Film Scouts Diaries

2006 Karlovy Vary Film Festival Diaries
41st Karlovy Vary Festival Diary #3: The Many Facets of Motherhood (A Hint: They’re All Dark)

by Henri Béhar

KARLOVY VARY, CZECH REPUBLIC, JULY 4 -- Midway through the 41st Karlovy Vary International Film Festival, motherhood seems to have emerged as the dominant theme in the fiction feature-length films competing for the top award. And whatever the filmmaker's country of origin, whether the preoccupation is central or peripheral to the man narrative, the tone generally ranges from bleak to bleaker to bleakest. A sample (so far, I dread to say):

The mother portrayed by Maggie Gyllenhaal in Laurie Collyer's Sherrybaby (USA, international premiere) wears skimpy outfits, has bleached hair and eyes lined with black like a racoon's, she twitches inordinately and can have a pretty foul mouth. In film semiotics, that indicates her character, Sherry Swanson, is/was a drug addict. Released from the prison she was thrown in after committing a robbery, she tries to get back into ordinary life. She contacts her brother Bob who has been bringing up her daughter Alexis while she was away and tries to re-establish some sort of a rapport with her little girl. For a time, she convinces everybody that she can be a responsible woman: she stays off drugs, she finds a job teaching young children. Things aren't so "up" in the mother-daughter department, however, as Sherry has to engage in a subtle war with Bob's wife, Lynn, who raised Alexis as her own child. Will Sherry be able to make it on her own? Will she go back to drugs? Gyllenhaal's performance is flawless and it is obvious that director Collyer has a background in documentary filmmaking (the film was shot in New Jersey). But you come out of the screening needing a huge breath of fresh air.

You are not going to get it from Virginie Wagon's L'Enfant d'une Autre ("This Girl Is Mine", France, international premiere), despite the fact that a good chunk of the film was shot outdoors in the sunny south of France. Maud (Catherine Jacob), a strong, tough-as-nails middle-aged businesswoman, comes across a twelve-year-old girl named Zita who has the same birthmark on her stomach as the six-month-old baby that was stolen from her pram - you guessed it - twelve years ago. Maud, who never recovered from her terrible loss (her marriage broke up, her personal life went down the drain), decides her obsessive search has ended, she will, by hook or by crook, get her kid back. At first, she befriends the little girl and her mother Joana, a Spanish-born substitute teacher and grape-picker. When she discovers that the circumstances surrounding Zita's official birth are more than suspicious, Maud drops all pretence and goes for the jugular. At the very heart of this story that could be ripped off from today's headlines (murky adoptions, baby-smuggling, etc) lies one preoccupation: what is in the child's best interest? Catherine Jacob's shrillness may be grating at the beginning, but the way she modulates that very shrillness ultimately wins you over.

The mother/wife in Aku Louhimies' Frozen City (Finland, world premiere) is as close to a quiet monster as you can find these days on any screen in any country. When Hanna's marriage to Veli-Matt breaks down, he leaves the house to her and to their three children and moves into a small flat in the suburbs. But hard as he tries, misfortune continues to plague him: he loses his job as a taxi driver, a judge soon bans him from having any unsupervised contact with his children, and when a naggy neighbor slaughters the guinea pig Veli-Matt had bought for one of his kids, you know the man is about to burst. He is pushed even closer to snapping point by Hanna's subtle manoeuvrings, fuelled by both the remnants of the feelings she once had for him and an irrational desire to hurt him as best she can. In sharp contrast with actor Janne Virtanne (Veli-Matt) who manages to combine manliness and vulnerability, Susanna Anteroinen's smooth, expressionless face and flat voice make her all the more terrifying. Shot in Helsinki in mid-winter, Frozen City would make Aki Kaürismaki at his bleakest look like Busby Berkeley at his lightest.

Jan Hrebejk's Beauty in Trouble (Czech Republic, world premiere) is based on the eponymous Robert Graves poem and deals with both motherhood and daughterhood problems, as its main character is faced with the kind of choice I wish upon my best friends: be poor and miserable in dingy post-flood surroundings or happy in a mansion in sunny Tuscany. Let me explain: after the floods that drowned half of Prague in 2002, Marcella (a delightful Anna Geisler) finds herself up the creek. Her family's belongings are practically destroyed, her house was uninsured and although the waters have receded, mould plagues her asthmatic son, money is scarce and her husband spends more and more time with the stolen cars he works on in his chop shop (It won't be long before he steals the wrong car). So Marcela packs up and moves back to her mother's. Hardly anybody's idea of paradise. The apartment is small and cramped, Mom is a weakling and her (second?) husband is a skunk. Enters Mr. Good Angel, a wealthy man who spends his life between a mansion in the country near Prague and another mansion, complete with Olympic-size swimming pool over the sea in Italy. Did I mention that though slightly older, Mr. Good Angel is rather handsome? If he is more than willing to help, will she accept his help? Now what do you think?

Pitched alternatively as "a moving story about family, consequences, second chances and compassion" and as "a fairy tale with social implications", Beauty in Trouble proved to be exactly what the doctor ordered… with a few shots of local Becherovka.

Previous Installment | Next Installment

Back to Karlovy Vary Film Festival Diaries

Look for Search Tips

Copyright 1994-2008 Film Scouts LLC
Created, produced, and published by Film Scouts LLC
Film Scouts® is a registered trademark of Film Scouts LLC
All rights reserved.

Suggestions? Comments? Fill out our Feedback Form.