Wakey wakey! At 8.30 every morning at Wrocław’s New Horizons film festival, all remaining tickets for the following day’s screenings become available to press and industry delegates. To reserve a ticket, one must click on the desired film as laid out on the festival’s live online booking system—complete with second-by-second countdown and the number of tickets left. Within a single minute of the booking system going live, it’s not uncommon for all tickets to a screening to have gone. The fastest sell-out I recorded in my five days there was for Stray Dogs, all 200-plus remaining tickets to which had disappeared in four seconds.
Wrocław has the best of it, then. New Horizons, which for several years now has been billed after its chief sponsor as T-Mobile Nowe Horyzonty (TNH), is based primarily in a nine-screen venue in the centre of western Poland’s largest city—concentrating things to a three-storey hub of ostensibly chaotic activity. T-Mobile’s ubiquitous deep pink branding, the queues snaking around the concourse, the panicky race for last-minute tickets: all of these contribute to a feeling of togetherness at TNH, something that might otherwise be stifling if it wasn’t for the always-refreshing feeling that this is a public festival as well as an industry one. There are no press screenings: juries, critics, distributors and others all mingle with the paying public.
Wrocław also has the best of it in terms of timing. Occurring a couple of months after Cannes allows festival director Roman Gutek and his programming team to screen the bigger titles of that festival without expecting attendees to jump through hoops and pay obscene amounts to see them. Indeed, this first-time visitor has already marked TNH down as a 2015 must-attend: why bother with the palpably bland back-patty poison-pit of the Croisette when you can see the most alluring films that premiered there in a much less odious surrounding so appreciably soon after?
Among these alluring films are the heavies of both yesteryear and tomorrow. The credits list is a dream: Ceylan, Alonso, Zvyagintsev, Dumont—all of whom have been around long enough now to be familiar, but who also seem to be pushing themselves in profitable new directions. Dumont’s latest, Li’l Quinquin—a four-part comedy made for French television—is a welcome departure from previous material. Set on the northwest French coast, the 197-minute series is a murder mystery of Twin Peaks standing, seen mostly from the perspective of its eponymous cleft-lipped teen (Alane Delhaye) and bumblingly quizzical, bushy-browed, marvelously mustachioed lead detective Captain Van der Weyden (Bernard Pruvost). As intriguing as it is perplexing, Dumont’s finest effort to date is a surreal and often breathtakingly poignant work, recalling the darkly hilarious depths of UK television’s ensemble comedy The League of Gentlemen.
I’d gone cool on Dumont in recent years, though there was never any denying his previous miserablism was inimitably his own. Similar things can be said of Lisandro Alonso, one of the key figures of the recent ‘slow-cinema’ craze. Returning with Jauja after six years in the wilderness, Alonso retreats ahead of toothless imitators armed with Viggo Mortensen as a nineteenth-century military captain in search of his teenage daughter in a mystical but unforgiving South American desert. Opening onscreen text primes us on the unsolvable misery to come, but the film has an offbeat charm as well as its director’s palpable enjoyment of deadpan humor—something that made his first three features highly distinctive, but which seemed to be missing from Liverpool, his fourth. Welcome back, at any rate.
Meanwhile, Andrei Zvyagintsev’s Leviathan and Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Winter Sleep will be tussling for top place in this critic’s end-of-year top ten. The former won Best Screenplay in Cannes while the latter was always destined for the Palme d’Or; both works are envelope-pushingly and excitingly imperfect works, enjoyably ridiculous to a degree and yet somehow unassumingly grand in their challenging tonal shifts and rug-pulling elusion of a narrative status quo. It would be no surprise if both directors make, like Dumont, a transition to television at some point, as both are ever-improving masters of long-form storytelling. TV’s gain would be cinema’s loss.
Zvyagintsev’s aptly named fourth feature is an unusual, bleaker-than-black comedy about the undoing of a domestic equilibrium both from within and without. But while the film suggests that the family unit always finds ways of functioning and moving on, it’s Russia’s go-to baddies that make things insurmountably difficult: a local vindictive mayor, cushioned and quilted by the casually corrupt courts, hangs a portrait of Putin behind his desk, presenting a figuratively united front that has God on its side. Ceylan’s latest is also about families finding ways to survive, and feels just as audacious when it’s making mistakes as it does when it’s breaking our hearts with a brutally believable depiction of passive-aggressive domestic bullying by an unbearably self-absorbed intellectual infant, whose wearily tearful onscreen wife I wanted to marry.
Familial frissons also take hold of Force Majeure, Ruben Östlund’s portrait of a happily married couple and their two young children enjoying a skiing holiday in the French Alps until, one day, a traumatic incident involving a controlled avalanche exposes the husband as a selfish fraud. Östlund has a knack of taking awkward scenarios to their dramatic conclusion, and even when his latest comedy-drama overreaches, proceedings remain astute enough for us to sympathize with flawed people capable of unthinkingly disgusting and amusingly relatable cowardice.
Like Force Majeure’s Swedish writer-director or an elusive maverick like Lisandro Alonso, Quebecois filmmaker Denis Villeneuve is perhaps not ordinarily spoken of in the same breath as higher-brow heavyweights like Zvyagintsev and Ceylan. But Villeneuve can direct with the best of his generation, and with Enemy, his latest collaboration with Jake Gyllenhaal, he has once again played a ludicrous concept and a limited actor to their strengths. Gyllenhaal plays a plain Toronto-based businessman who one evening spots his doppelganger in a film. Seeking the actor down, he discovers that he does indeed have an identical lookalike—and the latter is dangerously less keen on the prospect than he is.
Adapted from José Saramago’s novel, Enemy is a grippingly nonsensical film, for which Villeneuve knows exactly what he’s doing—even the portentous, wall-to-wall score seems to work. Like the other films mentioned here, it eludes one’s grasp throughout, making a virtue of tonal and narrative slippages. Now nearly a year old, having premiered in Toronto last September, Villeneuve’s sixth feature is a yellow-tinted, twisty affair with the simple aim of holding one’s attention—which it does with much panache.
Though comparative criticism is a rookie’s game otherwise known as Apples and Oranges, it’s interesting to posit a paradox: while Enemy is the ostensibly trickier, more convoluted film, it seems to invite or demand revisits much less than Leviathan or Winter Sleep. Zvyagintsev and Ceylan have each made great works before, of course, but with these ambiguous, strange, sophisticated and masterfully controlled efforts, they surely confirm their place among the higher ranks of cinema’s elite.