Romantic Comedy Games

in 16th Transilvania International Film Festival, Cluj-Napoca

by Michał Oleszczyk

It is always risky to build a festival section around a specific theme with only new films at your disposal, since their quality will necessarily vary. It is one thing to carefully program a cherry-picked slew of, say, erotic thrillers from the last half-century, and quite another to take a close look at what is happening in world cinema now and try to discern a pattern amidst the seeming chaos. And yet this is precisely the task Michai Chirilov, the Artistic Director of Transylvania Film Festival in Cluj-Napoca, attempts every year – and with no small amount of success.

This year, the high-wire programming act was even more daring, since Chirilov focused on a genre that usually elicits either derision or a secret, guilty-pleasure- ridden admiration from the critics: namely, romantic comedy. The section “ALT.ROM.COM” bravely sought to redefine what romantic comedy may mean in our disillusioned era of post-truth, “fake news”, Trump, Brexit and the global anticipation of some kind of disaster.

While decidedly mixed in terms of quality, the ten movies presented in the section did give an idea of what form romantic love takes on in a world defined by digital media and constant focus on the self (rather than the other). While romantic comedy as a genre harkens back to at least Shakespeare – the first true master and main inventor of the form – what we saw in “ALT.ROM.COM” was usually far away from any notion of enchantment. What lurked beneath was constant, deep anxiety.

It is quite telling that two most optimistic and cheerful films in the section – Rama Burshtein’s Through the Wall and Fiona Gordon & Dominique Abel’s Lost in Paris – were greeted exceedingly warmly by the Cluj-Napoca audience. One could almost sense relief behind the laughter, as if there was a shared understanding among the viewers that while romantic love may be a myth, it is the one most worthy of chance belief. And while Buhrstein’s film is a follow-up of sorts to her successful 2012 feature, Fill the Void, it is also a graceful and surprisingly witty update of Eric Rohmer’s A Good Marriage (1982), with fantastic Noa Koler as Michal, a thirty plus Israeli woman pursuing marriage with something of a monomaniacal intensity. The sharp focus the film keeps at all times on its protagonist and her emergent sense of the moral complexity of her aspirations is refreshing, even though the brutally imposed happy ending may almost make you dread a seemingly inevitable Hollywood remake (possibly starring Amy Adams).

Lost in Paris, on the other hand, is a Wes Anderson-esque piece of harmless fancy: whoever is acquainted with Gordon & Abel’s mixture of painstakingly crafted old-school slapstick and high-end whimsy in films like Rumba (2008), will only appreciate their further refining of comedic mise-en- scène. This carefully scripted story of a Canadian tourist (Gordon) slowly warming up to a Parisian clochard (Abel) alongside a series of mishaps, is both an update on Boudu Saved from Drowning (1932) and a love letter to the city itself, sporting two significant appearances by French cinema legends: Pierre Richard and (the late) Emmanuelle Riva. Just how much you will laugh, depends on your tolerance for Gordon & Abel’s brand of comedy, suspended somewhere between the worlds of Jacques Tati, Pierre Etaix, Maurizio Nichetti and Jacques Demy.

At the other side of the spectrum was the FIPRESCI Award winner, Afterlov by Stergios Paschos. Riding the high tide of Greece’s eccentric New Wave, this imaginative two-hander starts with a simple premise of a man (Haris Fragoulis, hirsute and lanky) entrapping his ex- girlfriend (Iro Bezou) inside his house to elicit a frank admission as to why she had broken up with him in the first place. The sinister potential of The Collector-like action is quickly dismissed, since we quickly gather the semi-experimental nature of the film, in which characters and actors’ personalities blend and morph into each other, to the point where we almost feel like witnessing a form of improvisatory theatre. The most effective scenes play out the constant tug-of- war to the hilt, both in physical and verbal terms. The spectacular final sex scene, as funny as it is terrifying in its single-take 10-minute- plus duration (as well as unique in its mixture of tenderness and violence), is worth the wait alone.

Not counting the failed attempts at creating dialogue-driven hommages to screwball comedies of the 1930s and 1940s (in Nelson Núñez’ Uphill Love and especially Chris Kraus’ disastrous The Bloom of Yesterday), there were also several films in this section trying to comment on the influence of the internet on sex and romantic attachments. Clay Liford’s Slash deserves a mention for surpassing its Sundance indie-ness limitations thanks to the unflinching look it takes at a 15-year- old boy’s emerging homosexuality without once making him into a sympathy-pleading victim. Neil (a subtle performance by Michael Johnston) is an avid writer of highly homoerotic fan fiction, finding an unlikely match in a hyper-verbal high-schooler played by Alexandria DeBerry. The spectacle of their shared discoveries of mutual desires and anxieties is gentle, funny and completely unsentimental.

Jérôme Reybaud’s Four Days in France, on the other hand, while certainly overlong at 137 minutes, has wonderful moments, most of which are related to the avid usage of gay dating app Grindr by all the major characters. Mildly suggestive of Alain Guiraudie’s Stranger by the Lake (2014), though much less graphic in its depiction of the world of random gay hookups, Four Days in France builds its idiosyncratic universe out of small details and surprising scenes, of which the most moving is the prolonged masturbation of two men in their respective motel rooms, both clinging to a wall separating them from one another as they tap their hands to establish at least a sliver of connection.

The most body-conscious of all films presented in the “ALT.ROM.COM.” section was definitely Ivan I. Tverdovsky’s Zoology, an unflinching and shockingly funny look at a lowly middle-age Russian zoo worker who one day discovers she is growing an actual rat-like tail. Rooted in Natalia Pavlenkova brave performance and creative use of prosthetics, the film is in fact a meditation on aging female body and on the taboos that define female sexuality (while also being strongly connected to Russia’s post-Soviet class divisions). A movie that included the most shocking conclusion of all presented in the section, Zoology was also one that presented the most fully-drawn character, whose flesh and spirit were both palpable throughout the screening.

Overall, the section proved to be an illuminating experience that confirmed the remaining appeal of a romantic comedy – if not as a genre actually thriving in its classic form (Sasha Gordon’s It Had to Be You kept closest to the formula, thus becoming unbearable in the process), then at least inspiring as a starting point to imaginative genre-bending. The spirit of Mihai Chirilov’s idea was perhaps best captured by The Together Project, a French-Icelandic film by prematurely deceased Sólveig Anspach, in which one man’s borderline-stalker obsession with a feisty swimming instructor provokes a series of funny situations, many of which gently tug at societal norms.

And it is this sense of constant negotiation and tension between desires, notions of fidelity and constancy, and the undying willingness to connect with a significant other that drives the genre of romantic comedy – whether in its conventional form, or in a wide array of playful riffs as presented in the “ALT.ROM.COM” section at TIFF this year.

Edited by Christina Stojanova