12th Annual EU Film Festival Highlights, Week Four: ‘Sauna,’ ‘Apres Lui,’ ‘Ben X,’ ‘Patrik Age 1,5’

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CHICAGO – The final week of the 12th Annual EU Film Festival at the Siskel Film Center perfectly illustrates the main strength of this festival - amazing diversity. From what we had time to see of the final stretch of films, the four highlights couldn’t be more diverse, featuring movies from four different countries with four completely different tones and styles.

The highlights of the first three weeks of EU included a coming-of-age drama from Ireland (“Kisses”), a sexy romantic comedy from France (“The Girl From Monaco”), an amazing Danish drama (“Worlds Apart”), and a very interesting horror film from Belgium (“Left Bank”). Read more here, here, and here)

The final week takes us back to two of those countries - Belgium and France - and also features a fascinating Finnish shocker before closing with a gentle and sweet film from Sweden. Overall, it’s been a fantastic festival for 2009, leaving us counting the months until the EU returns.

As any good festival goer will tell you, there are often two good films playing at the same time and that’s definitely the case this Saturday, March 28th at 9:45pm when Belgium’s “Ben X” and “Sauna” both play. If you’re able to see one next week, “Ben X” also plays on Wednesday, April 1st at 6:00pm and “Sauna” on the last night of the fest, April 2nd, at 8:15pm, but you should be seeing the closing night film, “Patrik, Age 1,5” at that time, so start your weekend with the disturbing “Sauna”.

Photo credit: Siskel Film Center

Antti-Jussi Annila’s “Sauna” is a European horror nut’s nightmare come true. The film has already built buzz on the festival circuit and it’s immediately easy to see why. It’s not a perfect film but Annila has an artist’s eye for horror and has made a film inspired by greats like Tarkovsky, Kubrick, and Bergman. His “Sauna” is an atmospheric mood piece that burrows its way under your skin and makes it crawl.

“Sauna” is set five hundred years ago in the days after a war between Russia and Sweden has finally come to a peaceful end. A pair of Swedish brothers named Erik and Knut Spore are tasked with drawing the new border between the countries but they bring with them heavy baggage of death, murder, and genuine evil. One brother is ruthlessly cruel and the other squeamish but they both carry sin and guilt through the swamps.

The pair come across an unmapped town on a swamp with a traditional sauna, a building meant to wash away sins. The Spore brothers are about to undergo a cleansing. Forgoing the standard American devices like the jump scare or even precise logic, “Sauna” is a mood piece that, with the exception of a stunning final sequence, isn’t about gore. It’s about pain and guilt so deep that it can only be washed away with blood. Certainly not for everyone, but horror nuts shouldn’t miss it.

Ben X
Ben X
Photo credit: Siskel Film Center

The same night and same time (3/28 at 9:45pm), another highly buzzed festival circuit film comes to Chicago with “Ben X,” a Belgian movie about a mentally handicapped young man and his vivid imagination. The title character has Ausberger’s Syndrome, a form of autism that leaves him trapped in his own mind with very little social skills.

The only place where Ben can be free is online in a role-playing world. There he can kill the dragon and get the girl. He even has a friend on his journey, the lovely Scarlitte, who may or may not even exist. As he goes about his daily troubles of being harassed at school and having trouble communicating, he imagines the world is like that video game.

One day, the harassment pushes Ben too far and he puts a plan in motion that will have shocking consequences. The film jumps back and forth between the action and interviews talking about “what happened” leading the audience to guess if Ben commits suicide or an act of violence on another, either of which seems possible given his predicament. The actual ending is impossible to predict.

With characters that may not even be there, a thumping score, religious allegories, and role-playing references, “Ben X” reminded me a lot of “Donnie Darko”. Nic Balthazar’s film, based on his own novel, has a similar vibe but it’s not quite as dramatically successful.

There is a lot to like about this daring drama but the final act pushes the suspension of disbelief to the extreme as Ben pulls off a plan with his probably-imaginary friend that seems unlikely. Still, “Ben X” is worth a look even if it nearly collapses in on itself in the final reel.

Apres Lui
Apres Lui
Photo credit: Siskel Film Center

Another flawed-but-worthwhile drama unspools on Sunday afternoon at 5:15pm in Gael Morel’s “Apres Lui,” a depressing drama about a mother’s grief following the loss of her son. The amazing Catherine Deneuve proves why she should still be on any list of the great international actresses in the lead role.

Deneuve plays a Lyon bookshop owner who becomes obsessed with her late son’s best friend, the young man who happens to have been driving the car that killed his passenger. Dark, depressing, and filled with more crying scenes than you’ll usually see in a month of movies, “Apres Lui” is a little overdone but Deneuve gives yet another spectacular performance, adding depth to a character that a lot of other actresses would have simply turned into histrionics.

“Apres Lui” plays again on Monday, March 30th at 6:00pm.

Patrik, Age 1,5
Patrik, Age 1,5
Photo credit: Siskel Film Center

The closing night film of the festival is a charming crowd-pleaser from Sweden, Ella Lemhagen’s “Patrik, Age 1,5”. Lemhagen’s film has a plot that sounds like it could easily be turned into bad comedy or melodrama but a talented, genuine cast keep it real.

“Patrik, Age 1,5” has an unusual title for a reason. It refers to a key typo in some papers received by the sweet Goran and his tough partner Sven, a gay couple hoping to adopt a child. When they get the papers with the phrase of the title, they assume that the comma should be a period and that their dreams have come true with a one-and-a-half year-old on the way. Of course, the comma is merely misplaced and Patrick is fifteen and ragingly homophobic.

The arrival of a teenager in their home, who they have to watch until another family can be found for him, turns Goran and Sven’s life upside down. Sven becomes angry and combative while Goran seems as unsure how to handle Patrik as Patrik is unsure how to respond to him. Of course, everyone learns a lesson about reading a book by its cover.

“Patrik, Age 1,5” could easily have been played as a broad comedy of misunderstandings but it is a gentle and genuine film with three excellent, fully-realized performances and a very controlled tone by its director. The sitcomish plot gives way to something more. What a wonderful way to end a strong EU Film Fest - with another surprise.

“Patrik, Age 1,5” closes the fest on Thursday, April 2nd at 6:30pm

Other films playing next week that we either didn’t seen or didn’t deem worthy of a mention…

“Séraphine,” Martin Provost, France/Belgium

Friday, March 27, 6:00 pm
Saturday, March 28, 3:00 pm

Synopsis: “Recipient of nine César nominations, including best picture, director, and actress, SÉRAPHINE was one of the revelations of last year’s festival circuit. The story is based on the life of outsider artist Séraphine de Senlis, a self-taught village charwoman whose inspiration allegedly comes from a guardian angel but whose canvases throb with vibrant sensuality. Scrubbing by day and painting by night, Séraphine toils in blissful obscurity until a famous German art critic comes to town. Director Provost’s tone is pitch-perfect, avoiding both cuteness and stodginess, and Yolande Moreau delivers a great, witty, moving performance as the devout drudge with a diabolical talent. In French with English subtitles. Preview
courtesy of Music Box Films.”

Photo credit: Siskel Film Center

“Prater,” Ulrike Ottinger, Austria/Germany

Friday, March 27, 8:15 pm
Saturday, March 28, 5:15 pm

Synopsis: “Voted Best Documentary of 2008 by German film critics, PRATER is a feast of extravagant imagery portraying the past and present of Prater, Vienna’s famed amusement park. Director Ottinger (FREAK ORLANDO, MADAME X: ABSOLUTE RULER) is in her element shaping this colorful odyssey with a down-the-rabbit-hole feel. Shiver-inducing wonder and horror attend views of
sideshow attractions, human oddities, and sinister sculpted icons including the genies, dragons, giants, and monsters that make up this surreal kingdom. In German with English subtitles. DigiBeta video courtesy of the Austrian Consulate General, Chicago, and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.”

“The Last Homecoming,” Corinna Avraamidou, Cyprus

Friday, March 27, 8:30 pm
Sunday, March 29, 7:00 pm

Synopsis: “The conflicted love of Alexandra, a young college student, for two brothers—one an easygoing homebody, the other a radical political activist—signals the larger dilemma of Cyprus in the cataclysmic summer of 1974. Director Avraamidou balances the perfection of this last season on the eve of the island’s violent partition with a family¹s ill-concealed unrest. The opening night of an amateur production of Euripides’ Trojan Women brings the seaside town¹s feuding factions together while conflicts in the spheres of love and politics come to a head. In Greek with English subtitles. 35mm print courtesy of Avra Productions.”

“Boogie,” Radu Muntean, Romania

Saturday, March 28, 3:15 pm
Monday, March 30, 8:00 pm

Synopsis: “Selected for international premiere in the prestigious Directors’ Fortnight section of the Cannes Film Festival last May, BOOGIE chronicles a former party-animal’s escalating rebellion against domesticity. Modestly successful entrepreneur Bogdan aka Boogie takes his pregnant wife (Marinca, award-winning star of 4 MONTHS, 3 WEEKS AND 2 DAYS) and their toddler for a seaside vacation but leaves them to languish in a stark motel when two buddies from the old days lure him into a drunken all-nighter. In Romanian with English subtitles. Screenings of BOOGIE are made possible in part through the sponsorship of Mr. Honorius Prigoana. Preview courtesy of IFC Films. Beta SP video.”

Il Divo
Il Divo
Photo credit: Siskel Film Center

“Il Divo,” Paolo Sorrentino, Italy
With Toni Servillo, Anna Bonaiuto

Saturday, March 28, 5:30 pm
Monday, March 30, 8:00 pm

Synopsis: “We Americans may not have heard of him, but Giulio Andreotti dominated Italian politics for over forty years. Seven times prime minister, continually rumored to be in bed with the Mafia, haunted by the ghost of Aldo Moro, this enigmatic power-broker was a modern-day version of Machiavelli and Talleyrand. Winner of the Jury Prize at Cannes, IL DIVO (the title refers to Julius Caesar) plays like a combination of GOODFELLAS, NIXON, and THE CONFORMIST, propelled by a baroque visual style, Jacobean
violence, and an outstanding performance from Toni Servillo, who portrays Andreotti as a man whose colorlessness is so extreme that it becomes perversely colorful. In Italian with English subtitles. Preview courtesy of MPI Media Group.”

“Eszter’s Inheritance,” József Sipos, Hungary

Saturday, March 28, 7:30 pm
Tuesday, March 31, 6:00 pm

Synopsis: “Based on a novel of the same title by Sándor Márai, this story set in the lull between wars has a timeless quality and a universal message. Eszter, a lady of a certain age, has her settled life turned upside-down when a married lover from her distant past seeks her out for a day, bringing his children and two strangers. Winner of the audience award at the recent Los
Angeles Hungarian Film Festival. In Hungarian with English subtitles. Preview courtesy of Bunyik Entertainment. 35mm.”

Summer Hours
Summer Hours
Photo credit: Siskel Film Center

“Summer Hours,” Olivier Assayas, France

Saturday, March 28, 7:45 pm
Tuesday, March 31, 6:00 pm

Synopsis: “Hailed as Assayas’s best film as years, this subtle Chekhovian character study is a departure from his recent continent-hopping melodramas and thrillers (CLEAN, DEMONLOVER, BOARDING GATE), although, as critic Nick Schager astutely observed, it finds the director “once again charting the effects of globalization on human consciousness and relationships.” Three siblings (Binoche, Berling, and Renier, all in top form) from various corners of the globe convene at their late mother’s country house, where the task of disposing of the family’s valuable art collection brings the differences between them into sharp relief. In French with English subtitles. Preview courtesy of IFC Films.”

“Defenders Of Riga,” Aigars Grauba, Latvia

Sunday, March 29, 3:00 pm
Tuesday, March 31, 7:45 pm

Synopsis: “A saga of the birth of a new nation, DEFENDERS OF RIGA tells the colorful and dramatic story of Latvia¹s fight for independence through the more intimate story of the relationship of a freedom fighter and his long-suffering fiancée. Delayed for years, the fateful wedding day coincides with the Russian Army¹s attack on Riga in November of 1919. Only a small ragged force of Latvians remains to hold off the invaders, with only the would-be bridegroom to lead them. Director Grauba built an historically accurate replica of Riga¹s Old Town over a 15-acre studio back lot as the setting for this monumental production. In Latvian with English subtitles. 35mm widescreen print courtesy of the Consulate of Latvia in New York.”

“How About You,” Anthony Byrne, Ireland

Sunday, March 29, 3:15 pm
Monday, March 30, 6:00 pm

Synopsis: “Adapted from the short story “The Hardcore” by Irish novelist Maeve Binchy, this comedy gives its veteran stars Redgrave, Fricker, Imelda Staunton, and Joss Ackland a chance to cut loose in over-the-top roles. Four prickly curmudgeons, old hippies all, settle in to savor an ill-humored Christmas in their shabby retirement home until a naïve young nurse (Hayley Atwell of THE DUCHESS and BRIDESHEAD REVISITED) makes the mistake of trying to cheer them up. In English. Preview courtesy of Strand Releasing. 35mm widescreen.”

“I Was Here,” René Vilbre, Estonia/Finland

Sunday, March 29, 5:15 pm
Wednesday, April 1, 8:00 pm

Synopsis: “Estonia’s official submission to the Academy Awards, I WAS HERE has quickly attained the status of cult favorite among disenfranchised middle class youth across Eastern Europe. Based on the best-selling novel of the same title by Sass Henno, the film follows the life of 17-year-old Rass from private school dropout to errand boy for drug dealers. Selling meth to his
schoolmates is one thing, but playing the leather-jacketed tough guy to mafia bosses is something else, as Rass discovers when a package in his care goes missing. In Estonian with English subtitles. 35mm print courtesy of Amrion Production.”

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