The 2009 Karlovy Vary International Film Festival came to a close this weekend, marked with the crowning of Antonio Banderas with the “President’s Award” and the announcement of the festival’s awards. The fact that flawed works like Andreas Dresen’s film industry satire “Whisky With Vodka” managed to take one of the festival’s top prizes (it won best director) was suggestive of a trend found throughout Karlovy Vary’s 44th edition. While the festival’s eager public audiences – mostly made up of twentysomething backpackers from across Eastern Europe – queued up outside theaters for hours hoping to catch the many previously screened works Karlovy Vary screened out of competition (from Cannes alums like Lars von Trier’s “Antichrist” and Pedro Almodovar’s “Broken Embraces” to audience award winner “A Matter of Size,” which premiered at Tribeca), anyone attempting to find a discovery amidst the festival’s competition slates found themselves mostly at a loss. “Whisky With Vodka,” for example – German filmmaker Dresen’s follow-up to his well-received “Cloud 9” – is a tired and uninspired look at the various romantic entanglements on a troubled film set. Though the film is occasionally redeemed through its charming performances (particularly Henry Hubchen as the film-within-the-film’s alcoholic star), it’s hardly something one would imagine to be deemed the “best directed” work of a somewhat major international film festival. But that, at least according to a jury led by French producer Claudie Ossard, was the case in Karlovy Vary.
That said, a win for a film as sub-par as “Whisky” cannot be entirely blamed on lack of competition. Amidst the generally murky waters of the festival’s 19 world premieres and 34 international premieres were a few good films worthy of finding a spot on one’s film festival radar as they continue to move their way through the circuit. Here’s a rundown of five of said recommendations, including the jury’s Grand Prix selection.
“Angel at Sea” (Un ange à la mer)
Directed by Frédéric Dumont
A Belgian-Canadian co-production, Frédéric Dumont’s “Angel at Sea” – which won Karlovy Vary’s Grand Prix and the $30,000 that comes with it – is an admirable look at the effects of a father’s severe manic-depression on his 12-year old boy. Beautifully shot and featuring remarkable performances from both father (Olivier Gourmet, who shared the festival’s best actor award with “Cold Souls” actor Paul Giamatti) and son (Martin Nissen, who arguably deserved his screen father’s prize), “Angel” is a promising narrative feature debut for Dumont, whose documentary and short film work has been making festival rounds since the mid-1990s. While the film suffers from a somewhat rushed conclusion and the occasional contrived subplot, it remains a powerful examination of the rather twisted abuse the boy suffers at the expense of his father’s illness.
Directed by Martin Pieter Zandvliet
A trend begins in this Czech list with “Applause,” another entry in the competition featuring a self-destructive parent. But while “Angel at Sea” focused more on the child’s perspective, Dogma-style “Applause” – from Danish director Martin Pieter Zandvliet (also making his narrative feature debut) – follows Thea (Paprika Steen, who won the best actress award at the fest), an aging actress struggling to recover from her alcoholism and regain custody of the children who had suffered physical abuse under her drunken supervision. Though narratively “Applause” doesn’t explore anything new (Zandvilet even thanks John Cassevetes in the film’s credit for the clear “Influence” of his work), or do anything particularly interesting with what it’s reproducing, it’s held together by Steen’s intense, stripped-down work as Thea. In a role written with her in mind, Steen shows no signs of vanity (intentionally unflattering extreme closeups are plentiful) as she finds considerable complexity in an underwritten character.
Directed by Valerij Todorovski
Screening out of competition, the international premiere of this visually impressive Russian musical that gained some buzz screening in the Cannes Film Market (and won a bunch of Russian Oscar equivalents) found an enthusiastic reception in Karlovy Vary. At a screening filled with, well, Eastern European hipsters, the audience cheered on their 50’s-era counterparts as they sang and danced their way through the repression of post-Stalin Russia. Like a Russian “Cry-Baby” with higher production values, “Hipsters” follows Mels (standing for Marx-Engels-Lenin-Stalin, and played by the adorable Anton Shagin), a devout communist and “square” who converts to hipster-dom via the enticement of sultry blonde Polya (Oksana Akinshina, who bizarrely looks like the perfect merger of Michelle Williams and Portia diRossi). Mels (now known as “Mel” in hipsterland) is ostracized from his former community, and various energetic and inspired dance numbers ensue. Though its blatant message to be yourself is a little overwhelming, and its mild portrayal of 1950s Russia a little dishonest, “Hipsters” is a whole lot of colorful, rousing fun, and has serious potential to break out beyond the festival circuit.
“Room and a Half”
Directed by Andrey Khrzhanovsky
Another Russian period piece (and one that makes “Hipsters” somehow more fluffy by comparison) comes care of Andrey Khrzhanovsky’s “Room and a Half,” deservedly the winner of the festival’s East of the West competition, which focuses on up-and-coming Eastern European filmmakers. “Room” is a semi-fictional account of liberal, Jewish Josef Brodsky – considered one of the greatest Russian poets of his time, and who was forced into American exile in 1972. Khrzhanovsky works from a clever, accessible script by Yuri Abrov that uses Brodsky’s autobiographical essays as a base, weaving together live action sequences with a series of animated associations (Khrzhanovsky has worked significantly in animation). It serves as a powerful and quite touching route to explore both Brodsky’s remarkable life, and the post-World War II Soviet world he existed in.
Directed by Vassily Sigarev
Inexplicably not recognized by the main competition’s jury, Vassily Sigarev’s “Wolfy” marks another Russian entry on this list, and a film that tackles similar themes to “Angel at Sea” and “Applause.” But “Wolfy” observes its themes with a complexity and ingenuity that are not present in either of those films. An uncompromising tale of child abuse set within a bleak representation of contemporary Russia, the film follows the relationship between a young girl (played by Polina Plutček), and her vicious, sociopathic mother (played by Sigarev’s wife Yana Troyanova). The girl is essentially left on her own for most of her childhood (save for bare minimum parenting care of her dour grandmother and her invalid aunt) as her mother comes and in out her life through cycles of alcohol-fueled violence and intense verbal abuse. Sigarev has said much of the script came about on the basis of Troyanova’s childhood memories, which makes her performance all the more terrifying. Suggestively playing some version of one her own parental figures, Troyanov makes the parental figures in “Applause” and “Sea” seem comparatively angelic.