Here are capsule reviews for four of my “best bets” for the opening week of the 50th Chicago International Film Festival, which kicks off this Thursday night with a screening of Liv Ullmann’s Miss Julie. The full schedule, with ticket info and showtimes, can be found on the CIFF website here.
Force Majeure (Ruben Ostland, Sweden)
While holidaying in the French Alps and facing an impending natural disaster, Tobias (Johannes Kuhnke), a yuppie family-man from Sweden, behaves in a cowardly fashion in front of his wife, Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli), and their two young children. The marital discord that results spreads like a virus to another vacationing couple, Tobias’ friend Kristofer (Kristofer Hivju) and his much younger girlfriend Fanny (Fanni Metelius). This masterful drama piles complex emotions — shame, fear, embarrassment, anguish — on top of one another and then, amazingly, finds a way to somehow mine its most emotionally excruciating moments for a vein of rich, black comedy. Writer/director Ruben Ostlund’s meticulous attention to sound and image, and his love of formal symmetry, make this a better point of comparison with the films of Stanley Kubrick than anything Jonathan Glazer has ever done. The only thing preventing me from calling it a full-fledged masterwork is the inclusion of a couple of unnecessary scenes at the very end: the notion that the two male protagonists are desperate to redeem themselves in the eyes of the women who love them has already been conveyed with more power and subtlety in the preceding hour and 45 minutes.
Force Majeure screens on Friday, October 10, and Sunday, October 12, with Johannes Kuhnke in attendance.
The Iron Ministry (J.P. Sniadecki, USA/China)
Harvard Sensory Ethnography Lab alum J.P. Sniadecki spent three years filming passengers on commuter trains in China before whittling his nonfiction footage down to this extremely impressive 82-minute feature. Although Sniadecki never takes his camera or microphone outside the train — and serves up sights and sounds that impart a remarkable “you are there effect” (particularly during a stunning sequence of trash being swept up in close-up) — this is hardly a minimalist exercise like the SEL’s riveting Manakamana. Instead, Sniadecki focuses on passengers who represent a diverse cross-section of Chinese society, letting his subjects talk, and occasionally even interacting with them himself. What emerges, among the many departures, arrivals and copious cigarette breaks, is a fascinating street-level portrait of pertinent social issues — especially those pertaining to religious, class and gender equality. My favorite bits involve a group of young men lamenting the influence of mothers-in-law and the crucial importance of home ownership in contemporary Chinese marriage, and a smart-ass kid who mocks the spiel of a train conductor talking over the loud speaker by substituting hilariously profane and politically subversive phrases. You will learn more about contemporary China by watching this than you will by watching 1,000 hours of CNN.
The Iron Ministry screens on Friday, October 10 and Saturday, October 11.
Miss Julie (Liv Ullmann, Norway/UK)
Writer/director Liv Ullmann, also arguably the greatest Scandinavian actress of all time, is well suited to bringing August Strindberg’s famous play about the combustible mixture of class differences and sexual desire to full cinematic life. She transposes the narrative to late-19th century Ireland, presumably to justify the all-star cast of Jessica Chastain, Colin Farrell and Samantha Morton (all terrific), but this move is also likely to lull unsuspecting viewers into thinking they are watching something akin to the innocuous “good taste” of an episode of Masterpiece Theater. After the central upstairs/downstairs romance is inevitably consummated, however, the central conflict very quickly devolves into the terrain of intense psychodrama that was the stock-in-trade of Ullmann’s mentor Ingmar Bergman; there is nothing about the social niceties and repressed sexual longing of the first 30 minutes that will prepare you for the site of the title character (an incendiary Chastain) smearing her face with canary blood and screaming her head off while wielding a butcher knife at the end. Miss Julie is probably not the accessible “crowd pleaser” many were hoping for in a CIFF opening night film but I greatly admired it for Ullmann’s uncompromising vision, its formal elegance and, especially, the career-best performances: the painful heart of this movie, an extended argument between Chastain and Farrell in a kitchen, burns up the screen like nothing else you’ll see this year.
Miss Julie screens on Thursday, October 9, with Liv Ullmann in attendance.
The Way He Looks (Daniel Ribeiro, Brazil)
The Way He Looks is a winning debut feature from Brazilian writer/director Daniel Ribeiro adapted from his own short film of the same title. In the opening scene of this Sao Paolo-set romance, the 15-year-old protagonist, Leonardo (Ghilherme Lobo), and his best friend, Giovana (Tess Amorim), commiserate poolside over the fact that neither of them has ever been kissed. Think you know where this is going? Think again: Ribeiro puts an original spin on the tried-and-true coming-of-age genre by having Leonardo be both a literally blind and closeted gay kid who is only gradually brought out of his shell after the arrival at his high school of another gay kid, the more confident Gabriel (Fabio Audi). Ribeiro wisely refuses to portray either Leonardo’s disability or his insecurity over his sexuality as heavy drama — as would have unquestionably been the case in a Hollywood production. He adopts instead an assured tone that is at once low-key, whimsical and realistic.
The Way He looks screens on Saturday, October 11 and Monday, October 13.