For some mysterious reason, no matter how painful childbirth is, women usually forget the agony and head back for another go-round. So it is with the film festival. Every year I start off in mid-May all bright-eyed and fresh, leafing through the catalogue and lip-lickingly choosing my fare. By June I'm haggard and bitter, awash in the mediocre with only the occasional sighting of what I might call, without embarrassment or compromise, the sublime. Or even the OK.
The film festival can be many things: a chore, a marathon, a proving ground, an education. But too seldom is it an orgy. There's often just not enough pleasure spread over this long month. This year, things may be different. The SIFF programmers are trying to hand us all a nice bowl of candy. Brainy candy. International candy. Healthy candy. But candy still. At the risk of sounding like a shill, I have to say this looks to be one of the most solid, promising, and yes, pleasurable festivals of recent vintage. Eat the candy.
My first, and most sexist, guess at the reason for this new mood at the fest is that there are so many films by women this year. Among the American films alone, there's a fresh attention to storytelling and romanticism and detail in the onslaught of smallish films from women directors: Lisa Cholodenko's characters in High Art inhabit an almost all-female world, with Ally Sheedy of all people galvanizing the group as a Nan Goldinlike photographer; Seattleite Meg Richman pissed off industry critics with the girly sensibility and shameless beauty of Under Heaven; Julia Sweeney gets all unapologetically (and hilariously) emotional in God Said Ha!. Jane Anderson's made-for-TV The Baby Dance transcends its movie-of-the-week premise—rich, infertile, LA lady "buys" a baby from a pregnant Louisiana cracker—through powerful, polar performances from Stockard Channing and Laura "honorary cracker" Dern. Other strong, woman-directed American films include Lynn Hershman Leeson's Conceiving Ada, Julie Lynch's Remembering Sex, Sara Moore's Homo Heights, Susan Muska and Greta Olafsdottir's The Brandon Teena Story, and the first film from Twin Peaks actress Joan Chen: Xiu Xiu—The Sent Down Girl. Of course, it's dangerous to generalize among such a wildly divergent group of films. But can it be a coincidence that in such a good festival year there are so many films by women? she asked chauvinistically.
While, sadly, the festival isn't staging a director tribute this year, there's a solid lineup of films from past festival favorite directors and strong, popular voices. This year finds new work from Tony Gatlif (Mondo, Latcho Drom) with Gadjo Dilo, another Gypsy tale; Hal Hartley (Trust, Simple Men) with Henry Fool; Henry Jaglom (Eating, Babyfever) with more middle-class angst and belly gazing in Deja Vu; Whit Stillman (Metropolitan, Barcelona) with the 1980s period piece The Last Days of Disco; Michael Apted (the 7Up series) with the fine documentary Inspirations; and finally a mini-tribute to Lars von Trier (Breaking the Waves) with an all-day marathon screening of his KingdomI (1995) and Kingdom II (1997), a modern allegory set in a Swedish hospital. Also screening is Tranceformer, a documentary about the eccentric von Trier and his work from Danish film critic Stig Bjorkman.
There is also lots of opportunity for Great Director frissons from this year's archival selections, which includes Kurosawa's good old masterpiece Rashomon in a newly restored 35mm print, and a new version of Fellini's Nights of Cabiria with seven minutes of footage that haven't been seen since the film's first screening at Cannes in 1957. Other archival highlights include a newly colored print of the Jacques Tati film Jour de Fete and a performance of Nosferatu accompanied by the Alloy Orchestra.
The festival is crowded with British films that have had wildly popular, critically acclaimed runs back across the water. Three to watch for: Lawn Dogs, a British/American co-production starring Box of Moonlight's Sam Rockwell; Shooting Fish, a youthful grifter tale with the irresistible Kate Beckinsale (Cold Comfort Farm); and of course the hotly anticipated Wilde, the Oscar Wilde bio pic wherein Stephen Fry is rumored to not so much portray Wilde as to channel him.
There are big, fat sure-to-be-released movies in abundance, including the opening-night film, Firelight, with Sophie Marceau and Stephen Dillane; the closing-night Quinnfest, This Is My Father, starring Aidan Quinn, directed by brother Paul, and shot by cinematographer brother Declan; and then there's the midfestival gala film, Sherman Alexie's Smoke Signals, about which we couldn't be more thrilled. But I'll end by focusing not on these more visible films but instead, in proper festival rock-turning-over fashion, on two minor beauties. One I've not yet seen but have read and heard so much about that I have to pass on the buzz: A 50-minute film called See the Sea, from highly touted French talent FranÇois Ozon, tells the simple and chilling story of a backpacker who pitches her tent on a stranger's lawn and decides to stay (shades of Chantal Ackerman's Man with a Suitcase). And the other is an Estonian film I have seen: the miraculous Georgica, the story of an old man alone on an island with just his strange habits for company—at least until a young, mute boy shows up. The film layers into another level as the boy remembers his childhood and Jakub returns in memory to his time as a missionary in Africa. Patterns of thought and memory are mapped exquisitely—the film works like a poem, creating what Valéry called "a language inside a language." Strange candy