The Chicago International Film Festival is over, but many of the films that showed at the festival will be coming back soon on screens big and small. Here are my reviews of what I saw.
Hungarian director György Pálfi made a startling debut with his film “Hukkle,” and now he has proven it was no fluke. His newest movie, “Taxidermia,” which obviously has a much bigger budget, shows that he’s a major talent. “Taxidermia” floored me. That being said, this is one of those movies that has to come with a “not for all tastes” warning sticker. Oh, yeah, let’s add a “not for the faint of heart” label. And while we’re at it: “Stay away from this movie if you cannot stand the sight of vomit.”
OK, now that we’ve winnowed down the potential audience to a few brave souls, it seems a good fit for the midnight cult movie circuit. It’s a film with eye-popping visual power and a twisted view of the world.
Like “Hukkle,” “Taxidermia” has a visceral feel as it shows close-ups of everything from naked breasts to the guts of animals. Even as the film plunges deep into demented fantasies, the images give it a tactile sensation, as if you could reach out and touch those shapes.
Both of Pálfi’s films have had a black sense of humor – and a sense of observational wit, as if some alien anthropologists watching the human race are chuckling at our absurdities. But while “Hukkle” contained no dialogue (that’s right – it was essentially a silent film as far as the spoken word goes, but it conveyed its story through images and sound), “Taxidermia” has plenty.
The movie spans three generations of the same warped family, covering much of Hungary’s history throughout the 20th century, though it’s too weird to be called a historical epic. (It may be a little “Tin Drum”-like at times.) The first part of the film concerns a sex-obsessed lieutenant at a rural outpost who peeps on the local ladies, spews flames from his penis when he masturbates, has his pecker pecked by a rooster and fantasizes about having sex with his commanding officer’s fat wife – even as he is actually, um, making love with the slaughtered remains of a pig. Or is he?
He is killed for his transgressions. A son is born, with a pig’s tail. The movie cuts ahead to that boy’s future as a speed-eating champion. Eating contests and the subsequent vomit-a-thonsdominate the fat middle of “Taxidermia,” a satire of the Soviet era.
The last third of “Taxidermia” brings the family ahead another generation, as the eating champion’s son becomes a skinny taxidermist. After that, things get even weirder, but I won’t reveal anymore. (Except to include this photo link.)
In a synopsis, the filmmakers say: “Past exists only in memories … And why cannot it be true? Why could not the world be like this? Why cannot the fertile human imagination toy with the facts of history, personal fates, details of lifestyles? Maybe this is the common border of things really happened and truth.”
“Taxidermia” has a number of scenes that are gruesome, sickening and disturbing. It’s also very funny, and some of the cinematic flourishes are reminiscent of the elaborate screen trickery in “Delicatessan” and other films by Marc Caro and Jean-Pierre Jeunet.
And while I can’t say I would really want to watch “Taxidermia” over and over, there is something to be said for art that brings you face to face with those things we think of as grotesque – when they’re just a fact of life. OK, I may be stretching with that point, since this is hardly a realistic film, but if we consider it all right to eat meat, then why not take a closer look at what the animal looks like when it’s being chopped to pieces and pulled apart?
“Taxidermia” has a fantastic Flash Web site, with a highly creative design:http://www.taxidermia.hu/
SYNDROMES AND A CENTURY
An earlier film I saw by this movie’s Thai director, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, “Tropical Malady,” was one of the most peculiar films of the last few years. It was hard to figure out exactly what the director was trying to say with “Tropical Malady,” but its odd juxtapositions and some of its surreal images stuck in my mind. With “Syndromes and a Century,” Weerasethakul is playing around with our minds once again. According to a synopsis, the film is supposedly about the director’s parents, who were doctors. But it’s far from being a straightforward memoir. Rather, it’s a series of vignettes, many told with realistic and natural humor. A rural hospital in the first half of the film is followed by an urban hospital in the second half, with many of the same scenes being acted out again – with similar but slightly different dialogue. This creates many moments of déjà vu. And then, at the end, “Syndromes and a Century” drifts off into a beautiful but almost abstract sequence, including a long shot of an air vent blowing steam. I don’t know what it all meant, but I found it mesmerizing, one of the best films I saw at the fest.
COMEDY OF POWER
Claude Chabrol is back with another thriller that isn’t really a thriller. Some of Chabrol’s films are a little dull, while others hit their mark, including the chilling “La Ceremonie.” He films stories that might have appealed to Hitchcock, but more often than not, films them in a matter-of-fact, almost flat style. This one was no exception. It was rather talky, and by the standards of American legal thrillers, it would probably be considered dull. And yet it really held my attention. Isabelle Huppert is great, as is usually the case (though this role was not quite as peculiar as some of her best performances). As a judge investigating corporate corruption, she is stubbornly determined.
This Australian film is well acted and it’s a fairly well told story, but I couldn’t help wondering if it was worthwhile to sit through another movie about people addicted to drugs. I don’t know that I really found any insights into drug addiction that I haven’t seen in countless other films and stories. This isn’t bad, but nothing to get too excited about. The lead actress, Abbie Cornish, is breathtakingly beautiful and sexy … almost to the point where it distracted me from her fine performance. (OK, OK, I like her, all right?) Heath Ledger also gives a strong performance, and Geoffrey Rush is good in a supporting role.
DAY NIGHT DAY NIGHT
I wasn’t sure that I really wanted to watch another movie following a woman as she tries to go through with a terrorist plot to blow herself up. (See Santosh Sivan’s film “The Terrorist,” from 1999.) But this was tense and quite effective. It’s clearly filmed on a low budget, but that doesn’t matter, because the filmmakers make excellent use of their limited resources. The terrorist plot is left vague. Who are these people, and why are they sending this young woman to explode herself in Times Square? It doesn’t really matter. The woman seems stoic, though she begins to crack. Is she just a mixed-up young woman who wants to commit suicide, someone who ended up with the wrong people? That’s one possible way of reading the story. Luisa Williams’ performance as the would-be bomber is restrained, almost deadpan at times, but it feels real.
This is sort of a multicultural, international film, teaming up Thai director Pen-Ek Ratanaruang with Japanese actor Tadanobu Asano, Australian cinematographer Christopher Doyle and Thai screenwriter Prabda Yoon. And many of the characters speak in broken English, seemingly as a way to communicate across Asian cultures. (Or maybe just to make the movie more marketable in the U.S.) While it’s described as a thriller, it’s much more existential and abstract than that. Or maybe it’s just confusing. It sort of drifts along without the driving plot that crime movies usually have. It has its moments, but I found it a little lacking. There are some precious moments of humor involving a low-rent cruise ship.
A charming Swiss movie about a child prodigy on piano, which won a decent round of applause at the screening I attended. It’s a heartwarming movie, just quirky enough in places to keep things interesting. It’s the first movie I’ve ever seen that was in Swiss German, with subtitles in English as well as standard German. I remember enough German from college that I was trying to read the German subtitles and figure out how they related to what was being said, which was a little distracting.
This Iranian film won the festival’s top prize, the Golden Hugo, and it’s a worthy winner. Here’s an oversimplified plot summary: A woman who’s about to get married witnesses some other people in marriages that have gone bad. The story unfolds in a way that’s complex yet never confusing, and like the best of Iranian films, it feels like an honest and realistic portrait of the way people relate to one another.
This is a tricky one to describe in much detail because of the underlying question of whether it’s an actual documentary or a mockumentary. It’s fairly compelling, and even after you think you’ve figured it out, it keeps on raising questions. And for once, a movie made in Chicago looks like it was made in Chicago. “Street Thief” captures the city’s side streets better than any Hollywood film.