AFCA member Lesley Chow was on the FIPRESCI jury at the 2012 Karlovy Vary International Film Festival.

In the Czech Republic, Karlovy Vary is the quintessential festival location: a multilingual, unreal town that looks like a slice of cake. These days, Russian and German are spoken as much as Czech, and the town only comes to life to service the festival and to animate the fantasies of rich Russian expats, complete with gold domes and pink mansions. Between films, there’s a lot of designer fashion and tanning on the lawns: even people uninterested in movies come from Prague to sample the air and to catch a glimpse of this year’s stars, Susan Sarandon and Helen Mirren.

One of the best parts of being a FIPRESCI juror was meeting the startling funny, direct Turkish critic Nil Kural, who offered head-turning assessments of film after film. Refreshingly, she has little tolerance for conventional feel-bad or issue-driven cinema. Nil and I attended a packed screening of Amour, Michael Haneke’s piece on enduring love and old age. I liked the film but if I had one criticism, it would be that it depicts the relationship between 80-year-olds as a fantasy of tenderness and depth, never interrupted by pettiness or trivia. As we left the theatre, the audience was silent and deeply moved, but Nil coolly announced that the film was really “Funny Games for old people”, which was a reading I’d never thought of. Perhaps the seemingly sweet Amour is only a series of cruel twists.

I asked Nil to recommend a Turkish film in the program, given that Australia screens few Turkish works other than the films of the acclaimed Nuri Bilge Ceylan (known simply as NBC in the Turkish media). She picked Reha Erdem’s Times and Winds; it is a delicate film structured on Muslim prayer times, and compared to the works of NBC, it does not seem pitched at an international audience. The film is largely gold, blue and black: a colour scheme that suggests some kind of night-time enchantment is taking place. The characters are all half-dreamy in the manner of Murnau’s Journey into Night (1921) or Anna Kannava’s Dreams for Life (2004). They regard each other with knowing expressions, in particular a child with sly amber eyes. In Erdem, actions unfold with a strange synchronicity, yet we feel that events are mysterious, rather than controlled by the hands of a master conductor.

Erdem uses – and transcends – many of the clichés of slow cinema: the wind in the trees, flowing water, the places which wait for people to enter them. Everything moves slowly, but that is because people’s bodies are guided by the rhythms of breathing and sunlight, systems which regulate their heat and movements. There is the sense of long cyclical rhythms underscoring real time: an effect less successfully strived for in Le Quattro Volte (2010) and The Tree of Life (2011). The film’s black-and-gold palette gives it a “witching” look: magical, but also gilded and toxic.

One of the most memorable – but not recommended – films was the French-Canadian sci-fi Mars et Avril. I found this film frankly upsetting; I have to talk about it simply to get it out of my system. Based on two graphic novels, Martin Villeneuve’s film has a look more suited to science-education or Fulldome than a narrative feature. For a plot which involves balls of fire and men with holograms for heads, Mars et Avril comes across as all too tame and not really peculiar. The characters wear Gaultier-style aristocratic sex costumes, but they inhabit a world of glum futurism.

Things get worse when we meet Avril (Caroline Dhavernas), a pretty young girl who swoons for a 75-year-old maestro named Jacob (Jacques Languirand). Avril is desperate to tempt the reluctant Jacob into sex, to which he graciously succumbs. For most of the film she is breathless, as in literally out of breath. (Why do so many romantic heroines have lung conditions – does it evoke a sexy fragility?) Jacob imagines Avril in terms of panting sighs and landscapes that turn out to be made of her skin. In later scenes, the camera compares sex to conquering a planet.

This film needed to be either more perverse or more humorous.  Despite the presence of a “pneumatologist” and lots of women being likened to musical instruments, this is not a lascivious film. Admittedly I have a low tolerance for such things, but the unacknowledged creepiness of the central romance is hard to get past. I will leave it to female viewers to decide what to make of endless close-ups of Jacob’s withered hands caressing young flesh, and shots of his white whiskers nuzzling various places. Funny games for old people, indeed.

  ©  Lesley Chow July 2012

Left to right: critic Lesley Chow (Australia); critic Nil Kural (Turkey); actor Alireza Aghakhani (Iran); Ali Mosaffa, director of The Last Step (Iran), editor  Fardin Sahebzamani(Iran); critic Carmen Gray (UK); critic Vojtech Rynda (Czech Republic).