European Union Film Festival Week Four
Every March, for the past 14 years, the Gene Siskel Film Center in Chicago, Illinois brings a wide variety of new films from around Europe during the European Union Film Festival. This year’s festival has films from 27 countries and 65 Midwestern premiers. Each week of the festival, I will bring a few select reviews from the schedule’s diverse selections.
ALPS (Greece), directed by Yorgos Lanthimos
Dogtooth was a complete surprise to anyone who saw it — whether it was liked or not. Out of nowhere came a new filmmaker (from Greece, of all places) with a unique, extreme cinematic voice and the ability to make you laugh and be shocked and curious all at the same time. With the newfound critical success, Lanthimos now also has a lot of pressure to follow it up. Alps doesn’t feel quite as exciting, but it remains a shocking vision from a young filmmaker who is already one of the most interesting working today.
Due to the nature of the film, I will refrain giving any actual details of the plot. Knowing a basic plot synopsis certainly wouldn’t hurt anyone’s experience with the film, but I do feel the less you know, the better. Unfortunately, it may make this review a bit vague, but trust me that Alps is worth seeing. Thematically, Alps is sort of an inverse to Dogtooth — instead of a group of people completely shut off from the world around them, the main characters in the film are outsiders intruding others’ personal lives during a very personal time. Strangely, though, the premise of the film is far less sinister than its predecessor. There are even real, touching moments, which is something that Dogtooth seems to consciously avoid.
This isn’t to say that Alps isn’t weird or disturbing, because at times it is utterly so. Alps does a wonderful job at playing with your expectations — when you feel things should be going dreadfully wrong, they tend to be sweet, but just as you feel comfortable, all the bad things you expected start happening. It’s not just a culmination through the final act, as Lanthimos directly positions moments of beauty next to moments of harshness or discomfort.
Alps isn’t nearly as inventive or intellectually stimulating as Dogtooth, but it is more satisfying on emotional levels. I don’t imagine many who were angered by Dogtooth will be satisfied by this film’s ending, though. I can’t say I liked the film more, but it was nice to see Lanthimos expand on his strange worldview while keeping his visual language and interest in shocking his audience in intelligent ways. Once Alps gets wider release in the U.S., I doubt it will garner the same buzz (there is something to be said about being caught completely off-guard), but I see this as a very acceptable and interesting in its-own-right follow-up.
THE WELL-DIGGER’S DAUGHTER (France), directed by Daniel Auteuil
A remake of a 1940’s Marcel Pagnol film, The Well-Digger’s Daughter is as old-fashioned filmmaking as you can get. Not only does the film deal with issues and themes in ways we don’t consider in this modern time, it is made with such simplicity and so understated that it feels like could have been made 70 years ago. In the film, the 18-year-old daughter of a well digger (hence the title) has a brief affair with the son of a wealthy shopkeeper. Due to the differences in their background and an impending war, the lovers are driven apart. But when the young woman discovers that she is pregnant, she is forced to leave the security of her family.
Though this plot may sound melodramatic, I can’t tell if The Well-Digger’s Daughter is a comedy or a drama. It’s perfectly reasonable for a film to straddle both tones, but here the film seems like it can’t quite choose. Given the nature of the plot, it would make sense for it to be staged heavily dramatic, but it was actually the comedic sensibilities that I was drawn to. Perhaps it was part intention of making a more subdued film or a problem with Auteuil’s shooting style, but the dramatic scenes never quite have the punch they should, given their circumstances. Though there aren’t many arguments in the film, when they occur they have a stagnant tone — no one in the film talks over each other, and these scenes are played in shot-reverse shot, which give odd pauses in between the heated discussions.
The directorial debut of veteran actor Daniel Auteuil, he shows that he can tell a story and use beautiful locations, but he doesn’t bring any style to the filmmaking. As you would expect from an actor-turned-director, the performances are solid throughout and across the board. Auteuil also stars in the film as the well digger, and though he is a stable presence on the screen, many of the dramatic plot struggles come from his character. Like many moments of the film itself, you could never tell if his character is being overly dramatic seriously or comically. The young star, Astrid Bergès-Frisbey, is a delight to watch in every scene — she brings the perfect balance of beauty and innocence the film needs to have any success.
Thankfully, the final act of the film fully establish and deliver the tone that I wish the entire film was able to present. Once it is able to get through the dramatic stuff that it was never really able to give any density, a charming and sweet ending redeems the film in a lot of ways. Overall, The Well-Digger’s Daughter doesn’t entrust any great future as a filmmaker for Auteuil, but it provides enough old-fashioned entertainment to please on the most minor levels.
HORS SATAN (France), directed by Bruno Dumont
I haven’t previously seen a film from director Bruno Dumont, but I understand he is a pretty divisive, controversial one. After seeing Hors Satan (Outside Satan), I can understand why. This is definitely a film you will either love or hate, and you might do both simultaneously.
In rural France, a mysterious uni-browed man (credited as “Le gars” or “the guy”) befriends a troubled young woman, protecting her from the men in her life. They don’t say much to each other, going on walks through the idyllic countryside, and their unspoken bond makes an interesting pairing. There isn’t a lot of dialogue or many characters, but the film still feels incredibly dense and puzzling. Much of the strangeness comes from the utter lack of context the film provides — the viewer is plopped into this world without any understanding of who the characters are, and you never really learn by the end. Most of my time watching Hors Satan was spent waiting for something big to happen — not exactly in the on-the-edge-of-your-seat way, but a waiting to see where the story was going way. Once the big things happen, they not only have great force, they also completely rearrange everything you thought you understood about the film and its characters.
David Dewaele plays “the guy,” one of the more enigmatic characters I’ve seen. He’s part Kit Carruthers and part Randall Flagg, a wanderer who brings death with him. Through much of the film, you don’t quite know if the guy is literally Satan or just an evil dude, and the film builds rather nicely over this mystery. As we see more of his actions and his capabilities, we can certainly rule out one of the two possibilities, but we are smartly never given all the answers. There are even hints that he may not be Satan, but something less malevolent, even with his evil acts. Dewaele’s performance is very good, though immensely aided by his strange looking face — he isn’t what I would consider an attractive person, but he gives off this strange magnetism that affects the people around him, much as a supreme being would.
The film is as enigmatic as its lead character, answering its questions with ambiguities that do little more than create new/different questions. And despite a few scenes displaying incredible curiosities, most of the film is anti-exciting. Hors Satan runs the risk of being too opaque and emotionally detached from itself, really straddling this line. I had a difficult time with the film, but I ultimately think it works on its own terms. It certainly makes me interested in Dumont’s other work — it any of it is as puzzling as Hors Satan, it’s probably worth watching, even if it’s tough to like.