(14/12/06) – The tenth (and probably last) edition of the Cinénygma Luxembourg International Film Festival took place the week before Halloween and again presented a programme stuffed with fantastic films (in both senses of the word). As part of the European Federation of Fantastical Film Festivals, Cinénygma presented the Méliès d’argent Competition for Best Fantastic Film from Europe with a total of nine films. German cannibal tale Rohtenburg (Grimm Love/Butterfly) from director Martin Weisz eventually took home the silver, with Anders Banke’s Swedish horror comedy Frostbiten (Frostbite) earning a special mention. These two films are a perfect example of the two extremes that typified this year’s competition: the former based on a true story, the latter a riff on vampire clichés and other film conventions that have little to do with reality but everything with the traditions of fiction and storytelling. Both were also excellent films. (The following article might contain spoilers.)
The festival opened with the Belgian thriller The Room, which was also part of the Méliès Competition. The film was directed by Giles Daoust, who debuted two years ago with the film Last Night on Earth. Strangely enough, the French-language Room felt like a first work, suffering as it did from the typical rookie syndrome of trying to do too much in one film, especially where the look of the film is concerned. Can a film be too atmospheric for its own good? After a viewing of The Room, the answer is a resounding yes. There are black and white sequences with red highlights a la Sin City, monochrome shots that bathe everything in a blue light, blue-coloured shots with specks of colour, de-saturated shots, overexposed shots, interminable tracking shots, white flashes, fast cuts. It often feels like a promo reel for what can be done in the cutting room with the latest software rather than a coherent visual palette.
The story does not suffer from this attempt at overstuffing, however, constructing its narrative from the elements present in its simple family home setting. The film is ostensibly about the appearance of a mysterious door at the end of an upstairs corridor, but its true mystery is what lies beyond that door: the room. The family consists of father Max (a deliciously over the top Phillipe Resimont, recalling Jack Nicholson’s devilish Joker) and mother (Françoise Mignon), their three children: Alex with Down syndrome (portrayed by Pascal Duquenne), daughter and soon-to-be single mother Melinda (Caroline Veyt) and youngest tyke Benjamin (Maximillien Jouret-Maron). How, in the course of the film a red Gerbera seems to be able to explain both everything and nothing (suggesting Citizen Kane’s mysterious rosebud in full bloom and view) and how – though not what – happens in the room is really possible is never really answered, but this film’s insistence on a physical manifestation of inner troubles is nevertheless fascinating. A similar premise also intrigued in the more consequently stylish Matrix-inspired Mårlind & Stein film Storm from Sweden, which played in the International Competition at Cinénygma.
The 2005 British horror hit The Descent from Neil Marshal (about a group of girls stuck in an underground cave and being preyed upon) has its first acolyte in the open-air, Italian-produced but English-language film H2Odio (Hate 2 O) , which throws together a group of girls on a desert island in Lake Bolsena and waits for terror to strike. Bent on doing a special water diet together, the girls have come with little luggage: sleeping bags and bottled water, which on a desert island is asking for trouble, especially when the man dropping them off has been instructed to not return to the island until next week to pick them up.
Will somebody be left in a week’s time on the island with only one house where they can sleep, no food and no place to escape to? Perhaps the girls could try hiding behind their Europudding accents, sometimes pronouncing the English dialogues as if they’re hearing the words for the first time. The cast, lead by Italian Julia Jentsch-lookalike Chiara Conti, is nevertheless an affable bunch, and director Alex Infasceli largely compensates for his girls’ fat accents with an impressive originality in his camerawork (courtesy of cinematographer Arnaldo Catinari, Il caimano/The Caiman) and sound design. The editing is flashy without drawing too much attention to itself and contains some neat effects, including an Escher-like sequence that pans from left to right in the kitchen and features the same girl several times.
There is also an undercurrent of latent eroticism at work here that recalls the inexplicable happenings in Peter Weir’s Australian classic Picnic at Hanging Rock, but overall the film is closest in spirit to Marshall’s The Descent, a cross between thriller and horror set in an isolated place, and featuring a group of girls battling for survival against an unknown enemy. As The Room and Storm, the tale is completely fictitious and uses ideas of modern psychology to frame the action, though the action itself is straight from the horror-book.
The French pulse-quickening mystery thriller Ils (They) is the first of several films that screened at the Cinénygma Film Festival Luxembourg that is rooted in reality. Based on a story that befell Austrians in the Czech Republic, Ils re-imagines the story as a haunted-house tale set in Romania and happening to a French teacher (Olivia Bonamy) and her novelist husband (Michaël Cohen). What is truly scary is that the house is not haunted by ghosts, but by real beings, though at first it is unclear what they want (apart from creating chaos and mayhem); and who they really is reserved for a frightening if enigmatic post-script.
Directors Xavier Pallud and David Moreau open Ils with a petrifying event that seems apparently unconnected to the main story: a Romanian woman and her daughter have car trouble on a lonely road in a dense forest (the same forest, it turns out later, in which the French couple live). The mother gets out of her vehicle to open the bonnet, disappearing out of view for the daughter who waits in the car. Frightened, she goes out to be close to her mother, only to find that she has disappeared. Quickly, she locks herself into the car, but whatever is out there – and it quickly becomes clear that something or someone is indeed out there – is willing to go a long way to get in.
The directing duo here give a preview of their mastery of mise-en-scene and suggestion that make Ils one of the most effective frighteners of recent years, using camera angles and perspectives that stay glued to the main character, leaving evil lurking just beyond the picture plane. Sparse sound effects enhance the palpable sense of dread, which extends throughout the picture, until the last scenes in an abandoned set of sewer tunnels. Pallud and Moreau here lose some of film’s mystical aura by giving "them" a face, though they make up for this with a perfectly understated last shot and the aforementioned post-script. Though neither director has much film experience, it is clear that they have thoroughly soaked up the best of the countless predecessors of Ils, elevating this to a highly effective and atmospheric genre entertainment.
As Pallud and Moreau, Swedish rookie director Anders Banke has carefully marinated his filmmaking mind in genre classics and suffuses his debut Frostbiten (Frostbite) , a vampire horror comedy, with clichés in just the right way to keep them both fresh and effective. After a shockingly realistic prologue set in 1944 Ukraine, Frostbiten switches to the present and doctor Annika (Petra Nielsen) and her teenage daughter Saga (Grete Havnesköld), who dread that the Northern Swedish village they have just moved to might be a little – for lack of a better word – dead. Undoubtedly attracted by the benefits to be had from the Lapland polar night, the vampires have moved to a sleepy town in Northern Sweden as well, incidentally the same town Annika and Saga have just arrived in.
Two youngsters of Saga’s age, Sebastian (Jonas Karlström) and Vega (Emma Åberg), are the catalysts of the disaster that will follow. Vega befriends Saga at the local school and she counts on Sebastian’s connections for a couple of pills that will enhance an upcoming party. Sebastian is an apprentice at the local hospital, so pills are easy enough to come by, though perhaps it was not a good idea to take the mysterious red pills from Dr. Beckert’s laboratory, which seem to produce some strange side-effects, including enhanced hearing and viewing, an appetite for fresh blood and aversions to things ranging from crosses and garlic to wooden stakes driven through one’s heart (not that normal people would support the latter terribly well).
Banke’s careful set-up of his elements pays off wonderfully and allows him to accelerate through the latter reels with neck-breaking speed. When the pills end up at the party Vega attends, all hell breaks loosely quite literally. At the same time, Sebastian is forced to sit through his first-ever dinner with the parents of his girlfriend, which in itself would be a nerve-wrecking experience, let alone if you’ve got the feeling you’re slowly transforming into something else. The result is both scary and hilarious (especially when the dish served is fish and garlic), and Karlström’s finely calibrated performance makes his Sebastian a priceless addition to the gallery of people unwillingly transformed into fanged half-beasts. Åberg matches him every step of the way, and her struggle with a garden gnome is among the funniest scenes in the film. Though the ending is perhaps too open-ended to offer any real sense of closure (and a clearer idea of the fate of several of the characters would have been nice), Frostbiten will certainly delight those looking for a Halloween-style night of fun and scares. When it comes to trick or treat, this film definitely belongs in the latter category.
Speaking of tricks: adapting a well-known novella from one of the most important literary writers is not an easy trick, and In A Dark Place, the Europudding adaptation of American author Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw is not completely successful. Set in an unnamed, English-speaking Luxembourg, the story of a nanny, a governess and two nasty children is competently made, but its re-imagining of the story with Sapphic overtones and its fair share of gratuitous nudity might make this item more suitable for cult viewing on late-night European TV than a ticket-buying audience at the local cinema. Supporting actors and location work are neat, though the young nanny (actually an art therapy teacher in this version) as played by young American actress Leelee Sobieski (Here on Earth) is lukewarm at best.
Thought unsuitable for primary school teaching, Sobieski’s Anna Veigh (no relation to Oklahoma City Bomber Timothy McVeigh) is recommended by the school head as a replacement nanny for two spoilt rich children who live with their businessman uncle, who is mostly abroad. She is given free reign over their education and general well-being by the strict governess (Tara Fitzgerald), who is not particularly forthcoming with details on the fate of Anna’s predecessor. This first section is well-constructed and appropriately atmospheric, giving full room to Anna and the two children, the enormous mansion and the Luxembourg countryside surrounding the estate. But things become increasingly cluttered as the film progresses, following up some story leads while discarding others, only to return to them later. It seems that actor-turned-screenwriter Peter Waddington wants to keep all his options open, even adding more possible explanations for the strange happenings at the mansion than James originally put in.
Unfortunately, there are only so many wrong turns and red herrings that an audience can take before they get confused, or bored, or both. In A Dark Place, while certainly competently directed, acted and shot, is so littered with possibilities that its maze-like structure turns into a fishing net slowly closing itself around the viewer, who would desperately like a logical way out but finds none, or too many. James’s novella starts with the famous phrase "The story had held us, round the fire, sufficiently breathless…" and that could be an accurate description of this modern update too. It does hold a fascination, will leave you breathless and is sufficient in a certain way. But is ‘sufficient’ really enough for a recommendation?