The 39th Portland International Film Festival gets under way Thursday, February 11, with the opening night selection “The Fencer,” from Finland. Over the following 15 days, another 96 features will screen at seven venues around town, centering on the Northwest Film Center’s Whitsell Auditorium and sprawling as far afield as the Moreland Theater in Sellwood, the Roseway out on NE Sandy Boulevard, and Cinema 21 in Northwest Portland. While the geography may prove challenging for completists trying to commute their way to as many movies as possible, it does make PIFF feel more like a citywide event, instead of being confined to its downtown core.
Anyone who did set out to watch every movie in PIFF during PIFF would face a steep challenge: five or six feature films per day plus three or four titles plucked from the eight programs of short films on the docket. For seventeen days. There might be time left over to sleep and eat, but that’s about it. So unless you’re independently wealthy and/or a social pariah, it’s pretty much an impossible task. (If anyone is able to grab this particular brass ring, do drop a line—I’d love to know your secret!)
Prioritization and logistics, then, are key to maximizing one’s return on one’s PIFF investment. With that in mind, I’ll share some brief thoughts on a few titles I’ve managed to see at previous festivals and point out the films I’m most anticipating from among the rest.
I caught “April and the Extraordinary World” (screens Feb. 13 & 17) as part of the Rendezvous with French Cinema in Paris, and it was the most enjoyable of the dozen-plus films I saw. It’s a smart and original animated film, set in an alternate version of 1940s France where Napoleon V is in charge and electricity hasn’t been invented. A spunky teen heroine finds herself on the run and possibly in possession of an invention that could change the world. The visual style and themes are inspired by the work of graphic artist Jacques Tardi, which means it has impeccable comics-nerd cred. The French voice cast features big-name Gallic talents Marion Cotillard, Jean Rochefort, and Olivier Gourmet. And it has a talking cat named Darwin in it. There’s some fantasy violence, and a kiss or two, but mostly it’s pretty kid-friendly.
Three other films featured in the Rendezvous event are showing during PIFF. The most notable is “Evolution,” (Feb. 19) an eerie fable directed by Lucile Hadzihalilovic, whose first feature, 2004’s “Innocence,” mined similar themes around the terror and wonder of adolescence. “Evolution” takes place on an isolated, rocky island populated entirely by young boys and their mothers. Shortly after one of the boys thinks he sees a dead body in the offshore shallows, he’s taken away to a creepy medical facility, where some of the secrets of this bizarre community are revealed. Hadzihalilovic is the spouse and sometime collaborator of notorious French filmmaker Gaspar Noe (he of the 3-D hardcore effort “Love”), and her films are just as uncompromising as his, if somewhat less in-your-face.
“My Golden Days” (Feb. 25 & 27) is director Arnaud Desplechin’s belated follow-up, and prequel, to his early, quasi-autobiographical success “My Sex Life (or How I Got Into an Argument).” Mathieu Amalric, who played Desplechin’s stand-in Paul Dedalus in that 1996 film, reprises the role in framing scenes, but most of the movie plays out as three extended flashbacks to Paul’s youth. It’s all very talky, romantic, and smart—definitely worth a look for art house stalwarts. Alice Winocour’s “Disorder,” (Feb. 15 & 18) on the other hand, is fairly forgettable. Mathias Schoenaerts, who was so good opposite Cotillard in 2012’s “Rust and Bone,” plays a PTSD-afflicted veteran hired to bodyguard the wife (Diane Kruger, “Inglourious Basterds”) of a wealthy businessman. Winocour, in her first feature, can’t seem to decide if she’s indulging in genre conventions or subverting them, and the result is predictably muddled.
At least a few of the films in PIFF played at the just-concluded 2016 Sundance Film Festival, including Colombia’s Oscar nominee “Embrace of the Serpent,” but I didn’t manage to catch any of them. Canadian auteur Guy Maddin’s latest film, “The Forbidden Room” (Feb. 16 & 19), however, played at Sundance last year and I did see it, and have a pleasantly discursive chat with its director, then. It’s a typically Maddin-esque affair, a bizarre and frequently hilarious pastiche of silent-film tropes, playful sexuality, and bathtub etiquette. And the droll Icelandic comedy (like there’s any other kind!) “Rams” (Feb. 13 & 17) played in Portland back in October as part of the Northwest Film Center’s annual survey of New Scandinavian Cinema.
That’s the extent of my personal head start, at least until the PIFF press screenings and online viewing links started showing up with a vengeance a couple of weeks ago. We’ll be providing thorough coverage throughout the festival at Oregon ArtsWatch, but here are a few titles (in alphabetical order) I’m keeping a special eye out for.
“Above and Below”: (Feb. 14 & 24) This documentary by Swiss director Nicolas Steiner profiles five Americans living on the margins of society in the desolate corners of the American West, including a woman training for a life on Mars and a couple who survive in the sewer tunnels of Las Vegas.
“Arabian Nights”: (Part 1, Feb. 15; Part 2, Feb. 20; Part 3, Feb. 22) Portuguese director Miguel Gomes has played with form and the boundaries between fiction and reality in his previous films “Our Beloved Month of August” and “Tabu.” Now comes this six-hour, three-part magnum opus, which uses the framework of Scheherazade to encapsulate an anthology of stories about the state of the world today.
“Cemetery of Splendour”: (Feb. 17 & 22) The latest from Thai filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul (yes, this fest has a Hadzihalilovic and a Weerasethakul) is described as a “hypnotic cinematic dreamscape,” which sounds about right for the reliably elliptical director whose “Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives” took home the top prize at Cannes a few years back.
“Eisenstein at Guanajuato”: (Feb. 18) Peter Greenaway is still making movies! His puzzling, painterly work has included “The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover” and “A Zed and Two Noughts,” and his latest spins a fanciful tale set during Soviet filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein’s travels in 1930s Mexico.
“I Saw the Light”: (Feb. 20 & 21) Tom Hiddleston, who plays Loki in the Marvel movies and played a vampire in a Jim Jarmusch movie, here takes on the role of Hank Williams, Sr. Elisabeth Olsen, who plays the Scarlet Witch in the Marvel movies, plays his wife. This one may not be great—its release has been pushed back a couple of times—but it should be interesting.
“In the Shadow of Women”: (Feb. 20 & 22) I referred recently to Arnaud Desplechin as the Frenchiest of filmmakers, but Philippe Garrel might give him a run for his euros. Garrel came of age during the Nouvelle Vague, and has continued to make films in its style for almost fifty years. His latest, shot in black-and-white (naturally), is about a documentary filmmaker who cheats on his wife and collaborator with a younger woman. There will probably be lots of smoking.
“The Lobster”: (Feb. 13) Colin Farrell and Rachel Weisz star in an offbeat comedy with a premise that sounds a bit too quirky-by-numbers. It’s set in a world where single adults are given 45 days to fall in love with someone or else they’re turned into an animal of their choice. Early reviews have been positive, though, and Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos (“Dogtooth”) has a short but impressive track record when it comes to keeping things truly weird.
“No Home Movie”: (Feb. 14 & 16) This is another one that might qualify more as a curiosity than a revelation. The final film from feminist film pioneer Chantal Akerman, who died in October, is an intimate portrait of the director’s aging mother, a Holocaust survivor, in her last years. In other words, this one won’t be a laugh a minute, but could serve as an appropriately somber farewell to a hugely influential artist.
“The Sky Trembles and the Earth Is Afraid and the Two Eyes Are Not Brothers”: (Feb. 17 & 20) This year’s winner for longest title goes to British experimental filmmaker Ben Rivers (“A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness”), whose Paul Bowles-inspired effort involves a director who flees his own film’s North African set and eventually becomes a plaything for a band of nomads. Or something.
“A War”: (Feb. 25 & 27) Director Tobias Lindholm earned his second Oscar nomination in two films, following up 2012’s “A Hijacking” with this story of a Danish combat detachment coming under attack during a routine mission in Afghanistan. Their commander is forced to make a decision that exposes his to charges of war crimes, but the truth, as it often is in such things, is more complicated.
Hopefully, that’s enough to whet your whistle for Oregon’s biggest cinematic cornucopia. The festival runs from February 11 through 27, and for a full schedule, list of venues, and ticket prices, check http://festivals.nwfilm.org/piff39. And be sure to check back at Oregon ArtsWatch throughout PIFF for guidance on which of the dozens of movies on tap are worth your while. Happy travels!