Innovation. It's surprisingly rare at the Sundance Film Festival. Sure, risk exists, but sometimes it's like finding a needle in a snow bank. Worthy performances and a compelling story are hard enough to achieve, so perhaps it's too much to ask emerging filmmakers for something original and refreshing. Or is it?
Some of the most daring international films at this year's festival appear outside of the competition sections. Both Michel Gondry's Premiere section entry "The Science of Sleep" (acquired hours after its debut by Warner Independent Pictures) and Carlos Reygadas' Spectrum film "Battle in Heaven" (being distributed next month by Tartan Films) are a cut above the standard Sundance fare, supplying eye-opening auteur visions that shatter the mold.
The dream life of Michel Gondry is a peculiar, striking and regressive thing. "The Science of Sleep" stars Gael Garcia Bernal, in all his cute and nubile glory (girlish titters could be heard throughout the screening), as a young man who can't distinguish between his dreams and reality. A mix of "Human Nature," "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" and an ample dose of Gondry's music videos, the story opens with and returns repeatedly to the personal TV studio, made mostly of cardboard -- of his protagonist's mind. There, Bernal's Stephane manufactures his dreams and mixes his waking and sleeping lives. In his "reality," Stephane is an aspiring inventor and illustrator who takes a dull job in Paris as a typesetter working alongside a trio of misfits who recall characters from "The Office" crossed with Kafka. Stephane's real life gets an extra jolt from his next-door neighbor Stephanie (Charlotte Gainsbourg), who he sees as a kindred creative soul.
Quirky, strange and ultimately unsettling, "The Science of Sleep" first appears like a simple boy-meets-girl story, interspersed with surreal sequences filled with oversized hands, cardboard cars and sexually repressed thoughts sprung to life. All these visual antics would have been mere silly diversions if Gondry hadn't probed the dark, dysfunctional and whiney side of what is undoubtedly a character based on his own child-like personality. Rarely does a film come along that so profoundly exposes its maker's whimsical and troubling inner life.
Though already heralded as a Cannes controversy and banned from Sundance's Eccles high school theater, "Battle in Heaven" lives up to the hype. A stunning follow-up to his debut "Japon," 34-year-old Mexican director Carlos Reygadas establishes himself as one of the world's most important young art filmmakers with "Heaven." Famously beginning and ending with a scene in which an attractive young woman fellates a flabby older man, "Heaven" becomes the sad, tragic and hopeless story of Marcos, a low-level military man who endures a long road to possible redemption after a child he and his wife have kidnapped has died. Recalling the spiritual work of such international cinema masters as Andrei Tarkovsky and Robert Bresson, "Battle in Heaven" ends up telling a tale of spiritual corruption. Meditative, with breathtaking compositions, Marcos' journey suggests painful realizations about class difference and the futile comforts provided by religion, government and soccer.
In the international narrative competition, a trio of high-profile entries experiment with the cinematic form to commendable, but ultimately less stellar results. Fabian Bielinsky's "El Aura" is a brooding heist thriller that shows the director has improved upon his mastery of the medium since his acclaimed debut "Nine Queens." If you can get past the script's basic contrivance, an epileptic taxidermist with a fantasy life that involves bank robberies finds himself in the midst of an armored van heist, "El Aura" is a beautifully observed and melancholy glimpse of a man who takes control of his life. There's a terrific use of a wolf-life dog with different-colored eyes and a spectacular use of the medium prior to the protagonist's epileptic fits, but the film is better conceived than it is scripted.
Another strange combo of genre item and arty character-study from a second-time director, Max Makowski's "One Last Dance" also shows a marked leap of maturity from the filmmaker's first effort, "The Pigeon Egg Strategy." The story of an assassin named "T," the movie takes place in a slick, minimalist cartoonish world where kill-targets are delivered via red envelopes, heart images inexplicably throb on street signs, and blood splatters in "Sin City"-style digital red splashes. Constructed like a jigsaw puzzle and littered with word-games and riddles, the movie is best experienced as a logic mindfuck than a dramatic story. The film's attempts at establishing sympathy for its characters or a theme (the fall of innocence?) are never as interesting as the film's quirky Moebius-like narrative and visual sense of play, the movie's best bit involves a scene told entirely through a flip-book succession of Polaroid snapshots.
Also skillfully imagined, but dramatically thin, "Son of Man" transplants the New Testament fable of Jesus to a contemporary civil-war-torn African nation. Children are slaughtered; Herod is replaced by a military coup; Pilate is a corrupt leader of an interim government, and Jesus, the leader of a nonviolent resistance movement, begins to make trouble for those in power. Directed by Mark Dornford-May and conceived by the South African theater ensemble Dimpho Di Kopane (makers of Berlin Golden Bear winner "U-Carmen eKhayelitsha"), "Son of Man" is refreshingly earthbound, culturally magnetic and politically progressive.
What would Jesus do today? Rail against Europe and the US for defending trade subsidies and restricting medicine, bash Asia for legislating child labor and chastise the Middle East (and presumably Bush) for the use of torture. But while "Son of Man" is a worthwhile undertaking, the characters remain at a distance; Jesus and his disciples lack any sort of depth or complexity -- is audience investment in their fate a given? Not quite. It isn't until a matriarchal-powered protest finale that the story of this martyr for political injustice has the power to stir any souls.
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