En La Ciudad de Sylvia (Spain/France, 2007) * * *
D: José Luis Guerín
Today we saw two lightweight films with almost no narrative, but lingering, loving views of France, both filmed by outsiders to the country, clearly smitten. The first, from Spain, was this film, which actually owes a great deal to Jacques Tati's Playtime (probably one of the ten greatest films ever made). Dialogue-free for long, long stretches, José Luis Guerín's film follows the gaze of a young artist (Xavier Lafitte, looking like he just rode in from Peter Jackson's Rivendell) who sits at a French café watching the passers-by--mostly the many beautiful women, and drawing their profiles and the backs of their necks in his sketchbook with a charcoal pencil. A waitress gets her orders confused and spills a drink; a couple sit in icy silence for an eternity until one answers, "No, probably not. But I'll think about it." Young women gossip and flirt. Eventually our artist gets up and follows one of the women, pursuing her through labyrinthine streets, bumping up against street vendors, commuters, and street musicians, always in pursuit of the elusive woman, whom he thinks he recognizes from somewhere else. It's a languorous, sensual film in which almost nothing happens, but it nonetheless contains enough to recommend it, from the playful, Tati-esque running jokes in the background, to the complicated layering of faces, bodies, and moving trains reflected in windows like a palimpsest--the ideal woman glimpsed like a ghost somewhere beneath it all. Such a perfect simulation of a lazy Sunday morning spent lounging at a café that it should be sold as thus on DVD, like how they sell video fireplaces.
Flight of the Red Balloon (Le Voyage du Ballon Rouge) (France, 2007)
* * *
D: Hou Hsiao Hsien
This much-acclaimed feature from France by a Chinese director (of 2003's Café Lumière) drew a large Sunday afternoon crowd to the Orpheum, though the murmurs heard on the way out were just as sharply divided as those from En La Ciudad de Sylvia--either the film was a great work of art, or punishingly slow with nothing to say. I enjoyed the film, as I enjoyed the former, although I wouldn't call it a masterpiece, and to watch the two films almost back-to-back is a strange experience. One begins to feel adrift. In France. Like a red balloon. The film is inspired, of course, by the famous children's film The Red Balloon (1956), which I remember watching in elementary school. As with the original, an animate red balloon drifts above the head of a young child, but in this case it leaves the story for long stretches as we follow the boy, Simon (Simon Iteanu), and his new nanny, a filmmaker student named Song (Fang Song); we also meet his mother (Juliette Binoche), who works for a puppeteers' ensemble. The "plot" in this one is that she is trying to find a way to evict the man who's renting the room downstairs--he hasn't paid his rent in months, and she needs the money. Meanwhile, Hou Hsiao Hsien doesn't so much adapt the original film as he deconstructs it; Song is making a short based on the film, using Simon, and she helpfully explains how she's going to use special effects to pull off the stunt. By pulling back and watching Song film his Red Balloon movie for him, he pulls off a bit of framed theater that calls to mind Jacques Rivette. Flight of the Red Balloon, despite its brief moments of fantasy (when the red balloon materializes outside the context of Song's film, to visit an unknowing Simon), is set to the rhythms of life, with Binoche, as the single mother struggling to find moments of beauty in her harried life, giving a passionate, vital performance. Yet this film's chief trait is its very intangibility; it is as light as a balloon.
Fermat's Room (La Habitación de Fermat) (Spain, 2008) * * * 1/2
D: Luis Piedrahita & Rodrigo Sopeña
The closing night film of WIFF was Fermat's Room, in what can't be described as its North American premiere (because Tribeca wants to claim that title later this month), but a "special screening" that just happens to be before anyone else in North America gets to see it. One could make the argument, if Fermat's Room, this festival's Timecrimes, and the recent The Orphanage are any indication, that it is a golden age for Spanish thrillers. The premise is irresistible: four strangers, all of them brilliant mathematicians, are invited to meet at a secluded location to match their wits in an evening of puzzle-solving. All are to wear nametags bearing the name of a famous historical mathematician (i.e. "Pascal"), preserving their anonymity, although, as we'll find out, they already have pivotal personal connections. They meet in a rusting old building, but inside is a decorated parlor--with a dinner table, shelves of books on mathematical theory, and a chalkboard. Their host, the enigmatic Fermat, abandons them suddenly when he receives a call stating that his daughter has slipped into a coma; after he leaves--"accidentally" leaving a PDA behind--the door locks, and the PDA suddenly delivers a message: they have one minute to solve a puzzle. When they fail to transmit the answer via the PDA before the deadline, the room begins to shrink: they're trapped on all sides by hydraulic presses hidden behind the walls. And so the evening proceeds: a puzzle is given, they struggle to answer it, and only when they find the answer are they granted a few minutes' reprieve from the presses. But it's also a drawing room mystery, and thus while they solve the PDA's puzzles they also work to find out why they're being murdered, and what connection the four of them really have. Most of the movie's puzzles went over my head; they explain each answer, but (understandably) very rapidly; as one character explains in the first line of dialogue, "If you don't know what a prime number is, you should leave now." But that's not really true: while math permeates the film, it grandly succeeds as a taut thriller, something Hitchcock would have loved; he would have especially relished the bit of business about death-by-seatbelt, and you'll see what I mean when you see the film. A very fun movie, and a fitting crowd-pleaser for the closing night of the festival.
Wrap-Up: A very successful year for the festival - very big crowds, and some big coups on films. One major problem, in my experiences and reading about others' online, is that the volunteers showing the films don't often check to see how the films are being projected and sound once they get the film going. At least half of the films I saw were slightly out of focus, or kept slipping out of focus, which is much more noticeable on a subtitled film. (Unless my contacts are battery-powered, and the batteries were running low.) But otherwise WIFF was a blast. Here's my ranking of the twelve films I was able to see, best to least-best--as my reviews indicate, I would recommend all by Bon Cop, Bad Cop, but even that proved to be a very popular film at the fest:
2) Chop Shop
3) My Winnipeg
5) Fermat's Room
6) Flight of the Red Balloon
7) En La Ciudad de Sylvia
8) The Substitute
11) The Wonderful World of Sid Laverents
12) Bon Cop, Bad Cop