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Lingua Franca

Quand je serai petit

Through the language of film, the poyglot Montreal World Film Festival addresses universal issues

Over the years, I’ve come to think of it as the Elevator of Babel. Riding up and down in the Hyatt Regency hotel that has hosted the Montreal World Film Festival for as long as I’ve been attending it (since 1995), one hears any number of different languages: French, of course, Montreal being a Francophone city, and lots of German, but also Spanish, Turkish, Portuguese, various Asian languages, and others that I could only guess if I recognized the speakers because I’d seen their film.

Of course, Babel is a fable of mankind being separated by differing languages, whereas the Montreal World Film Festival is an opportunity for people from around the world to overcome those differences. Anytime I get frustrated at the time-consuming process during press conferences or post-screening Q&As of translators moving among French, English, and the filmmaker’s native language, I recognize it as a small price to pay for a window into cultures that generally turn out to be less foreign than they sound.

A popular theme among films at this years festival, for instance, was one with which all Americans can identify, even though our filmmakers seldom address it: the inevitably of aging and death. Society’s reluctance to confront this universal issue is front and center in La Lapidation de Saint Étienne (The Stoning of Saint Stephen), a Spanish/French co-production that looks unflinchingly at the final days of a man who refuses to leave the apartment he shared for years with his wife and daughter, now both dead. Veteran actor Lou Castel puts his own aging body on painful display in a performance that is not always easy to watch, but that provokes questions which can’t be avoided.

From Holland, De Goede Dood (The Good Death) looks at the issue from the vantage point of a family coping with the eldest brother’s decision to end a painful and terminal illness in euthanasia. From realism to surrealism, The War of the Pig (Argentina) follows a healthy but unemployed 60-ish man as the country he lives in succumbs to a growing fever of politically stoked hatred of the elderly. It was based on a novel published in Europe in 1969, a time when it seemed that the world belonged to the young, but debuting director David Maria Putorti, a former assistant to Michelangelo Antonioni, adapts its themes to disturbing ends.

For a completely different perspective on death, I enjoyed the dry Scottish comedy Up There, in which dead souls who are considered not quite ready to proceed to their final destination (“up there”) have to stick around their home regions trying to persuade the bureaucracy that deals with them that they’re ready to move on. Filmed around Glasgow, it has a perfectly cast odd couple in deadpan Burn Gorman (Stryver in The Dark Knight Rises) and Aymen Hamdouchi as the excitable motor-mouthed new arrival he’s forced to work with.

From Norway, The Almost Man is a character study about a 35-year-old slacker trying to become a grownup when he moves into a house with his pregnant girlfriend, but unable to resist the lure of the drunken friends he would rather hang out with. (Sound like anyone you know?) It had one of my favorite lines of dialogue: “Can you dance without irony?” An architect approaching his 40th birthday faces himself as a 10-year-old—literally—in Quand je serai petit (from France), which tugs at the heartstrings even if it never quite figures out to do with its premise as a way of confronting unsettled emotions.

Montreal has always been a favored festival for a handful of renowned filmmakers. Among them was Chile’s Raoul Ruiz, whose prolific and playful oeuvre was finally starting to find a wider audience in recent years after nearly 50 years and 115 films. He died last year, and his final film, Night Across the Street, serves as a good introduction into his distinctive structure-bending perspective, with its story of a retired clerk living simultaneously in his present, past and fantasies lives.

Argentina’s Eliseo Subiela, best known in the US for his 1986 Man Facing Southeast, had two films at Montreal this year. The one I saw, Hostage of an Illusion, is one of his more dour efforts, a story of a middle-aged novelist who begins an affair with a woman who had been his student a decade ago. We’re never sure if the affair is real or part of a story he’s writing, but the films grey palette and sluggish pace made it hard for me to care.

La Mer A L'aube (Calm at Sea)

Much more involving was the entry by another festival regular, Germany’s Volker Schlöndorff (The Tin Drum). Made for French and German television, Calm At Sea (La mer à l’aube) is the true story of a 1941 incident in which Hitler ordered the execution of 100 French prisoners in retaliation for the assassination of one of his officers, to be carried out by the collaborationist government. The emotional impact is predictable, but the value of the film is the attention it gives to all participants, particularly the French officers trying to justify their continued cooperation with the Nazis against their countrymen.

That kind of perspective would have benefited Where the Fire Burns, the Turkish film that won the festival’s top award, the Grand prix des Amériques. It follows an ordinary family through the discovery that their teenaged daughter has become pregnant. When she refuses to reveal the father, her own father decides to kill her to save the family’s honor. Such killings are sadly not uncommon, and it would be hoped that a film like this would open a window into the kind of thinking that allows them in order that the practice might be stopped. Instead, director Ismail Gunes settles for a tear-jerking examination of the fathers growing realization that he is planning an abominable action, something the viewers know from the start.

No cineaste at the festival could have turned down the chance to see A Special Day, a 52-minute documentary which features nearly three dozen of the world’s top directors. They assembled for the premiere of Chacun son cinema, an anthology commemorating the 60th anniversary of the Cannes Film Festival, to which each contributed a three minute short on the theme of love of the movies. It’s a delight just for the chance to see the likes of Abbas Kiarostami, Aki Kaurismäki, Wong Kar Wai, Theo Angelopoulos, Gus Van Sant, David Cronenberg, Manoel de Oliveira and others casually hobnobbing. And it’s not wholly lacking in conflict: The dramatic highlight comes during the press conference, when Roman Polanski derides the assembled critics for the poor quality of their questions and walks out.

Polanski gets a rare chance to discuss his tumultuous private life in Roman Polanski: A Film Memoir, which consists primarily of a interview conducted with the filmmaker while he was under house arrest in Gstaad Switzerland 2009. You can’t deny that it was a life filled with trauma, from losing his family in the Warsaw ghetto during World War II to the murder of his pregnant wife, Sharon Tate, by Charles Manson. The interview is conducted by Polanski’s longtime friend Andrew Braunsber, and refers to his films only as markers (though plentiful clips from The Pianist illustrate Polanski’s discussion of the events in his own life that inspired them).

The career of another legendary filmmaker is recounted from the eyes of his star and companion in Liv & Ingmar, a documentary in which actress Liv Ullman recounts her work and personal life with Ingmar Bergman. It includes scenes from his films that mirrored their relationship along with background footage that makes it a must-see for any Bergman fan. A different sort of director/star pairing is recalled in Addicted to Fame by David Giancola, a maker of low-budget genre films who in 2006 hired Anna Nicole Smith to appear in his next project, a comedy called Illegal Aliens. Although her well-publicized antics, along with those of co-star Chyna, kept Giancola from getting production insurance, he gambled that the publicity would more than make up for it. He got more than he bargained for, as he recounts in a movie that is funny, rueful, and instructive about the nature of modern mass media.

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