Through March 31, the 14th annual European Union Film Festival takes over SAIC’s Gene Siskel Film Center, showing 64 films representing 24 countries. The F staff reviews our favorite flicks from the largest North American showcase of European cinema.
Desert Flower, 2009, United Kingdom
Director: Sherry Hormann
I’m not advocating for female genital mutilation for a second. Let’s make that abundantly clear. But when the Waris Dirie character pulled off her burka to tread down the runway, I did feel a little uneasy. This biopic of Somali-born model and humanitarian activist Waris Dirie features Ethiopian born model turned actress Liya Kebede in the starring role. The story of Dirie’s barefoot trek throughout Africa as a child, and serendipitous discovery in a European burger joint by a high fashion photographer is indeed harrowing. Tonally, the film handles many discomforting issues with a deft touch. However, the film takes a staunch stance on misogynistic practices in the third world, but doesn’t seem to recognize any irony in the fact that Dirie ultimately achieves upward mobility by doing nude photo shoots in Western Europe, and marrying a gross guy she has no interest in to obtain UK citizenship.
Of course female castration and fashion photography are not entirely in the same realm. I just can’t help but wonder if there wasn’t a way to handle this with a little more cultural relativism in place. But whatever. It’s a powerful story, and an issue that absolutely merits discussion. Hopefully, American audiences will embrace this film when it’s released theatrically in mainstream theaters next week. —Brandon Kosters
Illegal , 2010, Belgium
Director: Olivier Messat-Depasse
A story that rings all too true in contemporary times, Belgium’s submission for Oscar selection is a dramatic portrayal of one woman’s devastating experience as an illegal Russian immigrant in France facing deportation. Anne Coesens delivers a triumphant performance as Thania, a quiet, timid woman living illegally in France with her teenage son. After being apprehended by French police, Thania is sent to a detention center for illegal immigrants, where she refuses to provide any information about herself, doing chores for a pittance in order to obtain phone cards in order to call her son.
Developing friends with the other detainees — including a strong-willed African woman (powerfully played by Esse Lawson) whose failed deportations result in her repeated return to the detention center, badly beaten and bruised — Thania develops immutable strength, allowing her to withstand her interminable days, shuffled back and forth from prison to the detention center as the French strive to deport her.The women develop a friendship with a female prison guard, asking her how she can stand to criminalize people who’ve done nothing wrong. Later on when the guard (Christelle Cornil) wonders if Thania has had enough, if this imprisonment is worth staying out of Russia, it is clear that life as an illegal immigrant is considerably more perilous than many realize.
Featuring an incredible cast, with performances that are sure to move, “Illegal” is often difficult to watch, but stays true to its mission and portrayal of immigrant detention without hitting its audience over the head with aggressive political commentary. There are two sides to every story, and this is one that deserves to be told. —Amanda Aldinger
Kawasaki’s Rose, 2009, Czech Republic
Director: Jan Hrebejk
A tempered tale, with slow revelations and enduring tests of character and loyalty, “Kawasaki’s Rose” is a poignant drama that explores generations of love and betrayal woven into the inadvertent framework of the Communist regime.Lucie (Lenka Vlasakova), the daughter of Pavel (Martin Huba) and Jana (Daniela Kolorova) is released from the hospital after undergoing extensive care for a mysterious disease, while her husband, Ludek (Milan Milkulchik) is part of a film crew filming a documentary on Pavel, a prestigious award he is soon to receive, and his noble work as a renown psychiatrist.
In the beginning, Ludek’s volatile jealously of Pavel and hostile anger towards his wife seem unfounded, for Pavel is beloved by his daughter and wife, a legendary figure in his own community for the years of service work he has selflessly provided. But as new information arises, and the filmmakers seek an interview with an old Communist interrogator, a contentious past that has long been dead and buried resurfaces, casting a harsh light on truths that many had falsely stood by for years.
Awash with remarkable performances, in this film, directed by Jan Hrebejk, each of the characters experience monumental shifts in reality, forced to reframe everything they thought to be true. Although calm and methodical in its unraveling, Kawasaki’s Rose is a 95 minute testament to how things may not always be what they seem. —Amanda Aldinger
Plastic Planet, 2009, Austria
Director: Werner Boote
In “Plastic Planet”, filmmaker Werner Boote, enthralled with his grandfather’s history as a plastics manufacturer, sets out across the globe to investigate the toxic nature of the world’s most beloved, and pervasive, material. Although myths surrounding its inability to decompose reflect the most common stereotypes of why plastic is dangerous, Boote’s international investigation quickly uncovers that this malleable material’s greatest danger lies in the secret toxins often used just to produce it — toxins of which the general public is rarely made aware. In an effort to decode plastic’s ingredients, Boote visited major plastic manufacturers around the country, hoping to divine an honest answer from someone about why there’s no regulation for plastic additives and just what those additives might be.
In China, he speaks to the PR agent for a major plastic company who refuses to divulge how their blow-up toys are made. After retrieving a plastic globe for himself, tests on the product show high levels of mercury and Bisphenol A, a toxic ingredient. Boote doesn’t just interrogate people. He supplements his research with ground level investigations, traveling to the Atlantic ocean with Charles Moore, where they trolled the water in the middle of the ocean and uncovered hundreds of bits of little plastic shards and bottle caps after just a thirty minute troll. A visit with a water toxicologist in Italy reveals that toxins that have seeped from plastic materials into various water sources have produced a new breed of asexual fish, developed with unnatural DNA.
Despite its very serious subject matter, Boote balances the documentary’s disturbing revelations with welcome moments of humor and a strong balance of content. He seeks out as many answers as possible, and despite those who prove evasive, Boote’s point is resoundingly clear: something needs to change. If the producers won’t be honest, then it’s up to the consumers to mandate honest information about what’s going into plastic materials before it’s too late. —Amanda Aldinger
Two in the Wave, 2010, France
Director: Emmanuel Laurent
Set against grainy archival footage and a present-tense voice-over, “Two in the Wave” recounts the ups and downs of the two most prolific French New Wave filmmakers: Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut. This touching black and white documentary is an amalgam of historical facts, newspaper excerpts, biographies and existing film footage, portraying the colorful comradeship between the two protagonists and glittering golden days of France’s cultural rebirth.
Coming from disparate backgrounds, the two individuals were bound together by their fervent love of cinema, a salvation from their turbulent youth. Both set out as film critics, their critical eyes giving them enough confidence and power to reinvent French cinema. They write for each other, film for each other, and produce movies that are groundbreaking and despicable, triumphant and futile. Despite their sensitive nature, their friendship was iron-clad, moving forward in times of eulogy, censorship, condemnation and negligence.
However, this rosy comradeship didn’t end “happily-ever-after.” Drastic differences in temperament and value tore them apart. As Jean-Luc Godard actively engaged political upheaval by producing films as political statements, François Truffaut eschewed the idea of siding with him as an activist. Clinging firmly to the ideal that art is created to console, Godard accused Trauffaut of lacking critique. Their divergence became irreconcilable.
The elegant narrative of “Two in the Wave” is a credible attempt at offering a comprehensive, if not objective, account of history. Just like every commoner, these two history-makers experienced emotional journeys, while making terrible mistakes and flaunting their defects. The film culminates in the dramatic separation of Godard and Truffaut, without a sliver of pain or remorse felt in their ruthless attack on each other’s value and belief. Rich in archive material, “Two in the Wave” powerfully mingled provocative film clips, interviews and a riveting voiceover. However, the lack of humanity in the two protagonists is evident, for the breach of their legendary friendship was depicted abruptly, leaving the audience in an obscure suspicion. —Ziyuan Wang
The Arbor, 2010, United Kingdom
Director: Clio Barnard
A dark documentary about the life of late playwright Andrea Dunbar (who died at age 29 from an alcohol-induced brain hemorrhage), “The Arbor” was voted one of the best films of 2010 by critics for Sight & Sound Magazine, and with good reason.
Andrea Dunbar wrote the play, also called “The Arbor”, when she was just 15, inspired by her life in Buttershaw Estate’s dangerous neighborhood of the same name. A young mother with an abusive past and a history of alcoholism, Dunbar left behind two daughters and one son when she died. The harrowing stories of her daughter’s lives encompass the majority of the film.
Experimenting with storytelling, director Clio Barnard interviewed Dunbar’s family and friends, compiling those transcripts for the film’s dialogue, which was lip-synced verbatim by the film’s actors. Interspersed with actual footage of Dunbar when she was younger, the film also includes a performance component, with a team of actors performing scenes from “The Arbor” throughout the film — presumably in the Arbor itself.
Dunbar’s story, especially the dark existence she had after her moment as a teenage playwright star, is provocative, to say the least. But it is Lorraine, Dunbar’s eldest daughter, who really haunts, leading a life overshadowed by the many mistakes her mother made, seemingly unable to find solid ground. Despite its sometimes difficult-to-digest content, the film provides insight into the life of a notable British playwright, her family, and the legacy she left behind; a unforgettable tribute, indeed. —Amanda Aldinger
The Invisible Frame, 2009, Germany
Director: Cynthia Beatt
I have an unhealthy obsession with Tilda Swinton. I am continually enthralled by her crazy antics, and while she initially captured my heart as a fashion icon, I also find her to be an incredible actress. Thus, you can imagine my excitement at being presented with the opportunity to see a short documentary starring Tilda, and Tilda only, riding her bike along a path inspired by the Berlin Wall. Perhaps if I had seen Beatt’s 1988 film “Cycling the Frame,” filmed around a similar concept when the wall still stood, I’d have had an idea of what I was getting myself into. But, I hadn’t. And thus spent the next 60 minutes of my life in a state of devastating boredom.
Let’s keep in mind a few things here: I was having a bad day, I had sat through another film just prior, and was experiencing such an overwhelming attack of one-time-only ADHD that I could barely sit still in my seat. These things excluded—let’s say it had actually been the best day of my life—I would have still been bored. I absolutely appreciate a slow-moving film, one driven by character studies rather than an extreme plot, but I still need something. Movement (more than that of Tilda on her bike), meaning, an attempt at storytelling, something. Although I appreciated seeing Tilda in her natural state, the entire film radiated pretension and a false sense of reflection, with her riding around, enchanted with every blade of grass as if she’d never encountered nature in her life.
Clearly, this is not true. Had she not been putting on such a romanticized facade for the sake of the film, she and Beatt could have perhaps produced content that was actually meaningful, or realistic, rather than a farcical 60 minutes that ultimately seemed to mean nothing at all. The sporadic bursts of poetic narrative that occurred throughout the film—senseless streams of verbage that only served to further distance me from what I was seeing—didn’t help either. Dedicating the whole film to the people of Palestine was equally bizarre and seemed to be a complete non-sequitur. Bottom line, I still love Tilda Swinton. And I hope to see her as the face of luxury fashion campaigns and as the star of (scripted) films for as long as she continues to work. But I never, ever want to see her ride her bike along the hills of Berlin again. —Amanda Aldinger
Applause, 2009, Denmark
Director: Martin Zandvliet
Watching Edward Albee’s famous tale of destruction played out on a Danish stage only serves to highlight the play’s timelessness, a sharp reminder that “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf”’s George and Martha hit closer to home than many would care to admit.
No one understands this reality more than Thea Barfoed (wonderfully played by Paprika Steen, a notable face on the Danish big screen) whose onstage role as the destructive Martha begins to bleed all-too-closely into her real life. The film is as raw and choppy as Thea’s tumultuous existence, interspersing between dramatic scenes of her performance onstage (and backstage booze habit) with her life after the show, post-rehab.
A modern-day reincarnation of her fated character, the film chronicles Thea’s struggles to put her newly dry life back together. Having been estranged from her family, she spends her days fixating on her two sons and failed marriage, trying desperately to prove her renewed self-worth in an effort to gain back partial custody of her children.
A happy tale it is not; its power is in its honesty and unfortunate relatability. How does Thea resist getting sucked into the lure of substances when at the height of her fame and notoriety? And how does she resume life when her addiction challenges her most important relationships? A beautiful film with a powerhouse cast, “Applause” will hit you hard and leave you hungry for answers. —Amanda Aldinger
Nothing Personal, 2009, Ireland
Director: Urzula Antoniak
“Nothing Personal” is a heartfelt story of two drifters, told through idyllic imagery and succinct narrative. Even with minimal dialogues, the film is an enchanting tale of the unsaid.
The film opens on a beautiful red-head, hitchhiking her way to a remote island in the Irish countryside. Ferociously pursuing independence and seclusion, the girl initially gives Martin, the owner of the island’s only cottage, the cold shoulder. But Martin quickly finds a way to retain her companionship: offering the girl three meals a day in exchange for garden work.
Perpetually stone-faced, the girl lets down her guard bit by bit, breaking the ice with Martin through the discovery of their mutual love for music. Their harmonious co-existence is buffered by an invisible wall: the rule that no personal questions should be asked. When Martin breaks this rule, a chasm of untold truths unfold themselves, re-shaping their interaction in ways that neither anticipated.
As the film progresses, the protagonists’ life stories remain shrouded in the seaside mist, giving only traces and souvenirs hinting at a bruised past. “Nothing Personal” maintains its enigmatic appeal to the very last minute. Although the film’s plot may seem ambiguous at times, the characters’ sensitivity and sensuality are poignantly portrayed despite the reticent nature of their relationship.—Ziyuan Wang
Film stills courtesy of Gene Siskel Film Center. Check back for more reviews, updated regularly. View the full festival calendar at siskelfilmcenter.org