The 60th edition of the San Sebastian Film Festival came to a close this weekend in the eponymous seaside resort on the Basque coast in Spain. The dramedy “In the House,” starring Fabrice Luchini and Kristin Scott Thomas and directed by François Ozon, was awarded the fest’s top honors, the Golden Shell, by a jury presided over by producer Christine Vachon, who also awarded the film the Best Screenplay honors. Ben Lewis’s Sundance title “The Sessions,” starring John Hawkes and Helen Hunt, won the Audience Award.
For its 60th edition, and its second under new director José Luis Rebordinos, the fest opened with U.S. indie “Arbitrage,” ensuring a star-studded opening with stars Richard Gere and Susan Sarandon in attendance. Because of the event’s anniversary edition, a total of five special Donostia awards were handed out this year, all to English-language cinema royalty (not a world cinema figure or even a Spanish-language heavyweight in sight).
Tommy Lee Jones, in town to promote “Hope Springs,” received a Donostia award, as did both Oliver Stone and John Travolta, who were in San Sebastian with “The Savages,” the film with the worst reception of all the major titles presented in town, throwing something of an odd shadow over their shared awards.
Ewan McGregor, who had come with director J.A. Bayona (himself from the Basque Country), presented the tsunami thriller and Toronto world premiere “The Impossible” and also received a Donastia Award, as did Dustin Hoffmann, whose directorial debut, the gray-haired melodrama “Quartet,” another TIFF holdover, was the festival’s closing film.
Adding further star wattage to the ten-day event was Ben Affleck, whose “Argo” had its European bow in San Sebastian. All of the major Hollywood films played out of competition and had their world premieres elsewhere.
Of the competition line-up, the eventual winner, “In the House,” another TIFF alumnus, was an early standout. Francois Ozon’s latest film cleverly combines the more accessible, mainstream and stylized comedy-drama of his biggest hits, “8 Femmes” and “Potiche” with the sensibility of his smaller, more cerebral arthouse efforts, such as “Time to Leave,” “The Refuge” and, especially, “Swimming Pool,” as both “Pool” and “House” are about a writer and the person whose life they transform, leading to a blurring of fact and fiction.
“House” stars Fabrice Luchini (of “Potiche” and “The Women on the 6th Floor” fame) as Germain, a literature teacher at a French highschool where, as he complains to his art-gallery-worker wife (Scott Thomas), the general level of interest of his students extends to mobile phones and pizza. Until he reads the assignment of a boy, Claude (newcomer Ernst Umhauer, very good), who describes how he manipulated a classmate (Bastien Ughetto) into giving him access to his home, ostensibly to help the other boy with his homework but really so that he can have a good look around in this perfectly bourgeois dwelling and get acquainted with both his parents (Denis Menichot, Emmanuelle Seigner).
Before things can go all Pasolini’s “Teorema,” however, Germain gives Claude some private lessons in narrative construction and storytelling, with the line between Claude’s new assignments and reality increasingly unclear until Germain himself starts popping up in Claude’s writing. Combining humor, drama, and a light philosophical exploration of the art of storytelling and the relationships between fiction and real life and author and reader, “House” is an impressive and handsomely assembled film that’s as thought-provoking as it is entertaining.
Not quite the same can be said of another French film in competition, Costa-Gavras’ plodding and moralistic “Le Capital,” a sombre yet obvious study of how corrupt the banking system (and the people that work in it) really is. Starring French comic Gad Elmaleh (“Midnight in Paris”) in an unusually serious role, the film pits his clever career climber against nefarious colleagues and competitors, including Gabriel Byrne. There’s also an extremely successful supermodel and full-time cocktease, Nassim (Lidia Kybide, gorgeous and vacuous as always), who rather improbably wants to spend time with Elmaleh’s character and even more improbably needs to borrow a million dollars from him because her “account is temporarily inaccessible.” Surely, Elmaleh gives her the money because she’s “worth it,” and because Costa-Gavras needs auds to know that yes, even successful bankers who are married have a moral weakness when confronted with real-life “L’Oréal” ads. But beyond the idea that bankers are greedy and morally bankrupt, “Le Capital” struggles to say anything much in particular.
A third major French film (and again a TIFF title) presented in San Sebastian was “Something in the Air,” by Olivier Assayas, which garnered stronger notices than “Capital.” The partially autobiographical tale of social fermentation, unrest and coming-of-age in the early 1970s was a press and audience favorite at the event.
In terms of local fare in competition, the clear festival darling was Pablo Berger’s enchanting “Blancanieves,” which transposes the Snow White legend to Andalusia in the 1920s and pours it into the form of a silent film, complete with seven bullfighting dwarves. During the fest, it was announced that Spain, entirely unsurprisingly after last year’s triumph of “The Artist,” will submit the film for consideration in the foreign-language Oscar race. In San Sebastian, it walked away with the Special Jury Prize as well as a shared Best Actress Silver Shell for Macarena Garcia, who plays the title role (the other thespian honored was non-professional actress Katie Coseni, who starred in Laurent Cantet’s “Foxfire,” another French film that received a muted response at the festival).
Two Spanish-language films that world premiered in the fest generated some chatter: “The Artist and the Model,” the return to live-action of “Chico & Rita” director Fernando Trueba, and “The Dead and Being Happy,” a road movie set in Argentina from Spanish iconoclast Javier Rebello. The former, shot in beautiful black-and-white, recounts the rather simplistic tale of an old French sculptor (screen veteran Jean Rochefort) who, during WWII, finds his taste for working again after a beautiful maiden (Aida Folch), a refugee from the Civil War in Spain, agrees to pose for him, naked. Though the film has some nice touches, and Rochefort is quietly dignified, Truebe nonetheless struggles to overcome its impression its all a rather artsy excuse to feature ample closeups of Folch’s lovely nakedness. The recent Cannes Un Certain Regard title “Renoir,” set during WWI, fared much better in painting a credible picture of the old clothed artist-young unclothed model relationship.
“The Dead and Being Happy” was probably the most divisive of the competition titles; it won a Best Actor mention from the main jury and the FIPRESCI prize but quite a few, including this critic, found the film, about an aging hitman on a road trip, to be too mannered for its own good, especially since the film’s many affected style elements (such as a near-constant voice-over narration that tells audiences what will happen onscreen just before it happens, or sudden cuts to silence in the background noise) didn’t seem to be there for any directly detectable purpose. That said, José Sacristan is absolutely credible as the weary Spanish contract killer who’s sick of his job, has taken the money for his latest gig but hasn’t executed his target and who, in one of the film’s most hilarious sequences, struggles to pass himself of as an Argentinean when stopped by the police.
Crowd pleasers included Audience Award winner “The Sessions” from Ben Lewin and Paraguayan pleasure “7 Boxes,” which for days was also near the top of the audience vote and finally walked away with the youth award. The latter is a rip-roaring ride through a big-city market involving a vehicle rarely seen in action-thriller-romance hybrids: wheelbarrows.
“Boxes” was at the festival at least in part because it won the San Sebastian and Toulouse film festivals’ Films In Progress Industry Award last year, a title that this year went to Chilean title “Gloria” from director Sebastián Lelio, who will no-doubt be in the Basque Country with his completed work in 2013. In the same section, Nicaraguan film “Tanta Agua” from Ana Guevara and Leticia Jorge walked away with the Norteando Award.
Though industry events were bustling, especially with Spanish-language and Brazilian industry types, representatives of the international press were less pleased, as Spanish and international distributors conspired to make it impossible for the attending journalists from all, including the biggest media, to get even roundtable opportunities with the attending A-list talent while regional Spanish newspapers and TV stations had easy access to everyone.
An especially frustrating development since there’s not a lot of overlap between writers attending San Sebastian and the festivals where international junkets were organized, Toronto and London, probably spelling a major drop in international press coverage next year as they decamp to festivals where interviews with the talent are an actual possibility and where half of the public screenings are impossible to attend because they only have Spanish subtitles.
Continue to the next page for a full list of winners.