Good film is the kind that gets under your skin and stays there: the avant-garde, the experimental, the exploitation, genre-driven, character rich cinema that wets the screen and drips with art.
These days it’s getting harder to find. But film festivals are fast becoming the best bet in showcasing modern moviemaking and AFI Fest 2007 was no exception. The special showcases and world cinema programs brimmed with refreshing film - stories you haven’t heard, shot with style and flair.
Although you may have heard of The Diving Bell and The Butterfly, the bestselling memoirs of Jean-Dominique Bauby, the once editor of French ELLE magazine. After a stroke left him completely physically paralyzed, he learned to communicate by blinking his left eye. Having retained all normal brain function, he lived a rich interior life but suffered the iniquity of being unable to express himself. Without moving his head, he sees the world from a distorted, crooked vantage point, made visceral for the audience by cinematographer Janusz Kaminski’s astonishing photography. For much of the film, his lens functions as Bauby’s eye, forcing the audience to enter the psychological space of paralysis. Filmmaker Julian Schnabel crafted a harrowing portrait of Bauby’s final days, flashing back to the glamour of his former self - rich, handsome, loved - and then back to silently watching the world, without being able to live in it.
The complex and uncomfortable world inhabited by feuding siblings in Margot at the Wedding is a darkly humorous commentary on sisters, their slightly deranged children and their quirky lovers. The film is both funny and bleak, disturbing and honest, revealing a world where the line between love and hate is unbearably tenuous. Anyone with a sister knows the potential each possesses for inflicting psychological trauma upon the other and here, Jennifer Jason Leigh and Nicole Kidman unleash verbal horror on one another, using their kids as punching bags. The actresses also shared tender moments but those rare glimpses into human compassion were too far and few between to generate any real empathy for these characters. Nicole Kidman’s conniving makes her character in To Die For seem cartoonish. The script deserves credit for serving up dialogue so full of vituperation and Jack Black gets kudos for turning in an incredibly neurotic performance. The film succeeded in disturbing me enough to want to walk out of the theater but not enough to give it an afterthought.
One of my favorite filmmakers, Taiwanese Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s update of the 1956 masterpiece “Le Ballon rouge”—The Red Balloon, is an exquisite, soulful film. Beautifully choreographed between contemplative images of a traveling balloon and intimate, enigmatic portraits of a family, the film reveals contemporary life in Paris. Like the balloon, the characters in the film (including the lovely Juliette Binoche) wander about the city, sometimes searching, but mostly aimlessly enjoying the quotidian routine of middle-class living. With a simple plot, this film calls on the imagination to surrender to the imagery and the intimacy of cinematic poetry.