The 19th annual European Union Film Festival screened this year at the Cinematheque, from November 18 to 30, and featured films from over twenty EU members.
Imagine being young, in trouble, and finding a gun. You’re a low-income woman in Croatia, and after your first night of drinking you’ve just found out you’re pregnant in a country where abortion is expensive and uncommon. Your friend is full of jokes—she’s laughing out of discomfort. You’re nothing but stony silence. Maybe there’s a solution? Together you and your friend file through her house, looking for stashed money, upturning old boxes, rifling through top drawers. And just as you begin to feel more and more of the floating anxiety that comes along with any irreversible decision, you find a sleek black pistol the size of your hand. It fits easily between your index and thumb. A bit heavy. Slightly worn. And smooth, like marble. You wave it around a bit, feeling its weight, indulging in this fun feeling of being a character in a movie. Then it happens. Click. The shot splits your ears and fires right out the balcony, ricocheting and slicing through a man’s head on the sidewalk below. You put the gun down and look at your friend. Oh, god.
This is the premise of Robert Orhel's One Shot (2013), and is it ever hard to watch. The question’s always there: What would you do? Would you turn yourself in? To make your job as jury more difficult, the story humanizes the defendant. We learn that Petra’s a dedicated third-year business student in a small Croatian city. She’s academically and socially sound, spending her days studying at school and her nights taking care of her alcoholic mother—carrying her to her bed, cleaning up her mess, hiding her wine. We also watch the way her life unfolds after the shot; we watch her throw the gun in the lake, lose her friend, and literally shake her way through police interrogations. Paranoia sets in. She becomes twitchy and absent, withholding more and more. If anyone understands absurdity by the end of the movie, it’s Petra.
And then the unlikely strikes twice when Petra’s investigator, Anita, becomes pregnant out of wedlock. Now there are two strong women suddenly alone. It’s only natural that they should inadvertently connect with one another. Anita begins to sympathize with Petra, while Petra begins to care for Anita. They can’t help it, they’ve been drawn together by a Dramatic Event.
At some point you have to stop and wonder: How did Petra get into this mess again? Is she actually guilty? How much more guilty is Petra, really, than any of us? Don’t we inadvertently kill with our purchases, our political choices? And if this is true, what would Petra’s prison sentence really serve—is it meant as a deterrent, a punishment, a redemption, a reminder to not wave loaded guns around? An indication we should get rid of guns entirely?
When Petra does finally confess to Anita, the heat of the movie cools down. There’s a moment of optimism. For a second, you think they might skip the police station and re-wind their lives in a different city. But then the movie ends.
Halfway through Gelo (2016), a Portuguese movie directed by Luis and Gonçalo Galväo Teles, a few things are clear. We know that there are two story lines, one with a chummy, teasing romance between two young film students (Joana and Miguel), the other with a child raised in a remote mansion. And we know the stories have some connection. Buy beyond that, it’s all speculation. Can Miguel read minds? Hard to say. Is Joana really Joana? Not quite clear. Is it all a dream? Anyone’s guess. The movie ends with a piece of dialogue that’s directed as much to the audience as it is to the movie’s characters—something like, “It’s not the end of the story that matters, it’s how you tell it that’s important.” Well…
The ‘mind-blow,’ or ‘puzzle’ movie has become exceptionally popular in the last fifteen years. Inspired by the box-office success of Memento, or maybe The Matrix before it, directors have started making movies with fractal storylines, vague arcs, and incomplete conclusions, which mine the same thematic content that draws a certain type of undergraduate to philosophy—how reliable is memory, what is identity, and what is reality? To my mind, a few of these movies are deserving, glittering classics. The Truman Show brought simple metafiction to a large audience, prompting many to re-examine their lives, and a few literalists to wonder if they were in a T.V. show. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind used its meta-tricks to question how much and what we want to know, when in love. Fight Club’s form portrayed the psychosis and fragmentation of bored ‘90s business men. Being John Malkovich explored the sublime feeling of trading your own consciousness for another’s. You can watch these movies at least three times—first for the formalistic tricks, second to make sense of them, third to pull together all of the loose strings into a complete whole.
I like these movies. When they work, you spend the movie scouring for clues, scanning new scenes to see if each new puzzle piece fits the hypothetical puzzle you’ve made. The mystery compels you along. The strangeness pushes you into new experiences, a new way of feeling. You get a nice, metaphysical workout. But it’s a delicate balance; too many clues, and the story becomes too obvious; not enough, and it’s like a logic-less riddle. Touch the scale on either side and it drops.
This is why Gelo didn’t work (for me). Its loose ends were left untied, and its core story has been told a few too many times by male directors; Girl falls in love with mysterious Boy, Boy loves the attention, Girl loves the intention, pause to insert romantic conflict and resolution, then Boy dies to save Girl, and Girl commits suicides to be with Boy. Full stop. Gelo doesn’t pause to address that they’ve only known each other for a few weeks. Or that Joana knows very little about Miguel, excepting his love of ice-baths and propensity to disappear.
And then there’s the more fundamental problem it can’t be blamed for. Puzzle movies capitalize on mystery. Mystery is compelling. We’ll watch one hundred and twenty one episodes of Lost just to deal with that strange itch of leaving a puzzle unsolved. The problem is that, with a new puzzle movie released every year, those puzzles just don’t seem to be so mysterious anymore. It’s time for a new set of tricks.