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Sunday, July 21

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I'm cramming in as many of this year's European Union Film Festival offerings as I can at Chicago's Gene Siskel Film Center this month before I embark on my exciting trip to cover the Bermuda International Film Festival, March 18-24. The E.U. festival essentially acts as a preview of some of the great films from Europe that will more than likely be getting released in the United States in the coming year. A handful of the selections do not have a stateside distributor as yet, so this may be the only chance you get to check these out. Typically I hit about 10 to 12 E.U. films per year, but the Bermuda trip has limited me to only six, but what a devastatingly juicy six they are.

The Whore's Son (Hurensohn), Austria/Luxembourg
This sweet, sometimes disturbing film looks at a young boy, Ozren (played at various ages through out the film by different young actors and by Stanislav Lisnic as a young man), who adores his beautiful mother (Chulpan Khamatova), whom he believes works the night shift as a waitress. As he gets older, Ozren begins to realize his mother is a prostitute, working to keep the struggling family together. As the film's title suggests, the plot centers on Ozren's growing up and learning about life and sex from those around him and his mother, including a succession of pimps, hookers, and generally shady characters. But he also spends a great deal of time with the woman who takes care of him when his mother is out, and she desperately tries to allow Ozren to see the good in people, especially his mother. As Ozren gets old enough to live by himself, his mother moves out of their apartment (to where she doesn’t tell him), but the lack of guidance and Ozren's confused mindset about morals and appropriate behavior sets him on a path to seek out his mother (who is now a devastatingly beautiful, high-priced call girl). There is a stark beauty and sad honesty to director Michael Sturminger's work. Putting aside any stylized camera tricks or flashy elements, The Whore's Son is told in a straightforward manner that suits the material. It dodges opportunities to be sleazy but still makes it perfectly clear what both mother and son are exposed to and a part of. Their relationship is both sweet and tragic, much like the film itself.

In the City (En la Cuidad), Spain
The trouble with ensemble films is the lack of time spent with each character. Typically, in a movie with 10 or 12 main roles, character development suffers, and the actors are forced to use a type of shorthand to make sure we know how to characterize (a.k.a. pigeonhole) their character. I've seen many an ensemble film from Spain, and for some reason Spanish filmmakers always get it right. In the City has a large cast filled with interesting people whose depths we are able to explore without losing a thing. The film surrounds us with a group of 30-somethings, most of whom are in relationships. They are all friends to varying degrees and cross each other's paths in various combinations throughout the film. In the City is a film about relationships, and in the film's introductions to its characters, we at first believe this is a group of happy-go-lucky adults who enjoy life. But then director Cesc Gay (Nico and Dani-Krampack) digs a little deeper, showing the flaws and shortcomings of his legion. My favorite character is Eduward Fernandez's architect, who correctly suspects his wife is cheating on him but says nothing to her until long after the affair is over. His confrontation with her in a restaurant is devastating. I also liked the bookstore clerk who is convinced that a Frenchman she spends an evening with is going to be her new boyfriend when he moves to Spain. Then she never hears from him until she's fairly deep into her next relationship. This leads to an uncomfortable conversation between the clerk and the unsuspecting boyfriend that will make you squirm with awkwardness. By the end of the film, when we see all of the main characters gathered at a birthday party for a woman on the verge of leaving her husband and daughter for another woman, we now see that the jovial quality of the group is a front, as it probably is for most people in life. In the City is about the pain and struggle we go back to after the parties break up.

In Your Hands (Forbrydelser--Dogme #34), Denmark
Yes, the Danish-born minimalist filmmaking Dogme style is still out there and still churning out quality work. In Your Hands is one of the strongest in this non-genre that I've seen, and I've seen most of the 35 certified works. The key to watching Dogme films is simple: forget about all the anti-stylistic devices used in such films and just embrace the power of these films. Despite filmmakers from all over the world attempting such films, those from Denmark still make the best Dogme movies. In Your Hands concerns female priest Anna (Ann Eleonora Jorgensen) starting her new chaplain's position in a women's prison. There, she meets a newly arrived prisoner, Kate (Trine Dyrhom), who is said to have healing and other psychic powers. On her first day in prison, Kate helps a young strung-out prisoner kick drugs in a single night. Anna doesn't believe any of this at first until Kate correctly predicts that the chaplain is pregnant, something Anna and her husband thought was impossible. While Anna is dealing with this unexpected development in her life, Kate begins to fall for a wallflower of a prison guard, who escorts her outside the prison to authorized (albeit invented) occasions. The two sit and talk for hours and form a positive bond that will clearly set Kate down a less criminal past if it's allowed to flourish. But this is a Danish Dogme film, so you know that ain't gonna happen.

In Your Hands is about different types of healing: spiritual, actual and the kind that comes from just finding someone who cares about you. When a doctor's visit reveals Anna's baby may have a birth defect, Anna must decide whether to abort the baby or take her chances. Her husband doesn't want to risk bring a sick child into the world, but Anna wonders if Kate could somehow help. I thought for sure I knew how this film would end, and I was 100 percent wrong. In Your Hands is one of those wonderful films that treats religion and spirituality seriously without being an propaganda film for Jesus (ahem). Dyrhom is a beautiful woman who I would like to meet in a confessional someday, but she can also act the hell out of this material. I have always liked films where the priests seem to be the hardest to convince of a miracle, and she pulls it off beautifully. In Your Hands is well worth seeking out.

5x2 (Cinc Fois Deux), France
Absolutely the best of this bunch of six films, Francois Ozon's latest is deceptively simple yet frightfully poignant love story told in reverse order. Much like Betrayal, 5x2 reveals the lifespan of a couple's love affair—from the first real meeting and realizing there might be a spark to their post-divorce quickie turned pseudo-rape in a hotel room—but in five sequences shown in reverse chronological order. The film opens with the couple sitting before a magistrate reading the seemingly amicable terms of their divorce. It's painful and embarrassing to watch, and clearly the couple (Gilles played by Stephane Freiss and Marion played by Valerie Bruni-Tedeschi) is suffering just being there. Ozon doesn't tell us exactly how far back each new scene goes, but we get clues from the fullness of husband Gilles' beard and the age (or existence) of the couple's child. But time isn't really the issue. What counts are clues—clues to the cracks in the couple's relationship. We never really learn what exact troubles led to their divorce, but we spot hints at what they might have been. Gilles relays a story about his only infidelity at a party that seems to take place shortly before the pair separate. We feel sorry for her and dismiss him as a cad until the segment of the film that chronicles their wedding day. And in much the same way Irreversible's sweet final scene reveals the true devastation of the rest of the film, seeing the couple in 5x2 get to know each other in the last segment forces you to wonder how things got so bad. At this point in Ozon's career, you don't even wonder if his films (which include 8 Women, Swimming Pool, Under the Sand and Sitcom) will be good; you just wait and see how good. 5x2 is among his finest.

Unconscious (Inconscientes), Spain
The setting is 1913 Barcelona. The arena: psychoanalysis. Sigmund Freud (who makes a pivotal appearance here) has just unleashed his sexually based theories on the world and set minds ablaze. Unconscious is an always-moving, fast-paced mystery-comedy about the wife (Leonor Watling) of a missing psychiatrist who teams up with her sister's husband (Luis Tosar) to find the man, who may not want to be found. Using clues from the missing doctor's thesis on four patients, the pair make their way through the city's underworld into amateur porn soundstages, transvestite parties, brothels and drug dens in search of the man who is supposed to introduce Dr. Freud during an address marking his first trip to Barcelona. The film's biggest flaw is that it's too crowded with characters and ideas, and it rarely pauses long enough to let us play catch up. A knowledge of Spain's history in the last hundred years probably would have also helped me access some of the more culturally specific references to kings, wars and literature. Unconscious is a great-looking film with a cast that seems game for just about anything, and the energy level generated might be enough to carry you through the rough spots, but be prepared for mild levels of confusion and moments when your head will spin. That's not always a bad thing.

A Hole in My Heart (Ett Hal i Mitt Hjarta), Sweden
Two E.U. festivals ago, I saw a remarkable film called Lilya 4-Ever from director Lukas Moodysson about a 16-year-old sex worker in Russia. It's as devastating film as you're likely to see. Moodysson is back, and some might say we're in trouble. The buzz surrounding A Hole in My Heart began at the Toronto Film Festival last year, and all of the terrible, stomach-churning rumors of vaginal surgery, debauchery and vile characters that you heard about are true. This doesn't necessarily mean the film is no good. Set almost entirely in a single apartment in Sweden, the movie concerns a teenage boy named Eric (Bjorn Almroth), who was born with a flipper-like hand and lives almost entirely in his darkened room listening to pounding music and shooting video diaries of himself talking about how miserable his life is. When he does have to interact with others, he barely speaks above a whisper and seems uncomfortable sharing a space with another living being. He also fantasizes a lot about what's going on outside his room, and at times in this film it's impossible to tell what's real and what's in Eric's head. Both versions of reality are disturbing, so does it really matter? The rest of the apartment belongs to Eric's father Rickard (Thorsten Flinck), an amateur porn filmmaker, who apparently uses the same two actors in all his films—Tess (Sanna Brading) and Geko (Goran Marjanovic)—and uses his living room as his set. These four comprise our cast, and for 98 minutes, your senses will be overloaded, your ears will bleed, you'll wish you could pluck your own eyes out, and your mind will be fucked for days to come. Bring the kids!

Seriously folks, you won't come out of the other end of this one quite the same, but A Hole in My Heart is really a look inside the mind of a young man whose life and mind is being ruined before our eyes. His father is actually fairly protective and sweet to Eric most of the time, and tries to tell him when filming will be happening so he doesn't walk in on it. But Eric listens to everything, mostly because he has a crush on Tess. But when he hears her discuss her labia-reduction surgery (which we get to see repeatedly in all its hideous detail), his mind begins to warp. And that's just in the first 15 minutes. As the film progresses, the porno is shot. I'd never in a million years guess that I would consider a porn shoot featuring anal sex (not shown) "downtime" in any movie, but there you go. We learn bits and pieces about the lives of each character from confession-like monologues told to the camera. The day's events degenerate into a snuff film, a food orgy (which of course means bucket loads of puke), and some of the most disturbing images committed to film (or in this case, digital video). My feelings on A Hole in My Heart are still up in the air, but its effectiveness is undeniable. Moodysson's ability to get inside Eric's head is remarkable. On the flip side, I can't remember the last time I saw so many people walk out of a movie, and you're guaranteed a large number of groaning, suffering audience members at any screening. Surprisingly enough, the movie that Hole reminded me of the most is the recent documentary Tarnation. Both expertly captured a state of mind using a distorted soundtrack and quick flashes of the memory shards that make up a troubled young person. Much like Lilya 4-Ever, you may leave the film thinking less of humanity, and more about the pain and humiliation we are capable of inflicting on each other. If you think you can handle this, A Hole in My Heart might work for you. Good luck figuring that one out.

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About the Author(s)

A Windy City resident for nearly 20 years, Steve writes about everything but movies at his day job for a trade journal publishing company. Using the alias Capone, he has been the Chicago Editor for Ain't It Cool News since 1998, and has been writing film reviews since he was a wee lad of 14, growing up in Maryland.

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