The Swedes are depressing, the Czechs drunk and dour, the Austrians are pervs and the Germans, well, they're just German. If you watch a lot of European films, you start to wonder whether sweeping generalizations about national identities aren't oddly useful sometimes.
"It was so Swedish, it was too French, it was really Luxembourgian." The Europeans have a whole lot of cultural history, much of it on film, courtesy of the big boys of European cinema -- Fellini in Italy, Godard, Truffaut, Renoir in France, Bergman in Sweden -- who have made their national quirks known internationally.
So what are their contemporary equivalents telling us about the European experience? If you simply must know, then hasten down to the Pacific Cinematheque (November 23 to Dec 8) and board The 8th Annual European Union Film Festival express. It's a grand tour of the highlights and lowlifes of some of Europe's new cinemakers -- 25 films from 23 different countries.
It seems there is no escaping national identity, unfortunately, but what could unite such a diverse, brawling group, freighted down with the weight of a cultural past, so big, fat and heavy that it would crush all but the most persevering of souls?
One of the common qualities displayed in this array of films is a dark strain of nationalism that runs like a fever in the blood and comes to a furious head in places like hockey rinks. The opening film of the festival, Champions, is the sad-sack story of a bunch of disaffected Czech hockey fanatics, set in a particularly bleak corner of Sudetenland. Here, even the Czech children are hard drinking types with bad deeds in mind. This dour group of grimy patriots clings to nationalism because quite simply there is little else. "If we don't cheer for ourselves, who will?"
Karel is a local lout who runs a bar, his wife Zdena is getting it on with Milan, the bus driver. Jarda, crippled from the waist down, still feels more of a man than Gypsy Josef because, at least, he's white. When this brutish bunch discover that the local lush, a metal head named Bohouš, has precognitive visions of hockey games after consuming entire bottles of booze, they ply him with liquor and bet on the games. This being a Czech film, nothing quite works out the way they'd hoped. Sordid, squalid, horrid -- pick your ids -- it's a might drear in the land of Czechs, drinking and hockey. And often the two combined is the only thing that livens things up.
When they aren't united by a common goal, like hating the Russian, the Swedish, or the Canadian teams, they turn quickly on each other. National pride is a sour mash that comes to a head during the world championships as the Czech national team battles for first. The film strays almost into Seventh Seal territory (you'd swear the Dark Ages never left), but instead of the grim reaper wielding a scythe, there is a lumbering, massive hockey goalie, who, with his goaltender stick and darkened face mask, makes a fine figure of doom and foreboding.
Not that the people here need any more help in that regard: they embrace their failed dreams and desires with gusto. Director Marek Najbrt's comedy, if that is indeed the correct term, takes a particularly jaundiced look at national pride. Like bad booze, it is a cheap, but ultimately illusionary high. The only ones who manage to escape this backwater purgatory are one woman and one teenager. The men remain, staggering and hung over, standing outside in the thin light of dawn, crowing, "We're the champions!" To call this a bittersweet moment, doesn't do it justice. The bitter far outweighs the sweet.
Even in well-educated, socialist Sweden, issues of race and nationality rear their heads. Reunion is a love story that crosses racial and cultural boundaries with entirely unexpected, but very satisfying results. When Magnus meets his new classmate, a beautiful black teenage girl named Hillevi, the teacher introduces her by saying, "Now, we can tell you're not from here." "Yes, I'm from Senegal."
"Yes, but now you're Swedish."
"No, I'm a Dane," she answers. "My parents moved here when I was two."
It is, of course, love at first sight: not simply because Hillevi is beautiful and exotic, but because she is fearless. Magnus is one of those kids that no one notices, no one, except for Hillevi, who unaccountably decides that she loves him. The unlikely pair sits in her room and drinks tea for six months, but Magnus never manages to make a move, mostly because after drinking so much tea, he has to pee almost nonstop. Fate has other plans for this pair and after an altercation with the pack of school bullies escalates out of control, Hillevi decides to run away to Amsterdam, and invites Magnus to join her.
"Do you want to run away with me? Even if we never come back again?" she asks.
"But we're having supper," answers Magnus.
Even when he finally decides to take a chance, the bullies, his own innate cautiousness and finally an unfortunately placed pole, intervene. The road not taken unwinds behind him and twenty years later, Magnus is a 36-year-old man, with a house, a wife, a child, a dog and a whole lot of regret. It isn't until he is visited by a ghost of his 16-year-old self, who pesters him unmercifully, as only a sixteen year old is able, that he decides to try first love all over again.
Reunions are hell, as anyone who has ever been to one knows full well, and this particular one is particularly hellish. The old gang is all there, the bullied girl with the big ears, the nerd grown up to be a stud, the lonely men, the horny housewives: everyone desperate to relive their glory days; except for their teacher, who just wants to go home. Magnus goes merely on the off chance that Hillevi might be there, but as it turns out, she was not invited by the organizers, who thought there might be trouble with that black girl.
Directors Måns Herngren and Hannes Holm keep things moving lightly along, and the odd mixture of socialist, racist and ultimately humanist tendencies is all mixed up together. It is very Swedish in its preoccupation's, but no more so than many other countries who all are equally befuddled by the conundrum that is love and sex.
The complications of love unite every country -- men and women and their various couplings -- whether it's same sex, different sex, or group sex -- as is the case in Slugs. When a cast of young nubiles decide to make a porn film for a quick buck, they discover it isn't quite as simple as substituting an f for b in the 'uck.
Whether director Michael Glawogger had the hermaphrodite tendencies of invertebrates in mind, when he titled this film is difficult to say, despite the presence of three foot-long floppy penis-wieners which look like another form of spineless life.
The would-be porn maker is a young woman named Mao; her cast of thespians and lesbians includes Johann who writes anonymous letters to women, his greasy roommate Max, who crashes and burns with women, self-centered Martha, and Mara who blithely informs everyone that she had group sex on her high school graduation. In typical Euro fashion, the group wants to make intellectual porn, people reciting Camus and Kant, as they get down to the dirty business. While they're blase about the oral and anal annals, love proves to be much too difficult for this bunch.
Utterly obscene and extremely funny, Slugs is a blunt look at sex and love, that manages to remain oddly uncynical. Director Michael Glawogger, who flits easily between documentaries (Workingman's Death) and narrative cinema, has an easy way with Austrian slackers, who are pretty much like slackers everywhere, and fashions a gentle poke at the fine European tradition of mixing artiness and sexiness (without the heaps of pretension).
If you really must have typical arthouse in the grand, old European tradition, then pick up tickets for Reconstruction, a film in which a beautiful young man meets a beautiful young woman, while her aging artist husband writes about the whole mess. Or is he writing actual events into existence? What is real, what is love, what is film? What the hell? It's lovely to look at, but a little on the Chanel ad side of things, with carefully composed shots of young lovers in beautifully belted black trench coats running down a narrow cobbled street, pursued by the aging cuckold. A shadow of greater films (Last Year at Marienbad) are echoed back in arthouse light, (or lite) shall we say.
Director Christoffer Boe picked up a Caméra d'Or for Best First Feature at Cannes in 2003, and if you don't mind a little nouvelle vague with your Vogue, than this is the film for you.
Less beautiful lovers have an equally difficult time in When the Tides Comes In. Winner of a César for Best First Feature, it is the story of Irène, stout, mid-forties and prone to wearing pigtails, she nonetheless attracts the attention of Dries, an ardent fan, who proves a little too ardent to resist. The two embark on a brief affair and an ongoing joke is the differences between the French and the Belgians. Director/star of the film, Yolande Moreau said of her work, "I'm originally from Brussels and like a lot of people from Brussels, I'm half-French and half-Flemish. We didn't set the story on the French-Belgian border by chance. It enabled us to navigate between two cultures that are close and so very far apart. I chose as my "prince", my "hero", a Flemish speaker who works in France."
But if even the French and the Belgians have difficulty getting along, is there any hope for more divergent groups? Is the big, happy union of Europeans really all that united? Or is it a troubled marriage of many opposites all pushing and pulling, feuding and fighting. Every frame of Michael Haneke's Caché, echoed on the real-life streets of Paris, would say unequivocally that something is rotten in the Seine (it may be the drowned bodies of Algerian protesters from the Paris riots of 1961, or the whiff of smoke from hundreds of burning cars).
Haneke, who has been likened to the "moral conscience of modern Europe in film," a rather heavy responsibility for any artist, has had the odd effect of preceding/echoing real events in his films. Haneke has said of his work "Whether concerned with sexuality or violence or another taboo issue, anything that breaks with the norm is obscene. Insofar as truth is always obscene, I hope that all of my films have at least an element of obscenity."
'Conspiracy of Art'
If truth, however elusive, is what all the original auteurs were chasing, you'll be glad to know that the chase is still on, aided, abetted and endlessly complicated by the growing interrelations of all people, media and theory about the role that art plays. In the words of Jean Baudrillard, interviewed about his most recent book, The Conspiracy of Art, "What we want is to put the rest of the world on the same level of masquerade and parody that we are on, to put the rest of the world into simulation, so all the world becomes total artifice and then we are all-powerful. It's a game." Of course, he also said, "Nobody needs French theory."
French (or Belgian, Finnish, or Czech) film, however, is another matter entirely.
Dorothy Woodend reviews films for The Tyee every Friday.
For more information about the European Union Film Festival, click here.