Winningly Eclectic Offerings At Rotterdam 2003
by Stephen Garrett
Crouching tiger, naked lady: this year's official poster for the 2003 Rotterdam Film Festival was a decidedly unerotic photo of a nude woman, lying in the grass and ready to pounce. Startling, playful, aggressive, fun, and a silly riff on the festival's own longtime feline mascot, the image was a succinct description of everything Rotterdam has come to offer in the best, worst, and most unexpected in world cinema. (Director and cinematographer Ed Lachman, here with "Ken Park" and "Far From Heaven," followed the spirit of the poster by posing nude himself on the festival newsletter The Daily Tiger.)
With more than two hundred features and scores of shorts unspooling over 10 days, Rotterdam offers an enticing display of film, including plum picks from Cannes, Venice, and Toronto as well as the latest babies grown out of its very own financing incubator CineMart and third-world bankroller the Hubert Bals Fund.
Always well-meaning but generally less artistically satisfying are the dozen or so films annually selected for the Tiger Awards Competition, first- and second-time efforts which are decidedly hit-or-miss and, with their 10,000 Euro prize money and guaranteed distribution in Dutch theaters and on Dutch television, the movies which, for better or for worse, become the face of the festival for those who never get a chance to attend.
The trio of Tiger winners this year include Park Chan-Ok's "Jealousy Is My Middle Name" and Larisa Sadilova's "With Love, Lilya" -- two films hardly talked-up in after-hours industry hob-nobbing -- as well as the flawed but worthy "Extrano," Santiago Loza's study of a troubled man in search of love and meaning in his life. The quiet Argentinian film (supported by the Hubert Bals Fund) revels in pregnant pauses, moments of reflection, and studied conversations with others, all shot in lush layers of light and dark -- a chiaroscuro color palette impressively captured in HD video. The cinematography does its best to compensate for the anemic storytelling, but the overall effect is still quite poignant.
A few of the Tiger runners-up were films definitely worth mentioning. French filmmaker Jerome Bonnell's "Le Chignon d'Olga" is a small but affecting story of family members coming to grips in their own subtle ways with the death of the matriarch. Dutchman Andre van der Hout's absorbingly offbeat Brechtian musical "The Arm of Jesus" depicts a Dutch-American's efforts to visit Rotterdam and track down the life of his long-departed coal-mining father. "Marion Bridge" is Canadian Wiebke von Carolsfeld's moving and intelligently written study of three sisters (including Molly Parker) reconciling their emotions toward their own deathbed-ridden mom. And "Noi Albinoi" is Icelandic Dagur Kari's sweet, sad, delightful and deadpan look at a teenager (who, coincidentally enough, also doesn't have a mother) aching to escape his small-town blues by running away with the local filling-station girl. Easily and quite rightly one of the festival's most beloved films (and a 2001 CineMart project), "Noi Albinoi" did take home the Movieaone Youth Jury Award; let's hope a U.S. distributor willing to bank on its commercial appeal was among the crowds attending the film's sold-out screenings.
One of the ongoing highlights of Rotterdam are its Filmmaker in Focus sidebars, which in more recent years have offered thorough and insightful opportunities to take a closer look at under-heralded artists who have yet to make a major splash on the international stage (past honorees include Catherine Breillat and Roy Andersson). This year's quartet of filmmakers were Canada's silent-film stylist Guy Maddin, India's New Kannada Cinema pioneer Girish Kasaravalli, New York's avant-garde hipster Michael Almereyda, and France's sexual-political provocateur Jean-Claude Brisseau.
The spotlight on Maddin was a godsend for those who have reveled in his retro raptures "Tales from the Gimli Hospital" and "Careful," and many basked in his latest, the Winnipeg Ballet commission "Dracula -- Pages from a Virgin's Diary," a reliably delirious interpretation of Bram Stoker's masterpiece set to dance. If the exercise already seems absurd, some in the audience were not amused. "The dancing is god-awful!" ranted a bitter viewer in the Q&A that followed the film. "You know nothing about dance or how to shoot it!" Maddin, unfazed, admitted that he accepted the commission reluctantly and only after having turned it down twice, and that he didn't know the first thing about ballet. "But maybe things would have been different if I had had a supervisor on set very nearly like you," he said to the apoplectic audience member.
The centerpiece of the retrospective was the world premiere of "Cowards Bend the Knee," Maddin's fictional autobiographical story of a hockey player (named Guy Maddin) caught up in a psychosexual web of longing, revenge, and perversity. Abortion clinics with hair-salon fronts, wax figures of past hockey greats, and murderous severed hands -- all cut together in a quick-cutting frenzy -- are only a few of the elements making this delicious hysteria such a joy. But viewers faced a cinematic caveat emptor: the hour-long film (broken into a 10-part serial) was only viewable through 10 fisheyed peepholes as part of an installation curated by Toronto's Power Plant Contemporary Art Gallery. Anyone strong enough to stare one-eyed at the kinetic fury on display for 60 straight minutes would come out as delirious as any of Maddin's players.
But a true revelation was the series devoted to Brisseau, a filmmaker virtually unknown in the U.S. but considered a master in France -- particularly by his fellow native directors. Even a humbled Claire Denis (at Rotterdam with "Vendredi Soir") gave props. "I am a secondary filmmaker," she said. "Brisseau is primary." For more than 20 years, Brisseau has examined the human condition from both a sexual and political point of view (usually at the same time), weaving unexpected tales of psychodrama that burst with startling points of absurd humor. Whether it be an angry paraplegic teen discovering the beauty of life while her father secretly conducts a serial-killer rampage (1983's "Un Jeu Brutale"), the disaffected and anarchic residents of banlieue housing projects (the 1987 Cannes succes de scandale "De Bruit et De Fureur") or the teen-lovers-on-the-run and African king-in-waiting who conduct a bank-robbing Marxist fantasy (2000's "Les Savantes de Bon Dieu"), Brisseau's movies are rarely complacent, predictable moviegoing. Despite topping Cahier du Cinema's list of best films for last year, his latest, 2002's "Choses Secretes" is a minor step back for the filmmaker, a Zalman King softcore misfire in which predatory woman using sex to destroy others ultimately fall prey to their own tactics. But the storytelling remains wildly original and never less than completely unpredictable -- just the sort of approach that should be heralded by Rotterdam, one of the world's most winningly eclectic film festivals.