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Women in Cinema (1999)
Posted 3 December 1999

by Sean Axmaker

Being 1999, it’s likely you’ll find at least a couple in local theaters, in both art houses to multiplexes. That wasn’t necessarily the case years ago when Seattle celebrated it’s first such festival. This is the 5th Annual Women in Cinema festival, but the roots go back even further, 10 years, when the germinal series, the International Festival of Women Directors, was helmed by a small group of dedicated film lovers. For the past five years those at Seattle International Film Festival put their muscle, their connections, and their imagination behind it and have grown it to the current week-long celebration.

Seattle becomes a cornucopia of boutique festivals in the fall and early winter: The Polish Film Festival, The Gay and Lesbian “Queer as a 3 Dollar Bill” Festival, The Scandinavian Film Festival, and the Arab Film Festival (every two years) vie for audience attention, and in 1999 the new Seattle Underground Film Festival joined the fray. This year the Women in Cinema Festival moved up two months, right in the heart of the festival bustle in the week before Thanksgiving, and saw a marked drop-off in audience despite their most anticipated line-up ever. With four US premieres (including the closing night film Onegin with Ralph Fiennes) and six directors (including Patricia Rozema for the opening night gala showing of Mansfield Park and Alison Maclean for Jesus’ Son), this was indeed the most ambitious collection of the event’s history.

There may be some who argue that you no longer “need” a  Women in Cinema Festival. To take that argument at its most basic, there certainly isn’t the same “need” to showcase films by women directors that there was even ten years ago (and even then many women were happily helming Hollywood productions), that is, if you define “need: in those narrow terms. Many of the films showcased in WIC 1999 will receive theatrical releases and others will find their way to video, and just like any other festival worth its salt many wonderful pictures will never prove themselves commercial enough for even a limited art horse run, at least in the US. One thing this festival proves: films from women directors are not just “women’s films” (whatever that old term has come to mean). The rich array of film from countries all over the world features films about women, about men, about poverty, about identity, about culture clash and cultural diversity: there is no single overriding them, no common issue, nothing that pulls the collection together apart from the sex of their director’s. If nothing else, Women in Cinema reminds us that women make films and that like men who make films, each woman director brings her own sensibilities to her films. But let’s not get lost in such pronouncements. Women in Cinema is important because it brings movies, many of them good, most of them interesting, and a few quite exciting, that might not otherwise be seen. Ultimately that’s the real purpose of any film festival.  

Mansfield Park  

Patricia Rozema’s Mansfield Park (Great Britain) kicked off the festival with an opening night gala and took home the audience award for best film. Canadian director Rozema, best known for I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing and When Night Is Falling, left her native country for the first time for this Miramax produced, British based period drama, but she kept with her a sharp sensibility and her light, sensual cinematic touch. Rozema’s screenplay incorporates letters and other writings by the Jane Austin into the novel, injecting the confidence and creativity of the author into more passive character of Fanny Price. The result is a dynamic and rich character, full of life and all-too-knowing, and Aussie actress Frances O’Connor (Kiss or Kill) runs with the part. Price is a poor girl sent to live with rich relatives, growing up in a social phantom zone between servant and companion, scribbling away her stories in her upstairs room and giggling with cousin Edmund (Jonny Lee Miller), the only member of the stiff, socially calcified family who appreciates her charms and her insights. Rozema directs with the sensitivity of a ballet dancer, defining her world and it’s inhabitants through body language, flirts and glances, the way a character takes to a room. In the film’s most delirious scene, a mock coming-out ball in Fanny’s honor transforms into a festival of desire and romantic possibility. Rozema could be accused of tackling too much in her script, and the film flounders in issues it simply isn’t equipped to deal with (the Caribbean slavery that feeds the family fortune, constantly alluded to but only revealed much later) but bravely attempts then regardless. If that was the worst of her lapses this still might have been one of the most silkily cinematic films of the year, but she loads her script with unnecessary verbalizations of what’s already made obvious. Rozema should have been content to let her images speak the subtext and carry the film’s irony. By the climax the layers of suggestion have been lifted to the surface and Fanny becomes less a free spirit and more a mouthpiece for Rozema,  a twentieth-century woman in eighteenth-century ruffles. [Click here to read Patty-Lynne Herlevi's interview]


Less ambitious, and far less successful, is the closing night film, the American premiere of Onegin (Great Britain), an adaptation of Alexander Pushkin’s “Eugene Onegin” by director Martha Fiennes, produced by and starring Ralph Fiennes. The siblings must have seen that Ralph was perfect for the bored, self-hating dilettante, walking through the film with bemused detachment and a cultured disdain for everything. They were right: for 106 minutes he plays the society zombie, transforming from brooding, lonely cynic to tortured, lovesick, brooding, lonely cynic. Ralph holds out hope that Onegin may turn into something more, a man who covers a potentially rich emotional and intellectual life with a facade of ennui and cultured indifference, but by the end he’s a walking well of regret wallowing in pain, and the film wallows right with him. Director Martha, making her feature film debut, does nothing to save him from himself, but to her credit pulls a credible performance from Liv Tyler, who never loses her waifish pout but holds herself like a properly trained young eighteenth-century socialite hiding a yearning schoolgirl soul under layers of silk and cotton. Martin Donovan is unfortunately all but wasted in a tiny part. But ultimately Martha pins a feature on material that would be served in a sitcom length, drawing out the slim story with silent stares and pregnant pauses injected with flourishes of symphonic lushness, the preening heaviness of a self-conscious “art film.” The hushed soundtrack and effective silences, broken by the scratching of a quill or the lift of the wind, start off as lovely tone setting details but become ponderous as the film wears on and the score (by yet another Fiennes) far too full of import. As the tragedy winds to its end, the would-be lovers frozen by social expectation and personal compromise, I can almost hear moments from a much better film through the flat lines: “Lie to me. Tell me that you love me.”

Jesus’ Son  

“Let me start at the beginning…” One of the pleasures of Alison Maclean’s Jesus’ Son (US), her eagerly anticipated second feature (by me at least) after her edgy 1992 debut Crush, is that the “beginning” is constantly being redefined through cinematic digressions narrated in an effortless stream-of-consciousness manner that feels more immediate than anything I’ve heard this year. Billy Crudup is FH (“Fuckhead”, that dreaded nickname that will never go away), personable, sweet, and sincere, a dead end twentysomething drug addict drifting aimlessly from high to high, lost to wander his own little world. Set in America in 1970s, it revisits territory often better explored in Gus Van Sant’s shaggy Drugstore Cowboy, but despite the obvious parallels Maclean makes this one all her own, a film of great charms and marvelous characters. Samantha Morton, the intense young star of Under the Skin and countless BBC productions (poised for a breakout with a starring role in Woody Allen’s latest film), is the manic young woman he falls in love with. It’s the usual story: boy meets girl, boy wins girl, boy loses himself in a haze of pharmaceutical head trips and loses her, boy tries to find himself. Adapted from Denis Johnson’s book of short stories, Maclean’s film is decidedly episodic, weaving from incident to incident with only the druggy logic of the narrator to tie them together, but she brings with it the richness of short story details, moments explored for all their imaginative detail. While FH is stealing copper wire from a deserted house, a naked woman hang glides overhead. “That’s my wife,” mutters partner in crime Denis Leary, as if the information in any way explains what we’ve just seen. Holly Hunter and Dennis Hopper also appear, doing what they need to: sketching out vivid characters in a few short scenes. The film tends to lose itself not in digressions but rambling shaggy dog stories, and it never quite captures the same natural, stumbling meander of his narration, but at times it suggests the random connections of memory with digressions and flitting flashbacks. Stories run back and forth through time, filling in details with earlier incidents, in a style more easy-going rambling than interweaving Tarantino, and Crudup has the damnedest way of holding the film together without ever seeming to try.

Holy Smoke  

Jane Campion’s Holy Smoke (US) marked the festival’s only sold-out house, but it left many scratching their heads. And I admit at first glance the bizarre punches of humor seemed completely out of place in the rough seas of this emotionally tumultuous drama. But of all of the films at the festival, this one nagged at me the longest. The title is perfectly appropriate: faith, love, even moral strength has the wispy consistency of smoke as issues of faith and religion and commitment seem to float away in the battle of wills that forms the center of the film. Kate Winslet is Ruth, a young New Zealand tourist who falls under the sway of a cult (and possibly it’s charismatic leader) while on vacation in India, and Harvey Keitel is J.P., the “cult exiter” her family hires to deprogram her. Ruth isn’t your normal cult member, and her “conversion” is at best an unreliable report by her traveling companion, whose remembrance resembles a really amazing drug trip by way of a Svengali-style hypnotist. J.P., for that matter, isn’t your ideal deprogrammer, a slick, snappily dressed hot shot in black clothes, snakeskin boots, dark glasses, and jet black hair, an American urban cowboy with an insatiable sexual appetite. Things go wrong from square one and J.P. is, against his better judgment, alone for three days with his headstrong subject. Like The Piano, sex and desire and power become swirled in a libidinous stew where tables are turned, weaknesses revealed, and wills broken, but with a savage sense of humor and a critical yet understanding attitude. Campion fills the film with delicious images, from the garish middle class cookie cutter home to the red desert landscape of the arid inland shack where the wills battle to a kitchy heat-stroke hallucination of Ruth as a pop Kali (set to the tune of “Baby It’s You”). Many threads fray by the end, never to be pulled together, and others don’t quite wrap up satisfactorily, the result of a passionate but haphazardly constructed screenplay (written by Campion and her sister Anna, also a filmmaker in her own right). But that’s the film: tones change in a gesture and the narrative turns around in a cut. The herky-jerky mix of styles and messy dramatic journey become beguiling, if not exactly satisfying, and the film leaves conflicts unresolved, still pinging around as the credits roll.

The Third Miracle  

Watching Agnieszka Holland’s The Third Miracle (US), I finally stopped to ask myself: What happened to Holland? The festival featured her 1985 masterpiece Angry Harvest (Germany) as a companion to her latest feature, and a reviewing confirmed her once immense stature, not simply as a woman director but one of the most exciting and incisive European voices in modern cinema. Angry Harvest, at its most basic, explores the private tyrant within good people and the darker sides of human nature, but ultimately digs under the skin of its two main characters, a Polish Catholic unexpectedly prospering under the tyranny of the Nazis and an escaped Polish Jew separated from her husband and daughter who takes refuge in his cellar. As his loneliness leads to an oppressive reign of terror, her dependency breaks her resolve and her strength. The raw, naked emotional power of the film, alive in almost every image, is lost in The Third Miracle, a rambling examination of faith by a man whose job is to ground would-be American saints before they can be petitioned to Rome. Ed Harris, a priest who has turned his back on the church after destroying a community after one such investigation, is called back to investigate another, a Hungarian immigrant woman that a Chicago parish insists is responsible for a miracle. The dead woman’s daughter (Anne Heche) isn’t so sure: the woman abandoned her as a teen and never looked back. Heavy handed and well meaning, Holland never makes the world of derelicts, hookers, and drug addicts on the streets of the Chicago’s South Side anywhere near real, and the love affair between Harris and Heche is written just like a second act complication. But worst of all, worse than the lazy direction and sloppy scripting and phony sense of locale, is the age-old crutch of “proof” (the belief in miracles as the face of God) to pull a man back to the faith. It’s a poor case for faith, which should be about coming from within, for loving God for his everyday miracles, not his extraordinary crowd-pleasing stunts.

I Could Read the Sky  

“This is me,” whispers the aging narrator of Nichola Bruce’s I Could Read the Sky (Ireland). “I sleep badly.” Are the liquid images on the screens a subjective self portrait or the half-seen images in his head somewhere between dreamtime and waking. The screens looks like dreams brewed together and spilled across the floor, blurring, merging, fading from one to another. It hardly matters in this stream-of-consciousness day in the life of a lonely old man losing himself in his memories. Gaunt, gray Dermot Healy is the aging Irishman who casts his mind back decades, to remember his mates, his wife, his string of jobs in Ireland and England, often conversing with characters of the past, but always with his deadened, weathered old man’s face even while his remembered friends are preserved in youth. One critic (who very much disliked the film) remarked to me “Memories don’t look like that.” And he’s right, they don’t, but there are times where they so feel like it. I Could Read the Sky threatens to lose its subject in self-conscious artiness and imagery so obscure it becomes abstract, but that whispering voice keeps pulling us back, grounding those streaky, hazy colors in times and events, clueing us to see them not as photographic reproductions of events past but subjective sights colored by the tone of remembrance. The music, though beautiful, seems wrong for the film (it features Irish musicians and singers, including Sinead O’Connor), pretty background for a film as grimy as it is gorgeous. The appearances by Maria Doyle Kennedy and Stephen Rea are jarring, familiar movie icons disrupting subjective, alien imagery, actors infiltrating a personal memory. But those are minor complaints in a film that bravely defies narrative conventions, a dawn to dusk journey through the mind’s eye of a man living in his past because his present is so lonely.

Tempting Heart  

The past as seen through the prism of the present is also the theme of Sylvia Chang’s Tempting Heart (Hong Kong), a sweet but overlong look at a film director (played by Chang herself, a longtime Hong Kong movie star) who tries to turn her memories of first love into a movie. With the help of a screenwriter (who treats her story as just that, a story), her idealized conceptions of romantic innocence are complicated as he challenges her rose-colored naiveté with probing questions about the other participants. “Love is very simple” is Chang’s motto, while the screenwriter insists “Love starts very simple.” And indeed is does, with flirting and dancing and walks home, the cute fumblings of teenagers more innocent than they think, and more selfish than the adult cares to remember. Chang punctuates the classic arc of young love broken up by parental disapproval who briefly reunite ten years later as very different people, with cut-backs to the story sessions and a framing sequence set in a bar where the director puts it all together. It’s a sweet film, but it takes far too long to make the point and almost sputters out in the long romantic idyll before the clouds of reality fog up her paper moon-lit memory. The weaving of story, memory, and modern reflection is handled professionally but only resonates in the conclusion, after Chang has allowed the perspectives of other characters to finally break through her idealism to paint a rich, generous portrait of all the characters. Gigi Leung plays the director as a girl with Takeshi Kaneshiro (Chungking Express, Fallen Angels) as her underachieving boyfriend and Karen Mok is her the best friend.

Northern Skirts  

The Vienna of Barbara Albert’s Northern Skirts (Austria) is a very different place than the idealized pre-war city of romance celebrated in the films of Ernst Lubitsch and Max Ophuls, or the bombed out ruin where black marketeers and con-men scurry from military patrols in The Third Man. In fact, Austria has pretty much dropped off cinematic atlases for decades, which in itself would make Albert’s film welcome. It happens to be a warm, rich evocation of a city of great ethnic diversity and restless but lost twentysomething souls, which makes it not just interesting, but wonderful. A feature length spin-off of her award winning short Sunspots (which also unspooled at the fest), it wanders through a winter in the lives of two young women. Party-girl native Austrian Jasmin (Nina Proll), a busty blonde pastry waitress, escapes the drudgery of her job and pain of family life through night clubbing and indiscriminate sex. Tamara, an Austrian raised but Serbian born nurse, finds that ambition has merely landed her in a job under an abusive supervisor. Once childhood friends who grow apart when school cliques separate the popular blonde from the brunette immigrant, they meet again in an abortion clinic. When Jasmin leaves an abusive homelife and winds up in the hospital after a couple of club-hopping guys fuck and dump her on the frozen banks of the Danube one winter night, passed out and almost dead, they become unlikely roommates. Jasmin is a screw-up, to be sure, who dreams of a better life in another country, the promise of one of her boyfriends, while to Tamara Austria is the better life, her Serb family back in the volatile former Yugoslavia. The story wends through the year, building up to a giddy New Year’s celebration that becomes an emotional climax for them all, but Albert isn’t about to tease us with the promise of change without grounding us back in their lives and a long denouement grounds us back in their reality. But neither is it a grim “life is hell” portrait. Albert’s hope lies in tiny steps of self recognition and clear-eyed vision for the future, and she loves her characters (especially Jasmin, the slutty fuck-up who fights loneliness with sex) enough to give them the tools for change and the hope that they’ll use them.

Women’s Wiles  

I’m not sure exactly what to make of Farida Benlyazid’s Women’s Wiles from Morocco, a colorful fantasy that feels like a feminist reworking of an Arabian Nights tale. “Once upon a time…” begins the film as a modern mother tells a fable to her daughter, and we’re somewhere in an undefined past that could be 20, 200, or 2,000 years ago. A young Prince flirts with Aicha (Samira Akariou), a merchant’s daughter who lives just outside his courtyard. Prevented by social custom from leaving the house, she tends the basil garden (a couple of hanging pots over what appears to be a modern patio) and the Prince climbs her garden wall to toss riddles and challenges her way. She lobs them right back at him with cutting wit and remarkable self-possession: truly, the Prince has never seen a woman this smart or resourceful. As their battle wills escalates into a guerrilla pranks (how she sneaks in and out of a royal palace is one of many plot points tossed to the wind in the name of fairy tales), he decides to break her will by locking her in an underground cell and asking her every morning “Humiliated Aicha who lives in the cellar, whose wiles are greater, those of a man or a woman?” “A woman’s wiles are greater,” she answers, ensuring her continued imprisonment, but she escapes nightly in a secret tunnel and concocts the most absurdly elaborate plan to prove him wrong once and for all. Extreme, impossible and, in any real life terms, ridiculous, this is a feminist fable pure and simple. It’s lovely to look at, draped in a rainbow of colorful robes and rugs, even if the budgetary constraints leave the palace looking more like a summer house and the decor an impermanent mix of periods (there’s even a visible zipper, though I expect that’s a mistake rather than a planned anachronism). The Prince is an educated man trying to reconcile his dawning respect for women with cultural stereotypes, but its frustrating that his power play with Aicha, provoked by pique gotten out of hand, never earns him an appropriate comeuppance. As the film laughs off seven years of forced imprisonment you have to wonder how Benlyazid can take such action by an ostensible hero with such forgiveness.

Happy Birthday 

Finally, the film that wasn’t. The American premiere of Larisa Sadilova’s Happy Birthday (Russia) was canceled when the print never showed. But just as all the local critics previewed the film on a videotape screener, I took the opportunity for an after-the-fact look at a film I for one was most excited to see. Set in a crumbling, cold Maternity Home over the course of a couple of days, the film follows the experiences of a ward of women after giving birth. Without any outward signs to ground us (and the internal clues – fashion, cultural touchstones, slang, etc. all beyond my American sensibilities), it’s hard to tell when or where this takes place, but I’m guessing it’s late fall in pre-Perestroika Northern Russia. The flashback structure suggests the recent past, but the mix of modern and old-fashioned details gives it an out-of-time feel. The women lounge around in a chilly ward as nurses regulate the time with their infants, and their men (barred from the wing altogether) jump around like fools, waving placards and flowers, in the meadow outside their second story window. Sadilova’s B&W production, shot in B&W with roving handheld camera, looks more like a Pennebaker or Maysles documentary than a fictional film, lending an intimate immediacy to the loosely structured film, more mosaic than narrative. There’s a rich sense of character and color in her gray palette, and her performers are full of life, from the joking gynecologist (the only male on the floor) whose good humor makes him an oddball member of the gang (and something of a lothario, which the nurses take with a bemused inevitability) to the madwoman who loses her baby and slowly loses her grip on reality. At a brief seventy-three minutes, Sadilova leaves the audience wanting more of the warm and wonderful slice of experience. And hunting for masterpieces aside, that’s one of the greatest gifts of any film festival. The WIC showing was to be the film American premiere. Here’s hoping the film ultimately gets the attention it deserves.

Please be sure to read our reports from these other film festivals as well:

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