At first glance, the Gstaad Palace looks like the last vestige of European aristocracy. The town of Gstaad, Switzerland itself catered only to the ultra-wealthy of the 20th century as evinced by quite the proud roll call of celebrities and moguls on its Wikipedia page. So, the Palace (notably not “l’hôtel” nor the “chalet”) should theoretically act as the house upon a hill, sheltering royalty or damn-near-royalty. And, to some degree, it did. But upon closer inspection, the building resembles something closer to Disneyland — the newly built Swiss chalet style also features medieval corner towers to hint at an invented history. So, this not-quite-palace, not-quite-chalet, not-quite-castle, not-quite-hotel stands among the snow, welcoming the wealthy to cosplay vaguely European aristocracy as they mingle in the fondue restaurant that was once UBS’s vault and take in the architectural façade once featured in The Return of the Pink Panther (1975). The whole thing seems like a joke, one the regular guests aren’t quite in on. Surely, a resident of Gstaad, seeing this display year after year, would find it ripe material for a light comedy about the people who are so fixated on themselves that they can’t even see what they look like. Sure enough, Gstaad resident Roman Polanski did just that, resulting in the worst film of his career.
The Palace, shot in the eyesore itself, is nominally a comedy about the silly, evil guests who would have graced the halls of the hotel on New Year’s Eve 1999. Despite the low 17-million-euro budget, the movie boasts quite the ensemble cast, linked together by the gendarme of a manager in Hansueli (Oliver Masucci), who, to his credit, knows how to handle the worst people in the world and is prepared to bury bodies for them. Among the guests: up-to-no-good Russians interested in the hotel’s vault and young women, a porn star (Luca Barbareschi), an octogenarian Texas billionaire with blood pressure high enough to crush a submarine (John Cleese, whose performance connotes that he may, at some point in his life, have heard of Texas) and his child bride (Bronwyn James), some plastic surgery veterans and their doctor, on-paper royalty with royal pooch in tow, and Mickey Rourke, who plays a much less fun version of Uncut Gems’ Wayne Diamond. There’s no magisterial camerawork to link these characters in their godawful space, nor is there any narrative throughline to provide tension, coherence, or interest. Instead, each scene is an enclosed vignette, where every character proffers proof of their cretinous nature, only to jolt over to the next room before, God forbid, anything interesting happens.
On paper, this doesn’t make sense. Polanski knows how to direct a film, even if financing stumbles. It’s also co-written by the scenarists of last year’s masterwork EO (Jerzy Skolimowski, who also co-wrote Polanski’s first feature Knife in the Water, and Ewa Piaskowska). And it’s set in Polanski’s home turf of Gstaad (also, notably, where three actresses accused Polanski of sexual assault and rape), though some terrible CGI renderings of the hotel’s exterior leave one questioning how much even that’s true. This should be Polanski’s send-up of the assholes he has to deal with every winter, but every punch is pulled and every joke fumbles the punchline. There’s a Weekend at Bernie’s setup so full of promise and delightfully mean whimsy that can only inspire anger when it goes nowhere; other jokes include a dog’s caviar-induced scatological issues and maybe just the fact that these people all look ridiculous. It comes across as pals Skolimowski and Polanski hashing out bits and inside gags about people they know, so each damning moment is tempered with a gentle rib jab from Alexandre Desplat’s tinkling score (itself a gag, as one could swear it was merely generic royalty-free interludes). During the final scene, the 20th century is left behind and Polanski, now 90, presents us with perhaps his final cinematic image that has to be seen to be believed, his image of the 21st century in all its rancid stupidity. In reality, in the year 2000, Disneyland super-fan Michael Jackson tried to purchase the Gstaad Palace — the whole thing — to no avail. Now that’s funny. — ZACH LEWIS
Snow in Midsummer
The titular expression of Chong Keat Aun’s sophomore feature, Snow in Midsummer, has a political signification beyond its outwardly meteorological imagery. In Guan Hanqing’s The Injustice to Dou E, a Chinese play written during the Yuan dynasty, snow in the peak summer month of June is one of three divine phenomena — alongside blood raining inexplicably from the sky and a drought lasting three years — to manifest following its eponymous character’s wrongful trial and execution at the hands of a corrupt court official. As a symbol of justice’s miscarriage, the snow defies natural (and ostensibly moral) order, plunging a world of life and community into winter and decay; this perversion has endured in dramatic form over the centuries, culminating most famously in modern Chinese opera rendition which, incidentally, features in Chong’s film through the comings and goings of a Chinese opera troupe.
Divided into two chapters set nearly fifty years apart, Snow in Midsummer situates this troupe against a backdrop of tragic historical violence: on May 13, 1969, following Malaysia’s first general election after Singapore’s separation, racial riots broke out in the capital Kuala Lumpur, motivated by a sectarian schism between the ruling pro-Malay coalition and the fast-gaining Chinese-dominated opposition. The violence resulted, officially, in at least 196 deaths — who were mostly buried in mass graves on the city’s outskirts — and prompted the government to declare a state of emergency, effectively suspending parliamentary democracy for two years. In the film’s first half, set during the riots, the Poh Cheung Choon troupe stage a run of Guan’s play in a Chinese enclave, attracting a sizeable turnout (while the rest head down, at night, to the splendorous Majestic Theatre for sold-out screenings of both Malay- and Chinese-produced films). Threats of imminent unrest in the evening, however, force the troupe into hiding, while a woman and her daughter in the audience unwittingly find themselves seeking refuge with the former.
The apprehension and abject terror of this night are transmuted into scars of remembrance in 2018, nearly half a century later. Ah Eng (Wan Fang), the daughter, is now a middle-aged woman living in Penang, and her pensiveness masks a lifetime of regret. With her father and brothers killed during the riots, she has constantly sought — against the wishes of her husband — to find their resting places. As she journeys across Malaysia and back to the capital she once called home, she no longer quite recognizes those landmarks of memory (for instance, the Majestic, where most of her family were implied to have been killed, has been demolished and rebuilt); its spaces have been thoroughly urbanized and transformed, with even the riot victims’ graves threatened by redevelopment and relocation. In Chong’s film, geography is history: communal districts and ways of life precede ideological alliances even as they are undoubtedly shaped by them, and the simmering ethnic tensions within aren’t foregrounded the way contemporary state-sanctioned films reduce loyalties to uninspired tropes and thereby narrativize history.
Instead, Snow in Midsummer wears its influences fairly openly on its sleeve, most of all Hou Hsiao-hsien’s A City of Sadness. While Hou’s film offers a much more expansive and intimate examination of political repression in wartime Taiwan, Chong’s comparatively modest ambitions serves him well in realizing a sense of national fervor and loss, mediated equally through the film’s sweeping panoramas of urban social life (1969) and its more personal focus on memory and collective grief (2018). These dual periods are both imbued arrestingly with an allegorical, otherworldly register: ghosts and other figures reemerge from shadowy legends to puncture the present, as, for instance, in a telling account from the literary Malay Annals of a king’s humiliation by the Sultan of Malacca. But Snow in Midsummer does not wholly rely on this register, to its benefit. There’s something quite moving about the juxtaposition of a 13th-century legend to contemporary and ongoing malaise, which suggests, to some degree, that the muted and ghostly refractions of Malaysia’s tumultuous national history are not so much unresolved as they are downplayed and left to be forgotten. In a way, the film’s central metaphor crystallizes this perfectly: nothing burns in summer, and everything is left to wither slowly away. — MORRIS YANG
Following the Sound
2023 will surely go down in history as the year Ogawa An owned the international festival circuit. Okay, maybe not really, but Following the Sound is the third film that this writer has covered in 2023 that the actress has starred in, following Berlinale’s There Is a Stone and Japan Cuts’ Plastic. Following the Sound more closely resembles the former than the latter, being the kind of festival film where the mystery of the plot involves figuring out what exactly the plot is. Or, looked at more productively perhaps, it’s the kind of movie where the specifics of plot and backstory don’t matter because the narrative is fundamentally an emotional one; a vibes-based art cinema. For those who read these things, the festival description gives more narrative information than the actual film does — although hilariously, the plot descriptions given in those for the Venice and FIDMarseille festivals don’t quite say the same thing, as if even the festival programmers (or director Kyoshi Sugita and his PR team, whoever it is that writes these things) are taking their best guess as to what happens in the movie and why.
Ogawa plays a young woman who meets and befriends a couple of seemingly unrelated older people. The meetings are possibly by chance or possibly on purpose, and she may have met both of them some time before (they both tell her she seems familiar). In between hanging out with these people, Ogawa does other stuff: she takes a filmmaking class, she works at a bookstore that sells tea and doughnuts, she meets people at a coffee shop. She also spends time listening to an old cassette tape of some kind of white noise, possibly a river, and tries to track down where it was recorded. The woman accompanies her on these trips, which have something to do with Ogawa’s mother, apparently deceased and apparently the source of the recording. With the man, Ogawa helps film a script his daughter has written, employing many of the people we’ve met throughout the movie.
Sugita films this all in a tastefully mellow art house style, a smoothed-out, more accommodating and less alienating version of the minimalism that’s been one of the standard forms of art cinema for decades. Absent plot, the film relies almost entirely on Ogawa’s quiet performance for emotional impact, her big, expressive eyes to suggest all the hidden layers of sadness buried deep within this slow cinema Amélie. The film floats along on its mood of gentle melancholy, the interest in individual scenes based almost entirely on the actions on screen and not their connections to a wider plot or backstory, which Sugita never bothers to explain. There’s a scene where the class films a woman playing piano; there’s a scene where a young couple brings a newborn baby to the café; there’s a scene where Ogawa reads a story to a toddler. All of these are possibly interesting in themselves, or possibly not: the viewer will get out of it what they’re willing to put into it. This approach is nothing new to international cinema, of course. Indeed, There is a Stone had much the same conceit, its tension coming from the fact that we never knew exactly what its two characters were intending or thinking at any given moment. But Following the Sound is so close to being a conventional movie, like it was written as a straightforward narrative but then just went and deleted a couple of pages of exposition, morphing it into a different kind of movie entirely. That’s either what makes it interesting, a playful experiment in film form, or utterly conventional, just another festival film that rides the circuit for a few months and disappears, a waypoint on a potentially interesting filmmaker’s journey to someday making a really good movie. Mileage will certainly vary, but viewers who appreciate the former will find Following the Sounds’ course a pleasant one to follow. — SEAN GILMAN
Humanist Vampire Seeking Consenting Suicidal Person
Sadly, the title of Ariane Louis-Seize’s debut feature tells you virtually everything you need to know about the film itself. The Quebecois horror-comedy Humanist Vampire Seeking Consenting Suicidal Person quickly establishes a premise and, apart from some notable subtleties of character, follows through on said premise in exactly the manner you’d expect. Coming as it does on the heels of about a decade of existential bloodsucker pictures, all dedicated in their various ways to convincing us that “vamps are people too,” Humanist Vampire brings very little new to the table.
Sasha (Sara Montpetit) is a “young” vampire (only 63 years old), and her family is concerned because her fangs haven’t come in. When a vampire neurologist subjects Sasha to a brain scan, he breaks the news to her parents. When confronted with blood and gore, Sasha’s empathy receptors are stimulated, not her primal urge to feed. Her dad (Steve Laplante) doesn’t want to push Sasha until she’s ready, but other family members — particularly her mom (Sophie Cadieux) and her cousin Denise (Noemie O’Farrell) — are less patient, and plan to starve Sasha until she is forced to feed. One night at a support group meeting, Sasha meets Paul (Felix-Antoine Benard), a depressive teen who is not only suicidal, but completely unemotional about it. The pair seem to be the answer to each other’s respective crises, but of course, complications arise.
In her attempts at vampire-based humor, Louis-Seize seems a bit influenced by What We Do in the Shadows, especially as it relates to the petty annoyances faced by the Dracula set. But in its rueful tone, Humanist Vampire owes perhaps more to Jim Jarmusch’s melancholy Only Lovers Left Alive. Sadly, this film is neither as funny as Waititi’s film, nor as poignant as Jarmusch’s. Instead, it speaks to the current condition of international film production. For funding’s sake, everything is a genre film now, and rather than expanding on the language of horror, Humanist Vampire merely hits its marks and fades away. — MICHAEL SICINSKI
Foremost by Night
Víctor Iriarte’s Foremost by Night has more reputation behind it than its status as a first fiction feature would suggest. Alongside Iriarte’s resume, which includes work with Isaki Lacuesta (one of the film’s producers, whose collaborator Isa Campo also co-wrote the script) and Raya Martin, as well as serving on the selection committee for the San Sebastian International Film Festival, are those of lead actors Lola Dueñas and Ana Torrent. Dueñas is most well known for her work with Pedro Almodóvar and a supporting role in Lucretia Martel’s Zama, and Torrent just re-teamed with Victor Erice — who first directed her as a child in The Spirit of the Beehive — for Close Your Eyes, his first feature in thirty years. In Foremost by Night, these two exciting performers both play mothers of the same young boy, Egoz (newcomer Manuel Egozkue).
The first two of the film’s four parts feature almost no dialogue, the narrative guided via epistolary narration and image. First, in a letter to Egoz, Vera (Dueñas) explains how, eighteen years ago, she gave birth to a son who was taken from her. After years of being told her file didn’t exist, she finally retrieves a record from a librarian, who, in a direct-to-camera address, says it was meant to be burned but never was, pointing Vera to Egoz and Cora (Torrent). Though Cora was told she could not carry a pregnancy to term and that the only way she could have a child was to adopt Egoz, whose mother had died during childbirth, both mother and son seem to have suspected a biological mother was still alive. And though the Francoist dictatorship is never explicitly referenced, and the film’s present setting suggests Egoz was taken from Vera early in the 21st century, the connection is quite clear even to an outsider not especially familiar with recent Spanish history.
The second part of Foremost by Night documents the reactions of Egoz and Cora, who also received Vera’s letter. Though both are confused — this confusion expressed through a voice memo from Cora to Egoz, as well as a letter from Egoz to Vera accompanied by a dance sequence — this new information ultimately does not place any strain on their relationship and, crucially, Cora never expresses any resentment toward Vera (or vice versa). The film’s third section, the final before a brief epilogue that returns to the epistolary format, places as much attention on the relationship between Vera and Cora as the one between Vera and her lost son. In scenes between the two actors, it would perhaps be sufficient merely to give them space to perform, and the warmth they express toward each other is indeed quite powerful, but Iriarte also explores their relationship through a juxtaposition of their bodies — at times they appear almost singular. The ease and beauty of the relationship between the three characters is a failure of fascism: as much possibility and time as has been taken from them — and the pain is deliberately overwritten rather than elided — the ultimate result not only sees the doubling of motherly love, but also the birth of a new kind of love between Vera and Cora.
The film continues to shift, and a climactic reparative heist sees the bond shared by the three characters strengthened, at the same time offering a culminating display of Iriarte’s knack for rhythm. Music is present throughout the film (Cora is a piano teacher and Egoz a musician), as is a precision of movement, and in the film’s final sequence, Iriarte unites these features with a similarly meticulous pattern of cutting just as his three lead characters are united. Foremost by Night delivers on the strength of its artists’ resumes, but also exudes the vitality of an exciting new voice. — JESSE CATHERINE WEBBER
Oceans are the Real Continents
To director Tommaso Santambrogio, to tell a story about people, you ought to tell the story of the places they inhabit. That could be why he favors long and wide static shots in his debut feature, Oceans are the Real Continents. The film, an expansion of the 2019 short of the same name, is a visual treat, and its cinematography, courtesy of Lorenzo Casadio Vannucci, elevates Santambrogio’s intimately documentarian approach with splendid compositions, finding harmonies in symmetry, framing, and depth to achieve a stark and subtly ornate beauty. Burnt-out cars and baseball diamonds, echoing caverns and open rooftops, abandoned theaters and factories, private and divided domestic interiors: Santambrogio’s take on San Antonio de los Baños boasts a gorgeous, painterly look. Though this reality is aestheticized, that beautification doesn’t obscure the Cuban town’s unrelenting desolation. If anything, the approach spotlights it, holding it in greater tension so the viewer has little choice but to accept it as they study each shot. The use of black-and-white photography imbues these surroundings with the sense of frozen environments, recalling old photographs resurrected from a family chest. It’s in this invocation of the past, and of memory, that Oceans draws its affecting power. The characters, trapped within larger, immutable circumstances, seek to define purpose as they exist in this living relic of a place, long past the revolutionary promises of an earlier era.
Oceans’ principal characters span the gamut of one human life. Frank and Alain, two nine-year-old friends, attend school and dream about future superstardom in Major League Baseball. Alex and Edith are a young 30-something couple who keep their spark alive through small adventures around their town’s deserted locales. Elderly Milagros stays afloat selling roasted peanut cones and spends most of her time in silence, listening to the radio or reading her beloved’s letters. Taken together, one notes the downward trajectory of life’s path. The age of endless dreaming, the vitality of youth, gives way to the grounding rhythms of adult life where true risks are required to keep loftier aspirations alive. Success and happiness are not guaranteed. Milagros’ existence is the most static and bleak of the three, with the words from her past love effectively her only remaining lifeblood. The characters periodically appear at the margins of each other’s narratives: Alex reminiscing about his own past baseball dreams while Frank and Alain play catch at the edge of the frame; Milagros selling her peanut cones outside of Edith’s performance as younger couples pass her by. While Oceans ultimately depicts a shared universe, the anxieties of separation are what prove central to the tone.
“Freedom is the essence of life,” one child recites during class, quoting the Cuban writer, philosopher, and martyr José Martí. But freedom has a cost. For Santambrogio’s characters, their home is not a place where they can flourish. Freedom to pursue success requires freedom from the familiar, increasingly decrepit place that raised them. As his family plans to immigrate to the United States, Frank wrestles with his ambivalent feelings about the sudden change. Edith is excited to take her art to European cities, while Alex struggles with his discomfort at being left behind. A radio report about Operation Carlota, providing historical context for the wartime letters, thematically connects the rupture of Milagros’ family to her country’s internationalist conflicts with U.S.-backed forces. Characters often prop up the West as a better quality of place, home to the Yankees and tasteful art crowds. “A first kiss should always be in Paris,” Alex remarks, as if the French city were the apogee of romantic fantasy. The allure of these richer, whiter places contends with the images and evocations of Cuban pride sprinkled throughout the film (“Our children are the best in the world. The healthiest, the most innocent,” reads one poster above Frank and Alain’s heads). Santambrogio forgoes any extended polemical diatribes, instead rooting the broadly political in his characters’ personal reckonings with identity, authenticity, and self-determination.
Oceans often functions on an allegorical level. Its characters are tools to serve that end as much as they are identifiable people, thanks in large part to their naturalistic performances, all playing their parts in a larger whole. The tonal differences between their scenes are sometimes subtle at best, harder to appreciate with the achromatic palette leveling things out into a single mood, and these scenes, themselves vignettes, tend to reduce the pacing to a slow drip. The logic between scene transitions can also feel random, made a bit more disappointing when held up against the few times the editing does reveal how sequences are placed in conversation with one another. Still, the film showing its seams isn’t enough to compromise its elegiac beauty. Oceans does require attentive patience from the viewer, but in exchange Santambrogio delivers a wistful and poetic journey sure to linger on in memory. — TRAVIS DESHONG
21 Days Until the End of the World
In modernist art cinema, there has been a minor tradition of self-portrait films, and naturally they have been as different from one another as their makers. High points of this micro-genre have included works by Jean-Luc Godard, Chantal Akerman, Jon Jost, and Steve Reinke. To some extent, the artistic success of such films rests on the personality of their director-subjects, the extent to which they offer the viewer good company and, perhaps more importantly, the degree to which the filmmakers combine introspection with a consideration of issues beyond their own individual lives. This expansive approach is what has made Agnès Varda’s late work so appealing. By contrast, Kim Ki-duk’s Arirang is nearly unwatchable because of its bitter solipsism and self-pity.
21 Days Until the End of the World, by Macedonian director Teona Strugar Mitevska, lands somewhere in the middle. Shot over a three-week period of mostly homebound isolation, Mitevska’s painfully personal film combines diaristic confession, physical self-exposure, and a general sense of anguish at her own perceived inadequacies. There are moments that are comedic and self-effacing, as when Mitevska films a monologue while sitting on the toilet. Other moments are discomfiting but instructively so, as when she describes her male partner bringing a gay man into their relationship. In this scene, the director films herself topless, covering the screen with blocky, stylized text that details the uneven measurements of her breasts — an embodied metaphor for her feelings of inadequacy.
But there are just as many sequences (or “days”) in Mitevska’s film that seem designed to signify self-exposure but which are highly contrived. In one scene, she lies on a bed and masturbates while an NPR-style radio reports on the rise in hate crimes against Asians in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic. At the conclusion of 21 Days, Mitevska rises from a couch in her living room and starts smashing bottles and pottery with a bamboo cane, the onscreen text offering the viewer a wry retort: “what did you expect?” In short, 21 Days is about 45% poetry and 55% cringe, and while its experimental spirit is certainly laudable, its failures of consistency and vision mean it’s unlikely to gain much traction following its Venice Days premiere. — MICHAEL SICINSKI