European Union Film Festival Week Three
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.
REBELLION (France), directed by Mathieu Kassovitz
Mathieu Kassovitz’s career as a director has been nothing but disappointing since his breakout, 1995’s La Haine. In the 17 years to follow, he has only made five films, two which never received much of a release in the States, and two others being the widely panned Gothika and Babylon A.D. His newest film, Rebellion (L’ ordre et la morale [Order and Morality direct translation — a much better title]) is a wildly different film from his best work, but a certain step in the right direction.
Kassovitz directs and stars as a special forces captain and terrorist negotiator, stuck on a small island and between a group of freedom fighters and the French government. Based on a real incident from 1988, the film strikes an interesting balance with equal parts war film and hostage negotiation film — a genre mix I’m not aware exists elsewhere. During the real-life drama, a separatist group on New Caledonia took 27 hostages (which included soldiers and politicians) in an act of revolt against a law which was threatening to take away their cultural traditions and the power of their chieftains. The film chronicles the nine days leading up to a massacre of the separatists by the French military.
Early on, the incidents are set up through a number of briefing scenes that use a lot of military lingo and specific information regarding the relationship between French and the small colony. Knowing nothing about the incident going in, I was honestly having difficulty keeping up, having to read the quick dialogue — perhaps French viewers, with an awareness of the incidents and understanding of the language wouldn’t have the same problem. As the film moved away from the briefings and into the jungle, it became increasingly more effective, and Kassovitz does a very nice job establishing the surroundings and using the location to its fullest effect. He doesn’t quite have the chops to nail the few scenes of war, but uses a number of long takes wonderfully, including a remarkable scene which shows a flashback of the initial hostage-taking, with the storyteller and Kassovitz in the scene, looking on.
Through the first half of the film, I found a fascinating amount of moral ambiguity. Ostensibly, this is a anti-imperialist film told from the side of the imperialists, but looking at both parties fairly. By doing so, it asks a number of thought-provoking questions on with terrorism, colonialism and government interventions. For the most part, we don’t agree with the actions of either side — the separatists who kill soldiers, or the French who have invaded this territory where they probably don’t belong. There is a ultra fine line between being a freedom fighter and a terrorist, something we encounter constantly today, and an idea the film portrays pretty well.
But, as the film goes on, and becomes more mired in the bureaucratic decision making, it loses this ambiguity. Similarly, as we learn more about the freedom fighters, we realize they are far from terrorists and instead people who have made poor decisions out of fear. The government is shown to make obviously poor decisions that make them undeniably monsters. I can’t forget that the outcomes shown in Rebellion are based on historical fact, but when characters and their motivations become so black or white, the film isn’t nearly as compelling.
AITA (Spain), directed by José María de Orbe
Esteemed film critic and Chicagoan Jonathan Rosenbaum, during his introduction to Aita at the European Union Film Festival, issued a warning. He said that not everyone likes and will like Aita, mainly because it is “slow.” Hearing this, I braced myself, preparing for a Béla Tarr-esque film, which in all honesty I wasn’t prepared for at the time. Though Aita is slowly paced and without a traditional narrative, the time mechanics work less like Tarr’s work, which often directly confronts its viewer to have an actual relationship with time, and has more of a timelessness. Even with drastically different plots, this nature reminded me a lot of last year’s wonderful Meek’s Cutoff– though I felt the slowness as the film progressed, when the credits began to roll, I couldn’t believe it was over. It also probably doesn’t hurt that Aita is 85 minutes long.
Aita is certainly the strangest film I’ve seen during the festival (though I will be seeing Yorgos Lanthimos’s Alps next week, so that may not stick). A mix of fiction, documentary and found footage, Aita takes place at an aging mansion in rural Spain. Over the course of a few days, we see two men work on renovations, some young boys break in, and hear a few philosophical conversations on the nature of life and death. At one point, we see a group of young children being given a tour of the mansion, which is a good way to look at this film, in general — de Orbo gives us a guided tour of this house, the people who have come in contact with it and the history it has lived through. Even when you can’t totally put together the pieces, you can still appreciate the film for being incredibly picturesque, with beautiful compositions and architecture in every shot.
The most stunning sequences of the film, though, are three that occur over night. During the first occasion you feel as if you’ve been transported into a haunted house film. Very subtly, through sound, lighting and shot selection, the entire tone of the film shifts to something eerie, nearly menacing. And then, very strangely, we see projections of old films on the walls around the house. Aesthetically, these projections are pretty remarkable — they seem to be found footage films, many of which have been so severely damaged through time that they are difficult to make out. The tears, rips, burns, etc. on these films brilliantly add to the creepiness of the nighttime surroundings. Narratively, they seem to be playing into the film’s theme of time and history. Though I’m still working through my thoughts on the film projections, I read them as some kind of memories the house is having of the people, things and events that have come through over the years, literally the history within its walls.
During the post-screening Q&A with Jonathan Rosenbaum, it was told that all of the “actors” in the film were essentially playing themselves — the caretaker in the film is the true caretaker of the mansion, even the boys we see breaking into the house were supposedly playing something they actually did. This blending of documentary and fiction further shows the number of levels you can view/appreciate/enjoy Aita. It is certainly a difficult film, but it is a film that invites its audience in, not ones that forces them to look from the outside. While I understand Rosenbaum’s warning, I feel such a simple film giving off so many different levels of readings will give many willing viewers satisfaction.
LOVE.NET (Bulgaria), directed by Ilian Djevelekov
Until now, I have never seen a Bulgarian film. I’m not sure if there simply isn’t a U.S. market for their films, or if their talent hasn’t yet sprung up like it has in surrounding Romania, Hungary or Greece. With the wide variety of content at the European Union Film Festival, I definitely wanted to venture away from the United Kingdom, France and Spain at least once, seeing a different cultural perspective, and Love.net was the choice I ultimately came to.
Love.net is basically the Bulgarian version of Love Actually exclusively featuring the scores and mishaps of online romance. And to say it is a version of Love Actually, I should clarify a “low rent” one. Perhaps it is just cultural differences or a film nation that hasn’t quite matured, but everything in Love.net felt as if it was a decade behind the curve — in terms of both the rom-com trappings and technology, which is heavily featured through the film. What could have been a throught-provoking, funny and sweet dissection of love in the 21st century turned out to be a pretty schlocky mess.
Honestly, I think part of the problem may have been poor subtitles. There were a number of Bulgarians in the audience and they seemed to find a lot more jokes in the film that I could. I didn’t have a problem understanding all the rom-com cliches, though, such as characters becoming upset when they realize their romance was a part of a journalist’s story or characters miraculously revealing themselves at just the right time to sing a serenade. Another particularly maddening aspect of Love.net is that it is also an ensemble film that strains very hard to interconnect everyone for no actual gain.
In all, Love.net featured four different stories relating to internet dating, covering all the bases — a journalist looking for fun times with a cyber sex worker, a young girl looking luring in an older man, a man cheating on his wife through online encounters, and two people separated by an entire continent connecting over cyberspace. Of these four major stories, only one worked at all for me. As a husband and wife begin to drift away through their years of marriage, the wife realizes that her husband has been visiting dating websites looking for random encounters. So she decides to create her own account to really see what his game is about, and through the magic of the internet, they fall in love with each other all over again. This was the only story of the four that seemed invested in any real emotion, so while there were some sticky problems when you realize the guy is kind of a sleaze ball not earning his redemption, it still managed to stick out positively. But when my girlfriend told me this was the same basic storyline for the “If you like pina coladas” song, I may have to re-think that praise.