Every year, the lovely spa town of Karlovy Vary—formerly known as Karlsbad—awakens from its long sleep to welcome hundreds of mostly young, backpack-toting film enthusiasts. For me, who’s been coming to the 47-year-old Karlovy Vary International Film Festival for about eight years, the place offers a comforting sense of annual déjà vu. There’s the solid Soviet-style Thermal Hotel where most of the action takes place: terrace meetings, the press room, the video library, and screenings in the five small, rather uncomfortable cinemas. There are also the delicious spreads at the Grandhotel Pupp (pronounced “poop,” a source of hilarity for most newcomers) and plenty of free wine and beer. Once you step out after a two-hour drive from Prague, the vibrant atmosphere hits you. And what you hear is the constant clamorous babble of cinephilic conversations between filmmakers, critics and the public.
One of the most heard voices at the festival this year was the mellifluous Northern Irish-accented one of cinemaniac Mark Cousins. He was omnipresent in introducing and giving Q&As at every showing of his 900-minute The Story of Film: An Odyssey, which is both educative (it makes even jaded know-it-all, seen-it-all film historians like myself learn myriad new facts and new angles) and vastly entertaining. Not only did Cousins set some sort of world record by introducing all 15 episodes, and giving about 10 interviews a day, but the man was there to present his new film What Is This Film Called Love (no question mark, though an exclamation mark would be suitable).
Difficult to categorize, which is often a sign of originality, it’s a documentary/film essay/visual poem that raises the video diary, or the common notion of a video diary, to a new level. Cousins, with a tiny camera, filmed himself alone over three days in Mexico City, his only companion being a blown-up picture of Sergei Eisenstein, whom he talks to while walking around the city in search of the meaning of ecstasy. There’s also much stream-of-consciousness and dream sequences, and clips from some of his other home movies. The ecstatic Cousins claimed that this very personal film only cost £10, so it’s bound to make a profit worldwide.
Among the 12 films in the main competition, only one stood out: Ektoras Lygizos’s Boy Eating the Bird’s Food. Based on Knut Hamsun’s 1890 novel Hunger, and updated to Greece today, it clinically follows—with mainly a POV handheld camera—the desperate attempts of an unemployed, educated young man (the excellent Yannis Papadopoulos) to find something to eat. Because he’s too proud to take charity from anyone, he has to resort to extreme measures to get some nourishment, one of them being to ejaculate into the palm of his hand and eat it. This unfaked scene, shot in one take, tended to dominate people’s reactions to the film, which is a stark allegory of contemporary Greece. Incidentally, the title is more explicit in Greek, where “bird” can also mean “cock.”
In the East of the West section, an uneven selection of films from Eastern Europe, my favorite was the touching House with a Turret by the Ukraine’s Eva Neymann. Shot in splendid black and white in a classical Russian way, it tells of an eight-year-old boy’s struggle, over one day, to survive among the chaos of the last days of World War II. Never sentimental, it brilliantly captures the atmosphere of the time with its superb casting of faces, which, following Eisenstein’s example of “typage,” establishes the characters immediately.
As I was on a jury of the section which judged the film above, I had little time to explore the wide-ranging and rich program outside it, including the Antonioni shorts, a Jean-Pierre Melville retrospective, and films by the Turkish director Reha Erdem, which would have been a revelation.
At the closing ceremony, Susan Sarandon received the Crystal Globe, a Lifetime Achievement Award, which she dedicated, tearfully, to her friend Nora Ephron. The heavy and handsome Crystal Globe, given over the years mainly to performers, is the theme of a collection of self-mocking trailers, shown before features. (Karlovy Vary has a reputation for clever comic trailers.) They include Harvey Keitel in pain after having dropped the award on his foot (“Shit happens,” he mumbles ruefully), Milos Forman using it to crush pills he has to take, Andy Garcia breaking open the front door of a house with it when he’s lost his keys, and a disgruntled John Malkovich, in the back of a cab in New York on his return from Karlovy Vary, being asked by the Indian taxi driver what the award was for. When he says it was a Lifetime Achievement Award, the driver just says, “Oh!” Malkovich replies, “What do you mean ’Oh!’? Oh, it’s long overdue? Oh you deserved it? Oh, your fucking career is over?” Maybe next year we’ll have Sarandon hitting someone over the head with the Crystal Globe. I can’t wait.
The Karlovy Vary International Film Festival ran from June 29—July 7.