AFI Fest, Day 5
One of the great pleasures of a film festival is getting to see some of the biggest movies of the year play alongside the smallest. AFI Fest, to their credit, has a section called “Breakthrough,” which spotlights films they discovered purely through the submission process. In other words, they weren’t knocking on anyone’s door for the pleasure of showing it, but were so overjoyed by its submission they just had to include it. I decided my fest would not be complete without one, so why not go with the World Premiere of the bunch?
That film ended up being With Every Heartbeat (a.k.a. Kyss Mig a.k.a. Kiss Me), the Swedish film about a woman (Mia) in her thirties who discovers her homosexual desires after meeting the woman who is to become her sister-in-law. It was easily the worst film I’ve seen thus far at the festival. While not as actively offensive as some of the worst films of the year (Crazy, Stupid, Love., Cars 2), it failed at every objective measure to which a film can aspire. The screenplay begins as a much slower-paced porn film (plenty of unprompted talk about sex, contrived scenarios to isolate the leading ladies) to just being complete nonsensical. Frida has been a lesbian for a long time, and, although she actively dislikes Mia upon their meeting, has no problem throwing away her long-term relationship as soon as they start macking. And when they decide to run away together for a few days, no one (including Mia’s fiancee) thinks to ask where they’ve been upon their return. The cinematography is mostly that kind of soft-focus, pseudo-fantasy style of shooting, and the performances never quite move beyond the surface. It’s not an aggressively bad film; those typically keep making poorer and poorer decisions as they go along. This just does everything it attempts poorly. It doesn’t yet have U.S. distribution, so thus far you’ve yet to worry about accidentally wandering into it.
I didn’t stick around for the Q&A, partially because it seemed like the whole affair would be a little awkward, and partially because I didn’t have that much time to kill before Jiro Dreams of Sushi. It takes a big man to admit when he’s wrong, so they say, so perhaps I’ll get some credit for at least acknowledging the fact that, when given the choice, I’ll almost always pick a narrative feature over a documentary. Consequently, this is the only documentary I’ll be seeing during AFI Fest (though had my schedule permitted, I would’ve seen Into the Abyss without hesitation), and it was an enjoyable enough affair. Jiro is the proprietor of what many believe is the best sushi restaurant in the world, a small joint in the basement of an office building that takes reservations months in advance and draws in customers from around the world. In the Q&A following the film, director David Gelb said a big inspiration for him was the “Planet Earth” series, and that he hoped to bring that kind of approach to food. To his credit, he certainly achieves that, but at 81 minutes, he’s stretching some rather thin material, which mostly hints at a fascinating, but not fully explored, life. Jiro was kicked out of his house at age nine, never really knew his parents, and has been working on his own ever since. He’s now 85, and still shows up to work every day (save national holidays and an unavoidable conflict such as a funeral) to make the sushi. As the portrait of a man struggling for perfection, but knowing he’ll never attain it, it’s pretty interesting stuff, but again, it’s pretty thin for a feature and starts running on fumes pretty quickly. Magnolia Pictures is distributing it, so it will probably show up OnDemand, and is perfectly suited to such a venue.
The big film of the day – or so I thought (gasp!) – was Michel Hazanavicius’ silent (but brand-new) film The Artist. The lines for these galas have not eased up since my unsuccessful attempt to gain entry to Carnage, but my strategy had, so my girlfriend and I got in fairly easily (but with no small amount of stress on my part, as I had no backup in case this went downhill). What’s more, since they release any unclaimed seats reserved for industry guests, we landed some pretty amazing seats. Hazanavicius (and no, even after hearing it pronounced, I have no idea how to say his name) introduced the film, and brought damn near the whole cast out onstage with him (including the dog!), noting that he and the film have been all around this great big world, but there’s something especially fitting about showing a film set in the heyday of the studio era in a theater as magnificent as Grauman’s Chinese.
The film itself was a pretty great pleasure, quibbles about historical inaccuracy (they set the advent of sound at 1929 in order pit its fictional protagonist’s downfall against the backdrop of the Great Depression) and stylistic concerns aside. I think there were a lot more opportunities to really embrace a silent form of storytelling, as it sometimes feels like a sound film without the sound, and it rips off a number of films (chiefly Citizen Kane) rather egregiously, but when it really hits its stride it’s impossible to resist. Hazanavicius has a wonderful eye (and he needn’t have stolen from Welles to prove it) not just for composition, but for imparting thematic concerns visually. Jean Dujardin has been rightfully praised for his lead performance as George Valentin, but Bérénice Bejo should be equally praised for his performance as his love interest, Peppy Miller. She absolutely radiates, and expresses her whole character arc wonderfully. Both are true silent performances, and the film is better for it. The film had a palpable effect on the audience, and one has to wonder how many had never seen a silent film before – they have a powerful, visceral, almost elemental impact once you get in their groove, and it really seems like people are eating them up. The Weinstein Company is releasing this film on Thanksgiving, and it’s well worth your time, particularly on the big screen.
By the time this let out, it was 10:00pm, I’d been up since 7:00am, and had now seen four films (I caught a press screening in the morning). I wasn’t sure if I’d make it through the next film, but I am so incredibly glad to took the plunge with Jean-Marc Vallée’s Café de Flore. It’s hard to describe this free-form exercise, which shares some stylistic concerns regarding memory with Gaspar Noé’s Enter the Void, but is a very different kind of head trip. Following both a mother of a child with Down syndrome in the 1960s alongside the story of a contemporary DJ who has abandoned his wife for another woman, and is trying to make peace with this injustice so he can better enjoy his happiness. If I said this will all make sense in the end, it’d only kind of be true, but it certainly all comes together in a very unexpected way. It’s hard to fully discuss the film without getting into its mystery, but the film really has to be seen to be believed. I was not operating on much sleep, and it was quite late in the evening, but I could not have been more alert. It’s a very pure, intoxicating cinematic experience, and one of the best films I’ve seen all week. AFI Fest presented its U.S. premiere, and it does not yet have distribution stateside, but I strongly recommend you keep an eye out for it. It’s an unparalleled experience.
And that’ll do it for today! Tomorrow is my last full day at the festival, but some of my most anticipated films are playing. As always you can follow my instant reactions on Twitter @railoftomorrow.