BEIRUT: If you’re curious about new directions in contemporary cinema, you might assume some clues are visible in the work of younger filmmakers. You could do worse than start with the Semaine de la Critique.
A parallel section of the Cannes film festival’s main competition, Critics’ Week (aka SIC) draws its program from first- and second-time directors, with an eye to discovering fresh young international talent.
SIC has been part of Cannes’ menu for 53 editions. For the past eight of these, a liberal selection of SIC works has been reprised at Beirut’s Metropolis Cinema.
This year, SIC’s Beirut reprise is comprised of seven feature-length fictions and 10 short- and medium-length works.
Running the gamut from animated films to “featurettes,” the shorts are either thematically paired with one of the features or packaged in a shorts program – here screening on the last evening of the cycle.
SIC opens on the last day of June with a projection of “Respire” (Breathe), the sophomore film of director Mélanie Laurent – an accomplished actor who’s worked with directors as varied as Rachid Bouchareb (on “Days of Glory”) and Quentin Tarantino (on “Inglourious Basterds”).
Set in a city outside Paris, “Respire” is a coming-of-age tale that veers into surprising narrative territory, while managing to avoid being the least unbelievable. It tells the story of Charlie (Joséphine Japy), an asthmatic 17-year-old high school senior whose short-to-medium-term life prospects look a trifle bleak. Then a new girl – the beautiful and charismatic Sarah (Lou de Laâge) arrives at school and inexplicably picks Charlie to be her best pal.
Like Cannes’ main competition, SIC’s programmers are interested in work made outside the box of commercial cinema convention. Jaded critics occasionally remark that these films – variously labeled “indie,” “art house” and the like – just drop one set of conventions for another.
TV ad-style jump cuts are rare, for instance, but long tracking shots are common. PG-13-style criteria for depicting sexual intimacy – and all that implies in terms of gender preferences, age of consent, violence levels as well as the frankness with which these are rendered – is routinely jettisoned.
Individual SIC films do conform to these art house criteria, selectively, but the program also betrays the divergent aesthetics that can be found in indie fictions – ranging from documentary sensibilities to more aesthetic approaches to storytelling.
The highlight of this year’s reprise, not least for goal-oriented film lovers, will be “The Tribe.” The feature film debut of Ukrainian writer-director Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy walked away with three of SIC’s four feature prizes – the Nespresso Grand Prize for La Semaine de la Critique, the France 4 Visionary Award and the Gan Foundation Support for Distribution.
One of the SIC films that critics have termed “Dickensian,” Slaboshpytskiy’s feature follows the harrowing adventures of a teenage boy (Grigoriy Fesenko) as he arrives at a boarding school for deaf mutes. Evincing a brutalist visual language elevated to new heights last decade by a fresh generation of Romanian auteurs, “The Tribe” gave Slaboshpytskiy an opportunity to strip down this aesthetic even further, to make a film bereft of spoken language.
The SIC program’s other features include a comic drama set amid the fiscal-cutback culture of the French health care system (“Hippocrate,” Thomas Lilti’s sophomore effort); a flight-from-Africa-to-Europe road movie (Boris Lojkine’s debut feature “Hope”), which took SIC’s SACD (Authors Society) Award; a coming-of-age economic-disparity picture (“Gente de bien,” Franco Lolli’s first film); and a not-heterosexual-or-middle-class coming-of-age drama (Sebastiano Riso’s debut “Più Buio di Mezzanotte”).
There is also a shard of coming-of-age drama – mingled with another commercial cinema genre – in “When Animals Dream,” the directorial debut of Jonas Alexander Arnby. It seems a shame to spoil what that “other commercial genre” is, but cineastes who enjoyed Jim Jarmusch’s latest film, “Only Lovers Left Alive,” might like Arnby’s movie as well.
Those who attended Cannes this past May will note that some of the films from SIC’s official selection will be absent from the Beirut edition. Nisrine Wehbe, a co-organizer of the Beirut cycle, notes there are various reasons for this.
Djinn Carrénard’s feature “FLA (Faire: L’amour),” which opened SIC, won’t be projected because the filmmakers want to do a re-edit before disseminating it further. Noting that “FLA” is a production of the Franco-German television network Arte, Wehbe expressed hopes that the film might yet screen in Beirut during Metropolis’ forthcoming Semaine d’Arte film cycle.
David Robert Mitchell’s “It Follows” is absent because the distributor decided to postpone the movie’s Middle East premiere until the last quarter of the year, and the film festivals in the Gulf – evidently hoping to cash in on the storied prize money of those events’ competitions. Since SIC paired Mitchell’s feature with Gaëlle Denis’ short “Crocodile,” that work too is absent.
Two more SIC features – Nadav Lapid’s “The Kindergarten Teacher” and Shira Geffen’s “Self Made” – are Israeli productions, and are presumably being withheld to honor the international boycott of cultural production funded by that state, whose policies toward Palestinians violate several international conventions.
OCD filmgoers may be irritated that they won’t be able to watch the entire SIC program. They might be reassured to learn that, of the absentees, only “Crocodile” was an SIC prize-winner, taking the Canal+ Award. Those whose SAT TV packages include pirated Canal+ may one day see Denis’ short there.
The reprise of the Semaine de la Critique runs at Metropolis Cinema-Sofil June 30-July 9, with screenings starting at 8:30 p.m. Screenings are subtitled. For more information, see metropoliscinema.net