“All you need for a movie is a gun and a girl,” Jean-Luc Godard once wrote in his diary. Obviously the words of a heterosexual male – but there may still be some truth to it, a romance can be the driving force of a movie as long as another drama complicates matters – and guns tend to bring drama.
Of course many people find love far away from gunshots and wars and therefore there is often a discrepancy between movie romance and actual romances – something many people have addressed successfully. The most prominent example being Richard Linklater‘s Before-trilogy – which all the focus simply on the loves of two individuals, without any firearms – and then you have a film like When Harry Met Sally … – focusing on the possibility (or lack thereof) of a friendship between a man and a woman and weather you can keep that away from romantic entanglements. I mention the latter movie because the closing film at Karlovy Vary, Sleeping With Other People, really wants to be a raunchier modernized version of that 80s classic. Which I guess it is, really – only it’s not very good. The main characters are intolerably self-obsessed and unsympathetic and even if the film has its moments it‘s essentially one of those indie films that at heart believes in all the worst Hollywood clichés.
But there were significantly more interesting love stories shown at the festival, where Godard‘s metaphorical guns had morphed into chemo-therapy, vertigo and the Balkan wars. First stop: the Polish Chemo. To begin with this is a hyperactive love story, a bit too cute for its own good. But that only makes the u-turn the film takes all the more powerful. Throughout a fast paced romance both Lena and Benek have talked about their shared death wish – but the light tone offsets it so you don’t take their morbidity seriously. That tone swiftly changes though when unexpected pregnancy and chemo-therapy shakes their world – and with this their love both deepens and unravels. The healthy Benek finally grows up and becomes ever more in love with Lena as she gets sicker, loses her hair and her former strength. More crucially though, she loses her self-confidence – even if she talks a good game she‘s incapable of believing Benek still loves her, she plays the role of the strong and independent patient impeccably for the cameras, yet that‘s only a mask for the insecurity that makes her push all her loved ones away. The film strength lies in the two leading actors, Agnieszka Zulewska and Tomasz Schuchardt, who seem lightweight to begin with but as the film progresses it becomes impossible to take your eyes off them.
Moving a little north we find the most beautiful film of the festival in Lithuania, a little film named The Summer of Sangaile. Sangaile is a young teenage girl who discovers her lesbian leanings with the curly-haired Auste. It‘s a beautifully shot film covered in the nostalgia of our imaginary youth – you can‘t help recalling My Summer of Love; two young girls and a camera that adores them. All this makes the film a joy to look at – but soon you start pining for a stronger story – but that story eventually appears. Because the one thing Sangaile dreams of is flying. Airplane shows are popular in Lithuania and the opening scene shows us Sangaile looking dreamily up to the sky. The airplanes are temporarily forgotten in the throes of young love – but little by little that dream is rekindled, only for us to learn why this may be an impossible dream; Sangaile is terrified of heights. The director claims Sangaile means “strength” in Lithuanian and the film really is about a young girl finding herself and her inner strength during that last summer of youth.
But perhaps cancer and vertigo is not challenge enough for love – I guess we‘d better go all the way and place the romance in the middle of a war? The very best film I saw during the festival could be used as an argument for that. The film in question is called The High Sun and is said to be a Croatian-Serbian-Slovenian co-production – but considering the subject matter perhaps we should just call it Yugoslavian, even if that country no longer exists. It’s a triple love story, about a Serbian boy and a Croatian girl – or was it the other way ‘round? I checked, it’s a Croatian boy and a Serbian girl – but the fact I had to look it up says something about the absurdity of that particular war.
Those love stories unfold a decade apart, in 1991, 2001 and 2011. The lovers are always the same age, played by the same actors. None of the stories takes place during the Balkan wars themselves – which took place between 1991 and 1999. And the war is barely mentioned, yet it‘s somehow all around them. We start during the innocent times of 1991 – war was certainly brewing but nobody could suspect the brutality of the coming atrocities. In 2001 the war is over but most of the wounds are still wide open – this is a world full of broken people trying in vain to forgive, make peace with the past and go on with their lives. In 2011 many of those wounds have healed – but certainly not all.
All this means that those three love stories are radically different – even if you feel the two actors are really always playing the same individuals; the only difference is how fate has dealt them very different cards. We meet them as relatively rounded and healthy characters before the war – characters that have escaped the trauma of their later incarnations – yet in 2001 she is broken and devastated and he is the one who is broken in 2011. Because hardship comes in many shapes and forms we‘re not all broken by the same kind of adversity – the she of 2001 seems to have been crushed by the adversity of war while he seems relatively intact, meanwhile the he of 2011 seems to have allowed the aftermath of love and his parents lingering hate to crush his spirit.
The first story shows them as a couple, in the second one they‘re meeting each other for the first time and in the final story he‘s trying to reclaim her heart. But below the surface the progress of time flows, the times that certainly change even if the village doesn’t, the times that form their fates.
But not everybody was equally taken by the film as I was. I met some friends after the screening that were not happy at all and we argued about the film all the way to the Press bar. There were no empty tables so a man and a woman kindly allowed us to sit at their table, where we continued our debate. They allowed us to keep arguing for a few minutes before admitting they were in fact the director and producer of the film. Which was a lovely coincidence, since film festivals are just as much about arguing about movies as watching them – and there was a lot of arguing during this festival. It was also helpful to meet somebody to discuss how to translate the title for the Icelandic version of the article, The High Sun isn‘t something that fills any Icelandic person with dread, because the sun is rarely scary when the record temperatures barely pass 30 degrees Celsius. Zvizdan means Iron-Sun in Serbo-Croatian, but we ended up agreeing that Sunstroke could work as a translation in Icelandic – and I ended up reminiscing about how the last time I got sunstroke was ten years ago in Belgrade in 38 degrees, wandering the Kalemagden and ending up in the war museum itself, slightly delirious and suddenly, surrounded by skulls and ancient warfare, understanding how this crazy heat might make people dangerously aggressive.
Italian adventures and Hungarian orphans
But all those stories I‘ve been telling you can be traced to the fairy tales. And the fairy tales become alive in Tale of Tales, loosely based on the adventures Giambattista Basile documented, but he was the Italian predecessor of the Grimms brothers. I was skeptical before-hand, having hated Matteo Garrone‘s signature film, Gomorrah – but thankfully this proved vastly superior. These fairy tales are very much uncensored – we see a queen giving birth to a child after eating the heart of a sea monster, we see hideous old sisters flirt with the playboy king through trickery and we see Beauty falling into the cave of the Beast – and not falling in love at all, instead putting all her wit into escaping the prison of a forced marriage.
The film manages to capture the essence of those fairy tales, it understands the magic that propels us to tell them over and over again, yet it also captures the horror and the grotesque humour that is too often censored away.
Meanwhile social realism reigned in the winning film of the East of the West category. The Hungarian film renaissance continues apace with The Wednesday Child, about Wednesday‘s Child Maja, raised in an orphanage – and now a teenage mother of a kid in that very same orphanage, a kid she fights to regain custody of.
The film tells of the vicious circle troubled teens can find themselves in – and how big small dreams can be. Maja takes part in an entrepreneur program and dreams of opening a Laundromat with a grand total of three washing machines – an earthbound dream for most of us but to her the key to her future, the key to being able to provide for her son.
And speaking of realism – at any proper film festival the moments outside the cinema hall are often the most magical. Us journalists blending together with festival programmers and producers and directors from all over the world and arguing about films and exchanging stories and recommendations, meeting old friends and making new, taking three showers a day during 35 degrees days and get soaked during a thunderstorm the day after – and deep down envy the High School kids, effortlessly happy while endlessly queuing for the next film.
This, precisely this, is the magic the movie theater will never lose, regardless of all the home cinemas in the world – a bit of magic that trumps all the world‘s 3D and digital technology.
Ásgeir H Ingólfsson
This article originated as a radio segment in Icelandic, broadcast on August 3rd in Víðsjá, a cultural show at the Icelandic National Broadcaster. You can listen to the Icelandic version here.
Trailers for the films mentioned: