KARLOVY VARY, Czech Republic - As I mentioned in a previous dispatch, the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival, though reasonably august itself in its 47th year, has a reputation as one of the “youngest” festivals on the scene in terms of its audience and programming focus. That’s easy enough to see on the ground here: where the lofty likes of Cannes are largely inaccessible to movie fans, hordes of students and backpackers descend on the dainty Czech spa town during the weeks of the festival to do some serious film-watching.

Allowing ticketless chancers to queue outside the cinemas for last-minute access, meanwhile, ensures I haven’t been to one screening here that wasn’t packed to capacity, with many particularly keen cinephiles content to sit in the aisles when seats run out. (Overseeing staff, not nearly as paranoid about fire regulations as their US and UK counterparts, blithely take a more-the-merrier policy.) That level of enthusiasm is heartening enough for hot Cannes repeats like “Holy Motors” and “Amour.” That the kids are also cramming in for Dan Sallitt’s sober, star-free incest drama “The Unspeakable Act,” to name one crowded screening I attended this afternoon, should make Karlovy Vary the envy of many more high-profile festivals.  

That youthful energy has made Karlovy Vary the perfect place for US trade paper Variety to curate what has become one of the festival’s most popular annual strands: the 10 European Directors To Watch programme. Now in its 13th year, it showcases some of the continent’s most up-and-coming filmmaking talent, selected by Variety’s critics from a year’s worth of European festivals. It’s not limited to debuts, though those tend to dominate the lineup; the emphasis is on breakthrough artists who nonetheless haven’t quite hit the big time yet. Tomas Alfredson, for example, was selected a few years before he made “Let the Right One In”; give it a few years, and last year’s selection of Ben Wheatley (“Kill List”) will likely look similarly prescient.

As those examples suggest, this annual Variety selection is more genre-friendly than many a festival sidebar. Though the final list of 10 is whittled down from suggestions made by their collected critics (which, this year, included yours truly), we’re encouraged to consider titles that don’t necessarily fit the ‘critics’ film’ or ‘festival film’ mold, but can nonetheless engage an audience. One of this year’s picks, for example, is future midnight-movie staple “Iron Sky,” the much-hyped Nazis-in-space sci-fi comedy that was savaged by many critics upon its Berlinale debut back in February. Another, “Jackpot,” is a crowdpleasing comic thriller based on a story by Norwegian publishing phenomenon Jo Nesbø. This year’s full list of 10 (well, eleven) directors is:

Geoffrey Enthoven, “Come As You Are” (Belgium)

Tim Fehlbaum, “Hell” (Germany)

Ignacio Ferreras, “Wrinkles” (Spain)

Njec Gazvoda, “A Trip” (Slovenia)

Tom Kingsley and Will Sharpe, “Black Pond” (UK)  

Magnus Martens, “Jackpot” (Norway)

Sacha Polak, “Hemel” (The Netherlands)

Anne-Grethe Bjarup Rils, “This Life: Some Must Die, So Others Can Live” (Denmark)

Hafsteinn Gunnar Sigurosson, “Either Way” (Iceland)    

Timo Vuorensola, “Iron Sky” (Finland)

My involvement in this year’s Variety programme has been one of the festival's great pleasures for me. Getting wined and dined, first at a swish four-course dinner and later a champagne reception at a mountainside bar that really ought to have been a Bond villain's lair, was the easy part. More exciting and jittery was the business of introducing the films to the typically robust audiences, monitoring Q&A sessions with the directors (and some dauntingly speedy interpreters) afterwards.

I had the pleasure of doing the honors for two of the selections, “Black Pond” and “Wrinkles” – both films I was already fond of to begin with (indeed, I believe the former was one of the titles I suggested for consideration months ago), and both of which revealed new facets and virtues via a second glance and subsequent conversation with their creators.

“Wrinkles” may ring a bell for you as one of the titles submitted to the Academy last year for Best Animated Feature consideration – it missed out, I can only presume by a narrow margin, on a nomination, though the Annie Awards nominated it for their top prize. It would have been a distinguished choice: Ferreras’ starkly designed 2D feature breaks with the conventional perception of animation as a medium for fantasy and whimsy, using it instead to evoke the all-too-real world of senior nursing homes. An odd-couple story of sorts, it takes a tender but unsentimental look at the friendship that forms in a beigely comfortable care home between a newly arrived widower, in the early stages of Alzheimer’s, and his spry, cynical, never-married roommate. As the healthier man tries everything he can to slow his new friend’s decline, however, the film inexorably morphs into a hard mortality study -- one that wouldn't be an inappropriate companion piece to Michael Haneke's more severe "Amour." 

One might wonder what this story, itself adapted from a comic book, stands to gain from non-live-action treatment, but that becomes subtly and inventively clear as Ferreras (who previously worked alongside Sylvain Chomet on "The Illusionist") delicately probes the mental recesses of dementia. As multiple patients within the home are revealed to be living in suspended worlds of their own, and as Emilio increasingly retreats into himself, the animation allows the narrative to forge seamless connections between characters’ separate realities, poignantly echoing their own disorientation.

“Black Pond,” meanwhile, is a stranger and sharper-fanged beast: given a blink-and-you-missed-it theatrical release in the UK last year, Tom Kingsley and Will Sharpe’s highly resourceful, tonally slippery debut feature rode a warm wave of British reviews and local year-end accolades (culminating in a BAFTA nomination) to a SXSW berth in the spring. US distributors Entertainment One smartly picked it up, so discerning American audiences won’t have long to wait before falling under its shuffling, sinister spell.

“Black comedy” has been many critics’ go-to phrase for the leadingly titled film, and it’s certainly funny and discomfiting in equal measure. Still, I’m not sure it quite nails the intent of a story whose characters are variously consumed by vast human loneliness, a state Kingsley and Sharpe (who also stars) wisely don’t feel compelled to laugh at.

The directors wouldn’t necessarily concur, but I saw reflections of Pinter and Orton in their teasingly structured script, which examines a well-to-do family’s dissolution, in the wake of tabloid murder accusations, from both ends of its narrative. A brittle, screws-loosened variation on a familiar dramatic premise – a passing stranger first reinvigorates the domestic setup of an already fragile family, then threatens it, and finally, in this case, winds up dead – “Black Pond” maintains its uncertainties an impressive distance into the film, its mockumentary testimonies from the principals obscuring rather than illuminating each other.

Much of the talk about the film in the UK centered on the wickedly opportunistic casting of Chris Langham as the family’s socially inept patriarch. A brilliant comic actor whose prominent career nosedived five years ago after he was convicted (unjustly, he maintains) of downloading child pornography, his history of personal scandal lends a certain frisson to his character’s own public downfall. His precisely zoned-out line readings of Kingsley and Sharpe’s densely literate multi-liners, however, justify the casting decision on their own. “The downside of having a tedious life is that you have a tedious life,” he muses. “The upside is that you have a swimming pool in the summer.”

A seemingly tangential strand in which a family friend (Sharpe) relates his blurred version of events to a riotously unsympathetic shrink (a priceless turn from British comedian Simon Amstell) turns out to unlock more than it initially promised, but this aptly rough-edged, curiously troubling debut feature retains certain poetic ambiguities even after we learn exactly what happened.

Beyond the two I handled, I’m still catching up with the remainder of the list. “Hemel,” in particular, merits further discussion in another piece, but this one’s already running long, the hour is late, and my last full day in Karlovy Vary lies ahead.  

For more views on movies, awards season and other pursuits, follow @GuyLodge on Twitter. 

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