It wasn’t until I was actually heading to San Francisco yesterday night, riding BART deep under the bay, that I finally felt endorphins kicking in about the upcoming San Francisco International Film Festival. Intellectually I knew the reason I hadn’t been looking forward to the annual two-week roundelay of screenings, parties, tributes, lectures, and live music with film. It was the almost unbelievable confluence of the untimely deaths of Graham Leggat, the executive director of the parent organization, who had succumbed to colon cancer in August of last year, followed with unsettling speed by that of his successor, Bingham Ray, who joined the Society in November, and died of a series of strokes while attending the Sundance Film Festival this January.
The annual press conference to announce the schedule had served as a sort of de facto wake. The program, too, felt colorless on this grey overcast day, as the programmers quickly scrolled through their presentations. Even Director of Programming Rachel Rosen, who can make anything sound like a party, sounded rueful as she mentioned that a favorite discovery of the staff had just made a splash at the SXSW festival.
There were a few films I’d seen elsewhere that I could recommend without cavill: the delightful documentary “Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel,” about the compulsively quotable and influential fashion editor; the highly-colored, melodramatic “Chicken with Plums,” by “Persepolis” directors Vincent Paronnaud and Marjane Satrapi; Todd McCarthy’s labor of love, “Pierre Rissient: Man of Cinema,” about the famed Parisian producer’s rep who will receive the SFIFF’s Mel Novikoff award this year.
But others had left me cold: the German crime drama trilogy “Dreileben” had seemed less than the sum of its parts, Johnie To’s “Life Without Principle” a minor effort, muddled in storytelling and lacking in his trademark action; Francis Ford Coppola’s “Twixt” seemed to waver in tone, with a strange assortment of acting styles; “Policeman,” from Israel, was uneven and unengaging; and “Trishna,” from Michael Winterbottom, based on Hardy’s “Tess of the d’Urbervilles,” one of his minor efforts.
I was only able to catch two movies at SFIFF press screenings, with mixed results: “Bonsai,” set in Santiango, Chile, was a charming and literary delight, not just because it was adapted from a novella but because its young characters existed in a world of reading and bookstores and writing in lined notebooks. But Lawrence Kasdan’s “Darling Companion” wasted his considerable talents and that of an impressive list of collaborators (Diane Keaton, Kevin Kline, Dianne Wiest, Richard Jenkins, Sam Shepherd, Elisabeth Moss, cinematographer Michael McDonough) on a predictable and minor shaggy-dog story. (Which, incidentally, due to the vagaries of film distribution, opens commercially in LA and NY the week before it shows at the Festival.)
But hope springs eternal. As I traveled toward the Castro Theatre and the opening night film, Benoit Jacquot’s “Farewell, My Queen,” I leafed through the program guide with rising expectations. I reminded myself that every year I’m surprised and beguiled by films that might sound less than engaging on first reading a festival blurb. Such phrases as “deceptively detached,” “unerring sense of humanity,” “crushing pressures,” and “restrained tone,” (now there’s one to make the heart leap) might not initially grab you, but there’s nothing better than having your expectations exceeded.A perfect example: last year’s “Silent Souls,” wherein a man travels with a friend to cremate the remains of his wife, which still resonates in my memory. The heretofore unknown-to-me director, Alexey Fedorchenko, was returning to the festival with a segment of the three-part fim “The Fourth Dimension,” alongside Harmony Korine, of whom I’m wary, and Jan Kwiecinski, another unknown. Pleasurable anticipation mixed with pain.
I was also looking forward to the skillful documentarian Kirby Dick’s “The Invisible War,” about covering up military sex crimes, and Oscar-winning documentary filmmaker Alex Gibney’s look at hockey enforcer Chris “Knuckles” Milan, “The Last Gladiator, ” as well as other non-fiction entrants, including “Step Up to the Plate,” about famed French chef Michel Bras, and a study of the performance artist “Martina Abramovic: The Artist is Present”. SFIFF’s documentary lineup is generally quite strong.
Among the fiction films, famed auteurs are not in abundance, having seen the Coppola, Winterbottom, and Johnie To films: the new Kassovitz and Guedigian appeal to the Francophile in me, but those are not exactly marquee names. Star power seemed reserved for the tributes to Judy Davis and Kenneth Branagh (the British — and Australians — are coming), but even those names are somewhat subdued in celebrity culture terms.
In celebrity culture, Marie Antoinette is still, it seems, hot news: in Benoit Jacquot’s “Farewell, My Queen,” she’s incarnated by the appropriately Germanic Diane Kruger, attended to by the beauteous Lea Seydoux and Virginie Ledoyen. I was reminded of a New Yorker cartoon of one man greeting another: “Hiya, Rubens, painter of fat women!”, which I would paraphrase as “Hiya, Jacquot, photographer of breasts!” A questioner during the Q-and-A put it more delicately: “I read that your films are about women who are on the verge of a personal epiphany” – a personal epiphany, on Lea Seydoux’s part, accompanied by beautifully-framed (by both the camera and her dress) downy upper slopes of breasts. (Later satisfyingly revealed unclothed, as were Virginie Ledoyen’s, whose sleeping body obligingly turned over to reveal equally pleasing buttocks). Seydoux is an ideal subject for Jacquot: even her teeth have cleavage.
Not to imply that this was a flesh show a la David Hamilton: just another pleasure, as is the inevitable period display of lavish costumes and sets. Did Marie Antoinette have female lovers? Jacquot, devilishly arching his eyebrows, resolutely refuses to say during the Q-and-A, though it’s clear where his preferences lie: “I don’t think that they sleep together, but I think it’s quite a pity…I think it’s always better when people sleep together.”
The period piece provides a bit of inspiration for the afterparty, held at Terra under the looming Bay Bridge: saucily costumed actors parade through the two-level space. This year’s party seems sparser than last, which allows for startlingly easy access to the food and drink on offer. But after an hour, having glimpsed Kitchen Sister Davia Nelson, film publicist Karen Larsen, and Susan Oxtoby and Steve Seid from the Festival venue the Pacific Film Archive, Fandor’s man-about-town Jonathan Marlow, director Barry Jenkins (who succeeds in shocking me by confiding his new vegetarianism), and assorted other SF luminaries (though not the ones sequestered in the VIP room), I head eastward, having snagged a ride with Telluride Film Festival co-director Gary Meyer. He and wife Cathy are full of stories from last weekend’s TCM Classic Film Festival in LA, and are en route for work reasons to NY, where they will also see theater and art.
I try not to be envious. Who knows what surprises the next two weeks hold? Maybe another “Silent Souls.” I’m just a woman on the verge of a personal epiphany.