Official Selection International Feature Film
Dir. Johannes Nyholm
The Richter Scale says: We all try to escape death. It’s something we know we’ll eventually have to face, and yet our fear is such that we try to avoid it at all costs, even if it means we get to reunite with someone we already lost to death. Johannes Nyholm’s film has the structure of a video game. We see an event happen over and over again, with our characters trying something new every time it happens to avoid something horrible that, no matter what our protagonists do, always keeps happening. These protagonists are Tobias (Leif Edlund) and Elin (Ylva Gallon), a couple who three years ago lost a daughter to a mysterious disease (something they show us in a scene that is as brutal as it is cruelly comical), and now they are at a point in their relationship where it is hard for them to be together and whatever one of them does annoys the other one. They try to salvage the relationship with an outdoor camping trip, but one night when Elin needs to pee, she is stalked by a circus performer (Peter Belli) and his assistants who then go to the tent to attack Tobias. Once this event happens, we see the couple driving or lying in the tent as if nothing has happened, but it happens again and the viewer is never sure if they actually lived through it the first time it happened or if we are seeing an alternate universe, or maybe even a dream.
This film has the structure and aesthetics of a nightmare, using that Scandinavian chill and distance in its favor so that the audience feels uncomfortable with what is happening, constantly focusing on something other than the faces of our characters, which results in the viewers picturing themselves in the skins of our protagonists, being stalked by characters who do not explain what they have against us. Breaking the sometimes inevitable monotony of this structure, there are some animated sequences that show us rabbits that could symbolize either this family (when the daughter gets sick, her face is painted as if she were a rabbit, for example) or humanity in general, and a yellow bird that either takes away a rabbit or that rabbits try to hunt, possibly symbolizes death. These sequences use a childlike point of view that keep us connected with this couple’s tragedy, which makes them particularly vulnerable, and the feeling that perhaps nothing we are seeing is real.
But like any horror movie, particularly one that’s meant to make one feel uneasy, the important thing is not what happens on screen in a concrete way, but the feelings it stirs in the viewer. Nyholm’s greatest achievement in this film is how disturbing it is, examining the danger that the characters we see are in and what that danger symbolizes. The cast do what they must (Edlund and Gallon create the right rhythms of a couple in conflict and enough sympathy so that we don’t want to see them stalked and killed, and Belli has a voice and a face disturbing enough for his part), even though it’s clear that the characters are not what the filmmaker seeks to highlight. Sometimes cinema seeks not to tell a story, but to create an experience, particularly horror cinema, which intends for the viewer to identify with what they see. From that perspective, this is a triumph.
My Own Private Idaho
Special Screening International Tribute
Dir. Gus Van Sant
The Richter Scale says: To pay tribute to filmmaker Gus Van Sant (whom we saw obtain the Silver Cross in this edition of GIFF), we decided to highlight one of his films that will be screened today at the Festival. His 1991 film My Own Private Idaho is one of his most characteristic films, one in which he explores a marginalized society in the United States. In this case, street prostitutes who have nothing but their bodies and their wits that they must use to survive. This film focuses on two. Mike Waters (River Phoenix, the elder brother of renowned actor Joaquin Phoenix, who tragically died at age 23 from an overdose) suffers from narcolepsy (a condition in which one falls asleep from nowhere for a long time at a time) and who comes from a family that abandoned him, although he constantly dreams of his mother, which leads him to want to find her. Scott Favor (Keanu Reeves, who is more popular than ever now, so it is not necessary to say more about him) comes from a very wealthy family and will inherit a fortune when he turns 21, but for now he wants to rebel against his family and spend time with his companions in this underworld (this character is inspired by Henry V from the works of William Shakespeare, and there is even a character who is constantly quoting from these particular plays).
Those of us who know Van Sant’s work recognize many of his trademarks, including a lyrical rhythm, a focus on images not necessarily in motion (including an erotic sequence that is shown as a series of photographs), an aesthetic of colors so marked that they look like paintings (Van Sant tells us that he started out as a painter and cinema caught his eye as an extension of that) and many shots of the clouds. There are moments in the film that feel like theater (particularly sequences that include the character of Bob Pigeon, played by William Richert and in some ways the Falstaff of the story), which is consistent with something Van Sant said in his Master Class, that at the time his scripts had many words, but he manages to give them a cinematic rhythm and vitality by filling the screen with montages of images that give it a surrealist feeling, but then there are scenes like the one in which Mike and Scott are sitting next to a campfire on the side of the road in Idaho (one that Phoenix apparently wrote himself) that, despite being a conversation between two characters, what they say is so casual and so emotional and the location in which they are so visually distinctive, it feels like something that only works in cinema.
This is also an early example of Keanu Reeves’ idiosyncratic presence and charisma and the talent that was lost with the death of River Phoenix, both embodying their characters in a stylized but casual way, which keeps this story grounded when it threatens to fly off in many directions. One can tell this is a very personal film, one that portrays a world that means a lot to Van Sant, and it is just that affection that rubs off on the viewer and makes them connect with this world of people who may seem degenerate, but have stories to tell and dreams they seek to achieve (an ingenious sequence in which each character speaks to the audience as if they’re photographs on a porn magazine cover is where that side of the story stands out the most).