European Union Film Festival 2014 Part One, by Aaron Pinkston
Each March, 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 marks the 17th annual festival, with films from 26 countries and 64 Midwestern premiers. Each week of the festival, I will bring a few select reviews from the schedule’s diverse selections.
Age of Uprising: The Legend of Michael Kohlhaas (France, dir. Arnaud des Pallières)
Mads Mikkelsen has been an actor on the rise the past few years, solidified by his role as the famous serial killer on NBC’s Hannibal. Though he has recently crossed over to be recognized by mainstream U.S. audiences, his many roles in small, intense European films have always been where he’s at his best. The title role in Age of Uprising: The Legend of Michael Kohlhaas suits all of Mikkelsen’s strengths as an actor. It’s a period film from the middle ages, a time from which he feels transported. I think he is fine in modern roles, but there is something naturally otherworldly about him which plays really well in an environment like this.
Kohlhaas is a man of few words, but a leader through his brooding intensity, which matches the mood of the idyllic countryside. In the film’s opening scene, Kohlhaas is prevented from entering a region by a permit law recently established by the new baron of the region. Though he has crossed this territory many times to sell his horses, he is required to leave two of his most beautiful horses at the gate as a penalty. Once he has returned to collect the horses, they have been forced to work and abused, and so Kohlhaas demands that they are reclaimed to their once perfect state. It is a pretty petty argument, but Kohlhaas has too much pride to let the conflict go, driving the situation to a point where his family is put in danger.
This could become a really intense psychological study of its main character, but Age of Uprising never quite meets its promise. Though it finds its footing in the second half with two really stellar scenes and a satisfying ending, it is buried by a slow and meaningless first two acts. I can see what director is going for with the serene and static nature of the film, but it leads to an opening that is emotionless to the point of being dull. It’s a striking film (sometimes all you need is Mikkelsen on horseback wandering a vast, gloomy field), but mostly empty. This comes to a head during the first major setpiece of the film, where Kohlhaas and his band of followers storm the castle of the baron, looking for revenge. There is so little tension in this scene despite the violence taking place on screen. It isn’t a big action scene, quiet and still like the rest of the film, but it isn’t able to take this mood and translate it to suspense.
Perhaps the bigger problem is that there is surprisingly little meditation during the film’s first two acts — given the somber tone, this is usually inherent. Until the breakout scene at the film’s middle, we can’t probe into Kohlhaas’s thought process or reflect on the greater meanings of his actions. The film’s best scene starts to change that, when Denis Lavant (in a small role credited as “The Theologist”) openly criticizes the quest for vengeance, further asking why his followers are doing this for a man who only has his own motivations at heart. It isn’t until his speech that we are asked to think more closely about the film’s themes, finally make our own mind if Kohlhaas has the right to lead a crusade no matter how he was wronged.
There is one other landmark scene that actually makes Age of Uprising worth a slight recommendation. When the princess visits Kohlhaas and his gang, the scene occurs loaded with subtext and suspense — though very little happens on the surface, much less than the earlier castle-storming setpiece, the direction and performances finally are correctly metered. Unlike other characters and moods in the environment, there is something palpable and tangible in her emotionlessness. Where the confrontation with the Theologist allowed the audience to dig deeper into the film’s themes, this scene adds a much needed intensity to the film’s overall mood.
Age of Uprising: The Legend of Michael Kohlhaas is mostly a disappointment, stifling its star and an interesting premise with little emotional impact. This is a slow burn in the truest sense — while much of the film feels incomplete, a few late setpieces are able to save it from being empty.
Run & Jump (Ireland, dir. Steph Green)
Husband and father of two Conor Casey, a seemingly healthy and energetic 38-year-old man, unexpectedly suffers a stroke that has permanently put him in a state of frustrating simplicity. Conor is definitely a changed man — though we never fully see him as his natural self, we can understand how he was through those around him, struggling to live on after this tragedy. This basic plot description of Run & Jump suggests a certain type of melodramatic gloom and doom, but that’s not what Steph Green’s feature-length debut is going for at all. At one point in the film, Conor’s wife Vanetia says that she hates pity, and that seems to be the film’s stance, too. This is an impossible, desperate situation for our main characters, but no one in this family lets it take over their lives so that they stop living. It is now forever a part of them, but no one in the film allows it to define who they are — a refreshing difference from so many films that focus on illness and recovery so tightly that it strangles every character and the film’s tone.
The film starts after Conor is released from the hospital, able to enter back into his life at home. Because of his unusual medical case, an American doctor (played by Will Forte), comes to board at the Casey’s home and study Conor. Forte’s character starts as an intrusion to the family, breaking into every moment with his handheld camcorder — until he is able to integrate with the family, he’s an intrusion to the plot as well. As the events play on, he becomes a strange surrogate father to the family, providing emotional support to the young children and Conor’s wife, Vanetia.
Though this plot element thrusts most of the story forward, there is no denying that the film belongs to Maxine Peake as Vanetia Casey, who is a strong and complete female lead character. Like her husband, we don’t get to know Vanetia before the tragic events which start the film, but because she outrightly refuses to let this situation change her life, we are still privy to see the bright, energetic, wonderful person. Sure, a part of her carefree attitude is used as a coping mechanism, but this is clearly her personality. More importantly, we see how her spirit affects those around her — while it won’t magically cure her husband, it keeps everyone else (including the viewer) at ease. The character’s energy also leads to wonderful, spontaneous moments that aren’t expected in this type of dramatic story. Vanetia’s philosophies and way of living infest the entire film, keeping it thoughtful, but light and funny. There is a remarkable balance provided by the performance, aided by the script and direction.
Run & Jump embraces the full emotional scale without the corny middlebrow crowd-pleasing glow this type of film often prescribes. It’s funny and tragic, always understanding that life and people are complex and never one thing. Even as subplots pull in cliche directions, the complete characters are natural enough to prevent scenes or actions to feel stale. Above all else, though, Maxine Peake’s central performance is one of the best of the past year, both comfortable and dynamic.
Waltz for Monica (Sweden, dir. Per Fly)
Waltz for Monica (known as Monica Z during its original release) has the full range of highs and lows typically associated with an artist biopic. Telling the story of famous Swedish jazz singer Monica Zetterlund, it presents the rise and fall with all the broken romances, family troubles, and health problems you usually see in a rock-n-roll profile. It is incredibly expansive, starting with a young girl and ending with a world-weary woman, but it also feels quite condensed. Though a lot happens, it’s difficult to tell the exact span of time from scene to scene. So, while the film is full of great music and a strong lead performance from an acting newcomer, it doesn’t offer much as a dramatic story.
To give the most dramatic impact, the film goes through sequences quickly. This is of course a major problem for many biopics, as it is really difficult to give the representation of an entire life (or at least the most important bits) in less than two hours. Because of that, an entire relationship with Monica and a famous American beau lasts all of five minutes of screentime, she seems to hit health problems without any earlier indication, and just as she’s hit rock bottom, she’s a hit again. The events of the film could cover 15 years or a month or two — it isn’t easy to tell with the film’s editing.
This leads to the film’s difficulty of accurately portraying the cultural significance of Monica at any specific point. Near the beginning of the film, after she finally gives up her social obligations to fully go at it as a singer and decides to begin singing in her native language, we are shown a montage of her seemingly on top of the world — so big that she is on every magazine cover and able to name her own price when signing a big time record deal. Briefly afterward, however, there seem to be reservations that she isn’t popular enough, which leads to an integral scene where Monica takes part in a Europe-wide singing competition. After we see a clip of her singing we learn that she earned a “zero” score, punctuated with a snide comment from the announcer saying that he is embarrassed to be Swedish. I understand that this is a historical record (I’m assuming this is pulled directly from true events), but no further context is given. We see her sing in the competition and she sounds great — there’s no indication that she’s underperformed or made some tragic mistake, only that she wasn’t good. If this is because of her controversial choice of singing jazz in Swedish, the reason remains unsaid. Further, it directly contradicts the success the film was building. This is a particularly frustrating scene, but stands for the rest of the film not digging deeper than the surface of Monica’s life and career.
Moreover, after this sudden fall from grace, Monica makes a sharp turn to a crazy person. Perhaps her failure drove her off a cliff, but her actions and reactions directly after indicate the sweet, talented, strong woman who starts the film is long gone and replaced by a ranting, damaged, combative one. She quickly has let all her past success go to her head and feels entitled enough to throw away nearly every meaningful relationship in her life out without much thought.
Waltz for Monica is also like the conventional biopic in that the film is an extraordinarily meaty showcase role for its lead actor. This is the kind of role and performance that propels a young foreign actor to Hollywood, and I can see that happening for Edda Magnason. She’s certainly got the look to make it big, and she holds her own in a pretty challenging role — especially considering the the editing and direction didn’t help her out much. Surprisingly, this is Magnason’s first credited role. Not surprisingly, Magnason is primarily a singer, and so the many musical performances feel natural, because they are her voice. I don’t know if she sounds at all like Monica Zetterlund, but the most important thing is that she sounds good. As for the acting, it mostly shines in the section of the film where Monica has her brief romance with notable filmmaker Vilgot Sjöman. This section allows for the film to be a little more offbeat, as their romance isn’t quite normal — their “meet-cute” and first sexual experience is odd and fun and creative. Magnason shows that she can have chemistry with another actor and be a romantic lead and not just a lookalike with a good voice.