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Review Roundup: EUFF, pt. 2 (Cine-File)

I originally wrote the following reviews for Cine-File Chicago back in March to coincide with theatrical screenings at the Siskel Center’s European Union Film Festival.

Jessica Hausner’s AMOUR FOU (New Austrian). Rating: 8.7

amourfou

Most period films try to convince us that the past was just like the present: that people in earlier eras had the same feelings, the same hopes and fears, the same ideas about romance and spirituality that we do today–only they expressed those things while wearing different-looking clothing amid different-looking settings. Austrian writer/director Jessica Hausner (LOURDES) takes the opposite approach in the thrilling AMOUR FOU, positing early-18th century Berlin as a landscape as unfamiliar as that of futuristic science fiction. The film centers on Heinrich Von Kleist (Christian Friedel), a young German poet and dramatist, and his quest to find a suitable woman to accompany him in a suicide pact. After being rebuffed by his cousin Marie (Sandra Huller), he turns his attentions to Henriette (Birte Schnoeink), a friend’s wife who believes she is dying of a terminal illness. The real-life Kleist authored THE MARQUIS VON O, Eric Rohmer’s film adaptation of which would appear to provide Hausner’s primary cinematic model here: her camera is always static and the performers deliver their monotone lines reading while frequently remaining perfectly still. These tableaux-like shots, which feature broad planes of color and exquisite natural lighting, are astonishing in their painterly beauty, but it is ultimately the way Hausner’s mise-en-scene combines with her sharp original screenplay that immerses viewers in her compelling vision of the Romantic Age: ancient political debates among aristocratic characters (about taxation for all, and the dangerous influence of French-style democracy on Germany) in the most meticulously art-directed interiors imaginable make this portrait of a vanished way of life feel both compelling as social commentary as well as wonderfully, aesthetically strange. (2014, 96 min, DCP Digital) MGS

Peter Kruger’s N: THE MADNESS OF REASON (New Belgian). Rating: 8.2

N

N: THE MADNESS OF REASON, a provocative non-fiction/narrative hybrid film by the Belgian documentarian Peter Kruger, centers on Raymond Borremans, a real French explorer and musician who died in 1988 while writing an encyclopedia of the African continent (he only got as far as the titular letter). Kruger has Borremans (voiced by the great actor Michael Lonsdale) narrating the movie and attempting to complete his encyclopedia from beyond the grave, a quasi-fictional conceit reminiscent of Chris Marker that gives shape to a raft of eye-opening documentary images that Kruger captured in the Ivory Coast. Borremans’ voice-over also occasionally engages in a dialogue with an unnamed African woman; he represents intellectual European “reason” (i.e., the desire to label and classify) where she represents African “spirituality,” challenging his foreigner’s eye-view to see beyond the surface of things. Co-written by Nigerian author Ben Okri and featuring a score by Belgian musician Walter Hus, in collaboration with Malian singer Fatoumata Diawara, N: THE MADNESS OF REASON joins the list of important recent films examining Europe’s relationship to colonial and post-colonial Africa, whose impressive ranks include Miguel Gomes’ TABU, Ulrich Kohler’s SLEEPING SICKNESS and various films by Claire Denis and Pedro Costa. (2014, 102 min, DCP Digital) MGS

Pedro Costa’s HORSE MONEY (New Portuguese). Rating: 9.4

horse

Pedro Costa reaffirms his position as one of contemporary cinema’s finest filmmakers with his first fiction feature in eight years, a hypnotic masterpiece that examines the African immigrant experience in the director’s native Portugal. HORSE MONEY is a sort-of sequel to 2006’s COLOSSAL YOUTH in that Costa again takes the elderly Cape Verdean immigrant known only as “Ventura” as his subject, although here Costa uses the retired construction worker’s haunted visage to more explicitly examine the scars left by his country’s twin bloody legacies of fascism and colonialism. Ventura, lit and framed to alternately resemble Darby Jones in I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE and Woody Strode in SERGEAN RUTLEDGE, spends much of the film wandering the halls of a dark, prison-like hospital while ruminating on a lifetime of painful memories. Costa boldly melds past and present by having the reason for Ventura’s stay explained as both the “nervous disease” that causes his hands to shake uncontrollably and the knife fight with a fellow immigrant that required 93 stitches from 40 years earlier. Although HORSE MONEY is passionately concerned with social issues, there is a thankful absence of editorializing here: one powerful sequence involves a Cape Verdean woman reading aloud birth and death certificates that belong to herself and her family, letting the objective facts of marginalized lives speak for themselves, and another features a montage of static shots of African immigrants simply staring into Costa’s camera from inside their cramped Lisbon homes while the rousing song “Alta Cutelo” by the band Os Tubaroes plays on the soundtrack. The film’s indelible highlight, however, is an extended climax in which Ventura angrily confronts his demons in an elevator, conversing with the voices in his head while a soldier holding a rifle behind him looks on in silence. This “exorcism,” a scene that appeared virtually intact in the omnibus film CENTRO HISTORICO, leads to a cathartic finale in which Ventura leaves the hospital and is greeted by a rosy-fingered dawn. A final shot, however, shows the character staring at knives in a store’s display window (perhaps a subconscious visual quote from Fritz Lang’s M) suggesting that, decades after the “April Revolution,” the real revolution has not yet begun. (2014, 103 min, DCP Digital) MGS

Alain Resnais’ LIFE OF RILEY (New French). Rating: 8.8

life

LIFE OF RILEY, the final film of Alain Resnais, one of the greatest and most innovative directors of all time, premiered at the 2014 Berlin International Film Festival (where it won two prizes) just three weeks before its creator died at the age of 91. Unsurprisingly, death suffuses nearly every frame of this deceptively simple comedy, based on an Alan Ayckbourn play, about marital discord between three couples in Yorkshire, England. The title refers to George Riley, a character who never appears onscreen but, much like A LETTER TO THREE WIVES’ Addie Ross, manages to sow temptation into the hearts of the three female protagonists (Sandrine Kiberlain, Caroline Sihol and the inevitable Sabine Azima) before ultimately strengthening the bonds between them and their current partners (Hippolyte Girardot, Michel Vuillermoz and the inevitable Andre Dussollier). It is revealed at the film’s beginning that Riley has recently been diagnosed with terminal cancer, the news of which prompts several of his enamored lady friends, including his recent ex-wife, to conspire to accompany him on his final vacation. Complicating matters is that most of these characters, including Riley, are also rehearsing for a stage play that they will appear in together, a conceit that allows Resnais to examine his pet theme of the intersection of reality and fiction. Shot on deliberately artificial-looking sets and featuring the occasional mysterious appearance of a CADDYSHACK-like mole puppet, LIFE OF RILEY proves that Resnais had lost none of his playful Surrealist spirit even in his tenth decade on earth. But in the end, this final testament is as moving as it is charming: the last shot, depicting a young woman placing a postcard (bearing a message the viewer cannot read) on top of a coffin, is a fitting self-epitaph to an extraordinary career. To paraphrase a rueful exchange between Billy Wilder and William Wyler from long ago: “No more Resnais films.” (2014, 108 min, DCP Digital) MGS

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About michaelgloversmith

Filmmaker, author and Film Studies instructor. View all posts by michaelgloversmith

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