Saturday 13 August 2016

On New Horizons: the 16th International Film Festival, Wrocław, 21 July – 31 July 2016

Founded in 2001, and now in its 16th edition, Wrocław’s T-Mobile New Horizons Film Festival (Nowe Horyzonty) has established itself as one of Poland’s most important showcases for international art cinema: a great complement to Krakow Film Festival, and to the venerable, vibrant Gdynia Film Festival, which focuses exclusively on Polish productions. I’ve been eager to attend the Festival since I started visiting Poland regularly in 2007 but somehow the dates have never quite worked out. I was happy, therefore, to finally have the opportunity to make it to New Horizons this year, albeit for only a few days.

Deep End 
This is a particularly significant year for New Horizons, since Wrocław is European Capital of Culture for 2016, sharing the title with San Sebastian in Spain. While I can’t comment on how the city’s status may have changed the tenor of the event this year, New Horizons 2016 certainly offered an abundance of riches, including appearances by Claire Denis, Ulrike Ottinger, Agnieszka Holland, Carlos Saura and Victor Erice. (A section focusing on Basque cinema – including the Erice retrospective – constituted the Festival’s loving homage to its ECC twin.)

The Festival also featured over 100 Polish premieres, among them screenings of the crop of recent successes from the likes of Venice and Cannes, such as Ken Loach’s Palme-honoured I, Daniel Blake, Kleber Mendonça Filho’s exhilarating Aquarius, Alain Guiraudie’s spectacularly confounding Staying Vertical, and Maren Ade’s much-loved (though not by me) daddy/daughter comedy Toni Erdmann.

Deep End
In addition, Polish cinema both brand new (Tomasz Wasilewski’s Silver Bear-winning United States of Love/Zjednoczone Stany Miłości) and classic (Aleksander Hertz’s believed-lost 1919 silent, People with No Tomorrow/Ludzie bez jutra) was showcased, while Deep End (1970), Jerzy Skolimowski’s sublime London-set portrait of adolescent erotic obsession, played to a hugely enthusiastic crowd after an introduction by Gdynia’s Artistic Director Michał Oleszczyk. Since I was only at the Festival for a short time, I was able to sample merely a small selection of the films and events on offer. The following remarks shouldn’t be interpreted as in any way comprehensive, then, but are instead a modest overview of some of the work that I was able to catch.

The first film that I saw served as both a perfect introduction to the Festival and to the city in which it’s held. Wrocław From Dawn Till Dusk (Wrocław od switu do zmierzchu) is an insightful observational documentary by Polish film school students, shot in November last year, and overseen by mentors Jacek Bławut and Marcel Łoziński. At once tight and loose, the film, which is part of “The World From Dawn Till Dusk” project, is expertly edited and rendered cohesive by (among other visual and sonic elements) the occasional commentary of DJ Leszek Kopeć, which provides a thread throughout.

Less a “city symphony” than an étude or, perhaps, an impromptu, the film  conjures the atmosphere of Wrocław beautifully, whether focusing on parent/child boppers at a baby salsa class, the inhabitants of a hippie commune, or the daily doings of workers in the city: from shoe-makers to zoo-keepers to puppeteers. Disturbing footage of a nationalist rally led one audience member to complain that the film had shown Wrocław in a negative light. In fact, the film is notable for its affectionate yet unsentimental tone, adding up to a modest mosaic of city life that also serves as a synecdoche for contemporary urban Poland.

Abbas Kiarostami and Victor Erice
Made in 2006, and screening as part of the Erice retrospective, another documentary, Victor Erice and Abbas Kiarostami – Correspondence, was a touching addition to the Festival, given Kiarostami’s recent death. No straightforward gab-fest a la Hitchcock/Truffaut (2015), the film is rather an idiosyncratic, impressionistic piece that’s deeply infused with the poetics of both filmmakers. As the title suggests, the movie is based around Kiarostami and Erice’s letters to one another, which we see being composed here, and then delivered in the directors’ beguiling mellow voices.

These gentle, respectful missives serve as an entry point to the consideration of wider “correspondences” between the pair, as well as to reflections on continuity and change, and on cinema’s border-crossing potential. In one of the finest sequences, a group of eager, engaged school-kids in an Extremadura village discusses Kiarostami’s Where is the Friend’s House? (1987) at length, encouraged by their teacher to engage with both the relatable moral dilemmas presented in the film, and with its specific cultural context. Other memorable moments include a huge, haptic close-up of a cow and a sustained, emblematic shot taken through Kiarostami’s car windscreen. In its final passages, the documentary takes a more abstract, metaphysical turn that’s a little bit less compelling, but overall the film does justice to the relationship of two directors linked by their great ability to make us see and experience the world afresh.

Things to Come  (L'Avenir)
Turning to new narrative features, after the draggy, slightly irritating Eden (2014), it was good to find Mia Hansen-Løve back on form with Things to Come (L'Avenir), a delightful, surprisingly funny ode to life going on after loss that screened in the Festival’s “Panorama” strand. A portrait of a philosophy teacher, Natalie Chazeaux (Isabelle Huppert), going through a series of personal and professional shake-ups, Things to Come fits comfortably with the current vogue for films focusing on older female characters challenged with remaking their lives, or, indeed, resisting such changes: Marion Vernoux’s  Bright Days Ahead (2013), Isabel Coixet’s Learning to Drive (2014), and the aforementioned Aquarius come to mind in this context. 

Things to Come (L'Avenir)

While the movie’s engagement with the legacy of late-1960’s radicalism feels a little pat, Things to Come remains perceptive and highly enjoyable, with scenes that don’t always develop in predictable directions. The movie is given grit and grace by its leading performer: a bustling Huppert has seldom been more likeable or more physically witty than she is here, whether facing off with her depressed mother (a cherishable Édith Scob), testing out the alternative lifestyle proposed by her handsome protégé (Roman Kolinka), or fending off unwanted male attention in a movie house. (During a screening of Kiarostami’s Certified Copy!) 

Those of us who saw Huppert’s writhing, shrieking, out-there performance in Krzysztof Warlikowski’s recent highly stylized multi-text theatrical extravaganza Phaedra(s) will be especially impressed by the consummate ease with which the actress slots into a naturalistic domestic context here; the subtlety with which she keeps us attuned to Natalie’s feelings, whether in the character’s social interactions or in the intimate scenes which present the protagonist alone, is prodigious.  In a beautiful final shot, Hansen-Løve brings her wise and restorative movie to a perfect, elegant end.

Staying Vertical (Rester Vertical)

A favourite from Cannes, it was a pleasure to revisit Alain Guiraudie’s Staying Vertical (Rester Vertical) at New Horizons and to find the film to be an even richer, odder creation than it seemed on first encounter. The follow-up to the director’s highly acclaimed Stranger By The Lake (2013), the suspenseful cruising thriller that brought gay porn aesthetics to the art-house, Staying Vertical offers a deeply subversive meditation on parenthood and creativity, one that deconstructs desires and gender stereotypes with the casual aplomb of François Ozon at his finest.  

The audience response to the film is also worth noting. Much Western media would tell you that Poland is currently sinking into insularity and conservatism, following the election last year of the nationalist Law and Justice (PiS) party. Yet the Festival “bubble” presented a much more complex picture, as open-minded, wide-ranging audiences sat unblinking through Staying Vertical’s already-notorious cross-generational sodomy/euthanasia sequence and, later, through the sadomasochistic sex depicted in Lee Seung-won’s demanding, atonal Communication & Lies. Indeed, the former sequence prompted more embarrassed squirms at Cannes than it did in Wrocław, while the Polish audience also seemed considerably more responsive to the black comedy and unforeseen twists and turns of Guiraudie’s latest than the director’s compatriots did.

A Special Day (Una giornata particolare)

Another pleasurable addition to the Festival were the free outdoor evening screenings held in the city’s beautiful Market Square: these ranged from  a presentation of silent early Shakespeare adaptations (complete with new Globe Theatre score), screened as part of the Festival’s excellent “Shakespeare Lives on Film” strand to Agnieszka Smoczyńska’s musical/horror mermaid extravaganza Córki Dancingu (The Lure).

The final film I saw at the Festival was at one of these outdoor presentations: Ettore Scola’s 1977 A Special Day (Una giornata particolare), the director’s near-two-hander in which Sophia Loren and Marcello Mastroianni - she playing a put-upon housewife, he a homosexual radio announcer - are neighbours who bond over a few hours, on the day of Hitler’s visit to Rome in 1938.

Dismissed by Pauline Kael as “a strenuous exercise in sensitivity… neo-realism in a gold frame,” the movie has aged surprisingly gracefully, and drew a large and attentive audience.  At the precise moment that the film’s tender final scenes were playing out, the Market Square’s town hall clock chimed 12 a.m.: a beautiful moment of convergence between film, festival and city that carried us, at once sad and hopeful, into the new day. 

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