Is It All About the Image?

in 29th European Film Festival Palic

by Ingrid Beerbaum

The films at the Palić Film Festival question the self-awareness of their main characters.

Like many film festivals in the Balcan region, the European Film Festival in Palic, Serbia was founded after war tore apart not only a country – Yugoslavia- but also many families. No wonder those festivals want to spread the spirit of (re)uniting people and create an atmosphere of international friendship and understanding. Located in a small town near Subotica, by a picturesque lake with buildings that are remnants of the sophisticated Austro-Hungarian era, this festival does precisely that- unite people in the love of films and show European films as well as the best productions of the Balkan region. Especially in the main competition, one can see a well-curated versatile overview of European Arthouse cinema. This year’s 29th edition was conducted under normal post-covid conditions and attracted many visitors enjoying the program indoors and at an open-air cinema.

This competition, consisting of ten films from all over Europe, impressively showcased what European auteur cinema can achieve by telling intimate, personal stories that are universal and able to touch a broad audience. One always tries to find a red thread in a selection: here, if there is one, it is the intense power of family (or the lack of it) and the self-image of a person, as well as the search to acquire or maintain a self-image. The most prominent example is Sick of Myself (Syk Pike) by Norwegian director Kristoffer Borgli. Here the main character Signe, an average twentysomething, is using the most terrible and self-destructive means: she takes pills that make her sick and deform her body and face to keep up with her small-scale-famous artist boyfriend. A fight that she can only lose because, apart from her narcissistic character, she has no substance or creativity, only the will to be seen at all costs. The film’s comment on the superficial narcissist Western hype culture is well staged and filmed but also a bit shallow.

Gentle (Szelid) by Hungarian directors Laszlo Csuja and Nemes also has a female main character, bodybuilder Edina who is about to participate in the World Championship of bodybuilding. Being physically strong yet reclusive, she and her trainer boyfriend, an ex-bodybuilder, are getting no corporate support. They have to hustle for the money needed to prepare for the great moment, so Edina takes on a job at a unique escort service, targeting men with particular fantasies. Despite her muscular physique Edina shows as a sensitive and gentle person who wants to make everybody happy; her demanding boyfriend and some nicer clients show her another way of life and access to her own needs and wishes. And that will be needed, as all the illegal bodybuilding medication will take its life-threatening toll.

The directors very gently take the audience on the voyage of Edina (who is played by an actual bodybuilder) to her true inner core. The muscle is still shadowing the image she gave to herself as obviously as an armor- with an open ending. The most striking and entertaining but at the same time honest and deep film in this line of argument is Ulrich Seidl’s Rimini, which unfortunately was overlooked at this year’s Berlinale edition in terms of awards. It is telling the story of Richie Bravo, a run-down singer of German Schlager music, a crooner by his definition, who entertains elderly Austrian and German guests and, more physically, some women. He pretends to be the great showman looking at ugly put-up furniture and some silently sitting white-haired people, hopefully remembering better, younger times. Besides them, he still thinks of himself as the irresistible hunk, wearing snake leather boots and a white singlet under a seal coat- the trash version of toxic masculinity. But that is all a facade that crackles when suddenly his daughter appears, demanding financial compensation for ten years of neglect. Richie, the (paid) lover, the barely self-supporting drunk and gambling addict, has to make a considerable effort and takes a risk. Rimini is probably the funniest Seidl film, uniting all the main elements of his LoveFaith, and Hope trilogy. For the German-speaking audience, it also references real, local pop singers driven by well-known songs. The main character, though, has all the qualities that one awaits in a Seidl movie, being tragic, cruel, and ridiculous at the same time but likable? No. He is the typical white male dinosaur, self-absorbed and using others. Indeed, one can be repelled by this man who seems to have no identity, only his image. But also, the women, willing to pay for a night with him, are only looking for their share of late pleasure in a depressingly bleak surrounding of a phantasy Rimini, where refugees lie or sit around like dark shadows, disturbing the not-so-nice picture of winterly Rimini. One can also see the film as a parable on the corrupted, only by maintaining the image of a male-dominated society, but that might be overthinking. In the end, Richie will be confronted with different lives and points of view, but that won’t change anything, whereas the audience will look at him with at least a little pitiful sympathy.

Ingrid Beerbaum
Edited by Anne-Christine Loranger