Communique from The Montreal World Film Festival
by Martha P. Nochimson
Aimez-vous infrastructure? This year’s Montreal World Film Festival took place while large portions of Saint Catherine Street—the location of two of the main Festival screening venues, and a key part of the route to the multiplex in the Quartier Latin where most of the films were screened—was blasted, shoveled, and excavated. Picking our way around cordoned-off piles of concrete chunks and big construction machines, we were assured that by next year the Festival would have the most up-to-date, underground electric and water lines du monde. The necessary detours did nothing to deflate the spirits of the filmmakers and enthusiastic audiences, all of whom showed up on long lines at all hours of the day and night to display their work and to pan for gold, respectively, in this, the 34th year of the WFF. This year’s program was filled with first films by as yet unheralded directors, some of immense promise; off-beat productions; provocative documentaries; and tributes to world class but not often enough recognized actors, directors, and films. WFF is the place for exciting discoveries not easily available at many established, star-studded festivals, notably the Toronto extravaganza.
Montreal’s WFF President, Serge Losique, has made the decision not to compete with Toronto on its own “bigger is better” terms. Instead, under his guidance, Montreal opts for the “little guy.” This is not to say that the Montreal WFF is a small festival; it featured 430 films this year, too many to permit one attendee to avail him or herself of anything like a majority of the offerings. Rather the point is that the “usual suspects” who frequent international festivals were absent. Widely recognizable names were at a bare minimum. No Danny Boyle and James Franco. Not even Darren Aronofsky and Natalie Portman. And certainly no Clint Eastwood. There was David Arquette, who starred in an American film, Land of the Astronauts (Dir. Carl Colpaert), and made a personal appearance; and Gerard Depardieu who gave a master class on film, and appeared in La Tête en Friche (Dir. Jean Becker), an out-of-competition film. Also out of competition was a recent film directed by the well-known Bertrand Tavernier, La Princesse de Montpensier, of which more later. There were tributes to France’s Nathalie Baye, Iran’s Jafar Panahi, and Italy’s Stefania Sandrelli. The charismatic Chow Yun-Fat’s 2010 star vehicle Confucious (Dir. Mei Hu) was shown, but out of competition. As welcome as were these sparks of fame, the real excitement lay elsewhere.
There is something in the air of the WFF of the instinct of the cult aficionado of the old days, when there were no DVDs to bring to our doors films not shown at the multiplex, and when cultists spent their nights tracking down obsessive favorites and quirky new finds. Identifying great films as yet innocent of reputation is part of the pleasure of Montreal’s approach to the film festival. One source of that kind of satisfaction is Das Lied in Mir, aka The Day I Was Not Born, the first feature film of German director Florian Cossen, who, if this film is an indication of things to come, would seem to have potential to become an international star. Das Lied, which created substantial buzz, and took the FIPRESCI International Film Critics Award, the People’s Choice Award, and the Ecumenical Prize, is a true standout.
A cinematic piece about memory, discovery, and the inexorable knots tied by history between the personal and the political, Das Lied tells the story of a German girl who learns that she was born in Argentina and stolen from her birth mother and father by the people she had believed to be her parents. This innately dramatic situation is explored with passion and immense intelligence as it brings the audience along with 31-year-old Maria (Jessica Schwarz), a competitive swimmer, as she slowly uncovers the lies told by Anton (Michael Gwisdek), her loving, handsome, athletic German father who has carefully groomed her for a sports championship, so that we experience with her, as they come to light, the impossible contradictions of her position.
Maria’s agon begins in an airport in Buenos Aires where, on her way to a swim meet, she has planned to take a connecting flight to Chile. The ordinary boredom of this kind of situation suddenly ruptures when she hears a Spanish lullaby being sung to a nearby baby and becomes so emotionally distraught that she misses her plane. The emotionally affecting lullaby is the origin of the German title which translates into English properly as The Song in Me, some well fashioned version of which would have made a much more powerful title than the uninspired The Day I Was Not Born. When Maria reports what has happened, Anton, alarmed, flies immediately to Buenos Aires and tries in vain to hurry her on her way to Chile. But revelations come flying thick and fast that Anton is not Maria’s birth father and that there are horrors surrounding the deaths of Maria’s actual birth parents, who, although apparently innocent of any political subversion, were tortured by the Argentinian dictatorship and became part of the “disappeared” of that period. Maria’s terrible, convulsive awakening is made even more disorienting by her realization that Anton not only knew what had happened to her mother and father, but intentionally kept Maria’s Argentinian family from knowing her whereabouts.
Around these discoveries swirl all the threads of personal and political history that comprise our sense of security and identity and cannot be either manufactured or cut at will. Maria identifies with the powerfully built Anton, as she herself is possessed of the kind of tall, strong body that Hitler and his minions once viciously attempted to assert as a part of the inherent superiority of the Nordic peoples—an element of Das Lied that subtly wafts through the film as Maria makes contact with her fleshy, short, physically endearing rather than potent Mediterranean family. However, the fact that Maria is in no way German biologically challenges rather than supports the old toxic Nazi mythology. The history of German World War II guilt is thus woven interestingly into the tapestry of sudden disclosures for Maria of other loyalties, other physicalities central to her life. At the same time, there is a visible sign of Maria’s Argentinian heritage; she is in her coloring and facial features the image of her mother. Her double identification is supported by external appearances as well as the internal memories of both her early experiences in Argentina and the incidents from her life in Germany. There are, in addition, the expected ethical dilemmas—Maria’s birth family wants to bring Anton to court for what it sees as a form of kidnapping. And Maria has an unexpected brief traumatic bout with the sexual politics of the relationship between father and daughter, once she knows that Anton is no longer her biological dad. Suddenly, questions about the prohibitions against incest in their relationship flare briefly and memorably. As a result of Maria’s initial hysteria about Anton’s lies, in a very disconcerting scene, she provokes him to reveal whether he is a sexual predator as well as a liar and kidnapper. He is not; nevertheless, the situation is bad enough. Maria must come to terms with Anton’s criminal abduction of her years ago, and his current indefensible self-righteousness about his right to Maria as a daughter. Maria, ultimately, while rejoicing in the comforts of her newfound family and suffering from the betrayals of her adoptive father, can find no way to arrive at clear allegiances. She can neither help her birth family to prosecute Anton, nor return to being his daughter in the way that she once was.
Cossen, speaking at the first screening of Das Lied, said that Maria’s inability to choose one side over the other is reflective of what he has learned about the actual situation of Argentina’s stolen children. Of the 101 stolen children who have been discovered in adulthood, most of them choose to remain part of the lives of both families, a harrowing situation since often, as in Cossen’s film, the children were raised by people who were friends of those who had tortured and killed their parents. It is precisely that bittersweet irony that Cossen captures in his film, the inescapable retribution that history can inflict in the long run on those who seem to have gotten away with terrible deeds in the short run. Love and hate of all kinds imprisons Maria and both her families in a kind of everyday Hell that Sartre would have appreciated.
Also much admired at the WFF was De L’Enfancia, aka On Childhood (Dir. Carlos Carrera), which received both the WFF prize for best screenplay and the Glauber Rocha Award for Best Latin American Film. De L’Enfancia is predicated on familiar psychological theories about the influence of childhood traumas on adult personality formation. It takes an unusual turn, however, as Carrera innovatively weaves into his tale of the childhood of Francisco Niebla, a ten-year-old boy living in a Mexican slum with Basilio, an abusive father, Sofia, an abused mother, and Damasco, a vulnerable little brother, the whisper of a ghost story, an apt trope since the lives of the Nieblas are, in many real respects, haunted by the past. Mixed in with the hyper-realistic details of life in the slum is the presence of the ghost of Francisco’s older brother.
The trajectory of the story follows Francisco’s development, as he grows increasingly violent when the pressures of poverty and a dysfunctional family weigh on him; he seems headed for a life like that of his older brother, a petty criminal killed by the police. However, as the ghost of that truncated young life watches over Francisco, unexpectedly, the young protagonist of the film is befriended by a boy he meets in school who comes from the Frias family, which is comfortably middle class. It looks as if the seeming warmth and openness of Papa Frias has come into the life of the Niebla family under the watchful eye of the ghostly, protective brother, and might make a difference for the better in Francisco’s life. Anything but! The impact of the Frias family on Francisco and his family turns unexpectedly harmful. The Niebla children begin to have a taste of “good” family life, and eventually the entire family is invited to spend a day of comparative luxury and sociability; but the day that should have cemented the bonds between the families goes awry. The fathers become drunk and Basilio reveals too much about his early life at the hands of a violent and mean spirited grandfather. Confidence leads to too much familiarity and violence, and Francisco’s hoped for route out of his terrible home dissolves before his eyes. The Frias family proves to be but one more trial for the young boy. They are, in fact, the vehicle for the central idea of the film: that it is the widespread torment of children, not material deprivation, that is at the bottom of human misery. Francisco, emotionally precocious for his years, becomes attached to the older Frias daughter, and, when he discovers that she is being sexually molested by her father, he decides to kill the Frias paterfamilias as the girl is taken to the hospital pregnant by Señor Frias.
Early in the film, Carrera lays in the foundation for the twists and turns at the end of De L’Enfancia. Although Francisco’s father Basilio is indeed violent, self-serving, and manipulative to a terrifying degree, inextricably melded with his warped character is a deep and passionate love for his family. The combination doesn’t make for a quiet life; but it also means that Basilio cannot be viewed simply as the villain of the piece. (Papa Frias, for all his bon vivant cordiality is drawn in much darker and more unredeemable colors.) Perhaps the ghost of Basilio’s dead older son, identified in the credits as Fantasma Niebla, who roams the film bearing the wounds that killed him, is a manifestation of Basilio’s tormented love for his children. It would seem that the ghost ultimately exacts a sacrifice from Basilio that may pave the way for a better future for Francisco when father and son meet in the Frias home, as Basilio is robbing the family and Francisco is standing over the dead body of Papa Frias, whom he has just killed. As Basilio comes upon his son, gun in hand, Francisco turns the pistol on his own father, but cannot kill him, and the two of them weep with everything that is left in them, as the police arrive on the scene. Basilio permits Francisco to escape and faces the police himself, creating a situation in which they will kill him, and assume that he murdered Frias, leaving Francisco to find a better life. But, as Francisco rides off on his bicycle into the winding streets of the city, the film has shown us enough of the consequences of early abuse to make us uncertain indeed about the boy’s chances. To reinforce our doubts, it ends with a flashback to Basilio’s early childhood, as he is being beaten savagely with a cane by his grandfather. And if we could go back further..........? The invisible paradoxes of the human heart haunt us with even more force than does the pale, bloody Fantasma, with his mournful “day of the dead” presence.
The fine points of assessing guilt and love are also a major part of a Japanese entry, Akunin, aka Villain (Dir. Lee Sang-il), which received the Best Actress award for the performance of Eri Fukatsu, as Mitsuyo, a lonely woman who works in a men’s clothing store, and one day, against all common sense runs away with Shimizu (Satoshi Tsumabuki), a disaffected loner. Mitsuyo knows that Shimizu has killed Yoshino (Kirin Kiki), a pretty young woman he meets through an online dating site, but she believes, or wants to believe, that he is a good man overwhelmed by impossible circumstances. Which interpretation is actually the case is the internal paradox of the film. Akunin made a deservedly big splash for its complex treatment of Shimizu’s crime of passion. Might we all, it asks along with Mitsuyo, kill if the circumstances are right? The film’s painfully arrived at ultimate position is that it is hard, make that impossible, to say.
As the film begins there are echoes of Ozu’s quiet despair about the inability of Japanese traditions to cope with the chaos growing from modern impulses toward freedom. Young people have access to cars, cell phones, and the Internet, and they use them freely on impulse, so even if they live at home they can’t be controlled by older, wiser adults. Moreover, the family structure is no longer a bastion of stability and class issues have become clouded. Shimizu is being brought up by his grandmother, because his mother walked out on him for reasons that are never made clear but certainly indicate a failure to observe maternal duties. Yoshino, a pretty, shallow young woman, is a user, who takes advantage of her father’s love for her and coldly manipulates Shimizu, whom she has met on an online dating website, while she angles for Masuo, a selfish, uncaring, wealthy playboy. But Akunin soon goes beyond questions of social structure to questions about human nature.
Yoshino becomes aware of the contempt in which Masuo holds her as a working class girl only after he literally kicks her out of his car on a deserted road. When Shimizu, who has been following them, arrives to rescue her, she has only a few seconds to become aware of the dangerous situation she has created by playing with his affections. In a blind reflex of anger, and thinking of no one but herself, Yoshino callously threatens to accuse Shimizu of rape, even though he is offering her nothing but help. This sets off in Shimizu a spasm of terror that if she does lie about what he was doing with her in the middle of nowhere, no one will believe his side of the story. The result is that he strangles her. Should we assume that he has lost his mind and is hysterically acting out his desire that she be quiet? Or is he, by nature, a killer? When he is on the run with Mitsuyo, he seems to blossom in the warm glow of the first real romantic love he has known, but when it becomes clear that the police have tracked him to his hiding place in an old light house, he turns on Mitsuyo suddenly, his face contorted and truly frightening, as he tells her enigmatically, “I’m not the man you think I am,” and almost strangles her to death. Even after the police break into the lighthouse, he continues his death grip. It takes several husky men to rescue the girl. The gusto with which he attempts to kill her makes it hard to make the case, as some viewers tried to do, that Shimizu, who knows he’ll never see the light of day again, is attempting to make sure that Mitsuyo doesn’t waste her life on a sentimental memory of their love.
Director Lee spends a great deal of screen time establishing the sorry state of Japanese life that kids like Shimizu, Mitsuyo, and Yoshino have to negotiate. Yoshino’s traditional father is a paragon of loyalty and uprightness, but he treats his wife like a chair in the kitchen, and he is absolutely helpless before the hedonism of Masuo, whom he tracks down and intends to kill for laughing off his role in his daughter’s death. (The power of Masuo’s family money has the same effect as the money of Daisy and Tom Buchanan in The Great Gatsby, who carelessly ruin others and withdraw to their gilded sanctuary.) Similarly, Shimizu’s endlessly cheerful and self-sacrificing traditional grandmother lives at the mercy of her selfish daughter and a quack doctor she works for. The daughter abandons her son with little compunction to the grandmother’s care so she can concentrate on her own desires, and the doctor ruthlessly swindles the old woman out of the money she has earned by the sweat of her brow and saved for Shimizu. To add insult to injury, the last we see of her is when a gang of reporters engulfs her like a swarm of pirana on a feeding frenzy looking for news about Shimizu.
But in the end, director Lee cannot bring himself to lay the crime with finality either on the doorstep of an obviously dysfunctional culture or on the evil of bad men. The closing image encapsulates his ambivalence. Mitsuyo is sitting in a cab, holding a beautiful bouquet of flowers she has bought, intending to leave it on the highway where Yoshino was murdered by Shimizu. But she cannot decide whether to leave them there as planned. Laying the flowers in mourning for Yoshino would be a sign that she no longer believes that Shimizu was a victim of terrible circumstances. Can she make that statement? Mitsuyo is paralyzed by indecision. She clutches the flowers silently, as the cabbie continues to ask her what she wants to do. Where is the arbiter in modern Japan who can help her to shape her world view?
Two other noteworthy films in competition, perhaps too experimental for prizes, France’s Rendez-vous avec un Ange, aka Meeting With an Angel (Dirs. Sophie de Daruvar and Yves Thomas) and Russia’s Peremiriye, aka Truce (Dir. Svetlana Proskurina), gained recognition, both outraged and adulatory, for their challenges to realistic representation. Rendez-vous avec un Ange focuses with such intensity on the internal power politics of a lower middle class marriage, that of Judith and Roland, that these dynamics begin to shape the external physicality of the couple. When the film begins, Judith is a pretty, blonde, reedlike, but mousey woman, barely able to articulate her thoughts and needs while Roland is characterized as her polar opposite. A dark, stocky, domineering man with a Bob Hoskins-like pugnaciousness seemingly built into his DNA, he dresses nattily and summarily enforces his will on Judith. In the first scene, although we see only Judith, who is a nurse, as she is being fired from her job at the hospital, Roland dominates the moment. Judith is characteristically flustered by an angry doctor/administrator who is offering her the alternatives of resigning or being taken to court—for reasons that are for the moment unclear to the audience—pretty serious stuff to be confronted by. However, Judith is hard pressed to keep her mind on the charges against her because she is so afraid of being late for a concert. Roland is waiting for her at the concert hall, and that clearly trumps all other considerations.
Judith is so worried about a negative reaction from Roland that she pretends to go to work for quite some time before he finds out that she has lost her job. As he makes his discovery, his wife becomes such an enigma to him, that in his obsessive wondering about her he loses his job because of his inattention to it and his days are increasingly consumed with his attempts to unearth the secrets of her life. Little by little, Judith gains in glamour and power as Roland fades into grungy desperation. As he and we learn that she makes mysterious visits to men and women in their homes, at first Roland assumes, as many in the audience must, that she is some kind of sex worker, but it soon becomes clear that she euthanizes terminally ill people who would otherwise live lives of pain and suffering—probably the reason she was terminated from her position at the hospital, though we are never told directly. Ellipsis is a major narrative mode in Rendez-vous avec un Ange. If there are connections to be made between this discovery and the first scene in the film, we must make them ourselves. Similarly, the connections between Judith’s growing practice as a euthanist and the increase in her personal radiance and authority are never explained. But the elliptical effect is to paint her as an eerie Angel of Death, who, like a vampire, radiates well being with each death she causes.
This is hardly a treatise film on behalf of (or against) mercy killings. Rather it seems to use the ambiguities of medical supervision of death as grist for a metaphoric depiction of changes that take place in the marriage of Roland and Judith. Her quiet assumption of control over life and death is a lever that turns their relationship upside down, as Roland becomes more and more aware of her power. His increasing awareness and her increasing glamour finds him more and more at her mercy, without her ever even raising her voice, let alone speaking of her vocation. In the last scene, reminiscent of the conclusions of numerous plays and films by David Mamet, the formerly bombastic Roland has been reduced to silence and perhaps to the role of victim. Roland and Judith are alone in a hotel room, on which they converge at the same time without any explicit plan to meet there. Judith carefully lays out the equipment she uses to perform her mercy killings and the two of them face each other wordlessly, as the camera moves past them to their reflections in the hotel room window. Fin. Gone is Roland’s shadow over Judith. Now he exists—but for how long?—in the uncanny light she casts over him. The directors asserted during their Q&A that the film is structured so that the spectator can project his/her own ideas onto this closure, a surefire setup for both frustration and fascination—and an extremely uncanny sense of the gendered roles in marriage.
Peremiriye, equally elliptical, is striking in its creation of a “lower depths” drama from a point of view not historically associated with Russian cinema—and certainly not with Soviet cinema. That is to say, Peremiriye is anything but socialist realism; it is not even the dystopian realism of such post-Soviet films as Nikita Mikhalkov’s Burnt by the Sun (1994). It is rather a kind of magic realism. When I asked her privately whether anyone in Russia actually lives the kind of life depicted in the film, director Svetlana Proskurina answered, “Yes and no; it is a film.” Proskurina has been directing feature length films since 1986 and has had some exposure outside of Russia, notably at the Locarno International Film Festival where she won a Golden Leopard in 1990, and at the Venice Film Festival where she was nominated for a Golden Lion in 2004. Unfortunately, I am not in a position to judge whether magic realism is typical of Proskurina’s cinema, but before the screening of Peremiriye, she gave the audience a little lecture on how we are all held captive by technology. The hero of her film Egor Matveev, is not.
Egor drives a truck for a company that keeps its drivers in a dingy kind of communal barracks that looks like a squat for transients in a seedy urban area, but this “squat” is in a rural area, never identified in the film. Also unspecified is what is being carried in Egor’s truck, or where Egor is taking his cargo, whatever it may be. Indeed, Egor tells his best friend, Quasimodo, a hulking fellow whose face has been badly disfigured, that his destination isn’t on any map. Getting there is all the fun in this film; it’s a road movie in which Egor is either in danger from violence or chasing women whose availability to him is questionable. But it seems that Egor doesn’t need to lift a finger when the action picks up. Whenever danger threatens, and it threatens often, as if by magic his family heritage protects him. Egor comes from a family deeply involved with gangsters, obviously a very notorious family, for whenever an attack is imminent from some collection of thugs or other, one of them realizes that Egor is “one of us.” On the way to his destination, he gets involved with a number of criminal activities, and once actually dies and is revived as he works on an electric tower. When he gets where he is apparently going, it appears that he isn’t carrying anything in the truck. It is the truck he’s delivering. And Egor finds himself absolutely out of context, with nothing around him but wide-open, boundless vistas. Did he expect that this is how things would turn out? We have no way of knowing.
Egor is a genial Tom Jones kind of a guy, what the lit crits like to call “L’homme moyen sensuel.” But he isn’t always a nice guy. In fact, when we are first introduced to him he pulls a stunt that is in such questionable taste that Proskurina seriously risks alienating the audience almost before she begins. A pretty, strawberry blonde, Renoiresque prostitute is thrown, naked, out into the hall from one of the barracks rooms that the truck drivers live in. As she is banging on the door screaming for her clothes, Egor sees her and leads her to a room in which he asks her to wait. For “fun,” Egor locks her into the room with Quasimodo, so that he can hear her screaming in terror at his friend’s messed up face. It’s the equivalent of the freak hunting in The Elephant Man (Dir. David Lynch, 1980), and if it’s a repellent thing to do to the girl, it’s an even worse way to treat his best friend. But Quasimodo doesn’t mind; these are rhino-skinned men. Later on, however, Egor reveals another side to his personality when he maintains a humane balance in looking at situations while others are blissfully going off the deep end, in timeless Russian fashion. Egor’s solid roots in common sense make him an even more unusual candidate for hero of this film about indeterminacy and undefined situations. Proskurina, who unlike many voyagers in the fields of the imagination, likes telling her audiences what her films are about, describes Egor as naive and sincere, and says the film is a chronicle of him finding himself. Arguably, however, it’s what he doesn’t find that is more to the point in this unusual, high spirited work.
Che, Un Hombre Nuevo, aka Che, A New Man (Dir. Tristan Bauer), which was awarded the festival prize for best documentary, distinguished itself by unearthing previously hidden and unknown documents about the famous Argentinian Marxist, who made all of Latin America his project. The new materials were provided by both Che’s wife and the Bolivian military archives. Che’s son Camillo was present for the first screening of the film. An unassuming, fair, quiet man, as unlike his dark, charismatic father as it is possible to be, he greeted the audience and left the theater.
For anyone who knows anything about Che as inspirational rebel, the opening frames of Un Hombre Nuevo are shocking. A voiceover on the soundtrack accompanying visuals of snow-capped mountain peaks gives us the last words Che sent to his wife on tape. Never before heard by the general public, it is one of the revelations of director Tristan Bauer’s film. Che’s voice is weak, exhausted. Speaking from a purely personal place in fragments and phrases, stripped of the bravado of the persona familiar to the world, he presents a picture of a man in collapse. His blurted comments speak of darkness, uncertainty, and of religion. “I don’t know,” spoken softly and confusedly, is the refrain that runs through the tape.
The rest of the film, however, does not echo Che’s final demoralization, nor, for the most part, is it as original as the terrible initial evocation of a rebel ending not with a bang but with a whimper. But it has its interest. Some fascinating footage comes immediately after Che’s taped message. It shows the filmmakers entering the Bolivian military archives and being given access to 29 volumes of previously classified information about Guevara, only to be suddenly and inexplicably forced to leave the library, having copied only three of the volumes. Unable to report why his people had been summarily evicted, even though they had initially been given permission by the President of the country, Bauer never follows up on this peculiar incident, presumably for political reasons, and moves on to newly acquired home movies showing Che’s quite unremarkable upper-middle-class family life, and to familiar footage of his time in Cuba, his eventful world travels on behalf of Communism, and dramatized scenes from his final days in Bolivia. The most notable footage detailing Che’s personal life reveals his detachment from his children, one of the great sources of personal regret for him, since he saw clearly that what devotion he gave to his political mission meant deprivation for his little ones. But eerily and tellingly Che’s regret comes off more as an abstract theory about parenting than a visceral and personal gut feeling about his own particular family.
With his silent-film-star good looks, his personal magnetism, and his world-class adventures, Ernesto “Che” Guevara should be the perfect cinematic subject, but Che, Un Hombre Nuevo, for all its “never-before-seen footage,” testifies to the way Guevara has always eluded those who have tried to capture him, and his life and works, on film. The list of films that don’t quite fully illuminate their hero is substantial: Che (Dir. Richard Fleischer, 1969) starring Omar Sharif; The Motorcycle Diaries, starring Gael Garcia Bernal (Dir. Walter Salles, 2004); The Hands of Che Guevara, aka De handen van Che Guevara (Dir. Peter de Kock, 2005); and Steven Soderbergh’s 2008 Che, Parts I and II. What remains notable about these films is what they can’t seem to tell us about the post-mortem disappearance of his hands, what happened in the Bolivian jungle, why a happy young guy from a loving, comfortable family became a detached and ultimately broken rebel. Tristan Bauer adds meaningfully to the cinematic literature on this figure whose mysteries are indelibly impressed on the Western imagination, but would most likely be the first to say that he did not get as far as he had hoped in bringing him to light.
Finally, Montreal sported a pair of historical epics about mid-sixteenth-century France that cover the same historical territory in stunningly different ways, revealing the kinds of fascinating insights that can emerge from a festival where the celebrity filmmaker and the journeyman cineaste go head to head without any extra points given for fame. Jo Baier’s Henri 4, aka Henry of Navarre, comes out well ahead of Bertrand Tavernier’s epic of the same period, La Princesse de Montpensier. Baier takes the likely tack of filtering this period through the life of the King of France, whose religious tolerance edict brought the country to a new level of humane government and also ensured his premature death at the hands of Catholic extremists. Tavernier’s La Princesse de Montpensier, literally and banally translated as The Princess of Montpensier (but which might be more meaningfully, if loosely, “Englished” in the spirit of wordplay, as “The Princess of my Dreams”) takes the less likely step of filtering the period through the life of the irresistible siren of her day, Marie de Montpensier (Melanie Thierry). Without doubt, the Tavernier production is the more glamorous, but it is also utterly ridiculous. Its depiction of the horrendous Paris massacre of the Huguenots, at the instigation of the sinister Catherine de Medici, as a backdrop for the sexual and emotional adventures of Princess Marie, turns her into a 16th-century (blonde) Scarlett O’Hara, for whom civic violence is reduced to a metaphor for her erotic life. The Protestant blood in Tavernier’s Parisian streets is little more than a poetic image to bring home to the audience her inability to choose her solid, loving, loyal husband over the treacherous but sexy Duc de Guise. Any attempt to read feminist implications into Marie’s final decision to go into a convent rather than submit to the protocols of an arranged political marriage is the height of disingenuousness. For all Tavernier’s claims to art cinema, this is a bodice ripper, a sensationalized portrait of the kind of temptress other women dream of being and men fantasize about ravishing and abandoning. Too bad about the corpses dans la rue.
By contrast, Henri 4, despite the fact that it was made by German television director Jo Baier, is a legitimate meditation on the tangled webs of history. Baier makes some interesting points about crowd psychology as he traces the life of Henry from his years as feisty, mischievous but idealistic boy to his emergence as the first of the line of Bourbon kings, determined to establish some balance between the warring Catholic and Huguenot factions. Baier details, by means of the betrayals that Henry meets, the ease with which large groups of people can be made to hate, fear, and kill each other. One of the most original scenes in the film shows Henry as a child of eight or nine being “blooded” in a war campaign. Once on the battlefield, in which Catholics and Huguenots meet to destroy each other, he meets a Catholic child his own age. Both are too terrified to do anything but yell at each other, Henry telling his enemy to “Get lost,” and the other boy screaming in response, “Go to Hell!” It’s a great evocation of what is serious about good comedy. (The list of Baier’s television productions reveals a strong interest in the period of the holocaust, which may well account for his almost visceral grasp of the madness of the Catholic-Protestant “troubles.”)
At the same time, Baier, as might be expected from his commercial background, is not averse to crowd pleasing flourishes for his serious story. With a megawatt smile, and charm to spare, Julien Boisselier, who plays the adult Henry, is the second coming of Douglas Fairbanks. Baier also adds some lurid and sentimental touches by inventing a Hollywoodized sex life for this monarch. He portrays some chic erotics with the translucent bedhangings that characterize Henry’s tempestuous relationship with Margot (Armelle Deutsch), the supposedly nymphette daughter of Catherine de Medici. He transmutes Henry’s love affair with Gabrielle d’Estrées (Chloé Stefani), the mother of three of his children, into a tale of childless lost love and poisoning. (Gabrielle died in childbirth.) And Baier turns Henry’s last wife, Marie de Medici (Hannelore Hoger), into the architect of his assassination, which most histories do not substantiate. But the emphases are spot on. By sugaring the history lesson, Baier insures that audiences will come away from Henri 4 with a sense of the deadly endurance of pointless hatreds in human affairs—not just with the image of Boisselier’s white teeth, endearing though they may be.
This year’s World Film Festival began with some colorful circus-themed festivities and ended with a red-carpet awards ceremony, the carpet laid across the wooden boards in the construction area around the lovely Théâtre Maisonneuve—think Kennedy Center in Washington D.C., and Alice Tully Hall in New York’s Lincoln Center. The multilingual awards presentations were presided over by Henry Welsh, in charge of press relation, resplendent in black tux and formal shirt. But formality did not uniformly characterize the ceremony attire, which ran the gamut from cocktail party chic to grungewear, complete with sneakers. Likewise the reactions from the winners, which ranged from formal acceptance speeches expressed with sincerity, to euphoria and comic hi-jinx. Everyone had his/her own way of responding. These are people whose first love is making movies and who only secondarily embrace the spotlight. Cinephilia is alive and well in the upturned chunks of cement on Saint Catherine Street.
Martha P. Nochimson, an Associate Editor for Cineaste, is the author of five books, including Dying to Belong: Gangster Movies in Hollywood and Hong Kong (2007) and The Passion of David Lynch: Wild at Heart in Hollywood (1997). She has just published World on Film: An Introduction, and is working on a second book about David Lynch.
Copyright © 2010 by Cineaste Magazine
Cineaste, Vol. XXXVI, No. 1