Receiving its first public screening outside the U.S. at the 66th Locarno Film Festival, Baltasar Kormákur’s 2 Guns capped the open-air opening ceremony with thunder roaring overhead. Summarising its director’s career arc thus far (his debut feature 101 Reykjavik premiered here in 2000), this heady Hollywood buddy movie also demonstrated the festival’s varied appeal. Diversity might be what every major festival aspires to, of course, but in Locarno this seems especially the case, offering as it does everything from the vertiginously tiered 270-seat PalaVideo theater to the even-surfaced 8,000-seat Piazza Grande, the open-air setup that takes over the city center for the duration of the festival.
While 2 Guns eventually fell victim to a vicious downpour, a pre-festival screening of Chinatown the previous evening had confirmed to this first-time attendee that size does indeed matter. Already familiar with Roman Polanski’s neo-noir, I settled into travel-weary autopilot and sat there bedazzled by the film’s imagery, which seemingly attained a renewed power as it played on Europe’s biggest cinema screen. It was also the first time I had seen the film with an audience. The audible gasps at the “kitty cat” scene resonated throughout the square, and the collective mumble that greeted Faye Dunaway’s “My sister! My daughter!” meltdown eerily prefigured the thunderstorm that marred the official ceremony the subsequent evening.
We’re now at the festival’s midway point. In terms of the films that have screened thus far, the results have been as mixed as the weather. Among those receiving their world premieres in the International Competition, two stood out due to their directors’ previous works: Corneliu Porumboiu’s When Evening Falls on Bucharest or Metabolism and Joanna Hogg’s Exhibition. While the former isn’t quite as provocative as its title might suggest, the latter is another clear and precise articulation of its maker’s fondness for interpretable mononyms. Indeed, while Exhibition’s title connotes at least three levels of meaning (artistic, emotional and physical), When Evening Falls simply paints a picture of a director who wants to have his cake and devour it too.
Porumboiu’s prior Police, Adjective, one of the finest features of recent years, was a distinctively minimalist policier that concluded with an epic conversational standoff. When Evening Falls makes abundant use of talky long takes, and in a way that no longer feels necessary or even experimental. To be sure, the last thing we needed from a director as appreciably talented as Porumboiu was a kind of mission statement—much less a retroactive one. His feel for the dialectic remains, but what does his film say about artistry that others, such as those by Abbas Kiarostami and, more recently, Nuri Bilge Ceylan, haven’t already articulated?
In comparison, Hogg’s third feature exhibits the filmmaker’s general sensibilities while also providing evidence of a profitably daring departure. Following the holiday homes that were the site of familial and social tensions in 2008’s Unrelated and 2010’s Archipelago, Exhibition is a pained and probing study of a couple’s declining marriage, conditioned by the stiff interior of their 18-year abode—a house that Hogg herself has been familiar with for years, having been designed and previously owned by architect James Melvin, to whose memory the film is dedicated.
Elsewhere, The Mute, Daniel and Diego Vega’s second feature following 2010’s Un Certain Regard winner Octubre, is unlikely to win over the Lav Diaz-led jury. Though its synopses suggest a dark and brooding thriller about endemic corruption in present-day Peru’s judicial system, The Mute’s more immediate concerns are domestic politics and the burdens of intergenerational expectation. Selected as part of the Cinefondation L’Atelier funding arm at Cannes 2011 and produced by Carlos Reygadas, the Vegas’ latest effort is not without its strengths, among them a strong compositional precision and some deadpan humor, but it wears thinner as it moves along, its visual palette and vocabulary too unvaried to sustain one’s interest in its increasingly absurd plot.
Meanwhile, in the Cineastes of the Present section, Matthew Johnson stars in his own directorial debut feature The Dirties. Doubling up on duties was a presumably easy decision for Johnson, for he and the film both display an instinctive need to turn every life experience into a creative endeavour. Here, the traumas of high school bullying are observed through the prism of a lo-fi short-video homework assignment, of which this may very well be an unwieldy but self-vindicating director’s cut. Unashamedly referencing a kaleidoscope of influences, this reworking of the high school massacre film sets up a metafictional, fly-on-the-wall reality only to demystify it and create something that funnily, unsettlingly, and very persistently eludes one’s grasp. While watching it, I recalled the work of Mexican director Nicolás Pereda, who by coincidence is one of the five jury members overseeing the section.
Perhaps the best film I’ve seen so far is another feature debut, the puzzlingly titled Sense of Humor. French actress Marilyne Canto takes the directorial reins of a script written by herself and Maud Ameline, in which widowed mother Elise (Canto) finds herself falling for lover Paul (Antoine Chappey) in spite of a persistent desire to remain independent. I liked the film’s unfussy embrace of life as inherently complicated, and the matter-of-fact way in which its emotional to-and-fros develop, stall, and progress again in a manner that’s delicately handled and excellently performed. As good as the two adults are, though, Samson Dajczman’s performance as Elise’s 10-year-old son, Léo, is one of the most impressive performances I’ve seen this year.
The Locarno Film Festival runs from August 7—17.