Film Scouts Diaries

1999 Karlovy Vary Film Festival Diaries
Diary #2: Czechmate

by Henri Béhar

KARLOVY VARY, Czech Republic - Tuesday, July 7, 1999

It's early morning and an elderly gentleman is nervously pacing the lobby of the Hotel Thermal, which serves as the Festival's headquarters (while the Stars and VPs stay at the Pup). The man speaks fluent French, but halting English, he is a duly accredited journalist from Romania. He is also a father and his son's film is shown today in competition, but the son is nowhere to be found, he's somewhere between Prague and Los Angeles, where he was getting a script-writing award and the plane's been delayed and the son will miss the press screening of his Dolce Farniente, if not the gala performance tonight (who can trust airlines these days?)

He needed not fret. Director Nae Caranfil arrived in time, full of energy behind his law student glasses, with no visible impact from jet lag (we hate him). His first film, E Pericoloso Sporgersi ("It's Dangerous to Lean Out") was shown in 1994 on the international festival circuit, as was, in 1996, his second feature, Asphalt Tango. For his third opus, Caranfil chose a subject that a Tom Stoppard might have loved to get his hands on. Based on a best-seller by French novelist Frédéric Vitoux, Dolce Farniente is about the chance meeting of two giants of the 19th Century art world: writer Stendhal (The Red and the Black, La Chartreuse de Parme) and composer Rossini.

In 1816, what is not yet Italy is torn by a bloody war between the kingdom of Rome and the kingdom of Naples. A former quartermaster in Napoleon's army, Henri Beyle, who has not yet taken up the pseudonym Stendhal (the film offers a so-so explanation of said pseudonym), leaves Rome and heads for Naples. About the same time, young and dashing Giacomo Rossini - a superstar in the making - leaves Naples for Rome. They both get stuck in a small town at the border. Stendhal stays at a house owned by a relative of a beautiful stagecoach passenger who has taken him under his wing, Rossini is put up at the local inn, the two men meet at the taverna. A lull in the war provides a good opportunity for amorous intrigues...

For Rossini, at least. For hard as he tries - and God knows he tries and plots and fantasizes and tries again - Stendhal almost never scores, while Rossini never stops doing, er, what comes all too naturally to him. And Hall-of-Famery be damned. This is as close as it can get to a meeting in Casper, Wyoming, of an Arthur Miller before his first play and a young Mick Jagger after the Stones' first two albums. This lighthearted irreverence is one of the delights of this leisurely paced, remarkably but unobtrusively intelligent film which, creatively handled, might turn into a mini-Shakespeare in Love

Due in a large part to its geographic situation, the Karlovy Vary Film Festival has always been a magnet for films from all over the former Eastern block. And indeed, three of the sidebars focused on Czech features, Kazakhstan cinema and what is called here the "East of the West" (Central Europe). Three other sidebars, however, dedicated to Canada, Belgium and France, came up with a new approach. Instead of showing the same twelve films "that display how wide-ranged film production is in (fill in the country here)", they focused on Canadian animation, Belgian surrealism and French regional cinema.

Since the foundation of its National Film Board in 1939 by Scottish documentary filmmaker John Grierson, who quickly invited over British animator Norman McLaren, Canada has excelled in the field of animation, attracting artists from all over the world, including Alexander Alexeieff and Peter Foldes, from France, and Caroline Leaf, from the US. Of course, what with stop-motion animators like Zeman and Jiri Trnka, the Czech are no slouches in that respect. It made sense for the Karlovy Vary Festival to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the NFB (and its French twin, the Office National du Film) with a selection that included Norman McLaren and Evelyn Lambert's 1949 Caprice, still a stunner after all these years...

One generally associates surrealism with the French (André Breton's writings) and the Spaniards (Dali paintings, Bunuel's Age d'Or and Chien Andalou). A narrow view, if you think of a René Magritte and his levitating rocks, his room-sized apples, truncated women and tiny men with bowler hats. One knew Magritte as a painter, little did one know he had also dabbled in film, making home movies with a super-8 camera. The centerpiece of a triptych titled Magritte and Co... Cobra, La Fidélité des Images hints at a Magritte more mischievous, perhaps, than in his paintings. Made in 1946, Fidelité... was one of the two intriguing of the twenty-some short and feature-length films shown here - the other one being André Delvaux's Man With the Shaved Head (1965)

Maybe France is rediscovering - and rehabilitating - regionalism. Suddenly, accents are back in cultural fashion, and characters deeply rooted in locations rarely used in films. Robert Guédiguian's A La Place du Coeur and Karim Dridi's Bye Bye take place in Marseilles, Laetitia Masson's En Avoir ou Pas (a gem) in Boulogne-sur-Mer, Jacques Nolot's L'Arrière-Pays in the Southwest of France and Erick Zonca's Dream Life of Angels in the northern city of Lille. This trend happened discretely but is probably here to stay. It's as if you were to pay tribute to "Another American Cinema" focusing on films made in, about and by people from Lubbock, Texas, Gambier, Ohio, and Boise, Idaho, and discovered that, my God!, there are filmmakers there.

However into new films and new trends, we at Film Scouts are also addicted to masterpieces from times past. The Treasures from the European Film Archives section provided us with our fix, featuring such classics as Rossellini's Paisa, Bresson's Diary of a Country Priest and, more rarely seen, G. W. Pabst's Der Schatz ("The Treasure") But more about that tomorrow.

The daughter of Christopher Plummer and Tammy Grimes, Amanda Plummer is definitely less mainstream than, say, Neve Campbell. Indeed, her Pulp Fiction partners in crime say "she's definitely out there, man". (Coming from Tim Roth and Quentin Tarantino, that's a compliment). She is in town for Peter Greenaway's 8 Women. In the Festival Daily, she describes the idiosyncratic filmmaker as "a fantastically dangerous director. I love dangerous people. His films destroy life, his fantasy penetrates your reality and the constant battle between his soul, body and ideas become your battle, too. Working with him (...) and his cameraman, 80-year-old Sacha Vierny, you carry reflections of his mastership in you..." Is working with him a pain and a suffering?, the Czech journalist asks, reminding her Sir John Gielgud spent most of the shooting of Prospero's Book in a pool with a little boy peeing on his head. "Why suffering? I would really enjoy having a little boy peeing on my head!"

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