European Union Film Festival Part Three, by Aaron Pinkston
The Expedition to the End of the World (Denmark, dir. Daniel Dencik)
We’ve seen many recent documentaries about climate change and the melting ice caps. We’ve seen talking head films shoving in expert after expert warning us what is around the corner because of human folly. We’ve seen nature docs that try their best to capture the beautiful things that are slipping away. The Expedition to the End of the World is a documentary about the subject that is strikingly unlike the others. It uses this very significant subject matter almost entirely only as background to introduce a number of typical scientific and artistic types we see spring up in these films and then studies them instead.
The premise of The Expedition to the End of the World is pretty high concept — the filmmakers have invited a number of Danish scientists (all identified by their specific field of study) and artists to board an old-timey ship to explore the northern coasts of Greenland. Due to the rapid melting of the ice shelf, new land is being revealed for the first time in human existence, and this rag-tag bunch get to be some of the first to study and experience it. Strangely, though, we aren’t really introduced to the grand mission of this expedition. Few of the scientific experiments are explained in any scientific way and we don’t see much of the art that is generated by these new experiences. Overall, there really isn’t a guiding principle to the film at all, at least not one you would expect. Instead, the film rambles through the country and philosophical discussions of those on board.
The film seems much more interested on the impact this landscape has on the people encountering it than any sort of larger environmental impact. It shows the scientists and the artists interacting with nature in a more primal way. Perhaps more importantly, it studies these characters as they interact with each other. These aren’t really just scientists or artists, but dynamic, thoughtful and normal people — though they are primarily defined by what they do, they mostly seem like any regular folks who would come across this massive and thrilling environment. This sociological experiment could have gone wildly wrong if the participants themselves were more interested in their work or didn’t have adaptable personalities, but thankfully they are all funny and willing participants. Because of their intellectual divides, some of the film’s richest discoveries are conversations from both sides about the same things — how their work is approached, what they think of climate change as a larger idea, how to talk about nature. They disagree about many things, agree about some things, often in surprising ways.
Being someone who is closer in relation to the artists’ side, I found them very interesting to watch. There is an unbridled joy in some of the artists as they interact with this new place that is really compelling — at times it seems as if they’ve never been outside before. For instance, when the group thinks they’ve spotted a dangerous polar bear in the distance, a few of the artists decide they want a closer look, to the disapproval of the scientific group. In a memorable moment, when they discover it wasn’t actually a bear they may have spotted, they are disappointed and decide to make an agreement and pretend they did encounter the wild beast up close.
There is one artist apart of the film that isn’t seen on camera, director Daniel Dencik. Unlike my inclination, he seems more interested in scientific group, and gives them more face time to talk philosophically. But because he is an artist, his camera looks at the environment with pure awe, underlining its indescribable power with a heavy metal soundtrack that works surprisingly well. The Expedition to the End of the World is a film about climate change, but it’s much more than that. The sociological approach to the film adds a layer of depth that we haven’t seen in similar studies. In a world where documentary filmmakers are beginning to push the boundaries of their form, The Expedition to the End of the World does this well.
Tricked (Netherlands, dir. Paul Verhoeven)
Paul Verhoeven has always been an audacious filmmaker. Many of his films were panned upon release, only to grow in reputation. Though he has mostly worked in extreme genres with potentially tired plots, he has always been ahead of the curve, pushing the envelope with his themes and production elements. His latest film, Tricked, is audacious in a different way — billed as the first ever fully crowd sourced film, with a script written (almost) entirely by the Dutch public. But, unlike a documentary film like Life in a Day, in which submitted footage from real people is thrown together, Tricked is a fully fictional narrative story. Because of the strange nature of the production, I was curious going into the film, wondering if this would in any way impede on Verhoeven’s unique (one may say auteurist) voice. Then again, who’s a better author for taking any material and making it his own?
Before the film proper, a 30-minute documentary played which explained the production of the film and showed some behind-the-scenes footage. In all, it was a bit long and uninteresting, but it was important to get some introduction. The production of the script is something like the writing exercise “the exquisite corpse.” Screenwriter Kim van Kooten provided the first four pages of the film’s screenplay, which was filmed and released as the first episode. After this point, the filmmakers solicited scripts from the public to shape the story’s final seven episodes. Still, Verhoeven and his production team had a lot of control in what was used — though the scripts were completely public generated, they picked and chose what they wanted from each, negating anything that was too random or wouldn’t serve a full story.
As for the finished film, it isn’t super complicated, but it’s smarter than expected, with realized and interesting characters and plenty of Verhoeven’s signature intrigue. The story revolves around a wealthy man at his 50th birthday, his family, and his two mistresses. There isn’t much more to the basic set-up, but the characters swirl around each other in surprising ways. Above all, it’s devilishly funny, with equal doses of wit and the anything-goes sense of humor we see in the best Verhoeven works. The film feels like both a bawdry soap opera and a sharp Shakespearean sex comedy. There are more than one laugh-out-loud moments and is consistently humorous throughout.
At only 55 minutes, it’s a sleek short feature, without any filler. Still, it feels complete, with a satisfying three act structure. Perhaps the film’s biggest achievement (or biggest pitfall) is that you can’t find the seams in the writing. Though there are hundreds of uncredited writers, it all seems to come from one place. If you weren’t briefed on the interesting production, you would never know any difference. This, of course, is an extraordinary achievement, but it lacks an expected roughness that could have added an extra layer of fun. As it stands, it’s a very entertaining short feature film, but I’m not sure it stands out in ways that it should have.
Young & Beautiful (France, dir. François Ozon)
François Ozon is a filmmaker that gets surprisingly little attention. He may not be considered a major director, even on the arthouse scene, but few filmmakers (if any) transition as well between broad family comedies and serious psychological character studies. As an auteur, Ozon may better fit the definition of a journeyman, but no matter how disparate the material, he always brings a certain personal touch. In his most recent film, In the House, Ozon brought together his comedic and suspenseful sides together in an amazing, spellbinding film, taking a step toward a unified voice that is likely to garner more recognition. With this in mind, I was looking forward to his newest film, Young & Beautiful, to see if he could continue this trend.
In the film, Isabelle is a privileged but disconnected girl. As the title indicates, she is young and beautiful, with the whole world in front of her. Still, she’s melancholy and mostly uninterested with boys her own age. So, as tends to happen in movies with this set up, she begins to dabble as a high-class prostitute. Young & Beautiful opens with Isabelle’s first sexual experience with a charming, handsome German man on vacation in her beach-side hometown. He’s everything a young girl should want in a man, even garnering her parent’s approval, but she’s cold to their sexual encounter. This then directly cuts to her work in medias res, without an explanation behind her motives or initiation.
The scenes of her work are similar to other films that have explored this world, able to avoid most of the grim realities of prostitution and focus on a fairly glamorous lifestyle. Isabelle’s johns mostly seem harmless, the worst of them isn’t much more than rude despite others’ espousing on the dangerous game she is involved in. Luckily, due to a surprising event, the film is able to change and reflect more on Isabelle’s actions other than only providing montage after montage of her sexual exploits.
Once the major premise of her life as a prostitute has come and gone, Young & Beautiful is able to settle in and loosen up and begin providing some of Ozon’s interesting eye for character psychology. Strangely, the film also becomes much funnier, too, very surprising for the often stodgy and serious films about high-class prostitution. Though the film isn’t a comedy by any means, there is a dark streak running through the second half, with a very knowing sensibility and characters playing at some interesting commentary on this pretty standard, very European genre.
Though Young & Beautiful isn’t as engrossing as Ozon’s last effort, the auteur again shows an ability to blend comedic sensibilities in taut dramas, and in the most surprising ways. The film’s final scene, which I won’t spoil but will say includes the great Charlotte Rampling in a cameo, adds a bittersweet tone that totally works while coming out of nowhere. Young & Beautiful could have been a completely uninspired film using a sexy backdrop that ignores any sense of reality. Fortunately, Ozon is a strong filmmaker who continues to grow.