Now in its 25th year, the Gene Siskel Film Center’s Chicago European Union Film Festival returns to in-person screenings March 4-17, this year with France claiming the opening night slot (with Lost Illusions, review below). The cinema on State Street will screen films from across the union over the course of two weeks, nearly twenty in all and many of them Chicago premieres. Films from Belguim, Croatia, Spain, Finland, Lithuania and many more will screen just once during the series, and not all of them will return to Chicago for proper theatrical openings. With that in mind, plan to head out the Siskel between now and St. Patrick’s Day for something unexpected from across the pond.
Our critics have a preview of the festival’s opening weekend selections…
It’s an old story: an ambitious young man leaves the provinces for the big city to seek fame and instead finds heartache, corruption and disillusion. In Lost Illusions, Lucien (the adorable Benjamin Voisin, Summer of 85) learns it doesn’t matter whether he’s a talented poet or not (we’re never sure that he is) because good reviews of books and plays are purchased, not earned. So he turns into a journalist and becomes part of the system.
The work, adapted by director Xavier Giannoli (Marguerite) with Jacques Fieschi, from the Balzac novel, Illusions Perdues, takes place in the early 19th century during the Bourbon Restoration (1815-1830). The novel is set in three parts—in the provinces, in Paris and back to the provinces (Angoulême in southwestern France)—but the film focuses mainly on Paris. The setting gives Giannoli and cinematographer Christophe Beaucarne a period with gorgeous costumes, sensuous lighting and glamorous theaters. The combination of a witty script with excellent performances and staging makes Lost Illusions a delightful film to open the festival. (Nancy Bishop)
Lost Illusions screens Friday, March 4 at 7p.
In the directorial debut from Laura Wandel, hell is a primary school in Belgium, where bullying is simply a part of the landscape and teachers have more immediate issues to deal with than the systematic torture of children by other children. With camera angles positioned at eye level to these kids and an intimate sense that school is a big part of the universe for children of this age, Playground sometimes hurts to watch as we observe painfully shy seven-year-old Nora (an astonishing Maya Vanderbeque) struggle through her first days of a new school year. She clings to her slightly older brother Abel (Günter Duret), but when she interrupts him attempting to act cool around the older bullies, she inadvertently becomes a target herself. When Abel tries to defend her, he ends up being the primary victim of the bullies for days on end, suffering humiliation and physical abuse. Naturally, he doesn’t want any adult to know, but when Maya tells her father or a teacher, things only get worse for Abel. Wandel’s attention to the smallest detail in the lives of these kids—from their relationship to teachers to the fragile nature of friendships at that age—is remarkable and a constant source of heartbreak. Every step in this environment at this age is grounded in consequence, with adults barely able to respond or generate enough sympathy to care let alone protect these kids. Playground is one of the finest films in recent memory about this stage of childhood and specific set of circumstances that sadly leave lasting mental scars that can sometimes turn good kids into monsters, if only to spare themselves more pain. (Steve Prokopy)
The film screens Saturday, March 5 at 6pm.
Part social commentary, part creature-feature, Finnish thriller Hatching succeeds in large part because it commits so diligently to its conceit, as out there as it is. Tinja (Siiri Solalinna) is the teenage daughter in picture-perfect family; Mother (Sophia Heikkilä) makes sure of it by holding timid Father (Jani Volanen), young son Tero (Reino Nordin) and Tinja to the standard of perfection her social followers and blog readers have come to expect. An aspiring gymnast who can never quite make the cut, Tinja finds an abandoned egg one night and, desperate to have something in her life that she can control, fosters it as it grows…and grows. She forms something of a bond with the egg, parts of her and her emotions being absorbed by this curious thing she’s hiding in her room. What eventually hatches wreaks more than havoc on this perfect family’s crumbling façade, a half-bird, half-human thing determined to protect its beloved Tinja at all costs.
Filmmaker Hanna Bergholm, working from a script by Ilja Rautsi, explores the complicated relationship between mothers and daughters in a genre that doesn’t typically lend itself to this dynamic. Solalinna carries the weight of Tinja’s overextended life, her stress and heartbreak and insecurities, with a maturity beyond her years, and Heikkilä convincingly blends the sweet and the sinister required to be as successful as Mother is. The effects here are believable (and original) enough—graphic and gory and just realistic enough to be feasible—and make the creature’s eventual emergence as a force bent on tearing this family apart all the more intense. If the film’s first two thirds are a quiet rumble, a family coming apart at the seams, the final act more than makes up for it with a brutal conclusion that couldn’t have gone any other way. (Lisa Trifone)
Hatching screens Saturday, March 5 at 8:15p.
Women Do Cry
Based on a true story, Women Do Cry is about a Bulgarian family consisting of an elderly patriarch (Iossif Surchadzhiev) still suffering from the after-effects of a stroke and his five grown daughters, most of whom either still live with him or visit so frequently, they might as well. From directors Vesela Kazakova and Mina Mileva, the film is front loaded with abject rage and frustration as the women in this family attempt to break free of generations of paralyzing misogyny throughout the country (a background newscast reports that 80 percent of all women in the country have been raped). But there is also a sense that Bulgarian citizens on the whole need to step out of the dark ages—where curses and folk medicine are regularly practiced—and treat modern-day problems with compassion and actual solutions (like medicine and technological advancement). Standouts in the sizable cast include Borat 2 star Maria Bakalova as youngest daughter Sonja, who becomes HIV+ because of a cheating partner and subsequently loses her mind as the healthcare system repeatedly lets her down; and Ralitsa Stoyanova as Lora, a foreperson for a construction company, working a job that seemingly will never end or even show much sign of progress (a bleak metaphor for the nation). Women Do Cry alternates from the inspirational and defiant to humorous and sometimes tasteless. The threat of violence is always there, even among family members, but there is also a surprising undercurrent of hope for lasting change. Though, the repeated image of majestic storks getting shot down from their nests maybe doesn’t leave the best taste in one’s mouth for the future of Bulgaria, making this one a mixed bag of messages and emotions. (Steve Prokopy)
The film screens Sunday, March 6 at 1pm.
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