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San Sebastian Film Festival 2013: First Report – Enemy, Le Week-end, Quai D'Orsay and The Railway Man

Posted on Sunday September 29, 2013, 18:03 by Damon Wise in Words From The Wise
San Sebastian Film Festival 2013: First Report – Enemy, Le Week-end, Quai D'Orsay and The Railway Man

The 61st San Sebastian Film Festival ended Saturday night by giving its highest award, the Golden Shell to Mariana Rondon’s Bad Hair, a lightly gay-themed South American drama that deals with a mother trying to come to terms with her pre-teen son’s obsession with straightening his hair. Todd Haynes’ jury apparently gave it a clean sweep, but this year’s competition selection was nothing if not varied, from Argentinian animation (Juan Jose Campanella’s Foosball) to French political drama (Bertrand Tavernier’s Quai D’Orsay), via British whimsy (Roger Michell’s Le Week-end).

But by far the strangest in the line-up was Denis Villeneuve’s companion piece to this weekend’s release, Prisoners. Though it was shot back to back with that film, and also stars Jake Gyllenhaal, Enemy (pictured) bears no relation at all to the recent Hugh Jackman kidnap drama. In fact, it bears very little of consequence to anything at all; unusually for Villeneuve – who likes to deal with complex moral issues, as he did in 2010’s Incendies and 2009’s Polytechnique – this is a very freeform and unapologetically surrealistic proposition, feeling much more like a twisted Lynchian nightmare than his usual narrative-driven output.

Gyllenhaal plays two roles, the first being shy, retiring history professor Adam Bell. Adam teaches history as a cycle and does so in cycles; we see him parroting the same rote ideas to successive classes, each time losing more and more of his conviction. Adam lives with his wife (Sarah Gadon), and one night, watching a film on a friend’s recommendation, he sees his doppelganger in the background. Seeking him out, Adam finds the whereabouts of actor Anthony Clair and makes the bold move of suggesting a meeting. This they do, sparking a mental meltdown in Adam and inspiring a menacing sense of mischief in Anthony.

That Adam and Anthony aren’t just a bit alike – they are exact doubles, down to beards and birthmarks – is something of a giveaway that this isn’t an exercise in realism. Instead, it is more of a mood piece, made extra creepy by the regular allusions to tarantulas that appear in several dream sequences. The ending is a doozy, but, peculiarly, that isn’t what divided audiences at the festival – the main arguments weren’t about whether anything was resolved in the final scene but whether anything was achieved in the scenes leading up to it. Personally, I’m still not quite sure about what I saw; I liked the way its oddness played out, and the washed-out, lived-in fish-tank colours of Nicholas Bolduc’s cinematography certainly created atmosphere. But what’s it about? I do understand the metaphysical implications – it's a story about a man who haunts himself. Other than that, though, I have no idea. And after Villeneuve gets Prisoners out of the way, I really hope to find out more.

Le Week-end was a much more straightforward proposition, the playful but still rather bookish tale of a married couple’s late-life crisis. Shot from a screenplay by Hanif Kureishi, the film stars Jim Broadbent and Lindsay Duncan as Nick and Meg Burrows, rather less worldly characters than one often finds in the writer's stories; he is a college professor, she a teacher, both live in Birmingham. The weekend of the title refers to a foreign holiday, an attempt by both to recapture their youth, when Paris was place of romantic interest – the site of student riots, home to the graves of obscure poets and the scene of Jean-Luc Godard’s intellectual arthouse movies. Their, or perhaps just his, plan to rekindle the spark of love is something that does and doesn’t happen at various turns in the film, but things reach a head when Nick runs into an old college friend (Jeff Goldblum), who invites them to a dinner party.

At this point, we’re in more recognisable Kureishi territory, as our innocents step into a sophisticated, bohemian world of artists and poets, arguably a parallel world into which their younger selves once wanted to be assimilated. It’s this disjunct between ambition and reality that gives Le Week-end its kick, since we never normally see the vicissitudes of late married life, usually just the first flowering of it. As I said, the script is a little novelistic, with the kind of stark declarations that people rarely say out loud in life, but there is a lot of soul in this small, sweet, melancholy film. Most of this comes from Lindsay Duncan, who is quite superb as the disillusioned Meg; her performance covers all bases – elegant, warm, funny, stinging and sexy – and really deserves some Bafta attention in the coming months. The crowbarring-in of references to Godard’s Bande A Parte are a little hamfisted, but a little cinematic trainspotting never caused any harm.

It’s impossible to imagine that Bertrand Tavernier’s Quai D’Orsay won’t be a huge deal in France; it will be a low-key money-spinner for any distributor who buys it for the UK, since this is just the kind of upscale comedy that Francophiles flock to here. A mix of Yes, Minister and In The Loop – without the latter’s more biting social satire – it stars Raphael Personnaz as Arthur, a young scriptwriter who is hired by government minister Taillard (Thierry Lhermitte) to write and finesse his speeches.

Though Taillard talks about rogue states with nuclear potential, and routinely dismisses NATO, this isn’t a specifically political film as such, rather it is about the art of politics, about the minister's vanities and delusions and the institutionalised staff that have to deal with them. Compared to In The Loop, it doesn’t have a lot of bite, but there is great warmth here, with some outstanding supporting players (notably A Prophet’s Niels Arestrup, playing against type). However, the film belongs to Lhermitte – star of the French version of Doc Martin – in a bravura performance that will surely bring him a whole new career.

Jonathan Teplitzky’s The Railway Man was my great miss of Toronto, scheduled as it was at the same time as 12 Years A Slave and overlapping with Dallas Buyers Club. Unsurprisingly, it caused few international media ripples there as a result, but now that Harvey Weinstein is getting behind it, that position might very easily change soon. The reserved Britishness of the subject matter may possibly go against it in the Oscar stakes – Teplitzky never resorts to grandeur and bombast to make his protagonist a more recognisable war hero – but the film’s message is sure to strike a chord with older audiences, especially those maxed out by war stories in hock to strings and spectacle, who crave something more subtle, human and deep-down emotional to respond to.

Colin Firth stars as Eric Lomax, a WW2 veteran who, by chance, meets a woman on the train and pursues her to the altar. After they are married, his wife Patricia (Nicole Kidman) sees a new side to Eric – he lives in dowdy solitude, surrounded by train memorabilia, and is seriously tormented by night terrors. (How much Lomax is caught in the past is represented by an unfurnished spare room, where his soldier’s uniform still hangs in the wardrobe, his old suitcase nearby.) Patricia tries to get Eric to open up, but he refuses, so she takes matters into her own hands, speaking to Eric’s lifelong friend Finlay (Stellan Skarsgard) and vowing to get to the bottom of his horrific wartime traumas, which, it transpires, stem from his time as a Japanese prisoner of war in Burma, 1952.

To start with the deficits, Teplitzky’s film does take a little time to warm up, and for a while it seems that Kidman’s character will be much more central to the story than she actually is. But when it starts to gel, The Railway Man does tell a unique and pretty astonishing story, made particularly impressive by Jeremy Irvine’s performance as the young Eric. Quite frankly, this is the true heart of the movie; where most films can’t seem to square young/old casting (Fred Schepisi’s Last Orders springs to mind), The Railway Man nails it. Irvine is never less than believable, and the older actor seems to synch with his younger self in a way that totally sells what will happen in the last quarter of the movie.

Frank Cottrell Boyce’s script does perhaps leave us with some inconsistencies to ponder – Eric makes a rather swift transition from cranky loner to loving husband, and then leaves his wife to go off and face his demons in modern Burma – and some secondary characters are a little thinly sketched. But The Railway Man has some genuinely new insights to offer about aspects of the Second World War that continue to be controversial. It’s a measure of the difficulty in doing so that Teplitzky’s film treads a fine line between under and overselling the violence of the Japanese. But that it effortlessly sells us Eric’s story is the proof that it shouldn’t be underrated as a serious awards-season contender.

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