DIRECTED BY: Lukas Moodysson, Patrice Le Conte, Jean-Luc Godard, Virgil Widrich, Tom Tykwer, Peter Mullian, Nanni Moretti, Jan Kounen, Roy Andersson, Juan Solanas, Krzysztof Kieslowski, Jan Svankmajer, Chris Morris, Lars von Trier, Javier Fesser, Anders Thomas Jensen
FEATURING: , Sten Ljunggren, Jean-Claude Brialy, Isis Krüger, Thomas Wolff
PLOT: Comedies, dramas and experimental films are collected together in this anthology of sixteen award winning short films made by Europeans.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Compilations themselves aren’t eligible, and although some of the shorts here are quite weird, none of them are powerful enough to displace a feature film from the List.
COMMENTS: Short films have almost no commercial prospects: filmmakers generally make them as calling cards, for festival competitions where artistry is more important than marketability, and as a way to fiddle around with the medium of film. Experiments, whether visual or narrative, that might grow wearisome at 90 minutes can be refreshing at under 15 minutes, and directors can indulge their outré aesthetic impulses without fear of alienating audiences and distributors. There are, therefore, a higher proportion of weird works in the world of the short film than are found in the feature film universe: here, nine out of the sixteen offerings—more than half of the total—make at least a nod towards the strange, surreal, or fantastical.
Although we will run down all the films on the set, our primary interest here is in “My Wrongs #8245-8249 & 117,” provocateur Chris Morris‘ first self-contained short film after years of making blackly absurd, boundary-pushing sketches for British television. Our interest in “Wrongs” stems both from the fact it’s likely the weirdest offering, and because a reader suggested it to us for review. Before we get to the unique films in this collection, we need to explain a little about the “Cinema 16: European Short Films” sets. For reasons that are somewhat unclear, Cinema 16 released two different discs entitled “European Short Films,” one for the European market and one for the U.S. market. The two editions share seven films in common. We reviewed the U.S. release previously, and mini reviews of the overlapping shorts will be found in that article. The seven repeats are:
- Virgil Widrich’s “Copy Shop,” wherein a copy shop operator finds his Xerox machine makes doppelgängers, in movie composed entirely of photocopies
- Nanni Moretti’s “The Opening Day of Close-Up,” the story of a naive arthouse theater manager who’s surprised that Disney’s The Lion King outdraws Abbas Kiarostami‘s Close-Up
- Roy Andersson‘s flat-affect Scandanavian nightmare “World of Glory”
- Juan Solanas’ “The Man Without a Head” [“L’homme Sans Tête”], about (just as it promises) a man without a head
- Jan Svankmajer‘s “Jabberwocky,” a completely surreal stop-motion animation etxravaganza from the Czech master, loosely inspired by Lewis Carrol’s poem
- Lars von Trier‘s school project “Nocturne,” an experimental piece about a woman who’s afraid of sunlight
- Anders Thomas Jensen’s “Election Night,” a short satire on racism
Of the remaining nine films that are unique to the European release, five are rooted in realism; we’ll deal with them briefly before considering the weirder offerings in more depth. Set in a world of junkyard drunks, Peter Mullan’s “Fridge” is the tale of a boy who’s accidentally locked in a refrigerator, shot in gritty black and white; unfortunately, this 20-minute feature isn’t subtitled for Americans, and the working-class Scottish accents are so thick that the dialogue is frequently incomprehensible. Lucas Moodysson’s “Talk” is an showcase for Swedish actor Sten Ljunggren, who plays a retiree with no friends or family and no idea what to do with his free time; his desperate attempts to connect with strangers, whom he accosts on public transportation or calls at random from the phone book, are simultaneously heartbreaking and creepy. In “Bolero,” the camera focuses on the emotions that flit across the face of a snare drum player as he keeps the beat for Maurice Ravel’s maddeningly repetitive concerto; it’s difficult to figure out quite what director Patrice le Conte expects us to take from this piece, but then again the same could be said of the music it’s based on. The remaining two works of realism are both minor works by soon to be major directors. “Concert” was Krzysztof Kieslowski’s graduation piece for Lodz Film School; it tells the tale of a couple of campers motorcycling across the countryside and the trouble they run into with a busload of hard-drinking college-aged troublemakers, and suggests a world in which your neighbor is not to be trusted. More interesting is the early Jean-Luc Godard short “All the Boys Are Named Patrick” (written by fellow filmmaker Eric Rohmer), which is a breezy anecdote about two female roommates who are sequentially romanced by the same dashing boy; it goes nowhere and ends with a shrug, but it’s a charming jaunt through Paris nonetheless.
The other four films exhibit at least a modicum of weird intent. Jan Kounen’s “Gisele Kerozene” is an impressive experiment in live-action animation involving modern day urban witches. Three creatures with long putty noses, warts, fake bosoms and sharp black fingernails are standing around revering a leather helmet balanced on top of a pole when a fourth being zooms by on a broomstick and snatches it; the original three get on their own broomsticks and give chase. What follows is a breakneck race through the skyscraper-dominated La Défense section of Paris which turns into Ben Hur on broomsticks. Kounen’s demonstration is a herky-jerky, crazy cinematic thrill ride with absurd slapstick violence and a cameo by Superman, well worth the four-minute investment of your time required.
“Epilog,” an early narrative experiment by Tom Tykwer, is less flighty. It begins with a couple arguing; the woman has a bloody nose and screams at a man with a distant, devastated expression as the camera revolves around the pair. The spinning camera hints at a circular construction to the story, as we begin with the final scene (the “epilog”?) and then circle back to a flashback to explain how we got to this point. The man’s memory of the way the fight began, however, is dreamlike and unreliable; the flashback furniture moves around on its own as the argument plays again, beginning thus time from the man’s entry into the apartment. We see how the couple arrived at that crucial point where the film began, but just when we expect the story to close its circle, it veers off in another direction entirely, much to the narrator’s surprise. Tykwer is clearly having fun playing with storytelling conventions; thanks to the slick presentation, fast pace and capable acting by the two leads, you should have fun playing along with him.
If the story in “Epilog” is multifaceted and told in the alternative so that you don’t know what’s real, the narrative of Javier Fesser’s “El Secdleto de la Trompta” is flat out incomprehensible. The story, such as it is, starts out almost in a sitcom style, with a narrator introducing a park ranger with coke-bottle glasses who fires blindly at a passing hiker; this episode, however, has nothing to do with our current story (although the ranger will appear again). Instead, two main characters emerge; a man who is carrying two cans of gasoline while being chased by policemen for as yet unknown reasons, and a kindly, self-sacrificing priest who agrees to bicycle him up a hill. After this chance meeting their stories will diverge as the timeline becomes utterly confused; the priest will wind up with an axe in his head, while the man with the gas cans will evade his pursuers before we circle back to learn why they were chasing him. During this journey the narrator frequently breaks the fourth wall—as when he taunts “the boys from Queen” that they “won’t get a penny from this film” for a song he cheerfully admits they’re using without permission. The film’s producer, portrayed by an angry puppet, also interrupts the proceedings to insist the film cuts costs by using toy helicopters in place of real ones. The narrator promises that the story will make sense and the episodes give a tantalizing false appearance that the key to understanding the grande farce is about to be revealed, but nothing ever resolves. A pretentious interviewer appears in the middle of the credits to inquire about the film’s deep themes. It’s all enormously silly and was apparently a big hit in Spain, although it’s difficult to see it as much more than a diverting goof.
Chris Morris’ “My Wrongs #8245-8249 & 177” is far darker in its humor, and perhaps more ambitious thematically. Adapted from a monologue from Morris’ “Blue Jam” and scored to an oft-deranged techno beat (also courtesy of Morris), this film purports to tell the story of a man’s psychotic break with reality. The disheveled, nameless protagonist is watching a female friend’s Doberman and home while she’s away on holiday; it quickly becomes obvious that he was not the most responsible choice for the dog-sitting duty. When taking Rothko for a walk, he deliberately tosses the house keys through the mail slot and unwisely decides to tie the dog’s leash around his neck. Things get even more disturbed after the dog begins speaking to him; the Doberman, and later a talking baby, keep giving him bad advice (which he inexplicably follows) that lands him in hot water with bus drivers and priests. The dog explains that he will soon serve as the man’s lawyer and defend him against all the things he’s done wrong, but he also can’t resist chasing after ducks and snotty hankies. A whitewashed psychedelic flashback segment where the man recalls certain of his early wrongs (the memories are too abstract to make sense, with his voice electronically distorted so that his confession is inaudible) exacerbates the sense of psychosis. There is a running theme to his misfortunes—the man continually refuses to take responsibility for his own actions, blaming the dog, the absent owner, the baby and even the ducks—but the overall experience is not like listening to an existential parable but of being stuck inside the head of a schizophrenic, the Son of Sam saga told as a comedy rather than a tragedy. It’s an unsettling piece, well-acted by both man and dog.
Critics have alternately described the Cinema 16 collections as “film studies in a box” or a “film festival on one disc.” They are probably of more interest to film school types than to casual viewers, although there’s enough strangeness on display in these experiments to interest the advanced weirdophile as well. Each short on this disc comes with its own commentary, delivered by experts in the case of the older movies and usually by the director for the newer movies (although “My Wrongs” features a somewhat jokey commentary delivered by a production assistant). Whether you buy the European or the U.S. version of the disc will depend almost solely on where you live and whether your DVD player has Region 2/PAL capabilities or not. With either version you get three great, seminal weird shorts in “Copy Shop,” “World of Glory” and “Jabberwocky”; this European edition offers “My Wrongs,” but the North American version counters with Run Wrake’s marvelous and bizarre animated fable “Rabbit.” On balance, I probably prefer the lineup on the U.S. market disc overall, but it’s hard to go wrong with either.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“…fully loaded with characteristic Morris weirdness… However, despite being intriguing and absorbing, My Wrongs… narrowly fails to retain the balance between severe edginess and humour that ignited much of Morris’ exuberant and pioneering televisual work.”–Nik Huggins, Future Movies (on “My Wrongs #8245-8249 & 117”)