This is one of the year’s best movies.
Amidst all the watching, reviewing and transcribing that has taken up the bulk of my time at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival, I decided to spend one of my mornings at the Moser Glassworks, a factory that has resided in town since 1857. While touring the factory, which has a main room that has remained more or less the same since the 19th century, you have the opportunity to watch master craftsmen shaping and sculpting glass before your very eyes. When taken fresh out of the oven, the glass is as malleable as the watery creature in “The Abyss.” Later on, I saw the face of an ape being etched into a vase, and its features were more lifelike than any motion capture character. The tour guide informed me that these glassmakers are treated like celebrities by the local populace, and that countless movie icons have made a pilgrimage to the factory while in town for KVIFF, where many of them received Moser’s signature accolade, the Crystal Globe. A couple days later, I journeyed up a frighteningly steep road to the Husovka Theater, where a screening had been scheduled. I snagged a seat in the front row of the cozy theater, and was surprised when two full rows of audience members eagerly sat on the floor in front of me, using their slim issues of Festival Daily as a cushion. What these unforgettable sights illustrated to me, more than anything, was the profound degree to which art is valued in Karlovy Vary. It made my heart glad.
Then the film began, and my heart became even happier. “Crystal Swan,” the debut feature of Belarusian director Darya Zhuk, is the sort of blazing triumph that would hold even the sleepiest festivalgoer in rapt attention. The first thing you notice are the bold colors popping off the screen, many of which are the bright reds and blues worn by Velya (the superb Alina Nasibullina), a young DJ in Minsk circa 1996, who dreams of one day moving to Chicago, the “birthplace of House music.” Labeled a “waste” by her disillusioned mother, Velya strives to obtain her Visa, despite not having the requirement of a steady job. Instead, she schemes her way around the truth, leading to a series of mishaps that force her into the lives of a family perched far outside of the city. Velya must persuade these strangers to let her answer their phone when an important call regarding her Visa is made. Zhuk and her co-writer, Helga Landauer, use the limitations of landlines to their full advantage, as the impending call gradually proves to be the MacGuffin of the piece. Yet “Crystal Swan” has far more on its mind than suspense and killer tunes, though it has both in spades. Cinematographer Carolina Costa’s implementation of the 4:3 aspect ratio recalls the box-like televisions of the period (there’s a clever use of camcorder-style lettering in the title card), yet the compressed imagery is also indicative of how trapped Velya is within the expectations of her country.
Though the Minsk of this film is still reeling from the fall of the Soviet Union, its society carries unnerving echoes of modern day America, with its jobless youth, slashed pensions, rising nationalism (“Loving your motherland is a spiritual practice,” claims Velya’s mother) and a belief among some native-born citizens that newcomers to their land ought to be “locked up.” Among those hard-working citizens bereft of pensions are fired workers—from a glass factory, no less—forced to sell their crystal goods. The spirit of the #MeToo movement also resounds during a sequence where Velya instructs a boy that when a woman says no, she really means it. The fact that the kid absorbs and embraces this wisdom is one of the few glimmers of hope on the horizon, as mirrored by the youth of today unclouded by prejudice or misogyny. Yet Zhuk refuses to pretend that there are any easy solutions to her heroine’s plight, and in many ways, the narrative seems to take us up to the precise moment of uncertainty where we, as members of planet Earth, currently reside. One of Velya’s routine fibs to elicit empathy is that her mother is sick, and when asked what’s wrong with her parent, she responds, “Her heart,” a line that contains considerable meaning. To Velya’s generation, House music stands for the same freedom that people her age are seen marching for in the streets. Zhuk has noted that 1996 was the last year those sorts of protests were allowed to take place in Belaruse, a fact that remains true today. The filmmaker made a bold move by telling this story, and in doing so, she has produced a culturally specific work that is universal in its relevance. For the first time in 22 years, Belarus is making a submission for the Academy Awards, and with “Crystal Swan,” they have chosen a winner.
After watching a number of European films in a row, you start to realize just how few American films—particularly those made for a wide audience—contain obstacles that aren’t sufficiently overcome by the end of their running time. Even stories lacking a traditional happy ending conclude on a note just reassuring enough to make happiness inevitable. “Moments,” a drama from the Czech Republic helmed by first-time director Beata Parkanová, centers on a young woman whose happiness isn’t just far from inevitable, it’s often the first thing she chooses to sacrifice. Anežka (Jenovéfa Boková) is so used to putting the needs of others first that she has begun to lose track of her life in the process. She insists that her lover answer an incoming call from his wife, whom he still hasn’t left, rather than remain present in the moment. With her mother now released from an asylum, Anežka finds to her horror that the woman—now living alone—can’t even muster the motivation to rake her own lawn. The dialogue between the pair initially alternates between funny and exasperating, as they bicker over what to do with a cup of expired yogurt. It’s the sort of witty exchange that would’ve found itself at home in Albert Brooks’s great 1996 comedy, “Mother,” yet when Anežka asks her to put out a fire, she stares down at it as if balancing precariously on the edge of a diving board. This is the sort of psychological vice that requires a full-time caregiver, and Anežka is already giving up enough of her time as it is.
There’s no question that Boková is one of the most popular performers in the Czech Republic, as evidenced by the star welcome she received from a sold-out crowd at the elegant Municipal Theater during the film’s world premiere. I met Boková under far less glamorous circumstances one year prior, when she came to Chicago’s Gene Siskel Film Center to present Olmo Omerzu’s “Family Film.” She is the sort of actor I treasure in that she never seems to be going for an obvious effect. Her characters in both pictures put up a strong front for their loved ones in order to shield them from any hint of vulnerability. When a psychiatrist asks her, point blank, “What do you need?”, Anežka becomes entirely at a loss for words, and the silence that follows is heartbreaking. The pressure placed on her from various family members is relentless to the point of pathological. I kept waiting for the moment when her character would allow herself a cathartic release by firing back at her father or grandmother for continuously shaming her into performing another task. That scene would’ve certainly occurred in the American version of this story, but here, we are afforded only quiet instances of rebellion, such as when she refuses to tell a guy to move his parked car out of the road, despite her father’s warning that he’ll otherwise get into a brawl with him (news flash: he doesn’t). When she finally breaks down, it’s only after her own self-neglect has nearly cost her her life. Nothing is remotely resolved by the film’s conclusion, yet Parkanová makes the lovely choice of ending with Anežka placed several feet above the ground, high enough to keep anyone from dragging her down.
Ever since I saw Kogonada’s extraordinary video essay on the cinema of Richard Linklater, I have been haunted by a line delivered by Julie Delpy in the director’s 1995 classic, “Before Sunrise.” “I love the way the people seem to be dissolving into the background,” Delpy says while glancing at a painting. “It’s like the environments are stronger than the people. His human figures are always so transitory.” This observation greatly informs the mis en scene of Kogonada’s film, “Columbus” (a selection at this year’s Ebertfest), in which the interior spaces are treated as the primary subject, rather than the equally vivid characters who occupy them. It also registers as a crucial theme throughout Linklater’s filmography, epitomized by the concluding montage in “Before Sunrise” that cuts back to the various locations, now empty, where the young lovers once strolled. The transitory nature of human life is inescapable in a place as rich in centuries-old history as Karlovy Vary, where Linklater is currently an honored guest at its festival.
“I like that,” Linklater told me, after I mentioned this recurring theme. “The demonstrably older the place you are, the more you feel kind of beautifully diminished, poetically less. You look around and think, ‘Oh, we’re just passing through.’ I feel that way in older cities like this. If you grew up in ugly suburban strip mall Texas, the history goes back to 1958 or the 70s, or maybe not even that far. There’s so little history there. The downside is you’re in a cultural vacuum, the upside is it’s on you to create your own world. It makes you actually seek out the world and appreciate it. I’ve met people who grew up around much grander beauty and history, and sometimes that can have its own oppression. I’m one of those people that doesn’t think you’re a different person if you stay in Austin rather than move to somewhere like Hollywood. I’ve never been a person chasing ‘where it was happening,’ because it’s all happening right here. Even in my 20s, I probably could’ve put on a backpack and come to Europe, but I was watching all these great movies. I felt that travel would cut into my reading. I didn’t want to just wander around, I was working on stuff. It was good to wander around when I had a film at a festival. But I’m still an uneasy tourist.”
The Austin Film Society, a non-profit film group founded by Linklater in 1985, is being honored at KVIFF this year with its own section devoted to the various trailblazing titles it has championed, from Jeff Nichols’ “Take Shelter” and David Lowery’s “Pioneer” to Robert Rodriguez’s “El Mariachi” and Annie Silverstein’s “Skunk.” Andrew Bujalski, the brilliant indie filmmaker whose latest work, “Support the Girls,” is screening out of competition, has also been on hand for the European premiere of his 2013 gem, “Computer Chess,” which is being presented as part of the Austin Film Society program.
“Andrew is a great guy,” said Linklater. “I like every one of his films. He has his own unique voice, and I think that’s becoming more and more apparent. He got lumped in with other filmmakers early on, but he just has his own kind of specific, thoughtful, character-based cinema. ‘Computer Chess’ is wickedly funny, and Andrew has said that it’s the only film he’s made in which he incorporated improv. He said, ‘I’m always being accused of it even though I haven’t done it, but I might as well do it on this one.’ He really did let his actors come up with stuff. Around the time I was making ‘Waking Life,’ I remember Andrew hanging out with us. He was young and getting ready to start making his first film, ‘Funny Ha Ha,’ in which he cast one of my animators, Kate Dollenmayer, as the lead. She was great in that film, but she’s not interested in acting. Some people just don’t have the personality for it. That’s a good thing for Kate because I remember her being a really sweet, together person. As an artist, you need some good qualities but you need some bad qualities too, whether it’s an excessive ego or the tendency to act like a blowhard. You’ve gotta have some bad qualities motivating you, whereas I don’t think Kate had those. I haven’t seen her in years, and I hope she’s happy.”
When asked by a journalist at the press roundtable whether his own films were improvised, Linklater politely replied, “Not even close,” thus prompting me to ask whether the final exchange between Delpy and Hawke in “Before Sunset”—one of the greatest in cinema—had been in his mind from the beginning.
“Always know the destination,” said Linklater. “I usually have the structure and know where the story is headed. I admire people who just start with a blank page. There are a lot of novelists and writers I know where I’m like, ‘Really? You just type away and see what starts flowing? That’s pretty magical.’ I’m about structure and form, but I spend years developing them. When ideas come, I write them down and I’m in the arena even while I’m daydreaming. When I sit down to produce the work, I like it to be very structural, and then I run many laps through it. You have a structure and then you fill out those scenes. To me, the dialogue fits in there as the last phase, but obviously on a film like ‘Before Sunset,’ it is by far the most intensive. It’s always crazy. On each of those three ‘Before’ films, when Ethan and Julie shift from the writing process to the acting process, they realize how much work they have to do. As actors, they have to run lines and with this sort of dialogue, it’s so tough. I’m often cracking a whip on them. They work so hard, and they don’t really get credit for it. No one considers those great performances because they seem so real. People don’t consider it acting, really. But the timing required to do a 14-minute take that must be compelling throughout is never easy. It’s very hard to make something like that look simple.”
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This message came to me from a reader named Peter Svensland. He and a fr...