The 47th Karlovy Film festival came to an end on Saturday after the jury presented Norway's Martin Lund with the Grand Prix – and $25,000 – for his film The Almost Man. I have to say, though, that for this to be the case there couldn't have been much strong competition. Although it has some very funny moments, and an engagingly offbeat leading man in the Chris O'Dowd-like Henrik Rafaelson (who also won Best Actor), this might have been better titled The Almost Film. Inevitably for a Scandinavian film, it raises the spectre of Denmark's Dogme movement, not so much for its jittery, handheld style but for the simplicity of the story, its realism and its darkness.
Rafaelson plays Henrik (itself a Dogme-esque flourish), a 30-something husband whose work life is going nowhere. Henrik is bored at the office and unwilling to commit fully to starting a family with his wife at home, and so he lives in a childlike, childless limbo, unwilling to jettison the bachelor boys who make up his group of friends. The scenes of the hapless Henrik seemingly slipping through the cracks are the best, such as the bathetic conference scene where his name tag doesn't appear and, while he's waiting for it, the rest of the team go in without him. The film's darker comedy, however, isn't quite so endearing. Henrik oversteps boundaries that test our sympathy – pissing on a child's book in his wife's friend's car, then later drunkenly punching a workmate – although the funny thing is, at the film's world premiere the Czech audiences loved it. Maybe it's a cultural thing, but I'd be surprised if The Almost Man found a similar reaction in the UK.
As ever in KV, one of the highlights for me was the chance to catch up on classics I'm not all that familiar with. This year, I took the chance to see two films by Jean-Pierre Melville, starting with Le Samourai (1967, pictured), starring Alain Delon. Though the print was a little dark at times, this was a rare chance to see a film that, due to copyright issues, is not often shown on the big screen. I was ready for the film to be cool and stylish but I was bowled over by Melville's technical proficiency. This is a film as much about space as story, and it ranks alongside some of the best of Hitchcock in that respect.
Delon plays Jef Costello, a professional assassin who is hired to kill a nightclub owner. This he does, covering his tracks expertly, but there are too many witnesses: one in particular who refuses to denounce him to the police. Shot and almost killed by his paymasters, Jef then finds himself caught between the cops and the underworld, but though there is tension and suspense enough in Melville's film, this isn't a standard gangster movie. Instead, Melville creates a series of situations, from which Jef, inscrutable and unblinking, must emerge with the upper hand. The end resembles the then-recent existential crime thriller Blow-Up (with a few dashes of both Breathless and Sam Fuller's Underworld USA), but this is an exquisite movie on its own terms. Melville creates his own time and world, sold on Delon's shoulders with a wardrobe modelled on the US noir films of the 1940s and 50s but with an intellectual, literate identity all of its very own.
Before Melville's 1969 film L'Armee Des Ombres (Army Of Shadows) I saw Sergei Loztitza's Cannes entry In The Fog, aka V Tumane, a period film about the Russian resistance in Belarus. This was convenient in the sense that both films cover the same topic from different angles, with Loznitza's film beginning with the murder of several unnamed men for an unspecified crime against the Nazis. It transpires that one man survived, and the film explores his guilt as the resistance comes looking for him to kill him, assuming that he must have informed on his friends in order to survive. What happens next, though tough and bleak, is not so much depressing as a thoughtful meditation about the ramifications of life during wartime. In The Fog, though it also literally ends as its title suggests, is about the fog that descended during those occupied times, when neighbour was pitted against neighbour and morality became so murky that a man accused of betrayal would rather die than live with the stigma. This gang mentality chimed nicely with another KV gala screening – Thomas Vinterberg's The Hunt, which also deals with the horrors of the wolf-pack mentality, this time when a smalltown teacher is accused of inappropriate behaviour with a little girl.
Neither of these films, however, prepared me for Army Of Shadows, which is, quite frankly, amazing. Dismissed by the French for its apparently right-leaning sentiments (and the immediate period post-1968 was not really the best time to be dealing with political ambiguities in France), this is deemed Melville's lost masterpiece, left to rot and decay until its restoration in 2006. There are some slightly shonky moments, in terms of make-up and effects, but Melville's film takes In The Fog's portrayal of life amid conflict even further. In structure it perhaps resembles Alan Clark's Elephant, being a roundelay of events in the (real) lives of several French resistance agents working out of Marseille. Hitchcock again is a reference, especially in a breathtaking political murder scene that takes the protracted killing in Torn Curtain to disturbing new levels. It occurred me after the movie was over that one of Melville's strengths was in portraying not just suspense, tension, all the usual thriller stuff, but a palpable sense of fear. This comes across not just in the aforementioned scene but in an another, in which the oblique Philippe Gerbier – played by Lino Ventura – prepares for a parachute drop after a secret visit to London. Again, space is paramount, and, as he does throughout the film, Melville frequently pulls back to make use of the full frame.
Perhaps my favourite scene, however, has nothing to do with the war, or the shadowy network of agents who, though they are ostensibly a force for good, are shot, and lit, and dressed like gangsters. Instead, it is a scene in which Philippe happens on a GI bar during his London trip, watching servicemen and women jive to Glenn Miller while, only streets away, the Luftwaffe's bombs are dropping. Melville breaks mode here, and the film adopts a verité look at odds with the rest of the film's tenebrous, brooding style (and it definitely is a style). It made me think of a filmmaker stepping outside of his story for a moment, stopping to admire the things that seem normal in abnormal circumstances. It was a fitting film, then, to share a festival with Good Vibrations; in which people don't so much walk as pogo in the valley of the shadow of death. I don't think it's any accident that Karlovy Vary programmes such films, and this year's edition of the festival continues to prove its worth as a place where the spirit of film is timeless, vibrant and very definitely alive.