"Everything they said about communism was a lie," quips Sergei, an unemployed Russian immigrant in Fernando León de Aranoa’s Los lunes al sol ("Mondays in the Sun"; 2002; January 22 at 7 and 9:15 p.m.). "What’s worse is that everything they said about capitalism was the truth." That rueful spirit of post–Cold War, pre-unified Europe prevails in "Crossing Borders: New Films from Europe," which opens this Friday at the Harvard Film Archive. The threat of East-West confrontation in Europe has subsided, and the war of ideologies between Marx and Coca-Cola has been won by the latter, which has left behind a world of shopping malls, rampant consumerism, ethnic fragmentation, displaced refugees, exploited or idle workers, and general spiritual desolation. Not only are people alienated from their labor, as Marx predicted, they’re also isolated from one another and from their own experience.
At least they still have movies. Over the past century, European cinema has met the challenge of confronting cultural crises — it responded to the post–World War II wasteland with Italian neo-realism and to the specter of nuclear annihilation with the French New Wave. Such a renaissance might be too much to expect these days, when national film industries are in decline and international co-productions — the oft-lamented "Euro-puddings" — prevail. Yet to judge from the evidence of the 10 films (eight of which I’ve seen) in this series, European cinema might serve as the last bastion of the continent’s cultural autonomy.
But who cares about culture when there’s no work? That’s the dilemma faced in the above-mentioned Los lunes, the controversial Spanish selection for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar that nudged out the favored, flashier, and more daring Hable con ella ("Talk to Her") from Pedro Almodóvar. In a seaport in northern Spain, a cadre of laid-off shipyard workers deal with the idleness and demoralization of the dole while stewing in bitter memories of their quashed strike of three years before. They hang out in a bar run by one of their number (he bought it with his severance pay), and it’s kind of a Cheers where everyone knows everyone else’s name but the rest of the world has forgotten them. Aranoa jazzes up his Ken Loach–like style and social concerns with offhand irony reminiscent of Seinfeld, and Javier Bardem (bearded, bloated, balding, he’s almost unrecognizable) anchors the picture as Santa, the lusty, cynical hothead of the group.
It’s tough enough getting a job in one’s own country; how about those who have no country at all? At first, Swedish director Geir Hansteen Jörgensen’s The New Country (Det nya landet, 2000; January 18 at 9 p.m., January 19 at 7 p.m., and January 27 at 9 p.m.), which was originally planned as a mini-series, looks as if it might succumb to the cutes. Two illegal immigrants — the embittered Iranian Massoud and the happy-go-lucky Somalian teenager Ali — ride off in a battered Miata on an odd-couple tour of Sweden in search of a refuge. At first they seem like ethnic stereotypes, but the pair take on depth and humanity as they encounter unexpected delights and defeats along the road — including stopovers with an elderly couple with a taste for young Africans, a troop of unusually helpful neo-Nazis, and a lasting relationship with a former Miss Sweden.
Another road movie seeking to reconcile conflicting cultures is Greek director Christos Georgiou’s endearing but uneven Under the Stars (Kato apo t’astra, 2001; January 18 at 7 p.m. and January 21 at 9 p.m.). The last time Lukas saw his parents alive was when he was a child hiding under the sink as Turkish bombs fell on their Greek Cypriot village during the 1974 war. Years later, now a moody loner living in Nicosia, he decides to return to his native village, and he pays Phoebe, a fellow Greek survivor of the war who is now a free-spirited smuggler, to take him there. Lukas bristles not just at Phoebe’s mercenary dealings with the Turkish settlers and soldiers they meet along the way but at her attitude toward the past — forgiveness, if not forgetfulness. Georgiou balances wry romantic comedy and wistful historic tragedy with engaging delicacy until he lapses into unfortunate mystification and sentimentality at the end.
Equally an exile in her own country is the beleaguered exotic dancer Lily and her daughter, Pam, in Myriam Mézières & Alain Tanner’s Fleurs de sang ("Flowers of Blood"; 2002; January 17 at 7 p.m. and January 25 at 9:30 p.m., with writer, co-director, and star Myriam Mézières in attendance this Friday). The film begins in medias res with Pam, now a teenager, confessing to the police that she stabbed her older lover; then it then flashes back five years to her more carefree adventures with her mother on the road. She is as much a collaborator as she is a daughter — abetting mom as she skips out of hotels without paying and helping out with the act by pulling the strings for the fake fowl in Lily’s rendition of the myth of Leda and the swan. But the child-services department looks askance at the arrangement, puts Pam in boarding school, and leaves Lily to drift into dissolution and homelessness.
Tanner and Mézières collaborated once before in Une flamme dans mon cœur ("A Flame in My Heart"; 1987), another tale of a woman whose passions, artistic and sexual, violate social taboos. Both films threaten to collapse into absurdity and melodrama before achieving a twisted beauty. The additional element of the child in Fleurs adds both depth and glibness, making the film a kind of NC-17-rated Mildred Pierce or Stella Dallas with an agenda.
Too much conformity, of course, poses a far greater and more insidious danger than Lily’s fragile anarchy does. Belgian directors Philippe Boon and Laurent Brandenbourger demonstrate that in Petites misères ("Shopping"; 2002; January 19 at 9:30 p.m., January 24 at 9 p.m., and January 29 at 7 p.m.). The film opens with a montage of sterile rows of goods in a soul-blighting shopping mall, so it’s little wonder that bored housewife Nicole freezes up and finds she’s no longer capable of shopping. Another factor might be the profession of her husband, Jean: he’s a bailiff — a repo man for the state — whose anality might be part of Nicole’s sudden crisis of crass consciousness. Enter George, a gleeful shopping addict, one of Jean’s recurrent clients, and also his best friend, to seduce Nicole back into the joys of mindless consumerism and then some. Although it has some genuinely funny moments and fine deadpan performances, the film remains a one-joke skit that seems long at only 78 minutes.
More discontented consumers inhabit the dull East German burg of Frankfurt an der Oder in Andreas Dresen’s sly Halbe Treppe ("Grill Point"; 2001; January 24, at 7 p.m. and January 28, at 9 p.m.). In this film, though, the characters act out their displeasure through adultery rather than by overspending. "Magic" Chris hosts the morning show for the local easy-listening radio station (he seems always to be introducing the latest hit by Britney Spears); his wife, Katrin, works as a checkpoint clerk on the Polish border; his best friend, Uwe, owns the fast-food joint of the title; and Uwe’s wife, Ellen, sells perfume at the mall. Somewhere between Chris’s dim dreams of a loftier broadcasting career and Ellen’s distaste for Uwe’s poor dental work and their inadequate kitchen, the two slip into an adulterous affair. Dresen remains detached but compassionate, grilling the emotional and spiritual poverty of his characters’ milieu while embracing their pathos and humor.
A Jean Baudrillard–influenced cultural critic might diagnose the malaise suffered by the characters in the prior two films as a dissociation from reality induced by modern society’s production of simulations and simulacra in lieu of genuine experience. Such a critic might get more out of Vincent Lannoo’s Dogma 95–accredited Strass (2001; January 27 at 7 p.m. and January 29 at 9 p.m.) than did this one, who found it a sado-masochistic Belgian variation on Waiting for Guffman without the laughs. A mockumentary about an avant-garde acting method promoted by a womanizing phony, the film ends up questioning the validity and morality of drama and cinema and their representation of reality through illusion. Heavy lifting for a one-joke comedy.
A more devastating deconstruction of contemporary life is provided by Gaspar Noé’s Irréversible ("Irreversible"; 2002; January 25 at 7 p.m. and January 26 at 7 p.m.). Already notorious for the graphic brutality of his Seul contre tous ("I Stand Alone"; 1998), Noé here combines shocking subject matter with a formal assault. Contradicting its title, Irréversible tells its tale backwards, starting with a hideous vengeance-killing shot where the camera careens ("unsteadi-cam"?) and then returns, an episode at a time, to the appalling act’s equally appalling, and ambiguous, origins. Not to be dismissed as a gimmicky Straw Dogs by way of Memento, Irréversible is in fact unforgettable. "Time destroys everything," a character says at the beginning — or is it the end? Perhaps, but films like these are a way of fighting back.