For filmgoers in the Gulf region, the arrival of autumn brings the riches of the Abu Dhabi and Dubai film festivals. But in Austria, when the air turns frosty and the streets are carpeted in golden leaves, October means the arrival of the Viennale, one of the most elegant and thoughtfully programmed festivals in the European season. With its fabled confectionery and cosmopolitan cafe culture, Vienna also hosts probably the only film festival in the world fuelled almost entirely by cakes, coffee and chocolate.
The four main cinemas serving the Viennale are majestic masterpieces in their own right – from opulent 18th-century theatres lit by glittering golden chandeliers to sumptuous Art Deco basements lined with dark wood panelling and painted canvas backdrops. Each lies close to the central ring road, which girdles the city’s main tourist district – a dazzling historical theme park of imperial palaces, lavish concert halls, grand opera houses and monumental museums, all overlooked by the towering spire of St Stephen’s Cathedral. Vienna’s quaint old red-and-white trams patrol this circular route all day, gliding past one another in a perpetual, slow-motion waltz.
Ideally furnished for a film festival, Vienna is a boutique-sized capital boasting excellent screens, a world-class film museum and a serious-minded audience with cosmopolitan tastes. The city even feels like a giant film set at times, which is no surprise given some of the celluloid treasures shot on these photogenic streets – notably Carol Reed’s post-war noir classic The Third Man, starring Orson Welles, but more recently Milos Forman’s lavish Mozart drama Amadeus and Richard Linklater’s bohemian backpacker romance Before Sunrise.
Bollywood fans may recognise the odd grand palace and hilly backdrop too – more than 70 Hindi films have been shot in Austria since the government began offering incentives to Indian producers, luring them away from their traditional mountain locations in neighbouring Switzerland.
Several biopics of Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis, have also been filmed in his home city, including A Dangerous Method, the Canadian director David Cronenberg’s elegant new period drama about Freud and his Swiss rival Carl Jung.
“I really insisted on filming a couple of days in Vienna,” explained Cronenberg, a guest of honour at the 2011 Viennale, which ended last Wednesday. “Partly because of the Belvedere Gardens, you can’t see that anywhere else, nothing looks like that. It was a very important place for Freud, he did walk there often. But also to be able to shoot at the entrance to Freud’s apartment was really important. For our actors to feel that connection with his life was good for the soul of the movie.”
Black-and-white films were a recurring motif this year. Even the prestigious one-minute short specially commissioned for the festival, David Lynch’s The Three Rs, was a monochrome blast of nightmarish surrealism.
At the upscale end of the black-and-white field was the Cannes prize-winner The Artist, a witty and superbly composed retro-homage to Hollywood’s silent-movie heyday by the French writer-director Michel Hazanavicius. But another wordless monochrome work, the micro-budget Two Years at Sea by the young British director Ben Rivers, also proved strangely compelling. An impressionistic portrait of an ageing hermit living alone in a crumbling cottage in the remote Scottish wilderness, this artfully constructed audio-visual poem occupies a limbo space between documentary and fiction.
Monochrome was also much favoured among the low-budget US independent features showing in Vienna, which included Zach Weintraub’s Bummer Summer and Alex Ross Perry’s The Color Wheel, both downbeat comedies about dysfunctional siblings taking ill-fated road trips. Weintraub’s film is the more beautifully composed, but Perry’s has the edge in terms of its relentlessly dark humour and creepy final twist. The deadpan spirit of early Jim Jarmusch hung over both.
More conventional by American indie-movie standards, the psychological thriller Take Shelter stars Michael Shannon as a small-town construction worker who risks losing his job, family and friends because of his mounting fears of an impending apocalypse. The writer-director Jeff Nichols invokes classic Polanski and even Hitchcock during the opening hour of virtuoso suspense, but sadly his inconclusive ending feels like a cop-out. More satisfying in its ambiguity was Spencer Susser’s dark LA comedy Hesher, about a grief-stricken schoolboy and his strangely tender friendship with a destructive, violent, heavy rock-loving misfit who moves into his family home uninvited. Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Natalie Portman and Devin Brochu co-star.
Immigration and culture-clash stories always play well in Vienna, possibly thanks to Austria’s long and continuing history as a transit zone between East and West.
One compelling Viennale documentary touching on these themes was the director Jeff Daniel Silva’s Ivan and Ivana, a decade-spanning portrait of a Bosnian refugee couple who flee their war-torn homeland to chase the American dream in sunny California. Needless to say, they do not enjoy a Hollywood ending.
Another bittersweet exile story showing in Vienna was The Collaborator and His Family, co-directed by Adi Barash and Ruthie Shatz, about a Palestinian father forced to flee to Tel Aviv after he is exposed as an Israeli collaborator. Stranded in stateless limbo with his depressed wife and delinquent sons, this stark documentary presented us with a flawed and angry man cynically mistreated by both sides of a cruel conflict.
Putting a colourful spin on the subject of economic migration was The Dream of Eleuteria, the tale of a teenage Filipina sold by her family into marriage to an older German man for financial gain. Shot in a single 90-minute take, mostly on the move, the director Remton Siego Zuasola’s lively real-time melodrama is certainly a dazzling technical feat, even if it slips into broad caricature at times.
Coincidentally, the Viennale also featured another single-shot, real-time drama: the Uruguayan horror film Silent House. Said to have been inspired by real events, Gustavo Hernández’s nightmarish yarn stars Florencia Colucci as a young woman left alone in a spooky house full of strange noises and dark forces. The ingredients may sound clichéd, but the shaky-camera style brings a gripping sense of in-your-face realism, and even the preposterous final twist will knock you sideways. This is Uruguay’s answer to The Blair Witch Project and, predictably, is already the subject of a Hollywood remake.
Tales of heart-thumping horror, political anger and bitter exile came thick and fast at the 2011 Viennale. Fortunately, Vienna itself was always on hand with its cosmopolitan glamour and warm embrace – plus generous helpings of cakes and chocolate, of course.
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