My third day at the Chicago International Film Festival began with “Barrage,” a film from Luxembourg and the country’s submission for the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. Written and directed by Laura Schroeder in her feature length debut, “Barrage” tells a rather common story with flair. Schroeder’s film revolves around the trio of women — a mother, a daughter and the daughter’s daughter. The matriarch, Elisabeth (the legendary Isabelle Huppert, “Things to Come”), has raised her granddaughter (Themis Pauwels, “Suite Française”) since her daughter, Catherine (Lolita Chammah, “Anton Tchékhov 1890,” and Huppert’s own daughter), skipped town. When the estranged Catherine returns, what was something of a cohesive relationship between grandmother and granddaughter disintegrates. Catherine all but abducts Alba, taking her to her own apartment and to a countryside home that stayed in the family.
The idea of a mother returning to plead for a new role in her child’s life isn’t terribly new — last year’s “Krisha,” for instance, was a fantastic horror riff on the concept, and Meryl Streep’s Oscar-winning turn in “Kramer vs. Kramer” helped establish her career — but Schroeder’s screenplay draws its characters rather vividly. This is no doubt due to the very real mother-daughter relationship between Chammah and Huppert. It’s awfully hard to hold one’s own against Huppert, but if there’s anyone who could attempt it, it’s her own daughter. Pauwels delivers a great performance as well: even at her young age, the film treats her with respect as an equal participant in the weekend’s events, not as a pawn in a fight between mother and daughter. The film’s boxy aspect ratio splendidly frames the lush green forestry, set against a dreary, gray sky, that drapes much of the film when Catherine and Alba retreat to the countryside home. At two hours, though, it can feel rather over-extended, and the needle drops that dot the film’s runtime don’t land quite as powerfully as they should.
Schroeder was present after the screening for a Q&A. I asked her what role, if any, improvisation played in the making of the film. “I didn’t have much time for [improvisation] because you have your crew and you have your schedule, too,” she said. “It’s very much prepared.” But even within these confines, she acknowledges that often the film demands some on-the-spot changes, when her actresses propose a new interpretation or, specifically in the film’s case, if the weather doesn’t cooperate. “I like it, the way it comes out in the film now, you know, but the weather conditions weren’t at all as I intended them to be.”
“God’s Own Country,” a love story between a British farmer’s son and his father’s Romanian hired hand, tells a familiar story in a new context. It’s “Brokeback Mountain” by way of British social realism, in a wonderful feature debut by Francis Lee. Johnny, the restless Brit, feels trapped at home on the family farm; he goes into town and heavily drinks each night, violently expunging his body of the alcohol-spiked shame in ritual cacophony in the early hours of the morning. Along comes Gheorghie, bearded and quiet and often in a knit sweater, who takes up some of the farm work after Johnny’s father (Ian Hart, “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone”) remains incapacitated after a stroke. At first antagonistic — Johnny calls Gheorghie a gypsy — their relationship develops over a stretch of days spent alone in cabin set up for birthing goats (or lambs, I’m no expert). They become intimate and the moments they share together brim with energy.
Where “Brokeback Mountain” and Lee’s film diverge, aside from the British countryside, is how the protagonists’ sexuality is treated by the film’s world. Simply put, no one cares; no one is mocked or denigrated for being gay. And it’s so, so refreshing. Johnny has sex with other men and it feels unremarkable and, more importantly, normalized. When Gheorghie comes along, their intimacy is stylized and filmed with an artistic flourish, not with removed voyeurism, but with aroused participation. It’s sensual, and it’s about time.
At just short of two hours, “God’s Own Country” can drag a bit, especially since its style, like other young British directors, is very bare in its felicity to realism (as an example, see Andrew Haigh’s 2011 queer romantic drama “Weekend” or William Oldroyd’s “Lady Macbeth” from this summer). The film also includes, but does not address in any meaningful way, some degree of ethnic animosity from Johnny to Gheorghie when they first meet, which pretty quickly dissolves as their romance develops. But on balance, “God’s Own Country” is a splendid romantic tale that one can only hope serves as a harbinger for queer love stories to come.
“Princess Cyd,” the latest film from Chicago-based filmmaker Stephen Cone (“Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party”), is, according to the writer and director, his “love letter” to the city. Unsurprisingly, then, it played well before the Chicago crowd (which included many crew members and the first gathering of the four main actors). Cyd (Jessie Pinnick, “Shameless”), a high school student, comes to Chicago in the summer to look at colleges. She stays at the childhood house of her mother, where Miranda Ruth (Rebecca Spence, “Easy”), Cyd’s aunt and a relatively successful novelist, lives. Cyd, like many teenagers, is interested in sex and love. Miranda, a bookish academic, is interested in other pleasures. The two have a strange relationship, not having seen each other for several years.
It’s delightful. The weaves that unspool over the film’s brisk 96 minutes aren’t particularly unpredictable — Cyd starts to appreciate her aunt’s writing (and values), and Miranda starts to think of herself more sexually — but the on-screen between the pair feels so real because of how unique the relationship between aunt and niece is. They’re both caught off-guard by how little they know about each other. When Cyd confesses, or rather asks discreetly about, her attraction for another girl, Miranda’s response is inquisitive and friendly, like a supportive parent, but she also deftly maintains her ground in the liminal space between close peer and loving guardian. Many will be quick to praise Pinnick, which is fair, as Cyd is delightful, but the real star-making performance here is Spence, who has such a mastery of using the camera to her advantage. Cone’s cast is suffused with excellent Chicago theater actors, but Spence is the best of the bunch.
Unlike Cone’s other films, “Princess Cyd” doesn’t wade too deeply in the waters of dissecting white Christian culture; religion is discussed a bit, but it isn’t one of the film’s central currents. But even without his usual subject, Cone’s film is deeply humanist. He adores his characters and it’s contagious.