The 14th Annual European Union Film Festival – Week Two

The 14th Annual European Union Film Festival
Gene Siskel Film Center
Week Two (Friday, March 11 — Thursday, March 17)

A number of our contributors weigh in on a selection of titles from Week Two of the EU festival. Screenings are listed in chronological order based on the first show date. Watch for possible additions during the week.

Pedro Costa’s CHANGE NOTHING (NE CHANGE RIEN) (Portugal/France)
Friday, 6pm and Thursday, 8:15pm

We don’t have an in-house write up for this, but it’s Pedro Costa, so we’ve got to give it its due! Check out Cine-File contributor Ben Sachs’ review for the Chicago Reader here. (2009, 99 min, 35mm)

THE RED CHAPEL (Denmark)
Saturday, 7pm and Monday, 6:15pm

This documentary was partially financed by Lars von Trier’s production company, and it bears many of the hallmarks of von Trier’s work as director. The videography is purposefully crude, and the tone could be described as occupying a gray zone between black comedy and genuine discomfort. What distinguishes the nauseating allure of THE RED CHAPEL from anything directed by von Trier is that its central subject—the totalitarian culture of North Korea—truly is disgusting: there’s no need for moral equivocation here. The movie is a record of director Mads Brügger’s visit to North Korea with the titular comedy duo, two Koreans who have lived in Denmark since birth. Posing as sympathizers of Kim Jong-Il’s regime, they arrange to perform a vaudeville show in Pyongyang as a political prank comparable to what The Yes Men do, but the plan quickly backfires. The revue is revised almost immediately according to State censorship; even worse, the group’s ostensible cultural visit turns out to be a rigid, highly surveilled process by which government officials aim to indoctrinate the comedians. “Postmodern irony never came to North Korea,” Brügger muses at one point, but the movie’s message is hardly so simple. Complicating matters is the fact that one of the Red Chapel performers has cerebral palsy, a condition that would have gotten him executed at birth in North Korea. His very presence is an affront to the nation’s culture of intolerance, but it’s hard to feel any sense of victory, ironic or otherwise, in Brügger’s tactic of throwing him into painful social situations like a lamb to the slaughter. As in von Trier’s movies, the deliberate insensitivity is sure to upset a lot of people, but others may find some food for thought. If nothing else, this is highly watchable as an on-the-ground profile of life in Pyongyang, of which we have very few. (2009, 88 min, DigiBeta video)—Ben Sachs

João Pedro Rodrigues’ TO DIE LIKE A MAN (Portugal/France)
Saturday, 8:45pm and Wednesday, 7:45pm

Occasional Cine-File contributor Gabe Klinger’s (slightly excerpted) write up on TO DIE for Mubi.com: “In João Pedro Rodrigues’ TO DIE LIKE A MAN (2009), Fernando Santos’s Tonia is an aging transsexual who’s falling from grace at the Lisbon club where she has performed for years. Her dilemma is front and center, though it only becomes clear near the end of the film, when Tonia and her junkie younger boyfriend Rosário make the sojourn to a forest where they meet with two enigmatic drag queens named Maria Bakker and Paula, as well as a doctor named Felgueiras who cites German prose together with Maria. Together they go searching for mushrooms, capture a “glow-worm,” and are bathed in a Martian red light. For an extended sequence, the characters sit still as the audience listens to the hypnotic “Cavalry” by Baby Dee. The song lyrics include verses like “Jesus don’t weep for me/Weep for your children instead” and “What happened to your momma/Where has your daddy gone” that [resonate as one] thinks back to Tonia’s religious devotion, as well as to an earlier confrontation with her estranged son Zé Maria. The slow rock ballad tinges the film with a degree of melancholy, before restoring it with impassioned energy by having Fernando Santos sing a fado, complete with carnival plumes and a jeweled crown. [...] The combination of folkloric elements and the contemporary situation of a transsexual give the film its distinctive force and elevate Tonia and Rosário from potentially sad figures into glorious depictions, each as richly and lovingly carved out as a religious icon in [a] Caravaggio [painting]. Both the Baby Dee and fado songs are presented in their integrity, which just goes to show the viewer how serious Rodrigues is in his intent. A lesser filmmaker would have chopped the scenes by a third, thus only giving a fleeting or touristic view rather than allowing for the possibility to feel as though one had lived through this story.” (2009, 134 min, 35mm)—Gabe Klinger

TWO IN THE WAVE (France)
Sunday, 3:15pm and Wednesday, 6pm

There are numerous high-brow approaches to documenting the trajectory of Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut’s friendship, most of which are adopted in Emmanuel Laurent’s film at one point or another. At times, the project seems to have a spiritual objective, rooted in Laurent’s unfailing reverence for the cultural legacy of these two men and his presentation of the French New Wave as a sort of prelapsarian state for cinema. In this devotional context, Godard and Truffaut’s bitter falling out takes on the magnitude of a veritable schism. In its more secular moments, the film seems to have a sociological slant, using the directors’ disparate upbringings as a way of addressing their distinct critical viewpoints and diagnosing their eventual conflict. But even in its most studied and self-serious moments. TWO IN THE WAVE feels like a blind gossip item whispered amongst giddy, loyal fans. The film’s most notable attempt at objectivity is its lack of contemporary interviews with surviving friends, collaborators, or critics, so that the entire history is recounted only through primary sources—excerpts from Cahiers du cinema, footage from the pair’s early films, clips of old interviews, and the occasional tabloid article. Rather than conveying neutrality, it feels like an invitation from Laurent to approach the public works and personal lives of Truffaut and Godard as a fellow outsider and enthusiast. (2010, 91 min, HDCAM video)—Anne Orchier

Christi Puiu’s AURORA (Romania)
Sunday, 5pm and Tuesday, 6:15pm

The passage of time seems not to factor into the design of quite a number of movies, which is strange, given the medium’s temporal basis. Refreshingly, AURORA operates along the logic of many experimental films: exploring time, allowing its length to tease out its own little epiphanies. Chantal Akerman’s JEANNE DIELMAN is perhaps an apt comparison. Events unfold in real time, with Christi Puiu, the film’s director and lead actor, showering, wandering about town, and packing up his belongings in preparation for renovating his flat. Early in the film (well, relatively early in the film, as it takes the movie ten minutes to get to the opening credits) Puiu buys a customized firing pin for a gun, a gun which later receives intermittent screen-time yet commands the conscience of the audience throughout the film. Remembering Chekov’s famous dictum, we know this gun will be used by Puiu, we just don’t know on whom; the fact that Puiu skulks around trailing after strangers forces us to play a morbid guessing-game. With the trigger pulled only halfway through the film, the game adds a new wrinkle, asking us to not only spot the victim but also to understand Puiu’s increasingly irrational actions and his potential motivation. This is Christi Puiu’s first time acting, yet his sense of timing is that of a veteran, with long passages of time consumed by the minutia of his character’s movements. It is a treat to observe and the mundanity of these small moments, ironically, will benefit from a big-screen viewing. (2010, 181 min, 35mm)—Doug McLaren

Jan Hrebejk’s KAWASAKI’S ROSE (Czech Republic)
Sunday, 5pm and Wednesday, 8pm

The world needs minor artists, wrote Robert Warshow, and the movies need more directors like Jan Hrebejk (UP AND DOWN, SHAMELESS). A maker of light comedies about recognizably messy emotions and a human-scaled chronicler of political controversies, Hrebejk often recalls James L. Brooks (BROADCAST NEWS, SPANGLISH) in his social observation, but he lacks Brooks’ incessant begging for his audiences to like him. Hrebejk is not afraid of making his characters unlikeable (particularly the most masculine ones), nor does he try to reconcile their conflicts by the end of every film. The last scene of KAWASAKI’S ROSE is a fine example of Hrebejk’s understated complexity. It’s a moment of bitter confrontation, staged as domestic comedy, between a man returning from exile and the romantic rival who sold him out to State authorities thirty years earlier. Surrounded by family and friends, the two appear to have reached some kind of friendly truce—until the exile proceeds with the film’s final monologue, which insists that recovery has only begun. His words are eloquent, funny, and dripping with recrimination. This is some of the most human writing to grace recent movies. KAWASAKI’S ROSE doesn’t operate on this level throughout. Like Hrebejk’s other films, it’s a mixed bag of insight and shallowness: Some characters are introduced only to advance the story; certain scenes (particularly those of marital discord that take up much of the first third) will feel familiar even to casual viewers of the domestic drama. Yet these weaknesses cannot take away from the film’s underlying maturity. The film slowly reveals itself to be about Czech abuses of power in the years following the Prague Spring of 1968, and it’s surprisingly forthright in implicating members of the liberal “Velvet Revolution” in this corruption. Hrebejk couches the politics in a rather low-stakes drama about a TV producer working on a profile of his distinguished father-in-law, a Velvet Revolutionary with buried ties to the 70s police state. In hindsight, Hrebejk’s focus seems entirely apt: Rather than indulge in the impotent breast-beating of exposing past corruption, the film considers what it’s like to live, day-to-day, with its legacy. As always in Hrebejk’s films, the acting is fine and warmly indulgent of character quirks; as a visual artist, Hrebejk remains unassuming but never dull. (2009, 95 min, 35mm widescreen)—Ben Sachs

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