European Motion: Chicago Celebrates E.U.; while Austria Fetes Its Own At Alternative Diagonale
by Anthony Kaufman
If the European Union succeeds as a collective entity, it will pose major challenges to the United States as the world's single superpower. With 25 countries, a reported population of 500 million and an economy of $9.3 trillion, the E.U. could finally put American imperialism in check. This month, Chicago's Gene Siskel Film Center is hosting a film festival that showcases what the cinema might look like in a world dominated not by America's dream factory, but by the European Union. And let me tell you, it's a lot more thrilling, innovative and inclusive (10 of the 36 films are directed by women) than what we have now.
The Film Center's seventh European Union Film Festival, which opened last Friday with Ireland's "Intermission" and ends March 25 with an entry from new E.U. member Poland, will unveil work from 16 countries, including sneak previews of Lars von Trier's gloriously anti-American tour-de-force "Dogville" (Lions Gate) and Jean-Paul Rappeneau's WWII-set Oscar snub "Bon Voyage" (Sony Classics). Much of the series functions as a launch pad for the arthouse distributors' upcoming pictures (e.g. Wellspring's "Twentynine Palms"; Kino's "Free Radicals"; ThinkFilm's "Bright Young Things"; IFC's "The Reckoning"; Paramount Classics' "Love Me If You Dare" and Miramax's "I'm Not Scared"). But a handful of noteworthy films still wait in distribution limbo, and deserve a second look.
German filmmaker Christian Petzold's second feature "Something to Remind Me" ("Toter Mann") continues the emotional complexity and psychological suspense he established in his 2000 debut "The State I Am In" and confirmed in his more recent 2003 Berlin Fest entry "Wolfsburg." Imbued with loneliness and empty spaces, "Something to Remind Me" follows a lawyer's obsession for a mysterious blonde woman who abruptly disappears from his life. While therein lies a trace of Hitchcockian thriller, Petzold is more attuned to the sadness and desperation of everyone who appears onscreen, from a sympathetic, sorrowful murderer on parole to a single woman who tells us that it is far better to be ashamed with someone than to be ashamed alone.
Just as poignant and engrossing is first-time British director Sarah Gavron's "This Little Life," a BBC production that seemed to pass unnoticed (undeservingly) through last year's Telluride and Toronto Film Festivals. After their baby is born dangerously premature, a husband and wife experience an emotional roller coaster ride as they watch their offspring struggle to survive. Modest, unsentimental, intensely verite, and confined almost strictly to the rooms of the hospital, "This Little Life" is a diminutive drama with a hefty punch.
Another strong debut effort, Genevieve Mersch's "I Always Wanted To Be A Saint" (Montreal 2003's best first film) is a welcome addition from Luxembourg, one of the E.U.'s lesser-known signatories. Bolstered by an affecting performance from newcomer Marie Kremer as a teenager abandoned by her mother, "Saint" is quirky, occasionally moving, and ends on a pitch-perfect note.
Two black comedies, Finland's "Upswing" -- about a pair of yuppies accidentally trapped in the Simple Life -- and Spain's "The Suit" -- about a Spanish-African parking attendant whose life changes when he garners a fine suit -- are also charming and unpretentious examples of a sharply made European cinema. Stateside audiences can surely appreciate these two satires about class in the E.U., where such topics are the norm rather than the exception.
Two of the Film Center's E.U. entries -- Barbara Albert's multi-faceted portrait of discombobulated lives "Free Radicals" and Andrea Maria Dusl's Eastern European road movie "Blue Moon" -- were winners last weekend at Austria's recently wrapped domestic showcase, the Diagonale film festival, which has been caught in a heated political battle over the last couple of years.
A bastion of protest during the rise of Joerg Haider's ultra-right conservative Freedom Party (which has since combusted, but is surging once again), the Diagonale's original leadership was replaced last year with safer State-appointed functionaries.
In September, Hans Hurch, the director of Austria's international film festival, the Viennale, sided with a "Counter-Festival" in protest of the shift, while filmmaker Ruth Beckerman called for a boycott "if the Diagonale is not returned to the Austrian filmmakers."
But in December, the management of the official Diagonale resigned and the alternate "Original Diagonale" pushed forward, much to the satisfaction of the country's bourgeoning and provocative film industry, which has recently received international recognition on the fest circuit with the works of Albert, Ulrich Siedl, and Michael Haneke.
"The ministry-proposed, 'new' and 'shiny' and commercialized idea of the Diagonale imploded a few months ago," Alexander Horwath, director of the Austrian Film Museum, told indieWIRE. "And next year it will be financed again by the ministry who seem to accept their defeat."
"It's really the first time that the art/film world managed to overrule a government attempt to destroy a vital element of the contemporary cultural landscape," Horwath added.
With per day attendance up over the now shortened five-day event and 854 accredited guests and journalists (with a large French contingent), the "Original Diagonale" established itself as a viable showcase for new Austrian cinema -- without fussy government oversight.
Bucking any mainstream tendencies, the Diagonale awards further supported Austria's status as a haven for avant-garde and unconventional cinema. The grand prize for best Austrian film went to Martin Break's "handbikemovie," described as a courageous, radical and provocative roller coaster ride, the film documents -- in 56 uninterrupted shots -- the point of view of the filmmaker, as he rides through the streets and escalators of metropolises risking his life on a tricycle wheelchair he uses due to multiple sclerosis.
Other award-winners included Albert's "Free Radicals" for best screenplay, with "Blue Moon" and Ulrike Schweiger's "Twinni" also receiving screenplay nods; Bernhard Keller for best cinematography on Ruth Mader's "Struggle"; Gerald Haringer's short film "MA," an experimental portrait of artist Boris Nieslony; Karl Bretschneider's short film "Gray Area" (youth jury prize); and Brigitta Boedenauer's "don't touch me when I start to feel safe" and Didi Bruckmayr and Michael Strohmann's "I Am Sad" (which both won prizes for best innovative work).