27 March, 2008

Strong European Showing at New Directors/New Films

By Sandy Mandelberger, North American Editor

As another sign of seasonal change, the venerable New Directors/New Films festival returns to the Museum of Modern Art and the Film Society of Lincoln Center in what is one of New York’s rites of Spring. Dedicated to the discovery and support of emerging artists, New Directors/New Films has earned an international reputation for its cutting-edge programming and commitment to more artistically ambitious filmmaking. This year, a total of 26 features and 6 short films made the cut, spotlighting first and second-time directors who are beginning to make their market on the international film world.

This year, European films and co-productions make up 10 of the 26 features, among the strongest showing of European talents in the Festival’s 37 year history. In a city, which is open about its embrace of all things French, it is no surprise that France is the country most represented in the Festival mix. The two purely French productions include Water Lilies, by director Celine Sciamma and La France by Serge Bozon. Water Lilies, which won the Prix Louis Delluc as Best First Feature and was nominated for several Cesar Awards, tells the intriguing story of three young women who form a murky bond of desire and emotional violence during a sultry summer in the Paris suburbs. La France is a historical epic with musical interludes set in the waning days of World War I. The film, which stars the sultry Sylvie Testud as a woman who disguises herself as a man to find her husband on the frontlines, won for its director the Prix Jean Vigo.

France is represented in several co-productions as well at this year’s Festival. In Jellyfish, co-directors Etgar Keret and Shira Geffen offer a fresh exploration of life in contemporary Tel Aviv. The film won the prestigious Camera d’Or prize at this year’s Cannes Film Festival for best debut feature. In A Lost Man, a French co-production with Lebanon, director Danielle Arbid explores sexual taboos in the Arab world in a story of an encounter of a French photographer with a Lebanese man who can’t remember his past. France is one of three co-producers with Spain and Argentina in the provocative XXY by Lucia Puenzo. The film tells the intriguing tale of a hermaphrodite raised as a girl who must now decide on whether she wants to live as a man or a woman. The film has been a major hit on the international film festival circuit, having won Best Film prizes at the Cannes Critics Week, Bangkok, Athens and Montreal film festivals, as well as a Best Director prize for Lucia Puenzo at the Edinburgh Film Festival. In Eat, For This Is My Body, director Michelange Quay brings considerable gifts to his debut feature set in his native Haiti. Vibrant musical sequences give way to contemplative tableaux of sexual ambiguity and colonial politics in this unique film debut.

Two new films from Greece make a surprising showing at this year’s Festival, pointing to the vitality of this lesser known cinema of southern Europe. In Correction by Thanos Anastopoulos, a young man just released from prison wanders the streets of Athens and becomes fascinated by a woman and her daughter. This affecting story of inner and national identity won the Best Screenplay Award at the Thessaloniki International Film Festival. In the offbeat Valse Sentimentale, director Constantina Voulgaris spins a sentimental yarn between a girl and a boy stuck in downtown Athens who secretly years to be together but are too cool to admit it. The film has been a major box office hit in its native Greece and is beginning its European theatrical run later this year.

This is the first year in memory that the Festival is not showcasing a purely English film but two co-productions with the UK are included in the roster. In Soul Carriage, a co-production with China by director Conrad Clark, a young worker at a Shanghai construction site returns to his country village to return the body of a co-worker who died on the job. In this beautifully shot film the conflict of modernity fighting tooth and nail with tradition serves as a metaphor for Chinese migrant workers searching for material and spiritual fulfillment. In We Went To Wonderland, another co-production with China, director Xiaolu Guo tells the intimate story of a man who has lost his voice after an operation who embarks with his wife on a tour of Europe. The film offers a striking critique of the effects of globalization and the disconnect between China and its Western allies.

As the sole Spanish title, La zona by Rodrigo Pia offers a telling tale about vigilante justice and class warfare. In this co-production with Mexico, a young robber goes on the run inside a privileged gated community as private security guards try track him down. The film offers a critique of the disparity between the privileged class and powerless teens who must scrounge for a meager existence.

For the next two weeks, New Directors/New Films showcases some of Europe’s most promising film artists in a revelatory program of discovery and engagement. For more information on the New Directors/New Films series, log on to the websites of the Film Society of Lincoln Center: or the Museum of Modern Art:

25 March, 2008

Michael Haneke’s Remake of Funny Games

It is a very rare thing indeed for a European director to have the opportunity to remake a small art film in another language (the only other recent example was Dutch director George Sluizer’s The Vanishing). But Michael Haneke is that rare director. The English-language version of his domestic thriller Funny Games, originally shot in his native Austria in the German language and starring Ulrich Muhe (the Stasi spy in The Lives of Others) has just opened in the United States, with an all-star cast that includes Naomi Watts and Tim Roth. The distributor is Warner Independent Pictures, the independent arm of studio giant Warner Brothers.

Although the film may seem like a Hollywood production (which is part of its marketing appeal), it is in fact a thoroughly European venture. The film is co-produced by Dreamachine, Halcyon Pictures and Tartan Films of the UK, Celluloid Dreams of France and X-Filme of Germany, and has been sold internationally by Celluloid Dreams. The idea of re-making it in English was designed to expand beyond Haneke’s usual distinct arthouse audience and to make a deeper impression in the United States. Haneke is reportedly interested in helming a film in Hollywood.

In films like Benny’s Video, The Piano Teacher and Caché, Haneke has explored the fear and violence that flow like poison behind the facades of bourgeois life. In Funny Games, he offers a bourgeois family (Watts, Roth and ten-year-old actor Devon Gearhart and Roth) who are terrorized by fresh-faced Aryan preppies (played by Michael Pitt and Brady Corbett). The young men bind, gag, maim and terrorize, but never lose their bland smiles or their upper-class manners. Their real game is power.

The English-langugage version is a shot-for-shot, line-for-line remake of the 1997 original, with the same scary red credits and screaming-horror heavy metal soundtrack. However, the film is a distant cousin to the “torture pornography” of the Saw and Hostel series, which also delight in pain and power. The film is attempting a very delicate balancing act. On the one hand, it is being marketed to appeal to the male teenage audience that seems to delight in this sub-genre, while not alienating Haneke’s supporters in the arthouse crowd. In Europe, the English-language version is being treated as an art film, but the marketing campaign in America is more lurid and sensational, hoping to cash in on a more mainstream audience.

However, the film mixes both graphic physical violence and psychological terror with an artist’s eye. Haneke also makes us as audience members complicit in the action, voyeurs who delight in watching the slow, painful torture of a normal family. The director comments that simply by sitting there in the dark, we are guilty of turning violence into entertainment. On any terms, this is tense, brilliant filmmaking, a grotesquely skilled exercise in Snuff Guignol. Its cool sadism has its roots in such earlier films as Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, Roman Polanski’s Cul de Sac and Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs.

Like French filmmaker Gaspar Noé, Haneke taps into our attraction and repulsion to graphic imagery and the anything-goes era that we now inhabit. The film, which is not for everyone (I personally closed my eyes during many scenes) but it held me with its primitive fear factor.

How it will do in the marketplace is rather uncertain. It debuted this past week at number 22 in the box office chart, opening on 275 screens in the United States (not huge, but not small either). So far, in the first week, the film has grossed less than half a million dollars, which is certainly respectable. It remains to be seen what happens after the initial teenage audience runs its course and if older audiences who have followed Haneke’s career will also show up. This is one worth monitoring.

20 March, 2008

UK Director Mike Leigh To Be Honored At San Francisco FF

Acclaimed UK director Mike Leigh will be honored with inaugural Founder's Directing Award at the 51st San Francisco International Film Festival (24 April-8 May). The Founder's Award will be presented to Leigh at the Film Society Awards Night, the annual benefit gala, on Thursday, 1 May at the Westin St. Francis Hotel.

The Founder's Directing Award is presented each year to one of the masters of world cinema and is given in memory of Irving M. Levin, who founded the San Francisco International Film Festival, the longest-running film festival in the Americas, in 1957.

Mike Leigh will also participate at a public screening event on 30 April at the historic Castro Theater. The special event will include an onstage interview, a clips reel of his career highlights and a showing of Topsy-Turvy (1999), kaleidoscopic and visually entrancing backstage comedy/drama portraying the tumultuous world of 19th-century theatrical impresarios Gilbert and Sullivan.

Leigh's history with SFFS stretches back to 1986 when SFIFF held the first US retrospective of the director’s gritty and unsparing, often bitingly funny work. That program presented Leigh’s lesser known works, including short films and television films produced for the BBC in the 1970s and early 1980s. Leigh triumphantly returned to SFIFF in 1989 with High Hopes, the alternately hilarious and moving story of a working-class couple living in a tiny London flat.

Leigh is one of the UK and Europe’s most well-respected and loved directors. His film Naked (1993) won him the Best Director prize at the Cannes Film Festival that year. Secrets and Lies (1996) won the Palme d’Or at Cannes, as well as an unprecedented five Oscar nominations. In 2004, his film Vera Drake was a major international hit that perfectly blended his interest in class-conscious drama and social realism. He is also known as an “actors’ director”, having helped make household names of such discoveries as Tim Roth and Gary Oldman, while further propelling the careers of Jim Broadbent, Jane Horrocks, David Thewlis, Alison Steadman and others. Newcomer Sally Hawkins was honored last month at the Berlinale for her performance in his newest film Happy-Go-Lucky.

"Mike Leigh is an extraordinary director who has forged a singular path in world cinema over a long and brilliant career," said Graham Leggat, executive director of the San Francisco Film Society. "We are delighted to welcome him back to the International on the heels of his well-deserved success with his latest comedy Happy Go Lucky at this year's Berlinale."

For 22 years the San Francisco International Film Festival has honored a master of world cinema with its Founder's Directing Award. Previous European auteur recipients include: Werner Herzog, Germany; Milos Forman, Czechoslovakia/USA; Francesco Rosi, Italy; Manoel de Oliveira, Portugal; Marcel Carné, France; Jirí Menzel, Czechoslovakia; Robert Bresson, France; and Michael Powell, England.