Film Scouts Diaries

2001 Karlovy Vary Film Festival Diaries

by Henri Béhar

Friday, July 13 - When you're an artist, say, a filmmaker, is it possible - and how easy is it? - to compromise with a totalitarian power? The answer, according to Darko Bajic's War Live (Yugoslavia, international premiere, in competition), is: all too easy and totally impossible. On producer Sergei's set, the situation is desperate but not serious (actually, pretty serious, but guess what, War Live is a comedy). Money has run out, the accounts are frozen, a NATO air raid is expected any minute. The secret police shows up trying to find the American co-producer; in a counter-move, to salvage whatever he can of his film, Sergei announces that the best response to NATO bombs is a pantingly patriotic movie starring said co-producer. Little mention is made of the fact that the Secret Service is taking over the film as most of the crew members are not exactly pro-Milosevic. ''Irony is the politeness of despair'', a French writer once said, and so is humor, the Yugoslavs hasten to add. The situation is dramatic, the response at times hilarious (the film-within-the-film's production designer is hired to build mock planes to fool NATO bombs).

It's off-beat, it's poignant, it's disturbing, it's hysterically funny. What else would you expect from Crumb director Terry Zwigoff making a triumphant leap into fiction? Based on artist-writer (and co-scripter) Daniel Clowes's underground comics, Ghost World (USA-UK, in competition) is a gem. It boasts a touchingly romantic performance by character actor extraordinaire Steve Buscemi as forty-ish nerdy sad-eyed record collector the heroine (sorta) falls for, a vividly wacky one by Illeana Douglas as an art teacher who pushes political correctness beyond caricature, a delightfully understated one by Bob Balaban as a meek father, and two superb star-making turns by Scarlett Johansson and most particularly, Thora Birch. Miles away from the troubled adolescent in Oscar-winning American Beauty, Thora Birch has put on a few pounds and gone the way of Christina Ricci, she of The Addams Family fame. Dry, caustic, and sharp-tongued, Birch speaks volumes without even twitching a pencil-thin eyebrow. And what a relief to see school girls' teenage secret-trading cliché pangs definitely taking a back seat vis-à-vis a subtle, but lethal nonetheless, deconstruction of society as we know it. Would it surprise anyone that John Malkovich is one of the producers ?

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