Men without Women, Collisions without Motives, Questions without Answers By Julia Khomiakova

in 19th Athens Panorama of European Cinema

by Julia Khomiakova

Experiencing the 19th Panorama of European cinema in the cradle of modern European civilization can’t help but make one consider the state of European art in general.

How can one avoid it, gazing every day at the Acropolis from the window of the Esperia hotel – styled “à la Greque”, as they said in the early 19th century? This cosy festival doesn’t take any risks. The competition programme offered no bright (or shocking) European film sensations. And the programmers chose what they wanted from what they had at their disposal in Europe. So, what was the point? I mean, emotionally?

The strongest feeling which remains after the festival programme is that Old Lady Europe (as we call her in Russia) is tired and disappointed – and, even sadder, depressed. I was glad, of course, that none of the films offered plots built along the lines of Romeo and Juliet, Humbert Humbert and Lolita or a generic triangle between a wife, a husband and his/her lover; I am sick and tired of this stuff. But surely, some heterosexual relationships still exist in this world; how do European filmmakers nowadays depict it? Hmmm…

I would call it something like “War of the Sexes”… or at least hopeless, insurmountable estrangement. Three of the ten films in competition featured male characters whose relationships with their women mostly served to illustrate the cliche that the best men always marry whores, while the best women marry losers and slobs. These are Christophe Honoré’s In Paris (Dans Paris), Finnish director Aku Louhimies’ Frozen City (Valkoinen kaupunki) and Belgian Lucas Belvaux’ The Right of The Weakest (La raison du plus faible) – the best of them seriously considered for our prize, but rejected. The absence of motivation for familial collisions (or an individual character’s behaviour) is a disastrous flaw of contemporary scriptwriters which makes films really depressing. You cannot help but understand some really serious problems depicted in these movies, but at the same time you can’t shake the feeling that the films could be much, much, much better…if, if, if…

This is surely one reason why everyone liked David Marqués’ Spanish comedy Isolated (Aislados), a very low budget, digitally produced feature about two friends enjoying endless conversations about everything in this life. They are both in their early thirties, already skeptical (sometimes even cynical) about women, crazy about cinema. The warm atmosphere of two humans united against an ugly, aggressive and perverse world (in which we all live, of course), combined with characteristic Spanish humour, conveys a strong stream of emotion to the audience.

It’s interesting to note that while the movie is set on Ibiza – where one character, Kike (Eric Frances), invites his pal Adrià (Adrià Collado) to stay in a villa where, unbeknownst to either, the owner has recently died – the island never actually appears on screen. The feeling of isolation and a tender, intimate atmosphere of mutual understanding is created only by dialogue, acting and tone. One small problem: There’s so much conversation that we spent more time reading the subtitles than watching the actors! We considered this to be a serious reason to reject Isolated, nevertheless wishing the best to writer-director Marqués.

Roberto Faenza’s Italian drama Days of Abandonment (I giorni dell’abbandono) is a very nice – if, unfortunately, utterly predictable – story of a woman suddenly abandoned by her husband for a young and very sexy rival. Four scriptwriters decided not to explain why he stopped loving her; they probably wanted to show a typical female reaction to any husband’s departure. Olga (Margherita Buy) tries to find out whether she’s done something wrong, and comes up with a lot of things – none of which we ever learn, since her husband doesn’t want even to read her long list of regrets. (A Russian viewer will immediately recall Marina Tsvetayeva’s well-known line “My sweetheart, what have I done to you?”).

Days of Abandonment is a kind of encyclopedia for any abandoned wife: “What’s to be done and what’s never to be done, yet is done always because no woman is smart in this moment of her life?” We’re a long way from Pietro Germi’s seminal Divorce, Italian Style (Divorzio all’italiana): In today’s Italy, neither a wife nor a husband — not even his mistress — nowadays cares about legal divorce. When people are financially independent, nothing can keep them from finding new partners. Congratulations! Too bad for the kids, though.

Marco Bellocchio’s The Wedding Director (Il regista di matrimoni) is probably the only movie with a conventional love story. Unfortunately, it suffers from too much Bellocchio – and it’s a little bit pretentious and boring, besides.

As regards the so-called New European Cinema… well, to be frank, I’ve never understod why the countries of Eastern Europe are still called “the countries of Eastern Europe”. Geographically, this is Central Europe, be it Poland (no less western than Finland – just look at a map!) or Bulgaria , yet the post-socialist syndrome still keeps them separate from Western Europe, and their films reveal it.

Only in Véra Chytilová’s Czech drama Pleasant Moments (Hezke chvilky bez zaruky), about a psychoanalyst who saves her patients’ marriages but is losing her own husband, do the authors avoid commenting on social problems. The other two Balkan films Bulgaria’s The Christmas Tree Upside Down (Obarnata Elha), directed by Ivan Cherkelov and Vassil Zhivkov, and Serbia-Montenegro’s The Optimists (Optimisti), directed by Goran Paskaljevic, are not about men without women, or family dramas devoid of social context. Both are primarily concerned with the state of their respective countries, particularly as it pertains to the souls of their citizens – defenceless against their national reality, alone with their disappointment.

I especially appreciated the shot from The Christmas Tree Upside Down, where a young, pregnant woman – really, just a schoolgirl – who, having fled her village and her abusive family, stops at a statue of Alexander II, a Russian Emperor who had liberated Bulgarians from Osmans. She regards it sadly, as if wondering who can help her people now. How many Bulgarians feel that way today — “cedotti e abandonnati”? As a Russian, I wonder.

For me, Paskaljevic’s The Optimists was the most serious film of the programme – striking the proper balance of universal and local, social and human storytelling. These “New Europeans”, unlike their big brothers, haven’t yet tired of putting social issues at the forefront of their work. And for Serb-speaking filmmakers, the tragicomedy remains their strongest and most reliable genre. Will it ever change? Who knows?

Michael Winterbottom’s A Cock & Bull Story finally took the lead over The Optimists, winning the FIPRESCI jury’s prize after three hours of deliberation. In my opinion, this may be anyway regarded as index of a quality level because if there is only one unanimous or evident leader it may mean that all the rest of the film programme is far below, to be exact – not very high. To me, this is a film which is not only Michael Winterbottom’s work but also a very funny and exacting satire of traditional British costume cinema. Now, after decades of development, in British cinema everything is possible. Period wardrobe, props and make-up are re-created very skillfully, while special effects make it possible to render any image, be it a close-up of a candle flame or the view of a pregnant uterus from the inside. And, besides, everything can be shown on screen as realistically as possible – sex, childbirth, combat. (Eros and Thanatos – and we’re back to the Greeks!)

But what’s the point of it? Michael Winterbottom chooses to adapt Laurence Sterne’s largely unread novel “The Life And Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman”, and I remember Sophie Fiennes’ attempt to film “Eugene Onegin” – which, with all due respect, is just as impossible. Well, the show must go on; besides, who knows why we prefer the moving image to the printed page?

Well, at least we can joke about it. And where there’s laughter, there’s life.