The Spanish film “The Double Steps” from director Isaki Lacuesta won the top prize, the Golden Shell, at the San Sebastian International Film Festival, which ended Saturday. Though rumors about the film’s win had been circulating for a couple of days, the beautiful but extremely complex – some might say nonsensical – work won’t be winning any audience awards anywhere anytime soon.
A trio of world premieres by high-profile names that somehow managed to escape the attention of the programmers of Venice and Toronto were the most highly anticipated titles to premiere in competition at the Festival in Spain, though it was another local title as well as a couple of Toronto holdovers that most impressed the international press.
The fest opened on September 16 with the European premiere of Juan Carlos Fresnadillo’s “Intruders,” a Toronto world premiere. The spooky European genre film stars Clive Owen, Carice van Houten, Daniel Brühl and Pilar Lopez de Ayala and was a logical choice to open the fest, since it not only stars relatively well-known names and was directed by a local director but also reflected the interest in genre fare from San Sebastian’s new fest director, José Luis Rebordinos, who is the former head of the town’s Fantasy Horror Film Week.
“Intruders”’ dual-track narrative, set in both Spain and England, teases out the connections between the stories of two young children who are confronted with tales and, not much later, actual appearances of Hollowface, a sort of “Harry Potter” Dementor-wannabe who’s not half as scary as he (or she?) should be. The psychological angle the film plays up, in a storyline involving a psychologist played by Kerry Fox, is interesting enough though so protracted it drains the proceedings from suspense. And a Spanish priest played by German-Spanish actor Brühl, feels like a naïve young kid whose sole reason to enter priesthood was an unhealthy obsession with the original “The Exorcist.”
Two well-known Asian filmmakers, Kim Ki-duk and Horikazu Kore-eda, world premiered their latest works in competition at the Basque coastal resort. Kim finally came out of (self-imposed) filmmaking hibernation earlier this year, as documented in his autobiographical “Arirang,” which scooped a shared Un Certain Regard prize in Cannes. His follow-up, “Amen,” was presented in San Sebastian, and is hopefully a minor detour before a return to more classical filmmaking.
“Amen” is a low-budget travelogue about a Korean woman who arrives in Paris to look for her artist boyfriend, though she soon learns he has moved to Venice, leading her to follow his trail. On the night train there, a mysterious figure wearing a gas mask steals her belonging. To make matters worse, once she’s in Venice, she finds out her boyfriend’s no longer there either but has gone to Avignon.
Captured in smudgy digital images, with cuts that feel arbitrary and a sound track filled with unfiltered noise from the streets, “Amen” is about as far away as one can get from the technical polish that was a universal constant in Kim’s earlier films. The story itself feels like it was improvised on the spot and shot while Kim and his actress were traveling around Europe, with the ending, hinted at by the title, straining for a deeper meaning that isn’t really there.
Kore-eda, by comparison, delivered another solid if light-hearted entry with his latest film, “I Wish.” It continues his fascination with young children after his Cannes entry “Nobody Knows,” though “I Wish,” which looks at two separated brothers on opposite sides of the country and the trains that might have connected them, has none of the melancholy of “Nobody Knows.” Young child actors and real-life brothers Koki and Oshiro Maeda are an utter delight. The film won Best Screenplay.
San Sebastian’s third high-profile world premiere is the first French-language feature of actress-writer-director Julie Delpy, “Skylab”, which walked away with the jury prize. Her work as a filmmaker include the English-language films “The Countess” and “2 Days in Paris,” and her latest, though in French, is closest to the insouciant and saucy banter of the latter, though again there’s a sense that Delpy is a good dialogue writer but hasn’t got a clue how to connect the dots between the various scenes to turn her film into a coherent and pacey narrative.
“Skylab,” which is inspired by memories of the youth of the actress-director herself, is a portrait of an extended family that gathers in Brittany for a weekend for the birthday of the clan’s matriarch in 1979, the year that the titular satellite was expected to crash into Brittany.
A competition highlight coming from Toronto was Terence Davies’ adaptation of Terence Rattigan’s play, “The Deep Blue Sea,” which manages the difficult trick of being elegiac in tone while simultaneously suggesting the still-smoldering embers of a blinding and all-consuming passion. The handsomely appointed film stars Rachel Weisz as a suicidal woman in a beautifully nuanced performance opposite handsome rising star Tom Hiddleston, who plays the dashing ex-RAF pilot for whom Weisz’s character has left her bourgeois and respectable husband, a judge. Reflecting the contrasting natures of the two male leads, which are sexy, fiery and unpredictable and staid, steady and secure respectively, Davies’ filmmaking equally sways between lyrical use of the camera and classical music and more posed shots and dialogues.
Out of competition, the Telluride titles “Albert Nobbs,” from filmmaker Rodrigo Garcia, delighted the local press, again especially winning notices for its performances. Star Glenn Close was in town to accept a Career Achievement honor and present “Nobbs,” which she headlines and also co-wrote. The historical tale of an Irish hotel butler who is actually a woman was made on a tiny $6 million budget and stars, alongside the inimitable Close, Mia Wasikowska in another strong performance as the hotel maid with whom Albert becomes infatuated. Cameos of Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, as a boozy and licentious gay man, and Brendan Gleeson as a kind doctor, further elevate the acting stakes, though heartthrob Aaron Johnson, as Wasikowska’s paramour, manages to do little else but look hot in period duds (when he’s wearing them) and grime.
As usual, San Sebastian, which is situated in the autonomous Basque region, showcased Spanish-language fare made locally as well as further afield, across several sections including a work-in-progress market and the Horizontes Latinos section, which showcases the best of Latin-American filmmaking.
The biggest disappointment of all the local offerings for this writer was the eventual competition winner, the perhaps intriguing-sounding double bill offered by local documentary filmmaker Isaki Lacuesta, whose “The Double Steps” played in competition, while its companion piece, “The Clay Diaries,” played in the Zabaltegi Specials sidebar.
Known for his imaginatively conceived and filmed portraits of artists – “The Legend of Time” explored the legacy of Flamenco legend Camarón; “All Night Long” looked at Ava Gardner’s time in Spain – Lacuesta’s latest nominally look at French painter Francois Augieras, who worked in Africa. “The Double Steps,” which like “The Clay Diaries” was shot on location in Mali, certainly offers breathtaking views. But its largely fictional narrative, which includes an indigenous family of which one of the members is also called Francois Augieras, is so convoluted that, in the end, instead of becoming lyrical (which is Lacuesta’s usual m.o.), the film simply becomes impenetrable. The shorter “The Clay Diaries,” which is more clearly in a documentary vein, did not excite audiences much either.
The other two Spanish titles in competition were the bombastic, convoluted and incredibly black tale of murder, terrorism and cops, “No Rest for the Wicked,” and “The Sleeping Voice,” a harrowing tale of two sisters of whom one is incarcerated and waiting for her execution under the Franco regime, adapted from a novel inspired by oral research. The two films would make for an interesting double bill as they almost form a yin-and-yang duo of opposing forces: male/female; fiction/reality, hard-boiled genre item/historical weepie.
Despite belong in an overcrowded category, “The Sleeping Voice” finally emerged as the most impressive film of the two, with its all-round exceptional cast, including María León as the younger of the two sisters, who manages to be both naïve and hard-bitten at the same time. Her scenes go from comedy to intense drama in a heartbeat and a wonder to behold and she very deservedly took home the Best Actress prize.
The film is also one of Spain’s three finalists for the country’s foreign-language Oscar submission spot, together with “Black Blead,” which premiered at San Sebastian last year, and Almodovar’s “The Skin I Live In.”
Also worth mentioning is the animated local film “Wrinkles,” from director Ignacio Ferreras, which played in the Zabaltegi-New Directors section. It’s essentially a gray-haired buddy movies that looks at two old codgers in an old people’s home. Funny and sad (on of the protags has Alzheimer’s) the film was praised in San Sebastian for the fact the voice work and animation aligned so neatly that most people forget they were watching an animated film at all.
Other Spanish-language films in Horizontes Latinos, including Cannes Un certain regard entry “Bonsai” from Chile, a beautifully melancholic story that involves literature and slow-growing miniature trees, and Cannes breakout hit “Miss Bala,” Locarno winner “Abrir puertas y ventanas” and the eventual San Sebastian winner of the section, the delightful yet delicate road movie “Las Acacias,” from Argentina
On the English-language indies front, Sean Durkis’ Sundance title “Martha Marcy May Marlene” was well-received by the local press, while Sarah Polley’s “Take This Waltz,” a follow-up to “Away from Her,” was met with a slightly more mixed reaction.
This year’s retrospectives included the works of French director Jacques Demy and a look at contemporary film noir from the U.S., including such films as “Heat” and “Fargo.” Star of the latter, Frances McDormand, headed the jury this year, which also included Chinese actress Bai Ling and writer-directors Guillermo Arriaga and Alex de la Iglesia.
The 2011 San Sebastian Film Festival winners are
Golden Shell: “The Double Steps”
Special Jury Prize: “Skylab”
Best Director: Filippos Tsitos, “Unfair World”
Best Actress: Maria Leon, “The Sleeping Voice”
Best Actor: Antonis Kafetzopoulos, “Unfair World”
Best Cinematography: “Happy End”
Best Screeplay: “I Wish,” by Horokazu Kore-eda
Kutxa New Directors Award: “The River Used to Be A Man”
Horizontes Latinos Award: “Las Acacias”
Audience Award: “The Artist”