It hardly feels a day since my last film festival – oh, wait, it’s been three days since my last film festival, which makes me sound like some sort of recovering filmaholic. Recovery may be too strong a word as my film addiction is as strong as ever, and so just a few days after I spent the weekend commuting to London for Film4 Frightfest, watching 16 films over five days, I’m now straight into this year’s 34th – and my fifth – Cambridge Film Festival. I was thoroughly excited by the prospect before it all started, but having only just finished blogging about FrightFest yesterday morning and then gotten in the car a few hours later to start all over again, I’m now feeling like Doc Brown at the end of Back To The Future 2, having just sent Marty back to the future, only to turn around and find him there again. Where we’re going, we don’t need roads, but I might need a stiff drink in about ten days time; I love doing it though, so feel no sympathy as it’s all self-inflicted.
I’m even more nervous this year, as over the course of the past two years I’ve failed miserably to get to the end of my own coverage. I abandoned at the end of Day 8 in 2012 and only got to Day 6 last year. In my defence, two years ago I went on holiday the day after the festival, and last year I also made my first set of contributions to Take One as well as continuing to cover stuff for Bums On Seats and hosting four Q & A sessions. This year is no different, so I’ll be aiming to get my write-ups done the next day, before I disappear down a black hole of other priorities.
So without further ado, here’s the films I saw on the first day of this year’s festival.
Supernova revolves around the life of a family stuck in a run-down house in the middle of nowhere. The monotony of their existence is related to us by daughter Meis (Gaite Jansen), an existence she shares primarily with her father, mother (Tamar van den Dop, who also writes and directs) and her dementia-stricken grandmother, who has recently lost her husband after he committed suicide in the nearby river. Meis attempts to alleviate her boredom by subtly provoking her parents, by the vaguely sapphic relationship with her best friend Sue (Elise van ‘t Laar) and by staring at the succession of container ships that drift by the half-bridge near her home. All the while, the house’s location on a sharp bend suggests that another careless driver finding himself in their living room is almost an inevitability.
You wouldn’t think that a story of teenage ennui could be so compelling, but van den Dop generates a masterful undercurrent of tension in as much in what could happen as in what doesn’t. She’s helped by a magnetic performance from Jansen, whose narration shows her book smarts but that they, along with the rest of her existence, are festering in this dead-end location with her apathetic family. Meis is an anti-Lolita, as she reaches an age of sexual awakening where she flaunts herself in mild acts of defiance but has no subject to show her any affection. Her disabled father, frustrated mother and is-she-or-isn’t-she demented grandmother all add rounded characters, and Supernova is just the right side of eccentric, with a darkly comic streak running through its centre. Jansen is often exposed, but never feels exploitative, and with Gregor Meerman’s rich cinematography and a soundtrack that varies its mood with the characters between classical and rock, Supernova proved to be a wonderful way to get the festival going.
The Score: 8/10
Supernova is showing again tonight (Friday 31st August) at 20:30 at Emmanuel College.
The Woman Who Dares (Die frau, die sich traut)
The Woman Who Dares has the feeling of one of those stirring triumph over adversity films that the British have done so well over the past few decades, but in this case it’s a German production that tells the story of Beate (Steffi Kühnert), a German woman who abandoned her dreams of Olympic success at the age of 17 to focus on the imminent arrival of her family. Now approaching 50 with two children, one still living at home and about to welcome their first child and the other a single mother struggling to raise her own child, a sudden diagnosis of a cervical tumour causes her to re-evaluate her priorities and she determines to swim the English Channel before its too late. While her family struggle to understand what she’s going through – not least because she refuses to share, or even contemplate, her diagnosis – her rock of support and her conscience can be found in her best friend Katrin (Anna Blomeier).
Where the British have this kind of story honed to perfection and can now churn them out seemingly at will, there are a few flaws in the German version. Most prominently, these are the repeated needs to seemingly add false jeopardy when the story would be compelling enough without them, and the complete loss of focus on the various narrative sub-plots as the story steers toward its conclusion. What does work well is the central story between Beate and Katrin, with both Kühnert and Blohmeier giving deeply emotional performances; it’s just a shame that director Marc Rensing never quite knows how to integrate the stories of Beate’s family or her GDR backstory successfully into that story. There are moments of humour, and the story is heartfelt, but there are sometimes too many obstacles placed in Beate’s way for the story to truly convince. It’s competently lensed, with some nice overhead shots in the final stretch, and for those happy to take away the story of a middle aged woman chasing her dreams the core story might still be enough.
The Score: 6/10
The Woman Who Dares is showing again on Sunday 2nd September at 21:00 at the Cambridge Arts Picturehouse.
I was then hoping to watch Sacre GRA in the evening, but sadly issues with the subtitles ultimately prevented the film being shown. Thanks to the staff at the Festival and the Arts Picturehouse for their efforts to try to overcome the issues (which thankfully are a rarity at the festival, despite the high volume of unique product that ends up being shown). There is another chance to watch Sacre GRA today (Friday) at 16:30.
Magic In The Moonlight
Magic In The Moonlight is, apparently, the 20th Woody Allen film to preview at the Cambridge Film Festival in its 34 year existence. This says much about both the festival’s draw and Allen’s productivity, although I would venture the quality of those 20 films may be somewhat mixed. Probably the best of the last few years, Midnight In Paris, popped up at the festival a couple of years ago and Allen has returned to a European setting, this time of the roaring Twenties, for a romantic comedy set in the worlds of mysticism and magic. Colin Firth is a stage magician called Stanley who operates under a Chinese pseudonym and disguise, but who’s made a nice sideline in debunking mediums and spiritualists. He’s called in by a fellow magician (Simon McBurney) to try to see through a new young mentalist (Emma Stone) who’s causing a stir in the French Riviera with her seemingly impossible qualities. Despite his insistence that all such performers are merely confidence tricksters and that the supernatural realm doesn’t exist, the quality of her insights soon has him doubting his beliefs to their very core.
The absolute star here is Firth, allowed to grumble around at his most irascible and able to turn on the charm even while managing to be obnoxious and stubborn. He’s slightly oddly matched with Stone, who convinces as the young mind reader with impossible gifts through her innocence and forthright manner, but the chemistry between the two barely simmers when it should sizzle. Allen has packed out his cast, as he usually does, with actors no doubt tripping over themselves to get into a Woody Allen film, but despite famous names from Marcia Gay Harden to Eileen Atkins, the biggest impression other than Firth is made by Eileen Atkins as Firth’s aunt. The problems lie in Allen’s script, which feels more of an idea than a fully formed story; I reckon I could have a reasonable go at summarising the plot on the back of a postage stamp. Additionally, if you apply Firth’s principles to the story there can only be one possible outcome, which the plot duly steers us to, and attempts to reference everything from Nietzsche to Shakespeare don’t do much to add profundity. If you’re a fan of Allen and are looking for something light, breezy and undemanding, then the Twenties soundtrack and French locations will give you a satisfying last taste of summer, but this is very much middle-tier Woody.
The Score: 6/10
Magic In The Moonlight is showing again tonight (Friday 31st August) at 23:00 at the Cambridge Arts Picturehouse, and is on general release from Friday 19th September.