessness and quietness.
Everyday is a pretty odd film. Its melancholic tones work for me, but the film is equally frustrating and successful. The production style will be written about in every review and summary of the film, as it should, but it shows itself in the film without calling attention to itselt. Any viewer will recognize the children getting older, but its condensed nature works in a way that has an overall effectiveness without necessarily seeing a step-by-step process. Most of all, Winterbottom’s striving to capture something like reality is pulled off — Everyday is without question a fictionalized and plotted film, but its charm lies in stripping away all of the charms you’d see in a typical filmed version of this story.
The Strange Little Cat (Germany, dir. Ramon Zürcher)
What a bizarre film The Strange Little Cat is — so simple, but almost indescribable in any narrative sense. After the screening I attended ended, a woman in the back of the room mumbled to her friend, calling it a “true art house picture,” in a derogatory way (in the tone of “artsy fartsy”). Still, I can’t deny that the description is pretty apt, and if a “true art house picture” is your cup of tea, The Strange Little Cat will be a wonder.
To take the descriptor and be a bit more specific with it, The Strange Little Cat strikes me as a very European art house picture, with a surprising wit very reminiscent to Buñuel or Resnais, though without the satirical edge their films typically had. Taking place in a tiny Berlin apartment filled by too many characters over the course of one day, family and friends go through a regular routine of napping, cooking, playing, etc. It’s sort of unremarkable as a narrative, but there is a movement of the characters and events that is strange and beautiful. It’s not the typical kind of film that you would label a “whirlwind,” but that’s one of the words that comes to mind as people zip in and out of the plot, contributing anecdotes and various mundane actions of everyday living. And, yes, there is a cat roaming around, though he doesn’t do anything particularly strange. There’s a dog, too, which the title fails to indicate.
Though many viewers may be frustrated by a seeming lack of narrative focus, Zürcher is having a tremendous amount of fun. For as rambly as the action is, there is a meticulous detail in everything seen and heard. Whenever a character is telling a story or making a random noise, it is given an incredible amount of focus. Similarly, the camera cuts around this apartment to look at the objects that make it up, as if studying its random construction. In a strangely memorable scene, we see the two youngest children in the family play a game of Connect Four, and by that I mean the camera intently studies this innocuous game from start to finish, blocking out everything else as if this is the most important game ever played. This effect made me study the game as if I was playing, predicting every next move. When the game is won it works like a strange reveal. Overall, The Strange Little Cat is a surprisingly sensory film, despite the small environment where it takes place.
If this makes any sense, while watching The Strange Little Cat, I found it difficult to jot down any notes to write this review — in part because of its transfixing nature, but also because I simply just didn’t know what to say. But once the movie was over and I was released from the experience, thoughts all came rushing to me. I don’t know if this will be a film that I remember any details from (most of the specifics are too nondescript for that), but its off-kilter mood will stick with me for some time.
Those Happy Years (Italy, dir. Daniele Luchetti)
I have noticed a trend over the past few years where Italian cinema has been paying a lot of tributes to one of their great filmmakers, Federico Fellini. Perhaps it’s inevitable because of Fellini’s stature and different styles or maybe it is catching my eye because Fellini is my all-time favorite filmmaker. Whether it’s Reality’s take on neorealism in the lower classes or The Great Beauty’s beautiful emptiness of the well-to-do, the great auteur’s legacy is living strong. Daniele Luchetti’s Those Happy Years isn’t a better example of Fellini-inspired work, but the imprint continues. Those Happy Years is an often bawdy comedy on family life through the eyes of youth, full of nostalgia and moments of magical realism (all Fellini markers).
Set in the 1970s, the film is narrated by the adult version of Dario, the elder brother in a family of four — Dario’s father, Guido, is a sculptor and performance artist looking for his big break; his mother, Serena, is a woman looking to be more than an artist’s wife. Overall, the 1970s touches are light and don’t stick out as a distraction or unnecessary gimmick. Though Dario is the film’s narrator, the child isn’t really the main character, as more time is spent developing Guido and Serena’s tumultuous relationship. Using my view on Fellini, the focus of Those Happy Years on Serena stands out — Fellini built great films with female leads, but many of his lighthearted comedies (especially in his later period) used the female characters to service the male leads. I wouldn’t go so far as call Those Happy Years a feminist film, but the film takes place at a time when women were demanding more out of their marriages and society. As Guido continually steps out on Serena to sleep with his models, she has to reconcile his sexual transgressions with his claims that he only truly loves her. For her mother’s generation, that was enough.
The film’s central sequence involves Guido leaving to Milan for a new performance art showcase that he hopes will garner great reviews and finally put him on the map. When he tells Serena not to come along, she decides to anyway, wanting to keep tabs on him, sure, but also genuinely wanting to support her husband. She doesn’t understand why Guido won’t use her as a model for his sculptures — he takes the Llewyn Davis approach of completely separating his work and his personal life, which is also used as an excuse for his “meaningless” affairs. During his performance, after having his body painted by nude models, he asks for members of the audience to come to him and strip off their clothes, which is meant to show the difference between himself and the public. Ignorant of this, Serena decides to stand up and participate. In her mind, this is finally an opportunity to fully support her husband and his work. This backfires, however, as Guido sees it as a betrayal and the press chide him for the stunt. During this pivotal sequence, the film understands both of their perspectives and portrays them without judgement. Yes, he is a bit of a jerk and she is a bit of a rube, but neither are entirely to blame.
After this sequence, the film’s tone shifts a bit from serio-comic and just a touch fantastical to much more serious and melodramatic. As the characters move on after this moment, Serena decides to take her children away from Guido and attend a feminist commune in France, where she is hoping to have her mind awakened. Serena’s new independent life leads to sexual and intellectual opportunities, but this feels like a much different one by the end. Even as the characters and performances grow in richness and complexity in the film’s last act, I found myself less interested.