47th Karlovy Vary International Film Festival, Day 5: ‘Army of Shadows,’ ‘Holy Motors’ & ‘Trains of Thought’

47th Karlovy Vary International Film Festival, Day 5: 'Army of Shadows,' 'Holy Motors' & 'Trains of Thought'

It’s taken several days for the mystery of ticketing for press members to be revealed to me. It took two requests at an information counter to turn up a schedule of press screenings, and two visits to the special ticketing booths inside the accreditation room to learn I can request up to four tickets a day, and that tickets are available for both that day and the next.

It’ll be a relief not to spend hours in the rush lines, though they’ve been the source of interesting conversation, and so far I’ve always gotten into whatever screening I was rushing, which is the whole point, anyway.  However, as is often said about the Karlovy Vary festival, it has a very young audience, especially among the all-you-can-eat Fest pass holders, and I sometimes feel like the oldest person at a rock concert, standing among them. (Of course nowadays the oldest people at a rock concert are often onstage.)

First screening, 9:00 a.m., “Alp”, aka “Alpis,” by the Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos. It’s his fourth feature film, none of which I have seen. “Dogtooth,” two years ago, which won the Un Certain Regard award at Cannes and was subsequently nominated for an Oscar, was his breakout film. I have seen last year’s “Attenberg,” which he produced and acted in, which I found fitfully charming.

I don’t connect with “Alpis,” which is described as a black comedy, although I would term it a grey one, both aesthetically – it seems to have been shot with absolutely no thought for lighting – and because of its somewhat lackluster humor.  The main character is a quirky nurse, and I find myself thinking longingly of “Nurse Jackie,” starring the indomitable Edie Falco, which has more wit and pathos in half-an-hour (more like 21 minutes on Showtime, preparing for the syndication run) than “Alps” does in an hour-and-a-half (which feels longer).  I am surprised, later, when I find it cited by my friend Gabe Klinger in the Reviewers Recommend column in “Screen Daily” as one of his four films to watch (alongside “Margaret” by Kenneth Lonergan, “You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet” by Alain Resnais – which Gabe hasn’t seen but is looking forward to – and a program of rare Antonioni shorts.  That’s what makes horse races!)

At 11 a.m. I give myself a little gift:  watching Jean-Pierre Melville’s implacable “Army of Shadows,” about the French resistance during WW II, on the main Festival screen.  Any guilt I might feel at seeing a movie again is instantly erased when it begins: I remembered it as being black-and-white! So now I can (hopefully) remember it in color.

It’s a masterpiece – I would say it is Melville’s masterpiece, except in truth I think it’s only one among many. Critic Rui Noguiera, long-time Melville associate and author of the essential “Melville on Melville,” who introduces the film, says that it’s become a part of history – not just film history, but history in general.

I’m going to a new venue, the Cas cinema right across the river from the main theaters in the Thermal, so I get there early and find that it has its own little café attached, with a pleasant terrace, from which you can see the L’Oreal makeup truck offering free makeovers, a variety of buskers, and marketers handing out freebies ranging from whiskey shots to balloons. (This is the most festive festival I’ve ever attended.) I myself lust after the small stuffed animal which looks like a bright-orange Pink Panther, mascot of the main Festival sponsor, the electricity company.  The Pink Panther clone shows up, life-sized, in a series of mercifully brief and actually witty short films that play before every Festival screening, spoofing film genres including horror, romance, and crime. I look for the toy in the Festival shop, without success: it seems you just have to stumble across somebody giving them out. I also wish that the gorgeous Art Deco Crystal Globe award given for Lifetime Achievement in the Festival would be duplicated and sold – as keyrings, or bedside lamps!  I’m there.

I sit on the terrace, but I can’t quite figure out exactly where the cinema entrance is, so I ask a guy sitting next to be wearing a Festival lanyard and badge.  It turns out that he is a Belgian filmmaker, just arrived, who not only has no idea that the café he’s sitting in is part of a cinema, but that, entirely coincidentally, it’s the location where his film, “Hors les murs,” is going to be shown the next day, as I point out.  I tell him, truthfully, that it’s on my short list (“I like romantic triangles,” I tell him), but in the event I don’t manage to see it.

I spend about 3/4s of an hour in line, chatting with an obsessed French cinephile whose hobby is attending film festivals – though he doesn’t see as many movies in Paris, where he lives in the suburbs – to much trouble to drive in! When I mention the Lumiere Festival in Lyon, which somehow he hasn’t heard of, he brightens; his daughter lives there, so he can sleep for free.

At 3:30, I see “For dig naken,” aka “For You Naked,” a Swedish documentary made with a hand-held digital camera by a young girl, whose family friend is a famous Swedish artist who’s looking for love after the break-up of a tempestuous 12-year relationship. He meets a younger Brazilian guy online, and she chronicles three years of their up-and-down relationship. I’m utterly charmed by it, and amazed at how honest and introspective the subjects are.  It’s the kind of small gem you stumble across at film festivals: highly unlikely to get a massive release, or to be picked up by a specialty house, or even eventually turn up on U.S. television.

In fact, the main reason I came to this screening was to be in a good position for the screening occurring immediately afterwords in this theater, another documentary entitled “Trains of Thought,” because it’s about one of my obsessions, subways. I’m not exactly a trainspotter, but if a city I visit has a subway, I’m going on it. (Or, if I live there, I’m using it. I was in love with L.A.’s subway when it definitely wasn’t cool.) The film was made by an Austrian filmmaker, Timo Novotny, who I haven’t heard of, although his previous film, “Life in Loops,” which played at a previous Karlovy Vary festival, was apparently a remix of Michael Glawogger’s “Megacities,” made with Glawogger. I’ve just seen almost all of Glawogger’s work in an intense weekend at the Pacific Film Archive, curated by Dennis Lim and with Glawogger in attendance.

I would love to see “Life in Loops,” but I find “Trains of Thought” kinda relentless, kinda slick, with a too-propulsive score by Sofa Surfers, an Austrian band that’s new to me but not, it seems, to a lot of fans in the audience. Although Novotny says afterwards that he wanted to emphasize the differences among the subway systems he chose to explore, I think he’s shot them in too uniform a style. And I would have liked more of an emphasis on the history of the various subways than the impressions of its riders.

But the more that I think about it, the more I realize that, as critics often do, I’m complaining because Novotny made HIS subway film rather than the one that I would have. I would actually happily see it again. I would actually happily see “Trains of Thought 2” (a suggestion I shout out during the Q and A afterwards, when people ask why Novotny didn’t include this or that subway system).

In theory, I have time to squeeze in another screening (or, hey, a real meal or a shower or a nap) before I see Leos Carax’s “Holy Motors” at 10:30 p.m. in the main Festival theater.  But I am so psyched to see Carax’s first feature film since 1999 that I choose to get into the rush line almost immediately after seeing “Trains of Thought.” I’m so eager to see it on the big, big screen in the Grand Hall that I have even already attempted to buy a hard ticket, to ensure my entrance, but it’s sold out.

Its second screening, scheduled three days from now, is going to be in the aptly-named Small Hall, which seats 241, as opposed to the 1145 – and more, if you count the standees and stair sittees – that would be breathing alongside me in the big room. I am definitely a size queen when it comes to screen (and audience) size: I have long lamented the state of art house exhibition in the Bay Area.

I am quite overwhelmed by “Holy Motors,” a mad but gorgeous fairy tale in which Carax’s film double, the astonishing and repellent Denis Lavant, changes character (literally, in the back of a limousine driven by the iconic Edith Scob, and figuratively) in a number of amazingly imagined vignettes.  The Festival program blurb rather artlessly states (right there in black and white!) that “according to many [“Holy Motors”] should have won the Palme d’Or this year at Cannes…”  Having not seen most of its competition (but having been underwhelmed by Haneke’s Palme d’Or-winning “L’amour,” a couple of nights ago), I can’t agree for sure, but it’s certainly the most visually stunning and formally inventive film I’ve seen in a long time. I kind of love it, even though I think Carax has a nasty imagination and a cruel streak. (I can’t stand the way he has chosen to depict Paris, in a deliberately ugly, deformed, although admittedly non-cliched way.)

Afterwards I run into Mimi Brody (no relation, although we like to pretend we are sisters, or maybe I like to pretend we are sisters), who left the UCLA Film Archive for Chicago to program the Block Museum film program at Northwestern University.  Apparently our friend Gabe Klinger has assembled a motley crew to celebrate his last night in Karlovy Vary. Director/critic Dan Sallitt, Mimi, Gabe, me, and four or five others (several of whom I recognize from the Toronto International Film Festival) stand around aimlessly in the carnival atmosphere outside the Thermal hotel, trying to figure out where to drink or eat or eat and drink.

Splinter groups break off and eventually most of us meander along the river towards Aeroport, one of those enormous noisy nightclubs that I might have been tempted to enter in my youth. Tonight I hang out outside, chatting with the impossibly charming Karel Och, artistic director of Karlovy Vary, whose second festival this is. As only the best festival directors can, he appears to be everywhere during the Festival: introducing films, hosting dinners, standing outside this vibrating club in the wee hours, available to all.

He’s made of stronger stuff than I am. I turn towards my hotel and, hopefully, sleep (although the raucous sounds of celebrating from the Festival’s open-air Jameson Festival Lounge, conveniently located just up the hill, will continue until 6 a.m. Like some alky bars in NY and SF, the Festival Lounge closes for THREE WHOLE HOURS between 6 a.m. and 9 a.m.  Its Facebook page [!] claims that it closes at 4 a.m., but I am proof to the contrary. Although I am intrigued by its signature Jameson ginger cocktail, I will not, in fact, enter it once during its Festival lifespan.)

As I said above: this is the most festive Festival I’ve ever been to. I admire Gabe for being able to leave without a backward glance – although, of course, to borrow a line from Brecht/Weill, he’s only en route to the next whisky bar, i.e. another intriguing film festival in another seductive town. (I have known Festival gypsies that skip from one to another, some for work, some for play. It can become an addiction.) But I seek REM sleep.

Tomorrow, after all, I’m starting with a Polish drama at 10 a.m., with four or five other movies to follow.  It’s a tough job, but somebody has to do it.

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