Locarno Film Festival: Happiness isn’t always fun

  • FROMDaniel Kothenschulte

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For the 75th time, the Swiss Film Festival in Locarno has presented itself with one of its most beautiful vintages – even if the strong films went empty-handed at the awards ceremony.

Who would we invite for birthday if we could? Matt Dillon, who has consistently starred in many of America’s best movies since he was a teenager? Kelly Reichardt and Todd Haynes, responsible for some of the most artistic American films of the last two decades? Costa-Gavras, that incredibly endearing doyen of the political Nouvelle Vague? Or maybe Laurie Anderson, a visionary artist of sound, words and film? Everyone came to the most important festival in Switzerland to celebrate its 75th anniversary and once again confirmed its status as one of the most important showpieces of artistic film.

It was truly a celebration for which a complete retrospective of the work of German-American director Ufa and Hollywood director Douglas Sirk served as a reliable backbone. In just five words, Todd Haynes summed it up in the introduction to Sirk’s classic Heaven Allows: “Happiness isn’t always fun.” In fact, Sirk’s films often start where other films end. In the supposed happiness of the settled existence of the middle class. For Fred MacMurray in Always Tomorrow, a childhood friend’s visit may be enough to put what has been achieved and what has been lost in a new relationship.

There is always tomorrow and of course that also applies to the German festival cinema, which has recently caught the eye in Cannes. Two German works stood out in the competition in Locarno – when was the last time to say that? Their directors live in Berlin, they shoot on analog film material, and in their works they transfer the visual poetry of avant-garde films into experimental fictional forms. The only thing that can be said about Helena Wittmann’s sumptuous yet stylistically confident travel story, Human Body Flowers, is how visible her role model, Beau Travail Claire Denis (The Foreign Legionnaire), stuck with her.

Ida, played by the Greek Angelika Papoulia, holds the helm in the story’s evolving association. She is the owner of a sailing yacht and with her international crew of five, she carries out her mission: what drives a group that harmonizes like a music band remains undefined. Is it a scientific and archival interest (plants are harvested and dried)? Or sociological curiosity (you travel from Marseille, through Corsica, to Algeria to study the history of the French Foreign Legion)?

The arrival of actor Denis Lavant, who has already played a foreign legionnaire in Claire Denis, puts the film on the right course. And so this film, whose wide viewing angles encourage you to obtain your own image, is above all one thing: a metaphor of an artistic ideal that does not work through concepts, but gives freedom in searching and finding.

This applies even more to the second German film “Piaffe”, the first feature film by video artist Ann Oren from Tel Aviv. The fact that neither of them received a jury award should only be considered as confirmation by the filmmakers: the avant-garde moves forward. “Piaffe” leaves the festival as a gem to be discovered: the captivatingly sensual choreography of the physical and photographic movement, sounds and soft, vivid colors that Kodak’s 16mm film still brings out of the present.

Even in her video works, most of which are also acoustic works of art, Ann Oren sows and collects the wastes of cinematic surrealism. The focus here is on a young woman named Eva, played by the Mexican Simone Bucio, who tries her hand at being a foley artist for a movie about horses. A pony grows on the coccyx, accompanied by a new sexual sensitivity.

You rarely see such free, undefined eroticism in the cinema. At the same time, it is one of Berlin’s most beautiful films, making neglected sights such as the Hufeisensiedlung in the Britz district shine. What a gift: If Maya Deren, the great American avant-garde pioneer, were still alive, she would probably have made such a film.

It’s hard to understand that a second, much more conventional, contest on sexual arousal was awarded at the awards ceremony: “Rule 34” by Brazilian Júlia Murat tells the story of a law student who works part-time as an online prostitute and practices BDSM for herself. Unfortunately, Murat does not look below the surface of this sexual orientation as little as “Fifty Shades of Gray.” At the same time, she is not interested in the social reality of online sex, which is booming in South America.

The semi-documentary scenes from law school also seem artificial, but the characters are the most superficial. You rarely see such a senseless movie about sexuality. This is the case with festivals looking for extremes: finding two pearls is a mistake, but it’s more than worth the trip to Locarno.

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