When Billy Wilder was once asked if he was ever going to retire, he replied, “Directors who retire end up on the jury of the San Sebastián film festival.” None on the international jury of this year’s festival, which included Frances McDormand, Bent Hamer, and Alex de la Iglesia, seems ready to retire, and I can think of worse tasks than judging films in the elegant Basque city of San Sebastián, known as Donostia to the locals. The jury, of course, is too busy watching the 17 films in the main competition to follow some of the other sections such as “New Directors,” a complete retrospective of that whimsical purveyor of modern fairy tales, Jacques Demy, and “The American Way of Death,” a vast program of 40 crime movies from 1990 to 2011. However, the title of the latter program took on a new meaning as news of the execution of Troy Davis came through.
The festival is also a feast for Hispanophiles with sections like “Made in Spain” and “Horizontes Latinos” on Latin American cinema. Of the Spanish films in competition, I feared the worst of Benito Zambrano’s The Sleeping Voice because of its awful poster (four attractive people, two men and two women in heroic postures), the fact that it was a Warner Bros. production, and because of the synopsis supplied. Despite my long experience of reading synopses in festival catalogues, and having come to the conclusion that the aim of the writers is to deter you from going to see the film, they often influence my choice of movies. Try this for The Sleeping Voice: “Hortensia is pregnant. She has been tried and sentenced to death, although the execution won’t take place until she has given birth. Pepita, her sister, goes to the prison every day to ensure that she’s given Hortensia’s child to prevent them from putting it into an orphanage.”
The note says nothing about the stark evocation of the repressive life lived under Franco, and of the suffering of the women who dared defy it. As conventional as the film is, Zambrano manages to portray the film’s heroines and heroes as real recognizable people, and allows the strong uncompromising story to move unencumbered by any flash flashbacks or unnecessary didacticism. It’s also carried by two superb performances from María León and Penélope Cruz look-alike Inma Cuesta.
At the opposite extreme was Isaki Lacueta’s The Double Steps, a Spanish-Swiss co-production, which I thought was the best film in the main competition. It was certainly the most original and a refreshing change from the well-worn linear narrative devices of the majority of films. The 36-year-old Cuesta, who has made a documentary on his idol Chris Marker, says that for him cinema “is not so much about telling a story as to find my own personal way of living, which allows me to travel and meet people.”
The Double Steps, Cuesta’s most ambitious doc-fiction hybrid, fulfilled this wish as well as reflecting his fascination with artists on the fringe of society. After 2002’s Cravan vs. Cravan, his profile of Arthur Cravan, the Swiss-born nephew of Oscar Wilde who achieved fame as both a Dadaist poet and boxer, Cuesta has now turned to Francois Augièras, the eccentric French writer, painter and explorer, and sometime lover of André Gide. The film follows two parallel lines, one about a group of men trying to locate a mythical bunker buried in the North African desert containing paintings by Augièras, and the other about the artist himself, here played by a black African, though Augièras was white. The only white man in the film is the Catalan artist Miquel Barcelo, who’s shown trying to recreate the paintings.
Some of the film’s perversity, folklorism, homoeroticism, and humor recalled the work of Apichatpong Weerasethakul. Among the most memorable sequences is when the searchers arrive at a seemingly deserted village at night, but is revealed to be populated entirely by albinos who emerge timidly into the glare of the lights. There’s another unforgettable sequence in which the hero, whom the villagers believe to have come back to life after being drowned, seeks shelter from them in a baobab tree, and is visited by men dressed as trees. (Yes, it’s that kind of film.) Shot mainly in Mali in French and Bambara, it ventures into areas, both geographical and spiritual, that few audiences would ever have experienced.
It was back to more conventional cinema with Julie Delpy’s likable Sky Lab, very much in the long tradition of films about families brought together by a funeral, wedding, or Christmas, when relationships become strained. Delpy brilliantly choreographs the large cast of characters, each one well characterized, from the grandmother whose birthday they’ve gathered to celebrate (a shock for me to see sexy New Wave actress Bernadette Lafont in that role) to the youngest kids. There are a lot of good jokes and a few cinephilic references in the dialogue. However, though Delpy tries to ring the changes on the theme, mostly seen through the eyes of a woman looking back on herself as a sensitive 10-year-old girl in 1979 (Delpy was born in 1969), we have been here before, and the director is too indulgent to her characters (even to a racist ex-soldier), allowing them each to do a turn or two—singing songs or telling lengthy stories. Most interesting, though, is a reflection of French politics of the time as depicted by a heated argument between left-wing and right-wing factions of the family. The fact that France is expecting a NASA space station of the title to crash on the population is an irrelevant distraction.
Most nostalgic preadolescent movies have similarities, even in countries as different as France and China. Wang Xiaoshuai’s 11 Flowers focuses on a sullen 11-year-old schoolboy and his pals near the end of the Cultural Revolution in 1976. (The director, known mainly for Beijing Bicycle, was born in 1966). In the group, like in dozens of such movies, there’s a fat boy, a bespectacled geek, a weak smaller guy, and the serious good-looking hero. In fact, 11 Flowers could have been called Stand By Mao. Although there are references to the hardships imposed on intellectuals during that period (there’s a touching scene where a former teacher, forced to work in a factory, breaks down in tears as he confides his sadness to the boy’s father, a workmate and ex-actor), the background is almost perfunctory. What interests the director is the rather inconsequential autobiographical element, where the boy called Wang begs his mother to buy him a white shirt, then loses it in a Great Expectations-like encounter with an accused murderer on the run. But like the other plot points, it rather fizzles out.
Much better was Hirokazu Kore-eda’s I Wish, though less impressive than After Life, Nobody Knows, and Still Walking. Like the latter, which had the shadow of Ozu’s Tokyo Story hanging over it (though invited by the director’s homage), I Wish conjures up memories of I Was Born, But… and Ohayo, both about two young brothers. But unlike the Ozu films, Kore-eda’s are dominated by exteriors, with characters constantly on the move. This tale of brothers (played charmingly by real brothers), separated by their parent’s divorce, avoids sentimentality and constantly undermines the creeping feel-good element. For example, when a group of kids make a wish which they believe will come true when two of the new bullet express trains pass one another at top speed (a most up-to-date superstition), a small boy wishes that his dog, which has just died, be brought back to life. When asked afterward if his wish had come true, he replies that the dog is colder than ever. My wish, however, was that there was less of the jaunty Western-music soundtrack.
There is nothing jaunty or happy about by Björn Runge’s Happy End, an effective, rather schematic piece of Swedish miserabilism. Like a Mike Leigh film without any trace of humor, it deals with five very unhappy people: a violent unemployed loser who beats up his wife, who works as a cleaner; a woman who abandons a suicidal young man; and his widowed driving-instructor mother. (Is it coincidental that there’s also a driving instructor in Leigh’s Happy-Go-Lucky?) Extremely well acted, it’s the third part of Runge’s trilogy of liberation after Daybreak and Mouth to Mouth, films about people who are trying to liberate themselves from destructivity. It’s been assumed that the title is ironic. Far from it, as four of the five characters do find freedom by the end, in a gradual subtle way.
Terence Davies’s The Deep Blue Sea (in competition but already seen in Toronto and reviewed favorably here), based on Terence Rattigan’s 1952 play, can be called English miserabilism. As a gay man, Rattigan knew only too well how repressive English society was in the ’50s when homosexuality was against the law. In a way, it’s easy to read coded references to his sexuality in many of his plays, including The Deep Blue Sea, which was inspired by the suicide of a young actor with whom he had had a relationship.
Davies, like Rattigan, knew something of what it was like to be gay in England before homosexuality between consenting adults became legalised in 1967. However, Davies doesn’t bring out the subtext of the play in the manner that Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Todd Haynes did with Douglas Sirk’s ’50s melodramas. Nor is he entirely faithful to it as David Mamet was to Rattigan’s The Winslow Boy. What emerges is a highly self-conscious recreation of the suffocating atmosphere in England in the 1950s, an exercise de style. In a way, it’s as if someone were to remake Brief Encounter in exactly the style of the ’40s.
The rather dated play was first filmed by Anatole Litvak in 1955, and starred Vivien Leigh as Hester Collyer, Emlyn Williams as her respectable High Court judge husband, and Kenneth More as Freddie, her ne’er-do-well former RAF pilot lover. One of the characters is a presumably gay struck-off doctor (played by the closeted Eric Portman), a role which is curiously curtailed in the Davies version.
The drama is almost stifled by the production design where attention is drawn to the décor and the now extinct products of the period. There are references to a shilling in the gas meter, and the four pennies used in the phone booths, radio shows like The Brains Trust and Educating Archie, and the popular songs of the day. But the pub sing-alongs seem artificially imposed, unlike the way Davies used them in his masterful semi-autobiographical diptych Distant Voices, Still Lives and The Long Day Closes. There’s also a pointless flashback to the Blitz with people sheltering in Aldwych tube station all singing Molly Malone.
Yet, there is one sequence in which the use of a song works beautifully within the context of the plot. At first, “You Belong to Me” is sung by one or two amateurs in a pub, before Hester (Rachel Weisz) and Freddie (Tom Hiddleston) walk out onto a terrace and dance to the recording by Jo Stafford. This is contrasted with the non-diegetic over-insistent use of the Samuel Barber violin concerto, which underscores the pathos of certain scenes.
As Hester, Weisz is good, but she doesn’t have the cut-glass English accent that actresses like Vivien Leigh had in British films of the ’50s. She’s also too attractive (the part was first taken on stage by the dowdier Peggy Ashcroft), and so it’s difficult to believe how she could ever have married such a dull stick and mummy’s boy as portrayed by Simon Russell Beale. (At least, in the earlier film, Emlyn Williams had some authority and charisma.) The true triumph was the casting of Hiddleston, who exactly captures the type of upper-class devil-may-care character of the time.
This year’s San Sebastián Film Festival runs from September 16—24. For more information, click here.