Switzerland—a country renowned for its staunch neutrality, its amazing cheese and its exquisite chocolates, though perhaps currently more famous as the place where they won’t let Oprah touch their overpriced handbags. But, more positively, Switzerland is also host to one of the oldest and most peculiar film festivals in the world: the Festival del Film Locarno. Founded sixty-six years ago, when its first screenings were held on a hotel lawn, the festival was able to distinguish itself from the start as a place for discovery, with its wild mixture of American productions and European arthouse films. Through the years a very tight focus on Asian and Latin American cinema has also been adopted. The festival was also the first to add French Nouvelle Vague films to its international competition, it was a committed advocate of Italian surrealist cinema and it is currently working on (re)discovering cinematic art from Eastern Europe, South-East Asia and the Middle East.
The evening screenings at the Piazza Grande, a market square able to host up to 8,000 viewers, are reserved for bigger, more crowd-pleasing productions, casually interspersed with smaller ones to spice things up. This is where the mainstreamy American comedy We’re the Millers meets Quentin Dupieux’s surrealist, electrodance extravaganza Wrong Cops—a film that can best be described as a typical cop flick—if Michel Gondry had directed it while on ecstasy. There are no words to describe the scene of a couple of thousand Swiss citizens staring at Europe’s biggest outdoor screen, confronted with the sight of a cop in his underwear and a very detailed shot of his crotch area bumping to electro beats.
Locarno’s program does not go easy on its audience. More than any other festival it is constantly testing and pushing the boundaries of cinematic experience, be it through funny, transgressive subject matter or through the exploration of new ways of storytelling, novel genres or original techniques. It is indeed the perfect place for films like Joanna Hogg’s Exhibition. Her third outing quietly observes an artist couple living in a modernist house in London. They have been living and working there for twenty years and it is clear that this relationship is an mfh threesome: namely between him, her, and the house. Running the gauntlet of what could potentially turn into a haunted house story, Hogg examines the interdependences of the architecture and the couple’s relationship construct, turning the film into a subtle psychoanalytic study of long-term relationships.
Equally quiet and slow paced: When evening falls on Bucharest—Metabolism by Corneliu Porumbiou. Shot entirely on 35mm, this Romanian film not only tells the story of a filmmaker having an affair with his leading lady, but also contemplates the art of making film itself. Making a film on actual film, that is, not digitally. In its first scene the couple talks about the importance of limits for artists and of how 35mm as a material has defined cinema for so many years by simply restricting any scene from being longer than eleven minutes. And just to prove his point Porumbiou has this scene run for—you guessed it—eleven minutes. The film goes on leaving its camera almost immobile, filling the screen with its actors who—in an amazing tour de force—keep the entire film alive and vibrating by filling almost twenty scenes with nothing but natural-seeming and perfectly staged conversations.
Joaquim Pinto’s E agora? Lembra-me is a masterstroke of a very different kind. In the seventies and eighties Pinto was a successful sound designer, working with great filmmakers such as Raul Ruiz, André Techiné and Manoel de Oliveira, but sadly had to give up his career when he contracted HIV and Hepatitis C. His constant struggle to live has brought him to such a point of hopelessness that he submits to participating in an excruciating experimental drug program. Pinto resolves to film his trials as a human guinea pig, with the attendant horrendous side effects, for one whole year. The two-and-a-half-hour documentary is a diamond in the rough, with its many abrasive edges rendering it sometimes painful to watch in its exhibition of Pinto’s harsh reality. However, the dignity he and his partner possess even when going through the worst of times fuels the viewer’s desire to work through the film’s harder moments. Pinto positions his fragile humanness and body against a whole industry designed to care only about profits and not about its patients, and the result is a haunting story of what could happen to all of us should we be so unfortunate as to get sick.
Whereas the competition showcases quite a few films which are hard to stomach (I did mention that Locarno does not go easy on its audience, right?) it also keeps its eyes on subversive but lighter films like Germany’s competition candidate Wetlands—a coming-of-age story with a twist. Based on a book which caused quite the controversy in Germany, the film portrays a teenage girl suffering from her parents divorce and obsessed with any kind of bodily fluids. Wetlands might just be the most visceral film of the entire festival line-up, confronting its audience with a transgressive, but not aggressive, look at the reality of human bodies: they smell, they secrete, they want sex. Wetlands abruptly ends the heady, intellectual and mostly linguistic debate many other films at Locarno offer and gets down and dirty instead. This might sound like a somewhat dumb and exhibitionist piece of work, but writer/director Wnendt manages for the most part to strike a balance and to focus not only on the shocking moments of utter viscerality but also on their psychological underpinnings.
In this way Wetlands fits right in to the cinematic and emotional rollercoaster ride that is Festival del Film Locarno, now closing in on its hump day with undoubtedly plenty more surprises still to come.