Saturday, August 30, 2008

Telluride - Day 1

Telluride is probably the most audience friendly film festival I've ever been to. Once you get past the exhorbirant costs associated with the attendance.

Take the opening night for example. No grand speeches, red carpets or swarms of paparazzi to spoil the mood. Instead, the whole main street was blocked to traffic and tables were lined up with plentiful of food and alcohol. You could even bump into Laura Linney or Mike Leigh while waiting to fill up your plate with salad.

The general aura of excitement was in the air and everyone seemed anxious to get started on the films. My first strike - to see Slavoi Zizek's 'Perverts Guide to Cinema' - proved unsuccessful as the tiny, make-shift cinema in the town library (seating only 50 people) was already packed.

Screenings proper started at around 6pm and the first film we were "almost" guaranteed an entry into was Sergei Dvortsevoy's 'Tulpan' - a remarkable film set in a remote Kazakh steppe.
While I'm not a huge fan of 'anthropological' films (that is films that are anxious to present on screen the lives and traditions of different, usually remote cultures) - Tulpan proved to be an exceptional achievement. The film focuses on a young ex-marine, Asa, who has returned to live with his sister's family in the steppes, where he helps he brother in law to heard sheep. Asa is determined to set up his own farm, but in order to do so, he has to get married, otherwise the 'Big Boss' will not allocate him a herd. The problem is that the only eligible girl around has absolutely no desire to marry him, claiming that Asa has big ears (but who actually simply wants to escape the steppe in order to study at a college).
From this simple premise, Dvortsevoy builds a magnificent tapestry that is so rich with delicate observations and unaffected emotions that it could almost be a documentary. The director's previous documentary works had paved the way for his contemplative style, with long, languid takes, anxious pauses, unexpected and sudden incursions of various elements into the frame. It's almost as if Dvortsevoy's camera is floating around, waiting for something to happen, to afraid to cut in case it misses something vital. And in the harsh landscape of the Kazakh steppe, every element gains a monumental importance - like a small tornado ominously circling the hut, a dead lamb lying in the dust, or the startling incursion of a Bonny M song in the windy landscape.
It's all perfectly calibrated and timed, even if Dvortsevoy occasionally indulges in an over-long pause, overstatement or not too subtle metaphor.
The director gave a humble but insightful interview after the film. Like Zvyagnitsev's and Ilya Khrjanovsky's astounding debuts, 'Tulpan' proves that the post-Soviet cinematic landscape can attain the same great peaks reached by Tarkovsky and Paradjanov even in a decidedly neo-capitalist environment. Must be something in the water I guess...

Right after, we managed to sneak into the tiny 'Nugget' cinema, which seats only 185 people to take a look at Ole Christian Madsen's 'Flame and Citron'. This is apparently the biggest budget film ever made in Denmark. I was more shocked to find out that the budget was only $9 million.

Based on the real-life events, the film tells the story of two Danish resistance fighters during WW2. Flame and Citron are a strong team that commit various assassinations on the orders of a man named Winther - a go between the British and the Resistance.
It doesn't take long for Flame to question some of these orders though as it becomes increasingly less apparent who the enemy is. Everyone seems to be leading double lives, including the alluring femme-fatale, Ketty with whom Flame becomes infatuated with.
'Flame and Citron' certainly has a very gripping story at its core, full of suspense and moral dilemmas, but somehow it never quite ac hives full flight. The film seems too weighed down by its own importance and it's not quite sure what it wants to be - an espionage thriller, a war movie or a moralistic diatribe. It wants to be all, but the parts never really mesh together.
Paul Verhoeven's very similar 'The Black Book' at least had the courage to be unashamedly entertaining and thus strikingly subversive. Madesen should have made more use of his Dogme beginnings to infuse more bite and cynicism in his story, instead he often goes for the obvious.
Still, the film has its moments of true suspense and heart-breaking tragedy and its excellent cast, in particular the always reliable Mads Mikkelsen and the revelatory Stine Stengade, make the [long] journey worthwhile.

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