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Karlovy Vary Film Festival 2011: Underwater Love, Medianeras, &a The Skin I Live In

It’s silly to complain about anything when spending time in the company of Pedro Almodóvar, Jerzy Skolimowski, and Wim Wenders.

Underwater Love
Photo: Karlovy Vary International Film Festival

It’s silly to complain about anything when spending time in the company of Pedro Almodóvar, Jerzy Skolimowski, Wim Wenders, and other auteurs, but with the exception of today’s off-and-on nice weather, it’s been unusually and unpleasantly cold here ever since the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival started. One of the fest’s famed specialties is two-layer circular wafers sandwiching a thin layer of chocolate, coconut, or whatever. You can buy them warmed up, which helps with the cold.

Some thoughts on a few films:

Veteran director Shinji Imaoka’s latest, Underwater Love, is a pink musical about a young man who dies and comes back many years later reincarnated as a kappa (a Japanese water sprite that loves cucumbers and playing tricks on people); he tracks down the girl he loved back in high school who’s now set to marry her boss at a fish factory. (The kappa’s costume consists of a turtle shell, a strange beak-like mouth, and a skull cap that looks like it was put together quickly and cheaply.) Imaoka throws in lots of sex, musical numbers which are incredibly—purposely—poorly staged with songs that feel unrelated to the goings on of the plot, which concerns the god of death, and a quest for the anal pearl which will make one invisible to said god. The whole film was made (shot by Christopher Doyle, no less) in a little over five days, with the first (and only) take of each shot being used. Given the aesthetic of the final product, some of the time constraints are evident. Though Doyle is able to infuse some beauty into it, such as tracing the changing light over water plants, there are moments during a scene when the camera moves just a little bit in a random direction—not in a handheld on-purpose sort of way, but in a more whoops-let’s-reframe-the-shot-while-filming fashion. There’s no big message in Underwater Love (unless it’s telling us that it’s never too late to confess one’s love), and while the film has its moments of wild absurdity (like the quest for the anal pearl and the kappa’s first time at fornication), it’s ultimately too tame, and the repetitively unimaginative musical numbers tend to drag the whole thing down.

Gustavo Taretto’s Medianeras has an anti-Manhattan opening, with shots of the Buenos Aires cityscape juxtaposed with Martin (Javier Drolas) blaming the architects and buildings (which are beautiful on their own, but are out of place next one another, reflecting different styles and time periods) for causing suicide, depression, hypochondria, alienation, and a litany of other grievances. He’s a Web designer who lives alone in a small apartment, his girlfriend having abandoned him for America. Mariana (In the City of Sylvia’s Pilar López de Ayala) lives in the building across from him and is equally lonely, having just broken up with a long-term boyfriend and moved back into her old apartment. Taretto explores urban alienation—the profound loneliness of living in a city blocked off from others by walls and the Internet having made communicating with others in person a moot point. The frame of the shot works as yet another blockade to isolate and segment people from their surroundings. We see the two protagonists in their solitary whirlpools (Mariana lying alone in bed, crying in a chair, sitting on the floor—the pain of loneliness palpable) and daily grinds, waiting through multiple close brushes for the inevitable meet-cute. And while Taretto has a tendency for being a little too precious at times (Martin and Mariana sit in their apartments crying while watching Manhattan, sing the same song at the same time, the final shot), the film rises above to present an often funny and moving sketch of the loneliness to be found in teeming cities and lives lived in friendship with computers.

Having seen The Skin I Live In yesterday, I’m completely ecstatic over it, but apprehensive to write about it because the less you know going in the better. I will say that it’s Almodóvar’s darkest and most psychologically twisted film, not without his trademark exploration of the shifting of gender/sexuality. And it’s great to see a film that takes a critical gaze at the possible violence/pain of sex, instead of just aggrandizing it (ahem, Lust, Caution). Also: Almodóvar’s Banderas is the best Banderas.

The Karlovy Vary International Film Festival runs from July 1—9.

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