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Losing the plot: Report from the Thessaloniki Film Festival

The Broken Circle Breakdown

By Preston Wilder

Halfway through the 54th Thessaloniki International Film Festival – which ran from November 1-10 this year – I had dinner with a local friend (not a film critic) who mentioned the system employed by one of her friends (also not a film critic) to navigate the festival. With 150 films from 54 countries, some navigation system is obviously necessary, and this friend-of-a-friend’s system is enviably simple: he just reads the plot synopses in the festival programme, strikes out the ones that sound too ‘dark’ – because who wants to go to the movies to be depressed? – and gets tickets for the ones that sound most promising. His success rate is apparently “30/30/30”, according to my friend: 30 per cent of the films he watches turn out to be duds, 30 per cent are watchable and 30 per cent are superb. I’m not sure what happens to the other 10 per cent.

My own system is different, and more boring (then again, I’m a film critic). For the most part, I prioritise movies that have already garnered buzz or won awards at other, bigger festivals like Cannes or Venice – or even Locarno, where Story of My Death won the top prize, the Golden Leopard. This is an object lesson in the limitations of the friend-of-a-friend’s system – because the synopsis sounds quite fun, citing both Casanova and Dracula, whereas the film will seem an endurance test for all but the hardiest viewers.

“Sometimes it’s funny, sometimes you will suffer a little bit also,” in the understated words of its Catalan director Albert Serra – which is true, because Death is imbued with a subterranean sense of humour (“Don’t you like this half-light? It reminds me of undergarments”) yet also peters out into endless scenes of near-inertia. Casanova is Modern Man, beholden to Science – he’s writing ‘A Dictionary of Cheeses’ – and the upcoming French Revolution, Dracula his polar opposite, a purveyor of primal screams and wild Rasputin-like spirituality. The result has moments of piercing beauty and a haunting, sepulchral atmosphere – but also provoked such fury in the audience that I was still overhearing indignant comments days afterwards.

This is always an issue at film festivals – but especially in Thessaloniki, a big student town where the Festival is relatively cheap, open to all, and an annual tradition that reaches far beyond hardcore cinephiles. Screenings are packed, audience members ranging from Rasta-haired teens to well-dressed middle-aged women with time on their hands. Walking around, I kept seeing people filing out of screenings, gathered in small groups debating what they’d just seen (overheard: “It symbolised the loss of innocence”) – but audiences also included the girl behind me at The Strange Colour of Your Body’s Tears who wasn’t even sure what nationality the film was, and her friend who assured her it was American (it’s actually Belgian), or perhaps the disgruntled husband who complained to his wife, having just watched the sombre Russian drama A Long and Happy Life: “They didn’t show a single moment of joy. Even a dying man cracks a smile occasionally!”.

None of this comes as a surprise. Film festivals mark the locus where two different worlds overlap, the world of ordinary filmgoers whose tastes are (inevitably) formed by hype-driven Hollywood and plot-driven TV, and the world of arthouse films which often privilege character (or ambience) over plot and almost always move at a slower pace than you get in the multiplex. “It didn’t bore me at all!” said a random girl on the way out of When Evening Falls on Bucharest, or Metabolism – and I could’ve hugged her, because … well, let me count the ways. The film is called When Evening Falls on Bucharest, or Metabolism. The title is never explained. It’s Romanian. It unfolds entirely in long talky scenes, shot with a static camera. It includes a scene in a Chinese restaurant where our hero expounds for a good five minutes (no exaggeration) on the ways in which the evolution of Chinese cuisine was determined by the fact that Chinese people eat using chopsticks.

Yet that girl was right: it’s not boring – mostly because it’s about a relationship. “In the middle of a film shoot Paul, the director, is having an affair with Alina, an actress playing a secondary role,” begins the plot synopsis in the festival programme – and the point is that illicit romance and film-within-a-film shape and affect each other, just as the means of consuming Chinese food (chopsticks) ended up affecting its taste. The director adds a gratuitous nude scene to highlight his lover, then orders reshoots to make her less prominent once things start going badly; meanwhile the line between professional and personal keeps blurring, the director abusing his power and forcing the actress to rehearse her scenes endlessly. This dry, clever movie bears no relation to the world of the multiplex – though it might conceivably play Cyprus Film Days next year, or some Romanian festival at the Friends of the Cinema.

Good films get lost all the time, of course, falling through the cracks, surviving only as fond memories in the minds of the few who saw them. I watched 19 in four and a half days – not a bad haul but of course I only scratched the surface, incidentally missing all the Greek films (even Miss Violence, this year’s big succès de scandale) and the handful of Cypriot shorts (all of which I’d already seen) as well as the high-profile Opening and Closing Night titles, Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive and Alexander Payne’s Nebraska, respectively. I often wonder how different my Festival might’ve been if I’d gone for the plot-synopsis method of choosing movies. Surely I’d have gone for Pelo Malo, for instance, a Venezuelan entry with the following irresistible come-on: “Junior, a beautiful nine-year-old boy with curls, longs to straighten his hair”. Or perhaps The Golden Cage: “Juan, Sarah – who’s dressed as a boy – and Samuel, all of them only 15 years old, take off from Guatemala to reach ‘El Norte’, i.e. the mythical USA”. And I surely might’ve skipped the depressing-sounding Egyptian drama Coming Forth By Day: “In a stifling Cairo apartment, a family of three carves out a difficult existence, punctuated by rare moments of tenderness”.

Instead I watched Coming Forth By Day – which is indeed quite punishing but finally powerful, building to a magical sense of nocturnal isolation – and skipped the other two, which was slightly embarrassing when The Golden Cage ended up winning top prize, the Golden Alexander. The Jury President was the aforementioned Mr. Payne, which in the old days would’ve meant a complete career retrospective (I recall watching classics by John Boorman and Jerzy Skolimowski at Thessaloniki, in the years when those gentlemen were in charge of the prize-giving) – but money’s slightly tighter nowadays, and in fact head honcho Dmitri Eipides went out of his way to emphasise that 80 per cent of the Festival budget comes from EU funds, as if to pre-empt accusations of squandering money on film festivals with the country in recession.

That said, this was the first time in ages that Greece seemed to be doing better, at least to a casual observer (and at least in Thessaloniki, which has largely escaped the worst effects of the never-ending crisis). The centre of town was packed with shoppers, helped by some unseasonably warm weather. More importantly, I didn’t see many shuttered shops or ‘For Rent’ signs – which of course we see all the time in Nicosia, and maybe my sanguine impression has more to do with our own plummeting standards in Cyprus in the year since the 53rd TIFF. Or maybe it’s just because Thessaloniki is so beautiful, especially the part around the Festival which used to be the old port and hugs the ever-changing waters of the Thermaikos. The sea is rippling gun-metal on a grey windy day, then changes to a light pretty blue and the clouds lift, revealing mountains in the distance. Sundown streaks the mountains with violet, then the lights from the Festival buildings glimmer yellow on the black waters after night falls. It’s enough to distract you from watching movies.

Fortunately, I wasn’t distracted – and found much to like, though my absolute favourite (a zany German comic symphony called The Strange Little Cat) was in the Market rather than the Festival proper. The ‘biggest’, i.e. best-known film I saw was probably The Broken Circle Breakdown from Belgium, which has already grabbed nominations for Film, Director, Actor and Actress at the European Film Awards (it was also the closing film in the otherwise-dire Cyprus International Film Festival last month). You can’t exactly call this a crowd-pleaser, given that the plot revolves around a little girl with leukemia – but it’s an all-out tearjerker that’s also lively enough to appeal to a younger crowd, the parents being a way-cool couple of folk-blues musicians (he’s an atheist; she has lots of tattoos). We even get musical numbers in between the family tragedy, making for something quite original – a searing emotional drama in the rousing style of O Brother, Where Art Thou. Overwhelming, if a little shameless.

The ‘smallest’ film I saw and enjoyed may have been Mouton, a French drama that played in Competition but didn’t win any prizes. This isn’t completely obscure (it won Best First Film at Locarno), but it’s hard to see something so willfully perverse finding much of an audience. Mouton (i.e. Sheep) is a nice but slow-witted young man who gets raised by an alcoholic mother, finds a job as a restaurant apprentice in a provincial French town and … well, it wouldn’t be fair to spoil what happens next, on the off-chance that someone reading this might actually see the film, but let’s just say that it makes a point about the essentially brutal, animalistic nature of our lives by systematically divesting itself of identification figures and human drama – i.e. all the things we watch movies for. It’s fascinating, and quite self-destructive.

I don’t know if I’d ‘recommend’ something like Mouton to my friend-of-a-friend – but that’s the beauty of the arthouse universe, it’s a wildly varied place with something for everyone. At the other end of the spectrum from Mouton might be the aforementioned Strange Colour of Your Body’s Tears, a super-stylish pastiche of Italian giallo thrillers made with lapidary skill; oddly, both films were directed by a male-female team – which raises another point about festival movies vs. multiplex movies (not that the two are mutually exclusive), viz. that things are a lot more progressive in the arty sphere. Of the 19 films I watched at Thessaloniki, nine were directed or co-directed by a woman, a very un-Hollywood ratio – not to mention Venus in Fur, a rather creaky two-hander where a woman very definitely gets the upper hand, even if the film itself was directed by feminist hate-figure Roman Polanski.

And of course there was sexuality, specifically the LGBT kind. They didn’t show Cannes prize-winner and lesbian coming-of-age drama Blue is the Warmest Colour at Thessaloniki (it opens there commercially next week), but I counted at least three prominent films with a same-sex angle – Tom at the Farm, Eastern Boys and It’s All So Quiet – and that’s not even mentioning Alain Guiraudie, the 49-year-old French director who was the Festival’s guest of honour.

Guiraudie is much more than a ‘gay filmmaker’ (his peak is perhaps the surreally comic No Rest for the Brave from 2003), but he’s won huge acclaim in the past few months for Stranger By the Lake, a tense-yet-languid drama set entirely in a cruising-spot for gay men, tucked away on the shores of a lake – and that was the last film I saw at Thessaloniki, crammed into the vast Olympion Cinema at 11 p.m. along with a packed house. As the film unspooled, all my thoughts of the previous few days seemed to coalesce: the thrill of being in the midst of a big international film event, the joy of seeing the kind of low-key, uncompromising material seldom encountered in Nicosia cinemas – but also, as the parade of erect male members and graphic gay couplings led to nervous giggles and a trickle of walkouts, the interactive tension that’s so much a part of Thessaloniki. To my right, an elderly lady muttered something to her companion and clicked her tongue loudly, as if to say that she hadn’t signed up for something so explicit. She should’ve read the plot synopsis.

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