The 48th Karlovy Vary Film Festival closed over the weekend with a handful of juried awards for its premieres. I’m afraid I didn’t see the winner of the festival’s crowning Crystal Globe prize, Hungarian director Janos Szasz’s WWII drama “The Notebook.” I can, however, endorse the shared Best Actress award for the strong female ensemble of Lance Edmunds’s painterly but ponderous US indie “Bluebird”: Amy Morton, Louisa Krause, Emily Meade and Margo Martindale. Less so: a Special Jury Prize for British director Ben Wheatley’s vastly disappointing “A Field in England.” I caught up with the film in the UK on its unconventional multi-platform release (cinemas, DVD, VOD and terrestrial TV, all on the same day) last Friday, and will discuss it further at a later point.
I’m particularly pleased that local auteur Jan Hrebejk took the Best Director award for “Honeymoon,” which I reviewed in my last festival roundup. Where that one reviewed three world premieres, today’s will examine a trio of standouts first unwrapped at previous fests.
Inasmuch as the Romanian New Wave of the past decade or so can be said to have a poster girl — albeit one of suitably solemn expression and attire — Luminita Gheorghiu may well be it. The veteran actress, long revered in her homeland, has been a vital supporting presence in a number of the movement’s key films: “The Death of Mr. Lazarescu” (which won her a left-field LA Critics’ award), “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days,” “Aurora” and last year’s “Beyond the Hills.” The industry owed her a starring vehicle, and she’s been given a spectacular one in Calin Peter Netzer’s Berlinale Golden Bear winner “Child’s Pose” (A-), a snappish, seething, darkly funny drama of class and ethics that she presides over with iron-backed imperiousness. On the one hand, it’s easy to imagine Jacki Weaver or Helen Mirren feasting on this part in a Transatlantic remake; on the other, few filmmaking nations can match Romania these days for this kind of severe take on institutional rot.
At first glance, Gheorghiu’s narrow-eyed, fur-clad society marm Cornelia is the latest addition to cinema’s rich portrait gallery of monster mothers, ranging from “Mommie Dearest” to Mo’Nique’s Mary Jones: introduced at her birthday party, her sense of oppressive entitlement is apparent in everything from her posture to her expensively bleached hair. She bats away her mild-mannered doctor husband as if he were a hovering waiter, but dotes on her adult layabout son, Barbu (Bogdan Dumitrache) — while still openly acknowledging his worthlessness. Barbu’s similarly jaded girlfriend Carmen (Ilinca Goia, excellent) receives equal condescension from Cornelia, minus any residual affection.
Cornelia’s queen-bee status, however, is challenged when Barbu perpetrates a DUI collision that kills a 14-year-old boy from a working-class family. With the police taking an understandably hard line against the privileged, seemingly remorseless offender, it’s left to his mother to barge her way into the case with elegant aggression, pulling every class-related string at her disposal to ensure preferential treatment. Whether handsomely paying off witnesses or using her husband’s contacts to change the results of inconvenient alcohol tests, she does it all with the same unblinking refusal to excuse or apologize: if her son’s crime is an annoyance, even a disgrace, to her, she’ll be damned if he’s going to be punished for it by anyone but herself.
That Cornelia’s manipulation of the authorities succeeds to the extent it does, however, is allowed to reflect less poorly on her than it does on the corrupt crevices of the Romanian legal system. Razvan Radulescu’s beautifully turned script retains a kind of chilly admiration for its unrelenting protagonist throughout, with her gormless, graceless son emerging in parallel as the passive monster of the piece. That Cornelia’s expert amorality is being wasted on such an unworthy beneficiary lends a warped nobility to her efforts. Meanwhile, Gheorghiu’s swaggering, sour-tongued performance peels back the mask of hauteur and battle-ready makeup to show — if only in unguarded flickers — the profoundly disappointed, needfully self-reliant woman beneath. (She’d make one hell of a Miranda Priestley.)
Andrei Butica’s roving, inquisitive camera seems partly complicit in her performance and perspective, sizing up and placing subsidiary characters just so — only to turn markedly still as the film tiptoes toward an inevitable faceoff between Cornelia and the bereaved. Are her powers of persuasion stymied by stony grief, or shut down in the name of tactics? The conditions of unconditional love are brought harshly to bear on the final act of this blistering film, and indeed on Gheorghiu’s increasingly ashen face: there’s more than one way to lose a son, it seems.
If Robin Weigert plays a very different kind of weary, well-to-do mom in “Concussion” (B+), one largely afflicted with more luxurious crises, she can claim extra sympathy points on at least one score: Cornelia never suffers the pain or indignity of being hit in the face with a baseball by her own son. First-time director Stacie Passon’s cool, composed suburban comedy — underheralded at Sundance, but picked up by the Weinsteins’ Radius label — begins with this bloody domestic mishap, which, as the title suggests, is a kind of symbolic stimulus for the mental unravelling that follows. The more restless partner in a middle-aged lesbian marriage that has sexually flatlined, Weigert’s sardonic property developer Abby is subsequently moved to upset the sleepy balance of her taupe-decorated, gym-dominated routine in affluent Upper Montclair, New Jersey — an area whose geographical prefix takes itself rather seriously. (I know, I’ve lived there.)
Shortly after Abby purchases a fixer-upper warehouse apartment in Manhattan, her smooth-talking handyman (Johnathan Tchaikovsky) talks her into a part-time career as a high-end, same-sex call girl, uncoiling her own sexual frustrations while treating those of others — including, unexpectedly, alluring, putatively straight neighboring mom Sam (the wonderful Maggie Siff). The kids are certainly all right in this particular study of lesbian marital strife, but they’re about the only ones.
Passon’s briskly humorous, pleasingly slow-to-judge film nonetheless hinges on behavioral leaps that some viewers will find harder to buy than others. Happily, she has an invaluable ally in Weigert — best known for TV’s “Deadwood” and used too sparingly since — whose wry-yet-wounded demeanor and salty delivery makes Abby’s most irrational impulses all too painfully human. The improbability of her actions is precisely the point, after all: it’s in the realm of what we’d never ask or assume of other PTA members, yoga classmates, or other community acquaintances we know only glancingly well. Like a feminized “American Beauty,” Passon’s enticing debut shoots for sleek absurdity — whether beginning and ending with perfectly made-up treadmill runners in taunting slow-motion, or contemplating the tangled list of synonyms for ‘beige’ — only to suggest how little we know of reality.
Reality is what throws the title character — a young woman who thinks herself already emotionally hardened — further for a loop in “Miele” (B), a justly well-regarded Un Certain Regard entry at Cannes this year that marks a most unexpected directorial debut for Italian actress Valeria Golino. (Yes, that means two leads from “Rain Man” have directed their first film in the past year. You’re up, Tom Cruise.) Taking an impressively sinuous approach to material that could easily invite lumpy Lifetime treatment, this mature, even-handed study of euthanasia strenuously avoids hot-button politicking. It’s not the rights and wrongs of assisted suicide that are held up for scrutiny — thought that’ll happen independently of the film’s efforts, particularly in its home country, where the practice is strictly illegal — so much as the psychological toll it takes on a dedicated young advocate.
Nicknamed “Miele” (“Honey”) in her guise as a wiry angel of death, twentysomething Irene (Jasmine Trinca) masquerades as a student while carrying out gentle mercy killings on terminally ill clients secured via a local physician — jetting off to Mexico on a monthly basis to secure the necessary pet tranquilizers for the job. She performs her duties with impeccable stoicism and little obvious emotional residue, until a crotchety, highbrow client (Carlo Cecchi) announces late in the game that he’s depressive rather than terminal. Her personal ethical code violated, she embarks on an unsupported mission to coax him off the ledge. The resulting relationship unfurls with unsentimental warmth, though the film has more snap and sting as a solitary character study than as a two-hander.
Golino’s study of the issue may not be prescriptive, but it does err on the side of repetitive, as Irene and her bemused new cause engage in figure-of-eight arguments about who does or doesn’t possess the right to die; their resolution, however touching, isn’t hard to anticipate. Her filmmaking, however, is consistently surprising: with cinematographer Gergely Pahanok, Golino demonstrates an artist’s eye for high-style composition and glinting late-summer light that illustrates a world at once inviting and over-examined, depending on who’s doing the looking.