ROTTERDAM, NETHERLANDS—Nestled along-side each other on the jet-lagged critic’s winter calendar, Sundance and Rotterdam represent polar opposites of the film festival experience. For the starved cinephile fresh from Park City’s soul-destroying stampede, this annual Dutch retreat—which has long programmed more adventurously and promiscuously than any other international film showcase—is both feast and palate cleanser. This year, for a change, Rotterdam one-upped Sundance not by asserting its difference but by usurping the latter’s nominal function—as a showcase for American independent movies.
Kelly Reichardt’s study of a friendship in flux, Old Joy, as subtle, supple, and beautifully fine-tuned a film as any American director has made in the past year, premiered last month at Sundance, where it was consigned to an “experimental” section. Granted a higher profile in Rotterdam’s main competition, it won one of the festival’s Tiger Awards. Stark proof, if we needed it, that small, personal films, the kind made by Amerindie artisans like Reichardt, can still emerge from the pack—just maybe not at Sundance.
As ever, Rotterdam served as a useful preview for New York’s increasingly packed spring-festival schedule. Old Joy will screen at New Directors/New Films next month. Jim Finn’s Interkosmos, a retro gust of Communist utopianism, is set to open the New York Underground Film Festival on March 8. A cosmonaut romance set aboard a 1970s East German space mission to colonize the moons of Saturn and Jupiter, Interkosmos weaves together lovingly faked archival footage, charmingly undermotivated musical numbers, propagandistic maxims (“Capitalism is like a kindergarten of boneless children”), stop-motion animation (of a suitably crude GDR-era level), a Teutonic (and vaguely Herzogian) voiceover, and a superb garage-y Kraut-rock score (by Jim Becker and Colleen Burke). Finn’s deadpan is immaculately bone-dry, and his antiquarian fastidiousness is worthy of Guy Maddin.
Another American low-budget highlight, first-time director Michael Tully’s convincingly grimy Cocaine Angel goes a long way toward rescuing the addiction drama from junkie stereotypes and self-help clichés, thanks in no small part to star/screenwriter Damian Lahey, whose shambling presence is well matched by his gift for free-ranging monologues. Cocaine Angel (due to get its U.S. premiere at South by Southwest) screened as part of a narco- cinema section entitled “White Light,” films that either concerned drugs, or simulated their effects—a fitting sidebar for a festival where attendees can often be seen stocking up between screenings at one of the many conveniently located “coffee shops.”
The 2006 edition did fail to live up to the usual quotient of precociously nuts debut salvos (Rotterdam was after all ground zero for out-of-nowhere whatsits like Carlos Reygadas’s Japón and, last year, Ilya Khrzhanovsky’s 4). If anything, the closest thing to a discovery, Alexis Dos Santos’s Glue, turned out to be a quintessential “festival film”—a quasi-autobiographical coming-of-ager, albeit one enhanced considerably by its desolate Patagonian setting, insistent Violent Femmes soundtrack, and almost Ken Park–like sexual frankness.
Among the other premieres, art-house brand names were out in force. Raul Ruiz unveiled the director’s cut of his multiply mirrored not-quite-biopic Klimt, a deathbed hallucination with John Malkovich as a peevish Gustav. Inspired by—or rather, a self-proclaimed “infantile tribute to”—Poe and de Sade, Czech master Jan Svankmajer’s Lunacy is a bracing blast of old-school surrealism, a cranky allegory that views the world as mental institution. Best of all, London cine-essayist and psychogeographer Chris Petit’s Unrequited Love is a Chris Marker–like meditation on the metaphysics of stalking, a “love story in long shot” told largely through CCTV p.o.v.’s and dense with erudite digressions. Rotterdam also staged a mid-career retro of the long overlooked Japanese director Shunichi Nagasaki; his latest, Heart, Beating in the Dark, a cosmic update of his 1982 couple-on-the-lam drama of the same name, was an apt choice for opening night. At least at the Rotterdam Film Festival, still a haven for incurable cinephiles, the title of Nagasaki’s film seemed to sum up perfectly the moviegoing experience.