Friday, January 23, 2009

Summarizing Sundance 2009: Part II

In yesterday's dispatch from the Sundance Flim Festival, Ray Taras reported on the films Pomegranates and Myrrh, Corazón del Tiempo, and El General.

In today's communiqué, Taras covers three films: Cliente (A French Gigilo), An Education, and In the Loop.
It is often with anguish that I leave the movie theatre after seeing another Sundance film that has captured my imagination—and often my heart. I know the odds are stacked against an indie film getting a distribution deal and being released to wider audiences. The majority of films at this year’s festival have not been picked up. In a recession, artistic merit counts for even less than usual when compared to commercial value. It is some consolation that filmmakers can now post links to their work on the internet. But the economic payoff for them is likely to be next to nothing.

Perhaps symbolically, the snow in Park City has been replaced with interludes of drizzle these last few days. The ski slopes are shrouded in fog and, down in the Salt Lake Valley below, a week-long inversion has given the area the worst air quality in America. The good news is that the recession has had no impact on the number of brilliant films screened at Sundance 09 (next year will be another story). Taking in a movie to get away from it all has never been a better option.

Three European films that have promising commercial futures are ones set in those secure cinematic locations of London and Paris. Cliente, which has been rendered in English as “A French Gigolo,” offers a sensitive and at times comic treatment of a ménage à trois—there is a reason why we use a French term to describe this arrangement. At one point in the film, the wife confers with her husband’s female client about a schedule when he can be of best service to each of them. But the reality is that both are in love with him and the conflict becomes one for the ages: will the older, wealthier, more sophisticated woman (intriguingly played by Nathalie Baye) win out, or will it be the younger, blond-haired, shapely wife? No prizes for guessing right, but the lead does change hands a number of times. Telling a complicated love story is always best left to the French, who have mastered the art, and director Josiane Balasko has solidified that reputation.

It’s a cultural leap backward from the chic streets of Paris to the dowdy roads of Twickenham; the affectionate local term for the place, “Twickers,” sums the place up. Danish director Lone Scherfig stumbled into making a movie out of the screenplay written by celebrated Londoner Nick Hornby: she took over on the set when Beeban Kidron (director of Bridget Jones Diary 2) dropped out. Scherfig’s grand uncle was the great Danish iconoclastic novelist Hans Scherfig. Lone’s own unconventional artistic roots lie in the Dogme canon, reflected in her 2000 film Italian for Beginners.

Are those the right qualifications to make a movie set in Twickers? Lone appeared defensive in her comments after her first screening of An Education in the presence of an audience. She admitted to deferring to Hornby’s sensibilities and to his re-writes. She overcompensated for not being a Londoner with extensive research on the city and the period—the much-neglected 1960s. She heaped praise on Carey Mulligan, the much acclaimed actress playing the lead part of a 16-year-old
even though the actress looks every bit 22, her actual age. Scherfig insisted there was eroticism in her film even though there was no nudity, but she confessed that most sex scenes she has filmed end up on the editing room floor.

The film is an introspective story of a girl in sixth form preparing nervously for her A levels, seeking to read English at Oxford, with all the personal sacrifices this entails. She is suddenly swept away by a louche older man who wines and dines her, buys her a pre-Raphaelite painting at an auction (for which the winning bid at the time was only 200 guineas!), and takes her for her birthday to, well, predictably, Paris for a weekend to take away her virginity. Based on a true story written by an English journalist, the mismatched couple breaks up. But Scherfig told us that the man on whom the story is based still phones up his former girlfriend each year, on her birthday.

When not studying for A levels—and even when they are—the English can be raucous. In the Loop, whose world premiere was at Sundance, has an extraordinary cast transforming a brilliant screenplay into a cinematic tour de force. “Wicked” must be used in any description of the humor in the film. A biting satire on how Britain and the U.S. made the decision to invade a Middle East country, director Armando Iannucci feigned that it had nothing to do with facts or real people. But Sundance director Geoff Gilmore suggested the film should have been entered in the world documentary category. On second thought, he believed it ought to have been sent to the White House in early 2003.

The pastiche treatment of British and American policy makers is outrageous. Public school brats deaf to anything but an Elgar symphony and speaking eloquently, and vacuously, run Britain. Ambitious young sycophantic interns—the females always in bulky pant suits
shape U.S. policy. The two groups try to outdo each other in their deviousness, their hypocrisy, and their vulgar language. In the Loop is no genteel “Yes Minister” English political satire but an exposition on the repulsiveness of the Anglo-American special relationship.--Ray Taras
Read Summarizing Sundance 2009: Part I.

Ray Taras, a visiting scholar at Stanford University, is the author of the recently released Europe Old and New: Transnationalism, Belonging, Xenophobia. His literature reviews here on the blog include Per Petterson's To Siberia.

--Marshal Zeringue