The Chicago European Union Film Festival kicks off its 19th edition at the Gene Siskel Film Center tomorrow night. Although less stacked with brand-name auteurs than last year’s edition, which brought an embarrassment of riches in the form of new films from the likes of Alain Resnais, Pedro Costa, Bruno Dumont, Christian Petzold, Roy Andersson, Mia Hansen-Love, Jessica Hausner, Eugene Green, etc., the 2016 lineup still impresses in its depth and diversity. I recently discussed the festival with Scott Pfeiffer on my podcast and I now have reviews of specific films in both the Chicago Reader and at the Time Out Chicago website.
I wrote capsule reviews of my two favorite films at the festival, Chantal Akerman’s No Home Movie and Athina Rachel Tsangari’s Chevalier, which should appear in truncated form at the Time Out Chicago site in the next day or two. In the meantime, here are the unexpurgated versions:
No Home Movie, the final film of the great Belgian director Chantal Akerman, is the most important film playing the festival. It’s a deceptively simple, extraordinarily powerful documentary about Akerman’s relationship with her elderly mother — a movie that slowly, almost imperceptibly, expands into an essay on Akerman’s quest to better understand her own Jewish roots and identity. It unfolds as a series of conversations between the two women — sometimes in their homes (with the camera strategically and unobtrusively framing them from outside of the rooms they’re in), other times via video chat — and punctuated by lengthy traveling shots of landscapes in both Israel and the U.S., contrasting the emotional closeness of mother and daughter with the physical distances that sometimes separate them. As with Alain Resnais’ Life of Riley (which premiered locally at the EU Film Fest last year), one can’t imagine a more fitting final film from this giant of cinema.
Chevalier, an absurdist comedy from Greece, is another highlight, and a quantum artistic leap forward for writer/director Athina Rachel Tsangari. The premise involves six men embarking on a fishing trip aboard a luxury yacht on the Aegean Sea, but these ostensible friends soon become bored and engage instead in a competition to determine who among them is the “best in general.” This contest involves the men rating each other on everything from the most impressive erection to the best at building IKEA bookshelves. It’s a hilarious satire of the male ego gone wild that also functions as a sly allegory for Greece’s recent financial woes: the way the ship’s barely glimpsed working-class crew can be seen imitating the shenanigans of their masters offers a pungent class critique worthy of comparison to Jean Renoir or Luis Bunuel.
I’m sorry to report I was not a fan of either film I was assigned to cover by the Reader: Love Island from Croatia and The Prosecutor, the Defender, the Father and His Son from Bulgaria. While the films couldn’t appear more different on the surface (one is a sex farce, the other a legal procedural about a war crimes trial), their similarities ultimately highlight a serious problem facing contemporary European cinema. Both are international co-productions featuring French movie stars (Ariane Labed and Rohmane Bohringer, respectively) and awkwardly delivered English-language dialogue. I can sympathize with anyone trying to raise money and make films in a marketplace oversaturated with Hollywood product but the need for European filmmakers to cobble together their budgets by applying for grants from various EU countries means that the logistics of how these films are financed ends up inadvertently becoming their very subjects. You can read my reviews of both films at the Reader’s website here.