ROTTERDAM—Fitting for an affair as resolutely dirty-minded as the 2003 International Film Festival Rotterdam, this year’s centerpiece found hunched patrons squinting through peepholes at unspeakable acts of sex, violence, and leg waxing. Mutant brainchild of occasional Voice contributor Guy Maddin, the silent melodrama Cowards Bend the Knee marries the 19th-century Kinetoscope to contemporary installation art and locks noir, Soviet montage, and confessional autobiography in a sordid back room for a thrashing ménage à trois. The resulting bacchanal—set in the Winnipeg beauty parlor and hockey rink of Maddin’s childhood—entails an Electra-fied revenge plot, a botched abortion, multiple hand amputations, multiple strangulations, a furtive fistfuck beneath the hair dryers, and much, much more!! Feted as one of Rotterdam’s “Filmmakers in Focus,” Maddin discussed his tantalizing next project: Set in Winnipeg during the twilight of Prohibition and co-scripted by Kazuo Ishiguro, The Saddest Music in the World will star a legless Isabella Rossellini as “a nymphomaniac who’s trying to screw herself into a happy forgetfulness,” the director explained. (The saddest music in Rotterdam—and the festival’s high point for your misty correspondent—also came courtesy of Maddin, in a screening of his little-seen 2001 video for Sparklehorse’s stricken ballad “It’s a Wonderful Life”: all bundles of flowers tossed on love’s grave and spellbound close-ups of kohl-eyed beauties bathed in lantern light.)
Outside Manitoba, fleshly shenanigans further ran amok during the 12-day movie binge (which wrapped up February 2). An issue of the festival bulletin, the Daily Tiger, showcased a nude Edward Lachman (co-director of teen bonkbuster Ken Park) on its cover, while the most memorable of the Tiger‘s Top Five countdowns was headlined simply “Orgies” (filing Auto Focus under “Orgie Voor Beginners”). Filmmakers Claire Denis and Philippe Grandrieux sat in polite bewilderment through a surreally incoherent panel called “Naked Ideologies,” in which the moderator informed his audience that the handjob scene in the erotic Thai pastoral Blissfully Yours is “very Asian.”
As one might expect, much of the carnal knowledge proffered in Rotterdam was very French, with veteran director Jean-Claude Brisseau, subject of a retrospective, presiding as nutty professor. Operatic and quasi-mystical, rococo and cuckoo, Brisseau’s baroque psychosexual tragedies—sometimes suggesting Claude Chabrol with a fatal case of the DTs—dabble in both schmaltzy romance and crass exploitation, as in 1989’s Noce Blanche (White Wedding), which cast Vanessa Paradis, then 16, as the frequently naked seductress of hulking, clothed Bruno Cremer. Rotterdam hosted the international premiere of Brisseau’s latest, Choses Secrètes (Secret Things), wherein a sapphic duo’s quest to ballbreak and plunder every man they meet encompasses murder, incest, insanity, public wanking, the Angel of Death, and a demonic Nietzschean superman given to messianic proclamations. “Admire this splendid symbol of our Earthly Life,” he states at his wedding party (a “Grootste orgie,” according to the Daily Tiger). “I am the Death of all, and the Birth of all.” In Brisseau’s universe, sex is death, but also—to borrow a title from his fellow guest and Gallic maverick Catherine Breillat—sex is comedy.
Though Brisseau’s flaming corpus hasn’t penetrated many borders beyond France, cinephiles back home adore him (Cahiers du Cinéma picked Choses Secrètes as its top film of 2002), and a few would-be heirs to his overstuffed throne staked their claim at Rotterdam. Rodolphe Marconi’s Défense d’Aimer (Forbidden Love) could be a remake of a Brisseau movie that never was: A sweet-natured French grad student adrift in Rome falls prey to vengeful obsession and fucking-as-mindfuck, often scored to blasts of choir fanfare. And like the overture to Choses Secrètes, an early scene in Penny Woolcock’s The Principles of Lust revels in a masturbatory solo sex show performed on a pub floor. Tracking a petulant aspiring writer’s personality crisis, Woolcock’s debut is a shrill lesson in Becoming a Grown-Up filtered through a first-year undergrad’s lens on Georges Bataille, but tarted up with a Cape Fear-for-tots interlude (an 11-year-old snacks on the face of a peer) and, yup, a hardcore orgy. (Are orgies just an everyday part of 21st-century life, hidden away from the purview of us shy scribes at the Voice? A week in Rotterdam would make it seem so.)
The Principles of Lust was the loudest and louchest of the candidates in the Tiger Award competition for best first or second feature—an erratic bunch with three relatively chaste standouts. An optical feast, Dagur Kari’s Nói Albinoi freezes the glittering whites and aquas of a near empty Icelandic fjord—and throws in a few priceless sight gags to boot—in its deadpan study of hypothermic adolescent listlessness, though the film stumbles on slippery ice in a late, abrupt turn from slacker comedy to slacker tragedy. Tucked away in Nova Scotia, Wiebke von Carolsfeld’s Marion Bridge is an impeccably acted, scrupulously unsensationalized account of the fallout from a long-suppressed family secret, benefiting from a compact script by Obie winner Daniel MacIvor (adapting his own play, which itself owes a debt to Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres) and lead Molly Parker’s incandescent restraint.
The most elegant and accomplished of the Tigers (though ignored by the jury, whose members included Olivier Assayas) was 25-year-old Jérôme Bonnell’s Le Chignon d’Olga, which circles respectfully around a woman’s death to plumb its ripple effects on her husband, daughter, and son—all of whom stand at various creative and personal impasses, and none of whom can bear to speak of the looming ghost in the room. Audience members kept attaching “Rohmer-esque” to Bonnell’s quiet triumph, but the witty, hugely empathic masterpiece it recalled for me—and maybe this was just randy Rotterdam talking—was Arnaud Desplechin’s My Sex Life.