Locarno International Film Festival (Web Exclusive)
by Richard Porton

Philomène Bilodeau in Denis Côté’s Curling

Philomène Bilodeau in Denis Côté’s Curling

The Locarno Film Festival’s bucolic lakeside setting, as well as its unhurried pace, gives it somewhat of an unfair advantage. While festivalgoers in Berlin or Rotterdam grouse about the weather and those who make the pilgrimage to Cannes rail against the long queues and the irksome crowds, the mellow visitors to Locarno are more inclined to praise the worthwhile films on display and ignore the occasional mediocre title.

2010 was Olivier Père’s first year as Locarno’s director, and subtle but tangible changes in the festival’s programming soon became evident. Up until this year, the youthful Père was the head of Cannes’ “Directors’ Fortnight,” a prestigious sidebar known for highlighting challenging examples of “art cinema.” But instead of merely replicating the Fortnight in Switzerland, Père programmed an eclectic mixture of “high” and “low” cinematic genres. As he explained to me by email, “At this year’s Locarno, we tried to feature daring and unconventional pictures, far from the mainstream,” while avoiding certain “pretentious art films.” Pére also emphasized that he wanted innovative genre films, as well as retrospectives of classic cinema, to be part of the mix—an approach apparently designed to please both the tourists who flock to nightly open-air screenings at the Piazza Grande (which can accommodate over 8,000 spectators) and seasoned cinephiles. This strategy—elevating the rarefied and the lowbrow while scorning the middlebrow wasteland—resulted in having to choose between—to cite some representative examples—Karamay, a six-hour-plus Chinese documentary, and a John C. Reilly retrospective that celebrated such crowd-pleasing fare as Adam McKay’s Step Brothers. Or one could ponder whether to attend Bruce LaBruce’s gay horror gross out, L.A. Zombie, or savor the more gently risqué films of Ernst Lubitsch, thanks to a comprehensive retrospective of the legendary German director replete with many sparkling 35mm prints, curated by Joseph McBride. And since Locarno is a user-friendly festival that doesn’t attract hordes of paparazzi or mainstream journalists, unorthodox or experimental films that might get lost in the shuffle in larger events are given a place of pride.

Quentin Dupieux’s Rubber, which was screened on the Piazza Grande towards the middle of the festival, was something of a quintessential Pére selection since it synthesized components of both genre and avant-garde cinema. An absurdist slasher film, the villain is a sinister automobile tire that terrorizes Californian desert communities (one’s tempted to make a quip about the tire’s tireless pursuit) while ogling a young woman with inanimate lust. Parodying both Seventies low-budget films and film theorists’ obsession with voyeurism, Dupieux fused the deadpan austerity of Michael Snow with the giddy excess of a low-budget exploitation film.

Locarno’s International Competition proved considerably more daring than is usually the case at comparable festivals. Even the competition films that didn’t quite work were of considerable interest. At Ellen’s Age, for example, Pia Marais’s follow-up to The Unpolished, her impressive study of adolescent angst, was wildly uneven. Yet Marais once again demonstrates a talent for startling imagery (the sight of a cheetah on a runway early in the film is suggestively cryptic) and a gift for wayward narrative tributaries. Even though it’s difficult not to admire Jeanne Balibar’s pensive performance as an alienated flight attendant whose lover lures her into the fractious world of radical animal-rights activism (admittedly a subject that’s received little attention in narrative cinema), her world weariness seems like much more of a schematic construct than the palpable pain endured byThe Unpolished’s young protagonist.

A much less problematic competition entry, Montreal-based Denis Côté’s Curling, familiarized European audiences with one of the world’s most consistently provocative young directors. (Several of Côté’s key films were featured at the 2010 Vienna Film Festival—the Viennale). As is true with many insightful filmmakers (or novelists, for that matter), Côté’s international appeal resides in his firm grasp of regional particularities. While the film deals with rural isolation—a universal theme—Curling’s vision of pastoral boredom is deeply rooted in the idiosyncratic wintriness of a specific town in Québec, Mont-Saint-Hilaire.

Curling’s focus is on Jean-François (Emmanuel Bilodeau), a prickly handyman, and his preteen daughter, Julyvonne (Philomène Bilodeau, Emmanuel’s daughter), a girl whose introspection is so extreme that some audiences might mistake her reserve for autism. Almost a parable about meteorological determinism, Jean-François and Julyvonne’s routine is heavily influenced by the whims of the frigid Canadian winter. Even the pop ditties that Julyvonne listens to—especially the far-from-immortal ballads of onetime teen idol Tiffany—take on a creepy, midwinter poignancy. Québec’s icy desolation becomes even more forbidding when Julyvonne comes upon a mysterious pile of corpses. Curling, the beloved Canadian sport, is the only activity that promises any hope for redemption in a film in which stasis is the norm and black humor the only respite.

Another Canadian entry, Daniel Cockburn’s You Are Here, was among the most noteworthy films in one of Locarno’s most prominent sidebars—Filmmakers of the Present Competition. A feature debut by a director well-known in Canadian experimental circles for his eccentric short video pieces, Cockburn’s dazzlingly inventive feature is not easy to summarize. From one vantage point, Cockburn’s tour de force is a meditation on the lure and dangers of technology, a preoccupation that has fascinated a wide range of Canadian theorists and filmmakers from Marshall McLuhan to Atom Egoyan and David Cronenberg. The multilayered, nonlinear narrative is also, as Cockburn readily admits, highly influenced by the stories anthologized in Jorge Luis Borges’s Labyrinths.

Instead of constructing a plot, he interweaves, as Adam Nayman put it in Cinema Scope, “a series of episodes that slide over one another like a palimpsest.” All of these episodes involve a vaguely paranoid take on technology and manipulation, even though, as Nayman and other reviewers have pointed out, the film strenuously avoids references to the Internet and other current technological bugbears. Like a piece of ingeniously flawed circuitry, Cockburn’s film chronicles overlapping attempts to maintain order in a fundamentally chaotic and disordered world. Helpful telephone operators answer queries from frantic Torontonians who fear they’ve become disoriented. A lengthy sequence is devoted to recreating Berkeley philosophy professor John Searle’s famous “thought experiment,” “The Chinese Room” and, in the process, Searle’s dispassionate musings on language acquisition and artificial intelligence are transformed into a scenario resembling a horror film. A character referred to as “The Archivist” (Tracy Wright), who diligently inventories artifacts that might either be worthless or provide vital information on the flux of contemporary life, appears defeated by what seems to be a Sisyphean task. Cockburn’s intellectual gamesmanship, which probably sounds rather arid on paper, is in fact enlivened by furious wordplay and humor that melds neurosis and philosophical speculation.

Locarno’s tribute to the Israeli producer Menahem Golan also continued the festival’s oscillation between high cinephilic effusions and pop culture—Golan was of course responsible for schlocky genre films as well as prestigious projects such as John Cassavetes’s Love Streams (1984)Although I regretted missing Love Streams, a film I saw only once during its original release (and which is currently unavailable on DVD in the United States), I was able to revisit a non-Golan retrospective event, a new print of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s I Only Want You to Love Me (1976), restored by The Fassbinder Foundation. I Only Want You to Love Me, although not as celebrated as other seminal Fassbinder films from this period such as The Merchant of Four Seasons (1971) or The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (1972), is an equally powerful and moving blend of melodrama and political critique. Supposedly based on a real-life case study, the film acerbically charts the decline of Peter (Vitus Zeplichal), a young man who, feeling unloved by his parents, smothers his wife with affection and gifts which, given his modest salary, he cannot afford. Driven to psychosis by his need to plunge himself into debt in order to please his pleasant, but complacently bourgeois, wife, he finds himself committing a completely irrational murder. Satirizing consumerism with Fassbinder’s trademark grim humor, this fable of capitalism gone awry is even more pertinent now than it was in the Seventies.

Locarno gave its coveted Golden Leopard award to one of the most surprising films in the International Competition: Li Hongqui’s Winter Vacation, a Chinese comedy about high-school slackers whose slightly Jarmuschian tone was miles away from the sober political meditations of other prominent Chinese directors on the festival circuit, most notably Jia Zhangke. The slightly off-kilter humor of the Golden Leopard winner was of a piece with Locarno’s synthesis of the mainstream and the offbeat. Neither pandering to its audience nor looking down on it, Locarno assumes that a festival should not merely recycle films from previous venues but instead encourage filmgoers to sample discoveries that might prove either brilliant surprises or unfortunate misfires. Happily, the misfires at this year’s Locarno were outnumbered by a cluster of intriguing surprises.

For more information on the Locarno Film Festival, click here.

Richard Porton is one of Cineaste’s editors, as well as an occasional contributor to Cinema ScopeThe Daily Beast, and Moving Image Source.

Copyright © 2010 by Cineaste Publishers, Inc.