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San Sebastian Alfred and Greta are watching...

by Alex Deleon – Lasst Day

This being the centennial of the birth of two towering icons of world cinema, suspense maestro Alfred Hitchcock, and the mysterious lady from Sweden Greta ("I vunt to be alone"), Garbo, both born in 1905, the spirit and image of these two idols is much in evidence this year in Donostia-San Sebastian The official poster of the festival bears a full length photo of Hitch, the official press bag issued to all journalists, likewise, and the press room wall behind the conference table is a pictorial homage to Hitchcock. Large beautiful black and white photos of Garbo meet the eye as one enters the spacious hall before the press room and Garbo photos are to be seen elsewhere in the city.

Though there are no films by Hitchcock on view, several films are in a way homage to the master. "Match Point", the latest from Woody Allen is a vast departure from his usual form and is, in effect, a Hitchcockian suspense thriller filmed in London no less, with an entirely English cast except for a smashingly sexy Scarlett Johansson in a most uncharacteristic vamp role, as the sole American presence – (and what a presence she is!). Young Scarlett really sets the celluloid aflame in this stylish shot out of Mr. Konigsberg’s Twilight Zone, with sensitive support from Jonathan Rhys Meyers as the freaked-out lover-killer who in the end will go unpunished. "Entre Les Mains" (Got you in my hands!) by French femme helmer Anne Fontaine (Official competition) is a chilling edge of the seat "love" story between a clean scrubbed, librarian type young lady with glasses (think, early Grace Kelly), and a spooky serial killer who has her in his grip although she knows damn well where this guy is coming from. The film, set in Northern
France around Calais and Lille, reads a bit like a Hitchcock psycho suspenser filtered through Chabrol with echos of Chabrol's 1970 classic "Le Boucher". Belgian actor Benoit Poelvoorde, the serial killer with a beak like a bird of prey, turns in a nuanced performance of such class that, like Jean Yanne’s the Butcher, it’s a bit hard not to feel sorry for him.
As for Garbo, two flicks are dedicated to Her Emminence. In “Queen Christina”, Rouben Mamoulian, 1933, a lush black and white costume epic, Garbo, at her most luminous best, is the intellectual and exquisitely beautiful queen of Sweden in the 1600s. All the nobles including silent screen idol John Gilbert are falling all over her, with obvious good reason.
Her ministers are waging costly wars, but the queen wants to make love, not war, and her speeches to this effect can be seen as an early anti-war message coming, as it did, nearly on the heels of “All Quiet on the Western Front”. In the end she abdicates her throne in the name of love in a picture which has been renamed by some of her more ardent admirers as “Queen Garbo of Sweden”. This archetypal Garbo vehicle was shown in a section entitled “Unconquered Woman Rebels” and was shown with Basque subtitles.
Also in the Rebel Women sector was “Meeting Two Queens”, a short film (14 minutes)compiled from archival materials, by Cecilia Barriga of Spain. Through the use of clever splicing Barriga brings together two of the greatest Hollywood screen godesses, Garbo and Marlene Dietrich, as if this were a love story between them. Cute.
Other films in this “Unconquered Women” sidebar were: “A Woman Rebels” (appropriate title), starring a young Kate Hepburn in 1936 as an English girl in contempt of the social conventions of Victorian England – the first of the kind that what would become her trade-mark liberated woman screen persona; “Every Day’s a Holiday, 1936, with voluptuous hour-glass figured Mae West on the rampage in one of her better sexual revolution forays; “Rosa Luxemburg”, Margarethe von Trotta’s 1986 study of the Jewish-Polish left-wing revolutionary who was murdered in Germany in 1919. German actress Barbara Sukowa won an award in Cannes for her sensitive portrayal of this fascinating complex character. Other more recent titles: “Thelma and Louise, (Ridley Scoot, ’91), “Agnes Brown”, 1999, directed by and starring this year’s jury president, Angelica Huston. “Boy’s Don’t Cry”, for which Hillary Swank won her first Oscar in 2000, and “Bend it like Beckham”, by Gurinder Chadha, (UK, 2002) a huge hit in Britain about a British-Asian girl who will go to any lengths to play footbal (soccer), the national British obsession.

My personal favorite in competition was “Summer in Berlin”, (Sommer vorm Balkon) which is an extremely funny social drama set in the run down Prenzlauer Berg district of East Berlin. Andreas Desen, who is steadily building up a filmography of highly regarded independent films, is arguably the most talented and innovative director currently at work in Germany and has already picked up many prizes in a relatively short career. In “Summer before the balcony” (literal translation of the German title) two woman, one
an extremely sexy and generally appealing blonde (Nadja Uhl) about 30, and a 39 year old still attractive but highly neurotic brunette, (Inka Frierich) are neighbours in the same tenement and such close friends that there is a borderline erotic bond between them. Uhl, the drop-dead attractive blonde (altho most of the time dressed in cheap jeans and over-tight jerseys) works as an attendant to pathetic helpless old people living alone, which requires her to wipe up rectum juice and other unsavory tasks, but she goes about it with a sunny good natured disposition.

Meanwhile her unemployed divorced brunette buddy has, among other things, a heavy drinking problem, a young daughter, and a tendency to suicidal self-destruction. Enter Andreas the blunt-spoken tattooed slob of a truck driver who, in spite of the fact that he looks like a geek, seems to have a fatal attraction for all of the women who hang out in the drinking dive which is the meeting place for all the low-life characters in the neighbourhood. At first it seems impossible that such a beauty as Nadja could ever go for such geek, but there is more to geek than meets the eye – such as a number of former wives and children scattered about the German map and a certain free-wheeling, disarming existentiality. Actor Andreas Schmidt is the kind of character who needs to do nothing more than walk across the screen to make the audience crack up.

This picture is a slice of many lives, people trying to keep afloat as best they can in a prosperous society that has passed them by. It’s hard to explain why this is all so ha-ha funny, but it is, and it all ends up on a somewhat promising up-beat note. I would give this picture all the Conchas – with a double Concha for Nadja Uhl – but, alas, I’m not on the jury, and juries tend to have very strange minds of their own. By the way, the script by Wolfgang Kohlhaase is so damn good that it looks like there wasn’t any script at all, and the actors were just making the story up as they went along with a little nudging from the director -- and the music is a subtle underpinning of German hits from the seventies that never intrudes but sounds like it emanates from the hearts of the characters themselves. I’m still not sure whether it was just that Nadja totally blew my mind or that the picture really is this good. In any case, this is one to watch for if it ever comes your way.
Possibly the most rewarding section of the entire festival treasure chest was the Robert Wise Retrospective of 37 films from “A Game of Death”, 1945, to “A Storm in Summer” (TV), 2000. A Hungarian journalist I know, Laszlo Kriston, has seen sixteen of them, a very wise choice, and “Lacci” probably had the best festival of any of us poor writing slobs. I saw many of these films when they first came out and only managed to get around to three of them here, but walked out of each one drained and muttering to myself –“They sure don’t make ‘em like this anymore”. The three I saw were:
(1) “Somebody up there Likes Me”, 1956, with a young Paul Newman as Middle-weight champ Rocky Graziano – arguably the best thing Newman ever did.
(2) “Run Silent, Run Deep, 1958, pairing young Burt Lancaster with an aging Clark Gable in what is probably the best Submarine undersea war film ever made, and (3), “The Hindenburg”, 1975, with an imperturbable George C. Scott as a German Secret Service man aboard the ill-fated hydrogen powered
Zeppelin which blew up over Lakehurst, New Jersey in 1937 amidst highly mysterious circumstances. This is so real it makes the “Towering Inferno” look like a Campfire Girls story –How I ever missed it before is another mystery to me.

And now the prizes which have just been announced.

GOLDEN SHELL, for Best film: “Stesti” (Something like Happiness) from the Czech Republic. (Beats the *** out of me).

Silver Shell: Best Actress: Ana Geislerova, same pic as above.

Silver Shell, Best Actor: Juan-José Ballesta, for “Seven Virgens” – (Okay by me)

Best Director: Zhang Yang China, for “Sunflower” – (didn’t see it)

Best Photography, Jong Lin, for “Sunflower”

Special Jury Prize: “Illuminated by Fire”, Argentina – the Falklands War revisited, and finally --
Best Screenplay: Wolfgang Kohlhaase, for “Summer in Berlin” -- HOORAY! – At least one of my faves made it.

And that’s it from Donostia-San Sebastian Nazio-artego Zine-maldia,’ 53.
Seeya next year; Same time, Same station.

Alex Deleon, Donostia, Saturday. September 24, 2005


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