I’ve seen some pretty heady, wacky, and at times, whacked-out stuff at the Chicago International Film Festival over the years. Christopher Honore’s Ma Mere, for one, in which Isabelle Huppert’s character has an affair with her son, played by Louis Garrell (who probably sets the cinematic record for male masturbation, including a jaw-dropping final scene when he does the deed while he looks over her dead body in the morgue, of all places). Or Kornél Mundruczó’s Johanna which re-tells the story of Joan of Arc as an opera-musical, set in a Hungarian hospital for the terminally-ill, where a drug-addicted Joan is martyred for trying to heal the patients by having sex with them. Or Kim Ki-duk’s Time about an obsessive woman who undergoes plastic surgery to get back her boyfriend, which contains a lengthy surreal coffee shop scene followed by a chase scene in which the actors are wearing white masks throughout. But this year’s Leap Year, the Mexican film from Australian transplant Michael Rowe, which caused quite the commotion at Cannes earlier this year and won the Camera D’Or prize for best first film, is up there with the outrageously memorable. It is audacious and envelope-pushing, not only because of its graphic sex scenes (an unsimulated hand job, asphyxiation during anal sex and “golden showers”, anyone?) and it’s ferociously brave performance from lead actress Monica del Carmen, but also because by having a laser-sharp focus on the mundane, routinary aspects of a person’s daily life, it is able to paint a vivid, tragic, universal portrait of contemporary urban living. It is breathtaking. Here are my thoughts on Leap Year and other films I saw this week at the Festival, all of them coming to us from Cannes:
Leap Year/Ano Bisierto (Mexico) – Laura is a twentysomething business journalist in Mexico City, transplanted from rural Oaxaca, whose life is comprised of long periods of being alone, of making up stories of a fabulous city life to tell her mother and brother back home, and of going to bars and picking up men for one night stands. One of these men, Arturo, becomes her lover and she gradually acts out her most extreme sexual fantasies with him, leading up to a shocking act she wants him to perform on her on February 29, the death anniversary of her father. It is an intriguing, riveting, disconcerting, highly uncomfortable film, a film that stays with you days after seeing it, not least because of the depiction of graphic sex scenes which are unheard of in mainstream cinema. Howe, more importantly, creates a searing, palpable story of a person weighed down by intense loneliness and lack of human connections, set against a cutthroat, indifferent urban milieu, helped greatly by the meticulous, thoughtful yet unobtrusive cinematography by Juan Manuel Sepulveda and a great, landmark performance by Monica Del Carmen as Laura. It’s a performance that is harrowing, authentic, committed beyond belief, a performance much better than any recent Oscar Best Actress winners and nominees. Other than the sex scenes, there’s really not a lot of action in the film but Del Carmen rivets us with every glance, every tiny gesture and action, every scrubbing of a dirty plate, every push of a grocery cart, communicating so much loneliness, pain, longing, and scarring, that you’re left wondering is this acting? I’m a little perturbed by the fact that the film again presents another actress being “brutalized” for the sake of art, but part of me wonders how successful this film could have been without the frank sexuality. But Del Carmen is also terrific in the more joyful scenes-the short reunions with her brother, the post-coital snuggling with Arturo- and she memorably delivers the best line reading I’ve heard in the Festival this year. When Arturo (played by Gustavo Sanchez Parra), after the infamous golden showers scene, asks her how it feels like to get pissed on, Del Carmen responds simply, artlessly, wondrously, “Warm”.
We Are What We Are/Somos Lo Que Hay (Mexico) – The other memorable film I’ve seen so far this year is from Mexico as well, and it was also a sensation at the Cannes Film Festival. There’s no pissing or strangling this time, but there’s bloody biting and chewing in this existential story of urban Mexico City cannibals who must try to survive after the death of their father (from indigestion after eating a prostitute – that’s why always be careful of what you put in your mouth!). Writer-director Jorge Michel Grau treads similar ground to Howe by portraying Mexico City as an unforgiving place of urban dislocation, where slum kids live under a bridge, prostitutes swarm an entire street, and the cannibals can’t make an honest living fixing watches in an open-air market, because they keep on getting thrown out. What’s more fascinating, though, for me, is the breakdown of group dynamics once the father dies: the inability of both the mother (crazy and tortured) and the eldest son (closeted gay and tortured) to step up to the plate as leaders, and the conniving of the youngest daughter which ends up dividing the family (and ensuring her survivor status after the bloody carnage at the climax of the film). Ultimately though I didn’t really understand what this film was all about, but I was quite riveted and entertained. The performances are terrific, especially Carmen Beato as the histrionic mother and Paulina Gaitan as the steely youngest daughter.
Heartbeats/Les Amours Imaginaires (Canada) – After the two Mexican films, which make you feel like you’ve been run over by an oil tanker, this airy confection from French-Canadian wunderkind director Xavier Dolan is a breath of fresh air. I wonder if the folks who gave this film a standing ovation at Cannes sat through Leap Year and We Are What We Are back to back and needed a sugar high. I don’t really think it’s applause or ovation-worthy – it’s a youthful, hipster, unambitious film, chronicling the shallow rivalry between sensitive, cute gay boy Francis (played by director Dolan) and his fabulous, stylish fag hag Marie, over a sexually ambiguous curly-haired hottie, Nicholas. There’s a lot of drama queen posturing, confident hauteur, slow-mo sashays, a painfully hip soundtrack (including a wonderful Italian version of Nancy Sinatra’s “Bang Bang”), fashionable outfits, and amazing blasts of color: turquoise blue, beet-red, tangerine orange, lavender, maroon-brown-gourd is all over the screen. It has an endearing, good-naturedly pouty, puppyish gay sensibility. But the film doesn’t really say anything new or insightful about relationships, and the self-absorption of the characters (especially Marie) is ultimately tiring.
A Screaming Man/Un Homme Qui Crie (France/Belgium/Chad) – Instead of A Screaming Man, this snoozer from Mahamet-Saleh Haroun should have been called A Sleeping Man. Or better yet, A Sleeping Audience. I’m flabbergasted that this won the third-place Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival. The story of a hotel pool attendant who is demoted to gate-opener and replaced by his son, told against the backdrop of the impending Chadian civil war, was so slow and unengaging, I was running Top Chef marathons in my head just to keep awake. I would have liked more exploration of the Chadian political and socio-economic structure that would have made a demotion such a heartbreaking act. But instead, Haroun peppers us with slow, lingering shots of nothing interesting going on (at least in Leap Year, you are continuously riveted by Monica Del Carmen’s performance). Lead actor Youssouf Djaoro gives such an inscrutable performance that you don’t really understand, or ultimately care about, his character’s pain or humiliation, and what drives him to give up his son to the Chadian army in order to get his old job back.
The Chicago International Film Festival goes into its second weekend at AMC River East, 322 E. Illinois St. Check out the festival website for the schedule.