Suicide is Painless

in 49th Karlovy Vary International Film Festival

by Yael Shuv

The competition at the 49th edition of the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival presented 12 films with varied moods, styles and views of the world. Agony and perpetual sadness in some films, scathing irony in others, but glimpses of optimism and belief in the triumph of the human spirit could also be found.

Free Fall (Szabadesés) by György Pálfi, who won the best director award, is composed of seven stories about the inhabitants of seven apartments in one building, each commenting in different cinematic styles on the physicality of the human body. As an old woman slowly climbs six floors carrying her groceries, and throws herself off the roof only to get up and try again, we are introduced to a loving germophobic couple who turn their apartment into a sterile environment. They even have sex wearing body condoms. In another apartment a young man manages to levitate and walk through walls, but he gets stuck midway. As in Pálfi’s previous films, black humor is abound, but Free Fall seems facile and less challenging compared to the dark lunacy of Taxidermia.

The narrative structure of several plots following numerous characters in a confined space was apparent also in the Czech film Nowhere in Moravia (Díra u Hanušovic) directed by the famous actor Miroslav Krobot. Quite entertaining, in a manner reminiscent of the classic Czech comedies of the sixties, and yet lacking in essence, the film follows the despondent lives of people (portrayed by well known Czech stars) living in a village in the countryside.

Angelina Nikonova’s Welkome Home, which also developed a multi plotted structure, is somewhat more optimistic. Telling the stories of people of different nationalities living in New York, the most entertaining tale, especially for film festival goers, is the one about the Armenian rug salesman who played the lead in an indie film and goes on to win awards in film festivals around the world, but when he comes back home he is still just a nobody who struggles to support his unappreciative family. The other stories are not as insightful of believable.

And then there was Signe Baumane’s animated film Rocks in My Pockets, winner of the FIPRESCI prize, which also wove many stories into one rich canvas, and did so in a much more resonating manner. Baumane excavates the stories of her suicidal grandmother and other relatives back in Latvia, who all, like herself, suffered from mental instability. As history rages on, Germans and Soviet occupations of Latvia contribute to the crushing hardships the characters struggle with. All is told with wit and energy and the film reaches a very moving conclusion in which the director imagines herself trying to help her grandmother achieve her goal and drown herself in the river, but the grandmother decides to struggle on.

Fair Play by Andrea Sedlácková also combined a family drama with historical overview, and told of a young athlete in communist Czechoslovakia in the 1980s, who is pulled into the state run doping program despite her resistance. The TV size drama focuses on her relationship with her mother, an ex-tennis player herself, who is convinced despite her better judgment to inject her daughter with steroids.
Three more films in the competition focused on the troubled relationships between a single parent and their offspring. A more rewarding film experience than Fair Play was offered by Jeff Preiss’ Low Down, inspired by the memoir of Amy-Jo Albany who adored her father, jazz pianist Joe Albany, as she watched him slowly deteriorating into drug addiction in Hollywood in the 1970s. As seen through the eyes of the teenage daughter (Elle Fanning, who was named best actress) this is a mostly impressionistic film filled with atmosphere and good performances by John Hawkes as the father, Glenn Close as the grandmother and Peter Dinklage as a mysterious yet friendly neighbor.

The French film Patchwork Family (Du goudron et des plumes) directed by Pascal Rabaté also focused on a father daughter relationship, this time in the format of a pleasant mainstream romantic comedy. Divorced father Christian (Sami Bouajila) is basically a good man, though he makes a living selling pest control to people who don’t need it. When he meets the lovely and very pregnant Christine (Isabelle Carré), mother of his daughters best friend, we know everything will be OK despite a few bumps in the well trodden road.

A bit less conventional was the Icelandic Paris of the North (París nor?ursins) by Hafsteinn Gunnar Sigur?sson, telling of a young school teacher, still pining for the girlfriend who left him and moved to Portugal. Hiding in a distant town and jogging to no avail, he now has to cope with the unwanted visit of his playboy father who has returned penniless from Thailand. Building a terrace and then demolishing it become the central symbol of the film’s drama.

Nothing in David Lambert’s All Yours (Je suis à toi) was anticipated. This comedy drama, enthusiastically received by the festival’s audience, chose an original trajectory, constantly surprising and yet managing to be human and believable. Lucas, a young sex worker from Argentina (the superb Nahuel Pérez Biscayar, winner of the best actor award), offers himself online to whomever is willing to pay for his flight. Henry, a fat opera loving Belgian baker (Jean-Michel Balthazar), takes the bite. Henry expects Lucas to share his bed and his work. Lucas, so it seems, didn’t think through what he was getting into (“I am not looking for sex, I am looking for a home” he explains), and what starts as a control game gradually blossoms into a unique dance, also involving the bakery’s shopkeeper (Monia Chokri), a single mother who is more to Lucas’ taste.

Unrequited love was also the subject of the Kazakh film Adventure (Priklyuchenie) Nariman Turebayev. A loose adaptation of Dostoyevsky’s melancholic 1848 story “White Nights”, which was brought to the screen many times before by directors such as Visconti and Bresson among others, Adventure tells of a lonely security guard at an office building in Almaty, who falls for the image of a lone woman waiting across the street for her long lost lover. The film has many lovely moments of observation, but it suffers from the depiction of the woman as a sort of a femme fatale, thus making her pining for a man who disappeared in a world without cell phones seem less than convincing.

Cheba of La Tirisia by Jorge Pérez Solano was also left behind by a man. Living in a distant Mexican village surrounded by phallic cacti, Cheba isn’t exactly waiting for her husband who moved to the city to make money, but has a sexual affair with Silvestre, who got her and his teen stepdaughter pregnant. Now that her husband is heading back home, Cheba leaves her new born baby with Silvestre who passes it on to Angeles, his step daughter, who doesn’t know what to do with it. Striking images adorn this beautiful film about the perpetual sadness of women.

The winner of the Crystal Globe for best film was Corn Island (Simindis kundzuli) by George Ovashvili. Taking place on a miniscule island (created by the film’s production crew) in the Inguri River which forms a natural border between Georgia and the republic of Abkhazia, the film presents itself as a parable about tradition and territory in a changing world. As a grandfather and his granddaughter silently build a shack and sow a corn field on the island, Russian and Georgian soldiers float by in their boats, adding a political echo to the minimalistic story which ends with bang as a rain storm disintegrates the shack and then the island itself. Next year another farmer will come and try to fight the odds.

Yael Shuv