Recognized as the oldest and largest LGBTQ film event in the world, the Bay Area's Frameline festival will celebrate its 42nd edition from June 14 to 24. I've attended the fest since its early beginnings and in my experience, the foreign language narrative features are consistently the most interesting and accomplished works on view. To that end, I'll be spotlighting 10 movies largely culled from Frameline42's World Cinema sidebar, eight of which I've had the opportunity to preview.
The two World Cinema selections not available to preview also happen to be the ones with the most cachet, at least in terms of recognizable stars and festival prizes. Topping the list of films I anticipate catching during the festival proper is Anne Fontaine's Reinventing Marvin, winner of the Queer Lion at last year's Venice Film Festival. Told through a series of flashbacks, it's the story of a bullied queer boy in the French provinces who leaves his brutish family to study theater in Paris. There he falls under the sway of a sugar daddy who introduces him to Oscar-nominated actress Isabelle Huppert (playing herself!), who in turn helps Marvin produce a cathartic one-man performance piece. The young adult Marvin is played by rising British-French actor Finnegan Oldfield, who has given memorable supporting performances in movies screened locally by SFFILM in recent years (Nocturama, Les Cowboys, Heal the Living). In addition to grande dame Huppert, Reinventing Marvin boasts a cast of familiar French actors that includes Charles Berling, Grégory Gadebois and Vincent Macaigne. Quite shockingly, the movie does not have a U.S. distributor. (It seems the kind of thing Strand Releasing would have snapped up in a heartbeat). Therefore, Frameline's lone screening at the Castro Theatre on June 22, which is also the film's U.S. premiere, could wind up being the only opportunity we'll ever have to view it.
The other film I'm tremendously excited about seeing during the fest is The Heiresses. This feature film debut by Paraguayan writer-director Marcelo Martinessi won three of the top prizes at this year's Berlin Film Festival, including the FIPRESCI critics' prize and the prestigious Alfred Bauer Prize, the latter awarded to a film that "opens new perspectives on cinematic art." Berlin's best actress award went to Ana Brun, making her screen acting debut in the role of Chela, a middle-aged lesbian of evaporating privilege who has begun selling off her family's fineries. After her lover of 30 years goes to prison for fraud, Chela falls into the role of de facto chauffeur for all her remaining rich friends. Martinessi's character study cum social critique garnered unanimous rave reviews. The Heiresses did acquire a minor U.S. distributor (Distrib Films) but I'd say chances of it showing up in cinemas outside L.A./N.Y. are pretty iffy.
The Berlin Film Festival's Teddy Award is considered the world's most esteemed prize for LGBTQ cinema. The 2018 Teddy for best narrative feature went to Brazilian directors Filipe Matzembacher and Marcio Reolon's Hard Paint, a Frameline42 Showcase presentation that's the first of eight films I was able to screen in advance. Set in the coastal city of Porto Alegre, the film concerns itself with the fate of Pedro, a dour young man who's awaiting trial on assault charges for blinding someone who bullied him. His supportive older sister is about to move cross country, and he's barely supporting himself by staging webcam sex shows wherein his body is smeared with florescent paints. Things begin to look up when he romantically and professionally aligns himself with Leo, a dancer who shares his penchant for Day-Glo. When Leo moves to Berlin, however, Pedro's life continues its downward trajectory. While I admired Hard Paint as a moody, empathetic character study, I ultimately found it rambling, anemic and overlong. The soundtrack of Brazilian EDM is extremely good and put to effective use. Directors Matzembacher and Reolon are expected to attend the film's screening at the Castro on June 19.
I was considerably more taken with two other Latin American selections from Frameline42's World Cinema sidebar. Steeped in the Quechuan culture of Peru's high Andes mountains, Alvaro Delgado Aparicio's heartbreaking Retablo confronts acute homophobia in an indigenous culture. Teenager Segundo is apprenticed to his father Noé, a maestro artisan who constructs retablos, elaborately painted wooden boxes with doors that reveal potato-dough figurines representing members of a family or clan. All that changes when he catches the father he adores and respects in a furtive act of gay sexual activity, which is ultimately the catalyst for larger scale tragedy. Aparacio makes a remarkable debut as feature filmmaker, as does actor Junior Behar in his first on-screen appearance in the role of Segundo. Acclaimed Peruvian actress Magaly Solier (Madeinusa, Oscar-nominated The Milk of Sorrow) adds another impressive take on Latin American indigenous womanhood to her filmography, inhabiting the part of the family's desperate matriarch.
The five remaining foreign LGBTQ movies I previewed all hail from Europe, with two German language selections distinguishing themselves as standouts. Katharina Mückstein's L'Animale introduces us to five lonely, quietly desperate Austrians whose lives are on the cusp of change, discovery and possible crisis. At the center is Mati, a conflicted high school senior motocross enthusiast who hangs out with the guys and has an expressed distaste for anything girlish. When she's not discouraging the romantic advances of her male best friend, Mati is off exploring her sexuality with an older shopgirl. She also works as a veterinary assistant to her mother, a woman who just recently discovered that her husband is acting on his same-sex desires. L'Animale's title is taken from a 1985 song by Italian composer/performer Franco Battiato. In the film's most affecting sequence, all five main characters, in separate settings, take turns singing the song whose Italian-translated chorus reads, "The animal which is inside of me won't let me live in happiness again." Director Mückstein is expected to attend the film's lone Frameline42 screening on June 17.
The theme of clandestine attraction also comes into play with two other European Frameline42 flicks. Mikko Makela's A Moment in the Reeds is a romantic two-hander about a Finnish grad student who returns from Paris to help his taciturn father renovate the family summer cottage. When he's left to spend several days alone with the handsome Syrian war refugee who's been hired to help out, a passionate affair blossoms in the idyllic lakeside setting. What the film lacks in dramatic momentum, it makes up for with intimately engaging conversations (all in English, for those who are subtitle averse) and the hottest sex scenes of all the films I previewed. The specter of war also permeates the background of Blerta Zeqiri's The Marriage. Set 10 years after the Kosovo conflict of 1998-99, it's the would-be story of two male lovers reuniting, were it not for the fact that one of them is about to be married to a woman. This messy tale of buried secrets and resentments often feels scattershot and over-plotted, but it's well worth watching for the strength of its performances and immersion into local culture. One particularly lovely moment finds the two ex-lovers, one now a musician in Paris and the other a local bar owner, singing "They Can't Take That Away From Me," with spot-on imitations of Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald. It is anticipated that the directors of both A Moment in the Reeds and The Marriage will attend the festival.
Finally, we have Ellen Smit's Just Friends, a broad, slightly tacky romantic dramedy from the Netherlands whose central romance is between two aimless young men. Yad, a failing Dutch-Syrian med student has returned home and resumed his old job of teaching windsurfing. Much to his conservative family's consternation, he's taken a second job as homecare aide for the elderly, with one of his dottier clients setting him up with her grandson. Joris is a skinhead gym-bunny who flies drones and lives with his crass, plastic-surgery addicted mother while still mourning his father's recent death. Will Yad and Joris overcome their familys' objections to the relationship and find true love? I'm going to be a spoiler and reveal that of all the Frameline42 films I previewed, Just Friends is the only one that concludes with anything remotely representing a happy ending. And that should count for a lot in these god-awful times we're trapped in. It's also worth noting that while Just Friends is almost the antithesis of an "art" film, it had the strongest visual style of all the Frameline42 selections I looked at.