Highlights from the 56th Karlovy Vary International Film Festival

The Skinny returned to Karlovy Vary International Film Festival, where we found the annual Crystal Globe competition bursting with invention, and had the chance to catch some stunning films fresh from the Berlinale and Cannes

Feature by Jamie Dunn | 08 Jul 2022
  • 56th Karlovy Vary International Film Festival

It’s a thrill to return to Karlovy Vary International Film Festival. First of all, there’s the city’s architecture to gawp at, and not just the conventionally beautiful stuff – the art nouveau townhouses, grand hotels and picturesque colonnades. There’s also the harder on the eye but no less stunning Hotel Thermal, a 16-story brutalist concrete spectacle that’s the main hub of the festival. Then there are the endless parties, talks and concerts that make KVIFF feel closer to Coachella than Cannes. You can also join the tourists and locals who start their mornings by sipping from the thermal mineral spigots scattered around town. While I’m sure these springs do have myriad healing effects, some of them taste rather disgusting. The films, on the other hand, were both nourishing and pretty tasty.

KVIFF’s chief competition, the Crystal Globe, was full of surprises. European cinema makes up the bulk of the titles, so it would be reasonable to expect a roster of arthouse dramas heavy on social conscience and leaning towards social realism. But artistic director Karel Och and his team have assembled a competition lineup that’s altogether more idiosyncratic. Take German writer-director Sophie Linnenbaum’s zesty allegory The Ordinaries, which imagines a world that revolves around a cinematic caste system with three strata. There are society's elites: the main characters. Lower down the pecking order are the supporting characters. And at the bottom of the pile, the outtakes, who live in a walled-off ghetto outside the city's limits.

Linnenbaum’s meta-universe is playfully designed, with the main characters living lives that resemble candy-coloured Hollywood musicals, complete with extraneous moments where they burst into song. Our young heroine is Paula, a supporting character with aspirations. She lives in a drab, GDR-style concrete apartment with her supporting character mother, but is training for main character status. Part of her studies involves mastering her inner score, which is controlled by a heart monitor and swells on the soundtrack at moments of high emotion. But she gets distracted from her studies when research into her father, a famous main character, brings her into contact with a group of rebellious outtakes – including a miscast maid played by a man in drag, a boy who won’t stop jump-cutting and several monochrome misfits – who want to bring down this unjust, tyrannical society.

Sometimes The Ordinaries’ convoluted inner logic doesn’t quite compute. Who is directing this movie world? If outtakes are malfunctions, why are black and white characters included in this subcategory? And the political analogy is often heavy-handed to the point of patronising (at one point, a black and white outtake is told to move to the back of a bus). But The Ordinaries' ideas are so playful and the plot zips along at such a breakneck pace you’ll forgive some of its contrivances.

The sci-fi dystopia presented in fellow Crystal Globe contender Vesper is less original but more convincingly sketched. An ecological disaster has killed most edible flora and fauna on the planet, and mutated other plant life to become deadly. Trying to navigate this treacherous world is the eponymous Vesper, a resourceful 13-year-old with a talent for biomechanics. Not only is Vesper responsible for eeking out her own survival, she’s also keeping her bedridden father alive too, although he can keep her company on her journeys in the form of a drone that’s connected to his consciousness and allows him to speak.

Vesper's mother went AWOL years ago and her only other relative is a despicable uncle (Eddie Marsden) who sells his feral children’s blood to wealthy oligarchs, who live much more comfortable lives within citadels where they hoard Earth’s last available resources. While the story beats are familiar, the world-building is meticulous and rich with vivid production design and visual ideas. The acting is not too shabby either. As Vesper, 14-year-old British actor Raffiella Chapman makes for a feisty young heroine while Marsden is reliably repellent in full creep mode.

Funnier but no less dystopic was Fucking Bornholm. Set on the Danish island of the title, this Polish comedy should be filed alongside Sightseers and Nuts in May, two other excruciating comedies centred around camping holidays. With its striking framing and baroque orchestral soundtrack, however, it’s the laugh-out-loud discomfort of Force Majeure that most comes to mind while watching this acid-in-your-face comedy. Like that Ruben Östlund film, toxic masculinity and male chauvinism are under the microscope when two couples – married pair Maja and Hubert and their old friend Dawid, who’s recently divorced and brought his younger girlfriend, Nina – and their kids visit the island, an annual tradition for them.

Director Anna Kazejak-Dawid marshals the growing resentments between the sexes with style, and she’s helped by vivid performances across the board. The film would have been improved somewhat if it wasn’t so one-sided and uncritical in its support for the put-upon Maja. Yes, her husband is trash; he's the type of insufferable bore who cares more about his high-tech mountain bike than he does her or the welfare of their children. But with her helicopter parenting, middle-class condescension and mild homophobia, Maja is no picnic herself.

The young woman at the heart of the Georgian film A Room of My Own is similarly flawed but more relatable. It's a film modest in scale and scope, revolving almost entirely around the goings-on in a ramshackle flatshare in Tbilisi during the country’s COVID lockdown restrictions. We open with Tina arriving at her new digs with nothing but a small backpack. Her emotional baggage is clearly more ample; relations with her new flatmate Megi – hedonistic hipster by night, at-home call centre worker with a perfect PR English accent by day – are tense at first. It turns out Tina lied on her application form about how long she plans to stay and doesn’t have the money to cover the first month’s rent. Predictably, though, a friendship slowly blossoms.

The characters are sharply sketched, but the drama is more hazy. The reason for Tina’s impoverished state is revealed in frustratingly slow drips before a long drawn-out explanation when the women finally bond. At times, emotions on screen feel as inert as the plot, even during a long and rather incongruous sex scene that appears from nowhere. It’s fine to make a film about young people living shapeless lives, but director Ioseb Bliadz commits the fatal flaw of making his film shapeless also.

Japanese drama A Far Shore concerns similar themes to A Room of My Own – a young woman in poverty, domestic abuse, youth unemployment – but it's more finely calibrated. Fun-loving teen Aoi is hardly living her best life in hardscrabble Okinawa, where cheery radio ads championing social mobility can’t disguise the fact we’re in one of the least prosperous prefectures in Japan. At only 17, she’s the mother of a two-year-old and her small household’s chief breadwinner. She makes a better than average living working as a nightclub hostess – the fact she’s underage is seen as a bonus for the establishment's clientele. The money doesn’t go far, though, thanks to her wastrel husband, Masaya, who can’t hold down a job himself and continually steals the money Aoi squirrels away around their small apartment, blowing it on booze and gambling binges.

With grim precision, the threads of Aoi’s precarious life become even more frayed after Masaya beats her to a pulp one night. Her extensive bruising, combined with a crackdown on underage hostesses, forces her to give up the nightclubs and move into even seedier and more exploitative employment. Misery abounds, but there are enough moments of lyricism and female solidarity (Aoi’s best friend Mio is a constant beacon of support) to stop A Far Shore from slipping into kitchen sink poverty porn. It’s better to consider the film as a modern spin on the tragic woman's pictures of 40s and 50s Hollywood, or as part of Japanese cinema’s rich legacy of brutal melodrama centred on sex workers, from the films of Kenzo Mizoguchi to Shōhei Imamura.

There were bigger-named films at KVIFF, including recent buzzy titles from Cannes like Triangle of Sadness, a caustic satire from the aforementioned Ruben Östlund, and David Cronenberg's cerebral provocation Crimes of the Future, but by far the hottest ticket was United States of America – I eventually squeezed into its final screening after several sellouts. Originally premiering at the Berlin Film Festival, it's the latest film from James Benning, the American director who's been documenting both the splendour and ugliness of his home nation since the mid-70s.

This is Benning's second film with that title. The first, from 1975, was a road trip across the country captured from inside his car. Here, Benning's study of the USA takes the form of a series of 52 static shots, one for each state, throwing in the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico for good measure. It's a straightforward enough idea that Benning deploys with wit and playfulness. Progressing alphabetically, beginning in Herron Bay, Alabama and ending in Kelly, Wyoming, each image appears to represent the character of the state in question, but also speaks to the scenes on either side of it, sometimes chiming, sometimes contrasting. A beautiful shot of a snow-covered mountain will switch to an abandoned gas station in Texas, or a cloud or lake (sly callbacks to Benning's earlier landscape films) clash with a nondescript urban scene, like an anonymous alleyway in New York City. 

People are mostly absent from the landscapes, save a handful of notable exceptions, like a woman in LA – the city that hates pedestrians – who is almost hit by an SUV while crossing under a bridge that's become a tented community for homeless people. The hum of humanity (overhead planes, car radios, the clanging of heavy industry) is heard in most shots, even the bucolic ones. Benning's commentary in most scenes is subtle, although he's not above being on-the-nose.

The state of Mississippi, for example, is represented by a cotton field with audio of a blistering speech by Black Panther Party member and civil rights activist Stokely Carmichael playing over the image. Every shot, even the oil fields, factories and opencast mines, has a painterly beauty but this is not a flattering portrait. What puts United States of America up there among Benning's finest works is its kicker of an ending, which upends and calls into question everything you've seen until that point. It's the most delicious rug-pull I've seen in cinemas since Parasite

Call me patriotic, or perhaps parochial, but the best film I saw among this feast of international cinema was Scottish: Charlotte Wells’ beautiful and achingly sad debut feature Aftersun. Set towards the end of the 90s, it follows 30-year-old Calum (Paul Mescal) and 11-year-old Sophie (Frankie Corio) on holiday at a low-rent Turkish resort. The pair are father and daughter, although many of their fellow holidaymakers presume they’re siblings, not just because of their narrow age gap but also the pair’s general goofy dynamic, which suggests Calum is Sophie’s peer rather than her guardian. The holiday itself is rather short of incidents, with lazy days spent idling by the pool or suffering through the cheesy entertainment put on in the evenings by the hotel's holiday reps. Inside, however, both Calum and Sophie are going through life-altering emotions, although each is oblivious to the true nature and magnitude of the other’s inner experience.

Calum puts on a calm front. Books on meditation are his chosen poolside reads and he begins each morning with a bout of Tai Chi, but his increasingly reckless behaviour suggests he’s not as zen as he appears. Sophie, meanwhile, is on her own adventure of self-discovery as she begins to take notice of the older adolescents and their hormone-charged escapades around the resort. Between these naturalistic scenes between father and daughter, we get impressionistic glimpses of a young woman on a nightclub dancefloor. These images initially appear to be a flashback to Calum meeting Sophie’s mother for the first time, but eventually reveal themselves to be more complex – Nic Roeg-like, even – in their colliding of time and space. What makes Aftersun such a revelatory work is the way these inner emotions are never spelt out in dialogue, and instead are wholly expressed visually or through performance.

Irish actor Mescal makes for a convincing Scot and seems to have carved a niche for himself – after the brilliant Normal People – playing hunky but emotionally vulnerable everyman. Even more impressive is newcomer Corio, an actor with maturity and sensitivity beyond her years. She plays Sophie as a watcher and reader of people, noticing every shift in body language among the flirty teens she’s drawn to but tragically unable to quite understand the more complex behaviour of her father. The period setting provides some nice choices on the soundtrack. Brit Pop faves Blur, Catatonia and All Saints all feature, along with the perennial Euro holiday atrocity The Macarena, but it's a melancholy but heartfelt rendition of REM’s Losing My Religion on karaoke and a revelatory use of the Queen/Bowie classic Under Pressure that will be spinning around your head for days after seeing this extraordinary drama.

Karlovy Vary International Film Festival ran 1-9 July