He put his face between her breasts. “We don’t know how long it will be before Reptilicus is sighted over Copenhagen, but until he is, let’s make every moment count.

Reptilicus (1961), a novel by ‘Dean Owen’ (i.e. Dudley Dean McGaughy)

Among its many other charms and attractions – it’s habitually ranked among the most “liveable” of the world’s cities – the hip Danish capital Copenhagen is a cinephilic metropolis, supporting a bunch of characterful arthouse cinemas, plus what’s perhaps the world’s most beautiful multiplex in the opulently palatial Palads, a converted former railway-station building. As lovingly described in Copenhagen resident Jack Stevenson’s 2003 memoir/anthology Land of a Thousand Balconies (from where the above quotation has been culled), many of the moviehouses are now used each April for CPH PIX, an event formed in 2008 when the Copenhagen International Film Festival merged with the longer-running Night Film Festival.

The intention was to create a sister-event to the better-known CPH:DOX festival – which takes place in November and is largely devoted to documentary films – with an emphasis on fictional features and fresh talent. The latter is evidenced by the unusual decision to restrict the main-competition section to directorial debuts (specifically, ones which had not won prizes at other festivals). The New Talent Grand Prix endows €30,000 to “the director who is found to have the strongest vision […] a contribution towards making [that] notorious second film.”

Among the ten candidates this year, the jury chose American writer/director/co-editor Alistair Banks Griffin for Two Gates of Sleep, a dialogue-light, atmosphere-heavy tale of two brothers and their ailing mother, living in an isolated Mississippi backwater. With evident inspiration from William Faulkner and the films of Terrence Malick, it’s a poetic, demanding little movie which meanders into pretentiousness and affectation at more than one juncture – the transportation of the mother’s coffin (containing her cadaver) becomes a Sisyphean task of inadvertently laughable difficulty – but is saved by spellbinding visuals from America’s outstanding young cinematographer, Jody Lee Lipes.

Still only 29, Lipes’ fiction-feature filmography so far comprises Two Gates of Sleep, Antonio Campos’ Afterschool (2008), Lena Dunham’s Tiny Furniture (2010) and, most recently, Sean Durkin’s Cannes hit Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011) – each of them among the most acclaimed and distinctive-looking US indies of the past few years. He’s currently in pre-production on Lance Emands’ Bluebird, and by all accounts is increasingly deluged with offers for his services.

Lipes’ contributions aren’t the only thing that keep the Two Gates audience from Sleep, however: the editing is also a major plus, credited (unusually) to Banks Griffin and his leading-man Brady Corbet, the latter having “graduated” from mainstream fare such as the Thunderbirds movie (2003) via Gregg Araki’s Mysterious Skin (2004) to Michael Haneke’s Funny Games USA (2007), the aforementioned Martha Marcy May Marlene and a leading role in Campos’ much-anticipated sophomore effort Simon Killer.

As Corbet told The Guardian when the picture premiered at Cannes last year:

The title is a reference to Homer’s Odyssey… Dreams can pass through the gate of horn, but not through the gate of ivory. And so, for me, the title is in reference to these two vessels – one who accepts death by letting it pass through him and one who is so torn up that he can’t go on. […] The film starts operating on a level which is metaphysical. Luckily, I think that there are enough visual indicators that it’s not that vague, but it is strange.

Corbet, as his range of collaborators suggests, is evidently becoming a name to note, and it’ll be fascinating to see if he returns to the editing chair – because while actor/directors and actor/writers are ten a penny, actor/editors are much rarer beasts. Corbet – in tandem with Banks Griffin – is clearly no mean cutter: the transitions between sequences (studded with fleeting grace-notes) in Two Gates are often more striking than the sequences themselves. Overall, then, directorial “vision” isn’t among the film’s strong suits, and Banks Griffin is a raw talent who should try to move beyond his influences and references and find his own voice.

In terms of actual accomplishment, the clear pick among the Competition titles was the slick, violent and very sexy gangland thriller Viva Riva! by the DR Congo’s Djo Tunda wa Munga. A colourful, unpredictable Kinshasa twist on Brian de Palma’s Carlito’s Way – with the added extra of very strong female roles – Viva Riva! isn’t quite the non-stop kinetic action-feast described by several excitable reviewers who caught it at the Berlinale Forum earlier this year, when it may have felt like an oasis of activity among hours of punishing art-movie tedium (“the film is one joyride that knows it will careen into a spectacular crash. Djo Tunda wa Munga captures the particular vibe released by this mixture of carpe diem and self-destructive instinct.”)

In fact, writer/director Tunda Wa Munga often takes quite a leisurely approach over the course of his movie’s 98 minutes, concentrating on character and ambience (by the end we feel like we’ve visited much of this sprawling megacity, home to over 10 million people), and establishing his strutting, swaggering protagonist Riva – played by Patsha Bay in what is apparently his acting debut – as a figure of genuinely complex moral ambiguity.

Though far from flawless, Viva Riva! dwarfed much of what was a disappointingly so-so competition lineup, one clogged up with negligible choices such as Zhang Ciyu’s murkily-shot, painfully static Pear from China; Buyar Alimani’s strenuously portentous, ultimately melodramatic Albanian jail-visitor romance Amnistia (Amnesty), Pedro Caldas’ pretentiously-structured teen-angst chronicle Guerra Civil (Civil War, Portugal), Romain Gavras’ puerile/provocative persecution-fable Notre jour viendra (Our Day Will Come) and, worst of all, Alicia Duffy’s Belgian/Irish/French co-production All Good Children, an insufferably mannered Europudding journey into childhood fantasy and insanity that rang as hollow as a €3 bill.

Despite the let-downs itemised above, the competition did yield a quartet of worthy entrants. Paris-set romance Fleurs du mal (Flowers of Evil) by David Dusa, a bravely nouvelle vague-ish two-hander – bravely “borrowing” its title from Charles Baudelaire’s poetry collection – about a fiercely-committed Iranian dissident (she) and a solipsistically apolitical, parkour-obsessed livewire (he). Mainly shot on hand-held video, the film has a fresh, topical vibe thanks to its characters’ addiction to Twitter, Google and YouTube, the latter enabling Dusa to craftily interpolate actual footage of recent Iranian protests and repressions.

Proof that South Korea remains a hotbed of rising cinematic talent (not that surprising, given its relative wealth, technological savvy and population of 50 million), Jo Sung-Hee’s End of Animal is a high-concept, ultra-low-budget vision of the apocalypse – recipient of sky-high praise from no less an eminence than Tony Rayns – focussing on a small group of characters stranded in the countryside when “biblical” events start to unfold. Keeping its angels and monsters (perhaps one and the same) carefully off-screen and relying instead on spooky sound-design, End of Animal is a likeably scrappy riposte to Hollywood nonsense such as Scott Stewart’s howlingly terrible Legion (2009). Like most Korean pictures, however, it clocks in at least half an hour too long – likewise Jeong Beom-Lee’s slick thriller Ajeossi (The Man From Nowhere), in which a mysterious young pawnbroker reveals unexpected fighting prowess after he becomes entangled in Seoul’s viciously amoral underworld.

Breathing new life into various well-established clichés (our hero bonds with an orphaned little girl, and must save her from a dire fate at the villains’ hands), this is the second movie from Jeong (after 2006′s little-seen Yeolhyeol-nama [Cruel Winter Blues]) and so was ineligible for the Grand Prix – not that many juries would opt for such a commercial enterprise when there are smaller, more ostentatiously “arty” alternatives.

The festival also included in its impressively large, eclectic line-up two revenge-themed pictures which could – and ideally should – have competed, namely Jason Eisener’s Canadian/American Hobo With a Shotgun and the Italian crime-drama Et in Terra Pax (And Peace on Earth) by writing-directing duo Matteo Botrugno and Daniele Coluccini. The former is a thunderously entertaining, extravagantly tasteless homage to early-‘80s exploitation cinema starring a never-better Rutger Hauer in the title role. An instant midnight-movie cult classic, the picture isn’t without its ramshackle moments and at times crosses the line from demented inspiration into childishly cruel self-indulgence. But its garish, gory excesses play – at their best – like some dream collaboration between a peak-form Dario Argento and John Carpenter.

Et in Terra Pax, meanwhile, is drastically more sober, subdued fare: a thoroughly convincing exploration of the social bonds between inhabitants of a crime-ridden suburban Rome housing-estate – gangsters, civilians, and everyone in between – it’s like a more focused, capital-city equivalent of Matteo Garrone’s much-lauded Naples-gangland exposé Gomorrah (2008). Named, with heavy irony, after a movement from Vivaldi’s choral work Gloria (“to men of good will / we praise thee / we bless thee”), it’s a picture which confidently shifts between gritty realism and slightly more “operatic” tones – especially during its blood-spattered denouement – and which emphatically has that elusive “directorial vision” to spare. Its absence from the Grand Prix field was surprising and regrettable, especially given the ropey quality of so many of the pictures which did make the cut.

Both The Man From Nowhere and Hobo With a Shotgun, by the way, played to large and enthusiastic young audiences in the Palads – in contrast to the sparse attendances which regrettably seemed the general rule at the festival’s more highbrow/leftfield venues. The unseasonably hot and sunny weather can’t have helped the box office, especially during afternoon and early-evening screenings, but a tweak or two to the marketing campaign – and the cumbersome website – might be in order if CPH PIX’s commendably adventurous program is to connect properly with its novelty-hungry, trend-seeking audiences.

Or perhaps the organisers might even consider moving out of CPH altogether… During the festival, Film Business Asia’s Stephen Cremin filed a report from the disastrous Beijing Film Festival, where he noted that, “Internationally, the world’s most important film festivals are not in capital cities. In France, it’s in Cannes not Paris; in Italy, it’s in Venice not Rome; in the UK it’s in Edinburgh not London; and in South Korea, it’s in Busan, not Seoul. Politicians in South Korea’s capital did launch their own $6m festival but like many political careers it ended in failure. A festival in a secondary metropolis can become a city-wide event that is embraced by its population and where visitors are not dissipated and lost to other attractions.” To emulate the success of CPH:DOX, might CPH PIX have to shift to Odense or Aarhus and become ODN PIX, or ARH PIX? Just a thought.

It was as if he had touched something deep within her. For now her whole body seemed to come alive. He felt himself completely enveloped and from his mind fled all thoughts of Reptilicus…

– ibid.

CPH PIX
14 April – 1 May, 2011
Festival website: www.cphpix.dk

About The Author

Neil Young is a freelance film journalist, film festival programmer (Bradford, Edinburgh, Tromso, Ljubljana, Linz, etc) and filmmaker based in Sunderland, UK. He writes regularly for The Hollywood Reporter and Tribune magazines and the website Jigsaw Lounge.