Even in its less stellar incarnations (and this was, to be honest, one of them), the Rotterdam Film Festival can be counted on for a bracing display of hardcore cinephilia—this year, in more ways than one.
The hands-down sensation of Rotterdam ’99 was Catherine Breillat’s Romance, perhaps the most intensely and graphically sexual film ever made outside the porn industry. (Word traveled fast after the press screening, resulting in a frantic crush at the evening premiere.) In a disconcertingly vulnerable performance, Caroline Ducey plays Marie, a young schoolteacher who loves her boyfriend but is frustrated by his low sex drive. She looks elsewhere for fulfillment, picking up a well-endowed stud (played by porn actor Rocco Siffredi) and later embarking on an affair of sorts with her dour bondage-expert headmaster.
Breillat has scrutinized female sexuality throughout her career, and this, on the surface at least, is her most unrelenting attempt yet (it’s also capped by a gory birth scene that, for shock value, trumps all the blowjobs and come shots that precede it). Ultimately, though, Romance is not exactly convincing, wrenching one minute, annoyingly trite the next—Marie’s torpid voiceover is laced with Red Shoe Diary–worthy pronouncements like “I disappear in proportion to the cock that’s taking me.” (Casting porn stars in sexually charged art films was the favored gimmick—local bad boy Ian Kerkhof used Japanese adult-film superstar Hoshino Mai in his stunningly pretentious Shabondama Elegy, notable mainly for the line “Thy kingdom come up your ass.”)
Breillat was one of the directors conferred mini-retros at Rotterdam this year. The others were the Iranian Abolfazl Jalili and Sicilian hell-raisers Daniele Cipri and Franco Maresco, who were at least as scandal-ready as Breillat. Their latest feature, Toto Who Lived Twice—briefly banned in Italy last year before the courts intervened—is surely one of the most determinedly blasphemous in history, a broad farce featuring bestiality, compulsive mass masturbation, and grotesque mafiosos enacting loosely bibli cal scenarios; the more inspired bursts of insanity suggested the Farrellys remaking Pasolini.
The main program and, in particular, the competition slate were more hit-and-miss than usual. Thankfully, then, no film festival alleviates the monotony of nonstop moviegoing as inventively as Rotterdam. This year, distractions included a performance by brooding techno minimalist Richie Hawtin (a/k/a Plastikman); among other installations, a Situationist-inspired interactive CD-ROM (transporting participants to dank, creepy cityscapes); and the bizarre spectacle of Ain’t It Cool News kingpin Harry Knowles holding forth on a panel about film criticism. All week, there was also highly promising news trickling in from Rotterdam’s ever-popular financing market, the CineMart—among projects that found funding, Paul Morrissey’s first film in 13 years (a Dogma project no less) and John Maybury’s Medea or Media, to star Tilda Swinton. Maybury was also accompanying Love Is the Devil,his impressionistic portrait of Francis Bacon; in a personal touch typical of the festival, the “guest of honor” at the screening was none other than Bacon’s Man in Blue, carted in from a local museum.
Asian cinema is Rotterdam’s traditional strength, but with few consensus choices (though admittedly, the Wong Kar-Wai commercial for cellular phones and the music video Takeshi Kitano made for his pop-star daughter were both hot tickets), this year’s attractions were disparate, geographically and otherwise. France was solidly represented, as were the former Eastern Bloc countries showcased in the “After the Fall” sidebar. The most remarkable film I saw in this section was easily Alexei Balabanov’s Of Freaks and Men. Inspired by 19th-century Russian lit, modeled on daguerreotypes and silent movies, it’s a sweetly perverse tale of singing Siamese twins, spanking fetishes, and—here we go again—erotic photography. Nikita Mikhalkov, the Oscar-winning director of Burnt by the Sun and a possible Russian presidential candidate next year, has declared that Balabanov’s film has the devil in it. Chances are he’d also be unimpressed by Alexander Bashirov’s The Iron Heel of Oligarchy, in which the director plays an inveterate Communist who tries to rally oblivious workers in post-Soviet St. Petersburg and bores women senseless by quoting at length from Das Kapital and Jack London.
Oligarchy won one of this year’s three Tiger Awards, presented annually to first- or second-time directors. The jurors (who included Arturo Ripstein and Alex Cox, both also in the program with very different versions of the Christ story) gave the other two prizes to Laurent Achard for More Than Yesterday, Less Than Tomorrow, an effectively understated French family melodrama, and to Christopher Nolan for Following, a classically tangled noir exercise, adroitly collapsed into a chronology-scrambling, paranoia-heightening structure. An ultra-low-budget British thriller, Following beats most Amerindies at their own game. It’s also the only film mentioned here with a chance of reaching a substantial U.S. audience—Zeitgeist releases it in the spring.