Rotterdam Film Festival 2009 Report

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Time Out ventured to icy Holland for the 38th Rotterdam International Film Festival

Forget your snowmen and Wellington boots. Anyone who thinks it’s cold in London at the moment might want to try wandering between cinemas in Rotterdam for a week in January. With socks, T-shirts and gloves doubled-up, Time Out ventured eastwards to the 38th Rotterdam International Film Festival where the warming hug of the festival screening room offered a quality of work that was very high indeed, albeit with the occasional blip.

The first film caught was the latest by Singaporese underachiever, Royston Tan, who, after such numerically-inclined films such as ‘15’, ’24 Hours’, ‘4:30’ and ‘881’, has made '12 Lotus'. It’s an over-long and shoddily structured musical about the sheltered life of an over-sensitive pop singer. I say ‘pop’, but it’s actually what’s known locally as ‘getai’, which is a form of brash stage performance that involves gaudy, spangle-heavy costumes and irksome (though undeniably catchy) bubblegum pop tunes. Tan’s aim is to create a sprawling comic drama in which the pain of existence is seen through the prism of eccentric and artificial mise en scène, though the shots are so poorly framed and sequenced and the humour so often resorting to camp innuendo, that ’12 Lotus’ doesn’t manage to accomplish even a tenth of its intended emotional kick.

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Things went from bad to worse worse with a screening of first-time British helmer Simon Ellis’s 'Dogging: A Love Story', which, as you might have guessed, is every bit as obnoxious, sleazy and hollow as its ‘funny’ title would suggest. The film, which follows twentysomething journalist Dan (Luke Treadaway) as he is introduced to the clammy world of dogging (exhibitionist sex in car parks) by his sexually savvy flatmate/cousin Rob (Richard Riddell), initially wrong foots you into thinking it might be quite a hoot. The opening ten minutes showcase some agreeably salty dialogue and a sense that Ellis has worked hard with the actors to inject some naturalism into the proceedings. However, it all goes very wrong very quickly, as we’re then treated to a smutty, predictable and insight-free sex romp which amounts to little more than a comically-skewed rehash of the scene in Abel Ferrara’s ‘Bad Lieutenant’ in which Harvey Keitel masturbates over two young girls through the window of a parked Volvo. Oh, and the characters refer to their penises as their ‘chucky’. Roll on ‘Lesbian Vampire Killers’, I say…

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The quality soared considerably for Iranian director Ramtim Lavafipour’s confident debut 'Be Calm and Count to Seven', a tense and quietly poetic drama on the treacherous over-sea smuggling trade in southern Iran and its effect on local families. At its centre is Motu, a young teenager who helps out on the missions by driving one of the motorboats who is brought to life by a restrained performance from Omid Abdollahi. Shot in a similar docu-realist style to much of the cinema from the area, its use of metaphor (here, about the insidious expansion of Western culture) is a little heavy-handed to place this up there with the greats, but it was thought good enough to pick up a Tiger award at the close of the festival.

Québécois highschool drama 'West of Pluto' retained much of the realism of the former, but also doffed its cap towards the early works of Richard Linklater and Larry Clark in its complex and truthful depiction of teenage growing pains. The film, by feature debutants Henry Bernadet and Myriam Verreault, follows a handful of 15- and 16-year-old students before, during and after a big house party, intimately observing their interactions, allegiances and shifting conducts as the night moves on. For the first half, it works well, using big dollops of humour (mostly through the deadpan editing) to ally us with the characters, but, admittedly, it runs out of steam on the home straight.

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Another film in competition for a Tiger award was Casper Pfaundler’s 'Schottentor', an unremarkable Austrian feel-badder set mostly in the titular underground train and tram terminal. Pfaundler’s impressionistic film weaves the stories of numerous people together, from a filmmaker commenting on the difficulty of achieving originality, a sexually confused florist, an elderly man at death’s door and a slightly deranged drifter, with little consideration for coherence and dramatic inertia. The dialogue, much of it spoken as inner monologue, is too abstruse and longwinded to be memorable, and the tone awkwardly oscillates between ironic to despairing at the tip of at hat.

Tongue-in-cheek fun was to be had at the screening of filthy Frenchman Jean-Claude Brisseau’s 'A l'adventure' (following the erotically-tinged ‘Choses Secrètes' and ‘Exterminating Angels’), as a young woman quits her office job in search of the perfect orgasm (only in France!). She hooks up with various sexual adventurers, from a couple into voyeurism and whipping, to a man able to deliver the most intense orgasm imaginable via hypnotism, and is finally only satisfied by the philosophical musings of an elderly cab driver. It’s cod, kitsch and totally ridiculous, but thankfully, Brisseau knows it.

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Two of the best new films followed, both in competition and by female directors. The first was a delightful, laid-back Chilean road movie called 'Turistas' by Alicia Scherson. It reminded variously of Julio Medem’s ‘The Red Squirrel’ and Kelly Reichardt’s ‘Old Joy’ in its bucolic portrayal of an anxious middle-aged woman who is abandoned by her husband en route to a holiday in the countryside and decides to go anyway, buddying-up with a Nordic backpacker and setting down in nearby campsite. With its colourful cast of characters, crisp shooting style (which makes room for a few Tati-esque background gags) and a beautifully textured central performance from Aline Kuppenheim, this is altogether a fine piece of work.

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Just trumping it was Juliette Garcias’s slow-burning baroque thriller 'Sois sage' (or, ‘Be Good’) about an intense young girl who takes a job delivering bread in rural France and, it is soon revealed, has had previous ‘dealings’ with one of the men – now a husband and father – on her route. What begins as a fairly rudimentary (although much more subtle) ‘Fatal Attraction’ knock-off soon develops into a tightly plotted and utterly compelling psychological mystery, as new information about character and back story is drip-fed via snatches of dialogue and symbolic gestures and we are forced to double-back on our prior assumptions. It’s a story that could have easily been marred by contrivance at numerous junctures, but such is the assurance of Garcias’s writing and direction, it remains tightly coiled until the final, shocking scenes.

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Two British films followed, and neither hit the spot. The former was Nick Moran’s likeable adaptation of his own stage play, 'Telstar' (which played at the 2008 London Film Festival), which tells the story of London-based 1960s super-producer, Joe Meek, who pioneered his revolutionary sound in a cramped upstairs flat on the Holloway Road. It’s a peppy, glossy and amusing drama which perfunctorily traces Meek’s rise to fame with the futuristic track ‘Telstar’ and his eventually downfall due to his violently curt manner, brushes with the law (for cottaging) and the millions in royalties which were tied up in legal wrangling. The main problem with the film is Moran’s hundredweight-heavy direction, which repeatedly hammers home all the main themes to the point that it becomes patronising. Also, Con O’Neill’s central performance as the exuberant, scatty Meek doesn’t do enough to endear you to his cause, his nervous, motor-mouthed banter peppered with the odd explosion of rage coming across a little like Rik Mayall in ‘The Young Ones’. Still, the supporting cast are generally strong, there are some great tunes, and Moran is right to think that Meek’s life would make for interesting and cinematic material.

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Following that was Alexis Dos Santos’s 'Unmade Beds', a painfully whimsical slab of East London navel-gazing in which numerous cooler-than-thou middle-class greasers from across the globe unite in getting wasted, having sex, watching (awful twee pop) bands and make music videos in their perfectly chaotic squats. Fernando Tielve plays Axl, a young, moderately dim (or could that be ‘free-spirited’?) Spaniard who’s searching for his estranged father, while Déborah Francois flits around town in a beret embarking on numerous anonymous sexual trysts. There are some nods to the nouvelle vague in the otherwise under-developed editing and direction, but it mainly looks like one of those quirky mobile phone adverts with beautiful twentysomethings prancing around in hoodies to some screechy nu-folk ditty. The Hoxton ironica set may enjoy this, but I found it virtually unbearable.

Other new works included Carlos Serrano Azcona’s 'El Árbol' (produced by Carlos Reygadas), a short but dawdling social realist drama which takes an over-the-shoulder look at a divorcee wandering around Mexico City as he tries to find a meaning for his life in sex, drugs, alcohol and, finally, reforming a bond with his children. It’s clear that Azcona prefers a laissez-faire approach to filming, eliciting a modest intellectual depth from simple, quiet observation, though, more often than not, a protracted scene of walking through empty streets yields precious little in terms of drama or poetry.

Also decent but flawed was Belgian director Joachim Lafosse’s follow-up to last year’s superb ‘Private Property’. 'Élève libre' (‘Private Lessons’) is a theoretical and emotionally cool essay on the ambiguous relationship between sex and work. It takes a dispassionate gaze at a transitional period in the life of a young teenager who is simultaneously failing in school and becoming sexually curious. He directs his queries about school and sex to close friends of the family, who in turn offer overly-frank counsel which evolve from the passive to the practical. The young Lafosse obviously has a great career ahead of him in probing and thoughtful chamber dramas, but this one pushes a little too powerfully at the bounds of realism to make it an outright success.

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Two films that are locked down for a UK release are the latest from Japan’s Hirokazu Koreeda, 'Still Walking' – a family comedy so intelligent, funny and wise that few would have been surprised if the great Yasujiro Ozu’s name had popped up on the credits. Also to look out for is 'Tulpan', Sergei Dvortsevoy charming docu-comedy from Kazakhstan about the trials and traumas of big-eared nomad Asa who is desperate to win the beautiful but illusive Tulpan as his wife. There’s a hilarious tot who runs around on a wooden horse, Asa’s best friend who drives around in a tractor that he’s plastered in pornography listening to ‘Rivers of Babylon’, and a heart-stirring scene where our gawky hero delivers a lamb on the barren steppe.

Read Geoff Andrew's report from the festival

Author: David Jenkins



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