I slam three cups of coffee, and go see “Zabric Bobra,” aka “To Kill a Beaver,” an intense Polish film about a rogue operative who’s hiding out in a country farmhouse and hooking up with a local wild child while plotting some kind of complicated revenge. I’m impressed with the strong performance of the lead actor, Eryk Lubos. I’m also quite favorably impressed with a long and convincing sex scene that actually raises a blush on my maidenly cheek (as in, it’s hot). The director, Jan Jakub Kolski, is blurbed as “the master of Polish magical realism.” This one is more realistic than magical. Much later, checking his 14-film filmography online, I realize I saw his “Venice” (more magical than realistic) last year at the Seattle International Film Festival. I’m continually reminded during film festivals of just how much more there is out there than any human being could possibly keep track of.
I say goodbye to the young woman from Prague sitting in front of me and rush off towards a 12:30 screening of “Dreams of a Life,” a grim documentary made for British TV. It’s about a woman whose dead body wasn’t discovered for three years, sitting on a sofa, surrounded by dusty Christmas presents she’d just wrapped, with the television still on. Oy.
While standing in line for it, I run into Gabe Klinger. “I thought you’d left!” I say. “ I am leaving,” he says, “I’ve just interviewed Kenneth Lonergan,” nearly levitating with pleasure. Lonergan’s “Margaret,” whose long problematic creative saga (seven years in the making! Several lawsuits!) and multiple versions are currently being given “The Magnificent Ambersons” treatment in the press, is playing here. I saw it under considerably calmer circumstances in San Francisco some months ago and am confused as to what all the fuss is about.
“Dreams of a Life” is grim but compelling as director Carol Morley, intrigued with the tiny story she reads in the newspaper about the death of Joyce Vincent, advertises for people who knew her and pieces together her life after the fact, combining talking-heads footage with imagined re-enactments of her life. I can’t help but think of the more stylish and powerful (and strange) work of Errol Morris, but even drawing a comparison with “The Thin Blue Line” or “Tabloid” places “Dreams of a Life” in excellent company. (Later, reading about Morley online, I see that Morley used a similar technique and advertised for people who knew her in her early and apparently sex-and-alcohol fueled years to make her first documentary film, “The Alcohol Years.”)
I’m surprised and flattered when Festival artistic director Karel Och comes up to me and invites me into his sanctum sanctorum, asking if there’s anything they can do to make my Festival a little easier. I ask for a ticket to today’s 5:30 screening of the Iranian film “Peleh Ahkar,” aka “The Last Step,” directed by Ali Mossafa and starring his wife Leila Hatami, who was so good in last year’s Oscar-winning “A Separation.” That way I can see the 3:30 p.m. press screening of “Smrt coveka no Balkanu,” aka “Death of a Man in Balkans,” without having to leave early and get into the dreaded (though effective) rush line.
Ticket obtained, I can relax while watching what I think of as the “Balkan suicide film”. (Suicide is a recurring theme here.) When I read its program blurb, I’m intrigued because it says the movie is shot entirely in one take. I think of Sokhurov’s propulsive “Russian Ark,” and Hitchcock’s witty “Rope.” But in the event the one take means a fixed camera (supposedly the computer camera of the suicidee), before which the action is played out like a one-act play. My mind wanders and I think of the more fluently filmed recent productions of Britain’s National Theatre, mendaciously called National Theatre Live, of which I’ve seen Helen Mirren in “Phedre”, James Corden in “One Man, Two Guvnors”, Arnold Wesker’s “The Kitchen,” and one version of the double-cast “Frankenstein,” among others. They’re what I term “better than nothing,” i.e., not seeing real live theater at all. I would happily see lots of stuff I can’t travel to or afford, filmed exactly like “Death of a Man in Balkans,” whose Croatian humor is going over better with most of the rest of the audience than it is with me.
The highly-anticipated “The Last Step,” about an actress who’s just lost her husband to an accidental death, confuses the hell out of me. I grow groggy somewhere in the middle (happily, a rare occurrence, which I credit to lots of judiciously ingested caffeine and no midnight movies), but I’ve lost the narrative thread long before then. I just don’t get it.
Afterwards, in the same main Festival hall, “Polski Film,” a hometown favorite (before the screening fully thirty members of the production are introduced onstage, including the second assistant cameraman and a woman who’s either the casting director or the costume designer, holding her jolly fat baby whose first premiere I assume this must be. It’s about a reunion of four well-known Czech comic actors (well-known in the Czech Republic and Slovakia, though not to me, of course), making a movie together in which they play themselves, financed and made in Poland (which leads to, yes, all kinds of Polish jokes). I try gamely to follow, but it’s as though I’m an alien who’s never seen TV or films, watching a movie about the reunion, say, of Beyond the Fringe or Monty Python. As Variety might say: US prospects iffy. (Or any other country that doesn’t speak Czech or Polish).
I must be growing up. Years ago if I saw two movies in a row that I didn’t understand at a festival I would grow morose and question my entire existence. Tonight I merely chalk it up to life’s rich pageant and turn in early, resisting the probably sure-fire charms of “Grabbers,” a comedy thriller about drunken Irishmen and bloodsucking aliens screening at 10:30. Plenty of chances to be enthralled or baffled again soon.
Which means twelve hours later, at a 9:00 a.m. screening of Christian Petzold’s slightly Hitchcockian, smoothly-told “Barbara,” set in grey and sinister 1980s East Germany, very watchable, but with a surprisingly Ladies’ Home Journal-fiction ending. Still, I’ve been hearing about Petzold’s as an interesting director for some time, and was not convinced by his installment of the three-part television movie Dreileben, the only other film of his I’ve seen. I look forward, now, to seeing more of his work (though I don’t go to amazon.de and order any DVDs).
At 11:30, I see “For Ellen,” another in the unfortunately-titled mumblecore genre, a thin tale of a rocker (played by Paul Dano) who tries to re-connect with his 6-year-old daughter as his abandoned wife divorces him. Produced by Bradley Rust Gray (whose “The Exploding Girl,” starring Dano’s companion Zoe Kazan, was my introduction to the genre a few years ago at the Berlin Film Festival), and directed by So Yong Kim, the film co-stars, among others, an almost-unrecognizable Jena Malone, and, to my embarrassed surprise whe I read the credits unscrolling onscreen afterwards, Jon Heder – because I thought the actor merely looked quite a bit like Jon Heder, in certain shots and angles. I must be losing my touch – or he is.
At 1:30, “Waga haha no ki,” by Masato Harada, or “Chronicle of My Mother,” a soapy story of three generations of a wealthy and successful Japanese family. An honored author tries to work out his relationship with his aging mother, who abandoned him as a child, as well as with his long-suffering wife and several children. Note to blurb writers: try to avoid mentioning Yasujiro Ozu; comparisons with the master will only result in disappointment. Not a good sign that I’m paying more attention to the sets and costumes than the rather stodgy narrative.
Afterwards I permit myself a treat: a new print of Claude Miller’s “La meilleure facon de marche,” presented in honor of the French film journal Positif’s 60th anniversary. They programmed the rather baffling “La Nave delle Donne Maledette” (1954) in similar celebration at Il Cinema Ritrovato last week in Bolgna. This seems a happier choice, at least until the Positif representative introducing the film points out that Miller recently died (before his film “Thérèse Desqueyroux” closed this year’s Cannes film fest), and that both Patrick Dewaere and Christine Pascal later committed suicide (I knew about Dewaere, but Pascal was a new one on me), helpfully telling us the methods. Buzzkill!
Fortunately, the film is compelling enough that I forget the grim introduction. I’m reminded of Pagnol’s delightful and touching “Merlusse,” and in this instance (unlike the Ozu reference above), the thought honors both Pagnol and Miller. I’m so enthralled that I can almost ignore the storm that scarily shakes the tentlike temporary structure (grandly called the Espace d’Orleans) we’re watching the movie in, whose enclosure by rubbery walls smells more like a chlorinated swimming pool with every day that passes.
In the event, we exit calmly, and I actually behave like a human being and join my possibly-sister Mimi Brody for a dinner she’s organized with the delightful Jessica Chiang, late of Malaysia, now living in Dublin, who’s reviewing Karlovy Vary for Indiewire’s Playlist, and whose pieces on Szabo’s “The Door” and “Brian Eno: 1971—1977: The Man Who Fell to Earth” I couldn’t agree with more; David Martos, a radio journalist from Madrid; and Marian Masone, programmer at the Film Society of Lincoln Center. We wander around and stumble into the Ristorante Pizzeria Venezia, a recommended spot that I had poo-pooed because I wanted Czech food, damn it!
I am thrilled to find, alongside the pasta and pizzas, roast knuckle of pork with cabbage and horseradish dumplings (which I would have if it wasn’t such a hot and sultry night) and lamb knuckle with buckwheat dumplings. Others have mushroom risotto, vegetarian lasagna, and pizza; I have a beautifully fried pork schnitzel (two huge ones, actually), and garlicky spinach, although now looking at the menu (you can find EVERYTHING online!), I wonder how I could have bypassed the stouchane bramboury se slaninou, ciboulkou a petrzelkou — i.e., mashed potatoes with bacon, onion, and parsley – on the five-language (Czech, Italian, English, German, Russian) menu.
Afterwards we scatter, to movies various: I take Mimi’s tip and go see a three-part program devoted to an obscure-to-me Armenian documentary filmmaker, Artavadz Pelesjan, described as a genius ideologically kindred to, oh, just Sergei Eisenstein and Dziga Vertov. Beware the overselling: I am underwhelmed by the two short documentaries of his we see, one half-an-hour long, with some astonishing footage of shepherds and farmers battling the elements, and a ten-minute one, mostly about a country wedding. I’m even less taken with the opaque, overcut 50-minute “documentary” about him, aptly described as an “atmospheric mosaic.”
Oh well. I trudge back to the hotel. I turn to the Internet, and while writing up the day’s screenings and researching the death of Marie Prevost, stumble across the intriguingly if clunkily titled “Dangerous Curves atop Hollywood Heels: The Lives, Careers, and Misfortunes of 14 Hard-Luck Girls of the Silent Screen,” by one Michael G. Ankerich. A couple of clicks – it’s so easy! – and it’s on its way to me. It may even beat me home.