Christmas for Chicago cinephiles comes every March when the Chicago European Union Film Festival, now in its 20th year, descends on the Gene Siskel Film Center from March 3–30. The CEUFF is the film-lover’s film festival, the one that gets many Chicago critics and cinephiles the most excited because it always manages to host the local premieres of dozens of exciting European titles by major directors that other festivals, including the Chicago International Film Festival, have failed to land during the previous year. This year is no different, with the CEUFF premiering a whopping 62 new European films from “all 28 EU nations”. Below are my best bets for the festival’s first week.
The Kristen Stewart vehicle Personal Shopper, which reteams the American actress with her Clouds of Sils Maria director Olivier Assayas, gained instant notoriety upon its 2016 Cannes premiere when the first press screening was greeted with boos while the first public screening garnered a lengthy standing ovation. Both reactions are understandable: Stewart’s unique, sometimes controversial brand of "underplaying" has rarely been used to better effect than here—as a celebrity assistant living in Paris, haunted by the unexpected death (and perhaps literal ghost) of her beloved twin brother—though the mystery/drama hybrid film that surrounds her is not always as successful as her fine central performance. For better or worse, Assayas’ films often have a quickly written, rough-draft quality, as if he’s so excited to mash up disparate ideas and genres that jarring tonal shifts sometimes result. Still, I much prefer a movie as rich in ideas as this one, where the flaws arise from it being overly ambitious at times.
Even better is The Death of Louis XIV, a French film by the Spanish writer/director Albert Serra (The Story of My Death) that casts the legendary Jean-Pierre Leaud (The 400 Blows) in the titular role. Although the fabled “Sun King” is one of the most beloved figures in all of French culture (right up there with Joan of Arc and Napoleon), Serra perversely chooses to focus only on his agonizing final days as he lies dying of gangrene, with doctors and valets mincing about, after returning home from a hunting trip. The formal control of Serra’s precise compositions and exquisitely candle-lit interiors, which resemble 18th century paintings, is impressive but don’t let the somber veneer distract you from the movie’s most appealing aspect: its bizarre, poker-faced sense of humor. One unforgettable scene in which a quack doctor offers Louis a miracle cure for gangrene (in which bull sperm and frog fat are among the ingredients) plays like an arthouse version of Steve Martin’s old “Medieval Barber” sketches on Saturday Night Live.
Personal Shopper screens on Saturday, March 4 and Wednesday, March 8, and The Death of Louis XIV screens on Sunday, March 5. For showtimes and ticket information, visit the Siskel Center's website.