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Hamptons ’10 | Style vs. Substance in Reaching for the “Starfish”

Hamptons '10 | Style vs. Substance in Reaching for the "Starfish"

It’s a story of style.

Dedicated to finding and honoring the most interesting emerging filmmakers from around the world, the Hamptons International Film Festival’s Golden Starfish award is one of the most generous prizes in the American film festival circuit, worth $130,000 in in-kind goods and services for the winning director’s next film. There are few thematic similarities among the five films that competed this year, but together, they illustrate the possibilities of film style: how it can be used and misused, how certain kinds of stories call for certain kinds of styles and how style can enhance meaning – and sometimes obscure a lack thereof.

The least stylish – and perhaps uncoincidentally, most accessible – of the bunch was “Oldboys,” Nikolaj Steen’s Danish road-trip comedy pairing a late middle-aged sad sack janitor with a hotheaded ex-con. In the film, Vagn (Kristian Halken) is so invisible that his teammates on an amateur over-50 men’s soccer team forget him at a gas station on a roadtrip to Sweden, where he ends up tagging along with John Lund (Robert Hansen) who’s as prone to quoting “The Celestine Prophecy” as he is to robbing gas stations.

Steen’s first film includes all the obligatory plot points of a conventional road trip film, from the opening act fight to the implausible encounter with a gorgeous stowaway to the predictable final act catharsis where everyone realizes that only by getting in touch with your emotions can you really grow. What saves the film from staleness is Steen’s hilarious screenplay and the supporting players’ sense of comic timing. Steen has a knack for locating the absurd in the quotidian, and Vagn’s soccer teammates are a profane, obese, unruly crew of childish retirees. Every scene with them is a gem. Steen plays it straight, shooting and editing his film in the most conservative and unobtrusive way, and it works. As the genial Steen notes, “It’s not a festival movie.” Indeed the most surprising thing about this pleasant and predictable crowd-pleaser (winner of audience awards at the Karlovy Vary and Hamburg film festivals) is that it has yet to find distribution outside of Denmark. “Oldboys” has “Little Miss Sunshine” crossover appeal written all over it.

On the opposite end of the spectrum is Cam Archer’s “Shit Year,” a challenging, disturbing black-and-white film that’s ostensibly about a retiring actress (Ellen Barkin) who seems unable to get over a (possibly) brief love affair with a handsome young co-star. I say “possibly” because the chronology is never entirely clear in this puzzle of a film, which plays like a David Lynch screenplay shot by Ingmar Bergman and edited by Alain Resnais.

Creepy, convoluted and complex, “Shit Year” is a formally audacious experiment that combines infuriating sounds (stuck horns, TV static) with frightening images (white “skin people” carrying sparklers chasing Barkin down an alley) and disembodied voices (the credits list 12 actors as either narrators or “voices”). While watching the film, I was never sure whether I was watching the story proper, a fantasy, a dream, a flashback or the afterlife – or whether it really mattered. “Cam Archer has a really bold approach to storytelling, and acting and cinema,” said David Nugent, programming director for the festival. “He has such a vision.” At its best, “Shit Year” has the vividness of a lingering nightmare; at its worst, it’s an insufferable art-school exercise. But you can’t but help respect Archer, who takes risks in nearly every shot. In “Shit Year,” the style is the story.

If only the same could be said for “Mamas and Papas,” a gorgeously shot but intellectually vacant multi-threaded drama about childbirth from Alice Nellis, who has won numerous film awards in her native Czech Republic, not to mention the Hamptons’ own Golden Starfish for best feature on Sunday night. A network narrative in the mode of “Crash,” “Babel” and “Traffic,” “Mamas and Papas” tells the stories of four sets of parents from across the Czech class spectrum. All conform to economic stereotype: the middle class couple has the means to provide for a child but can’t get pregnant, the wealthy doctor escapes the death of her child by departing for a tropical vacation, the struggling artists have an abortion because the girl doesn’t feel “ready” and the poor, fertile immigrant couple gives up a child for adoption because they’re effectively broke.

The mostly Czech cast does a great job with the improvised screenplay, but the characters have no existence outside their highly schematized situations. Despite the film’s unifying theme, the parallel stories acquire no resonance or irony from the crosscutting. The stories don’t speak to each other so much as co-exist. Nellis and her filmmaking team shoot and cut the film in their best imitation of Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu, with tasteful, pulsing music on the soundtrack, unnecessary jump cuts between extreme facial close-ups and medium body shots and about a dozen too many out-of-focus POV shots whose sole purpose seems to be to suggest a general sense of artiness. Like Iñárritu, Nellis tries to hide her film’s banality behind a façade of cinematographic grandeur and editing virtuoso. “Mamas and Papas” is a beauty to look at but its message is no more profound than “Having children can be hard.”

“Oldboys” director Nikolaj Steen at the Hamptons International Film Festival. Photo by Micah Sachs.

A film that has substance, but could have used more style, is “Of Love and Other Demons,” Hilda Hidalgo’s adaptation of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s 1994 novel. Set in a Spanish colony in the Caribbean in the 1750s, “Of Love and Other Demons” is a magical realist tale about a teenaged girl with long curly red hair who is bit by a rabid dog and imprisoned in a monastery for the suspicion of demonic possession. Hidalgo, who has never directed a feature before, met the Nobel Prize-winning author at a film workshop in Cuba six years ago, where she told him she thought the novel was very cinematic.

“He said, ‘this is the only novel I wrote using cinematic techniques.’ He said, ‘do you want to do it?’ I thought he was joking. I said, ‘yes, of course,'” recalled Hidalgo. “‘Then go do it,’ he said.” Not only did Garcia Marquez give permission, he encouraged her to take liberties with her adaptation. While altering and simplifying the story, Hidalgo nonetheless treats the novel with too much reverence and taste, and not enough passion and whimsy. The chiaroscuro contrast between the vivid, lush tropical exteriors and the dark, oppressive interiors is effective, and the young star, Eliza Trazia, is a revelation in her first performance. Hidalgo’s screenplay grapples subtly with issues of faith and love, but the film never comes to life, despite its play with such juicy tropes as exorcism, sex and death. “Of Love and Other Demons” could have borrowed a dash of “Mamas and Papas”‘s stylistic panache.

The competition’s best marriage of style and substance – and one of the best films at the festival, period – was Quebecois filmmaker Xavier Dolan’s second feature, “Heartbeats” (Les amours imaginaires). Written by, directed by and starring the 21-year-old Dolan, “Heartbeats” is an intense, and intensely enjoyable, romantic drama that focuses on a love triangle between Francis (Dolan), Marie (Monia Chokri) and Nicolas (Niels Schneider), the object of their mutual affection. Or perhaps I should say “imagined” love triangle, as best friends Marie and Francis torture themselves (and each other) over whom Nicolas is really into.

Nicolas floats dreamily above their concerns, a curly-haired androgynous beauty who practically exhales charm and spontaneity. Dolan is a bold cinematic stylist, filling his soundtrack with loud, lush French pop songs and filming his close-ups from a variety of unconventional angles. He is obsessed with slo-mo, but he’s not simply trying to convey a general sense of “coolness.” Dolan exploits slow motion for its ability to illustrate the subtleties of facial emotions; I have rarely seen the technique used to evoke such a variety of affects, from joy to fear to sensuality to that old Scorsesean standby, desire.

Dolan intercuts the story with fictional interviews with young people about their relationships. It’s not entirely clear why he uses such a momentum-draining device, but the writing is sharp and funny enough throughout that it doesn’t matter. Unlike with the other films in competition, no one involved with the making of “Heartbeats” was able to attend the screenings. No matter. “Heartbeats”‘ stylish assault on the concept of love stands on its own.

So what does it say that “Mamas and Papas” won best film from the Hamptons jury, while “Heartbeats” won best cinematography, and Archer won an award for his “pioneering vision?” In the world of independent and foreign film, it’s a lot easier to come to a consensus over style than it is to reach agreement over substance.

[Editor’s Note: A correction was made to this article after it was originally published.]

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