Karlovy Vary: 'Oh Boy' and 'Hemel' offer contrasting takes on young European ennui
KARLOVY VARY, Czech Republic -- I am typing this in the tastefully toxic orange surrounds of an easyJet flight to Gatwick, which sadly means that my week at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival is over.
It’s been, as I think my previous diary pieces have made clear, a most enjoyable one: angry Czech sunshine, a healthy patchwork of films, raucous audiences, parties ranging from the luxe to the pilsner-pickled, my first live Q&A sessions, Thai foot massages, a few more films and my mandatory festival injury – this time, a spider bite sustained on a hike yesterday through Karlovy Vary’s dense, chapel-speckled surrounding forest. That’s what I get for leaving the cinema for one afternoon, I guess. (Incidentally, the only superpower I have yet gained from this experience is a left ankle slightly wider than my right, but I wait patiently.)
My festival coverage, however, is not yet finished. I still have one of the week’s highlights, an interview with Kenneth Lonergan about the upcoming extended cut of “Margaret,” to transcribe and relate, while I have, as yet, only written about a handful of the films I’ve actually seen at Karlovy Vary.
That backlog means certain less notable discoveries can be cheerfully resigned to the no-comment bin – though I’ll offer a quick Worst In Show citation for Hong Kong LGBT romcom “Love Me Not,” a chillingly cutesy bad-film-within-a-bad-film that suggests how “When Harry Met Sally” might have played out had both Harry and Sally been obsessively heteronormative homosexuals. Take the title as an instruction.
Such deservedly low-profile drek is par for the course in any size of festival, but there’s happily been very little of it in the mini-programme I carved for myself from Karlovy Vary’s sizeable lineup. And for every lucky-dip viewing that didn’t pan out, there’s been at least one more that rewarded blind flight. Chief among these is German music-video director Jan Ole Gerster’s debut feature “Oh Boy” (B), a regrettable title for a smart, slippy character study that sends the rarely romanticized city of Berlin one of its most gilded visual valentines since “Wings of Desire.”
I came across “Oh Boy” in the festival’s video library, sampling it purely on the basis of an alluring still – though before its very first lustrous black-and-white montage of Berlin street life was over, I rather wished for a bigger screen. With sauntering jazz in the background, Gerster’s nod to Woody Allen is hardly subtle, though once its New Wave-inflected portrait of trust-fund slacker Niko (engaging, open-faced Tom Schilling, who could be a handy stand-in for Vincent Kartheiser should we ever misplace him) gets going, there’s a hint of early Richard Linklater to its wandering day-in-the-life narrative.
Jobless, loveless, failing even at being a hipster when more solid responsibilities elude him, Niko spends his day busily doing nothing much at all: scrounging for spare change and attention from Starbucks baristas and his wealthy, golf-playing father alike, and hanging out with actors and artists in whose work he takes no visible interest. In one wickedly satirical scene, he visits the set of an epically banal Holocaust drama seemingly destined for Oscar attention. “I hope this is based on a true story,” Niko quizzes an actor. “Yeah, well, it was the Second World War,” comes the unbothered reply.
It’s a throwaway laugh, but it’s one of several moments in this increasingly morose comedy that queries modern Germany’s cultural and historical engagement with itself – even Berlin’s famously cool arts scene is portrayed as being at the fag-end of its international “moment,” as Niko is invited by a potential date to a dismal modern dance performance that baldly plunders the corpse of Pina Bausch. Gerster may not entirely support this argument with his seductive, contrast-rich monochrome shooting of the city itself, but as night turns to day and a chance encounter with an elderly bar patron leads Niko to sobering self-effacement, this bittersweet trifle points to ample beauty in other quarters.
Just across the border from “Oh Boy”’s strutting Germany, there’s a brisker, chillier gust of twentysomething ennui to be found in “Hemel” (B) -- the title, the protagonist’s name, translates as “Heaven” -- a glassily accomplished debut from Dutchwoman Sacha Polak, and the most polished of the films I saw in Variety’s previously discussed 10 European Directors to Watch sidebar. A sparse, forthright study of a young woman’s liberal sex life, gradually and discomfitingly braided with that of her urbane, unmarried father, it’s quickly acquired the label of “the female ‘Shame’” since bowing at Rotterdam and Berlin earlier this year – though while that distribution-friendly tag says something of the film’s metallic, echo-y tonalities, “Hemel” takes a more distanced, questioning view of what constitutes transgressive sexual behaviour.
Played with abrasive assurance by rangily beautiful newcomer Hannah Hoekstra – whom I expect international casting directors will land upon soon enough – Hemel is certainly an unhappy woman, though whether her revolving-door sex life is the root of, or a variously constructive outlet for, her depression is open to discussion. Ranging from the playful shaving of pubic hair to more unnerving adventures in erotic asphyxiation, Hemel’s encounters with men are routinely loveless, though Polak’s lean, image-led script steers clear of blandly advocating romance as redemption.
Certainly, it doesn’t seem to solve much for her dad, Gijs – a silver-fox auctioneer whose own long string of casual affairs has recently, if not necessarily permanently, ended in engagement to a colleague scarcely older than Hemel herself. Hemel is predictably rattled by the intrusion, though her scarcely masked jealousy seems not quite that of a daughter: Polak teases out scenes of lingering hand-holding between Gijs and Hemel at the opera, or their candid comfort with each other’s nudity in a hotel bathroom, to chalk out lines that have clearly been toed if not crossed.
This is a flinty, unstinting gaze at relationships we’d rather not look at, whether or not we can identify small shards of them in our own intimate and family matters, and only occasionally undone by Polak’s preference for overly mannered gloom – Hemel’s sense of inner desolation is plain enough without languorous extended shots of her glaring into space or, in a particularly heavy-handed tease, examining the edge of a Seville rooftop. The craft steers the film right even when its directorial motive doesn’t: Rutger Reinders’s surgical electronic score, all stark, air-bracketed beeps and rustles, lends the film its slowed, troubling heartbeat. Daniel Bouquet’s lensing, meanwhile, is entirely remarkable, its hard-soft lighting games and staring close-ups making equivalent sensual spaces of an uncovered shoulder blade or a writhing string of Christmas-tree bulbs – painting the world as Hemel, however uncuriously, sees it.
Still to come from Karlovy Vary: some short takes of the rest of the fest, and that aforementioned Kenneth Lonergan interview.
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