Top picks for the EU film festival
Tragic tales and celebrations of the human spirit are among the five best of 16 movies
There are 16 films to choose from in this year’s line-up for the European Film Festival, here are five of the best to whet your appetite ahead of the festival’s opening next week.
ANATOMY OF A FALL
Upon initial inspection, French director Justine Triet’s 150-minute drama might seem too conventional a choice for the winner of this year’s Cannes Palme d’Or. A courtroom drama that echoes classics such as Billy Wilder’s Witness for the Prosecution or Otto Preminger’s Anatomy of a Murder in its setup and execution hardly seems worthy of art cinema’s most prestigious honour.
However, Triet’s film is not a courtroom drama but rather something far more effective and uncomfortable — a precise, unflinching and profoundly effective dissection of marital relations and the ways in which our actions in private relationships might be misconstrued were they put under a microscope for everyone to see.
German actress Sandra Hüller gives a layered and not always easy-to-read performance as Sandra, a German writer who lives in a mountain chalet in the French Alps with her frustrated academic husband Samuel and their visually impaired son Daniel. When the film opens, Sandra is having harmless flirtatious fun with a young student who’s come to interview her over a glass of wine.
The interview is cut short when an unseen Samuel starts inconsiderately blaring 50 Cent’s P.I.M.P at full volume from a room upstairs. Embarrassed, annoyed and apologetic, Sandra sends the student on her way, while Daniel takes his dog and heads out for a walk in the snow. When he returns, the son finds the lifeless body of his father outside the chalet; seeming to have fallen to his death in a tragic accident. With the investigation finding no conclusion but arousing the suspicion of prosecutors, Sandra is arrested and charged with Samuel’s murder.
From here on the film quietly but expertly moves into dark psychological territory as the grubby details of Sandra’s marriage are revealed in all their unpleasant detail to the court, the press and the innocent ears of her son. Thanks to skillfully controlled direction and a masterful performance from Hüller, attention and intense interest are kept not because of a desire to unravel the mystery of Samuel’s murder but rather through an innate car-wreck fascination with the inner workings of the imperfect relationship between the couple.
A complicated and heartbreaking relationship of a very different kind forms the focus of talented young Belgian director Lukas Dhont’s Oscar-nominated second feature. Thirteen-year-old boys Léo (Eden Dambrine) and Rémi (Gustav De Waele) share a close, intimate but mostly innocent, adolescent bond as friends who spend their summer holiday playing in the fields and conjuring up adventures with their imaginations.
When they enter high school the boys seem at first to be continuing their friendship but as its intimate nature comes under scrutiny and ridicule from schoolmates, a rift appears and Léo — the more eager of the pair for social acceptance — starts to visibly shun Rémi, resulting in a tragic and terrible consequence that will shatter their innocence and the world of their families forever.
It leaves all its characters and the audience drained and tear-soaked, not by virtue of sentimentalism but rather in aching recognition of the fragility of the formative relationships we make and the long-lasting shadows they cast. Anchored by a remarkable performance from its young lead Dambrine and an impressively mature handling of the emotional layers of its simple, familiar story, Close proves Dhont to be a bright star of the new generation of European filmmakers.
It’s a difficult task to cinematically convey the world as seen through the eyes of animals without having to resort to hokey Hollywood methods such as cutesy human voiceovers or sickeningly sweet “man and his best friend” tropes.
Polish maverick Jerzy Skolimowski, 85, chooses the humble ass as his animal protagonist for this memorable journey through the absurdities and painful contradictions of modern European society. Eo is one of the animal stars of a rundown, embattled Polish circus — beloved by his human co-star Magda but mistreated by his handler. When protests around the circus’s treatment of animals lead the authorities to shut it down, Eo begins his new, awfully big adventure.
Taking him from corrupt local government to football fan brawls, truckstops and beyond, we watch the world predominantly through his eyes and root for him to come through it all with his tail still up. It’s about how humans treat animals but more than that it’s about how we treat each other. Shot through with dark humour and a distinctively sharp eye for the surreal, it’s one of Skolimowski’s most endearing and successful films and one that proves he has plenty of creative life left in him yet.
THE EIGHT MOUNTAINS
Married Belgian directors Felix van Groeningen and Charlotte Vandermeersch bring the melancholic existential searching of Italian writer Paolo Cognetti to vivid and emotionally impassioned life in this long but rewarding adaptation of the novel of the same name.
The story follows the decades-long ebb and flow of the relationship of two men — Pietro and Bruno — who meet in childhood during a summer vacation in the Italian Alps and then fall out of touch until they reconnect in adulthood to work together to build a cabin high in the mountains. Their renewed friendship creates a lifelong bond that will bring them closer together but also move them further apart as they find new purpose and meaning in their lives.
Quietly moving, beautifully filmed and superbly acted, it’s a small story told against an epic backdrop that’s equal to the eternally complicated philosophical questions at its heart.
THE OLD OAK
No director has done more dedicated service to working-class social realism than British legend Ken Loach, who for almost six decades has ignored the trappings of Hollywood in favour of making his signature bittersweet dramas about the social and economic challenges faced by ordinary people.
Having recently indicated that due to failing eyesight and short-term memory challenges, this may be his last film, the 87-year-old director here delivers a distinctive small tale with big hopes for the power of the human spirit to overcome the most difficult of challenges.
Set in a crumbling North Eastern England mining town, the drama centres on the arrival of a group of Syrian refugees, the challenges they pose to the village’s embattled and impoverished inhabitants and the determination of the owner of the last remaining pub, The Old Oak, to do the right thing whatever the consequences.
• The 10th edition of the European Union Film Festival takes place from October 12-22 at The Zone Rosebank in Johannesburg, the Labia in Cape Town, Ster-Kinekor Gateway in Durban and online. For more information visit eurofilmfest.co.za.
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