2011 Locarno Film Festival
by Richard Porton
In addition to screening distinguished films, it’s also important for film festivals to formulate a consistent esthetic stance that justifies the inclusion of a disparate group of titles, which critics and audiences can then either dismiss or embrace. During Olivier Père’s second year as festival director, it became clear that the one-time head of Cannes’s Directors’ Fortnight had successfully pulled off a subtle balancing act. Although Père is clearly enamored of the sort of auteur cinema that distinguishes the Fortnight from the more bloated entries at the Cannes Competition, he’s nevertheless obliged to regale the public with a certain number of crowd pleasers that can attract locals to the huge open-air screenings at Locarno’s Piazza Grande. Despite Père and his team’s efforts to complement the Concorso Internazionale’s auteur emphasis with honest populist choices for the al fresco screenings, there were some obvious cracks in this policy’s veneer. While some of the films screened at the Piazza Grande, namely Joe Cornish’s Attack the Block and Philippe Falardeau’s Monsieur Lazhar, successfully merged artistry and accessibility, it was more difficult to defend extremely pedestrian fare such as Jon Favreau’s Cowboys and Aliens(presumably invited as an excuse to invite Harrison Ford to receive a career award), Will Gluck’s Friends With Benefits, and Emmanuel Mouret’s L’Art d’aimer
Fortunately, adventurous filmgoers are certainly not obliged to partake of any of the Piazza Grande’s weaker offerings and, unlike a megafestival such as Toronto, the nominal glitz which apparently rationalized the presence of a few weak Hollywood or French commercial movies never threatens to smother the allure of Locarno’s smaller, more esthetically daring films. It’s also greatly to the festival’s credit that retrospectives are not relegated to the margins but are in fact a vital component of the entire mix. 2011’s Vincente Minnelli retrospective (which was subsequently exported to the Brooklyn Academy of Music) offered a valuable opportunity to reexamine this surprisingly complex director’s legacy. Scheduled to coincide with the publication of Emmanuel Burdeau’s comprehensive Minnelli monograph, the films unspooled at the Ex-Rex cinema, a pleasantly musty film palace in the city center. The Minnelli retrospective, like last year’s Lubitsch tribute, fused Hollywood nostalgia with the ambiance of a university seminar; stars such as Leslie Caron (who shone in Minnelli’s An American in Paris) rubbed shoulders with archivists, critics, and academics such as Jacques Rancière, Freddy Buache, and Jean Douchet. Viewing the pristine 35mm prints at the Ex-Rex could only confirm previous memories of Minnelli’s gloriously neurotic sensibility. Ostensibly a comedy, Father of the Bride (1950; one of the films I reacquainted myself with at Locarno) emerged as a quasinoirish suburban nightmare—the labyrinth of wedding planners, decorators, and caterers that Stanley and Ellie Banks (Spencer Tracy and Joan Bennett) encounter while preparing for their beautiful daughter’s (Elizabeth Taylor) wedding exemplified an early phase of the consumer society that still bedevils us. On a Clear Day You Can See Forever (1970) is a more curious artifact from the end of Minnelli’s career. An adaptation of an Alan Jay Lerner/Burton Lane Broadway musical, On a Clear Day contains bleak echoes of My Fair Lady. Instead of the irascibly charming Henry Higgins trading bons mots with Eliza Dolittle, Dr. Mark Chabot (Yves Montand), a deceptively suave Svengali, subtly terrorizes Daisy Gamble (Barbra Streisand), a daffy Brooklynite with psychic powers. Shamelessly manipulated by Chabot, who imperiously conducts sessions in what is now labeled “past lives regression,” the temperature is much too chilly for true romance. Daisy can only find refuge in fleeting memories of a happier existence as a fiery “free spirit” in nineteenth-century England.
Père’s glowing review of Nadav Lapid’s Policeman (winner of this year’s Jury Prize at Locarno) in the Fall 2011 issue of Cinema Scope provided compelling evidence that he is willing to eloquently defend the festival’s programming choices. Lapid’s debut feature is one of the most provocative films to come out of Israel in recent years; Waltz with Bashirand Lebanon are, by comparison, tame and equivocating. Lauding Policeman’s political vision and audacious style, Père maintains that “it is also one of the most stimulating cinematic propositions of recent years, resolving the form and content problem thanks to a stunning feat of dramaturgy while its powerful mise-en-scène expresses ideas that are just as radical.”
Père, moreover, argues that Policeman belongs to an influential group of films (the lineage extends from L’avventura and Psycho to Mulholland Drive) that disrupt “patterns of classical narration” through a rupture in the film’s midsection that sets up a dialectical tension—thereby promoting a salutary disorientation designed to undermine both cinematic conventions and hidebound social and political attitudes. In Lapid’s film, an opening section explores the daily regimen of Yaron, a macho policeman and expectant father in an elite commando unit predisposed to admiring his perfectly sculpted body in the mirror while boasting about his prowess as a warrior. This extended sequence eventually segues into the film’s primary narrative strand, a dispassionate examination of a group of well-heeled Israeli leftists, whose rhetoric and good looks recalls the young zealots of Godard’sLa Chinoise—and whose fondness for terrorist adventurism is reminiscent of the Weather Underground and Baader-Meinhof gang. Refusing to capitulate to liberal sentimentality, these intrepid—and occasionally klutzy—ideologues are far from the antidote to Yaron’s nationalist bluster; in many respects they are merely a bizarre fun-house mirror reflection of the Israeli state’s political hubris. To a certain extent, the militants’ rage against income inequality, which inspires them to launch an inept kidnapping of a wealthy industrialist, represents a hyperbolic version of the tent encampments that recently surfaced in Tel Aviv and other Israeli cities. From another perspective, their intransigence and fanaticism suggests what might ensue in Israel if the currently peaceful protestors’ demands are ignored by a complacent state.
An equally intriguing dissection of ideological contradictions, Santiago Mitre’s El estudiante (The Student; showcased in the Concorso Cineasti del presente; a section devoted to first feature films) synthesized elements of melodrama and the political thriller into a merciless evisceration of Argentine politics as viewed through the microcosm of a university campaign to elect a new dean. Tautly written and directed (Mitre has cowritten several scripts with Pablo Trapero), Roque Espionsa, the film’s protagonist, is an archetypal go-getter, a somewhat benign amalgam of Sammy Glick and Karl Rove. Arriving at a university torn asunder by political infighting, he charms Paula, a fetching young assistant professor, and slavishly emulates her careerist peregrinations as she swerves from leftism to an opportunistic alliance with Alberto Acevedo, an oily politician. The Student also functions as a veiled critique of the ongoing legacy of Peronism, an ideology supple enough to subsume both right-wing and left-populist sentiments.
For a visiting American, it was particularly gratifying to observe that Locarno refrained from featuring the usual array of American independent films imported from Sundance that usually land like a thud at international festivals. Instead, the Locarno programmers chose a few distinctly abrasive U.S. independent films—Alex Ross Perry’s The Color Wheeland Mark Jackson’s Without—that, whatever their faults, were far removed from Sundance’s typically slick offerings. Jackson’s film was especially noteworthy for its refusal to pander to audiences by selecting as its cynosure a curiously ambiguous, often downright unappealing, antiheroine named Joslyn. Condemned to spend a dreary summer as a caretaker for an elderly man on an island in the Pacific Northwest, it’s instructive that Locarno’s catalog describes Joslyn as a young woman adrift on an island “with no cell phone connection and no access to the Internet.” In today’s manically “wired” world, being “unconnected” for even a few months is the closest equivalent to a season in hell. To be fair, Joslyn is also recovering from the trauma of a close friend’s suicide. In any case, her unhinged state, a mixture of grief and electronic deprivation, leads her to express her anguish by taunting a grumpy invalid with furtive, not to mention futile, sexual advances. An unadorned character study, Without greatly benefits from Joslyn Jensen’s admirably self-effacing performance.
A refreshing eclecticism also came to the fore in Locarno’s tributes to Isabelle Huppert, Japanese cult director Hitoshi Matsumoto, as well as a special program of recent short films by —and about—Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet. Like any festival, Locarno cannot please all of the people all of the time. Nevertheless, it valiantly attempts to bridge the chasm separating populist tastes and rarefied cinephilia— which is about as much as one can ask for in this day and age.
Richard Porton is a Cineaste editor and an occasional contributor to Cinema Scope, The Daily Beast, and Moving Image Source.
Copyright © 2011 by Cineaste Magazine
Cineaste, Vol. XXXVII, No. 1