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“European Union

Film Showcase ’97”

Nov. 1-16 at the American Film

Institute Theater

As it comes together politically, Europe is falling apart spiritually. That seemed to be the message of many of the European films in this year’s Filmfest D.C., and it’s reiterated by several of the entries in this month’s European Union Film Showcase. Of the 10 films made available for preview (all on video), six of them are about young people confronting—or fleeing—the uncertainty of contemporary European life. (Two of the others also focus on youthful protagonists but are set in the traditional period for coming-of-age flicks: the late ’50s and early ’60s.)

The last two Euro showcases have included the work of such well-known directors as Wim Wenders, Lars von Trier, and Aki Kaurismäki, but this year is short on established filmmakers. Instead, the 23-film selection features eight directorial debuts, as well as an unusually high number of films by women directors. Perhaps because TV is such a significant proving ground for European filmmakers, most of these young directors have made films that are surprisingly stolid in style. Some of them compensate, however, with audacious themes.

Take, for example, the way that boy meets girl (or boy). In Life Is All You Get, the lovers connect when Jan, mistaking them for muggers, attacks two undercover cops chasing Vera as she runs from a Berlin street riot. In Under the Skin, grief-stricken Iris picks up Tom at a Liverpool cinema, and their anonymous sex is intercut with shots of her mother’s cremation. In Everything Must Go, Belgian law-school dropout Tony ingratiates himself with Andre by helping him trash Tony’s parents’ house. In The Eighteenth, a sane but hotheaded man reluctantly takes an apparently catatonic woman with him when he breaks out of the mental hospital where he’s being held for observation. In Christmas Oratorio, Sidner travels from New Zealand to court Tessa, the woman who long carried on a pen-pal romance with another man: Sidner’s father.

Of the previewed films, Under the Skin (Nov. 7 & 9) is the most striking. When the story opens, all the women in Iris’ family have something under their skin: Her mother has a brain tumor that’s about to kill her, her older sister Rose has a 7-month-old fetus, and Iris (nervy Samantha Morton) has a desire for change and sensation that she attempts to sate by quitting her job, dumping her boyfriend, and turning to alcohol, masturbation, and random sexual encounters. First-time director Carine Adler gives this bad-girl rampage an edgy, freewheeling verve that she credits partially to Wong Kar-Wai. The result is an energetic update of such early-’60s north-of-Britain dramas as A Taste of Honey. Ultimately, though, things turn out more tidily than the film’s boldest moments promise.

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Both Life Is All You Get and The Eighteenth (Nov. 13 & 15) attempt to sketch a broad spectrum of society, and both feature riots: The latter transpires entirely on the tumultuous day that Denmark voted to approve closer ties to the European Union. It’s the first film by Anders Rønnow-Klarlund, who weaves three stories in an attempt to depict Danish society: Ulla (Sanne Graulund) is an aspiring jazz singer whose career distracts her from her young daughter Sarah, who lives with Ulla’s ex-husband; Jens (Rasmus Botoft) is the mental-hospital escapee, for whom the riot proves a sort of boon; and Michael (Niels Anders Thorn) is a salesman who’s trying to win a big Italian contract with the help of two call girls. These barely overlapping stories are connected neatly, but the cumulative effect seems something less than a panoramic view of contemporary Copenhagen.

Wolfgang Becker’s Life Is All You Get (Nov. 15 & 16) restricts itself to a smaller segment of society: the underemployed, immigrant, and possibly HIV-positive residents of Berlin. Emphasizing the indignity of life on Germany’s economic fringe, the film concentrates on characters like lovers Jan (Jürgen Vogel), who is forced to dress in a chicken suit to make a living, and Vera (Christiane Paul), who sings on trams for cash. Jan’s sister supports herself by selling sex toys at ladies’ parties, and his new roommate Buddy (Ricky Tomlinson) is an aging rockabilly enthusiast who hopes to make some quick money by appearing on a TV show that specializes in embarrassing amateur performers. While waiting in line for that show, Jan and Buddy meet a Greek woman looking for her brother; she wants to appear on a program that attempts to reunite divided families. Filmed with the city’s rapid gentrification and massive makeover as its apt backdrop, this is more a snapshot than a saga of Berlin life. Still, its cast is congenial and its style appealing.

Elizabeth Gill’s competent but unsurprising Gold in the Streets (Nov. 6 & 8) offers a more conventional group portrait of youth in transition. Set principally in the Bronx, it follows a group of recent Irish immigrants, most notably Liam (Karl Geary), Owen (Jared Harris), Des (Ian Hart), Mary (Louise Lombard), and Paddy (Aidan Gillen). This was adapted from a play, which explains its staginess: Most of the action takes place in the men’s group apartment and a nearby bar (the latter run by James Belushi). The title is taken from a ditty about the disenchantment of being an Irish immigrant in London, and most of these characters are headed for disappointment or worse. Sometimes their comeuppances are melodramatic, but one of them is agreeably ironic: Enthusiastic new American Paddy successfully woos a Westport heiress, only to discover that she wants to live in Ireland.

The fest’s more striking Irish entry is The Disappearance of Finbar (Nov. 4), the tale of a football phenom who suddenly vanishes, only to be tracked down near the Arctic Circle by a childhood friend. Another meditation on the about-to-be-unified Europe, director Sue Clayton’s whimsical comedy was reviewed here when it appeared in Filmfest D.C.

Hailed as the Benelux Trainspotting, Jan Verheyen’s Everything Must Go (Nov. 13 & 14) follows upscale but mixed-up Tony (Stany Crets), who decides to quit law school and become a salesman. This, he seems to think, simply involves a lot of lying, an activity for which he has a taste but not much of a talent. Eventually, Tony hooks up with the thuggish Andre (Peter Van den Begin), with whom has he an ambiguously sexual relationship. With its scenes of vandalism, bank robbery, masturbation, and adolescent peevishness, the film is clearly intended as a provocation to the Belgian bourgeois. From a distance, though, it seems less audacious than simply obnoxious.

The series also includes four period pieces, two of them full-blown costume dramas. Of these four, Secrets of the Heart (Nov. 12 & 15) is the simplest and perhaps the best. Montxo Armendáriz’s film recounts a short but significant period in the life of a preadolescent boy. Javi (Andoni Erburu) and his older brother Juan (Alvaro Nagore) live with their aunts in the city, where they attend school; during vacations, they visit their mother and uncle, who live in a small village. Juan enthralls Javi with talk of secrets, but the younger boy is about to learn about the biggest secret of all, sex, when separate scandals envelop Juan, his mother, his uncle, and one of his aunts. Javi is idealized and the film old-fashioned, but it’s well crafted and nicely evocative of vanished times and disappearing customs.

Following three eccentric generations, Christmas Oratorio (Nov. 2) has more story than it can handle. Adapted from a novel, Kjell-Åke Andersson’s film tells of a family that’s decimated by the loss of Solveig (Lena Endre), a vivacious presence and gifted singer who dies in a freak accident before she can fulfill her desire to have her small country church’s choir perform Bach’s difficult “Christmas Oratorio.” Left behind are her husband Aron (Peter Haber) and son Sidner (Johan Widerberg), although the task of finally performing the oratorio actually falls to a generation as yet unborn. Like many Scandinavian films, this features icy weather, cold religion, and chilly fate, as well as repressed sex and circus performers. It all seems a bit overwrought, although such a sweeping film would surely be more convincing on the big screen than it was in video.

The same must be true of Beaumarchais the Scoundrel (Nov. 16), a wide-screen 18th-century romp by La Cage aux Folles director Edouard Molinaro. A loosely structured series of anecdotes from the life of The Marriage of Figaro’s author, this semifictional tale emphasizes Beaumarchais’ activities as a liberal judge, supporter of the American Revolution, and antagonist of the French nobility. The film is frequently witty, and Fabrice Luchini is an appealing Beaumarchais, but the tone doesn’t entirely suit the events: The playwright’s frequent imprisonments are treated as comic shtick, yet the imminence of the French Revolution suggests that these events weren’t exactly the stuff of farce.

If Molinaro plays 18th-century history with a modern twinkle, Pilar Miró treats costume drama all too seriously. Her The Dog in the Manger (Nov. 2 & 5) is a comedy of romantic intrigue, turning on the jealousy and fickleness of a countess (Emma Suárez) who can’t decide whether or not she’s in love with a commoner (Carmelo Gømez, who also appears in Secrets of the Heart). This Spanish effort (set in Naples) is competently made, but it portrays without any notable perspective a Europe that most of the characters depicted in this Euro showcase would scarcely recognize.

Although it invokes the song at its beginning and near its end, The Year of the Horse isn’t much like a hurricane. It’s amiable and relaxed, a suitably laid-back tribute to just about the only hippie jam band appreciated by art-punks like director Jim Jarmusch. The edgy Jarmusch occasionally seems to be working at cross-purposes to the offhand Crazy Horse—he’s seen on the tour bus, reading bloody passages from Ezekiel to a bemused Neil Young, who can only say, “Wow”—but mostly the two get along fine.

Jarmusch and Young’s friendship is implicit in this documentary, which was conceived after Young scored the director’s Dead Man and Jarmusch shot a few videos for the rocker. Mostly shot (sometimes “proudly” in Super 8) on a 1996 European tour, the film finds Young—who identifies himself only as a “guitar player in Crazy Horse”—banging away at such standards as “Tonight’s the Night” and “Sedan Delivery.” Frequently, the aging rockers huddle together at center stage, as if for warmth.

To create a sense of 10-years-after continuity, Jarmusch also includes live footage from 1976 and 1986. (The latter is taken from Muddy Track, a film credited to Young alter ego “Bernard Shakey.”) The concert scenes are punctuated by abstract passages signifying on-the-road-again motion (hurtling clouds, a tootling toy train), brief interviews with the aw-shucks band members, and tributes to departed stalwarts David Briggs (the band’s longtime producer) and Danny Whitten (the original Horse guitarist, whose heroin overdose partially inspired Tonight’s the Night). The effect is to make sense of 23-year-veteran guitarist Pancho Sampedro’s comment that he’s “the new guy.”

The high-grain imagery matches the roughness of the band’s playing—”We’re not chops players,” concedes drummer Ralph Molina—as the ramshackle structure emulates the band’s baggy, well-worn wardrobe. Unsurprisingly, Young and his cohorts seem more at ease in the ’96 backstage footage that they do in moments from ’86 (in which tempers are high) and ’76 (in which the band seems to be). The piece of a ’76 performance of “Like a Hurricane” edited into the ’96 take suggests that the Horse has lost some of its fire. To judge from Year of the Horse, however, Young and his cohorts now value camaraderie over ferocity.CP