Viennale 2010: The Good, The Bad and The Boring

Aside from Eric Rohmer’s classics and the magnificent cinematography of William Lubchansky, many of the filmmakers fell short at Vienna’s biggest film festival

On The Town | Michael Buergermeister | November 2010

The Seine flows gently towards Notre Dame, along with the traffic, when a postman peddles up with a telegram for an American composer who lies asleep.  His Austrian aunt has died, and he celebrates with borrowed money, inviting everybody to a party, including Jean Luc Godard, who listens again and again to the same record.

He later learns that his aunt has disinherited him, in favor of his cousin. In debt, he is thrown out of his apartment. With his friends working abroad or in the country he ends up on the street, a clochard, gazing at the now no longer romantic Seine. After playing for tips on a borrowed violin, a friend recognizes his music and he learns that a freak car accident has taken his cousin’s life.

Le Signe du Lion (1959) by Eric Rohmer kicked off the Viennale, Austria’s most important film festival, Oct. 21 to Nov. 3, which screened over 140 films in 1st district cinemas, including the Filmmuseum, Gartenbau, Urania, Metro and Stadtkinos. In addition to a retrospective of the Rohmer works, the festival included tributes to director Larry Cohen and the extraordinary French cinematographer William Lubchansky, feature films, documentaries and short films from around the globe and silent films from Austria in the 20s.

Written by Paul Gegauff, produced by Claude Chabrol, the story behind the making of Le Signe du Lion is nearly as extraordinary as the film itself. It was produced with the help of his wife’s inheritance. A year before he had both produced and directed his own film: Le Beau Serge and a year later he was to act as technical adviser for À bout de souffle. The colorful Gegauff was to work on the screenplays of 14 of Chabrol’s films before being stabbed to death by his second wife.

Le Signe du Lion was not a commercial success and Rohmer, who was 38 when the film was made, had to wait until 1966 before he was able to make his second feature. The films that followed – La Collectionneuse (1967), Ma nuit chez Maud (1969) and Le Genou de Claire (1970), produced by Barbet Schroeder and photographed by the brilliant Néstor Almendros –made Rohmer’s reputation and were among his best. All three were informed by a literary, philosophical and musical sensibility, and all three were variations on a favorite theme: a man in love with one woman is tempted by a second.

The beauty of the Viennale is that it fulfills the demand made by André Bazin in the early ‘50s: "Why can’t we have a serious geology as well as a flashy geography of our art?"

The "flashy geography" this year included a slush of films that really didn’t deserve to be shown. Instead of thinking of questions of structure, character or humor, many of the filmmakers seem not to have thought of very much at all. Few displayed a knowledge of film, a sophisticated sense of beauty or even a moderate degree of honesty. There was not much technical virtuosity on display either, important given the challenges of the new technologies, and, worst of all: very few had anything, however clumsily, to say.

This was not due to a dearth of supply. Among the films not to be seen were important ones such as Charles Ferguson’s Inside Job, Samuel Moaz’s Lebanon and Julia Bacha’s Budrus. This is sadly not the first time that bad has been substituted for good: neither Danis Tanović’s stunning No Man’s Land nor Simone Bitton’s excellent Wall were to be seen at the festival.

Nevertheless there were exceptions to the rule such as Woody Allen’s wonderful You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, a comedy about two couples, one older and one younger, who manage to mess up their lives. Also of interest were two documentaries: Last Train Home by Fan Lixin about the hardships endured by China’s migrant families working thousands of kilometers away from their homes and the beautifully photographed Pink Saris by Kim Longinotto about the fight of Sampat Pal for the rights of women in India.

The three most important films in the first half of the festival were The Agony and the Ecstasy of Phil Spector by Vikram Jayanti, Winter’s Bone, by Debra Granikand Potiche byFrancois Ozon.

The Agony and the Ecstasy of Phil Spector by Vikram Jayanti is a documentary about the life of Phil Spector, who, as the producer of the Ronnettes, the Righteous Brothers and the Beatles, played a key role in the development of contemporary music. The film documents not only his achievements but also his motivation, his way of working, thinking and his view of the world.  It also argues convincingly that his 2009 conviction and imprisonment for the murder of actress Lena Clarkson was a travesty of justice.

Winter’s Bone, by Debra Granikis a feature film with a powerful story of a teenager’s fight to save her mother, brother and sister from destitution, set against the reality of the boondocks: the Ozark Mountains in Missouri. Especially worthy of mention is Jennifer Lawrence in the leading role.

Potiche byFrancois Ozon is a social and political comedy about emancipation. Catherine Deneuve plays a woman who moves from taking over her life, to taking over the family business before moving on towards taking over the country.


The festival will continue through Nov. 3 and further coverage will appear in the next month’s issue.

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