Viennale’s Fest & Folk

Among the hundreds of films at this year’s festival, Scottish actress Tilda Swinton stole the show

On The Town | Michael Buergermeister | November 2009

Part I – The Festival

The Unquiet American

A man in an ill-fitting, finely striped suit, with blue shirt, white collar and yellow tie sits in an armchair in his basement and talks with the cardboard cut-out figures of Liza Minelli and Jerry Lewis, driving his mother crazy. The man: Rupert Pupkin, played by Robert De Niro, is determined to become a comedian.

So he pesters his idol, Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis) as well as his staff. He hangs around the reception area of Langford’s office for so long that the security men weary of him and he is firmly but politely asked to leave. He visits Jerry, uninvited, in his large villa in the country, only to be thrown out, embarrassing the girl he is trying to impress. He is even willing to kidnap Langford, in order to steal his fifteen minutes of fame.

Fearful for Langford’s life, the TV executives accede to his demand, and let him appear on TV – leaving the viewers guessing whether the jokes will be good, brilliant or just plain rotten. If they are rotten he will get the chair; if they are genuinely funny, he will be the hero of the hour.

Few films better illustrate Billy Wilder’s dictum: "If you tell them the truth, be sure to make them laugh, or they’ll kill you." Thus The King of Comedy was a cornerstone of the Viennale series "The Unquiet American, Transgressive Comedies from the U.S." in the Austrian Film Museum in October. The films including Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, the anarchic Duck Soup, the subversive and hilarious Hair Spray and the brilliantly scripted Avanti! were chosen by Jonathan Rosenbaum for their ability to challenge, both aesthetically and ideologically the status quo in America.


Drops of water, filmed in black and white, fall slowly on a shower faucet. An aria, from Handel’s Rinaldo: Lascia ch’io pianga is sung. Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg look at one another for what seems like an eternity, as they stand, naked, under the falling drops. They make love in the shower; move to the bedroom and continue lovemaking while their child escapes from his cot. The toddler climbs up to an open window to observe the flakes of snow in the night, and falls to his death.

Lars von Trier doesn’t spare the audience. Born of a deep depression on the one hand and a love of Strindberg on the other, the film asks fundamental questions as to the essence of nature, human and otherwise. Is nature itself inherently evil? And if so how can we avoid doing evil ourselves?

The film’s images were put together, according to von Trier, "independent of logic or dramatic thought." Although highly poetic, evocative and visionary, they fail to satisfy in themselves. The story on the other hand veers too sharply away from its initial focus – from the problems of the Gainsbourg character to her assault on Willem Dafoe – to convince. It might be, for personal reasons, the "most important film" Lars von Trier has ever made, if only because it enabled him to go on making films. But it is not a patch on the formal mastery of his Dogville, which is undoubtedly his masterpiece and one of the best films of the past ten years.

The Main Program

Other films worth seeing included Soul Power and When We Were Kings, about the legendary boxing match between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman in Zaire in 1974 and the music festival that preceded it. La Dance provided a fascinating insight into life behind the scenes at the Paris Opera Ballet; Un Prophète was the story of a French man of Algerian origin, caught up in the cruelty of the prison system and how he learns to master his own fate.

Welcome was about the friendship between a swimming teacher and a seventeen-year-old Kurd who wants to swim to England in order to marry his sweetheart. Then there was Wyo-nang-so-ri, about an old South Korean couple working on the land; the somewhat subversive Gigante, about an Uruguyan security guard who falls in love with a cleaning lady he is supposed to be supervising and l’Encerclement, about how neo-liberal and libertarian dogmas lack any basis in reality. In addition there was Eastern Plays about the despair of young Bulgarians still living in the country and Outrage about how the political establishment in America is run by homophobic homosexuals.

The true surprise of the festival, though, was the series of films shown by Film Archiv Austria. They included films such as Gänsehäufel accompanied by the brilliant Peter Szely and The Mandarin accompanied by the highly talented Vera Fischer, Benedikt Leitner, Markus Urban and Florian Bogner. Not only were these films fascinating insights into fin de siècle Austria but proof that its achievements were not limited to music, literature and painting but extended to the realm of film, too.

The filmmakers of this period had a formal mastery of photography as well as a highly sophisticated approach to character and plot, a sophistication that exceeds much of film today.

Intended as an "objective" overview of the state of film production in the world, in the words of its director Hans Hurch, the Viennale was able to add one extra day to its usual length. As a measure of the esteem of both the City of Vienna and the State – astonishing enough in this day and age – both increased their subsidies by €100,000 (a 10% increase) and €35,000 respectively. This helped enable the Viennale again to present feature films, documentaries, and short films from all over the world.

Part II – The Profile

Tilda Swinton

This year’s Viennale star, or anti-star as the case may be, was the brilliant Scottish actress Tilda Swinton. Born in 1960 and famous for her roles in Caravaggio, Edward II and The Garden she describes film as an "art form in which time becomes material" that provides an "existential sensation of duration." Film is irrevocably linked to dreams, she says, and it is little accident that she has called her own film festival "The Festival of Dreams." Indeed the highest compliment she can pay to a movie is that it is capable of "ecstatic removal."

Having worked for nine years on seven "cultural" films with Derek Jarman, she counts herself "spoiled"; then came five years trying to make Orlando, based on the novel by Virginia Woolf, together with Sally Potter. Recently she has become a "studio spy" and has turned up in films such as Michael Clayton (2007), Burn After Reading (2008) and Julia (2009).

With her fierce intellect, eloquence, dry humor, complete absence of vanity, disarming down-to-earth candor and independent streak – and perhaps  one of the last admitted communists left on Earth – this scion of an aristocratic family is an unlikely candidate for Hollywood stardom. Indeed when she won the Oscar for her role in Michael Clayton, she said could hardly believe it.

There are few people more forthcoming when willing to talk about themselves than Tilda Swinton. What is more: there are few people more capable of analyzing, reflecting and articulating their thoughts when doing so.

Her story has something of a fairy tale quality: when she went to Cambridge to study social and political sciences and literature, she dreamed of becoming a poet. She quickly realized though that it had been a mistake not to have gone to art school.

She turned to performance, landed at the RSC and had the good fortune to meet Derek Jarman. What she sought and still seeks in film is a "sense of company." When Jarman died, she felt "thrown to the professional wolves" feeling she lacked "professional wiring." For five years she raised money for the wonderful Orlando, and still devotes 90% of her time to planning projects and only 10% actually acting in them.

Acting though is not a term she regards as truly appropriate to what she does. What she does is "dress up and play." Indeed she is a fervent admirer of the ideas of Robert Bresson, especially on account of his spiritual and humanistic dimensions, and regards herself as a "model" very much in the way he thought of the term. It thus comes as something of a surprise that she was "invited to other people’s parties" and that Hollywood came to her rather than the other way around. We should all be grateful that they did, as are we grateful to Derek Jarman for discovering her.

Other articles from this issue