Film Scouts Diaries

1995 Montreal Film Festival Diaries
Montreal Diary #10

by David Sterritt

September 3, 1995

Along with seeing brand-new films at this festival, it's been fun gathering opinions from colleagues about movies I saw before arriving here.

Not every picture stirs much interest, of course. I've heard little talk about "Amore Molesto," which I didn't like much at Cannes, or "Angels and Insects," which I did enjoy at a New York screening a few months ago. Nor has Montreal been buzzing with conversations about "The Convent," a minor but engaging Manoel de Oliveira comedy, or "Sharaku," a Japanese art movie that seems made for export, or "Waati," a wan coming-of-political-age epic by Souleymane Cisse, the gifted Mali filmmaker. And few people seem to care about the stupid "Things To Do in Denver When You're Dead," despite the overly enthusiastic reception it got from some Cannes reviewers.

But some pictures that caught my attention before Montreal, positively or negatively, have been sparking considerable discussion after their showings here. "Georgia" appears to have gone over well, with its sensitive screenplay and sensational performance by Jennifer Jason Leigh, whom I had the pleasure of congratulating the other evening. "Shanghai Triad" also seems well-received, with some critics complaining about its lack of hidden meanings but others rightly praising it as a first-rate genre piece that shows yet another side of Zhang Yimou's awesome talent. I haven't yet collected any opinions about Lars von Trier's wild and woolly miniseries "The Kingdom," but a number of people have asked me about it, which means the director of the zippy "Zentropa" may finally be receiving the critical interest he deserves. And while people are liking "La Haine" better than I do - it strikes me as a fairly banal melodrama, although its attention to urban violence marks an important step for French cinema - most critics I've talked with about Theo Angelopoulos's heavy-going "Ulysses' Gaze" agree with me that it's visually stunning but dramatically undermined by a stilted, pretentious screenplay poorly handled by Harvey Keitel, a gifted but instinctive actor who's out of his depth in this murkily intellectual picture.

Turning to movies that have newly arrived on the festival circuit, yesterday began with a well-attended screening of Liv Ullmann's romantic "Kristin Lavransdatter," based on Sigrid Undset's novel. Photographed by the ever-brilliant Sven Nykvist, the film looks terrific from beginning to end. At three slow-moving hours, though, it's an awfully hard sit. The characters are interesting enough, but you can't help wishing they'd experience their profound sorrows and ecstatic joys a whole lot faster, and with more than two or three facial expressions to suit every occasion. Ullmann needs to exit the historical-epic phase of her directing career, clearly influenced by Ingmar Bergman classics like "The Virgin Spring" and "The Seventh Seal," and find some feistier territory to explore. She's an uncommonly smart and savvy person, as I've learned through conversations we've had over the years, including a very pleasant one this morning; and I'm sure she could craft a far more exciting film if she turned her attention to more invigorating material. Even in "Kristin Lavransdatter," though, she deserves high marks for ambition and for dealing with unfashionable issues like religious piety and the stresses of long-term domestic life. Also commendable are a few inventively edited sequences, courtesy of Michael Leszcylowski, and a captivating music score credited to Ketil Hvoslef but including cannily chosen contributions by other composers old and new.

Lower in profile but more stimulating to watch is "The Bat," directed by Ayas Salayev, a filmmaker from Azerbaijan making his feature debut. The complicated story deals with an art critic who falls in love with a young actress starring in an avant-garde film, loses his ability to see, enters a menage a trois with the woman and her boyfriend, and eventually kills her during a screening in the local movie house. Woven through the picture are film clips and literary references, from "The Blue Angel" to "Tonio Kreuger," guaranteed to keep any culture-vulture's brain happily occupied even when the plot gets tangled or obscure.

As a whole, the wingspread of "The Bat" is more impressive then its actual ability to fly, but it's fun to encounter a movie that loves movies so much, and that has enough cultural imagination to bring other art forms (painting, architecture, music, etc.) into its dialectical meanderings. Salayev is yet another promising talent to emerge here.

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