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[Film culture]

Northern lights
The Montreal World Film Festival turns 25

BY GERALD PEARY

So you thought that Heather Donahue, the hyperventilating babe in the woods of The Blair Witch Project, was a one-trick pony? Not on your life. Donahue is at the top of her acting game and the headliner talent, as a brash, promiscuous fashion writer, in Seven and a Match, the best American independent film I saw at last monthís Montreal World Film Festival.

Hereís yet another tale of self-absorbed, in-crisis, post-collegiates caught for the weekend in a summer house ó and I almost didnít attend the screening after a producer described it to me as " a kind of Big Chill story. " But somehow life gets pumped into a creaky generic formula, and I found myself caring about the grumbling group of ex-Yalies who endure a calamitous Saturday and Sunday.

This first feature is smartly written and nimbly directed by Derek Simonds, who happens to be helmer Brad Andersonís half-brother; and the High Definition video cinematography by Andersonís regular DP, Uta Briesewitz, really does pass for 35mm. Best of all is a charming cast of up-and-coming actors, one of the freshest indie ensembles in the years since sex, lies, and videotape. Remember the names Eion Bailey and Petra Wright for when Seven and a Match finds a distributor.

Elsewhere at Montreal? Baran is a masterly film from Iranian cinéaste Majid Majidi (The Color of Paradise) about the unspoken love felt by a poor Irani boy for an Afghan girl as they work on a hellish construction site in Tehran. Itís a Miramax release. Martha . . . Martha is a hurtful, pessimistic tale of a young French mother with deep-rooted mental problems; itís directed by Sandrine Veyssett, who earlier made the melancholic classic Will It Snow for Christmas? Solitude, an almost miniature Canadian feature from far-off Saskatchewan, follows several female characters on a retreat at a monastery, where they live among the monks. All mood and the quietest zen spirituality, this humble effort from Robin Schlaht and Natasha Paris was rejected by the Toronto Film Festival.

Honey for Oshún, a miserably titled disappointment from veteran Cuban director Humberto Solás (Lucía), is about a lost guy in his 30s returning to Havana from the USA in search of his mother. Inexplicable soap-opera acting, heavy panting music, and a klunky script had me scrambling out of the theater so as not to face the kitsch reunion of weeping son and insane-asylum mama. Directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet (City of Lost Children), Amélie is the current Gallic box-office hit about a young woman racing about 1930s Paris (Chocolat meets Moulin Rouge); itís all self-conscious whimsy, every frame goosed up, floor to ceiling, with faux surrealist imagery. Minutes out of the film, a Montreal critic gushed, " I told my friends that anyone who doesnít love this movie needs a doctor. " He turned mauve when I informed him that I found Amélie distressingly empty. Nonetheless I predict Miramax will spend major dough flagwaving it for Academy Awards.

Congratulations to Timeís Richard Schickel, who was given the Maurice Bessy Award for distinguished film criticism, receiving not only a certificate but, far better, $10,000 in cash. Thatís for decades of smart reviewing and a host of important books, including The Disney Version and The Men Who Made the Movies.

And happy 25th anniversary to the Montreal Festival! Through the years, Iíve discovered countless important movies, especially European ones, and availed myself of some most unusual interview subjects. Where else could you talk, one-on-one, to tough-guy actor Frank Vincent, who got stomped on by Joe Pesci in GoodFellas? Or Toshiro Mifune, superstar of Akira Kurosawaís The Seven Samurai? Or Ginger Rogers, who fumed about the foul language in todayís ignominious Hollywood? Or Brian De Palma, who comes every year to melt into the crowds and watch movies?

I wish Iíd been there for the first fest, in 1977, when the luminary guests included Ingrid Bergman, Gloria Swanson, Fay Wray, Howard Hawks, and the Taviani Brothers. I was in attendance later on for memorable press conferences with Arthur Miller, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Gérard Depardieu, Robert Altman, Jane Fonda, and Clint Eastwood; I even got the autograph of La strada star Giulietta Masina.

A high point? Montreal 1986, which featured the North American premieres of both Crocodile Dundee and Blue Velvet. A personal regret? That I turned down lunch with thenĖJames Bond Roger Moore because I was too snobby to let go of Sean Connery as the only 007.

Gerald Peary can be reached at gpeary@world.std.com

Issue Date: September 13 - 20, 2001