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47th Karlovy Vary International Film Festival – Day Three: ‘Le Samourai,’ ‘The Door,’ ‘L’amour’ & More

47th Karlovy Vary International Film Festival - Day Three: 'Le Samourai,' 'The Door,' 'L'amour' & More

At 9:00 a.m., the new film of the Taviani brothers, “Cesare deve morire,” in which theater, reality, and cinema mingle. In theory, the movie documents a production of “Julius Caesar” (“liberally inspired by the work of William Shakespeare”) performed by the inmates of a maximum-security prison. In practice, the drama constructed around the performance is artfully contrived.  My favorite sequence: the inmates auditioning for the play’s director, performing a simple task — giving their name, date of birth, and address to an official — in two ways, pathetic and angry. The performances are astoundingly powerful. The invited audience sees the play in a theater on the prison grounds that looks very much like a miniature version of the Grand Hall we’re watching the movie in – plush red seats, modernistic décor. Kinda meta.

I can’t help thinking of Jean Genet and Pier Paolo Pasolini, who would love this movie. The faces of the prisoners are marvelous, and could have appeared on any episode (or all episodes) of the Sopranos.  Again I think of the changing significance of clothes, as I did with the stylishly attired security guards yesterday, shooing away the casually-dressed wealthy holidayers: inside the prison, it seems, the inmates all wear their own assorted jeans and t-shirts; it’s the guards who wear uniforms. The comforts of the cells – hot plates, espresso makers — are reminiscent of the scene in “Godfather II” where the collegial inmates slice garlic paper-thin with a razor for the pasta sauce they’re making.

I wonder, idly, where the guards are for the inmate from the movie who introduces it onstage at Karlovy Vary, but I learn from the credits afterwards that he’s actually been released and now works as an actor. It seems that several of his colleagues are now published authors – plenty of time for writing and reflection when you’re serving a life sentence for murder.  

The first day I arrived, I swore an oath to myself that I wouldn’t go see the movies in the hommages to Jean-Pierre Melville and Michelangelo Antonioni, no matter how seductive they seemed.  I’ve seen them, after all. But here, on only my second full day of screenings, I slide into Melville’s “Le samourai,” because it’s slotted in between the Taviani brothers movie and the new István Szabó film, “The Door,” I’m planning to see right afterwards at 2 in the same theater. It’s partly sloth, partly timing, partly a sincere desire to see “Le samourai” again.  (One wonders, as the years go by, if there will be another chance to see a masterpiece properly projected on a big screen. And, faute de mieux, new things are revealed: the movies don’t change, but as time passes, I do. Last week’s ecstatic few days at Il Cinema Ritrovato was a particularly vivid reminder of that. I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen “La grande illusion,” and, partly due to the superb restoration, I saw things in it, both literally and figuratively, that I’ve never seen before. )

“Le samourai” may be a film noir, but its palette is blue – a film black-and-blue, if you will. Alain Delon is extraordinarily beautiful, a special effect all his own. He’s constantly looking at himself in mirrors and smoothing the brim of his hat in a characteristic gesture. I miss the appearance of what I always call “the Jean-Pierre Melville dancers” in the inevitable nightclub setting, but the resident piano-player, a chic combination of Hazel Scott and Josephine Baker, makes up for their loss.  I remember, years ago, one of the old French fanboys telling me with some awe that Melville had told him that Delon swung his two stolen Citroens into the garage in one take “because he was un vrai star.” Seeing it again, I note that the driver didn’t even have to be Delon, because you can’t see his face in the shot.

While lining up for Istvan Szabo’s “The Door,” starring Helen Mirren, who received the Crystal Globe lifetime achievement award on Opening Night, I am rescued by a beautiful tall young redheaded girl named Eva who shares her coffee with me, merely because I looked at it and said “I’m jealous.” I tell her that there’s a movie named “Eva”. She thinks I’m talking about a 2010 “Eva” made in Romania, while I’m thinking, of course, of the Joseph Losey movie starring Jeanne Moreau.

She misplaced her ticket, and is therefore standing in the hopeful passholder-sans-tickets line with me. Her ticket-bearing brother and friends are inside already, and just before the doors open for the ticketless hordes, call her and say there appear to be no seats available.

Happily, there do not seem to be fire laws here in Karlovy Vary, and more people are let in, anyway. For a while, it looks as though I am going to have to sit on the stairs, but after the credits roll, the young staff girls who have been blocking the largely empty prime row reserved for “VIP!  VIP!” (meaning “not you”) grudgingly leave their posts and I can sit there.

As sometimes happens, getting into the theater and scoring an excellent seat is almost the high point of the exercise. Mirren and her co-star, German actress Martina Gedeck (so good in “The Lives of Others”), are enjoying their work more than I am. I’m unconvinced by the psychology of the characters and the logic of the narrative.  Things seem to be missing, both from the cutesy progress of the women’s relationship — Mirren’s cranky housekeeper is a Fascist version of Mary Poppins, and Gedeck merely stolid and opaque – and from revelations of dire secrets that are anticlimactic. The greatest response from the audience comes when Szabó is glimpsed in a small role as a doctor. (The novel it’s based on is by Magda Szabó, and in this instance the old gag – “no relation” – is true.)

I stroll down towards the ballroom of the Grand Hotel Pupp, where I’m going to take a chance on a Czech classic I’ve never heard of, “Sinko v sieti” (“The Sun in a Net”) (1962), newly digitally restored for its 50th anniversary, by director Stefan Uher, mostly in order to be in place to see Michael Haneke’s “L’amour,” screening in the same room right afterwards. “L’amour” just won the Palme d’Or at Cannes, so I figure it’ll be crowded.

On the way I run into Mark Cousins, who’s drinking a beer on his own at one of the picturesque cafes overlooking the Tepla river. He’s waiting to be photographed, wearing a black t-shirt emblazoned with the word “cinephilia” in bright orange, neatly matching the bright-orange lanyard for our Festival badges, and a kilt. I decline his offer of a drink; alcohol dangerous in combination with too many movies, too little sleep.

“The Sun in a Net” proves to be gorgeously photographed, in crisp black-and-white, with especially sly performances from the two charismatic young leads, who never really acted again. It’s an interesting introduction to the work of Slovak director Stefan Uher.

International man of film Gabe Klinger, who I last saw wandering the streets of Bologna in search of an open bar, and his Sight and Sound colleague, Camelia Gray, show up and join me to wait for “L’amour.”  When Gabe says “Is this the rush line?,” I suddenly realize that indeed that’s what I’ve been standing in for the past two days.  We’re standing by a sign leading into a Grand Hotel Pupp café that warns us that it’s a Private HOLLYWOOD COCKTAIL PARTY, from 7:30 to 10 p.m. – a running time longer than the movie we’re waiting for, Gabe points out.  There’s some talk of a party afterwards, reachable only by funicular (hey! I love funiculars!), to which I have not been invited. I intend to hotfoot it back up to the Thermal to see Thomas Vinterberg’s “Jagten,” anyway, at 10:30 p.m., which is only playing once during the festival.   

As the minutes tick by, Gabe and Camelia seem increasingly anxious about whether or not we’ll get in.  To distract them, and control my own contact anxiety (nobody likes to wait for an hour to get into something and then not get in) I tell them about the time I was refused entrance to Steven Sodebergh’s “Schizopolis” one year at the Toronto, International Film Festival when they instituted a policy of not letting people in once the movie had started.  An officious usher barred my way even though introductions were still being made from the stage.  I turned away, distraught and dejected, and ran into Kay Armatage, a Festival programmer, on the stairs. When she heard why I was leaving, she offered to pull rank with the usher, but I didn’t want to cause any trouble, so I said thanks but no.

Months later, the film opened in Los Angeles, and I went to see it at the Nuart.  Long story short: I HATED it! To this day it remains not just my least favorite Soderbergh movie, but one of my least favorite movies of all time.

Anyway, we get into “L’amour.”  Except I don’t get into it, really. Maybe I’m suffering from the land of over-anticipation; I like Haneke’s work, this just won the Golden Palm at Cannes, and everybody I knew who’d seen it liked it. But I remain curiously unmoved. It seems rote, cold, by-the-book.

As we walk out, Gabe sees a director friend walking in to the Hollywood Cocktail Party we’d been making fun of, and in mid-sentence I see him disappear from my side and slip in alongside his pal.  I’m nonplussed. I don’t want to go to a party, per se, but I could sure use a cup of coffee. This fancy hotel is charging 80 crowns ($4), not evil by Starbucks standards, but when one 5-euro note bought four assorted coffees last week in Bologna, I figure I’ll look for a cheaper coffee outside.

But it’s pouring out, which deters me both from coffee and the hike up the hill to see the Vinterberg film. I trudge back inside and get in the rush line for Ulrich Seidl’s “Paradies:Liebe.”  Some kind soul gives me an extra ticket, and Gabe joins me after his Hollywood cocktails.  

It’s a bright, sunny, cheerfully transgressive take on plump middle-aged German fraus buying sexual favors from young, well-muscled black men while on holiday in Kenya. The transactions seem clear, but our heroine wants more: real connection, even love. I’m reminded of Laurent Cantet’s “Vers le sud” (“Heading South”, 2005), starring Charlotte Rampling and Karen Young, buying sex in Haiti.

As we walk back to our hotels, I’m feeling glum, more from the underwhelming Haneke than the Seidl, which is skillful, if disturbing (but then I like to be disturbed by Seidl). But I’m considerably cheered up when Gabe tells me about some of the highlights from the fabled Midnight Sun Film Festival he’s just been to in June in Finland. His descriptions of Cavalcanti’s “Rien que les heures,” a city symphony film; films by Jean Mitry, an early film theorist; and watching an hour or so, drunk with friends, of Joe Dante’s 4 ½ hour “Movie Orgy,” a montage of found footage, is enough to get my inherent cinephilia feverish again.  Gabe tells me he’s leaving Chicago for New York, and a job in the Museum of Modern Art film department, where he’ll be working on, among other things, a month-long preservation festival. It seems a perfect fit.

And tomorrow I have to try to find that funicular.

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