European Union Film Festival 2015: Part One, by Aaron Pinkston
For the 18th year, films from across the European Union have come to Chicago’s Gene Siskel Film Center for the European Union Film Festival. This year the festival features 61 new feature films, all Chicago premieres, from 27 different nations. Including many Academy Award Foreign Language selections and award winning films from Cannes, TIFF, and other international film festivals, the European Union Film Festival has become a great preview of international favorites and films from nations with burgeoning film industries.
Li’l Quinquin, dir. Bruno Dumont (France)
Three years ago, I experienced and reviewed my first Bruno Dumont film at the European Union Film Festival, Hors Satan (Outside Satan). That film boggles my mind still today. Dumont’s newest film, Li’l Quinquin, is very different in a lot of ways, but it still has the strangely alluring, almost indescribable force of his earlier work. Originally a French television mini-series, in its feature film form Li’l Quinquin is a 200 minute comedy/murder mystery without many jokes or your typical procedural plot. I imagine seeing the mini-series, which is broken up into four episodes, is a more enjoyable way to experience to the feature, but the overlong, slowly paced structure does play into what Dumont is trying to do.
Li’l Quinquin takes place at the start of summer in a quiet French seaside town. Quinquin is a mischievous young boy who gets into trouble by bullying minority kids in his neighborhood and doing normal rebellious kids stuff. Suddenly, the town is shocked (or, at least, should be shocked) by a string of seemingly interconnected murders. At first, human remains are found stuffed inside a dead cow; then, a second dead cow and human remains. “Unconventional” County Sheriff Van der Weyden and his partner Lieutenant Carpentier are brought in to investigate and they eventually find that the two bodies were lovers having a tryst outside of their respective marriages. As their investigation doesn’t particularly lead to anywhere, more of the townsfolk begin dying. A majority of the film’s plot revolves around these gruesome deaths while building more on the environment and the relationships between its citizens.
The film has been marketed as Bruno Dumont’s expansion into comedy, but it is much closer to the recent strain of anti-comedies in the Adult Swim style than a mainstream comedy or spoof. Most times I found myself laughing (and there were quite a few times), I didn’t really know why I was laughing. If I were to describe many of the film’s amusing bits, they wouldn’t seem all that funny. For example, Van der Weyden’s near constant facial ticks only work because of their near constantness. Many of the film’s own ticks go right up to the line of becoming overbearing (and at 200 minutes, it probably will cross that line for some viewers). Certainly, the film isn’t structured like a comedy – besides a few obvious attempts at humor, everything comes from weird character moments and uncomfortable absurdity.
If this is an anti-comedy, it is most certainly also an anti-procedural. The overall murder setup (small town, unusually gruesome murders, everyone is a suspect, etc.) fits right into the mold of Broadchurch or The Killing, but the journey is far from that. The actual investigation is as mundane as you could imagine – Van der Weyden and Carpentier go from person to person asking questions that don’t really lead anywhere, get answers that don’t establish any true leads. The revelations that are revealed are small ones, usually fairly obvious or inconsequential to solving these crimes. By the end of the film, it is pretty clear that Li’l Quinquin is not a mystery and shouldn’t be considered one, at least not in the pulp serial sense.
The anti-comedy, anti-procedural would be completely insufferable if not for the fully realized community that Dumont builds. From my experience with Dumont, this aspect is the most consistent: a setting in rural France, populated by authentic characters played by non-actors. The town feels separated from the rest of the world, which inherently adds compelling, if familiar matter to the murder plot. This also allows for the otherworldly, metaphysical themes that Dumont is always working with – they aren’t as noticeable here as they are in Hors Satan, but one begins to wonder if the perpetrated crimes must be some sort of spiritual or natural vengeance. Every citizen of this unnamed town has some sort of damage; could be intellectual, physical, or emotional. In fact, there are many characters who are played by actors who quite obviously have autism or other ailments. This adds to the film’s overall discomfort, and I wondered if Dumont unnecessarily wallows in this world, looking at this stunted group of characters as some sort of sideshow, or, less cynically, an experiment.
I find it very difficult to put my finger on Li’l Quinquin, which I think is quite obviously the intended effect. It is like nothing I’ve seen before, with a group of characters that could never be duplicated. Even when I can’t wholeheartedly enjoy the experience of watching the film, I can’t fault the Dumont’s choices. Though bizarre, Li’l Quinquin is such a controlled vision from its filmmaker and I can’t help but respond to it with confused admiration.
In the Basement, dir. Ulrich Seidl (Austria)
Like Bruno Dumont, Ulrich Seidl is a favorite of the European Union Film Festival. His Paradise films, which played there in 2013, are unflinching looks at love, sex, religion, race, and family, dark comedies that are deeply disturbing. Seidl’s newest film goes back to his documentary roots. In the Basement is a profile doc that takes a look inside the basements of various Austrian citizens. Despite this simple, fairly tame premise, the filmmaker keeps his signature tone.
Stylistically, In the Basement is shot extremely well for taking place exclusively inside of basement interiors. Many of the rooms are shot with the camera parallel to a wall, giving a full field of view. The basement’s owner then stands directly in front of the camera, becoming a part of the decor among the boxes or bars or mounted animal heads. Someone could easily take a frame from each of the film’s subjects and create a museum exhibit.
That might suggest a certain anthropologic slant to the film, which is there is only the most mild sense. Seidl is definitely interested in these people and their basements, but it isn’t much of a direct study on the subject. Overall, there is a fine cross-section of different types of basements and owners, some sad, some disturbing, but it doesn’t seem to be a true representative sample. Seidl, not entirely surprisingly, focuses mostly on the darker side of humanity. Much of the second half of the film focuses on a few subjects who are into S&M, and the film shows off their sex dungeons very explicitly and with near glee.
The obvious theme is that the basement is a sanctuary, a place outside of the world where its owner can show off a part of themselves that can’t be totally understood by society. This is most clearly verbalized by a woman who plays the dominant party in a sexual relationship. When describing the rules for each part of her house, she notes that the bedroom is for tenderness, where her partner will be comforted. The remainder of the house is where she can display dominance, but the basement in particular is a space where she can really punish her lover.
Unlike many profile docs, where a group of people with a common interest are looked at, we don’t learn much about the subjects of In the Basement. A few don’t even speak to the camera, almost literally becoming props inside of their spaces. The rest of the group are defined entirely by the contents and contexts of their basements – most specifically our S&M friends, who get a longer leash (pardon the pun) on their backstories and interests. The unbalance is ultimately smart, mixing up the film from becoming monotonous, but makes me wonder if Seidl ever considered scrapping the basement idea to focus exclusively on this sex dungeon subsection.
Certainly there is more attention that could be paid to this bizarre world even as Seidl shows off just as much as anyone would want to see from these subjects. In the Basement might not be a treatise on the basement but the shock value keeps it interesting.
Gemma Bovery, dir. Anne Fontaine (France)
Gemma Bovery stars Gemma Arterton in the title role, a bored woman who moves to an old country home in Normandy with her husband. Their new neighbor, Martin (Fabrice Luchini) is a baker who becomes obsessed with Gemma and her strange connection to the Flaubert novel that shares her name. Gemma Bovery is a decent comedic romance that is well acted all around with a few sparks of magic.
The film largely plays as an adaptation/homage to Madame Bovary, with many inside jokes and references, to which I am not in the least familiar. For the ignorant ones like me, the film lays its influence on pretty thickly, making the plot mechanics an active part of the story, but I’m certain I missed a number of story and character connections along the way. I typically love when a film takes on a piece of literature as a game, but I’m not sure Gemma Bovery is a great example of this – it may have even forced its plot to go into relationships that aren’t as fully developed in order to be a closer mimic.
The film’s biggest problem is too many underdeveloped romances. Throughout the film, Gemma has three romantic encounters, none of them totally successful. The first is with her husband, played by the underappreciated Jason Flemyng. Here, the film takes a bit of a shortcut with its source in casting their relationship as stale without much build, but this is the relationship that receives the most screentime, so the furthest from problematic. While Gemma is integrating in her new community, she meets a wealthy young man with whom she has her first affair. The problem here is being too focused on their sexual relationship and ignoring an emotional relationship. Though we are supposed to believe she is willing to leave her husband for this lover, there isn’t much of a compelling argument in the performances to justify it. Finally, the end of the film brings back Gemma’s former lover, Patrick, for a surprise encounter. Their backstory is told through one shot, which works well enough in the context of a breakup, but once he comes back into the picture it feels too much like forced drama.
The most important relationship in the film, however, is between Gemma and Martin. He becomes completely infatuated by Gemma, sexually awakened and jealous of her new lovers. What is interesting, though, is that the film doesn’t force a phony threat of a relationship between them. Instead, he takes a distant interest in her sparked by his knowledge of Madame Bovary, becoming something like Flaubert in shaping her connections and edging her towards fulfilling the novel’s prophecy. When she beings to rendezvous with her young lover, he watches like a teenage girl watches a favorite soap opera. Even though Gemma Bovery doesn’t become an older-man, younger-woman romance, their dynamic is still a bit creepy. Certainly more interesting, though.
Fabrice Luchini, an actor I’ve really come on to like recently in films such as Bicycling with Moliere and In the House, is basically made for his role. He really nails the intellectual, sensitive man that is just a little bit creepy – an appropriate amount for the role without going overboard. Like most of his performances, he brings a lot of natural humor to a role that could be dull or difficult with which to connect. Starring opposite of Luchini, Gemma Arterton is very good, as well. She’s typically cast as a strong, independent type, and here she plays that with just a touch of sadness.
Even with its larger problems, the film is able to redeem itself with a darkly comedic climatic turn in the final act. I won’t give anything away here, but it comes on suddenly in a shocking way. But then the narrative pulls back a little, expanding the particular incident, revealing more information from different perspectives. Although a very brief section of the film, it is a wonderful flourish and directing choice that I wish the rest of the film was as stylish.