The Brag

Sydney Film Festival Part 1: June 3-8, 2009

In Arts, Film Reviews, Sydney Film Festival 2009 on June 8, 2009 at 3:57 pm



[posted by Dee Jefferson]

I should probably declare a couple of things upfront: firstly, the Sydney Film Festival is my favourite time of year; secondly, i am seeing everything in competition this year; thirdly – i am avoiding films already seen in other festivals, already seen on screener, and those getting a release through Australian distributors this year.

So far this year, it’s been a mix of euphoria, disappointment, anger (all you chair kickers, finger tappers, bottle-bangers and apple-eaters out there? You suck) and discussions about films that I love, with people that find them totally charmless (Altiplano, anyone?). And discussions about films that i love with people that love them almost as much (Altiplano, anyone?). Zero discussions about films that i hate, with people that love them. Yet.

Let’s begin.

Wednesday June 3

Looking for Eric
In Looking For Eric, an English postal worker and Manchester United fan, who is depressed about the failed relationship with his first wife, Lily (20-something years ago) and having trouble with his teenaged son (from the second wife) and step son (?) who live with him, begins to hallucinate visitations from his number-one idol: Eric Cantona. Cantona begins to give him love and life advice, from having a shave and combing his hair, to cross-training, game-player strategy, and how to exploit the weaknesses of enemies…

When he comes up against his two biggest problems: his inability to re-establish intimacy of any kind with Lily, and a gangster who is threatening his step-son and the entire family – it appears that Eric manages to get by only with the advice of Cantona. So although the ending is highly satisfying, it is possible to look back on the film, as you leave the theatre, and think: ‘I’ve been had’.

But you haven’t – not if you came looking for a human drama about what it’s like to feel lonely, how hard it can be to find self-confidence, and how overhelming it feels to be between a rock and a hard place, with your loved ones at stake – for example, how to stop a really bad-ass gangster from putting your entire family on his hit list.

Steve Evets’ performance as the dispirited, depressed and down-at-the-heel postal worker is a heartbreaker. Even if we feel like leaving Lily with their baby girl, because he was having panic attacks, is not really warranted…at least we feel like this is a person who genuinely wasn’t capable of more at the time. Eric Cantona is eccentric – cryptic advice using analogies relating to seagulls – and charismatic. You quickly get a sense of the godliness ascribed to his sporting prowess. I briefly thought perhaps I might have missed my calling as a soccer fan.

Is it a crime to make a silly film with a very genuine heart? Is it a crime to program, for opening night, a film about team work saving the day? From where I sat in the audience, it was a big thumbs up.

Thursday June 4

La Nana/The Maid
The first third of The Maid pits a surly, possibly psychotic, family maid against a quick succession of newcomers to her turf. When Raquel begins having dizzy spells, the family she has worked with for twenty-or-so years decides to hire some extra help. But Raquel’s territoriality seems to know no limits, as she resorts to psychological warfare to defeat first one maid and then another.

There was a point in The Maid (if not several) where it could have veered into very dark territory. Will Raquel drown the kitten? Will one of the new maids have an unfortunate “accident”?

Then the script takes a turn – when a new maid, Lucy, unexpectedly cracks through Raquel’s embittered exterior. Ultimately, this film is about as feel-good as it gets, down to the final scene which verges on cloying. The feeling of satisfaction you get from seeing Raquel transform from repellent psychotic to empowered and empathetic is almost enough to make you forget those nagging questions about character threads that are unfurled, but never totally unravelled.

This film is really about character, and the best thing about La Nana is the intuitively executed transformation by Catalina Saavedra as Raquel. The script also has some nicely unexpected moments between the two women, as they bridge the gap, towards friendship.

Saturday June 6

In this visually stunning film, set half in Belgium and half in the Peruvian Andes, two stories around two different women, are interwoven before joining the same thread. A fragmented narrative and surreal imagery – from the opening shot, of a “Virgin” icon flanked by two boys, as they respectively don a sun and a moon mask – belies Altiplano’s fairly clear trajectory, but by the end it has emerged as a quite political film about Western greed, exploitation of the poor and ignorant by the rich, white and “educated”, and the moral obligation to “bear witness” to the world’s injustices – whatever your profession is.

But that explanation of Altiplano really does it no justice, because at the end of the day, it is pure unadulterated visual pleasure – whatever your breakdown of its politics, plot devices, character development. Long graceful shots, 360-degree dolly shots, facial close-ups framed by cerulean sky, stunningly composed birds-eye shots. Words cannot really do justice to the explosion of colours, the elegant camera work, the striking, surreal tableaux.



The film works on political, emotional and mythic levels – an accomplishment. From the moment the scattered pools of “liquid silver” turn up outside the hillside church at Turrubumba, it is a sinister omen – even before the Madonna icon crashes to the rocks. Saturnina, the guardian of the virgin, must wait for it to be rebuilt, before she can marry her sweetheart Ignacio. Saturnina watches over the virgin, Ignacio goes to the glacier to bring back Holy Water for his marriage, and meanwhile the townspeople begin to die from a mysterious sickness.

On the other side of the globe, in damp, green Belgium, Grace and Max struggle in their marriage after she returns from a photographic assignment in Iraq that ended in tragedy: her guide was shot in front of her, and she was forced to photograph the moment. For Grace, the ethics of her profession seem irrevocably shaken. Leaving her to her grief, Max flies to the Andes to work in a medical clinic, treating cataracts.

The two sides meet when Max’s clinic begins taking in untreatable cases from the village of Turrubamba. His colleagues at the clinic begin to suspect what the audience by now knows – that the nearby mines, run by Belgians, have negligently contaminated the area by a mercury spill. The tragedy of the situation crystallizes in a line where one doctor talks of a similar situation she saw a few years back: “the locals kept it under their pillows”, thinking it was lucky and precious. This aspect of the film reminded me of a film I saw in Rotterdam in 2006, Madeinusa – which I found out after the screening, also starred Magaly Solier – and also looked at the fusion of Peruvian tradition and Christianity, in a small village.

The film is a trajectory by Grace and Saturnina towards each other – each tied to each other in loss. Is it a little morally repugnant that Saturnina’s death serves to enlighten Grace? That’s how it goes, the world being what it is.


Bronson’s reach exceeded its iron-strong grasp. What was probably a really meaty, interesting script has become curiously abstract in the hands of director Nicolas Winding Refn – although his stylised funny-violent Pusher trilogy might have augured as much. Based on the true story of a young Brit who liked a bit of the old ultra-violence – but not as much as he liked the infamy – went into the slammer on a 7 year sentence, for armed robbery, and has so far served 34 years – 30 of them in solitary confinement.

BronsonIn the slammer, nineteen year old Michael Peterson transforms into the exhibitionist alter ego Charlie Bronson, Britain’s most violent criminal. The film intercuts between Bronson’s on-stage fantasy monologues, performed to a darkened amphitheatre, and his exploits in prison. As the screenwriter Brock Norman Brock admitted, there was no real “story” to start with, but it sounds like Brock’s focus on Bronson’s internal conflicts has been lost in translation, in favour of visual flourish.

Tom Hardy is remarkably charismatic as the sartorially splendid Charlie Bronson, to a soundtrack of Wagner (not the only tip of the hat to Clockwork Orange), operatic Verdi and Puccini, and Pet Shop Boys. The only thing missing is a sense that Bronson ever travels anywhere as a person, for all that time spent reflecting.

500 Days of Summer
Another quirky comedy, although this one is truly a love song for the broken hearted. And the guy does not get the girl. In that sense, I felt satisfied. I also enjoyed seeing Joseph Gordon-Levitt do a singing-in-the-rain style dance routine in the street. On the other hand, aren’t there enough films about useless guys and their dysfunctional geek friends, trying to figure out the mystical creature that is woman? Even though Zooey Deschanel is fascinating…

Sunday June 7

Four Days with Anna
What an odd film! Veteran Polish filmmaker Jerzy Skolimowski returned from a directing hiatus with this quirky and incredibly atmospheric drama about a crematorium worker (Leon) who has an irresistible obsession with his well-endowed neighbour, Anna. But it’s not her physical charms that drive our man, as he repeatedly breaks into her house at night to watch her, mend her clothes, fix her clock, and carry on his own very dysfunctional romance with her – climaxing in a proposal, mid-slumber.

The film opens in such an ominous tone, with muted brown, blue and green tones, grim Polish setting, and the purchase of an axe, that you are set for Leon to be a serial killer – especially when he takes a severed hand from a bin, and incinerates it. Once you realise, however, that he is not a killer, then he perhaps inevitably becomes just the opposite: a protector.

This is a beautifully shot film, with atmosphere to spare, and dextrous shifts from tension to humour – no mean feat, when essentially your film is about a socially-inept middle-aged loner who drugs the next door neighbour so he can hang out in her apartment at night and paint her toes…

Monday June 8

I watched this again this morning – a real pleasure, although I suppose that depends on your sense of humour. I stick to my original assessment here, although I would say that comparing it to You, the Living is probably pretty superficial, since Louise-Michel really does have a plot and definite agenda – it is not solely an exercise in art or in absurdism.

Blue Beard
It seems Bluebeard is an exercise in deconstructing a gory fairytale as an allegory for gender relations, and relating it to modern girlhood by framing it within a 20th century context: two little girls sit in an attic, reading the Charles Perrault fairytale. In this tale, an adolescent girl escapes the prison of being poor, fatherless and unmarried by marrying a rich man/father figure, who rewards her girlish innocence, but punishes – or tries to – the first signs of independence. In the end, however, the girl’s wit and the help of her sister overcome the evil ogre.

This film felt like an exercise, arguably clever, but emotionally removed. And yet Breillat’s films have often been quite painful examinations of blossoming female sexuality. This left me cold. And as an intellectual exercise, I am not convinced it says anything profound about modern sexuality and gender relations.



The Missing Person
I feel like this film was meant to do a whole lot of things that if failed to: make you care about the characters; make a profound emotional statement about grief; make a profound stylistic statement as a genre-busting detective flick; elaborate on the personal effects of 9-11 on New Yorkers. At the end of the day, despite good performances from Oscar-nominated Michael Shannon and Amy Ryan, the characters left me cold, the jokes fell flat, and the experiment in tone failed. Harsh? Definitely – probably the cumulative effect of the festival, and the mood swings from euphoria to apathy to vitriol.

Barbara Loden’s 1970 film was probably very audacious by the very fact of its existence, let alone topic, at that time in American cinema and society. A woman’s film in the male-centric new wave of cinema, and a portrait of working class America with all its redneck political incorrectness. If you take this context away –can you? – it’s a portrait of a character on an apathetic path to self destruction.

Wanda_03.jpg_rgbHowever, by the time Wanda had slept with guy no. 2 and he’s slapped her around a bit, ordered her to fetch his food, and fix his burgers, I was feeling really pissed off about her life, and ready for Wanda to grow some balls – and a brain. It was like Bonnie and Clyde in a really shit alternate reality – i.e. REALITY – where Clyde makes Bonnie wear dresses and heals and cover her hair, and Bonnie acts like an abused housewife. Because she probably is. It’s just tragic, unrelentingly devastating down to the last freeze frame on Wanda, as she drinks her way to her next one night stand and pathological attachment. The film seethes with anger – but I wish that instead of just being Barbara Loden’s, it was also Wanda’s.

Paper Soldier

[review forthcoming]


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