The Wild, Wild Fest, Part 2

Continuing my rambles through the world's longest-ever film festival, I couldn't resist a peek at a tiny bit of the glitz that seems to be almost as important to these enterprises as the films themselves. I attended the opening night of the Boca Mini-Fest at a posh mall, Mizner Park. First there was the preshow reception at the Museum of Cartoon Art, which may be unique in all the world, whether it brings fame to Boca Raton or not. At any rate, the hundreds of first-nighters in attendance, oohing over each other's couture and coiffeur, were all revved up for a breezy good evening, and it took awhile for The Island on Bird Street to dash them into rapt attention. It was not a film for a gala evening, but such was its power that it turned a theaterful of merrymakers into an audience so moved that they left silently and in single file.

Like many of this year's entrants, The Island on Bird Street is an eclectic, multinational production. Filmed in English by Danish director SĮren Kragh-Jacobsen, it boasts a strong cast who speak for the most part with a varied assortment of British accents. Because the plot centers on the desperate plight of a ten-year-old Jewish boy who's hiding from Nazi soldiers in the Warsaw ghetto, the voices are at once startlingly familiar and disturbingly removed in this unexpected context, in which they belong to Jew and German alike. Hollywood has trained us to expect Nazis to have German accents, forgetting that they are supposed to be speaking their native language (which we may suppose people do without accents). But there is something really chilling about a storm trooper with a sadistic face sounding like one of the Beatles. We expect sensitivity from an enemy who sounds like an ally, and the fact that we are deceived lends additional menace. If you enjoy reading meanings into what you see, you could almost say that the tragedy of Bird Street is the rending of the human family: Why, in the midst of the appalling rubble of a ruined city, should men continue to torment, persecute, and murder innocent people who look and sound like their brothers and sisters?

The "island" of the title is a partially destroyed factory that has been operated for years by Boruch (Jack Warden, the sole American in the cast), a man who, like millions of others, never thought his Jewish ancestry set him apart from his fellow Poles. But now, though the factory is still somewhat in business, Boruch and his son Stefan (Patrick Bergin) and ten-year-old grandson Alex (Jordan Kiziuk) must live from day to day at the pleasure of their conquerors -- until such time as the Nazis come to cart them off to what the optimistic Boruch believes may be a work camp but which Stefan knows will be their place of execution.

In a sense Bird Street begins where The Diary of Anne Frank ends. The Nazis decide to close the factory and ship out the three men of the family. After Alex's father makes a break for it and his grandfather gets gunned down, the remainder of the film deals with his struggle to keep one step ahead of the Nazis, all the while remaining in the crumbling factory so his father can find him. Alex may not have Anne's poetic soul and her profound belief that there is some good in all people, but he has a young boy's utterly believable trust in his father's word, and he's sensitive enough to understand the inhuman acts some of the survivors are forced to commit against one another.

The work of Kragh-Jacobsen -- who made his directing debut in 1978 with the dubiously titled Wanna See My Beautiful Navel? -- is little short of stupendous here. So realistic are the scenes of the gradually decaying factory that one not only identifies with Alex but at times becomes him. Equally effective are the long stretches of silence as the boy prowls the deserted night streets in a desperate quest for food. Any sound at all -- a pebble inadvertently kicked, a louder-than-expected noise of a toilet flushing, even a sneeze -- creates almost unbearable tension. Besides serving as a reminder of what our species has proved capable of, The Island on Bird Street is also a taut, scary thriller; like all great thrillers, its suspense comes from what we don't see and don't hear.

The performances are inspired, as if the cast members knew they were fortunate enough to be in a major film people will be talking about for a long while. Bergin is just fine in the abbreviated role of Stefan; he lends enough warmth and humanity to the early scenes with his son for us to pray the two will be reunited. Warden, one of the most underrated character actors in Hollywood, endows the grandfather with a dignity and radiance that just about sum up the humane culture that was nearly wiped from the face of the Earth.

But the final bow must inevitably be reserved for young Jordan Kiziuk. We've all seen preteens without extensive acting training (where could they get it?) giving what we call "adequate" performances, and mostly we have to make allowances. Believing in the forced, unfelt emotions of the child actor is simply one of the conventions of stage and screen. Here no such convention exists. Kiziuk carries nearly every one of the film's 107 minutes on his fragile shoulders. The camera mercilessly follows him everywhere: scrounging for food, thirsting for even a drop of water, bursting with teary-eyed joy when he finds his pet white mouse still alive, holding his breath whenever he hears the heavy tread of the soldiers searching night and day for Jews, speechless with terror when the rope ladder he has so carefully woven suddenly falls from its place of concealment right behind a soldier on guard.

Many directors are stimulated by similar stories and themes but handle them in quite contrasting ways. And festivals -- if you overlook the paparazzi gloss and rumors that "Nick Nolte himself will be here!" -- offer the serious filmgoer a rare opportunity to explore how the same concerns can be exciting in one theater and deadly dull in another. Take the case of Love, Etc. and Courting Courtney.

Courting Courtney director Paul Tarantino is described in press materials as a "New Jersey native transplanted to Los Angeles in the mid-Eighties to attend classes at USC." Not to impugn film school training as a general principle, but it is alarming that so many alums have emerged with so little imagination, having seemingly been inspired to take either of two roads, neither of which is the one less traveled by. Thus we have on the one hand the film that rebels against tiresome realism and sets out to bewilder us with cinematic non sequiturs, and on the other the film that aspires to be Step One of what the director hopes will be a future body of work that will be studied in other film schools and earn her or him the designation of auteur.

Courting Courtney belongs to the second category. One can imagine the author/director's screenwriting teacher saying, "Write from personal experience. Write from the heart. Write about what you know." Seeing as how so many fledgling auteurs in L.A. write about the same thing -- the pangs of youthful love and the need for (sexual) acceptance -- the story has by now become so formulaic that one can just as easily write about what everybody else knows and still claim to be writing "from the heart." So much so that one can also imagine the same teacher passing out a photocopied script and advising students to just change the names of the characters and then go out in search of money.

The film breaks the world record for instant exposition. Boom! There's a talking head. It belongs to the hero/narrator Nick Hastings (Dana Gould), and he's telling us, "I'm a filmmaker, I need grants." (As if we didn't know.) He tells us also that he thought he should do a documentary about his old girlfriend Courtney but his friend and cameraman thinks it's a rotten idea.

Paul, you should have listened.
Just when you thought it was safe to look at the screen again, there comes another talking head, and another; and if we're not looking at the heads, we're listening to voice-overs: the girlfriend, her boyfriend, Nick's friend; after a time you lose track because you really don't care. Courting Courtney is California in the worst sense. Who's sleeping with who, who should be sleeping with who, and when will the "right" pair end up in bed together -- these really don't seem like life-defining issues, but they're all this uninspired jumble can offer.

Paul Tarantino the writer is a trifle more impressive than Paul Tarantino the director, but not much. Here and there he comes up with a funny, quirky line, like this one from Courtney (Eliza Doyle, who could be a charmer in the right role): "Nice guys are boring. Until you're 30, and then they're scarce." After Nick and Courtney predictably connect, Nick has the hit line of the evening (by this time you'll take anything). It's a voice-over, naturally. "I'd broken the primary law of documentary filmmaking: I'd slept with my subject. Of course, this law was created by Jacques Cousteau, who probably never had the opportunity."

Now that the film student has gotten this one off his chest, perhaps he'll go on to better things, and better grants.

Love, Etc. is the work of Marion Vernoux, whose debut film in 1992 was called Personne Ne M'Aime (Nobody Loves Me), and as she co-wrote this screenplay (with Dodine Herry, from Julian Barnes's novel Talking It Over), we can assume that the subject of love is of more than passing interest to her -- and of greater import than as a lure for grant money. As a matter of fact, the French seem never to tire of the subject, not only in films but in novels, plays, and even philosophy. The concept eludes them; it cannot be defined, yet they know it has led people to heartbreak, murder, suicide, and war, even as it has inspired the creative efforts of hundreds of artists who have squandered their lives in a futile search for the perfect relationship. For all that has been said about the "naughty" French, they seldom represent love as the game of musical beds that serves as the theme of Mr. Tarantino's uneventful opus.

A New Yorker cartoon of several years back shows a middle-aged couple sitting over a glass of wine. She is staring blankly at him as he says: "I love you the way the French love Jerry Lewis."

We laugh at first, and then we understand how profound the statement really is. And here we have the theme behind the deceptive simplicity of Love, Etc.: What does it mean to love? To be loved? To be happy or unhappy in love? If we don't understand love, why do we want it so much? In French drama, cinema, literature, and music -- from Sartre to Camus to Flaubert to Balzac to Rohmer to Piaf to Brel, and now to Marion Vernoux -- we can be defined as the species that needs love without any clear idea of what it is.

Benoit (Yvan Attal) is 33, single, disciplined, dependable, but also what many might describe as dull. No matter how wild your own youth may have been, Benoit is no doubt the suitor you want for your daughter. He will provide for her decently (he works in a bank), and so what if he's something less than deliriously romantic? So what if she says she doesn't "love" him? At her tender age she can't be expected to understand that love means taking good care of someone for life.

Or does it? Benoit longs for companionship, as we know from his many conversations with best friend and roommate Pierre (Charles Berling) at the start of the film. Pierre seems to be everything the hero is not: handsome, charming, a little off-center and unpredictable, Dionysus to Benoit's Apollo. In an effort to be more like his friend, Apollo looks through the "Personals" and decides to answer an ad. Enter Marie (Charlotte Gainsbourg), who, though a novice at blind-dating, has a long history of unsatisfying sexual encounters. Benoit, shy about his inadequacies in the romance department, treats her with proper respect and makes no advances, which intrigues her. Perhaps all men are not alike, after all, and she can be happy with this "different" boyfriend.

In his own good time Benoit becomes a very gentle, sensitive sexual partner, but Marie has of course met Pierre, who reawakens her longing for a more dangerous affair. At this point Love, Etc. shows the unmistakable influence of the 1961 Truffaut masterpiece Jules and Jim. Against a background of quirky music reminiscent of the jaunty tunes in the earlier work, Vernoux conjures up a rolling collage of vignettes as the three-way friendship deepens and the influence of unrestrained Pierre begins to change the proper Benoit.

In Truffaut's film it is the woman (played by the incomparable Jeanne Moreau) who devastates the two friends with her passion for living and her total amorality. The plot of Love, Etc. follows a more conventional course. Marie and Benoit are married, and so the conflict becomes that of temptation versus fidelity.

The denouement in Jules and Jim has Moreau committing suicide and taking Jim with her, after having deceived the steady and reliable Jules. Life in Love, Etc. is a bit more complicated than that. People tend to stay alive, and they must settle for what they get, cope with their problems as best they can. Perhaps that acceptance of how people are, and the ability to forgive, may form a big part of how we will eventually define that strange word love.

While it's a far cry from Courting Courtney, by no means is Love, Etc. another Jules and Jim. The opening scenes are frenetic and confusing, with dialogue so mumbled and confusing that we think we're in for a French version of a Spielberg film. Then the film slows to what would be a stagelike pace were it not for the fact that few scenes are ever really finished. Vernoux evades climaxes by cutting to another situation in another place -- it's almost as if she were ashamed of telling a conventional story. But ultimately this is a conventional story. That in itself is nothing to be ashamed of, if a film is about something important and the characters are believable.

Though I have been somewhat critical of the "festmania" that accompanies what we should nonetheless applaud -- the showing of new films we might otherwise never see -- I experienced a poignant sense of desolation the other night at the Cosford Cinema. In an understated manner that is appropriate for an academic movie house, the Cosford does without the hoopla of other venues, relying mainly on the good taste of its patrons to sell tickets. At the screening of the Chilean film Historias de Futbol, I counted ten people in the audience, including myself. No one had ever heard of this film, of course, and the only publicity was a simple listing of the schedule for the Cosford's part of the festival. It was then that I thought: "Maybe a klieg light or two would have helped. Where is Mary Hart when you need her?"

The film itself is hardly a festival showpiece, but it still beats I Know What You Did Last Summer any day. Beautifully photographed against the moody landscapes of Chile and carefully directed by 32-year-old Andres Wood, Futbol comprises three short (one-act) films about what the South American passion for soccer does to players and spectators alike.

In the first segment, a star player is offered a sizable bribe to throw an important game. Though his life is in danger, he would ultimately prefer death to dishonor. The second (and weakest) of the three sections revolves around an endless game being played by young boys in a remote, treeless region that offers little else to live for. The third (and strongest) piece concerns a young man forced to spend the night with two middle-aged (and frustrated women when their tiny ferryboat breaks down. On the same night, Chile is playing in a decisive World Cup game, but there's only one television on the island, and it's on the fritz. The hero risks his life during a horrendous storm to fix the rooftop antenna. So earnest is he, so passionate is his need for the game, that we cannot help rooting for him. Yes, there is an ironic twist Thomas Hardy himself would have commended, but I'll let you discover it for yourself.

The Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival continues through November 16. Tickets for all regular showings are $7 (closing-night screenings, as well as IMAX films, cost a little more). For a complete schedule of festival events, please see the special "Calendar Listings" section beginning on page 39 or call 954-564-7373.

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