There’s a reason you go to film festivals, and it doesn’t always have to do with the lineup of movies. You could probably convince yourself that you’ll eventually watch The Imitation Game on Netflix, but the real reason to actually make a point and see it at a place like CIFF is that there’s nothing quite like a festival audience. Watching any movie with a large group of people who are dedicated to film and to being attentive and active during a screening can inherently enhance the experience of watching it. When you’re watching a crowd pleaser, that experience can increase tenfold, in that you’re actually watching that film with a crowd that’s waiting to be pleased.
In the case of the first two films I saw this weekend at CIFF, the Brazilian coming-of-age drama The Way He Looks, and the outrageously dark screwball comedy The 100 Year Old Man Who Climbed Out The Window and Disappeared, the energy in the room certainly helped.
The Way He Looks came into Chicago with several awards from both Berlin and various Gay and Lesbian film fests under its belt, and you can sense why the charming story has had an affect on audiences. Leonardo is a blind teenager looking for excitement and romance in school, a chance for his first kiss, and distance from his protective parents. His best friend and helper Giovana wants the same, and they each find the new student Gabriel to be a refreshing, and dreamy, new addition to their circle of friends.
This is ultimately standard coming-of-age, teenage discovery fare, with Leo exploring his sexuality, grappling with bullies and parents, and finding himself drifting apart from Giovana. The movie’s problem is that Leo’s character is mostly defined by his blindness. Disability movies are stronger when they’re not strictly about the disability, and each of Leo’s hang-ups, while similar to any teen, are in one way or another a barrier created by his inability to see and care for himself, rather than a personality flaw.
Gabriel is even something of a Manic Pixie Dream Guy, thinly drawn and going as far as to introduce Leo to Belle and Sebastian. What Daniel Ribeiro’s film does well, and why it resonates so strongly with audiences, is that everything about it is tender and delicate. The characters are sensitive, the color palette is soft, the cinematography is sensual, and the melodrama is kept to a minimum.
And yet on the other side of the crowd-pleaser spectrum is a comedy as goofy as The 100 Year Old Man. This is a movie that gets its first laugh by tying hot dogs to some dynamite and blowing up a pesky fox. It’s a dark comedy for sure; it’s blunt and surprising while playing everything straight. At one point a man’s head gets blown clean off, bouncing on the head of his car, and the movie proceeds as though this was ordinary, alternating casually to conversations on pouring drinks and discussing birthdays. It’s uproarious.
The film involves a 100-year-old man who, spoiler, climbs out of his window and disappears. On the train to nowhere in particular, he steals a man’s suitcase containing $50 million, though what he’ll do with the money, along with just about everything else, is of little concern to him. Along the way his pursuers get picked off one-by-one in increasingly morbid fashion; one involves an elephant. And making it funnier is just how little it fazes our hero.
On a plot level, the Swedish film from Felix Herngren most resembles Forrest Gump. Allan Karlsson recounts his life story that involves working on the Manhattan Project and becoming a Cold War spy, but it feels familiar because like Gump, Allan is just as clueless and accidentally capable of making history. But The 100-Year-Old Man is more likely to attract the fans of Wes Anderson or 21 Jump Street who crave the deadpan absurdism, the morbid humor and the random excursions that serve only as a misplaced punch line.
The 100 Year Old Man is a Scandinavian box office smash from Christmas 2013, and it’s only a matter of time before this gets US distribution. The Way He Looks is even luckier, with a theater run at the start of November. In theory, you could’ve used this first weekend to see films that will never get beyond the festival circuit, but then crowd pleasers like this will never play as well as they did here.
Also showing: Force Majeure
The Swedish Force Majeure is an atmospheric, patient, uncomfortable and thought provoking family drama with the thrilling backdrop of mountainous ski slopes. A Swedish family is on vacation in the French Alps when they witness a controlled avalanche while eating breakfast. When the avalanche doesn’t look so controlled, the family panics. Everything is okay, and it was just a false alarm, but the family and marital dynamic isn’t the same. Director and writer Ruben Östlund has a remarkable sense of behavior and psychology. The story naturally becomes about something other than the avalanche, but of principles, in which he never lets his actors off the hook and photographs them in bathroom mirrors, foggy reflections and off-center framing that only heightens the uncomfortable tension.