By Daniel Barnes
By all accounts, the 38th annual Mill Valley Film Festival got off to a roaring start last weekend, highlighted by west coast premieres of Oscar favorites The Danish Girl and Spotlight, as well as on-the-scene appearances from I Smile Back star Sarah Silverman and festival honoree Sir Ian McKellen. As a member of the San Francisco Film Critics Circle, I know that I’ll get every chance to see the awards frontrunners, so instead I spent the first few days of the festival catching up with some of the more under-the-radar offerings.
In the post-Pizzolato landscape, do we really a need a Detectivo Verdad, Spanish-language serial killer mystery awash in masculine noir tropes and seedy, small-town atmosphere? Alberto Rodriguez’s stylish and sinewy Marshland resoundingly replies in the affirmative. Set in Spain 1980, a time when the country was still redefining itself following Franco’s death, the film burrows under your skin without forsaking its sociopolitical awareness. Marshland premiered at the Rafael on Friday, but it gets a repeat performance tonight in Larkspur before coming to the Roxie on October 30 – see it before an American remake robs it off its color.
Another film that embeds post-dictator anxiety and self-image into its genre trappings: Radu Muntean’s One Floor Below, a vaguely Hitchcock-ian low flame about a blustery Romanian family man who knows more about a neighbor’s murder than he reveals. The man uses Ceauşescu‘s bellowing voice as a joke ringtone, but his mistrust of authorities and fear of speaking up in the aftermath of the murder show that the dictator’s voice is still screaming inside of his head.
At this point, is there any doubt that Sarah Silverman can act her brains out? Public perception may have her pigeonholed as a pottymouthed comic, but it’s been pretty well established that she also possesses legitimate chops. And yet the dreary and inauthentic I Smile Back feels like it was assembled as a showreel for Silverman’s dramatic prowess, casting her as an upper-class wife and mother self-destructing from drug and sex addictions. Silverman gives a fantastic performance, almost single-handedly rolling the film up a hill of contrivances; she clearly deserves better vehicles than this one.
A shocking dud: the genuinely unwatchable Women He’s Undressed, a wafer-thin documentary about Hollywood costume designer Orry-Kelly from My Brilliant Career director Gillian Armstrong. It’s a series of bad ideas poorly executed, from the clunky re-enactment scenes to the facile interviews to the generally misogynist attitude towards actresses. Was I really supposed to come out of this thing saying, “Oh wow, I never knew that Bette Davis was really a fat, ugly cow!” Baffling.
The English-language Danish import The Girl King is just as risible, a broadly daffy and overheated costume drama about the 17th-century Swedish Queen Kristina, who took one of her ladies-in-waiting as a lover. Sample dialogue: “He looks at me the way we look at a swan…we praise the beauty of its wings, but we forbid it to fly.” Huh? That’s not how swans – or words – work at all. Even weirder: the film seems to think that pressuring your employees into becoming your sex slaves is some sort of noble and rebellious act. Great news for Wall Street CEOs everywhere.
A more accomplished and sensitive look at developing female sexuality can be found in the Israeli import Princess, from writer-director Tali Shalom-Ezer. Shira Haas makes a stunning movie debut as Adar, a 12 year-old girl receiving too much attention from her stepfather. The appearance of Adar’s male doppelganger pushes the film into a mode of light surrealism that didn’t totally work for me, but there’s enough here to indicate great things ahead for both Shalom-Ezer and Haas.
Many of the festival’s early offerings feature female protagonists, but towering above them all is Charlotte Rampling in 45 Years, her performance a study in contrasts that perfectly personifies the film’s dueling moods of contented enchantment and nagging despair. 45 Years is writer-director Andrew Haigh’s follow-up to his quietly magical Weekend, and he brings a similar air of melancholic self-discovery to this story of an aging married couple (an excellent Tom Courtenay plays Rampling’s husband) exhuming long-buried secrets on the eve of their 45th wedding anniversary. 45 Years played on Friday night, but it shows again today at 2:30 pm.
Follow my consistently updated MVFF 38 Power Rankings on Letterboxd, and check back later in the week for more MVFF38 coverage, including capsule reviews of Jafar Panahi’s Taxi (my favorite film of the festival so far), the Colombian film Alias Maria, the Iraqi drama Mardan, and more. You can read my MVFF38 preview piece for EatDrinkFilm HERE. Also, be sure to check out my SFFCC colleague Bernard Boo’s daily MVFF38 coverage over at Way Too Indie.