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Cinema Cornucopia in Montreal

Donšajni (The Don Juans)

An open letter to Harvey Weinstein, Co-Chairman, The Weinstein Company

Dear Mr. Weinstein: I don’t think we’ve ever met. Perhaps we shook hands at a Toronto function, but who remembers those things. Nonetheless, you have been an important influence on my life as a filmgoer. The Saturday night double and triple features of classic and cult movies you used to book at the long-defunct Century Theater in downtown Buffalo, back in the days when you were a concert promoter here, were a major part of my film education as a college student.

Camille Claudel 1915
Chce Sie Zyc (Life Feels Good)
Ivan Syn Amira (Ivan Son of Amir)

I’m glad to see that The Weinstein Company has finally taken off after those first few shaky years, with back-to-back Best Picture Oscars for The King’s Speech and The Artist. Those other brothers (Warner) got the big prize last year with Argo, but it looks like you’ll have a good shot at it again this year with The Butler or even Fruitvale Station.

Like Miramax before it, TWC serves an important function in bringing foreign films to American viewers. There are of course other distributors that do this, but your companies have always led the field in the all-important job of promoting them. We both know that Americans tend to be allergic to subtitles, but we also know that they are missing literally hundreds of wonderful films made around the world every year.

And most of these are exactly the kinds of movies that American producers are no longer providing: adult stories based on characters like ourselves, rather than comic book adaptations made for audiences under 25. Adults are increasingly turning to cable television for this kind of entertainment, while movie theaters are increasingly given to the kind of crowds you used to see in roller discos.

I’m sure you and your people will be at the Toronto Film Festival this week looking for acquisitions. It’s too bad you didn’t have someone at the Montreal World Film Festival last week. It’s not as glitzy, but their programmers are adept at discovering films that, I think, would appeal to a strong segment of the adult audience that isn’t otherwise being served.

The film that got both the jury prize and the audience award is one I’m sure you could do extremely well with. It’s a Polish film called Chce Sie Zyc, rather unfortunately translated as Life Feels Good, but you could change that. Remember My Left Foot? Of course you do—it was one of Miramax’s first big successes, getting five major Oscar nominations and winning Daniel Day Lewis his first Best Actor. This is another true story about a young man with cerebral palsy, with an astonishing performance by Dawid Ogrodnik that is as good, maybe even better, than Lewis’s work. I was amazed to see at the press conference that he is not actually afflicted by the disease, and is in fact a strikingly handsome young actor in the Leonardo DiCaprio mold.

You could probably get Juliette Binoche a second Oscar (after your 1996 release The English Patient) for Camille Claudel 1915. Audiences probably remember the 1988 film in which Isabel Adjani played the sculptress driven mad by her infatuation with (and ill treatment by) Auguste Rodin. This depicts her in the asylum where she was confined by her family, more for their own convenience than because she required treatment. Long stretches of the film do nothing but observe Binoche inhabiting the character, and she’s mesmerizing. The director is Bruno Dumont, a favorite of cineastes for his rather demanding body of work: This one is a bit more audience friendly, so you can have your critical cake and eat it too.

You’ve had some luck in the past catering to the niche of arthouse audiences that likes classical music—Quartet, Dustin Hoffman’s movie about a retirement home for opera singers, looked liked it was going to take up permanent residence at a local theater earlier this year. So I’ll bet you’d clean up with The Don Juans, by the veteran Czech director Jiri Menzel. (His debut film was the classic Closely Watched Trains in 1966, and a few years ago he made the very funny I Served the King of England, which Sony Classics got.) His new film is a bawdy comedy about a small town production of Mozart’s Don Giovanni, from the perspective of the director who claims he’s only in the business because he has a fetish for sopranos. It moves seamlessly between broad comedy and melancholy, and got a standing ovation from the audience when I saw it.

Another title you might want to change is Ivan Son of Amir—you wouldn’t want any Turner Classic Movie fans confusing it with Taza, Son of Cochise. This Russian drama was one of my favorites among the two dozen or so movies I saw in Montreal. Set during World War II, it follows a young woman who is forced to flee to Uzbekistan with her children when she is told her husband has been killed at sea. In a remote village she is taken in and eventually becomes the third wife of a pacifist tribesman, only to be found after the war by her first husband. With sparse dialogue but gorgeous photography of both the Uzbek countryside and the Russian coast, it is rewarding both visually and emotionally.

Life in East Germany under the Stasi secret police has been a popular subject in imported films since the Oscar-winning The Lives of Others. The German film West should appeal to that market, with its story of a woman who emigrates from East Berlin to the other wised of the wall but can’t escape the Stasi influence.

Documentaries are a bit of a tough sell, I know, largely because there are so damn many of them these days. But you might take a shot at The Spirit of ’45 by Ken Loach, one of England’s most respected filmmakers. (He recently announced his retirement, which puts him in the news.) It’s a fascinating analysis of how Great Britain took the spirit of cooperation and struggle that existed during World War II and turned it toward solving the country’s problems in the years after the war.

I’ve heard that you like Italian cinema. So does Montreal, which despite being a French-speaking city has a sizable Italian population. The films from that country show at the festival are generally lightweight but enjoyable, nice for those slow times of the year when there isn’t too much else in theaters. See You Tomorrow is a comedy that coasts on a funny premise: a loser in perpetual debt reads about a Sicilian town where the average age of the inhabitants is over 80. He moves there and opens a funeral parlor, figuring it won’t be long before he starts turning a profit. Love Is Not Perfect follows a single woman who at 35 frets for her romantic future, who emerges from a long dry spell with a vengeance. Think of a somewhat more respectable version of the kind of movie you used to see on late nights in Cinemax. Less sexy but more involving, A Five Star Life looks at another woman entering middle age who has traded emotional stability for a job travelling around the world as an undercover inspector of resort hotels.

It’s up to you, Harvey—can I call you Harvey? The market for foreign language films is declining, but it’s not because the product isn’t there: It just needs someone willing and able to bring it to the American moviegoing audience.

Ciao, babe.

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