As a film critic and a film programmer, I enjoy browsing first features in festivals as I am eager to discover new voices and talents. The letdown is often watching directors making their film as if they were making their shopping list. Pick a coming-of-age story — check. Don’t forget alienation — check. Maybe an open ending? In the bag. A film is a journey: some film makers want it to be as meaningful as the stations of the cross. In the end, though, it feels like taking an omnibus train for a long ride, stopping at every station and every cliché. The First Films competition at the FFM felt like this, between the harmless and the cheap shock value. Fortunately, a few films managed to shine and overcome those limitations, establishing an unexpected dialogue between them beyond countries and genre. The FIPRESCI winner in the First Films competition, Open Cage (Los Bañistas), embodies those themes fittingly — a strange mix of ghosts, politics, odd families and occupying a space.
The title Open Cage is indeed telling, for itself and maybe what a film should be. Escapism with some thoughts. This Mexican film is about two neighbours in the same building: Flavia, a spoiled and artist-wannabe teenager, and Martin, an old man stuck in the routine of his work and lonely life. Cleverly, the film only shows lately that they’re living next door, without knowing or paying attention to each other — it’s one of the many talented visual tricks of director Max Zunino to stress on a sense of isolation and intimacy. Framing, silence, repetition: everything is done to play on private and public spaces. The world outside the building screams and invades their lives. First, with the financial crisis. Second, with a camp of protesters, who lost everything, occupying the streets downstairs to express their discontent.
The film works as a delicate, slow, gentle rom-com where two wounded characters tame each other and learn to move on, thanks to actors Juan Carlos Colombo and Sofia Espinosa. Their relationship evolves organically, with the sense they can change a bit but stay the same — she’s a brat, he’s tart. But Los Bañistas works very well too as a smart social utopia where people can help and help each other in a new economy. At some point, on the brink of despair, Flavia, Martin and the protesters will organize a community which benefits everybody. The film builds upon that in a not-preachy, quiet way. It is striking that Gonzalez, another Mexican film in the competition, both features the same actor (Harold Torres) and also deals with the failure of institutions and the need to fill the void with an alternate bond — a Christian sect in the case of González, but with opposite goals and results.
And Open Cage is so open that its themes seemed to have spread in other films from the First Features selection. Ghosts are a minor image there (Martin is a “haunted” widower) but are major and better handled in the plots of Beatriz Sanchis’ They Are All Dead (Todos estan muertos), a Spanish, gently twisted cousin of Lukas Moodysson’s We are the Best with the always-shinning Elena Anaya and in Fabianny Deschamps’ New Territories. The latter is an ambitious low-budget essay in which East and West traditions collide when a Chinese worker and a French businesswoman cross paths. The film lingers at the beginning but manages to create a raw and dreamy world with footage shot on the fly, matched with an eerie voice-over. Attention: there’s one ghost in the film, and it’s not the one you think.
“New Territories” could also be the subtitle for Florian Gottschick’s Bright Night (Nachtelle), a psychosexual drama which, at its best, uses its original setting (a dying German village next to a spreading coal mine) as a metaphor for the desires and secrets of two couples spending the weekend at a country house — one is gay, the other is straight. The film hints of the possibility of a new type of family akin to They are all dead (a ghostly incestuous brother, anyone?) and Open Cage: an open affair indeed.
Edited by Jake Howell
© FIPRESCI 2014