By Robert Buckeye.
Art Film Fest in Košice, Slovakia (16-24 June) provided greater opportunities for those who seek out film however they can by screening films that were seen recently and awarded at Cannes, Berlin and Venice, including Sebastián Lelio’s A Fantastic Woman, which won the prize for Best Screenplay at Cannes, Ildiko Enyedi’s On Body and Soul, which won the Golden Bear Award as best picture at Berlin, and Aki Kaurismaki’s The Other Side of Hope, which topped the critics’ list of best films at Berlin. From Cannes there were also Arnaud Desplechin’s Ismael’s Ghosts, Valeska Grisebach’s Western and Emir Kusturica’s On the Milky Road. From Venice came François Ozon’s Frantz whose lead actress, Paula Beer won the Marcello Mastroianni Award for Best Actress. In its twenty-fifth year, ArtFilm had much to recommend itself.
“There is in film,” Jacques Rancière notes, “the moment of dialogue between the voice that makes those words ring out and the silence of images that show the absence of what the words say.” Nowhere was the acuity of Rancière’s comment demonstrated better than in A Fantastic Woman, a film about a transgender woman, Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Loveless, in which a child disappears, and Of Body and Soul, in which scenes of a stag and doe in woods are intercut with those of work in an abattoir.
In A Fantastic Woman, when the older lover of transwoman Marina Vidal dies suddenly, she must confront the prejudice of doctors who examine her and her dead love, the bias of police, and the antagonism of family which forces her to move out of the apartment she shared with him. She is forbidden to attend his funeral. In the face of endless humiliation she fights for the right to be who she is. Her dignity is characterized not by anything she says but by what we see. Daniela Vega, who plays Marina Vidal has, one reviewer notes, “a quiet, magnetic intensity.”
In Loveless, the missing child is a son of a couple about to divorce and in the search for the boy incriminations of one kind or another pile up between the couple that say less about the child than why he might have left. The wintry fields, empty streets and deserted buildings where they search for the boy become emblematic of his life. In the last scene, we see the wife working out on a treadmill with the word Russian on the front of fashionable workout gear at the expensive home of her well-off lover; an image of the fruits of a callous capitalist culture. “Loveless,” Zvyagintsev says. “Russia,” he adds.
In On Body and Soul, a finance manager of an abattoir, who has seen too much of the world, and a young, female meat inspector, whose work is her life, discover that they have the same dream of the stag and doe during company-mandated psychological examinations after a theft has been discovered. The dream brings them together in ways that life cannot. The finance manager loses his world-weariness as he finds himself drawn to a woman whose work is no longer her life. In their growing love he regains an innocence he had lost while she learns what obsession has denied her. A beautifully put together fable that we believe despite its surreal premise.
Ozon’s Frantz is less a film about the First World War told from the German side, that he intended it to be, than it is one about the lies we tell to keep those we love from harm. Anna, a young German, has lost her fiancee, Frantz, during the war. One day after the war she sees a young Frenchman, Adrien, place flowers at Frantz’s grave. As Ozon develops the story, Adrien gradually becomes a substitute for Frantz in the minds of Frantz’s parents, a delusion created in part by Anna. Adrien also comes to be the man who can replace Frantz in Anna’s life as well as in the lives of his parents. But he is not what he seems. He is already engaged to another woman. He had been the French soldier who killed Frantz and came to his grave for forgiveness. Anna nevertheless perpetuates the myth by writing letters to the parents from Paris describing a life with Adrien she does not have; the love she does not have becomes the one necessary. What is not said is nevertheless said.
Christian Schwochow’s film about the pioneering German painter, Paula Modersohn-Becker, Paula, is a story we’ve seen before, but in its telling is not the one we know. In the small, provincial town Modersohn-Becker lives in, she is seen to be strange, though delightfully so, while her art is dismissed as undisciplined and primitive. Her husband, also a painter, is as traditional in life as he is in art; a philistine Rainer Maria Rilke calls him. The husband must let Paula go to Paris, the only place she can be, Rilke tells him. Once she leaves despite the husband’s opposition, he is told by everyone in the provincial community where they live that wives must live at home and if they do not, they should be divorced or institutionalized. But he loves her and does what is necessary, even though he is savaged for his weakness. A marriage that had been a marriage in name only becomes realized. A well-made, engaging, Heritage-style biopic that is made something more by the love of a husband for his wife not common at the beginning of the twentieth century.
That we live longer today than we once did have brought about new circumstances for the old. Two films, Bohdan Sláma’s Ice Mother, and Ulrich Seidl’s Losses to be Expected, an earlier, 1992, film of his not commonly known, explore the possibilities of second lives that did not seem possible before. In Ice Mother, Hana, a widow in her sixties, whose life is dominated by her two sons and their families, begins a second life when she meets winter swimmer Brona and his polar bear club mates, whose unlikely lives are at odds with her buttoned-up middle class life. Her growing love for a man who is not from her world is symbolized, it might be said, by her overcoming her fear of ice-cold water. In Seidl’s film, non-actors Sepp, a farmer who lives in Czechoslovakia, and Paula, a widow who lives across the border in Austria, negotiate a second love in an effort that is at moments sad and at others whimsical, footnoted by comments of friends their age; experience has taught them about love, marriage, and independence, but it cannot tell them how to anticipate what this new world, after the fall of the Iron Curtain, might be. Geography becomes not only distance but a history that cannot be ignored. A story of loneliness, unfulfilled lives, loss of youth and love told in Seidl’s unique, direct, blunt way.
Two first films, AWOL by Deb Shoval and Filthy by Tereza Novotova, are courageous and honest depictions of the lives of two teenage girls. In AWOL, set in a small, provincial town in Pennsylvania, Joey, who has no sense of any future, enlists in the army, but before she is deployed, she falls in love with Rayna, a married woman, who escapes a dead-end life through affairs. Joey convinces Rayna that they can have a fresh start together and they leave for Vermont, a land of fresh starts in America, but Rayna cannot overcome her past. She returns to her husband and children, not believing that there can be anything different. Joey goes AWOL. When there is nowhere to go nowhere can be anywhere. In Filthy Lena is raped by the math teacher she desires. After the rape, Lena retreats into silence – her life no longer life – tries but fails to kill herself, undergoes therapy, is institutionalized, given electro-shock therapy. Once she pulls herself out of a horrifying regimen of rehabilitation she will not, she says, be a rape victim. She forces her rapist to acknowledge what he has done. Both films are intelligent, nuanced dramas of the dreams, anxieties and uncertainties of youth.
Three films I found significant at Art Film dealt with history, but did so in different ways. Andre Konchalovsky’s Paradise portrays the lives of a French collaborator, a Russian aristocrat in the French resistance, and a German aristocrat who becomes a Gestapo officer. Interviews are intercut with scenes of their war-time experiences. In This Corner of the World, an animated film, Sunao Katabuchi tells the story of Suzu Urano, from her childhood in Kure, a naval base near Hiroshima, into an arranged marriage, the Second World War, the Hiroshima bombing, the post-war years. In Annarita Zambrano’s After the War, the murder of a judge in Bologna in 2002 brings back memories and fears of the Red Brigades and the execution of Aldo Moro in 1978. Paradise is meticulous, exact in its detail, but it tells us what we already know; an equivalence of history that is not history. In This Corner is a fable whose delicate, dreamlike account of the persistence of life is more real than many more graphically detailed films of that time. After the War reminds us that we cannot escape history, even if it is not our history. If we do not fight for history, Greil Marcus writes, we cannot live in the present, “as if we were never there, we cannot be here.”
“Paradise,” the term Nazis used to characterize the pure Aryan future, takes on a particular resonance in the life of Olga, the Russian aristocrat who has been sent to a concentration camp by the French collaborator. She is seen by the high-ranking Gestapo officer, who makes her first his servant and then his lover. When he excludes her from those targeted for execution she gives the note she has received to a woman with two children and chooses death. The officer may have tried to decide what her life will be, but it is not him but her who decides what it will be. It may not be paradise, Konchalovsky implies, but we make a paradise of what we can.
The Katabuchi film is digressive, episodic and anecdotal, if necessarily grim. The story of Urano, who sees beauty in the everyday even in the horrendous circumstances of a brutal Second World War, the bombing of Hiroshima, and then the difficult years of a country defeated. Forever drawing Urano captures life with pencil and paper and transforms it into what gives historical detail significance. As a girl, she amused others by seeing waves as rabbits. As a woman in hard times, she will not let the idea of rabbits go. She does what she can to live continuing to maintain her honesty and integrity. It’s a film of the trauma of its time that yet does not define the milieu and its characters. In Japan, it was rated best domestic film of 2016.
The assassination of a professor in Bologna draws attention to Marco, who had been convicted of murdering a judge in the days of the Red Brigades but is now living a respectable life in France as a college professor. The Italian government asks for his extradition because they believe he had something to do with planning the murder. Marco’s sister, who shares a belief in his politics but not his actions, arranges for an escape to Nicaragua for him and his daughter so that they cannot be extradited. But his daughter sees herself as French, cannot grasp the history that her father lives, and is reluctant to go. “The price that my unhappy generation, a collateral victim of a war that was not their own, had to pay for the mistake of others,” Zambrano comments.
Then there was Western, an adaptation of the Hollywood western, a genre that Grisebach says she had been fascinated by since childhood, set in Eastern Europe – Mitteleuropa – a place the West still considers to be a kind of Wild East where civilization has yet to arrive. A group of German workers have come to a backwater in Bulgaria to build a hydroelectric dam. That Grisebach uses amateur actors in her films gives particular resonance to a story of a clash between cultures. One German who feels more affinities with the Bulgarians than he does with his own countrymen attempts to bridge the differences between them, but as much as he tries, he cannot overcome them. He will always be the stranger who has come in from out of town. Geography is history, Grisebach implies. A cautionary tale ever more relevant today as increasingly we do not live where we were born.
It was particularly satisfying to Slovaks, whose film industry does not have the cache that the Czech or Romanian industry has, that two of the best films’ principal actresses were Slovak: Barbara Bobulova in After the War; Alexandra Borbely in On Body and Soul.
I did not see Glory, a Bulgarian/Greek film directed by Kristina Grozeva and Petar Valchanov which was awarded the prize for best film at Art Film. In an interview at the event, Valchanov commented that the film is, in part, “a collision between the common person and an indifferent system.”
Robert Buckeye is author of nine books, including Still Lives, a novel about the Kent State shootings, Fade, a novel of Bratislava, and Living In, a collection of his criticism. He divides his time between Vermont and Bratislava.