BIFF 2017 Day 2 & 3: I Am Not a Witch, A Fantastic Woman and more

Bergen International Film Festival

My second day at the festival started quite bleak with the documentary, Death of a Child. It’s a quiet and unsentimental exploration of parents who caused their own children’s deaths — in this particular case, by forgetting them in a car. The film follows three separate families, and we get to see them reflect and talk about that fateful mistake. It’s a deeply personal account, as it never shies away from the parents — except for a brief scene at the very end. It doesn’t cut to any news stories or interviews with experts. This is both a strength and a weakness at once. On the one hand, it doesn’t ever feel manipulative or exploitative, as their grief is never taken away from them. On the other hand, I do wish it would’ve examined the psychological aspects of such an accident, and how it affects a person who has to live with it. But for the most part, Death of a Child seems therapeutic for the parents — not only those in the film but for anyone who watches this with a similar experience.

I followed Death of a Child with Sebastián Lelio’s beautifully grounded and necessary drama, A Fantastic Woman. It’s a film that writes itself into the history books immediately, not only for its virtuosity but for Daniela Vegas extraordinary performance. With A Fantastic Woman, Leilo has managed to create a film that examines grief, love, and sexuality in a way that is totally uninhibited. It is free from your typical and offensive clichés, and a lot of this comes down to Vegas’ performance. She carries this film on her shoulders. She puts her heart and soul into every frame. She authenticates a story that has been told badly so many times, and it’s a true breath of fresh air.

Next up was the Georgian drama, My Happy Family. Directed by Nana Ekvitmishvili and Simon Groß, this is a family drama that in many ways reminded me of last year’s Sieranevada, with a less eclectic cast at the center. As someone who really liked the duo’s previous film, In Bloom, I couldn’t help to be somewhat underwhelmed by this. It’s not to say that this is a bad film in any way, it’s quite good. Ia Shugliasvhili plays Manana, a 52-year old woman who lives in a small apartment with her husband and three generations of her family. When she decides to move out and start a journey by herself, Ekvitmishvili and Groß are able to tell a story, not of an existential crisis but of an existential exploration. This is only Shugliasvhili’s third feature film, but she plays Manana with such clarity and maturity that one would be excused to think she has an illustrious career in Georgian cinema that has been lost to an international audience. My Happy Family is a film that confronts and engages the whole family dynamic, and it’s fearless in its approach. It’s a liberation of womanhood; one that is both funny and melancholic; delicate and impenetrable. It’s a film everyone should see, just as everyone should see In Bloom.

I Am Not a Witch seemed to appear as a surprise favorite at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, and it’s easy to understand why. Rungano Nyoni’s directorial debut is a self-assured exercise that is as stylistically vigorous as it is narratively profound. It’s a film that feels truly unique in all its facets. Nyoni presents us with a perspective that is sorely missing in cinema, and one that is sorely needed. Nyoni’s boldness behind the camera is only outmatched by Maggie Mulubwa’s boldness in front of it, as she plays Shula. A discovery so impressive that you’d have to go back to 2012’s Beasts of the Southern Wild to even come close to a revelation on the same level. Mulubwa, like Vegas in A Fantastic Woman and Shugliasvhili in My Happy Family, becomes the heart of the film. I Am Not a Witch is a scathing satire that is both surreal and tragic, and immensely important.

I finished my second day with François Ozon’s The Double Lover, which is undoubtedly the biggest disappointed at the festival so far. Ozon is such a playful and inventive director that it’s a shame to see him ape Brian De Palma so closely. The Double Lover is not bad, Ozon is too tactile and fun for that — his sensibilities compliment mine too closely for me to ever be bored with him. The way Ozon uses architecture to isolate Marine Vacth in the frame is a delight for the aestheticist in me, and Vacth continues to shine in. But this didn’t do very much for me beyond its aesthetics. It leans too heavily on its genre tropes. It’s too obvious in its visual thematic symbolism, and the final act has severe pacing issues.

The third day was a shorter one, as real life interfered a bit, but I still managed to watch four movies. Hannah and Centaur was the double feature that kicked it off, and both delivered on some aspects and missed on others. Hannah is Charlotte Rampling’s latest showcase, where the entire film is dedicated to and built around her performance. She’s as present and real as ever. Andrea Pallaoro’s direction does what it sets out to do, and there are moments of transcendent beauty — a late long take towards the end, especially — but it becomes too quiet and sparse to really hit with any real force. The same can be said of Centaur, but here there is even less to latch onto. Centaur‘s first act is a smart and subdued observation on the value of history and culture, and how it collides with modernity. But as the runtime goes on the movie becomes too entrenched in traditional narrative structures and ideas, and in the end it misses the mark completely.

Next up was Ana, mon amour, the latest film from Călin Peter Netzer (Child’s Pose). It’s an epic love story, in the sense that we follow a couple for decades, through thick and thin. Like Netzer’s previous film, there is as much to latch onto in Ana as there is to criticize. He’s an immensely talented actor’s director, and he approaches his themes with a rare maturity, but in the case of Ana, his direction couldn’t quite keep up with his ambition. The film struggles with its central narrative device, as it skips back and forth in time. It can be an effective tool of juxtaposition — to contrast moments of naive and new love to the faded and old — but Netzer creates too much of a mess. It’s hard to care about the contrasting emotions as they feel more entrenched in dramatic structure than anything else. Its qualities make it worthwhile, Diana Cavallioti and Mircea Postelnicu’s performances especially, but as a follow-up to Child’s Pose, it doesn’t deliver. It seems Netzer took the criticisms of Child’s Pose‘s slow pace and subdued cinematic language to heart, and went too far in the other direction.

The final movie of the day was Axolotl Overkill, which was an energetic blast. It’s hilarious, outrageous and tragic all at the same time, as it dives into the sexual and drunken escapades of a 17-year old girl. The film never judges, nor does it indulge, it is simply an honest portrait of an identity that is often trivialized. It’s a character examination that manages to entertain as much as it invites reflection, and Jasna Fritzi Bauer in the lead role is mesmerizing. It isn’t as kinetic as the Safdie brother’s Good Time, but there is undoubtably a nice double feature here.





Per Morten Mjolkeraaen

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