Last February when on holiday in Spain, I was fortunate enough to meet Mike Hostench, co-director of Sitges Festival Internacional de Cinema Fantàstic de Catalunya, the largest fantastic film festival of Europe and one of the largest and most important in the world. His enthusiasm convinced me to attend the festival last month. Believe me, when you’re sitting on a resort restaurant patio surrounded by some of the biggest names in genre cinema it can be hard to motivate yourself to go to a movie; but it was not hard at Sitges considering the plethora of offerings.
Europeans have a very different attitude towards genre film (by genre I mean science fiction, horror and fantasy). Rather than being a niche market that caters to a certain type of individual, genre film is welcomed and watched by a hefty portion of the population. It is not cult; it is (almost) mainstream. This also leaves the field of what is considered genre very wide open. This can be detrimental, but in Sitges case it works very well. Here is a sampling of some of the strange and wonderful (though not always both) films I saw.
Splice – Directed by Vincenzo Natali. Starring Adrian Brody, Sarah Polley
One of the most anticipated films of the year, Splice definitely does not disappoint. In fact, it dares to go places no American film would – but of course, it’s written and directed by a Canadian, filmed in Canada with a Canadian star. And it’s about genetic manipulation. Brody and Polley are a husband and wife scientific mastermind team who specialize in mixing up the DNA of various animals in order to create new pharmaceutical products to cure humanity’s ailments. In order to maintain funding, they secretly combine the DNA of several animals with human DNA; low and behold their experiment works and an artificial womb gives birth to Dren, a human-bird-horse-I don’t know what else hybrid. The scientists hide her, educate her and ultimately imprison her. They bond with her as parents, but in the end they are not her parents, but her creators – and there is a world of difference between these two roles. The former is nurturing in order to allow the offspring to survive on its own; the latter is controlling, wanting their own vision to supercede any independence of the creation. Perhaps this is why Nietzsche said that God is dead; creations are more trouble than they are worth (creators too). How can you separate your emotions from your work when the thing you create is alive and sentient? How can you hope to control it? Are there things that science simply should not do? While Polley is her usual boring self (sorry, her acting has never impressed me), Brody gives a fantastic performance as a man caught between his work and his heart (and occasionally his libido). This is Natali’s best film since Cube.
Amer – Directed by Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani
A compelling combination of experimental, avant-garde and thriller modes, Amer is a hypnotic journey through four significant moments in one woman’s life. The plot must be gleaned from minute bits of action which run from erotic to terrifying. First there is a young girl whose grandmother may or may not be a witch; then the girl is a teenager, walking into town with her mother and encountering men on motorbikes. Then the girl is a woman, travelling by taxi to her family’s abandoned mansion. There she is stalked by an unknown assailant. But the plot is almost irrelevant. What matters is the haunting mood Cattet and Forzani create. With some of the best sound design I’ve ever heard in a film, the viewer is taken in by aural and visual delights and horrors. It is almost as if the viewer was the girl, feeling the prick of her grandmother’s fingers on her shoulder, or hearing the revving of the motorbike engine ignite her libido. While many genre filmmakers experiment with the avant-garde, these directors succeed by creating a film which needs no plot in order to keep the viewer haunted and fascinated.
Cargo – Directed by Ivan Engler
Any film from Switzerland is a rarity; even more so is a science fiction film. While the plot is more a mesh of plots from several popular science fiction films such as The Matrix, Event Horizon, and Serenity, it, the actors and the amazing art direction are enough for a very solid film. In a future where the Earth is apparently uninhabitable, the remnants of humanity wait in a space station trying to gain passage to a distant planet where life is seemingly utopian. Laura, a young medic, takes a four-year job on a transport ship to earn enough money to get to the planet where her sister’s family already resides. While the motley crew sleeps their way across space, they take turns waking for weeks at a time to monitor the ship. Laura is then all but alone in the hulking craft and believes she sees a stowaway. As she delves deeper into the mystery, she finds that it goes far beyond the confines of the ship. I write confines in the metaphoric sense, as Engler gives us a ship which is as lonely, cold and immeasurably huge as space itself. Space is both vast and claustrophobic, where the smallest movement could be imagination or threat, and the wrong door opened salvation or death. While it comes close to cliche, Cargo is still an effective film.
TiMER – Directed by Jac Schaeffer
Everyone (or most people) dream of finding their soul mate. Well, what if you could have a device implanted on your wrist that would tell you the exact date you would meet them (that is, if they also had the device implanted)? Would you do it, or would you trust that love is something more than science? And if you did know, what would you do in the meantime? Jac Schaeffer asks these questions in her first feature film Timer, starring Buffy veteren Emma Caulfield. Her character Oona has a timer, but her soul mate (if he exists) does not; her stepsister Stephanie won’t meet her soul mate for 15 years. While Oona holds out, Stephanie makes hay while the sun shines. A romantic comedy (with a dash of science fiction) that will certainly appeal to single women, the film is very original in concept, if not so much in execution. It questions the western ideal of “the one”, the strange mating rituals that permeate contemporary society, and the wish that most people have for a love guarantee. While the film is fairly predictable and drags at points, the cast is engaging and real enough to make the viewer think about their own expectations of love and marriage.