The Karlovy Vary International Film Festival set sail on its 46th cinephilic voyage on July 1 with a screening of the opening-night film Jane Eyre and fireworks over the Hotel Thermal (the headquarters of the festival, and where a large part of the screenings are held). The festival closes on July 9 with Midnight in Paris. In between those dates there will be hours and hours of under-the-radar and greatest-hits offerings from previous festivals (Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, The Turin Horse, Eighty Letters, etc.), a number of retrospective/archival sidebars highlighting contemporary Greek cinema and the films of Sam Fuller, Denis Villeneuve, Jerzy Skolimowski, and others, and a slate of competition films. The trickiest thing about large festivals—after you get used the idea that it really will be impossible to see absolutely everything even if you don't sleep and learn how to teleport from screening to screening—is finding the right balance between countries/auteurs/old/new while always leaving room for the unknown, trotting off to those films you've absolutely never heard of. And so, in the hopes of maintaining some sort of equilibrium…
I saw my first film of the festival in the beautiful Karlovy Vary Theater, a traditional opera house that, for most of the year, serves as the main performance hall of the city. Playing as part of the tribute to Sam Fuller, The Naked Kiss opens with the bald, half-dressed Kelly (Constance Towers) repeatedly clubbing a man with a blunt object, the jazz score boiling and the camera mirroring her desperate swings with its own jagged movements. The opening moments evoke Herschell Gordon Lewis's brand of exploit, and though the rest of the film is more simmered down, it's in Fuller's characteristically bold fashion. Kelly is a prostitute who, upon arriving at Grantville and engaging in one last professional rendezvous (with Griff, the town cop played by Anthony Eisley), decides to go the way of Mother Teresa. She begins working at a hospital for crippled children, being a general do-gooder (giving a fellow nurse money to have her unplanned baby instead of an abortion) and falling in love with Grant (the town's handsome namesake and wealthy benefactor). Even when things are going well for Kelly (the sordid moments of the opening nearly forgotten), the sad, long expressionist shadows falling across nearly every frame and the darkness in the hollows of Kelly's angular cheekbones make it impossible to believe that the paradise she's walked into isn't two steps from turning into hell. This is a film riddled with doppelgangers: Candy, the woman who owns a seedy bar that serves as a front for a whore house, looks like an older, more run-down version of Kelly, and Buff, who works at the hospital, and a girl who works for Candy. The doubles who've embraced their baser, sick, more avaricious natures serve as further warnings of how close everyone is to giving in to the darkness. After Kelly's idyll is shattered into pieces, it can only ever be haphazardly glued back together again, for the shadows in people are constantly lurking and there is no earthly paradise.
Halfway through Denis Villeneuve's Polytechnique, it became necessary to pull myself out of the film to purposefully take notice of its stylistic choices. The formal rigor had all but washed over me because, within the space of its opening minutes, the hemorrhaging atmosphere of dread and oncoming violence creates a space of inescapable soul-sick horror. The film recounts the Montreal Massacre of 1989 (on December 6th, Marc Lépine opened fire at the École Polytechnique, killing 14 women, injuring 10 others in addition to four men). Early on, the never-referenced-by-name Lépine (Maxim Gaudette) writes his suicide letter/mission statement explaining that feminists have ruined his life (though he doesn't go into the details of how) and that he will seek revenge. Examining the hours leading up to the tragedy as well as its aftereffects on two of the victims, the film does not breech any new ground in exploring the nature or reasons behind violence. Much like the conclusions reached by other films probing the same subject, even if there's a “reason” to be found it can never be justified (Alan Clarke's Elephant doesn't bother providing any explanation at all, just showing violence to be pervasive and random, inherent in man).
There's a scene in which Jean-François (Sébastien Huberdeau) looks idly at a copy of Picasso's Guernica hanging in the copy center, the painting standing as another testament to the absolute base unreasonableness of mankind's urge to destroy. Shot in black and white, the film boasts a few staggering moments of sickness-inducing beauty: snow falling slowly outside the window of a silent cafeteria, which moments earlier had been filled with music and the noise of students, now empty save a few lifeless bodies; the shooter lying on the floor after killing himself, black blood gushing from his head, spreading and mixing with the Rorschach-like pool of blood from one of his victims; and finally, an upside-down camera befitting of an upside-down world tracking down a hall lighted by a series of horizontal ceiling lamps as one of the female survivors offers words of tentative hope for a future unrestrained by the violence and fear of the past.
Jonathan Cenzual Burley's The Soul of Flies is a banal road film about two brothers traveling along the saffron-and-mustard-colored dirt roads and dried grass of the Spanish countryside. (Not having met before, their father writes them letters prior to his death, requesting their presence at his funeral in the hopes the two will establish a bond.) As the brothers get to know one another, they have stimulating and philosophically ponderous conversations. For example, one brother raises the question of whether dogs have souls, concluding that they do, but that frogs and flies do not because they are too small to contain such a large object. (A certain ghost they meet along the way claims that even flies have souls, for why else would they scurry away when one tries to squish them.) The film is rife with such conversations and trite anecdotes that fail to reveal anything useful or enlightening about existence or the characters. The last speech delivered in voiceover by an omniscient narrator claims that life is there for us to create memories that we use to stave off the fear of death and oblivion, so it's nicer if we have people to build those memories with. Presumably, at this point, the brothers have gotten over their differences (one is rather a stick in the mud, the other a bit of a dolt) and are ready to face the world together. But since the natural rhythms (which are barely existent) between the two actors haven't changed one iota since the beginning, the “journey” of the development of the relationship between the brothers feels false, and the moral of the story unearned.
The first competition film to screen on Saturday afternoon was Pascal Rabaté's sophomore effort Holidays in the Sun, a near-silent sex farce taking place in and around a beach resort. This film wants to be Tati very badly, but the characters, among them a sex-starved wife, and situations (S&M, spouse swapping, etc.) are presented in the broadest of brushstrokes and blandest of clichéd sexual caricatures. Rabaté lacks Tati's inventiveness, technical fastidiousness, and acute ability to build humor out of keenly observed moments of human interaction and neuroses.
In my three years attending the festival, I've never seen more walkouts than those inspired by José María de Orbe's Father. And that's too bad. Filmed exclusively in natural light and composed of static shots of varying distance, it boasts a minimalist narrative: an elderly caretaker looking after an old and crumbling 13th-century mansion. The film carries a Moonlight Sonata-like rhythm; a once-black frame slowly fills with strips of light as the caretaker goes down the corridor to open door after door, letting in the light. There's great attention to space, from claustrophobic hallways to empty, spacious room, and the textures and colors of walls (crumbling blue paint and wallpaper and cement). The film is concerned with the effort it takes to take care of something—from pulling vines off the façade of the house to steaming an ornate cornice. It's similar in tone and theme to fellow countryman José Luis Guerín's masterpiece Tren de Sombras. Both films are concerned with the simultaneous decay—of places, people, images, film stock—brought about by the passage of time and the miraculous ability of objects, like the mansions the films are centered around, to remain preserved through history.
The Karlovy Vary International Film Festival runs from July 1 – 9. For more information, click here.