Here, as promised, is the article I wrote for my university's magazine. It wasn't published, so now I have to hate the editor, even though he reads Popjustice and looks like Rufus Wainwright, damn him. It doesn't have a title, because said editor was not imaginative enough to think of one when I asked him to. A great journalist in the making, I am sure!
On questioning some of my fellow students on their opinions of European cinema, most responded with a tirade against the ancient French films they’d had to endure at school, or claimed they just weren’t patient or cultured enough to bother with subtitles. But perhaps they will change their minds when they hear of the hilariously bizarre storylines of Pedro Almodóvar or the stunning visuals of Jean-Pierre Jeunet. While the state of British cinema is practically an excuse to denounce my nationality, I have recently discovered that this is not the case throughout Europe – in fact our continental neighbours are currently creating some of the most enjoyable and innovative work of our time.
Browsing HMV’s DVD section on a dull half-term afternoon a couple of years ago, I wandered into the World Cinema section, and spotting the cool-looking cover of a cheap copy of Good Bye Lenin!, I took a chance of something new and within weeks I was hooked, allowing myself a once-weekly plunge into the lucky dip of half-price foreign movies. There were as many disasters (such as the impressively dull Double Life of Veronique and tediously trivial Summer Things) as triumphs, but I soon found myself an expert on all things European and spoilt for choice on holiday destinations. Should I visit Berlin’s Alexanderplatz, home of Good Bye Lenin!’s Kerner family, or relive Pot Luck in Barcelona?
Below are my four choices of directors whose work is not only excellent but easily accessible, whether you’re a world cinema addict like me or haven’t yet worked out where the subtitle button is on your remote control. Leave your preconceptions at the door and give these a chance – but beware, it might not be good for your bank balance!
This Swedish poet turned writer/director had his breakthrough hit in 1998 with Fucking Amal (retitled Show Me Love in the UK), a sweet story of love between two teenage girls, which was bigger than Titanic in Sweden. He followed this with Together, a warm-hearted film set in a 1970s commune (soundtracked unsurprisingly by ABBA), and Lilya 4-ever, a bleak yet thought-provoking tale of an unfortunate Russian girl, which gained US critical success. In 2004, Moodysson, who is a strong socialist and feminist, released his most controversial creation yet - A Hole In My Heart, a subversive and disturbing commentary on the Swedish porn industry, of which he noted: "in a perfect world, this movie would not be made."
While he is the most successful Spanish filmmaker of his generation, Almodóvar's work is not mainstream or conventional. Unlike the fantasy and surrealism of Spanish-language classics such as Pan's Labyrinth or Un Chien Andalou, Almodóvar's films are set in domestic contemporary situations with a focus on human relationships. Volver, starring Penelope Cruz, was arguably the biggest non-English critical hit of 2006 and depicted the strength and resilience of three generations of women in a La Mancha family. Other successes have included Bad Education (about child sexual abuse) and All About My Mother, where characters include a pre-operative transsexual, a lesbian actress and a pregnant nun. It is hard to imagine such subjects being treated with as much grace and tolerance in a British or American movie.
Hans Weingartner & Wolfgang Becker:
These directors, Austrian and German respectively, are responsible for two of the biggest German-language hits of recent years, The Edukators (2004) and Good Bye Lenin! (2003). Both films star the promising young actor Daniel Brühl and share an accessible political angle. Good Bye Lenin! is an entertaining yet thought-provoking story of a boy whose socialist mother falls into a coma, during which time the Berlin Wall falls and German reunification takes place. Fearing the news could cause a heart attack, her son goes to great, and highly amusing, lengths to prevent her finding out. The Edukators also sets out with socialist motives (three young activists disturb wealthy locals by rearranging their possessions when they aren’t home) but when one of their break-ins goes wrong they meet a man who gave up activism to start a family and a business, and find that they can learn as much from him as he can from them. These films convey valuable political messages in a light-hearted way, but avoid over-simplifying or outright propaganda.
Beginning his career with dark fantasy films Delicatessen and The City of Lost Children, Jeunet went on to make what is surely the most popular foreign language film of recent years, Amélie. This idealised portrayal of Parisian life has done wonders for the city’s tourism and its quirkily beautiful star Audrey Tautou was the inspiration for many a chic new hair-do. Jeunet’s background in animation gives his films a uniquely dream-like appearance, not let down by the plot which is touching and humorous. He again worked with Tautou on his next film, an adaptation of the WW1-set novel, A Very Long Engagement, but Amélie’s success could not be matched. His next project is directing the film version of Yann Martel’s Life of Pi, another tall order since the imaginative philosophical novel has a dedicated following of fans.