film festival tourism

Review of Vancouver 2005

Vancouver International Film Festival

September 29-October 14, 2005

By Virginia Wright Wexman

Published in Framework 47.2 (Fall, 2006): 128-30.

International film festivals not only showcase movies from far-flung locales but also highlight the increasingly transnational character of cinema culture. The 2005 Vancouver festival offered some complicated examples of such cultural hybrids. Canadian Guy Maddin collaborated with Italian-born Isabella Rossellini to create an affectionate documentary about her director father entitled My Dad is 100 Years Old (CA, 2005). The fest also featured a revival of Bonjour Tristesse (US, 1958), a Hollywood adaptation of a French novel helmed by German émigré Otto Preminger.

Indian-Canadian writer-director Deepa Mehta’s Water (CA, 2005), which closed the festival, is claimed as a Canadian film though it forms the last part of a trilogy about India and was shot in Sri Lanka. The story, a melancholy and moving melodrama, focuses on a group of widows condemned to live together in an ashram where they must subsist as best they can. To help them all survive, the beautiful Kalyani (Lisa Ray) is prostituted to high-born families across the river, while the child widow Chuyia (Sarala) is threatened with a similar fate.

Water

Water

In the question and answer session that followed the Vancouver screening, Mehta was accused of having used her skills as a filmmaker to wash India’s dirty laundry in public, thus providing fuel for the Bush administration’s doctrine that the United States was justified in imposing western values on “misguided” countries around the world. Though Mehta’s responses were designed to sidestep these charges, it was clear that her film, like all others in today’s global environment, could be readily appropriated by constituencies with agendas far removed from hers. Mehta is no stranger to controversy; in the course of her career, her cinematic criticisms of Indian social practices have repeatedly raised hackles within the country as well as outside of it.

A more bizarre approach to cross-national commentary was taken by Lars Von Trier’s Manderlay (DE/SW/FR/UK/GE/NE, 2005). Like Water, Manderlay is part of a trilogy, this one about the United States from the perspective of a Danish director who has never crossed the American border. Like all of Von Trier’s work, Manderlay courts controversy, in this case by situating the action during the 1930s on a plantation in Alabama where slavery continues to exist. The setting is presented as an abstraction with minimal props and lines on the floor of a large hanger-like space creating loosely defined areas in which the action takes place.

Manderlay

Manderlay

Supported by a gaggle of big Hollywood names, including Lauren Bacall, Danny Glover, Willem Dafoe and Chloe Sevigny, Bryce Dallas Howard plays the leading role of Grace, a do-gooder who tackles the job of bringing freedom to the enslaved blacks on the plantation. But they don’t want it. Ostensibly inspired by the introduction to the French novel Histoire d’O, Von Trier’s cinematic screed argues that slaves may prefer their condition to a state of freedom. Predictably, such preaching from beyond the pond—tongue-in-cheek though it may be– has not fared any better with American commentators than Mehta’s critiques of India have fared with fundamentalists in that country.

Another film concocted of trans-cultural ingredients I saw in Vancouver, Claude Chabrol’s La Demoiselle d’honneur/The Bridesmaid (FR, 2004), avoided the polemical thrust of Water and Manderlay in favor of psychological complexity and expertly crafted suspense. The reigning master of the thinking person’s thriller or polar that the French specialize in, Chabrol has often drawn on Anglo-American literary sources for his plots. In this case, the English mystery writer Ruth Rendell has provided the story, which, in her usual fashion, blends puzzling crimes and psychic trauma in a uniquely chilling manner. A portrait of provincial life that translates easily into French terms, the story focuses on a youthful contractor (Benoît Magimel) who lives with his divorced mother (Aurore Clement). The young man’s unresolved oedipal attachment is swept aside when he becomes involved with a scary young woman (Laura Smet) who is one of the bridesmaids at his sister’s wedding. The emotional vortex he is drawn into is depicted with typically Chabrolian elegance, here expertly rendered by Portuguese cinematographer Eduardo Serra. The director’s predilections are also on view in the subtle handling of dinner scenes, including one featuring a meal in an Italian restaurant.

The Bridesmaid

The Bridesmaid

Shunning the larger social issues that have given some of Chabrol’s most notable films such as Une Affaire de femmes/The Story of Women (FR, 1988) and La Cérémonie/ The Ceremony (FR, 1995) their thematic weight, The Bridesmaid comes across as more entertaining than enlightening. Nonetheless, it offers viewers an engrossing cinematic experience in which international threads are seamlessly woven together into a satisfying whole. Call it multiculturalism lite.

Viewing films like these in the Pacific Rim culture of Vancouver focuses attention on their transnational features. Perhaps no film I saw there could match the way in which this civilized city has seamlessly integrated North American culture with that of Asia. Vancouver’s spectacular oceanside setting is reminiscent of Hong Kong, where many of the city’s newest residents were born. The Vancouver festival’s much-lauded “Dragons and Tigers” section, which showcases movies from East Asia, reflects the Asian-Canadian ambience of this thriving metropolis. It’s a perfect place for a celebration of movies that often fuse diverse national elements and speak to audiences everywhere.

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