43rd International Film Festival Rotterdam: A First Report

The 43rd International Film Festival Rotterdam is in full swing, having just rounded its first weekend. A festival that puts a spotlight on world cinema in general, and on young and promising filmmakers in particular: the Tiger Awards competition is only for films from first- or second-time directors, and there is a large Bright Future section for (sometimes very) young directors showing off their talents.

Night Moves (Kelly Reichardt)

altKelly Reichardt is no stranger to the festival: her sophomore feature Old Joy  won the coveted Tiger Award here in 2006. Since then, her star has been steadily on the rise in the art house circuit, with follow-ups Wendy and Lucy  and Meek’s Cutoff  gaining her a lot of critical approval. Her latest outing, however, was met with less fanfare when it debuted at the Toronto festival last autumn. A shame, because this eco-thriller, while flawed, again shows that Reichardt has great directorial talent. Well-paced visual cues and effective use of sparse music help her build up the film towards its pivotal point like a heist-thriller, and from there she slowly winds it down to show the psychological aftermath of the event. It is here that she falters, down the stretch, taking too long to get to a rather puzzling ending (not unlike Meek’s Cutoff), but the positive outweighs the negative in the end result.

The Oregon-set drama follows three environmentalists, Josh (Jesse Eisenberg), Dena (Dakota Fanning), and Harmon (Peter Sarsgaard), as they plan to blow up a dam in what one could call an act of eco-terrorism. They buy a boat, rely on Dena’s charm to acquire five hundred pounds of fertilizer, and meticulously work towards the big moment. The strength of the film in this first half is that even though you know they are planning something that most people would deem misguided and wrong, however well-intended the point behind it may be, one still feels the tension of hoping that the protagonists don’t get caught, with all the near-reveals that are a staple of the heist genre.

The plan succeeds, but has unfortunate and unforeseen side effects. The film’s second half traces the effect on the mental state of Josh and to some extent Dena, as we see Josh slowly unraveling, heading towards a dramatic ending. It’s here that the film really anchors itself on Eisenberg’s strong performance of the fidgety, meticulous Josh losing it. The problem is that Reichardt lingers on the aftermath too much, making the film feel long in the tooth. Where the film before the attack is tightly paced, the second half’s scenes often feel unnecessarily stretched out. It’s the only major downside to a film that is otherwise engaging, and Reichardt coaxes strong internal performances from both Eisenberg and Fanning (Sarsgaard does what he always does: play the unlikable douchebag/sleazeball, though it must be said he has perfected his craft by now). Perhaps a somewhat more conventional film than her previous outings, but by no means a lesser effort.

Até Ver a Luz (Basil da Cunha)

altBasil da Cunha’s first feature-length film is a rather dark affair, both literally and figuratively. The film plays in The State Of Europe section of the fest, and as such is an interesting look at a part of Europe (in this case Portugal) that most festivalgoers are probably unaware of, a part that would not feel out of place in the favelas of Brasil (due to the language, one might at first mistakenly think that the film is set there) or the slums of Africa (from which Portugal, due to its colonial ties, has a lot of immigrants). It’s a shame that the film itself is rather muddled. Da Cunha chose to use local (amateur) acting talent from the area he’s filming, and it shows. Add to that a plot driven more by improvised dialogue than actual story, and you get a film that drifts and stumbles towards the end.

Sombra (Pedro Ferreira) is a man who loves the night and shuns the daytime, perhaps not a surprise for a man whose name means ‘shadow.’ A small-time hustler fresh out of jail, he is in debt to local drug dealer Olos, prompting him to shake down others as much as he is shaken down himself. We follow him on his nightly travails, and later as he is employed by Olos’ gang for a hit. During this hit, he is framed for the murder of the drug dealer’s brother, and for the remainder of the film he is on the run in one of the direst settings ever portrayed on film. The Portugal of sun-drenched beaches is far removed from these outskirts of Lisbon, and the impressive and immersive cinematography enhances the post-apocalyptic feel of the environment.

But it takes the film far too long to reach this point, kicking into gear only after the botched attempt to frame Sombra. Tense, dark scenes of pursuit and a bleak but oddly poetic ending don’t flush away the many aimless scenes that preceded it. Até Ver a Luz  (roughly translated in English as After the Night, a fitting title given the ending) lacks tightness and sophistication, though Da Cunha shows talent for shooting tension. He just needed a better script, and more acting talent.

Die Frau hinter der Wand (Grzegorz Muskala)

altThe devil lives behind the wall.” His elderly neighbor had warned Martin, but he fails to heed the warning, so much is he beguiled by his landlady Simone in Grzegorz Muskala’s Die Frau hinter der Wand. A newly arrived student in Berlin, he has difficulty finding an apartment, so by necessity he has to live and study from his car. After yet another failed attempt to find living quarters, he is approached by a wheezing old man who might have something for him. While the apartment looks like a dump, and the previous occupant mysteriously disappeared, it is available, so why complain? So, even the requirement to have a shirtless photo taken for the owner doesn’t faze him, and Martin gladly accepts the offer. But who is his new landlady, who lives in the apartment next door (hence the film’s title)? First he just listens to her through the walls, using a stethoscope left by the previous renter, but soon enough he’ll get a chance to meet her, when she invites him over to deliver the rental contract. But does he sign a contract with the devil?

As soon as he lays eyes on her (and she lays something else on him), he is caught in her web. She seduces him, intoxicates him, and he comes completely under her spell. Simone’s boyfriend living in the same complex, a guy with a jealous streak and a menacing personality, certainly complicates matters, but Martin is not be deterred from being Simone’s lover. But who is on the controls in this relationship? And exactly what did happen to Robert, the previous occupant? Could Simone’s and the old man’s mysterious dealings in the boiler room of the building have something to do with it? Soon enough, the hot and erotic dream Martin seems to have found himself in is turning into a feverish nightmare, as director Muskala slowly turns up the heat in this peculiar thriller that is at times reminiscent of a good Brian De Palma (think Body Double).

A ‘lust for fear,’ as explained by the director in his intro to the film prior to the screening, underlies the proceedings. Martin knows there is something not quite right, and either instinctively or subconsciously he feels that she is up to no good, but he can’t help himself. He lusts for the thrill as much as he lusts for her, attracted to her as Michael Douglas was to Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct. And we all know how that ended…

This should not be seen as a realistic story, more as a frightening fairy tale, and Muskala has full control over the terror he feeds the audience in small but ever-increasing doses. Vincent Redetzki as Martin is a convincing shy nerdy guy who finds his inner Don Juan, but it is Katharina Heyer who shines as his bewitching seductress, putting the aforementioned Stone to shame with glee. The result is a wonderful cat-and-mouse game that thrills from start to bloody finish.

Not at Home (Shahrbanoo Sadat, Katja Adomeit)

altThat life for women in Afghanistan is not a bed of roses is a bit of an understatement. But the German-Afghan co-production Not at Home  makes it abundantly clear that even while these women dream of moving to the idyllic West, the reality when they get there is not exactly fun either. Shot in Kabul and Germany (not in a refugee camp, but with actual refugees as extras), the film’s short running time sells its characters a bit short in terms of development (certainly the unnamed girl in Germany is given little to no background). Yet it’s not hard to fill in the blanks, especially through the lengthy discussions between the oldest of four sisters in the Kabul sections and her father. A father who remains faceless throughout the film, symbolizing the dominant male oppression many Afghan women still suffer from in real life. His daughters give him nothing but trouble, he argues. But his ways are not hers, nor does she ever want them to be, she counters. She makes plans to flee to the West with her closest sister. Everything will be better there. The intercut German sections show that this is not the case. Stuck in a refugee camp on her own, the unnamed girl (not one of the sisters) gets through her days wordless, those days filled with eating in the mess, washing her clothes, and general boredom. When a young Afghan man arrives, there is a glimmer of hope for a better future, as there is a fragile, unspoken attraction between the two, but will her dreams remain just that: dreams?

Not at Home  is not an easy film to get through, as there is almost nothing in terms of plot or character background, but through loosely coupled scenes and authentic dialogue it gives an intriguing glimpse into the life of Afghan women, a group put on the back burner for the past decades, and whose position is still several rungs lower than that of males in Afghan society. But it also shows they have dreams, they have desires, and they are willing to fight for their freedom and a little more equality. But the fight is a struggle.

Intruders (Noh Young-Seok)

altAnd it sounded like such a good deal. When scriptwriter Sang-Jin heads for a bed & breakfast in the mountains run by a friend of his producer to finish his latest work, he hopes to find some peace and quiet. But director Noh Young-Seok doesn’t give him that peace in this highly entertaining ten-little-piggies thriller that takes a while to get going, but is laced with enough uncomfortable humor to keep the audience on its toes at all times. Already on the bus ride to the nearest town Sang-Jin is confronted with a clingy local who he finds it hard to get rid of. Later he is joined by a group of skiers seeking lodging at the abandoned bed & breakfast, and then there’s also the mysterious poacher and his Quasimodo-like sidekick. And if all this weren’t annoying enough, it doesn’t take long before the killing begins. After that, Sang-Jin has more than enough material to write a script. If he manages to stay alive, that is…

Director Noh Young-Seok takes an old and tired concept, but through his use of pitch black humor and a bunch of deadpan performances by his cast he manages to create a thrilling comedy of errors that can hold interest for its entire running time, not a mean feat for what is ultimately a rather silly affair. Winning performances by lead Jun Suk-ho as Sang-Jin and Oh Tae-kyung as the annoying villager (their initial conversation in the bus is golden) manage to infuse the right dose of humor, and a late deus ex machina  appearance, just when you think you have figured out the thing, is hilarious. Other characters are mainly one-dimensional and only there to serve the plot, but in a flick like this that’s easy to forgive. Not entirely memorable, but highly enjoyable nonetheless.