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The power to engage

Ahead of the opening of the Perth Festival Lotterywest Films season, Mark Naglazas chatted to Perth Festival film programmer Tom Vincent to get the lowdown on this year’s line-up.

Each year Perth Festival film programmer Tom Vincent is asked the same question. Is there a theme running through this year’s festival? And every year Vincent has the same answer: “Not really.” That’s because any attempt to pull together a sampling of the best in world cinema would be hamstrung by the demand for a common thread.

However, each year when Vincent looks back over his line-up he discovers surprising connections — between movies from countries on opposite sides of the globe, between films from wildly divergent genres. This time around Vincent found that a number of the films in the program have children at the centre of the story.

“Children around the world are worrying what kind of world they’re inheriting. So it’s not surprising that filmmakers are reflecting that concern,” Vincent tells me ahead of start of this year’s Perth Festival Lotterywest Films.

“Film more than any other art form invites us to inhabit the point of view of people unlike ourselves, to help us engage with those far removed from us. It allows us, for example, to see the world through the eyes of a boy in a Spanish village in 1950s in Pedro Almodóvar’s Pain and Glory or a Belgian youngster who falls under the influence of radical Islam in Young Ahmed or 12-year-old Albany girls dealing with her mother’s depression in H is for Happiness. It is a really rich seam for those who like to explore the way movies mirror our times.”

Of course, you don’t need to make a movie about the here and the now to reflect reality. Vincent’s favourite movie — and one of the most celebrated features of the past year — is Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Celine Sciamma’s 1770-set tale of a painter named Marianna (Noemie Merlant) who is hired to make an engagement portrait of a bride who is refuses to pose. So Marianna must observe her in secret, sparking what critics are calling one of the most heartbeat-quickening big-screen romances in memory.

Celine Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire

“This is the best film I saw at the Cannes Film Festival this year,” says Vincent. “It is a wonderfully conceived and brilliantly executed film from start to finish. It’s almost an entirely female cast and crew. Knowing this it adds a whole layer of meaning. The ideas conveyed in the film — women making art for women and so forth — are carried by the fact of the production. It’s exquisite. You walk away thinking, ‘This is a near perfect film’.”

Naturally, any Perth Festival worth its sel needs one French-language crowd-pleaser, and this year it’s Nicolas Bedos’ La Belle Epoque, which The Times says is “the most shamelessly fun French movie since Amelie.”

La Belle Epoque stars the great Daniel Auteuil as a retired former newspaper cartoonist who has become the object of contempt of his acid-tongue wife (Franny Ardant). To escape her wrath and reconnect with his youth Victor enlists the services of a Westworld-like company run by Guillaume Canet to go back in time to his glory days, the early 1970s, where he meets a youthful version of his wife.

La Belle Epoque is the sort of vastly entertaining mainstream French film that was produced with regularity during the 1970s and 80s and was sometimes remade by Hollywood,” gushed The Hollywood Reporter. “Those days are long gone but it could happen with this witty, sexy and original romantic comedy that touches many points of satisfaction.”

These all sound like sensational films but they will struggle to best the opening week offering, Pain and Glory, Almodóvar’s ravishing reflection on his long career and a stunning re-affirmation of artist power in old age (it’s one of only two films I’ve had the chance to preview so I am speaking with confidence).

The Spanish maestro has cast his long-time collaborator Antonio Banderas as his alter-ego, a famous Spanish film director suffering from a crushing array of physical ailments (outlined in an amusing animation at the beginning of the film) as well as a creative block. His body and soul are stuck.

Banderas’s Salvador is in such agony he resorts to heroin, which send him on trips back in time to his childhood growing up poor in a village in Valencia and fussed over by his mother (Penelope Cruz). There in their cave dwelling little Salvador experiences the first itches of desire while teaching a hunky tradesman to read and write.

At first these journeys into the past seem an escapist indulgence. However, they ultimately provide the key for curing both afflictions, physical and creative (the most vivid metaphor of his condition is a blocked throat).

Pain and Glory is not quite the deep dive into the Almodóvar’s oeuvre that we might’ve expected even though there’s a lot of talk about his Salvador’s filmmaking career. It’s a more general consideration of the nature of art and artists, about the way creative personalities such as Almodóvar draw from the deep well that is personal history.

Indeed, after watching Pain and Glory I’ve come to grasp the extent to which all of Almodóvar’s later work is about the power of storytelling to give meaning to lives and repair damaged souls. Indeed, Salvador’s desire to write and the sparking of sexual desire happen in the very same instant, a single shot for the ages (it’s as much Almodóvar’s Citizen Kane as his 8 1/2).

Don’t expect Pain and Glory to be another of those over-the-top candy-coloured romps attached to the Almodóvar name; he hasn’t made films in that mode since the 90s. This is Almodovar at his most meditative and melancholy, anchored by a deeply affecting performance from Banderas (he will be Oscar nominated). It’s a glorious way to kick of this year’s Perth Festival outdoor film season.

Lotterywest Films runs at UWA Somerville from November 25 to April 5.

Pictured top: Antonio Banderas in Pedro Almodovar’s Oscar contender ‘Pain and Glory’.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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