I originally wrote the following reviews for Time Out Chicago back in March to coincide with theatrical screenings at the Siskel Center’s European Union Film Festival.
Eugene Green’s LA SAPIENZA – Rating: 8.9
Eugene Green creates a singular filmgoing experience with La Sapienza, the study of a middle-age Swiss architect, Alexandre (Fabrizio Rongione), who rekindles both his professional passion and his marriage while on a trip to Italy to study the work of his hero, the Baroque master Francesco Borromini. Much like Jem Cohen’s Museum Hours, however, the story here is a mere framework in which the director has enfolded a series of art history lessons. Green’s style is definitely not for all tastes. His sense of extreme compositional symmetry and perfectly calibrated camera movements outdo even the likes of Wes Anderson and the de-dramatized dialogue sequences play out according to a predictable but bizarre formal pattern: They begin with master shots, progress to over-the-shoulder reverse angles and, disorientingly, climax with P.O.V. shots in which the characters address both each other and the camera. Green’s rigorous approach to style creates a fascinating tension that is only relieved in the transcendental final scene, where the clichéd image of a kiss is re-infused with an awesome sense of mystery, romance and power. In other words, you may feel as though you are watching a screen kiss for the very first time.
Bruno Dumont’s L’IL QUINQUIN – Rating: 9.9
L’il Quinquin, an off-the-wall masterpiece by writer-director Bruno Dumont, bears the same relationship to small-town northern France that the stories of Flannery O’Connor do to the rural American south: both show a darkly comedic fascination with grotesque characters living in backwater climates of racial and religious intolerance. Dumont’s police procedural was originally seen as a miniseries on French television, but is being released here as a single 3-and-a-half-hour feature by distributor Kino/Lorber. Ingeniously, Li’l Quinquin’s murder-mystery plot unfolds not primarily from the perspective of the cop characters but rather through the eyes of the town’s children, specifically the titular character (Alane Delhaye), an altar boy who has a potty mouth, the face of a pugilist and a penchant for firecrackers. Don’t let the extended running time scare you: Li’l Quinquin is not only one of the best films in the EUFF, but seems destined to be one of the best films to play Chicago theaters this year.
Ann Fontaine’s GEMMA BOVERY – Rating: 8.5
Gemma Bovery is a uniquely French rom-com from veteran filmmaker Ann Fontaine. A huge improvement over her last film to be widely distributed in the U.S., the middling Audrey Tatou-starring biopic Coco Before Chanel, this modern-day feminist retelling of Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary is a complete delight from beginning to end. The premise is that Martin (Eric Rohmer favorite Fabrice Luchini), a baker in Normandy who is obsessed with classic literature, is amazed to find that his new English neighbors are named Charlie and Gemma Bovery. Martin soon becomes obsessed with Gemma (Gemma Arterton at her most achingly unattainable), a beautiful young woman whose life—in addition to her name—seems to bear an uncanny resemblance to Flaubert’s infamous heroine. As Martin tries to steer Gemma’s fate away from impending tragedy, Fontaine hilariously satirizes both the notion of the “male gaze” and the idea that one can love a work of art to the point that it becomes the primary lens through which he views the world. Unmissable for fans of Madame Bovary, Gemma Bovery has thankfully already been picked up for distribution by Chicago’s Music Box Films.
Carlos Vermut’s MAGICAL GIRL – Rating: 9.1
One of the great things about attending an international film festival is the opportunity to take a chance on films and filmmakers you’re unfamiliar with. The most pleasant surprise for me at this year’s E.U. Film Fest was discovering the new Spanish film Magical Girl by the young writer/director Carlos Vermut. The film effortlessly combines tragedy and black comedy with crime thriller conventions involving blackmail, prostitution and murder. This assured second feature creates a narrative web-of-life that ensnares a diverse group of characters including a 12-year-old girl with leukemia, the father who will do anything to help her dying wishes come true, a yuppie housewife with a masochistic streak and an elderly ex-con inexorably drawn back into a life of crime. Allegory abounds: the film’s major conflict arises between a retired math professor and a retired literature professor, literalizing Vermut’s central metaphor of Spain as an indecisive nation unsure of whether its essential character is primarily “rational” or “emotional,” and the best joke involves the housewife stashing money in a book about the Spanish Constitution in a public library (since no one will ever think to look there). What really makes Magical Girl special, though, is the daringly elliptical but utterly confident way its various story fragments unfurl into one another. As in the best work of David Lynch, this is a narrative jigsaw puzzle whose tantalizing power arises precisely because of the missing pieces: the viewer must collaborate with the filmmakers in creating the ultimate meaning.