They Had Electric Dreams

in 13th LuxFilmFest

by Jeff Schinker

With one Iranian and three South-American movies and contributions from Indonesia, Ireland, and the Philippines, LuxFilmFest-competition continues exploring new film voices, highlighting politically dense feature films while conjointly showing, with three Luxemburgish coproductions, the impressive progress of the local industry. 

Following Burning (2019), Drive My Car (2021), and Wheel of Fortune (2021)Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman (2022) distinguishes itself from these previous Murakami adaptations in the sense that, rather than being a realistic social drama about grief, loss, or social hierarchies, it embraces the more surreal side of Murakami’s universe: whereas you’d have been utterly surprised to find a talking animal in Lee Chan-dong or Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s movies, musician-come-director Pierre Földes relies on his anime movie to convincingly convey the sense of estrangement so typical of magic realism. 

Subtly and almost effortlessly weaving six different short stories by the famous Japanese writer into a single narrative around two male employees in a Japanese financial institution, Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman sees both characters experiencing their personal aftermath of an earthquake. While Komura has to face a breakup with long-time partner Kyoko, depressed Katagiri is offered the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to become a talking frog’s sidekick in its attempt to battle a giant worm threatening to trigger yet another cataclysmic earthquake targeting the city of Tokyo. 

While this first narrative strand strangely recalls the exact plot of Makoto Shintai’s anime Suzume (2022), Földes’ movie, as opposed to Suzumes’ straightforward fantasy universe, keeps up the doubt – an effect Tzvetan Todorov called l’hésitation fantastique – between a rational explanation in which the talking frog would be a hallucinatory manifestation of Katagiri’s Freudian It and an irrational one where, well, the world as we thought we knew it is more complex and surreal than estimated. 

The second narrative strand sees Komura dwelling on his past relationship, melancholically questioning its foundations. A colleague worried about Komura, whose boss told him his company will be outsourcing several employees and who’s been gently asked to consider a career change, trusts him with a mysterious package he’s supposed to hand to the colleague’s sister. 

Nestled in between Shintai’s fantasy universe and the more realistic Art College 1994 (Jian Liu, 2022) projected along with Suzume at this year’s Berlinale, Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman manages to impressively condense Murakami’s universe into an aesthetically and narratively compelling story where existential fatigue, emotional turmoil, and neoliberal exploitation are distilled in a plot rich with allegory and poetry.

Maret (2023), Laura Schroeder’s second feature film, follows its eponymous character through a severe memory loss afflicting the past twenty years of her life – years she struggled to become a successful artist before a career change as a publicist, years she also appears to have spent in an unstable, insipid relationship to a man she doesn’t remember at all and whom she’d now prefer to keep forgotten.

Her whole world turned into a strange foggy territory, Maret accepts an enigmatic neuroscientist’s invitation to the barren, volcanic island of Lanzarote, where the doctor wants her to run through several tests before considering a brain-surgical intervention that should help her recover her memories. 

As the narrative slowly unfolds, Maret (Susanne Wolff) discovers that she might not have been precisely what you’d call a nice person – and that, as in Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant, might unveil past trauma and paint a rather gloomy picture of her former self. 

Based on recent research in cognitive science exploring the possible ethical implications of technological advances and its repercussion on self-knowledge and self-awareness, Schroeder’s postmodern anti-Memento (2000) is a slow burner where audiences may lose grip during its slow build-up. 

This is a shame since intelligent camera work, formal play –static camera plans where rowing characters remain out of sight, subtle glitches in representation, and, as in her debut Barrage (2017), intriguing use of extra-diegetic music – make for a puzzling, daring movie about the fundamental discovery that there’s no running away from oneself – even when you have no clue who you have been and what you have done. Rather than completely unraveling the origins of an identity quest, Maret asks more questions than it answers – which unfortunately makes up for a few moments of cliché and a somewhat unambitious narrative. 

Los reyes del mundo (Kings of the World, 2022by Laura Mora is both the last out of three Luxembourgish coproductions in competition and the first of three movies in competition belonging to what you could call a new wave of primarily female-directed Latin-American films that focus on the repercussions that dictatorship, tyranny, and Civil War impose on everyday life, mainly through intimate portrayals of family life. 

Rá (Carlos Andrés Castañeda) lives in the city of Medellín with his friends Culebro, Sere, Winny, and Nano. Their lives, ravaged by drug dealing and street gang rivalry, seem to have as much perspective as a cul-de-sac – until the day Rá learns that the State grants him a plot of land once owned by his abuela – a territory his family got driven off from by paramilitaries during the recent Civil War. 

As Rá and his friends go chasing their dream of a property they could call their own, director Mora follows them on a road trip that unsurprisingly sees their hopes turn to despair as they go through a rural Colombia ravaged by Civil War and just as hostile, if in a different way, than the capital they just ran from. 

After several well-paced sequences where we see the boys practice their own version of hitchhiking before stranding in a run-down brothel managed by elderly ladies, Kings of the World abandons its quick pace for a hazy middle-section where the fog hovering above rural Colombia seems to distillate within the movie’s plot – a stylistic device a tad too obvious. Things then slowly get back on track as an internal rivalry as well as external circumstances first seem to turn the movie into a more political, savage version of Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None before Mora and DOP David Gallego find a visually striking climax with the surviving three young men constructing and lighting up a barricade in front of a gas station – a scene reminiscent of French novelist Diaty Diallo’s abrasive Deux secondes d’air qui brûle –and a sharp reminder of Paris’ street scenes these days).

Less coming-of-age-tale than a touching, poetic, and cruel portrait of five desperate youngsters embarking on a journey through their home country, Kings of the World depicts their plight as they hold on to a governmental promise as a final straw. It serves as a violent pamphlet against a country ravaged by war, a government that makes promises it can’t keep, and the terrible consequences of territorial expropriation and speculation upon the lives of people who simply claimed what was theirs.

Valentina Maurel’s I Have Electric Dreams (2023) shows several weeks in the life of 16-year-old Eva (Daniela Marín Navarro), whose parents just got divorced and who gets to live with her mother, her sister, and their cat in a house whose renovation seems to be the mother’s single point of interest. 

Since she doesn’t get along with her mom, who shows no empathy nor understanding for her daughter’s emotional turmoil, Eva plans to go live with her father Martín (Reinaldo Amien Gutiérrez). Derailed after his divorce, Martín goes through a severe depression he tries to overcome with wild parties and a reconversion as a poet – the movie’s title alludes to an excerpt of a poem he recites at the beginning of the narrative and that somewhat predictably ends the film poignantly. 

While Eva spends her days helping her father find a flat that could suit them both, they form a moving bond – even though Martín exhibits bursts of violence, that his best friend seems more than attracted to (very) young girls, and that his hedonistic lifestyle might not be the sanest environment for his young daughter who’s drawn to him because of a shared tendency towards violence and self-destruction.

While Maurel’s fragmented narrative shows a young woman, who feels more at ease surrounded by men and women as emotionally lost as herself, her movie slowly advances towards its inevitable conclusion, doing away with those too obvious narrative arcs mainstream movies too often impose on us. We suppose there are many scenes that other directors might have filmed to shock or provoke. However, Maurel’s sober direction and her convincing actors make them unfold naturally, thus portraying a complex and touching filial relationship whose loose ends come together in what might be the competition’s strongest ending sequence. 

Pinochet’s dictatorship seems far away in the coastal town of Las Cruces. Retired Carmen (outstanding Aline Kuppenheim) is busy renovating the family’s beach house, reminiscent of Eva’s mother’s character in I Have Electric Dreams, when local priest Father Sanchez (Hugo Medina) talks her into taking care of young Elías (Nicolás Sepúlveda), a “common criminal” with a gunshot wound he knows she can take care of. 

Bourgeois Carmen being far from naïve, she quickly realizes Elías is everything but a common criminal as she learns he’s working for an invisible network directed by the underground opposition – a network she slowly becomes part of, first involuntarily, then, as this woman who’s never herself been threatened by Pinochet’s regime, experiences a late awakening, more and more voluntarily. 

In Manuela Martelli’s film debut titled 1976 (2022), the threat is (almost) always hors-champ. Invisible markers of violence are crucial to understanding what goes on. While the newspaper is filled with strange deaths and paranoia creeps into Carmen’s quiet life, Mariá Portugal’s brooding, menacing soundtrack, where spheric synthies meet jazzy, cacophonic saxophones, mimes the hectic inner life of a woman who tries to keep up a bourgeois façade as her whole life slowly crumbles and falls apart.

At the movie’s beginning, Carmen finds herself at a paint store looking for a perfect shade of pink while outside, Pinochet’s police almost casually abduct yet another political dissident. The stain of paint then dripping on a cream-colored shoe is visually compelling and overtly symbolic – almost too much so: In Carmen’s world, the stain remains a slight misstep, an aesthetic glitch marking the intrusion of an outside world that can be shut out again quite quickly, if Carmen chooses to do so. 

She decides to no longer ignore, however, as Martelli follows her ethical choices in a movie whose stunning visual beauty is slowly deconstructed by its soundtrack, the feeling of threat ever more palpable as it moves from the periphery of her (and our) perception to the center of her preoccupations. Thus, we’re very much aware, just as we knew Martín’s poem would close Valentina Maurel’s movie, that the stain from the first scene would make a symbolic comeback, suggesting that as much as you might want to ignore the political regime of your country, the government will make sure you notice its gruesome omnipresence.    

In a different, more direct take on power, authority, and manipulation, Makbul Mubarak’s Autobiography (2022) tells the story of young Rakib (Kevin Ardilova) who, undecided about what to do with his life, starts working for General Purna (Arswendy Bening Swara), a retired military who returns to his hometown in Indonesia to run for mayor of the region. 

Rakib’s family has worked for the general’s family for a few generations; Purna expects the young man to play the mute, subservient valet in his quest to rise to power through means reminiscent of his recent role in the military dictatorship. Purnas’ aversion towards democratic processes becomes apparent in the first incident, where Rakib’s poor driving skills lead them to a dispute with townspeople; the general then proceeds to calm down the uproar in an impressive display of quiet menace. 

Struck by the young man’s physical similarities with his own younger self, the general takes him under his wing and becomes a sort of father figure Rakib seems to be in dire need of – he has very little respect for his very own dad, imprisoned without a perspective to be set free anytime soon. 

Thus, Rakib will try to impress his boss by tracking down the drunkards who tore holes in his electoral billboards, only slowly realizing the man, be it because of a desperate thrive for power or because of almost Pavlovian conditioning to violence and bloodshed, is ready to do almost anything to get elected. 

Makbul Mubarak’s debut is a dark, slow reflection on power, manipulation, and submission, exploring why evil and violence sometimes seem more attractive than the humble monotony of an honest life. The movie’s dark hue – it appears that there’s no daylight in Mubarak’s Indonesia – as well as its slow pace are peculiar stylistic choices that might make attention drift.

A thematic outsider of a festival whose accent clearly lies on the political, Colm Bairéad’s The Quiet Girl (2022) is an appropriate cinematographic adaptation of Clair Keegan’s quiet, subdued, novelistic universe, where understatement is vital. Adapted from the short story “Foster,” The Quiet Girl tells a peculiar chapter in the life of young Cáit (Catherine Clinch), who gets to spend the summer with distant relatives while her relatively poor parents await a third child. 

Her father, a grumpy wino bordering on the aggressive, warns the foster family: children’s sole role in life is to be fed and fed again, gnawing at your income like an insatiable bunch of Pacmen (he puts it way more bluntly, but you get the message). His assumptions are all the more preposterous, considering Cáit is timid to the point she’d rather be starving than asking for food. 

Luckily, the childless couple – people from “her mother’s side,” as we learn – are more than happy to take care of young Cáit and, while she’s not precisely spoiled – the hardworking couple couldn’t afford to do so –, she learns what affection and care feel like. For a young girl who grew up knowing that she was nothing more than one more mouth to feed, constantly feeling a burden to her tired parents, this is as close to happiness as she could wish to get. 

Despite progressively learning about the traumatic core at the center of this couple’s life – there’s an emptiness here that dialogue can’t seem to recover –, Cáit never feels as though she’s being used to fill a void, the little girl’s phantasmatic presence reminding the couple of another ghost in their lives.

Filmed in a subdued way, rendering deep emotions delicately and telling its simple story with a great sense of understatement and a visually dense, metonymic language, The Quiet Girl is almost as shy of a movie as its main character. It leads to an end sequence that is a bit too explicit, as if Colm Bairéad had wanted to make sure his audience has enough emotional acumen, not trusting it to have read between the lines of the subtle ninety minutes that preceded. 

Finally, the competition’s two metafilms couldn’t have been more different, if equally convincing: If World War III (2022) by Houman Seyyedi (read the review of FIPRESCI-winner here) is a dark tale about how the film industry not only commercially exploits the crimes of the Shoah to deliver cheap and voyeuristic thrills, but also crushes its employees, main character Shakib (Moshen Tanabandeh) reminding us, in the way he gets trapped by the industry, of a much less intellectual version of Coen Brother’s Barton Fink, Leonor Will Never Die (2022) by Martika Ramirez Escobar stretches the stylistic figure of metalepsis – by which one designates an abrupt return of disbelief by a leap from one ontological level to another – to full feature film-length.

Leonor (Sheila Fracisco), an old lady living in a derelict Philippine apartment, doesn’t seem to care about how her life falls to pieces – once a critical script writer in her country’s action movie industry, she now mainly worries about how she can continue watching television all day long, as power gets cut off due to her unpaid bills.

As her son Rudi (Bong Cabrera) grows more and more exasperated by his mother’s intellectual and moral decline, Leonor discovers an old unfinished manuscript which she promptly reworks, thus immersing herself into a fictional world she once created – a world where young and brave Ronwaldo wants to avenge the death of his brother at the hands of evil thugs. Unfortunately, a television hits her on the head. It plunges her both into a coma and into the world of her fiction, where she then proceeds to accompany Ronwaldo in his quest for revenge – a search paved with the bodies of innocent young men.

As her indifferent son is suddenly faced with the possibility of his mother’s untimely death and starts regretting his attitude towards her, the storyline unveils that Rudi’s very own brother, whose ghost accompanies him throughout the movie, has been shot on set in a tragic accident more than reminiscent of what recently happened to Alec Baldwin – an accident that Leonor unconsciously and repetitively weaves into her plot, this haunting event impregnating her movie as if she needed to fictionally live through the trauma over and over again. 

Zany, funny, and touching, Leonor Will Never Die could easily have been a fun yet shallow, self-sufficient homage to lousy action movies – but through its subtle interplay between ontologies, its effusive formal play on the movie-within-a-movie-trope and, most importantly, its poignant story of a woman who tries to overcome trauma by overwriting tragedy with delirious scripts, Ramirez manages to turn a postmodern movie brimming with silly ideas into a touching portrait of a sad filmmaker who tries to redeem herself through fiction.    

Jeff Schinker
Edited by Anne-Christine Loranger