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20th Festival of Nordic Cinema in Rouen

The 20th edition of this specialized festival in north-western France (March 21
-- April 01, 2007) was a bit of a disappointment this year in terms of competition films and visiting personalities, at least compared to the four previous times I have made it my business to be here. In the past there have always been unusual films in the competition section and visitations by major figures, actors and/or directors, from the countries covered here, which includes, incidentally, Belgium, Holland and the Baltics in addition to the usual Nordic "suspects", Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Denmark and Finland.
This year the competition films were nothing to write home about and prominent Nordic film personalities were prominently absent. There were, of course, interesting films in special non-competition sections, and there were some interesting visitors, but no big names -- no Kaurismakis, Lars von Triers, Andre Delvauxs, Vilgot Sjomans, Mads Mikkelsons, and the like -- the likes of whom have visited rouen in the past and who would be known beyond their local territories. The festival seems to be in dire straits financially which may to some extent account for the lack of big name figures this year, or perhaps it may just be that a festival which has no press contingent to speak of and whose basic language is French only, is not very attractive to filmmakers and performers interested in promoting their international image.

Although this festival is one of the most comprehensive of its kind, specializing exclusively in films from the Nordic area, it is, for better or for worse, run something like a private club for the benefit of selected friends of the management and a select subset of Rouen cinephiles, with basically the same few hundred familiar faces turning out each March to feast on the delicacies of this highly refined celluloid smorgasbord. The juries are generally composed of little known French actors or media personalities with a sprinkling of francophone others, and there is invariably a sale of books on Nordic themes in the Festival reception tent to add a taste of literary spice to the proceedings. One of the true delicacies of the 20th anniversary edition was a most exceptional exposition of collectors Item posters of various films shown here in the past -- among them a marvelous French poster of Fellini's "La Dolce Vita" with a scrumptious semi-pornographic Anita Ekberg scrambling barefoot out of the famous Trevi fountain in Rome, various original French edition posters of Bergman classics, and a hoaky French poster for "The Vikings" (USA, 1958) featuring a one-eyed Kirk Douglas and his "Viking" cohort, a young Tony Curtis, as typical Hollywood Norsemen.

The festival was divided this year into a number of sections as follows: (1) The official selection, comprising nine films, none from a big name director except for Susan Bier of Denmark, whose "After the Wedding" has already made the rounds of the festivals in 2006 and has been amply rewarded. It should be mentioned that Ms. Bier is now well established as one of Denmark's leading directors, even ahead of Lars von Trier and Bille August. In this section there were three films from Norway, two from the Netherlands, and one each from Sweden, Denmark, Finland and Denmark. Norway's "Reprise" by debuting director Joachim Trier was named Best Film of the fest. I didn't get to see it so comment is reserved. (2) A selection of twelve new films entitled "Nordic Panorama" the highlight of which was paul Verhoeven's "Black Book" (Zwartboek). (3) "Looking back on Twenty Years", a retrosective selection of the most memorable films shown during the past two decades, (4) Ten years of Dutch Cinema, (5) A tribute to Swedish cameraman, Sven Nykvist , long term collaborator OF Ingmar Bergman on some twenty films -- his famous quote: "I trust my eyes more than my light meter"; -- (6) A tribute to Dutch Director Fons Rademaker, who would have been a special guest of the festival had he not passed away only weeks before at the venerable age of 87
-- (7) A nine film retrospective of the films of little known Belgian director Marion Hansel, (8) A special set of short documentaries entitled "Nordic Cities" which encompassed interesting portraits of Copenhagen, Oslo, Amsterdam, Rotterdam and Stockholm.

One of the most interesting films of all, shown in the context of "Twenty Years Looking Back", was a 1955 full-length (96 minutes) documentary on the legendary Danish film pioneer, Carll Dreyer, made by Torben Skjo/dt Jensen.
Dreyer, born in 1883 made one of the most famous films in all of cinema history, the almost unbearably painful "Trial of Joan of Arc" (silent, 1931) which is used to this day in many film schools as a template for study.
Dreyer made few films but nearly every one (Vampyr, Ordet, Day of Wrath) are still regarded as monumental (though rarely seen) classics. Jensen's narrative documentary features actors, colleaugues and filmmakers who worked with Dreyer as well as clips from many of his films and some very rare footage of the director himself. What emerges is the picture of a rather diffident, very average looking man, but one who knew exactly what he wanted and went to extremes to see that his conception was properly put on the screen exactly as he conceived it.

I spent most of my time at the Nordic Panorama -- recent films from 2005 and
2006 -- for me the richest sectiion of the festival. Among the ten films in this section three at least are worthy of special comment, the latest offerings from Chantal Ackerman of Belgium, Aki Kaurismaki of Finland, and Paul Verhoeven, working back in Holland again after a 20 year "leave of absence" in Hollywood. Ackerman's Belgian entry "LA-BAS" ("There" or "In that place") can only be described as experimental -- with a captital X.
Being of jewish origin she was offered funds to make a film in Israel but could think of no appropriate theme or story. So, in absence of story, she set her camera up in a dark Tel aviv apartment and just let it run observing in still life through half-drawn venetian blinds some people on the balcony of a building across the way. Some motionless sequences devoid of sound except for barely heard street noises run for as much as ten minutes -- an eternity on screen. An unseen narrator (the director herself?) occasionally answers the phone in French, and on one occasion in Hebrew -- apologizing for her deficiencies in the local lingo. We finally get out of the huis-clos for a few minutes on the beach toward the end. I would call this 78 minute film 'restful' rather than boring -- at any rate it isn't as boring as Andy Warhol's infamous eight hour motionless study of the Empire state Building.
If not exactly one for the multiplexes it should offer great riches to the Film Quarterly semioticians.

If Chantal Ackerman's spare study of nothingness was "experimental" the word which applies to Aki Kaurismaki's "Lights in the Dark" (LAITAKAUPUNGIN
VALOT) is "Minimalist" -- to the MAX! Kaurismaki has always been known for showing no more than what is absolutely necessary to make a story point in his spare but compassionate studies of Finnish losers in Helsinki, but in this film he distills it down to the very nittiest-of-grit. "Lights in the Dark" (or Shadows in the Slums) tells the story of the misadventures of a handsome security guard and his ill-fated romance with the beautiful moll of a sinister local gangster. The story line is so compressed it's almost hard to follow what exactly is going on, however, when our hero dies at the end clutching the hand of the exotic femme fatale who brought about his demise, we realize that we have actually been through a lot more than the 78 minutes which just went by on screen. This is the kind of picture where, if you blink, you've missed a whole important plot point, but it's also an exceptional treat for those who have followed Aki's career over the years -- like a special desert at the end of a long feast. Another teasingly minimalist touch is the appearance of Kaurismaki's usual leading lady, Katti Outinen, in a 30 second cameo as -- what else? -- a supermarket checkout cashier. Don't blink or you'll miss her too. This latest offering from Kaurismaki may not be for every taste, but it is certainly something special and would be a perfect swan song were the taciturn Finn to step out of the picture tomorrow.

Finally, the undisputed highlight of an otherwise routine week in Rouen was that "Basic Instinct" man, Paul Verhoeven's new Dutch film, "Zwartboek" or (the little) Black Book. After a 20 year Hollywood career during which the Dutch director came up with such megahits as "Robocop" and "Basic Instinct"
Black Book marks his return to his native turf and native language. The story, co-written by verhoeven, centers on a very attractive Jewish woman who is the sole survivor of a group of jews attempting to escape from occupied Holland towards the end of the war in a boat. Posing as a gentile blonde under a non-Jewish name (her false papers furnished by the
Underground) she becomes the mistress of a highly placed Gestapo officer and is given a job in Gestapo Headquarters from where she is able to pass critical information on to the resistance. However, one thing leads to another in this highly charged complex plot where everybody is double-crossing everybody else in a typically Verhoevenesque drama of interlocking paranoia. Eventually Miss De Vries's cover is blown and another ultimately sleasy Gestaponik succeeds in making it look like she is actually collaborating with the Krauts. In the end as the Americans arrive and the country is liberated she is being chased by both sides -- especially because she has come into posession of a little black book which gives facts, figures, and names of key people involved in the fake smuggling of Jews with big-big dividends. In a role which reads something like The Perils of Pauline in WW II our heroine (Carice van Houten) at one point has to gobble a whole chocolate bar to counteract a nearly fatal dose of insulin injected into her arm by a false Dutch "hero" of The Resistance.

The plot is so complicated that it may take two viewings to sort it all out, but one thing which is perfectly clear -- (to invoke the words of an infamous ex-president) -- perfectly clear it is, that Carice van Houten, the heroine of the story, is, with this film, well on the way to installing herself as the next great internation female Superstar. (Remember, you read it here first!) Ms. Van Houten, who is probably pushing thirty, has been around for a while and is currently the most popular actress in Holland -- which isn't saying much in terms of international recognition, but Little Black Book is on marquees almost everywhere so it seems to be only a matter of time before she is discovered by the outside world. Van Houten has a screen presence far more gripping than Sharon Stone, who became an overnight star as the heroine of Verhoeven's "Basic Instinct" circa 1991 and is a far better actress. If "Black Book", which is currently on wide release in the States, doesn't do it for her all Verhoeven needs to do to launch another (more high-powered) Sharon Stone, is to come out with "Basic Instinct III"
with Van Houten in the lead and La Stone will be a forgotten melody. Carice van Houten has it all; charisma, good looks both enigmatic and down-to-earth, sex appeal to burn -- AND she can act! This may be ridiculously early to talk about Oscar 2008, but in my book she's already there.

Among other problems the Rouen Nordic is in danger of losing its principal venue, the Melville multiplex, which has been home base for the festival since its inception. The building is apparently up on the block for urban renewal, which would certainly be a catastrophe. A large sign over the Melville marquee bears the words "Sauvez Le Melville" and there is a movement afoot in Rouen calling itself "Duexieme Souffle", or "Second Breath" dedicated to saving the festival. I for one wish them all the best;

Alex Deleon



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