Wisconsin Film Festival Highlights: Potiche, Troll Hunter, and The Red Chapel

Okay, here we go.

Potiche is the latest from director François Ozon, though it probably draws more attention for the fact that it stars both Catherine Deneuve and Gerard Depardieu, big names in French cinema and recognizable abroad. Set in the late seventies, the plot follows a woman's rise in power, first in heading her husband's umbrella factory and then running for political office, while being alternately supported and mocked by members of her family. It could be said that this is a feminist film, or it could be said that it's a simple family comedy, but I prefer to see it as an exploration of both the beneficial and detrimental aspects of human selfishness. All of the characters display both sympathetic and unsympathetic qualities, and as they fling around colorful rhetoric against a colorful background, we see how obviously their political alignments link to personal fears and insecurities. Potiche is fun to watch and explores serious issues by not taking them too seriously, which leads the audience to partake of another brand of selfishness: the desire for pure entertainment.

Troll Hunter is a Norwegian monster movie in the form of a mockumentary, though that doesn't do a very good job of describing it.  In some ways it's exactly what you would expect:  A "this footage was determined to be real" setup, shaky but uncannily efficient camera work, interviews with eccentric characters deadpanning the practical details of dealing with supernatural beings, etc.  What I wasn't necessarily expecting was for parts of it to be breathtakingly beautiful and to appeal directly to the five year-old in me.  Troll Hunter boasts a pretty good mix of real vs. fantastic elements, and that's nothing new, but completely aside from that I was almost weirded out by how believable it was.  I would not consider it anything close to a work of art, but this movie struck me as being a possible antidote for the particular kind of late-night restlessness brought on by a lack of excitement and interest, the kind that leads you to declare that nothing ever happens in this shitty town and there's nothing on TV and then to drive out into the country with your friends and do stupid and possibly illegal things.  If you get the opportunity, try this first.

Considering that you're going to be monitored pretty closely while doing anything in North Korea, and considering that you're going to need the assistance of many people--including, perhaps, those with whom you disagree on a deep personal and ideological level--to make any kind of documentary, it's debatable how much of The Red Chapel can really be credited to director Mads Brügger.  To summarize, Brügger staged a fake "cultural exchange" with North Korea for which he brought along two Korean-Danish comedians and performers, one of them a physically handicapped boy.  The main portion of the film focuses on the struggle of the director and comedians to get their stage show together amid many corrections from the North Koreans.  If we simply listen to Brügger's voice overs, which provide a half-hearted sense of structure for the film, it's pretty easy to walk out thinking that we have just seen a movie that exposes the "evilness" of the dictatorship by a renegade director who, to paraphrase, has no moral scruples when it comes to North Korea.  Brügger's own hypocrisy is on display for anyone who chooses to see it, as he applies a narrow frame of mind to nearly everything he encounters.  He rambles on about the dehumanizing effect of the government, but does not hesitate to further dehumanize the North Korean people he meets, presuming that any emotion they display must necessarily be linked directly to their role in and exploitation by the government.

Despite this, I still think it's a brilliant film, and the reason why is something I haven't yet seen suggested, that being that I am totally convinced Brügger is at least partially playing a character in this movie (meaning a character on top of the character he is playing for the North Koreans), or at the very least playing the role of the journalist who seeks to provoke reactions by exploiting whatever sentiment is convenient.  When he admits to "using" Jacob, the self-described "spastic" performer, I suspect he may be hinting at more than just the obvious.  By constantly espousing his own (later admitted) propaganda, he pushes Jacob to argue with him on film about the complexities inherent in trying to interact with those under the regime, about, for example, how his (Jacob's) attitude toward the North Koreans is split even though he knows that handicapped people in North Korea like him are killed simply for being born that way.  One of the strongest moments of the film is when Jacob describes the feeling of realizing that one's own ideological values can't apply to everything, and in some situations, seem to be of no use at all.  While not always, Brügger often allows Jacob to have the last word on these matters and only rarely attempts to combat it with his own voice overs.  It could be that he would consider it unfair to argue with someone who can't argue back, but in any case, he chooses to allow Jacob to become a stronger moral presence than himself without bothering to comment on the fact. 

I know that Brügger has actually compared North Korea to Nazi Germany (a sentiment I don't disagree with) in interviews, and I don't doubt that those opinions are his own.  Nevertheless, it seems almost obvious to me that Brügger does choose to caricature himself to a certain degree in The Red Chapel, and this is what saves the film for me.  I will admit that in terms of this film I am not so concerned with the question of whether the lucky elite who participate in supporting the North Korean regime deserve to be deceived and mocked, or whether comparing Brügger's hypocrisy in his own deception and exploitation of nearly everyone in the film with what the North Korean government has done to its people is a false equivalency and should be written off as insignificant collateral damage.  Even if I decided that both of these things were true, I would still hope that a filmmaker fortunate enough to have the opportunity Brügger had would not be happy with simply mocking an "evil dictatorship," and I think in reality he has done much more.  Of course, we can't be sure of his intentions, any more than Brügger and his pals, in the course of their stay in North Korea, could be sure of the intentions and precise moral fiber of those they were surrounded by, those lucky enough to have an upper hand in a ramshackle country, but not exactly lucky enough to have any control over what was happening to them.  Are these people to be pitied or reviled?  Trusted or suspected of the worst crimes?  These questions make up the core of The Red Chapel for me, and as for the similar dilemma I am presented as a viewer of the film, I choose to trust that Brügger actually made the nuanced and layered film I think he did and give him credit for it (even if he could not have done it by himself).  That said, it's one of the most exciting things I've ever seen in video format.

(Speaking of credit, I also want to give Nick his due share for helping provide me with some of these revelations concerning The Red Chapel.)

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