(This dispatch is part of our coverage of the 2019 Chicago International Film Festival.)
Onwards and upwards with CIFF comes day four, which was one of those “one step forward, one step back” situations for me. It was also another day that started off with a documentary. This time it was Forman vs. Forman, a film by Jakub Hejna and Helena Trestíková about Milos Forman. I can be quite wary of movies about filmmakers since they can forget that movies are, you know, actually about things, but this one actually did something for me. Why? Because the through-line isn’t so much about a single person as much as it is history.
More specifically, it’s about politics: how they change over time, how one’s opinions shift, how they and art form a symbiosis. No dilly-dallying about Forman’s childhood here, oh no. Hejna and Trestíková start with the loss of his parents at the hand of the Gestapo, and how he grew up post-Holocaust. This leads us through his involvement in the Czech New Wave and how it informed his later work, as well as the cultural shifts that made the road a little bumpier.
Match cuts between archive footage and movies, interviews repurposed into narration, drops of iconography—there’s an impressionism that conveys the time without aping Forman’s work. It also prevents the movie from being as dry as it could have been. This is a picture that expects a general knowledge from the viewer regarding cinema, and in that way, it’s brisk. Then again, it’s also too quick at points, fraying in how it examines Forman’s maturation and political shifts every now and again.
At least it wasn’t as heavy-handed as Gloria Mundi. Directed by Robert Guédiguian and co-written by he and Serge Valletti, this ensemble drama comes awfully close at points at freeze-framing and having a text bubble just go, “C’est la vie!” with a record scratch sound effect. But what’s weird is that this movie is far from doomed to fail. I can’t even call it bad. What I can say, though, is that it lays on the misery so thick that it loses grip of the human condition in the process.
Richard (Jean-Pierre Darroussin) has returned from prison just in time for he and his ex-wife, Sylvie (Ariane Ascaride), to meet their new daughter’s baby. That baby is Gloria, child to Mathilda (Anaïs Demoustier) and Nico (Robinson Stévenin). Stressed with their working-class life, Mathilda is sleeping with their horndog friend Bruno (Grégoire Leprince-Ringuet), who’s, in turn, being loose with his racist girlfriend, Aurore (Lola Naymark). Drama ensues and isn’t as economic-based as the movie seems to think.
The issue isn’t the structure. It’s actually quite tidy. Relationships are clear and the characters, while too one-note at points, show a contrast. It’s how close it comes to making a binary out of human behavior: people are either another squirrel trying to get a nut or a pile of trash with cool hair, with Mathilda bridging the gap between the parties. People are constantly reacting. They don’t get their chances to shine with inaction and don’t register as real people as a result, so in that respect, Guédiguian can’t flesh out their condition.
It was a bit taxing to sift through, but at least his movie didn’t empathize with his characters’ wrongdoings. I can’t say the same about I Lost My Body, Jérémy Clapin’s animated feature debut about a severed hand as it wanders the city. Whose hand is it? It’s Naoufel’s (Hakim Faris), a twentysomething delivery guy who mutilated himself by accident. As the appendage roams the streets, we get longer and longer glimpses of the man’s life, mostly concerning his romantic pursuit of a would-be customer named Gabrielle (Victoire Du Bois).
The animation sways from macabre to half-remembered, but it has a near-constant handle of its tone—aesthetically speaking, that is. It’s one of those films that doesn’t completely derail but gets increasingly misguided in both ethics and pathos. Simply put, Naoufel is a creep. He’s one of those whiny nice guys who can’t stomach of his crush not being into him. He insinuates himself into her life; he learns about her job, address, and family. And let’s be clear: Clapin and Guillaume Laurent’s script doesn’t condemn this behavior. It enables it, then romanticizes it.
It’s a testament to Clapin’s ability to combine frame-rate, music, and foley to engage the viewer. The technical work is the main reason I didn’t check out completely (well, that and the fact that it’s 81 minutes). Yet, I was always aware of how warped the story got and how it tried to justify it. I wonder what the woman down the row from me thought: she brought her son, no older than five, to the screening. I hope she had a talk with him afterward—and not just about language or sexual references.
Or hey, how about she shows her son our next movie in about 10 years? Marko Skop’s Let There Be Light is also my favorite of the festival so far. Centering on a construction worker named Milan (Milan Ondrík), it takes place in the kind of village where everyone knows each other. When his son’s friend commits suicide after what could be seen as a blow to his masculinity at the very least, Milan and teenage Adam (Frantisek Beles) go up against themselves and each other. Another thing pointing out? Contrary to Gloria Mundi, this chooses a reality and sticks to it.
Whether the ignorance is willful or conditioned, this community is a hotbox. Not a hermetic one, though—it’s like someone shot a hole in the side so the conflict doesn’t boil over. There are wives, mothers, and daughters, but no women and any man against the norm deserves a brick through his window. Let There Be Light isn’t just a look at men who fall victim to trauma, but also a dissection of patriarchy that’s leveled out everyone until they’re the only ones left. It doesn’t try to make amends; it doesn’t try to change. It eats itself up instead.
Skop uses silence like water to the forehead. Some visual metaphors are too direct, but it takes a while for the lack of score to show itself. Instead, we get the crunch of snow, a few footsteps here, a few freaks of the forest there. Domesticity shows itself early on only to fade into the background until home is just another hut in the forest. That said, there are some themes regarding technology and its divide between generations that don’t do much beyond general implications, and he falls back on comic relief a handful of times.
This brings us to the last movie of the day, Extracurricular. Have you ever wanted to see a horrible father bring a rifle to his kid’s school so he can spend time with her? Now you can! But as edgy as that may sound, it’s kind of toothless, even though the basic premise is kind of like if the Butcher from I Stand Alone did Dog Day Afternoon with third graders. By trying to blend dark humor and social satire, Ivan-Goran Vitez begs comparisons to other films. Even if nothing here is particularly bad, it just doesn’t have the verve or wit to leave an impression.
Milivoj Beader plays Vlado Mladinić, a middle-aged guy who just really wants to see his daughter, Ana (Frida Jakšić). It’s her birthday, and he mines pity for not having seen her for a while since Ana’s mom (Marina Kostelac) divorced him. As such, he brings a rifle and a birthday cake into her classroom. It’s a hostage situation, and the mayor (Zlatko Buric) will make sure that no one gets hurt, just so he’ll look good for the election that’s in a little over a week.
From the degrading of the perfect family to how others exploit it for self-image, Extracurricular doesn’t stir the pot in any way that we haven’t seen before. It has a decent balance of characters and it’s clear in how they all come together to form a social caricature, but it’s the type of satire that elicits a “… heh” more than anything else. Lutvo Mekic really overdoes the overcast color palette, but his camera movements are swift enough. The main issue is that it isn’t memorable. Honestly, it might have been better if it was meaner.