Film Scouts Diaries

2003 Karlovy Vary Film Festival Diaries
CZECHING A FEW STEPS IN KARLOVY VARY - Step 3 – Dislocations, cultural and otherwise

by Henri Béhar

KARLOVY VARY, Czech Republic, July 8 -- Stephen Frears's Dirty Pretty Things sets the tone and, in more ways than one, embodies most clearly what seems to be a prevalent theme in this year's selection: dislocations, cultural divides, cultural dyslexia. Set in London and starring Audrey (Amélie of Montmartre) Tautou as a Turkish unwelcome "guest-worker", Nigerian actor Chiwetel Ejiofor as a doctor turned cab driver by day and hotel porter by night, and Spanish actor Sergi Lopez as a shady hotel manager, the film deals with organ traffics and illegal immigration and how far people will to go to get a European passport or at least the right to work in Europe. Does it sound like a downer? Well, far from it, for Stephen Frears, whose heart is as warm as his eye is sharp, laces it all with some of the most pointed moments of comedy to come down the pike in a long time.

Markus Heitschel's Dead Man's Memory ("Der gläserne Blick"), presents itself as "a crime mystery about the relativity of truth". As the catalogue puts it, "It is the story about people obsessed with observing others." Helmed by an Austrian director and set in Portugal, it stars a German actor and a French actress, Sylvie Testud, speaking German, English and Portuguese. The body of an unknown man is found on a beach near Lisbon. The detective in charge of the investigation immediately discovers the victim's video camera, holding shots of a young woman, who, as he soon discovers, turns out to be a foreign student. She eventually, though reluctantly, describes her strange relationship with the deceased, a German archeologist, which involves a young man, Fernando (also on the videos) that was mysteriously killed in a truck accident. As it turns out, everyone in this rather overwrought film has something to hide, and what one may perceive as truth (as captured live on video) can sometimes be far from it.

In Alain Corneau's Fear and Trembling, the same Sylvie Testud plays a woman twice dislocated. Born in Japan, but transplanted early on back to Belgium with her parents (tearing her away, therefore, from her best childhood friend), she now returns to Japan and works for a Japanese corporation (most of the film takes place in an office building). Caught between western and eastern cultures, she soon discovers that a woman, moreover a foreigner, starting out at the lowest rung of office hierarchy, can sink even lower, down to humiliating hell. Yet, the experience proves to cleansing, as she begins to understand the worth of traditional Japanese values, embodied by the mysterious zen garden of her childhood in Kyoto. Based on an autobiographical novel by by Amélie Nothomb, it is constantly surprising and, yes, sharply funny. In the leading role, Sylvie Testud, who spends ninety per cent of the film speaking Japanese, is beyond amazing.

It is a totally different dislocation that Wolfgang Becker's Goodbye, Lenin takes us into. Picture it: in East Germany, just a few days before the fall of the Berlin Wall, Alex's mother has a heart attack and is in a coma. When she wakes up, he is told by the doctors, any sudden shock could kill her. So he decides to hide from her the effect that capitalism is now having on her beloved Socialist Germany. He insists that everyone pretend that nothing has changed, which gets him into more and more absurd situations (try and find East-German gherkins at your Ku'dammed-out local grocery or to block the Coca Cola neon sign across the street). World-premiered at the last Berlin Film Festival, Goodbye, Lenin was awarded the Blue Angel for the Best European Film. The film abundantly makes its point, yet, particularly in the second half, you almost never stop laughing.

The dislocation experienced by the grandmother in Lidia Bobrova's Babusya (in competition) is something that might belong to our worst nightmares, whichever regime we live under. In most Socialist countries, one always took care of one's elderly parents; But regimes change. When Granny's daughter becomes an invalid, her son-in-law Ivan forces the old woman to give her house to her grandchildren and carts her off to her sister Anna, whose daughter Lisa is a successful journalist in Moscow. Alas, when Anna breaks her hip and has to go to the hospital, Lisa tries to entrust the old woman back to her relatives, but as they go from town to town and from household to household, it becomes increasingly clear that there is no longer any room for the old woman within the family. The film offers a subtle description of the mentality and attitudes of people coping with the current economic transformation in Eastern Europe. Yet it sometimes feels kind of pleonastic, as one gets more and understands more in one close-up of Granny or one two-shot of her and her sister as they reminisce their harmonious life in yesteryears than in the rest of the film altogether.

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