Anthony Kirby reports from the 39th Montreal International Film Festival, which took place from 27th August to 7th September 1915.
“I’m so honoured to receive this prize and thankful to Michel Mark Bouchard for his wonderful screenplay and to Mirka Kurismaki for his sensitive direction,” said thirty-year-old actress Milan Buska on receiving Le Grand Prix d’ Americque for her performance of Queen Kristina of Sweden in The Girl King, a film in epic mode. The joint Finnish/Canadian/German/Swedish co-production, lensed in Finland and Germany with financing from Sweden and Canada, was shot in thirty five days just weeks before the festival and screened in Official Competition.
On the death of her father in battle in 1632 Kristina Vasa became the first native, female sovereign of Sweden. Raised as a boy, she learned horsemanship, hunting, and war strategy from childhood. She also had a thorough grounding in the humanities and spoke fluent German and French, in addition to Swedish. Formally crowned in 1644 at age eighteen, she announced that she wished to end the Thirty Years’ War between Catholics and Protestants. She also announced that she wished to help her subjects and make Stockholm “the Athens of the North”. To this end, she imported thousands of books on all subjects, including sorcery, and started a personal correspondence with Rene Descartes (played by French actor Patrick Bauchau), the foremost Christian Philosopher of the age. Through the French Ambassador at court Pierre Chanot she persuaded Descartes to travel to Stockholm.
Disenchanted with certain aspects of the Lutheran Religion, especially the doctrine of God’s Will, she became more and more convinced that Roman Catholicism with its long history, doctrine of grace and free will was the religion of Jesus Christ. As monarch, Kristina was expected to marry and carry on the bloodline. Chancellor von Oxenstierna (Michael Nyqvist, star of Mission Impossible 4) was hopeful Kristina might choose Johan his son as consort. Kristina resisted this, as she did many other suitors. Having been raised as a boy, she was sexually confused and frequently quizzed Descartes on sexual passion and the different kinds of love. Then Kristina confounded all her advisors by having a lady-in-waiting, the beautiful Countess Ebba Sparre (Canadian Sara Gadon star of A Dangerous Method), anointed as the Queen’s Bed Companion, a position held by those designated to warm the sheets of their ruler. Kristina and Ebba became extremely close, both emotionally and physically. The love scenes between them are lensed discreetly. “I trusted Mika completely, and lived in the moment,” said Malin Buska at a crowded press conference.
Kristina is forced to choose between the heritage of her father, her country, her people and her religion or living as “who she wants to be.” She chooses the latter.
Because of the screenplay,the brilliant cinematography and a strong cast at the top of their game and our tolerant age, this epic film should reach a large audience. It was released in New York in late October and in Scandinavia and other markets in November.
Irish character actor Liam Cunningham and veteran British actor Malcolm McDowell bring their unique talents to Dusha Shipona – The Soul of a Spy. A John le Carré-like drama set in modern-day Moscow, London, Cairo, and Switzerland. Based on a roman a clef by retired KGB colonel Michael Lyubimov, the film, directed by Russian Vladimir Bortko, is a gripping suspenseful rollercoaster. “What do we have to protect us as spies?” asks a minor character early in the narrative, “only our wits, our cool heads, our training ,and at times our arms.” How true of all undercover agents!
A Russian intelligence operative, Alexander Federov (Danil Spivakovsky), known in the U.K. as Alex Wilkie, asks for political asylum. He’s interviewed by a British agent with a drinking problem (Malcolm Mc Dowell) who passes him on to the London Head of the C.I.A. (Liam Cunningham).
The two western agencies think they’ve found a double agent. Have they really? Federov has a wife in Cairo, and is about to marry a beautiful upper-class English girl considerably his junior. He confesses his love for this ingénue but can’t be completely honest with her. Gradually, this double life begins to take a toll both emotionally and physically. Federov wants to be repatriated and live a normal life.
At a press conference, director Vladimir Bortk said, “It was a pleasure to work with a group of talented actors. Sandrine Bonnair, Malcolm McDowell and Liam Cunningham were professionals of the highest quality. An actor is like a musical instrument: his voice and technique are his instruments. When you buy a Stradivarius violin you know it’s a Strad. My actors were of that classic mode.” Shown in Official Competition, the film sadly won no prize. It was appreciated by the general public and has been picked up for distribution in Europe and North America.
Fou d’Amour (Mad Love), directed/written and shot by Philippe Ramos of France, is based on cause célèbre in the France of 1959. A man is accused of two murders, found guilty he’s condemned and guillotined. A former priest, he loved life, women, and God. He preached every Sunday. He was, however, a priest with a fatal flaw. Beautifully lensed and acted, with a luminous performance by young Diane Rouxel as a blind girl, Fou d’amour garnered The Grand Prix D’ Ameriques, the festival’s highest award.
The festival awarded a Special Grand Jury Award to Misafir (The Visitor). Directed by Mehmet Eryilmaz of Turkey, this drama was also given special mention by the FIPRESCI JURY (The International Federation of Film Critics). Accompanied by her six-year-old daughter, Nur,a woman in early middle age, returns to her family home because of her ailing mother. Her retired father is cold to her. Her younger brother is welcoming but has been out of work for almost a year. Everyone is besotted by Nur’s daughter. A middle-aged lady cares for Nur’s mother without any payment. Before the tragic illness she was Nur’s mother’s closest friend. Nur’s father doesn’t handle money well and is deeply in debt. A bailiff seizes most of his furniture. Then the inevitable happens – Nur’s mother dies. Nur sobs because of events in the past.
“I wanted to focus on women’s issues,” said Mr. Eryilmaz at a general press conference. There are grave women’s problems in Turkey. As a director I don’t discriminate between women. The problems of women are a good way to talk about human nature. I didn’t want to tell a story that was one-dimensional, I wanted to tell a story that was multi-dimensional. Hopefully, I’ll reach a relatively large audience.” He can be assured of this as the film has garnered two awards. “This is both a happy and sad occasion for me,” said Mr. Eryilmaz as he accepted his awards. “Happy because of the recognition of my work. Sad because of the black clouds passing over my country in recent months.”
“The only things we have in life are the moments we share together,” said actor/writer/director Guillermo Ivan as he accepted the Best Innovation Award for Un Instante en la Habana (A Havana Moment). A Cuban/Mexican/U.S./Columbian co-production, the film also won a special mention from the Ecumenical Jury. Two brothers separated for twenty three years are reunited in Havana because of the degenerative illness of the older sibling. Rather like events in the Eastern Mediterranean today, their mother has fled Cuba with the younger brother. On a rickety boat she’s caught by a rogue wave and drowns. Orphaned, her younger son Carlos has to adapt very quickly, attends U.S. schools and universities and looses his identity. Phone connections to Cuba are poor and fax and internet virtually non-existent. Meanwhile, his older brother Marcello is burdened with the duty of caring for their grandfather who’s in poor health. The one bright spot in Marcello’s life is his relationship with Lina, a Columbian lady doctor specializing in brain illnesses. She met Marcello through her work. Marcello is in the early stages of A.L.S. If he’s to continue to live independently he’ll need constant care. For this reason Lina has contacted Carlos. Initially, Marcello is extremely hostile to Carlos He’s also a tad jealous, as Carlos, based in New York is living the American Dream. Gradually, however, Carlos overcomes this hostility, assumes some of Marcello’s duties and re-establishes their bond. A moving film made on a very small budget.
In 2012, Austrian filmmakers Sabine Hiebler and Gerhard Ertl garnered several honours for their production Anfang 80, a haunting film about love in old age. This year, their new production, Chucks, won Le Prix du Public for most popular film. Based on a novel by Cornelia Travniek and starring Anna Posch, Markus Subrananiam and Thomas Schubert, Chucks shows the underside of life in present-day Vienna. Mae a punk rocker, roams the streets of the capital. She wears shoes left her by her recently deceased brother, lives in a condemned building, and spray paints protest logos late at night. Arrested for petty crime, she’s given a last chance: she must work as a nurse’s aid in a clinic for people infected with the AIDS virus. There she meets Peter, who’s a volunteer. Over several months they become closer. Peter is very honest and confesses that he’s more than a volunteer he has the virus. Mae lives in the now. Through her relationship with Peter she resolves several past issues in her life, re-establishes her relationship with her mother and finds her life’s work. The acting of Anna Posch as Mae and of Markus Subrananiam as Peter is superb. The film’s message of love and tolerance compliments that of Hiebler and Ertl’s earlier film.
Two films tied for best direction honours at the festival: Two Nights till Morning. A Finnish/Lithuania co-production directed by Mikko Kuparinen, and The Petrov File. A Bulgaria/German co-production directed by Georgi Balabanov. Caroline (Marie-Jose Croze), a French architect, is delayed by a volcanic sandstorm and has to spend an extra night in Vilnius, Lithuania. There she meets a Jaakko (Mikko Nousiainen), a pop musician in Vilnius for an engagement. Caroline speaks little or no English and Jaakko doesn’t speak French. An enjoyable evening ends in mutual pleasure. In the morning, everything changes when Jaakko realizes that Caroline speaks fluent English. Jaakko, somewhat confused, remains calm. Caroline in turn is embarrassed and relieved that she’s travelling to Paris that day. However, the volcanic cloud hasn’t dispersed, her plans are again thwarted. She finds space in the same hotel reconnects with Jaakko who suggests they get to know each other. Even though Caroline is in a same-sex relationship in France she’s taken by Jaakko and decides to give love a chance.
A very well-made film with sensitive nuanced performances by Croze and Nousiainen, The Petrov File is the story of an actor who, during the communist era in Bulgaria, is banned from working. On the change of regime, he discovers that he was denounced by a person he really admired. Then, Markov a well connected acquaintance, offers to help. Markov, former director of the secret service is now a businessman. The virtually free country is wrecked by speculative capitalism, violence, and gang wars. Markov wants Petrov to head a new political party pledging honesty and good government. Can this work or is the price Petrov must pay too high? Is Markov an honest man or a charlatan? Petrov must decide if he’ll take the role of his life. A high-stakes political thriller raising moral questions.
In contrast to last year the festival featured two Irish films and a German Irish co-production. Sadly none were in official competition. “What a lovely film with realistic performances,” said Montreal Gazette journalist Liz Smith of You’re Ugly Too. Directed and written by Mark Noonan with magical performances by child actress Lauren Kinsell and veteran Aidan Gillen, this dark comedy struck a cord with Montreal audiences. Will, a handyman is given compassionate release from prison because of the sudden death of his sister. Stacy, his precocious niece has been briefly with a foster family. Now Will, her only blood relative, has been given full care. A bachelor with a prison record, he’s never had family responsibilities before. As a parolee he must check in with the prison office by five each day and find gainful employment as quickly as possible. He also has some personal problems. Can he surmount these and do right by Stacy? A very well made first feature.
“Magical,” said C.B.C. Morning Host and Montreal Gazette journalist Brendan Kelly of An Ode to Love, an eight-minute cartoon by New Zealand-born Irish animator Matthew Darragh. A lonely man on a desert island explores the highs and lows of romantic love when a mysterious companion is washed ashore.
Happy Hour, directed and written by Franz Muller. Starring Simon Licht, Medi Nebbu, Alexnder Horbe and Susan Swanton was lensed in Germany, Co.Kerry, and Skibbereen, in the autumn of 2013 and is essentially a film about male bonding made for a German audience. Hans C.’s wife has left him. He’s in depression. His friends of twenty years Wolfgang and Nic decide that he must develop some back bone and that he needs a break. Wolfgang has a cottage in West Cork. Some time there may provide an answer. Ireland will allow them to recapture their youth. Who knows, they may even have some romantic interludes. Made with the help of the local authority the film has a deeply felt performance by actor Susan Swanton as Kat, a divorced woman in search of love. The final scene where Wolfgang decides to delay his departure and the use of Brian Wilson’s ‘“God Only Knows’ is hopeful. The feature will do well in Germany and may help Irish tourism.
Anthony Kirby, September 2015