Matthew Turner went to the San Sebastian Film Festival in 2011 and has vowed to return every year until death. Well, so far, so good.
Thursday 19th September – Day One
Arrive in San Sebastian the day before the festival begins. Check in at the lovely pension I stayed in last year (Pension Edorta, pension fans – in the old town and very reasonable at 60 Euros a night) and immediately head to the press centre in the Kursaal to pick up my accreditation and the screening schedule. My girlfriend is with me for the first five days so I’m having to choose the films very selectively rather than basically see everything. Sit down in wi-fi equipped Cafe Kursaal to start going through the schedule (cross-referencing with the LFF guide) but get distracted by the arrival of friends and next thing you know, it’s 2am and several cañas (beers) later. Decide cross-referencing of screening schedule can wait.
Friday 20th September – Day Two
Four films back to back today. First up, Foosball (aka Futbolin aka Metegol), an animated comedy from Juan Jose Campanella (who made The Secret In Their Eyes) about a teenage boy whose foosball players come to life and help him save his town/win the girl, etc. The film takes a while to get going and keeps its main characters off screen for too long early on, but it’s often very funny and there are some brilliantly directed sight gags. There’s one involving a blimp that still makes me laugh when I think about it. Foosball is playing in a dubbed version only at the UK (it’s at the London Film Festival next week) and I’m looking forward to seeing the English version as I’m pretty sure the football jokes will be significantly different.
Next up was Enemy, directed by Denis Villeneuve and starring Jake Gyllenhaal, who made this and Villeneuve’s Prisoners back to back. This was one of the best films I saw at the festival, a delightfully weird doppelganger movie in which bored businessman Adam (Jake Gyllenhaal) meets an actor (Jake Gyllenhaal) who looks just like him. There’s also something very strange going on under the surface (the poster – see pic – gives something of a clue) but to say anything more would spoil the treats of the film: suffice it to say that it has the best WHAT-THE-FUCK? ending I have seen in ages.
Next up was Arie Posin’s The Face Of Love (originally called The Look Of Love but changed presumably due to the Michael Winterbottom movie of the same name), starring Annette Bening as a widow who starts dating her dead husband’s doppelganger (Ed Harris) without telling him about the resemblance, making this an unexpected doppelganger double bill with Enemy. Laughably cheesy in places and peppered with IN YOUR FACE Vertigo references (including a prominently placed poster), this nonetheless won me over with a surprisingly moving resolution and a strong performance from Bening. The less said about Robin Williams as her besotted best friend the better though.
The final film of the day was Terry Gilliam’s The Zero Theorem, which had pleasing elements of Brazil and felt, to me, like something of a return to at least mid-level form for Gilliam, as opposed to some of his recent disasters. Set in the distant, tech-obsessed future, it stars Christoph Waltz as an eccentric and reclusive computer genius recruited by Matt Damon to work on a project that will discover the purpose of existence, but he gets distracted when he meets Bainsley (a very sexy Melanie Thierry) at a work party.
After that, we went to the Opening Night Party, though it was a little disappointing this year. The only film star we spotted was Diego Luna and they didn’t even have a Man Wearing Tapas.
Saturday 21st September – Day Three
Today was my girlfriend’s birthday, so most of the day was spent at La Perla (a fabulous ten course “Thalassotherapy” water spa other San Sebastian regulars had raved to me about for two years running) and Michelin starred restaurant Kokotxa (highlight: roast filet of deer with macadamia nut paste and orange and pumpkin fruit jelly), but I did manage to see one film and it ended up being my favourite film of festival and a flat-out, five star masterpiece. That film was Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Like Father, Like Son and I don’t mind telling you it made me cry like a tiny child.
The story centres on a wealthy couple whose piano-playing, academically gifted six-year-old son is on track for a place at a prestigious school. Then they get a call from the hospital and discover that their son was switched at birth and that their actual son has been raised by a shopkeeper and his wife in a rundown area of town and has two devoted younger siblings. The film explores some intriguing questions about nature vs nurture and Kore-eda takes his time to let the story play out, so that we get to know each of the families and the effect their new situation has on them as they try to find a solution that works for everyone. Needless to say, it’s devastating stuff, heightened by terrific performances from the perfectly-cast kids. (I tweeted at the time that I thought Like Father, Like Son would win the Audience Award, which it duly did).
Sunday 22nd September – Day Four
Three films today. First up: Puppy Love, a French coming-of-age tale about Diane (Solene Rigot), a 14 year-old girl who befriends her new neighbour, a sexually experienced 16 year-old (Audrey Bastien). Much sexual misadventure ensues and if I tell you that the girl’s widowed, single father is played by heart-throb Vincent Perez, well, you can probably guess the rest. The French seem to specialise in coming-of-age stories about teenage girls – I swear they churn a few out every year, like clockwork. I did a round table interview with the director (Delphine Lehericey), Perez and Rigot afterwards and endured an excruciating few moments while a Spanish journalist tried to take Lehericey to task for essentially forcing the audience to look at the naked bodies of young girls (Rigot was 19 when she shot the film).
You take your interviews where you can get them in San Sebastian, so afterwards, on the advice of the PR, I hung around the lobby of the Maria Cristina (the hotel where all the interviews happen) and ended up interviewing Le Weekend director Roger Michell as he walked across the bridge to a cocktail reception at the Kursaal.
Next up was Ryan Coogler’s Fruitvale Station, a US indie based on the true story of Oscar Grant III, who was killed by subway police on New Year’s Eve, 2008. Unfortunately, I found the film a bit of a slog, as it seemed like it was just marking time until the admittedly dramatic final act. Still, it was well acted and it’s always good to see Melonie Diaz in a film.
My final film of the day was Manuel Martin Cuenca’s Cannibal, a Spanish thriller about a serial killer (Antonio De La Torre) who eats his victims but who unexpectedly finds love when the sister (Olimpia Melinte) of one of his victims comes looking for her sibling. I’ve made that sound like much more fun than it actually is – De La Torre’s character is frustratingly inexpressive and passive throughout, almost as if he’s playing it as a deadpan comedy. It was also painfully slow, though beautifully shot.
Monday 23rd September – Day Five
Only two films today, as it was my girlfriend’s last day. First up was October/November, a well acted but disappointingly dull Austrian drama about a famous actress (Nora von Waldstratten) fleeing a failed affair in the city and visiting her big sister (Ursula Strauss) and their ageing father (Peter Simonischek) in the Austrian Alps hotel where they grew up.
The second film was Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity, which I was an hour and fifteen minutes early for, because I correctly suspected there would be a huge queue. There was some frankly shocking queue-jumping going on – I got revenge on one particular woman (visible in green in the linked video) who pushed in between me and a friend by angry-face photo-bombing her when her friend took a picture. Anyway, the film was well worth the wait, although it wasn’t quite the existential 2001: A Space Odyssey homage I’d been hoping for (I genuinely thought the film was going to be just Sandra Bullock drifting in space for two hours). Instead it was a nail-biting thriller along the lines of Apollo 13 (Ed Harris even as a voice cameo as “Houston”), with spectacular special effects (including the best 3D since Avatar) and Sandra Bullock occasionally channelling Ripley. Great stuff, anyway.
In between films, we went to the San Sebastian aquarium where this happened.
Tuesday 24th September – Day Six
Up early to see my girlfriend off this morning, so I was in the queue bright and early for Living Is Easy With Eyes Closed, a delightful Spanish film by David Trueba (brother of Fernando), based on the true story of a Spanish teacher (Almodovar regular Javier Camera) who travels to Almeira to try and persuade John Lennon (who’s there shooting How I Won The War) to write down his lyrics so he can use them with his class. Along the way he picks up two hitch-hikers, a young woman with a secret (Natalia De Molina) and a runaway teenager (Francesc Colomer) and the trio form a touching bond. This was unashamedly feelgood stuff with something to say about freedom, hope and friendship. As a side note, the 2000-ish capacity venue (the Kursaal) was packed to the rafters with paying customers and, as I said, this was a 9am public screening. Oh yes, they take their films seriously in Spain – I very much doubt the London Film Festival could fill the Odeon Leicester Square at 9am.
The second film of the day was Bertrand Tavernier’s Quai D’Orsay, a political comedy about the drafting of a speech that played like a French episode of The Thick Of It, only with less swearing and more door-slamming. It’s actually something of a one-joke movie (you could leave after 15 minutes and you would have essentially seen the whole film) centred around a wonderful comic performance by Thierry Lhermitte as the commanding Minister of Foreign Affairs, but it was such a well-executed single joke that you didn’t begrudge the repetition.
The final film was Jonathan Teplitzky’s The Railway Man, based on the book by Eric Lomax, about a railway obsessive (Colin Firth) who discovers that one of the Japanese guards who tortured him during the war (Hiroyuki Sanada) is still alive and sets out to confront him. Despite good work by Firth, this left me rather cold and it suffered from some appalling miscasting, e.g. Stellan Skarsgard as a Scotsman (with, um, a Swedish accent) and Nicole Kidman, visibly straining to appear normal as a sort of Celia Johnson in Brief Encounter type. It did, however, feature an impressive performance from Jeremy Irvine, who was surprisingly convincing as a young Colin Firth in the flashback scenes.
Wednesday 25th September – Day Seven
Another four films today. First was El Rayo (aka Hassan’s Way), which was essentially a Spanish version of David Lynch’s The Straight Story, about a Moroccan immigrant (Hassan Benoudra) driving a tractor from Spain back to his family in Morocco. There’s very little to the actual plot (the tractor keeps breaking down, police keep telling him he can’t drive it on the motorway), but it was utterly charming and it had a strong message about the value of kindness and basic humanity.
The second film was my second favourite film of the festival: Duck Season director Fernando Eimbcke’s Club Sandwich, a wonderful coming-of-age story about a single mother (Maria Renee Prudencio) who becomes jealous of her teenage son’s (Daniel Gimenez Cacho) first romance while they’re on holiday in a deserted hotel. Having the film unfold partly from the mother’s perspective puts an interesting twist on the coming-of-age genre that works rather well. I particularly liked the way the film unfolded in a series of almost dialogue-free scenes (mother and son swimming, mother and son reading by the pool, mother and son putting suntan lotion on each other) that were then repeated with the boy and his new friend (Danae Reynaud). I met the cast immediately afterwards at a swanky cocktail reception hosted by festival director Rebordinos, who I was comically mistaken for at the opening night party.
The next film was Luton, a post-Dogtooth “Greek Weird Wave” thriller about three seemingly unconnected people who get together and do terrible things to, well, minority groups and the helpless or under-privileged. Disturbing and occasionally confusing (it will repay a second viewing), the film is most notable for a) the killer punchline to a deeply unsexy sex scene, b) the cross-cutting between a granny-bashing and a tranny-bashing and c) young star Nicholas Vlachakis looking very much like the Greek Robert Pattinson.
I met up with the cast and director for a chat afterwards in the fabled Keler Tent, which this year had been repurposed as a swanky, exclusive interview venue.
The final film of the day was Dallas Buyers Club, based on the true story of Ron Woodruff (Matthew McConaughey), who was diagnosed with AIDS and given 30 days to live, but who refused his death sentence and instead devoted himself to the underground pharmaceutical movement, helping fellow AIDS sufferers get access to drugs that weren’t yet approved by the FDA. McConaughey’s been on a two-year hot streak ever since The Lincoln Lawyer and he’s on fire here – I wouldn’t be surprised if he ends up with an Oscar nomination for Best Actor, particularly given the one-two Oscar-bait combo of terminal illness and visible weight loss for the role. Jared Leto is also excellent as his transsexual best friend, but McConaughey owns the film from the first frame to the last.
Afterwards, I had a nightcap with The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw and we continued our San Sebastian tradition of reviewing pintxos.
Thursday 26th September – Day Eight
Four more films today: first Devil’s Knot, Atom Egoyan’s fictionalised version of the events surrounding the West Memphis Three case, recently the subject of riveting documentary West of Memphis. Unfortunately, this was somewhat underwhelming, let down by a TV movie-level script, a lack of focus, some serious miscasting (Colin Firth as a good-ol’-boy Southern lawyer, anyone?) and, hilariously, a disguised-in-frumpy-clothes-but-obviously-pregnant Reese Witherspoon.
The second film was Francois Ozon’s Jeune et Jolie (Young and Beautiful), an enjoyable and provocative drama about 17-year-old upper middle-class teenager Isabelle (Marine Vacth) who loses her virginity and decides to become a prostitute. The film was particularly commendable for not judging Isabelle and resisting the expected clichés, although that does backfire slightly in that it ends up making prostitution look like quite an attractive career prospect. (“Young? Hot? Want to make thousands of Euros? Then – hey! – why not become a prostitute?” etc).
Third film of the day was Mother of George, an impressively directed debut feature about a Nigerian woman living in Brooklyn who takes drastic action when she discovers her husband is infertile. The film offers a fascinating glimpse at a not-usually-seen-on-screen culture (she’s from the Yoruba tribe and an important ceremony early on plays a key part in her decision) but I found it frustrating on an emotional level, as the script doesn’t do enough to justify her decision.
My final film of the day was Nagisa Oshima’s The Diary of a Shinjuko Thief (showing in the festival’s Retrospective strand), which I found completely baffling and couldn’t even begin to explain.
Friday 27th September – Day Nine
A five-film binge today. First up, Las Horas Muertas (The Empty Hours), a lovely, low-key Mexican film about a teenage boy managing his uncle’s sleazy roadside motel, who forms a friendship with an attractive thirty-something whose married lover keeps bailing on their motel room assignations. Beautifully acted by the two leads, this is the sort of film you hope and pray will get a UK cinema release, though it almost certainly won’t.
Next up was Oshima’s Boy, an acclaimed classic, which was, thankfully, much more accessible than Diary of a Shinjuko Thief. The story revolves around a poverty-stricken family who keep faking traffic accidents by making the titular Boy run into traffic and then scamming the drivers into paying them off. It featured some stunning visuals and heart-breaking performances from the boy and his younger sibling.
Next up was the festival closer, Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet, based on the book by Reif Larsen about a 12-year-old child prodigy who travels across the country to receive a prestigious award. A French-Canadian production, this features English dialogue but is otherwise very much in the familiar Amelie-esque Jeunet style. I found it charming if slightly underwhelming, perhaps because the lead character (played by Kyle Catlett) is rather bland, though the cinematography was utterly gorgeous and it had some of the best 3D effects I’ve ever seen, at least in terms of things-happening-right-in-front-of-you.
Next up was Violet, which was comfortably the worst film in the festival and frankly, the less said about it, the better, but it felt like pretentious, studenty nonsense. It had a character called “5”, for God’s sake.
My final film of the day was much better: 9 Month Stretch, a delightful French comedy written and directed by co-star Albert Dupontel, starring Sandrine Kiberlain as an uptight, doesn’t-need-a-man judge who suddenly discovers she’s six months pregnant and realises the baby was conceived the night of the New Year’s Eve office party when she got uncharacteristically (and spectacularly) drunk. Using CCTV to trace her whereabouts, she discovers that the father of the baby is Bob (Dupontel), a criminal who’s accused of eating the eyes and chopping off the limbs of a (still alive) victim who surprised him mid-burglary. Fast-paced, frequently hilarious and brilliantly acted by the two leads, this borrows liberally from both Jeunet (narrated comedy flashbacks) and the Coen Brothers (moments of shocking, yet still very funny violence) and is an unabashed treat from start to finish. This is another one I’m hoping will get a UK release.
Saturday 28th September – Day Ten
Last year, I came down with a violent illness on my last day in San Sebastian and, weirdly, the same thing happened this year, only less violent and more of a flu than a stomach thing. Still, I wasn’t going to let a little thing like a raging temperature, a hacking cough and a bad case of the sniffles get in the way of my final day of film-watching and I duly spent the day watching three Oshima films
back to back: Empire of Passion (a fabulous film noir-esque tale about a man persuading his lover to murder her husband), The Ceremony and Death By Hanging, both of which were somewhat Bunuel-esque. San Sebastian is renowned for its comprehensive retrospectives (previous years included the films of Jacques Demy and Georges Franju) and it was a treat to see these films on the big screen, flu or no flu.
Having said that, at the end of the third film, I was so exhausted and feverish that I went to bed instead of going to the Closing Night Party. Ah well, there’s always next year.
San Sebastian Top Ten
1) Like Father, Like Son
2) Club Sandwich
4) 9 Month Stretch
5) Las Horas Muertas
6) Dallas Buyers Club
7) Living Is Easy With Eyes Closed
9) El Rayo
10) Jeune et Jolie