Film Scouts Diaries

1996 Montreal Film Festival Diaries
Montreal Diary

by David Sterritt

August 30, 1996

The single most striking feature of this year's World Film Festival is the veritable flood of movies by first-time directors. This makes a critic's job hard, since it's tricky to put together a schedule when so many options are unknown quantities. But it's good to see so many new talents rushing into the market--odds are that at least a few will turn out to be at least moderately gifted, and the Mighty Quentin deserves to have a pack of wannabes yapping at his heels--and the international movie scene, which hasn't been all that exhilarating lately, can only benefit from an infusion of young blood.

That said, however, not every first-timer is young. Jeff Lipsky is a grand old man of 41, and he made his name as an adventurous movie distributor before leaving October Films and directing "Childhood's End" from his own screenplay. The picture had acquired a fair number of detractors even before its official world premiere in Montreal, and when Jeff introduced it with a nod to John Cassavetes my own skepticism kicked in a little, since the sublimely creative Cassavetes has been invoked by more than one filmmaker trying to make a virtue of rough production values and narrative loose ends that have nothing to do with his profoundly human and richly intuitive brand of cinema. "Childhood's End" turns out to be less inspired than the pedigree Jeff claims for it, but I like the picture's sincere affection for decidedly modest characters, and the performers (especially the women) are fun to watch even when the story (about Minnesota teenagers coming of age) sags. It's a promising debut, and I'll be curious to see the follow-up that filmmaker Lipsky is already working on.

"La Promesse," by the Belgian duo of Luc and Jean-Pierre Darden, is hopping around the festival circuit with great energy, and rightly so. The hero is a 15-year-old boy whose slimy father makes a living by smuggling Turkish and Ghanian workers into the country, charging them exorbitant rents for substandard housing, and pressuring them into working on his penny-ante construction projects. When an African worker is fatally wounded in a fall from a construction scaffold, the boy promises to help his wife and baby son--setting up a confrontation with his father, who'll use any deception to get the woman and infant out of his life. The story calls poignant attention to the desperate plight of illegal immigrants in many countries, but what makes "La Promesse" so impressively pungent is the Darden filmmaking style--anchored by a restless, roving camera--and astoundingly good acting by everyone in sight. (I got a special kick out of the sleazy father, played by an actor who reminded me irresistibly of Al Goldstein.)

I also like "Palookaville," a small but engaging comedy that recalls both the classic "Big Deal on Madonna Street" and the recent and underrated "Bottle Rocket" with its story of small-time hoods trying to pull off a job that's way beyond their meager capabilities. "Small Wonders," formerly known as "Fiddlefest," is a pleasant documentary about a real-life "Mr. Holland" who gives drifting kids a sense of purpose through music lessons; it's surprisingly similar to "Kids of Survival: The Art and Life of Tim Rollins and K.O.S.," another current doc, but it's unclear why either of these pictures is going into commercial release, since they're hardly head-and-shoulders above many other worthy nonfiction films that never see the light of day.

Some genuine auteurs sent new movies here, too. "A Tale of Summer" is milder and less compelling than Eric Rohmer's best work--including the earlier "A Tale of Winter" and the recent "Rendezvous in Paris," now in release--but he gets a lot of mileage out of attractive young folks making and breaking dates in a gorgeous seaside town. "The Phantom Heart" is Philippe Garrel's poignant, imaginatively structured drama about a love lorn artist who spends as much time worrying about his kids as pursuing his new affair and trying to get his painting back on track. I don't think "A Self-Made Hero" is as engrossing as many of my colleagues find it, but it certainly strikes unusual French chords with its story of a man who becomes a bogus Resistance hero after the Nazi Occupation is safely over. Raoul Ruiz comes up with his usual cascade of cinematic ideas in "Three Lives and Only One Death," not his greatest work but handsomely produced and acted with great assurance by Marcello Mastroianni and others.

In all, plenty to see from oldsters and newcomers alike, keeping Montreal alive and well despite the stiff competition it gets from its highly regarded Toronto counterpart. Vive le cinema.

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