By Josh Parham
I have always made it an effort to attend the Chicago International Film Festival. As someone who rarely takes vacations, blocking the roughly two weeks off in October to frequent the city’s annual event has been an utter delight ever since I started attending six years ago. However, this is the first opportunity I’ve had to attend with press accreditation, and I have to thank Next Best Picture for allowing me this opportunity. While there, I managed to take in quite a good number of films to get ready for the upcoming Oscar season.
One of the things I always treasure about this festival is that it does have a nice assortment of films that are representing their home country for the Foreign Language Film Oscar. Often times these films are not made available to a wide section of the public before the nominations are announced, so this is a wonderful opportunity to try and catch them before the precursors start to stack up. The selection the festival has ranged from Cannes hits to undiscovered gems, and it’s always a pleasure to seek them out.
The first film up was “El Angel,” which is the submission from Argentine. It is inspired by a true story of one of the country’s most notorious killers in the early 1970s. We see a troubled young man named Carlitos (Lorenzo Ferro) who first finds excitement by breaking into homes and stealing items to gift away. That soon turns dark when he is introduced to another young man named Ramón (Chino Darín) and his criminally inclined family. From there, Carlitos goes further down a life of crime with horrifying results.
There is so much life and energy in the first half of this film. Director Luis Ortega crafts a world that is completely engaging, particularly as it is propelled by the main character that exudes a playful sexuality. The Latin pop soundtrack that is employed infuses a sense of style that pulsates throughout the film. The shocking violence plays well within this tone also. Unfortunately, the second half loses a lot of steam and begins to feel as if the story is spinning its wheels. By the time the end comes, the momentum decreases and the plot feels sluggish. It is disappointing the film could not maintain its same level dynamic enthusiasm as it had when it started.
But even when the film drags, you do still find yourself engaged. Much of that has to do with the central performance by Ferro. He is incredibly entertaining to watch, particularly for the ways in which he captures the attention of everyone on screen. His lustful flirtations match the simmering rage that rarely flashes but is always felt. It’s a completely mesmerizing performance that grips you from beginning to end. With a strong supporting cast and a stylish tone, there’s more than enough to keep you invested in the film, even when it starts to lose some of its magic by the end.
Another sampling of the Foreign Language Film submissions was from Canada. The film has been advertised with different titles, but it showed at the festival with the name “Family First” (the literal English translation is “Watch Dog”). The central narrative is on a dysfunctional family, deeply connected to the crime world. JP (Jean-Simon Leduc) has to contend with dealing with this world while also trying to establish a legitimate life. A stumbling block to that is his unhinged brother Vincent (Théodore Pellerin) and his enabling, alcoholic mother (Maude Guérin).
As far as the filmmaking goes, there’s nothing here that’s particularly exemplary. It’s a finely crafted film for sure, and you do appreciate the intimate portrait that director Sophie Dupuis is attempting to create. The family is shown as raw as can be while also showcasing a tenderness that is sincerely felt. Her script compliments this well, and while I did not find it extraordinary, it served the film’s story.
What is exceptional about the film are the performances and in particular that of Pellerin. It is most certainly a big performance, but it is also incredibly effective in showcasing a character that is so wildly unpredictable because their manic actions always keep you guessing as to how harmful they may be. I’d even say there are hints of Heath Ledger’s Joker in Pellerin’s portrayal, and it is quite incredible how dangerous and on edge he makes you feel. Every moment he’s not on screen, he is missed. The crazed personality he embodies feels real and frightening, and you are completely enwrapped in everything he does. It’s honestly one of my favorite performances I’ve seen this year and deserves some recognition.
Leduc definitely strives to be the stoic hero, and he’s solid if a little forgettable. Guérin is very endearing as the matriarch who can’t control her family and is terrified of that utter loneliness should it indeed collapse. They add to an able cast that does tend to get sidelined whenever Pellerin is on screen. Overall, the film may be nothing extraordinary outside of its one central performance, but it is still a fascinating film to watch.
I also try to take it upon myself to catch films that have queer perspectives at the festival. As a gay man, it is very important to see and support this kind of representation in films, and fortunately, the festival’s “Out-Look” programming offers just those kinds of films. This year, I had the opportunity to see two, and the first one was Christophe Honoré’s “Sorry Angel,” which had previously played at this year’s Cannes. The film details a seemingly brief period in the early 90s where a thirty-nine-year-old writer, Jacques (Pierre Deladonchamps), has an affair with an eighteen-year-old named Arthur (Vincent Lacoste). Both men attempt to glean as much passion and knowledge from each other as possible, especially as Jacques’s health later deteriorates from AIDS complications.
Honoré is a celebrated filmmaker, but I admit that the limited exposure I’ve had with his previous filmography has not left me terribly impressed. I’m sad to report feeling similar to this film. There are definitely some nice moments that expose a tender relationship that values the company while it hurdles toward a devastating conclusion. At the same time, there is a bit of an emotional distance to the filmmaking that kept the exuberance at arm’s length. One wishes for a greater sense of propulsion to this relationship that just never manifests, and with a runtime well over two hours, that adds to a dragging pace.
Even the performances are not particularly spectacular. Deladonchamps and Lacoste are both fine in their roles and capture moments of great affection that draw you in. Still, there is a certain listlessness to their portrayals that makes it difficult to be completely taken with. Their chemistry never lights the world on fire, and as such, the relationship feels muted. Honestly, there seemed to be more enjoyment found when they were apart than together. There is a concerned neighbor of Jacques played by Denis Podalydés, and he has so much more interesting depth and warmth to his character. Much of me wished to see his perspective more, as an older man both lamenting and enabling his young friend. It would have helped to open of the film’s perspective instead of languishing with some tired characters.
The other queer film I saw fared a little better, but not by a whole lot sadly. “Sauvage” was another premiere at Cannes, with this one taking an intimate look at the life of a sex worker in France. Léo (Félix Maritaud) traverses the streets with various encounters of sex and drugs all while trying to find some kind of emotional stability. His resentment and fascination with his circumstances propels him further into conflict and sees his life plunge deeper into utter despair before hopefully obtaining some kind of peace by the end of it all.
Films like these really do live or die on their central performances, and unfortunately, I just did not find Maritaud to be that compelling. It’s a real shame because I have seen glimpses of him being an engaging screen presence, most notably when he had a small role in last year’s phenomenal BPM. However, here he just comes across as such a blank slate; barely reacting to any of the events around him. With very few exceptions, he is just not an interesting performer in the film, and it is the biggest detriment when there are themes and commentaries that could be more compelling.
It is those themes that director Camille Vidal-Naquet attempts to explore some points that are actually interesting. There is a conflicting style to the film that is both voyeuristic and intimate, with an attempted docudrama style to draw you into this space. The examination of relationships in this world, and who places the most value on them, is interesting at times, especially when contrasted the cruelty those with privilege dispense and the affection those without it are free to share. Not all of these commentaries are completely revolutionary, but I did appreciate Vidal-Naquet’s efforts to show how complex the idea of love and affection is treated in the world that is inhabited here. I just wished that we had a central figure with a more distinct personality to help us sell that message along the way.
Looking out for queer films is not the only thing that catches my eye at this festival. Being a Chicago native, I always value the city’s representation on screen, and the “City And State” program highlights productions that take advantage of showcasing the local community. This year, I saw a film called “Olympia,” a tiny gem that centers around the titular character (McKenzie Chinn) as she confronts the many personal issues affecting her as she approaches her thirties. Struggles include balancing her mundane job with her real passion for artistry, a boyfriend whose support is being tested with his own career opportunities and a family life under stress dealing with her absent father and mother’s terminal illness.
Often times when you watch an independent film, you have to be a bit forgiving of the filmmaking, and it feels like that must be extended here. Director Gregory Dixon makes his feature film debut, and while there is a competency in the film’s assembly, there is also a feeling of an amateurish style. The jump cuts and Chicago landscape shots used for transitions never quite feel organic and do distract a bit. The jarring musical score does not help as well. Still, there is also a nice intimacy that the film manages to capture between its characters that is well appreciated. It does show a promising eye for storytelling in the future.
In all honesty, the true key to the film’s success is Chinn. Her performance is truly something special as she manages to portray a genuine and complicated emotional status her character is going through. Every moment with her hits exactly where you would want it to, and watching her perform was always a delight. This works well with the screenplay that Chinn herself wrote, capitalizing on the insecurities that play into both success and failures as one is on the precipice of a new decade in their life. While some elements of the script are a bit underdeveloped, it is an overall strong work that provides a well-executed character study that employs a diverse set of characters. Chinn’s efforts really help to elevate the film, and being a representative of Chicago talent makes me even happier.
The amount of other film festivals I have attended is limited in number, so I admit there isn’t a whole lot I can compare the experience to. At the same time, the Chicago International Film Festival is a warmly appreciated occasion whenever it arrives. There is a palpable excitement felt when an eager crowd gathers around to see a special film, and being part of that community is always something that brings utter joy. The festival is constantly dedicated to showcasing a diverse landscape where films come from. This is not only from the aforementioned local and queer perspectives but also from black voices, female filmmakers and representations from Latin countries. The programming always gets high marks in that regard.
The festival may not have the highest profile as some of the others out there, but it is still supported by dedicated film lovers that are passionate about the artistry. It may be personal biases speaking up, but the notion of surrounding myself with cinephiles from the Midwest always delights me, and it is incredibly valued the way this festival showcases a wide range of diversity to serve that eager audience. The films showcased always have some kind of interesting viewpoint to discuss, and having the opportunity to experience that is greatly treasured. It is an experience I plan to continue indulging in the future and expect to still cherish.
You can follow Josh and hear more of his thoughts on the Oscars and Film on Twitter at @JRParham