September 14, 2021


Venice International Film Festival 2021 highlights

By Shane Danielsen
Image of Laure Calamy as Julie in À plein temps (Full Time), directed by Eric Gravel

Laure Calamy as Julie in À plein temps (Full Time), directed by Eric Gravel

Films by Eric Gravel, Bogdan George Apetri and Gábor Fabricius are among the stand-outs in a program of unusual abundance

This year’s Venice Film Festival – its second COVID edition – front-loaded most of its big titles in an attempt to prevent rivals Telluride and Toronto from claiming them as world premieres. I’ll deal with Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog and Pedro Almodóvar’s Parallel Mothers when they’re released – and Denis Villeneuve’s Dune is too big, in every sense, to be addressed in a piece like this. But there was plenty to admire among the smaller films: as with Cannes in July, this was a program of unusual abundance.

In À plein temps (Full Time), the second feature from French-Canadian writer-director Eric Gravel, single mother Julie (Call My Agent’s Laure Calamy) attempts to juggle raising two small children in the French countryside with her duties as head chambermaid at a five-star hotel in Paris – a task that becomes considerably more difficult when the entire Île-de-France is paralysed by a public transport strike. Her ex-husband won’t answer his phone, much less pay the alimony he owes; her day-care provider is fed up with Julie’s constant lateness in coming to collect her kids; and she’s in the process of secretly applying for another, better job in the field for which she originally trained (marketing research).

For anyone who still doubts that ordinary daily life could provide the material for high-stakes drama, this film offers a stunning riposte. It’s exhausting in the best way – a race-the-clock thriller that starts in fourth gear and barely lets up, even as it adds nuance and complexity to its various characterisations and relationships. (Julie’s ill-advised romantic pursuit of a friendly neighbour is agonising to watch.) At times, it plays like the Dardenne brothers remaking Run Lola Run, a debt Gravel makes explicit in two scenes of Julie tearing headlong down the streets around Gare de l’Est, desperate not to clock in late for her job. But even as the tension mounts, aided by Mathilde Van de Moortel’s dynamic editing and a thrumming, trance-inflected score from techno producer Irène Drésel, Gravel never for a moment neglects the human stakes at this story’s heart.

From Romania, Miracol is a film in two parts. In the first, 19-year-old novitiate Cristina (Ioana Bugarin) quietly slips out of a rural convent to attend a medical appointment in a neighbouring town, a journey that involves an abortive visit to the home of her former lover and culminates in her discovery that she is, as she feared, pregnant. In the second, a recently promoted detective (Emanuel Parvu) tries to uncover precisely what fate subsequently befell her. Writer-director Bogdan George Apetri unpacks his narrative methodically, patiently, returning all the while to a handful of recurring sounds and images – notably, a shot of Cristina reflected in bodies of water: first a sacrarium, then a lake.

The result is a strange but by no means unsuccessful fusion of contradictory world views, at once explicitly Christian (a parable of martyrdom and forgiveness) and intensely secular (a study of institutional hypocrisy and random, almost inexplicable violence). As Cristina, Bugarin is magnetic, her rigid stillness communicating a tactile discomfort with the temporal world from which she’s retreated. Parvu, by comparison, seems ever so slightly miscast – though some of his choices seem slightly more motivated as the drama unfolds, and he begins to resemble Sean Connery’s character in Sidney Lumet’s The Offence (1973). But, right at the end, just as various fates appear settled, the director plays an elegant game with time that leads to a moment of revelation. A miracle, per the title.

Speaking of titles, Erasing Frank is not a great one – especially for one of the best Central European films of the year. Shot in a grainy, low-contrast black and white, this debut feature from Gábor Fabricius feels like a document salvaged from the era it depicts (1983 Budapest). But coming as it does from Viktor Orbán’s Hungary, its strident opposition to official censorship and the co-opting of artists by the state feels entirely modern and urgent. I can think of no higher praise than to note that Orbán would despise it.

Certainly, its opening sequence is breathtaking: first the three bandmates in a tunnel at night, posting flyers for an upcoming concert as a succession of tanks roll by, and then the gig itself, a punk-rock show captured in a single take of extraordinary intimacy and intensity. (No nation does long-take mise-en-scène as well as the Hungarians.) Before long the concert is halted by the authorities, and Frank and his colleagues are arrested and charged with “arousing the youth” – a phrase that earns a Beavis and Butthead-like snicker from the musicians. But Frank, as the band’s singer and lyricist, is singled out for special attention, and finds himself confined to an asylum, in the hope that he might start to see things the government’s way.

Once inside, the singer feels his stability begin to wobble – this Snake Pit scenario further complicated by the possibility that, notwithstanding the paranoia fostered by state surveillance and his incarceration, he might actually have an undiagnosed mental illness. His girlfriend Anna works at the same facility as a consultant psychiatrist, and wants to keep Frank close enough not to attract further attention while she figures out a way to get them both out of the country. But he soon becomes fixated on a fellow inmate, a mute young girl who seems hollowed-out from electro-shock therapy, and he begins to believe that he’s the Orpheus to her Eurydice.

The asylum sequences – and the monochrome palette – show the clear influence of fellow Hungarian Béla Tarr, but the action is no less mesmerising when it’s out in the world: at clandestine gatherings in smoky apartments, where samizdat literature is passed from hand to hand, and in the sleek modernist spaces of the Budapest subway. It’s photographed, breathtakingly well, by Tamás Dobos, who also shot my other favourite Hungarian film of the year, Dénes Nagy’s Natural Light. But perhaps its greatest asset is a supporting performance by veteran actor István Lénárt, who died in March at the age of 99, and who appeared in some of the finest Hungarian films of the past quarter-century – István Szabó’s Hanussen (1988), and György Fehér’s Twilight (1990) and Passion (1998). Here, he plays an intellectual who’s learned to make peace with the Party. He’s exhausted, barely able to stand; his voice, a hoarse rattle, is thick with phlegm. He’s the personification of a decaying regime, too corrupt and infirm to survive, yet intent on stifling every independent thought before it crumbles into dust.  

Like much else in Antoine Barrau’s film Madeleine Collins, the title is a misdirect, one of a number of identities assumed and discarded by a woman (Belgian actress Virginie Efira) unknowable to others and also, you sense, to herself. We first see her as Margot Soriano, a translator who lives in a small flat in Geneva with her partner Abdel, a struggling artist, and their four-year-old daughter, Ninon. She leaves them for a few days, ostensibly on a business trip to Spain – only to instead reappear in Paris as Judith Fauvet, where we realise she shares an expensive apartment with her husband Melvil, an orchestra conductor, and their two teenage sons. She attends his concert, inspects a potential new home and then, after a few days, returns to Geneva, and her family there.

Barrau and his co-writer Héléna Klotz initially withhold a lot of information, allowing these parallel scenarios to play out for almost half the film’s length before beginning to provide some answers. As Judith/Margot ping-pongs between her two lives, questions will start to trouble the attentive viewer. (How, for example, did she possibly conceal her pregnancy from her French husband and sons?) But one is never in doubt that this house of cards will come tumbling down: Geneva is too close to Paris, and Melvil is becoming too famous not to also draw attention to his pretty, popular wife. And so it does, via a series of escalating revelations (Abdel, we learn, knows all about her other life) and exposures, social occasions at which her two worlds unexpectedly collide. We see, in these moments, the mounting panic in Efira’s eyes. Like an animal caught in a trap of its own making.

But while the inspiration here appears to be Hitchcock (even the names Judith and Madeleine reference the two characters Kim Novak played in Vertigo), the presiding spirit appears to be that of Claude Chabrol: like his films, it’s a chilly takedown of bourgeois propriety and self-deception. The question is not so much how she’s managing to sustain this dual deception, as why she would choose to live this way – and it’s to Barrau’s credit that the explanation, when it finally comes, is a satisfying and unexpected one, delivered elegantly and well.

Operating at the fruitful nexus of fiction and documentary, Matteo Tortone’s Mother Lode takes us high into the Peruvian Andes, and follows the experiences of Jorge (José Luis Nazario Campos), a 19-year-old operating a moto-taxi in Lima. When his vehicle breaks down and is unable to be repaired, he leaves the city and returns to a mountain town near the Bolivian border where he’s worked on and off for six years, in an attempt to make enough money to support his wife and baby daughter.

The highest permanent settlement on Earth, La Rinconada (“The Corner Place”) is located 5.1 kilometres above sea level, and the city’s mine, the source of what little wealth it has, is situated beneath a glacier. Chewing coca leaves to fight off altitude sickness (and to stay awake), Jorge and his fellow miners toil in freezing conditions, in thin air, to extract gold from the rocks. Superstitions abound: the men make votive offerings of cigarettes and whisky to a marionette-like icon called Grandpa, imploring him to keep them safe. Even so, inevitably, some are killed: caught in detonations or crushed by falling rocks. Others, though, just disappear without trace – as, occasionally, do people in the town. And eventually Jorge, who’s been told since childhood that gold ultimately belongs to the devil, realises that, when the yield is bad, a pagacho, or payment, is made by the bosses to restore their good fortune… A sacrifice, in other words.

Shot by Patrick Tresch in a finepoint greyscale black and white that yields, as Jorge’s work takes him underground, to compositions of inky blackness, the film offers a number of breathtaking images: the rocky grandeur of the Andes, of course, but also a filthy alley filled with a brass band, or a festival of whirling, masked grotesques. The plot, such as it is, proves inconclusive – like the real life it so meticulously depicts, this resists the neat arc of a “story” – but should its charismatic lead performer (a non-professional) ever trade the mines for a career in front of the camera, he could well become a star.

Shane Danielsen

Shane Danielsen is a screenwriter and former artistic director of the Edinburgh International Film Festival.

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