Film Scouts Diaries

1995 Montreal Film Festival Diaries
Montreal Diary #11

by David Sterritt

September 4, 1995

The festival reached some of its highest and lowest points during its last hours.

Lowest of all was a major programming disappointment - the much-awaited "Beyond the Clouds" was canceled because the movie isn't finished yet - and worst of all was the way the festival handled this anticlimax. Alert journalists could find a printed announcement in the press office, available hours before the scheduled 10 p.m. screening time. This stated that a substitute program would include one excerpt from the picture, which will ultimately comprise four segments directed by the towering Italian filmmaker Michelangelo Antonioni and a frame-tale directed by the fine German cineaste Wim Wenders; also shown would be a "making of" documentary and a reprise of Antonioni's satellite press conference, held a couple of days earlier. Fair enough, but the ticket-buying public was so haphazardly informed of these changes that many in the audience didn't know they weren't about to see "Beyond the Clouds" until they had come to the Imperial Theater, stood in line for up to an hour outside, and then waited another half-hour inside before an official announcement was finally made. Outrageous all around!

I knew about the situation well in advance, but I was curious enough about even a fragment of Antonioni's latest to attend the show anyway. In terms of narrative, "The Girl and the Crime" turned out to be fairly inscrutable when seen apart from whatever's supposed to surround it - just a quarter-hour anecdote with John Malkovich as a writer striking up a sexual acquaintance with a gorgeous young woman, and not minding when she informs him that she killed her father by stabbing him 12 times. Most striking about the episode is its stunning sense of framing and color. Antonioni's health has been fearsomely impaired for the past few years, but his eye is as keen as ever, and I'm still waiting eagerly for the completed four-part-plus picture.

Earlier in the day I caught up with "Erotic Tales II," a program of three half-hour films about sex. This continues what appears to be a new Montreal tradition, since last year's festival had no fewer than three such programs. I saw the entire 1994 batch, for the highly respectable reason that virtually all were by major or at least interesting directors - Ken Russell, Bob Rafelson, Lizzie Borden, Monika Treut, Melvin Van Peebles, Mani Kaul, and so on - whose careers are well worth tracking. Most of the pictures were quite bad, with the important exception of Kaul's exquisite vignette, and the only improvement this year is that there were fewer of these trifles to sit through. "Sweeties," directed by Cinzia Th. Torrini, is a forgettable Italian farce about an oversexed woman with an apathetic husband and a powerful love potion. "Devilish Education," directed by Janusz Majewski, has a promising folk-tale-type story about satanic seduction in the Polish countryside, but does little with it. And wouldn't you know, the film that drew me to this program was the worst of the bunch: "Hotel Paradise," with Theresa Russell and Vincent D'Onofrio as newly acquainted sex partners in a hotel room, is directed by Nicolas Roeg with a paucity of visual and dramatic interest that rivals the weakest works of his uneven career.

To finish on an upbeat note, Carlos Saura's exuberant "Flamenco" is a superb achievement from beginning to end, and was an excellent choice for the festival's closing-night picture.

I respect Saura a lot, and admire his marvelous "Cria" and "Cousin Angelica" enormously, but I've never been all that excited by his musical films - the popular "Carmen" and "Blood Wedding" are not favorites of mine, for instance, and the show-biz-based "Ay, Carmela!" strikes me as one of his silliest movies. This notwithstanding, I was bowled over by the opening moments of "Flamenco," and while not every song or dance has the same degree of power, the overall quality of the performances is astonishingly high. There's no story and no pretense of live-in-concert spontaneity - like, say, "The Last Waltz," this is a recital staged exclusively for the camera, and it's obviously been planned and executed with meticulous care. Best of all, the camera is guided by Vitriol Stirrer, a consummate artist at the peak of his powers. He and Saura and the astonishing passions of superbly chosen flamenco made a knock-out finale to what was otherwise an undistinguished festival in an undistinguished cinematic year.

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