First Feature Flicks

in 35th Montreal World Film Festival

by Alissa Simon

Out of a whopping field of 27 candidates, FIPRESCI winner North Sea Texas (Noordzee Texas), a poignantly rendered coming-of-age story from Flemish Belgium’s Bavo Defurne, stood out for its delicate depiction of the ecstasy of first love and the heartache of frustrated desire. Benefiting from an artful combination of naturalistic performances and attractively stylized visuals, it tells the tale of a lonely gay adolescent who suffers the pangs of unrequited love.            

North Sea Texas unfolds in a small town on the Belgian coast in the late 1960s and 70s, where introverted dreamer Pim (Jelle Floorizoone) grows up accustomed to neglect from his selfish mother Yvette (Eva Van Der Gucht) and petty humiliation from her putative boyfriend Etienne (Luk Wyns). A now plump former beauty queen, Yvette’s penchant for flirting with locals at the Texas bar and performing on the accordion far outweighs her maternal instinct. Pim eventually finds succor at the home of Yvette’s co-worker Marcella (Katelijne Damen) where he hero-worships her several years older son, motorcycle enthusiast Gino (Mathias Vergels). Meanwhile, Marcella’s daughter Sabrina (Nina Marie Kortekaas) obviously longs for his attention.            

Friendship grows into love when Gino, cautioning Pim to secrecy, supplies the besotted boy’s first sexual experiences. But when Gino begins a relationship with a French girl, jealous Pim focuses his wistful romantic fantasies on Zoltan (Thomas Coumans), the hunky itinerant fun-fair worker who comes to board at his house. Unfortunately for Pim, Yvette also sees Zoltan as a way out of their dead-end town. The isolated seaside location (unspecified in the film but shot in Ostende) practically becomes a character itself, with gorgeous shots of crashing waves, blowing reeds and empty sand dunes employed lyrically throughout.              

Debuting director Defurne (known for his shorts celebrating gay love) took a risk in casting a trio of age-appropriate newcomers, but Floorizoone, Vergels, and Kortekaas repay him with emotionally truthful performances. The adult performers, too, are mainly strong, particularly the sensual Van Der Gucht and sizzling Coumans, who unselfconsciously display their bodies.          

Unusually, the competition included three pleasantly entertaining comedies (Let My People Go!, Escort In Love, and Between Us) and three less successful films that blended light drama with heavy-handed comic elements (The Finger, Eliminate: Archie Cookson and A Butterfly Kiss.)                  

Let My People Go!, directed by Frenchman Mikael Buch, and co-written by Buch and his mentor, director Christophe Honore, was a true world premiere, since French distributor Les Films du Losange isn’t scheduled to release it until late December. Production designed to the max, this absurdist comedy offers an unholy marriage of camp and farce that both celebrates and mocks gay and Jewish stereotypes, and certainly doesn’t shy away from theatricality.          

An appropriately fairy tale prologue introduces Reuben (Nicolas Maury, who spent four months learning Finnish), spoiled scion of a French dry cleaning empire, who went to Finland for an M.A. in comparative sauna cultures and wound up as a village postman in order to stay with his hunky blond boyfriend Teemu (Jarkko Niemi, too bland). But one day, the delivery of a registered mail parcel containing a big wad of Euros goes terribly awry, and Teemu kicks Reuben out.                  

Returning to Paris just in time for Passover, Reuben catches up with his ditzy Mom (Carmen Maura, who was better doing this sort of thing for Pedro Almodovar), irritable brother (Clement Sibony) and unhappily married sis (Amira Casar). To his distress, his father (Jean-Francois Stevenin) forces him to play tennis and meet his mistress (Aurore Clement).  

At the Out of Egypt nightclub, an unexpected encounter with family friend, respected lawyer and pillar of the Jewish community Maurice Goldberg (pop-eyed Jean-Luc Bideau, hilarious) who is randier than an old goat, leaves Reuben missing Teemu more than ever. Unfortunately for Reuben, he must renew Goldberg’s acquaintance sooner than he would prefer when he, his father and brother get thrown into jail for fighting with his sister’s goy husband (Charlie Dupont). Meanwhile, back in Finland, Teemu’s adventures with a friendly forest ranger (Olavi Uusirvita) inspire a desire for reconciliation with Reuben, a desire of which his glamorous mother (the great Outi Maenpaa, who nearly steals the show in her two short scenes) heartily approves. The over-busy screenplay seems designed to facilitate as many name cameos as possible, resulting in some silly bits of business that slow the flow of the narrative and don’t support the overall plot as much as they might. The most amusing of the digressions, introduced by a never seen voice-over narrator, include a commercial for a fantasy spray, taglined “Jewish in a jiffy”, that can convert a goyim into one of the Chosen People on contact.                  

Witty dialogue, funny sight gags and savvy comic performances lift Italian director Massimiliano Bruno’s cheerfully non-PC sex comedy Escort In Love (Nessuno mi puo giudicare) above its run-of-the-mill, mainstream compatriots while the amiable eccentrics surrounding the imperious protagonist call to mind the great ensemble comedies of Mario Monicelli and Dino Risi. Here, a spoiled rich bitch left in straitened circumstances by her husband’s death turns to the world’s oldest profession to earn some necessary dough. As in screwball comedies of yore, part of the appeal is to see the haughty heroine taken down a few pegs, which happens via the riches-to-rags trajectory of tart-tongued Alice (Paola Cortelessi, who nabbed a David di Donatello award for best actress).                

Forced to sell her luxurious villa in the north of Rome, Alice and her adorable 9-year-old, Filippo (Giovanni Bruno, the director’s son), wind up on a rooftop in the Eternal City’s multi-ethnic, working-class Quarticciolo neighborhood. Facing debtor’s prison and losing Filippo to social services if she can’t come up with a big sum of money fast, Alice enlists the help of Eva (Anna Foglietta), a high-priced escort who changes her life philosophies as easily as she doffs her clothes. The scenes in which Eva tries to mold her protege’s fashion sense, personal grooming habits and seduction skills are a hoot.                

Meanwhile, back in Quarticciolo, the friendly locals (including Rocco Papaleo, Lucia Occone and Pasquale Petrolo) embrace the lonely Filippo and he starts to blossom. It takes Alice longer to warm to her new wonderland, but the sparks she strikes with sexy internet café owner Giulio (Raoul Bova, named best actor in the Italian Golden Globes) move the process along.                

Thanks to Eva and a helpful gay stylist (Massimiliano Delgado), Alice lands some “special needs” clients. Her interactions with them up the ante for inventive running jokes, as do the repeated attempts by the former girlfriend (Caterina Guzzanti) of Giulio’s sadsack employee Biagio (Valerio Aprea) to win him back, one of which involves noted singer Fausto Leali. And in an echo of current headlines, there’s even a scene where numerous gorgeous escorts gather to party on a powerful politician’s yacht.                

Better known as an actor and screenwriter, tyro director Bruno displays an astute understanding of comic tone and timing. His screenplay, co-written with Fausto Brizzi and Edoardo Falcone, breezes along at a breakneck pace playing intelligently with stereotypes, making clever use of song lyrics, and bursting with splendid comic details such as the hilariously titled porn films Eva recommends to Alice.    
Alissa Simon