Auteurist Mutations: The 66th Locarno Film Festival

By Fisher, Jaimey | Film Criticism, Fall 2012 | Go to article overview

Auteurist Mutations: The 66th Locarno Film Festival


Fisher, Jaimey, Film Criticism


The Locarno Film Festival was founded in 1946, the same year that Cannes ran its first program, and was intended, from neutral Switzerland, to respond to the first film festival's overt politics (that is, Venice's 1930s fascism). Having fostered the early careers of directors as varied as Rossellini, Antonioni, Forman, Kubrick, Jarmusch, and Panahi, Locarno festival has a storied history and is a significant A-level event, usually cited right behind the three most important European festivals of Cannes, Berlin, and Venice. It is regularly regarded as the most important festival of the summer, between the May of Cannes and September of Venice, and its Piazza Grande open-air venue, set in the main square of the lakeside town, is among the most famous sections at any festival--one Guardian critic called it the single most "magical" film-festival experience anywhere, and even the most globe-trotting industry guests often seem overwhelmed by the size of the outdoor cinema and the beauty of the surrounding high Alps and massive Lake Maggiore.

The festival's long history and impressive record have, however, faced new challenges amidst the manic mushrooming of festivals, a proliferation raising the profile of events like Sundance and Toronto (notably, neither A-level festivals though undoubtedly important for world cinema, largely due to their relationships to Hollywood and North American markets). Because Locarno has not been able to attract the US-star power of Cannes, Berlin, and Venice, it has increasingly staked its claim on the auteurist and art-cinema traditions of world cinema. For example, shortly before this year's festival, artistic director Olivier Pere reiterated this priority by provocatively criticizing Cannes (whose Fortnight series he once headed) for not remaining more fully committed to auteurist cinema. He claimed that Locarno was, for instance, taking more chances on independent and small-budget US films than its better known, similarly resort-town-based competitor. In this 2012 Locarno, both the main jury and the prize for lifetime achievement manifest such an art-auteurist commitment: Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul was appointed head of jury and French enfant terrible Leos Carax was given the festival's Leopard of Honor (Carax, famously press shy, was feted at the festival along with one of his actors, pop music star Kylie Minogue). This year's program, realized most consistently and convincingly in the international competition, generally pleased and impressed, especially in works whose auteurs cannily manipulated either mainstream genre or established documentary forms.

The film to which Weerasethakul's jury awarded its top prize, La fille de nulle part / The Girl From Nowhere, underscored this art-cinema commitment and focus, while also contradicting Pere's emphasis on finding and fostering a new generation of auteurs. A personal writer-director project, the film is indeed very small-scale, made on a budget of 62,000 Euros, so that just by winning Locarno's Golden Leopard (at 90,000Euro), it has already returned an impressive profit. It was made with few actors--the male lead is played by the writer-director--and shot almost entirely in his Paris apartment. On the other hand, the writer-director was not a gem-in-the-rough Wunderkind, but rather one of French cinema's most established figures, Jean-Claude Brisseau, who has some fourteen films to his credit and who is also a long-time teacher at the important La Femis film school. Girl from Nowhere even diegetically foregrounds Brisseau's somewhat advanced age and life-stage, as it follows a retired teacher, Michel (Brisseau), trying to complete a last (book) project. His increasingly fatigued struggles with this project are eased when he meets and then cares for a much younger woman, Dora, who becomes his live-in assistant, with increasingly blurred boundaries between benevolent paternalism and romantic obsession.

Despite this somewhat surprising choice from a festival trying to cast itself as youthfully auteurist, Girl from Nowhere does represent a notable return to personal, small-scale filmmaking after years of more mainstream fare by Brisseau, and the film is both challenging and moving. …

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