Telluride 44: Contemporary Issues in Films From Finland and Russia

Two impressive films reflecting international issues were shown at the Telluride Film Festival.

One of my favorite directors, Aki Kaurismaki, brings his unique deadpan style with eccentric characters to “The Other Side of Hope”. Kaurismaki has made 19 films over 35 years. His latest is a compelling film about Khaled (Sherwan Haji), a Syrian refugee who smuggles himself into Finland hiding under coal on a barge.

Sherwan Haji (center) in “The Other Side of Hope”

Khaled is beaten up by thugs, but he encounters Wikstrom (Sakari Kuosmanen). Wikstrom is an older man who has left his wife and job of selling shirts to follow his dream of opening a restaurant. Khaled joins the staff of the new restaurant.

The deadpan dialog delivery is combined with expressive faces. Kaurimaki combines quirky humor with deep compassion for his characters. As with previous Kaurismaki works like “The Man Without a Past”, this marvelous film has a warm feeling of people on the fringes of society banding together to help each other. Scenes of the makeover of the restaurant to attract new customers are cleverly amusing.

Sherwan Haji and Sakari Kuosmanen (both at thable) in “The Other Side of Hope”

After the screening Sherwan Haji said that Aki Kaurismaki gives precise instructions, wanting the actors “not to act at all”, and to “drop lines like bricks” for the deadpan style. He added that Kaurismaki gives actors “enormous space to contribute”, so as “not to be a marionette”.

In response to my question, Haji said that there is no improvising on the set, no word of the script is changed.

“Loveless” from writer-director Andrey Zvyagintsev, who made the acclaimed “Leviathan”, presents a harrowing view of contemporary Russia. At Telluride, Zvyagintsev said that he wants the film set in Russia to have resonance outside of the country.

Matvey Novikov in “Loveless”

Boris (Alexei Rozin) and Zhenya (Maryana Spivak) are continually quarreling and about to divorce. Neither wants to find a place for their teenaged son Alyosha (Matvey Novikov). In a deeply poignant scene, Alyosha, hearing his parents, cries behind a door in the shadows. The soon to be divorced couple reflect the indifference and emptiness of a self-centered Russian society. Zvyagintsev has filmed many striking scenes of a decaying country falling apart.

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French Rendez-Vous 2017: “The Dancer”

“The Dancer” was a highlight of the latest Rendez-Vous with French Cinema series in New York City. The film tells an absorbing story about Loïe Fuller, born Marie Louise Fuller in 1864, who left America to become the toast of La Belle Epoque Paris.

Fuller (Soko) performed in the American West and introduced a unique energetic style of dance with flowing costumes. For a time she stays with her mother (Amanda Plummer), member of a temperance league. When a frustrated Fuller sees her dances being copied by other performers, she travels to France, where her stage efforts can be copyrighted.

Soko (center) in “The Dancer”

“The Dancer” shows in intriguing detail how Fuller developed her unique style of dance. She uses detailed plans, light projectors and spotlights. Poles in her arms cause the sweeping movements of her costumes. Fuller gives amazing performances with colored projections.

In her first film, director Stephanie Di Giusto who co-wrote the screenplay, gives “The Dancer” a vibrant sense of the colorful intensity of La Belle Epoque Paris.

Soko, also a singer-songwriter, gives a performance of fierce determination as Loïe Fuller, conveying her intense dedication in taking her stage performances in new directions. In Paris, Fuller becomes acquainted with a jaded aristocrat (Gaspard Ulliel) and finds a dedicated assistant (Mélanie Thierry). She befriends Isadora Duncan (Lily-Rose Depp) who becomes a rival. Lily-Rose is the daughter of Johnny Depp and Vanessa Paradis.

Soko in “The Dancer”

Fuller’s driven performances cause her physical strain, particularly from the weight of the poles in her arms. The film builds to an extremely tense climactic stage performance in Paris, as Fuller’s body strives to match her artistic ambitions.

After the film, Stephanie Di Giusto spoke about Loïe Fuller and filmmaking. She said the French Alps stood in for Colorado. The music of Vivaldi was used in the film for “energy and tension”.

Director Stephanie Di Giusto at Rendez-Vous with French Cinema

Di Giusto described the important way Fuller built her costumes using a secret mathematical formula. She added that for Fuller it was critical how these costumes were cut, as Fuller was secretive, using a different dressmaker for each part. “The Dancer” received the Cesar, the French Oscar, for Best Costumes.

Di Giusto said that Loïe Fuller’s sketches were patented in Paris, she was the first in her field it to establish a copyright to protect her work. Fuller became a friend of artists like Rodin. Fuller was described as multi-talented by Di Giusto – “dancer, choreographer, filmmaker”.