Early August is usually a transitional moment, when the summer movie season winds down to set the stage for the fall, and most moviegoers are catching up on highlights from the last few weeks. But for a few thousand people attending the Locarno Film Festival, a whole new set of discoveries await.
The Swiss festival is one of the major European film events of the summer, offering a range of new titles that encompass multiple genres and national cinemas, many of which will go on to play at other big festivals later this year. Here’s a look at some of the most promising films in this year’s lineup; expect to hear more about them in the near future. (Stay tuned for more essays on this year’s lineup from participants in the 2017 Locarno Critics Academy.)
“What Happened to Monday?”
Norwegian director Tommy Wirkola may be best known for “Dead Snow” and its sequel, a pair of campy Nazi zombie stories, and his “Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters” was a continuation of that sensibility. But the Netflix-produced “What Happened to Monday,” which premieres in Locarno’s massive outdoor Piazza Grande, shows a more serious side to this genre filmmaker.
Set in a dystopian future in which the population is regulated by a tyrannical government, the movie stars in Noomi Rapace in no less than seven roles as a set of siblings who hide out in an apartment and pretend they’re the same person to avoid getting detained. Naturally, the bad guys pick up on that scheme, and the various versions of Rapace are forced into a rough-and-tumble survival saga. With the fast pace of a Bourne movie and possibly the most ambitious acting challenge of Rapace’s career driving it, “What Happened to Monday?” is a high concept, unpredictable sci-fi ride well-positioned to remind audiences that the original girl with the dragon tattoo can carry her own action vehicle with acting chops to boot.
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Most people would agree that Isabelle Huppert is one of the greatest actresses working today; she also has terrific instincts when it comes to directors. Over the past year, she has appeared in new films from Michael Haneke, Paul Verhoeven, and Hong Sang Soo. Now, she’s adding French critic-turned-filmmaker Serge Bozon to her docket. Following up on his slapstick effort “Tip Top,” Bozon’s latest work is a feminist twist on “Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde,” with Huppert playing a mild-mannered teacher who becomes a very different person after she’s struck by lightning. It’s the kind of high concept, transformative material that only someone like Huppert could tackle, and unlike “The Mummy,” this is one riff on an old Universal monster movie worth believing in.
Palestinian director Annemarie Jacir follows an aging school teacher in Nazareth preparing for his daughter’s wedding by distributing invitations with his estranged son. The movie finds them wandering the town together and talking through their problems, providing a glimpse into the generational conflicts of a Palestinian household that’s rarely seen in contemporary cinema. Expect a tense, emotionally resonate movie driven by the power of its performances and an insightful script.
The first feature from visual artist Xu Bing transforms his installation piece into a dystopian drama about the experiences of living in a society grappling with surveillance. The story follows the experiences of a young woman named Dragonfly who abandons a nunnery and attempts to integrate herself into the secular world with mixed results. A misguided love story ensues, with another character becoming obsessed with Dragonfly, losing touch with her, and then gaining the impression that she has become an online celebrity. That may or may not be the case, but according to the beguiling plot summary, he then attempts to reinvent himself as that very same online celebrity. It’s a premise as tough to describe as today’s fractured media landscape, which may be part of the point. Buzz is good for this strange, thematically rich directorial debut.
Avant garde filmmaker Ben Russell’s work combines non-fiction portraits of marginalized characters with surreal, poetic imagery and immersive environments (a combination best realized with his utopian fever dream “A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness”). That aesthetic continues with this latest feature, an epic look at two mining communities in Serbia and the South American jungle of Suriname. The 16mm feature looks like a gorgeous, expressionistic portrait of physical labor that stretches across national and cultural boundaries to examine the oft-ignored victims of capitalism at the bottom of the food chain. Experimental film fans will automatically veer towards this kind of sensory deep-dive, but Russell’s cinematic vision is so compelling and unique that “Good Luck” has the potential to pull in a broader audience intrigued by the film’s thematic depth.
“A Skin So Soft”
Denis Côté is anything but predictable. The Canadian director won Locarno’s Golden Leopard for his eerie father-daughter story “Curling,” then followed it up with the non-narrative study of zoo animals “Bestiare,” and from there made the bizarre drama “Vic + Flo Saw a Bear.” Côté’s documentaries are always formally inventive challenges, but his fiction films are especially exciting for the way they position melancholic characters in otherworldly circumstances.
With “A Skin So Soft,” he focuses on a brotherhood of six body builders, whose cult-like determination to push past their physical limitations has both mesmerizing and tragic ramifications. The movie combines documentary and fictional elements — in other words, the best of Côté’s talents, which means it has serious potential to remind audiences that he’s one of the most audacious filmmakers working today.
Brazilian directors Juliana Rojas and Marco Dutra follow up their Cannes-acclaimed debut “Hard Labor” with this pregnancy thriller about Clara (Isabél Zuaa), a nurse hired to care for Ana (Marjorie Estiano), who’s expecting a rather unorthodox child. As the trailer makes clear, Ana’s prone to wandering around in a daze at night, possibly afflicted by some sort of demonic presence that has set its sights on Clara. The visually involving drama also shows the hints of a class struggle between the lower-class Clara and affluent Ana, set against the backdrop of São Paulo’s fragmented social hierarchy. It’s not the most original genre, but the setting and high style suggest one of the more inventive entries in a creepy context that has delivered the goods ever since “Rosemary’s Baby.”