Heirs of the au­teurs

Europe’s film­mak­ing tra­di­tion has been strength­ened by the postcom­mu­nist east, writes Gareth Hard­ing

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Feature -

CON­TEM­PO­RARY Euro­pean cin­ema has no short­age of crit­i­cally ac­claimed movies, glitzy film fes­ti­vals and stars bet­ter known for their act­ing tal­ents than off- screen an­tics. But in re­cent years it has been miss­ing some­thing for which it was fa­mous for decades: the di­rec­tor as au­teur.

The film­maker as au­thor, or dom­i­nant creative force be­hind a movie, was first de­scribed in a 1954 mag­a­zine ar­ti­cle by Fran­cois Truf­faut, who drew a dis­tinc­tion be­tween direc­tors such as Jean Renoir and Al­fred Hitch­cock, who sought to ‘‘ bring some­thing gen­uinely per­sonal’’ to their films, and the Hol­ly­wood stu­dio sys­tem’s pre­dom­i­nant hack- for- hire direc­tors.

Since then, ev­ery decade has had its dom­i­nant Euro­pean film­mak­ers: from Truf­faut, Jean- Luc Go­dard, Fed­erico Fellini, Ing­mar Bergman and Mi­los For­man in the 1960s and ’ 70s to Krzysztof Kies­lowski, Pe­dro Almod­ovar, Lars Von Trier, Ken Loach and Emir Kus­turica in the ’ 80s and ’ 90s, all of them known for high­brow, meticu- lously made and some­times hard- to- watch movies that made per­sonal, po­lit­i­cal or artis­tic state­ments. But many crit­ics say Euro­pean cin­ema faces an iden­tity cri­sis as it at­tempts to com­pete against mega- bud­get Hol­ly­wood fare and a steady sup­ply of art- house or indie films from across the At­lantic, while re­main­ing faith­ful to its tra­di­tion of low- bud­get au­teur­ship. Some even ar­gue that the age of the vi­sion­ary, allpow­er­ful writer- di­rec­tor is over.

Don’t tell that to 24- year- old Swiss di­rec­tor and ac­tor Barthelemy Gross­mann, who re­cently won strong re­views for his de­but fea­ture, a thriller called 13m2 . If raw tal­ent, artis­tic ad­ven­tur­ous­ness and un­bri­dled self- re­gard are har­bin­gers of suc­cess, he ap­pears des­tined for fame and for­tune, or at least more crit­i­cal ac­claim.

‘‘ If I’m not the next gen­er­a­tion of Euro­pean film direc­tors, then I don’t know who is,’’ he says with­out a hint of irony.

Gross­mann is one of a crop of new Euro­pean film­mak­ers who pre­fer to write, di­rect and pro­duce their own movies rather than hand over con­trol to money- crunch­ers and pen­cil- push­ers. The sub­jects they ex­plore range from gang­ster heists and back- street abor­tions to sym­pa­thetic spies and cham­pi­onship speed- eat­ing. What they have in com­mon is the un­com­pro­mis­ing yet ar­tis­ti­cally re­ward­ing grit­ti­ness that has long been a hall­mark of Euro­pean cin­ema.

Gross­mann’s film, a claus­tro­pho­bic look at three hood­lums from a poor Paris sub­urb who pull off a suc­cess­ful heist only to fall out over how to es­cape with the loot, is typ­i­cal of this new wave. The plot is hardly orig­i­nal but the des­per­ate di­a­logue among the three petty crooks has more in com­mon with Samuel Beck­ett than Quentin Tarantino.

Gross­mann’s film­mak­ing he­roes are Martin Scors­ese, Francis Ford Cop­pola and John Cas­savetes, who be­gan their ca­reers as driven icon­o­clasts work­ing out­side the stu­dio sys­tem. ‘‘ All day long I think about film, like those guys,’’ he says. I want peo­ple who see two min­utes of my films to say, ‘ That’s a Barthelemy Gross­mann movie.’ ’’

A sim­i­lar at­ti­tude is ev­i­dent in the films of a group of Ro­ma­nian direc­tors with grow­ing in­ter­na­tional rep­u­ta­tions. Cristi Puiu was the first of the new bunch to achieve in­ter­na­tional recog­ni­tion, with The Death of Mr Lazarescu , the story of an old, sick man who is shut­tled from hospi­tal to hospi­tal over the course of a night; the film picked up the Un Cer­tain Re­gard tro­phy at Cannes in 2005, plus a slew of other prizes.

Cor­neliu Po­rum­boiu, 32, has emerged as a dar­ling of the in­ter­na­tional art- house cir­cuit with his bit­ing po­lit­i­cal satire, 12: 08 East of Bucharest , which tells the story of a television sta­tion owner who stages a panel dis­cus­sion on the top­pling of Ni­co­lae Ceaus­escu 16 years af­ter the event. It won the Cam­era d’Or at Cannes in 2006.

A year later an­other Ro­ma­nian, Cris­tian Mungiu, won the the Palme d’Or for4 Months, 3 Weeks & 2 Days , which also picked up film of the year and best di­rec­tor at the Euro­pean Film Awards in Ber­lin later in 2007.

The film’s ti­tle refers to the length of time scat­ter­brained stu­dent Gabita has been preg­nant. With abor­tion il­le­gal in com­mu­nist Ro­ma­nia, she turns to her room­mate for help. The back­street abor­tion­ist they hire is cruel and crooked and the two girls soon find them­selves trapped in a web of de­ceit as they strug­gle to muster the money to pay for the abor­tion.

It’s an aus­tere and un­com­pro­mis­ing film: there is no mu­sic, lit­tle in the way of fancy cam­era work and min­i­mal edit­ing. It paints a bleak pic­ture of life un­der East­ern Europe’s most re­pres­sive regime, but the di­rec­tor de­nies its aim was po­lit­i­cal. ‘‘ We got to an age when we re­mem­bered sto­ries from our 20s, which were the last days of com­mu­nism,’’ Mungiu says. ‘‘ You need some dis­tance to tell sto­ries about what hap­pened to you when you were young.’’

Many of th­ese film­mak­ers

fo­cus

on

the grim­mer as­pects of Euro­pean life, of­ten heav­ily in­flu­enced by re­cent his­tory. In Bos­nian di­rec­tor Jas­mila Zbanic’s Gr­bav­ica , sin­gle mother Esma ( Mir­jana Kara­novic) lives with her teenage daugh­ter Luna in a cramped apart­ment in the war- scarred sub­urb of Sara­jevo. She at­tends ther­apy ses­sions by day and works in a seedy cock­tail bar by night to pay for Luna’s com­ing school trip. To qual­ify for a dis­count, Luna re­quires an of­fi­cial let­ter prov­ing her fa­ther died a noble death dur­ing the war. Taunted by class­mates, Luna vi­o­lently con­fronts her mother, who con­fesses that the girl was con­ceived through rape in a pris­oner- of- war camp.

‘‘ Gr­bav­ica is first of all a story about love, about love that is not pure be­cause it has been mixed with hate, dis­gust, trauma, de­spair,’’ says Zbanic, who sur­vived the siege of Sara­jevo as a teenager.

It is no co­in­ci­dence that the movie, which won the Golden Bear at the 2006 Ber­lin film fes­ti­val, starts and ends with a ther­apy ses­sion; much of cen­tral and east­ern Europe is still re­cov­er­ing from more than half a cen­tury of blood­shed and dic­ta­tor­ship.

Hun­gar­ian di­rec­tor Gy­orgy Palfi takes a much bolder and broader- brush approach to his coun­try’s re­cent his­tory in Taxidermia , a baroque tale of three gen­er­a­tions of dys­func­tional odd­balls. With its scenes of armpit- lick­ing, mas­tur­ba­tion, bes­tial­ity, sodomy and dis­em­bow­el­ment, Taxidermia is not for the faint- hearted, yet stands out on ac­count of its vis­ual in­ven­tive­ness and creative ex­trav­a­gance.

Spain is an­other coun­try where the weight of re­cent his­tory is still felt in the cin­ema. Its most fa­mous film­maker, Almod­ovar, now plays the role of grand­fa­ther to a younger gen­er­a­tion of suc­cess­ful Span­ish direc­tors, in­clud­ing Ale­jan­dro Amenabar and Daniel Sanchez Arevalo, who made the prize- win­ning Dark­BlueAl­most­Black .

Likely to join their ranks soon is Is­abel Coixet, the di­rec­tor of My Life With­out Me and The Se­cret Life of Words , both of which were made in English and shot out­side Spain. In The Se­cret Life of Words , tac­i­turn fac­tory worker Hanna takes a break from her job to look af­ter a burn vic­tim on an oil rig. Ini­tially pledged to a Trap­pist- like si­lence, Hanna even­tu­ally tells her pa­tient about the hor­rors she en­dured as a sex slave dur­ing the Balkan wars, and love slowly emerges out of hurt and hard­ship.

Coixet re­cently com­pleted El­egy , which is based on a novel by Philip Roth and stars Pene­lope Cruz and Ben Kings­ley.

French- Ger­man di­rec­tor Dominik Moll, a Hitch­cock fan, aims to com­bine the more com­mer­cial as­pects of Hol­ly­wood thrillers with an art- house sen­si­bil­ity. In both Harry, He’s Here to Help and the more re­cent Lem­ming , the calm of a cou­ple’s life is shat­tered by the in­tru­sion of an out­sider. Both films are un­mis­tak­ably Euro­pean but are also in­debted to Amer­i­can thrillers. Mean­while, movies such as Wolf­gang Becker’s Good Bye Lenin! and Flo­rian Henckel von Don­ners­marck’s The Lives of Oth­ers , which won the Os­car for best for­eign lan­guage film in 2007, prove that Euro­pean films can be both crit­i­cal and com­mer­cial hits if they have strong story lines. That’s some­thing the new gen­er­a­tion of Euro­pean film au­teurs seems to un­der­stand. Agen­cies

Aus­tere: Jane Fonda with Cris­tian Mungiu

Un­com­pro­mis­ing: From left, Vlad Ivanov, Ana­maria Mar­inca and Laura Vasiliu in 4 Months, 3 Weeks & 2 Days

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