Gone are the various scaffoldings on the facades of the Austro-Hungarian Empire landmark houses and mansions that line the canal. Gone are the swarms of students and scruffy film-buffs that set up their tents and unrolled their sleeping bags in the hills around the main theatre while the cops looked elsewhere. Dotted with the signs of Hugo Boss, Giorgio Armani, Gianfranco Ferre, Marionnaud and other high-end boutiques, Karlovy Vary's main drag, now pristine, has become a mini-Croisette, so to speak, and black tie was required for opening night.
At 7 PM sharp, drums started rolling and the curtain rose on the traditional production number that opened the festivities. Four tuxedoed gentlemen energetically banged their sets of drums while four others, hung in mid-air in various positions, started swinging, then threw themselves to the ground (trampolines, actually), doing all sorts of somersaults in increasingly intricate figures. Stomp meets le Cirque du Soleil, as it were. Nothing to do with films, but wonderful to watch.
Receiving a Life Achievement Award from the hands of the Festival's president, Jiri Bartoska, and clutching his Crystal Globe, actor Andy Garcia, of The Untouchables, Ocean's Eleven and Godfather 3 fame, choked with emotion as he spoke of his early days in Cuba (he left in 1961 at the age of 5) and thanked the audiences worldwide for having allowed him to turn a childhood dream into a real, still-evolving, career. (Set against the tumultuous background of pre-revolutionary Havana, The Lost City, which he wrote, produced, directed and scored - talk about personal filmmaking - is getting its European premiere here.)
After Festival honcho Bartoska declared the Festival officially open, the theatre went dark and this year's Festival trailer was screened. Starring lots of smoke, mechanical toys and a Bela Lugosi-coiffed crooner spreading Fly-typed wings in aggressively turquoise faux fur, it was met with polite applause, but obviously left the audience dazed and confused. "What was that?", some asked at the bar during the intermission, while others browsed through to the thick Festival catalogue, trying to figure out what their film picks would be for the next ten days.
As chief-programmer Eva Zaoralovà writes in her introduction, this year's festival marks a double anniversary. "It was exactly a hundred and ten years ago, on July 15, 1896, that the famous spa town set eyes on the Lumière brothers' invention and, fifty years later, the first post-war summer of 1946 saw the launch of the [Festival]."
Originally established to be a forum for the most current works by filmmakers around the world, but mostly from what Zaoralovà calls "the post-socialist film environment", the Festival has multiplied and diversified its offerings. Now, beside the main competition (fiction), the documentary section (also competitive) and the East of the West (now competitive for the second time), it has a slew of non-competitive sections: Special Events, Midnight Screenings, Horizons, Variety's Critics Choice, Forum of Independents, etc, along with a bunch of Focuses (British Cinema, Youth through the eyes of French filmmakers) and Tributes – to the Sundance Institute, to the National Film Archive, and most importantly to two directors: Jan Nemec (Diamonds of the Night, 1964), from the Czech Republic, and American icon John Huston. Quite a full plate altogether.
Then the bell rang and the crowd went back into the theatre for the opening night film, Time (a world premiere), which is about plastic surgery. More about it tomorrow, but let us say right now that the latest opus by South Korea's enfant terrible Kim Ki-duk is not for the faint of heart
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