By Indiewire | Indiewire September 30, 1999 at 2:00AM
FESTIVALS: San Sebastian's Paella of Eclecticism, Part I: French Upset Victory, Americans, and the Open Zone
by Ryan Mottesheard
It all started out calmly enough, but by the time the 47th San Sebastian Film Festival came to a close, it had culminated into a polemic Franco-Iberian feud with many Spaniards shaking their heads and muttering that they never really cared much for those French anyway. The Dogme '95 train made its stop as well (it left the station overbooked) while token Hollywood stars entertained the news rags. Oh, and 107 films were shown over ten days to mostly packed houses.
When jury president Betrand Tavernier began the awards ceremony with Churchill's quote, "Democracy is the least bad of political systems," one knew that controversy wasn't far behind. By the time he finished, fellow Frenchmen had walked away with four of the six major awards (including Best Film -- "C'est Quoi La Vie?" -- and Best Director -- Michel Deville's "Sachs' Disease" which tied with Chinese director Zhang Yang's "Shower," acquired by Sony Pictures Classics). In addition, a Spanish actress was awarded Best Actress for a film that no one liked and Tavernier himself had won the Audience Award for "Ca Commence Aujord'hui." It didn't take long for cries of "trampa, trampa" (cheater, cheater) to surface.
Much more surprising than Best Picture winner François Dupeyron's stark account of French peasants, "C'est Quoi La Vie?" was Spain's own Aitana Sanchez-Gijon ("A Walk in the Clouds") winning Best Actress for the much-loathed "Volaverunt." As it was, Bigas Luna's highly anticipated film wasn't nearly as bad as the boo-birds might suggest, but it was a bit disappointing. The beguiling premise -- a murder mystery set against the relationships between court painter Francisco de Goya, his "Naked Maja" (Penelope Cruz) and the Duchess of Alba (Sanchez-Gijon) -- is somehow sapped of its mystery until all that is left is a beautiful shell of a murder film. Director Luna ("Jamon Jamon") stirs his usual preoccupations of power and sex into the brew and certainly offers us lovely things to look at, but not, unfortunately to hold onto. No matter, as the "Volaverunt" caravan included Cruz (freshly arrived from filming "All the Pretty Horses" with Matt Damon), it was the most sought after photo-op in town.
Two Hollywood actresses in solid, smaller films were thought to be fighting it out for the Best Actress prize going into the last day: Sigourney Weaver's tough mother/wife/convict/school nurse in "A Map of the World" and Saffron Burrows' fragile aristocrat is Mike Figgis' "Miss Julie." The better of the two films was Figgis' nouvelle vagued adaptation of Strindberg's costume play and his best film since "Leaving Las Vegas." Figgis finds in "Miss Julie," a 19th century correlative for his 20th century fatalism and refused (wisely) to give in to a BBC version, instead shooting the film in sixteen days on 16 mm, with a mostly handheld camera. Perfectly acted by Burrows and Peter Mullan as the desperate footman, the film is shot like a thriller where something sinister (a phone, a fiancé, a father) is always lurking just outside the frame. While Figgis described it as a five-set tennis match, it's much more brutal, something nearer to a prizefight -- with two, coy heavyweights strategizing, landing jabs little by little, but conserving the knockout punch for the last reel.
One reporter tried to attach the Dogme tag to "Miss Julie," though Figgis was quick to point out that he used lights, a tripod (rarely) and, of course, scored music. And indeed it was Dogme that was on everyone's lips. A Spanish Dogme film was announced, loony Lars' lighting fiasco was still fresh ink, and "Mifune" Dogme III made an appearance to sell-out crowds. And while I believe that this Dogme deserves its day in the sun, it's already in danger of replacing whichever Hollywood sequel (i.e. "Lethal Weapon," "Rocky") as the butt of that old joke: Dogme XXVII anyone?
American films hold a curious position in San Sebastian. Whether the U.S. industry uses the Basque red carpet to tout smaller films (Lawrence Kasdan's charmingly minor "Mumford"), to hype the Euro release of big-budget fare ("The General's Daughter"), or to build buzz for low-budget indies ("Bobby G. Can't Swim"), the Americans enjoyed some of the largest, most enthusiastic crowds of the fest. Antonio Banderas' directorial debut, "Crazy in Alabama," is another case entirely. Stateside, it's a mid-level studio release, but in Spain, it is given the blockbuster treatment, thanks in part to its director's tireless promotion.
Fittingly, Scott Elliot's "A Map of the World" made its appearance while a retrospective of John M. Stahl's work was staged. Elliot's woman in crisis, Sigourney Weaver in a strong performance, would make Stahl proud and the juxtaposition of his body of work with Elliot's first film, is a perfect reminder of how good women's parts, in such abundance during Stahl's day, are few and far between. This melodrama about a school nurse whose life falls apart after her neighbor's daughter drowns on her watch, is held together by good performances (Julianne Moore, David Straithairn) and Elliot's tasteful direction.
New Yorker John-Luke Montias' low budget "Bobby G. Can't Swim" was a welcome achievement of means in the Zabaltegi/Open Zone section. The success of "Bobby G" has yet to be measured in the fickle US indie market, but the Spaniards seemed to like it, and I think it was a case where subtitles actually helped the film (remember "El Mariachi"). Certain dialogues that sound a bit stilted to the American ear are translated into funny anecdotes. And when there are no subtitles, the viewer can focus on Montias the actor -- the moments where he is alone on camera are indeed the soul of the film. Whether he is running through mean-ish streets, pensively sitting on a stoop, attacking a trash can or splashing about in the Hudson River, Montias is always the seemingly un-self-conscious center of the film. There is an overly familiar feel to it all -- the prostitute girlfriend, the corner storyteller, the soured drug deal -- and because of this, Montias seems more the actor/director (Ed Burns) than the director/actor (Clint Eastwood). Yet "Bobby G" is certainly not without its charms, like the reworking of the New Testament fable "when I was hungry you fed me..." into Bobby G's odyssey. Look for Montias to show up, if not in his own films, then in the films of others.
Other interesting work in the Open Zone came from Northern Europe in "Sombreman's Action" (Netherlands) and "Bloody Angels" (Norway). "Sombreman's Action" is reminiscent of Almodovar in its subtle shifts between drama, melodrama and comedy as it tells the story of an anarchist poet who no longer writes, but collects money in a lime green suit for a tough hood.
Meanwhile, Norwegian Karin Julsurd's pitch (black) perfect "Bloody Angels" proves, among other things, that women can make films just as mean and stylish as their male counterparts (nod to Kathryn Bigelow). A weathered homicide detective from Oslo comes to a small town to investigate two murders, first a young retarded girl and now one of two brothers suspected of the crime has been drowned. Is it a case of vigilante justice? Everything is brilliantly shot against white backdrops -- the snow outside, the blinding white-walled police station -- and one spends the breadth of the film trying to decide if the town is more like "Twin Peaks" or "Deliverance." In the end, it is neither; it is something much more disturbing, mostly because Julsurd plays it with a poker face. Many saw the film as a treatise on youth violence, but it's really a simple (and strangely Christian-like) moral fable on passing judgement. It was the best film I saw at the fest. Jurors felt otherwise, however, and another Frenchman, Laurent Cantet won $160,000 in the best first or second feature category for "Human Resources."
For more on the Spanish films at San Sebastian, see tomorrow's edition of indieWIRE.
[Ryan Mottesheard is a filmmaker and writer currently living in Spain.]