This year marked the 75th edition of the Locarno (Film) Festival, which started in 1946 and technically before the more famous Cannes festival – Cannes had had its opening planned for 1939 but, understandably, postponed until after World War II. Given these long traditions of the Locarno festival – and this year its important birthday – one would have assumed a celebratory culmination of special events marking the occasion, but the anniversary went largely unremarked upon, likely because of uncertainty about the COVID pandemic, which had, after all, cancelled its 2020 (full) festival. For number 75, with the pandemic lingering, a return to relative normalcy would have been more than one might have hoped for. Such hopes were largely fulfilled without any major controversies or outbreaks: there was perhaps a surprise winner of the Golden Leopard from among a competition slightly more uneven than usual, some marking of the war in Ukraine, but otherwise this edition signalled a welcome return of the festival firing on all its cinematic cylinders.

In this late phase of the pandemic (we hope), all three conventional areas of the industry would seem to be teetering in the disturbing balance: will audiences come back to screenings? Will distributors be buying films? And will there even be enough films being produced to sustain a vibrant festival? The first question seems the easiest and, looking at the crowds in Locarno, the audience answer seems a tentative yes. Locarno is a bit unusual for the A-level circuit because, although it attracts a strong industry presence from the surrounding markets (especially from Switzerland, Italy, and France), it also conveniently coincides with the August vacation of many European countries. A good number of the Locarno screenings – especially its marquee venue at the Piazza Grande (holding c. 8,000 spectators) – are sustained by tourist visitors to the surrounding Ticino region. This results in a festival that is likely more (popular) audience oriented than Europe’s bigger festivals (like Cannes, Berlin, and Venice). The good news for Locarno is that these festival-goers certainly seemed to be back, with especially the Piazza screenings returning to pre-pandemic numbers (56,500 this year vs. 59,500 in 2019). The number visiting Locarno’s interior cinemas have suffered a bit more (72,000 this year vs. 98,000 in 2019), probably to be expected, given COVID concerns inside. Nonetheless, the overall number of visitors thus ended up close to 2019 and were up over 60% from last year’s even more hesitant festival.

On the more industrial end of festival matters, however, the picture would seem to be a bit cloudier – with a few pronounced rays of light more than an overall silver lining. There seemed to be fewer sales than usual, likely a sign that the industry itself is still struggling as it navigates the future of theatrical and/or streaming releases. Notably, the number of industry and press accreditations was actually up from 2019, underscoring how the hunger for festival fare among professionals is likely there, but not any certainty about a sustainable future. In the international competition (the showcase Concorso Internazionale), it did look (to me, anyway) as if the line-up were a little more uneven than usual, perhaps owing to the relatively fewer films that could be produced in the last couple of years. There were some truly excellent and ambitious films – the satisfying sort of Locarno surprises from years past, especially by earlier-career filmmakers and one more experimental effort by a late-career Russian master, Alexander Sokurov, about which more below. But there were also some in the competition that did not quite convince – with that unevenness across the section itself likely symptomatic of the challenging times in which we live.

Regra 34

The Golden Leopard winner this year was Julia Murat’s Regra 34 (Rule 34, a reference to so-called “rule 34,” asserting, all too convincingly, that there is, somewhere or other, a pornographic version of everything on the internet). Variety called it a “surprise win,” and it was indeed a surprise, in my opinion, that the jury picked this film as the competition winner, not least because it was not the most convincing film from the global south (would be, in my opinion, I have Electric Dreams), by a women director (also Electric Dreams), about the racist legacies of colonialism (Tommy Guns) or even exploring sexuality and voyeurism (Piaffe). Rule 34 has extended sequences of its protagonist, Simone, growing more and more interested in, and more and more indulging of, the dangerous sexual practice of self-asphyxiation as part of her burgeoning interest in a “decolonizing BDSM.” Given that plot line and conceptual basis, from the opening scene, the film is walking (or, rather, working) a thin line between critically investigating the online sexual economy/the function of race and ethnicity in it and an exploitative curiosity of these phenomena. Such films often flirt with prurience even as they engage heftier themes, flirt with mimicking the exploitation they might also be also critiquing. The film alternates between these aspects of Simone’s personality, between her sexual adventurism – and eventually dangerous experimentation – and her work as a public-defender in training, both imbricated within (if not convincingly critiquing) the broader racism and sexism of Brazilian society. Violence ends up cutting across both, with Rule 34 pairing (semi-) voluntary sexual violence with domestic violence described by women seeking help from the public defender. The duality, however, is never really worked out convincingly, and, not surprisingly, the film concludes with decidedly more time committed to the sexual adventures of Simone than her socially critical work.

Most of the competition’s other major Leopard-prizes (for director, for male and for female performances) went to I Have Electric Dreams, which was, indeed, one of the most moving and effective films of the competition, from a first-time feature director-writer Valentina Maurel. As the older sister, Eva (award-winner Daniela Marín Navarro) struggles with the split of her very different parents. While her younger sister, Sol, and mother seem quite ready to move on – with her mother coming into an inheritance and relentlessly renovating her house – Eva feels closer to her struggling, and conspicuously poorer, father, Martín. Although marginally employed and crashing at a friend’s after the breakup, Martín has artistic sensibilities manifest in his attitude, prose, and poetry. The film’s title derives, in fact, from a poem of Martín’s that reveals a tortured self-awareness of his struggles with anger and violence. Reinaldo Amien Gutiérrez as Martín does an astonishing job of conveying vulnerability, sadness, self-doubt, and violent anger, often at once. Viewers hear the film’s title in one of Martín’s poems at a literary reading and party that Martín’s friend and roommate organises. In one of the many adroitly unfolded sequences, Eva the precocious teen tries to negotiate an adult social economy of which she has only the slightest inkling. The party seems to go on forever without ever dragging, as does the teen’s searing search for stability in a world that she has trouble comprehending. 

Gigi the Law

Locarno’s Jury Prize (of Ascona and Losone) went to a deliberately lighter-key probing of modern masculinity, the docudrama Gigi the Law, awarded probably for the force of nature Gigi (Pier Luigi Mecchia) as well as for this subtly sophisticated take on documenting the police. The film turns out to be a clever rumination on both the place of police in a society – so a self-conscious invocation and variation of the cop thriller – as well as a paean to the small-town childhood of director Alessandro Comodin. In fact, the actor Mecchia playing Gigi protagonist is the director’s uncle and actually a police officer in Friuli where Comodin grew up. The film’s mysterious opening scene, however, complicates what might have become a maudlin homage to a friendly cop: viewers watch as Gigi is animatedly arguing, in the night-time dark, with an unseen neighbour. Their contretemps grows abruptly, and almost comically, antagonistic about Gigi’s overgrown garden that is the locus and setting of their disagreements. This inscrutable, first-impression argument then haunts Gigi’s generally jocular policing of a small-town where everyone seems to know his name and enjoys chatting with him. But it also poses certain questions about policing: what are the limits of a cop’s personal preferences and desires given the world – even if a small world – in which they live? That is the subtle question also unfolded via another amusing plot line Comodin and Mecchia expertly exploit: Gigi’s radio-remote flirting with a new dispatcher, Paola, within his patrol car underscores his own interiority and his perhaps overly active imagination. These radio repetitions of Gigi’s also make clear that policing here manifests every bit of performativity one sees in more conventional police dramas. And, as with the Chekhov-like gun planted in the opening sequence, something is off amid the sleepily idyllic setting – the film takes an intriguing, even surreal turn against its documentary appearances. 

Two of the best films in the competition were early favourites but ultimately went unrecognised by the jury. A highly creative film about the mysteries of human sexuality and how they are imbricated in visual regimes was Anna Oren’s Piaffe. The film opens in what looks like a kinetoscope parlour, with a man (Sebastian Rudolph) paying and peeping voyeuristically at what turn out to be close-ups of quivering plants. The film is set and shot in Berlin, so perhaps the early-cinema set-up is a reference to the Skladanowsky brothers’claim to inventing motion pictures in 1895, avant la Lumière lettre. The attendant at this out-of-time parlour is Eva, who has also inherited a job as a foley artist from her sibling Zara, who is, apparently abruptly, residing in a mental facility. The job Eva inherits is creating the sound effects for a commercial for a new psychotropic pharmaceutical, Equilbri, that depicts an initially ill-tempered horse subsequently hoofing happily in obedient conformity with its rider (“piaffe” is actually a complex movement in dressage and classical riding). Eva’s first attempt is rejected in a screening room with hilarious brutality, and Eva spends much of the film meandering the city in search of the right equine sound effects. In her utter dedication and resolve, she grows a horsetail, becomes quite the toast of Berlin’s nightclub scene, then the object of erotic attention of the man from the opening scene, who, it turns out, is a botanist at Berlin’s botanic garden apparently crossing over into fauna. The erotics of this surprise tail are augmented, of course, by careful construction of an intimate soundtrack, with the money shot being the shaving of Eva’s horse tail into penile appendage. The film manages to reflect on media, the history of cinema, the role of sexuality, the intersection of visual and aural pleasures, all in highly creative and amusing frame. 

Tommy Guns

Carlos Conceicao’s Tommy Guns considers, via the war and horror genres, the corrupting experience of colonialism for both the coloniser and colonised. The setting is the early-1970s Angolan War of Independence, in which Portuguese soldiers killed at least 10,000 local combatants and 10,000s more civilians, as depicted throughout this film. A horrifying, 20-minute plus prelude exhibits both the local lives and cultures that colonialism disrupt as well as brutal murder that radically revisits and rewrites the opening episode of Rossellini’s Paisan. In that anxiety of influence vein, the film quotes generously from the war genre tradition, including especially Full Metal Jacket, Thin Red Line, and Beau Travail. But Tommy Guns still manages to be engagingly original, consistently surprising, and therein all the more disturbing. As with those classics – and technical masterpieces – the film ranges surprisingly far in the tone of its treatments of war zones, from hard realism to eerie surrealism to horror. The colonial past is not as dead as it seems, the film seems to be saying – in fact, it’s animatedly undead. With its eclectic genre approach, Tommy Guns ventures at times far from the traditions it openly acknowledges, for instance, in the film’s at times episodic narrative thematising the divergent images of the Madonna for Catholic soldiers and the countries to which they have spread Catholicism. The film was, rightfully, an early favourite for some of the festival’s prizes but went away, unfortunately in my opinion, empty handed.

Fairy Tale was one of the most discussed films at the festival, both for the broader political implication of the film and for its celebrated filmmaker, Alexander Sokurov. The film itself is a work for which the phrase “uncanny valley” should be first and foremost reserved: viewers watch deep-fake versions of key 20th-century dictators, including Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini as well as, more perplexingly, political leaders like Churchill. Whatever one thinks of Churchill or the UK, he seems a bit of an odd fit with the others, but then he is the only one of the curious cast to meet God, so maybe there is some subtle logic (Sokurov has been typically coy on the topic). The technical effect is intriguing, as Sokurov uses actual footage of the leaders, much of it recognisable, but then deployed publicly available software and voiceover actors to alter what the familiar figures were saying to each other and to themselves. 

This deliberate uncanniness here on offer is both disconcerting in its technical effects and tragic in its historical content, as the film foregrounds not just the political leaders but also the horrifying number of deaths they caused. To achieve this, it augments the faked yet familiar footage of the leaders with images, both clear and obscured, of their victims physically near them. This syncretic effect is particularly powerful because, with these effects, the film underscores how these leaders are just people who became far too powerful, given their fatefully flawed personalities (sound familiar?). Their pettiness and prejudices reign supreme here: Stalin admires Hitler’s coat while Churchill says Stalin’s coat looks like a wardrobe. At one point, a plaintive Hitler just wants to borrow a mobile phone. So, at stretches, the leaders’ behaviour is laugh-out-loud funny, but, on the other hand, having the leaders interact in semi-conversations, including on serious topics of power and conquest, shows how deformities of their personalities – particularly their punctilious narcissism, obsessive pettiness, cultivated obliviousness to other human beings – could yield the mass murder of historical proportions. Some thought the film dragged a bit, much like the histories conjured by these authoritarians. If this is, as he claims, Sokurov’s last film, it was a fittingly creative and searingly devastating warning about the particularities and perils of political charisma.


Other abuses reign in Mahesh Narayanan’s Ariyippu, in which the dynamics of a young marriage offer a disquieting window on to the troubling world around its characters. In that way the film deploys an effective strategy reminiscent of Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation. Here, to director/writer Narayanan’s credit, much of what Fassbinder called the micropolitics of a relationship relate to the economic struggles of the couple as they try to make their way in a dehumanising Delhi factory rife with abuses of power. These abuses include sexual harassment by those higher in the factory’s venal hierarchy and a new kind of revenge porn apparently geared to undercut the couple’s work in the factory, a disquieting interweaving of love and economics for our time. Similarly indicative of our times is how the video depicting a sex act is spread via Whatsapp, scaling, as social media brutally do, the private humiliation of the couple. The plot becomes at times a bit too labyrinthine, and some of the COVID references feel too casual, but the carefully crafted, location shots of factory work and the well-acted struggles of a young migrant couple (from Kerala, stuck in Delhi, trying to get to Malaysia) make the film memorable.

The opening shot of Nikolaus Geyrhalter’s Matter Out of Place is a long, lovely shot of what appears to be a pristine mountain valley with snow blanketing its forest and a sliver of a lake coldly shimmering. But then, as the award-winning film often does, the image track cuts closer to reframe, subtly but shockingly: the long-take editing carefully cuts in for the audience to witness how the putative purity of the presumed snow transforms into a beach-smothering layer of plastic bottles, splotchy glass, even shattered small furniture pieces. This reframing of nature, and audience assumptions about it, by the grotesqueries of human refuse is repeated throughout. A broad, handsome coastline is marred by ubiquitous, half-buried garbage or, perhaps even more disconcertingly, an idyllic harvest field has a subterranean layer of garbage bags, tires, even oil cannisters just a meter under where the crops would unwittingly grow. Surprisingly effective, given the film’s deliberate and quiet style, are the sounds of this MOOP (matter out of place), the constant crinkling, disconcerting scraping, all amounting to a scratchy cacophony of junk. The film won the “Green Leopard WWF” award, assuredly also for its new and disconcerting take on another way in which human civilisation has wrought havoc on the planet and ourselves.

Also recognised in the “Green Leopard” environmental category, with a special mention, Hilal Baydarov’s Sermon of the Fish unfolds in the grim wake of an unnamed war and undiagnosed illness that have afflicted a village, with a faraway city, a kind of anti-Oz, hovering barely visible on the horizon. These ghostly catastrophes leave, apparently, only a sister to welcome her brother Davud home from the war – their parents and other family are already dead and rotted, as she emphatically recounts. She has, as she observes somewhat ethereally, also begun to rot herself, as the increasing legions on her skin indicate. The causes of this bleak atmosphere remain deliberately abstruse, rendering the film a broader allegory for a culture struggling and in decline. The film is replete with arresting images of environmental degradation, especially for a petro-driven country: rusty drills creaking away, dusty road barely linking them, and disturbingly oily water swirling around flora and fauna. The eponymous fish is apparently that which Davud catches to feed the remnants of the family – the fish is so oil drenched that his sister memorably just lights it on fire with a single match. The image of a flaming fish on a wooden table in a dark, low-ceilinged house between the two despairing siblings is unforgettably devastating, as is the whole film.

Early on in Ruth Mader’s Serviam – I Want to Serve Martha, a young soloist, sings her faith, the faith she highlights to a nun when she asks “to do more” in the service of God. Set in an elite Austrian catholic boarding school in the early 1980s, the film engages therein with the delusions and ultimate perils of radical beliefs – the high-stakes, even fatal inflexibility they can spawn. The nun whom Martha asks is younger than the other nuns whom viewers see in the girls’ school and in its chapels, and she rewards Martha’s glowing ambition with a penance belt of spikes, to be worn as an undergarment demonstrating her devotion to God. Unfortunately, for both Martha and the nun indulging her youthful enthusiasm, this grotesquely spiked belt causes bleeding and infection in Martha. The brutality of the school’s underlying belief system does damage to other girls as well; the collective damage becomes ever clearer in the eerie shots of the school’s bare hallways and ascetic bedrooms. The clash of radical conviction and youthful enthusiasm recalls the milieu of Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon, in which Maria Dragus, here the implicated young nun, also memorably appeared, but Serviam, with its setting in the 1980s, emphasises how such radicality can abide across time and place. Mader has mentioned being a fan of thrillers, and the style here recalls another Austrian film, Jessica Hausner’s Hotel, that uses horror techniques (e.g., from the Shining) to turn up the uncanniness of a seemingly innocuous space. 

Bowling Saturne

The original Saturn of Patricia Mazuy’s Bowling Saturne invokes a very long tradition of toxic masculinity, citing as it does the ancient myth of a paranoid deity consuming his own children. The mythic Saturn decided on this disgusting diet because his children had been prophesised to overthrow him, with this fate a mythological metaphor for the ineluctability of generational succession and the insanity it can breed. Such are some of the troubled themes of Mazuy’s film, which likewise foregrounds the perils of paternal legacy: two half-brothers inherit not only their father’s dive bowling alley, but also the big-game hunting group that regularly meets and cavorts there. One of the half-brothers is a policeman and the other a directionless drifter who might or might not break good. Mazuy’s approach to generational succession proves noir pessimistic about the proximity of violence and sexuality: the questionable generational inheritance is complicated by a likely serial killer on the loose, with an early scene gruesomely staging the also noirish overlap of eroticism and abuse. 

In a decidedly lighter key, the first images of Francesco Lago’s funny and engaging Il Pataffio (The Epitaph) frame the grizzled, squinting faces of two old men in period costume, deliberately framed in a broad landscape through which their procession is making slow progress. This film will not feature, Lago seems to be telling us, the anachronistic hard bodies of period works like Bridgerton, rather highlight the absurdities of living in a highly hiearchised past, in which the struggle for the daily bread was often highjacked by clueless higher ups. The film is based on the novel that follows this procession, led by the newly minted “Marcount Belocchio” and his recent bride Bernarda as they travel to take possession of Bernarda’s dowry, a decrepit castle. When they, early in their travels, encounter a fork in the road, the lovable band of losers predictably choose the wrong way and face the tall and well-fortified parapets of someone else’s castle. The pompous and constantly aggrieved Marcount decides to attack, but some modest grates on the window and a single cutting of their siege ropes quickly, comically repel them — Game of Thrones this is also not to be. The film uses its milieu and humour to foreground the cultivated cruelty of leaders as well as their deliberate obliviousness to the fate of their subjects. With skilled performances (including by Alessandro Gassman) and the expected high jinx of both a new marriage – when will the conjugal duties be fulfilled? – the film manages to be consistently amusing, another engaging riff on heritage films in the direction of a highly accomplished period political allegory like The Favorite.

Tales of the Purple House

The deliberately gentle documentary Tales of the Purple House focuses on the domestic life of the filmmaker Abbas Fahdel but also on the public experiences of Lebanon over the past few years. The film is a powerful reminder of the struggles of Lebanon and its capital over the last 20 years, though its meticulous observation focuses on a relatively comfortable homelife for the filmmaker and his wife, Nour Ballouk. For example, given politics and the pandemic, Nour has to drive into Beirut to retrieve her paintings from a gallery in a neighbourhood that is degenerating amid the many challenges in the city. The gallerist is clear that she thinks the political elites have utterly failed the society, a recurring theme that is brutally illustrated by the breathtaking images of destruction after the August 2020 explosion in the Beirut port. The explosion killed over 200 people, and, as viewers see some of the annihilation it wrought amid the densely built harbor, one cannot help but think it was lucky some 200 were killed. Back at home, among the telling features of the eponymous domestic space is Nour’s employment of a 12-year-old boy from Syria, one of the 1 million+ Syrian refugees in Lebanon, a country of c. 6 million inhabitants. Nour pays the boy, and gives his family food, for odd jobs around the house, with the boy extremely genial and sardonically matter-of-fact about his family’s predicament. To the film’s credit, however, viewers also hear disturbing racism out of his mouth concerning the pandemic, including that people in China eat their own children. As often happens, Nour gently corrects him and the film moves on. But viewers (or this one, anyway) nonetheless felt shock at hearing a refugee boy with whom one sympathises say outrageously racist things. Although the film might have suffered an editor, its deliberate pacing is part of this startling shock, part of a strategy to show how the routines of daily life can abide until, abruptly, they do not.

The title Stone Turtle refers to a Malaysian folk myth, read in the film to 10-year-old Nika by someone who might be her father. Intriguingly, during this reading, the myth takes over the image track of the film, such that the book’s simple animation fills the screen and viewers’ minds, clarifying for both myth and film the perils of being an indulgent, rule-breaking male. The myth’s and film’s eponymous turtle is, indeed, male, in a long-term pairing with a female, but gets himself turned to stone for ignoring a warning against gluttony. I am not spoiling too much to say that this is an allegory for out-of-bounds masculine privilege whose ravages the film registers on the body of its protagonist, Zahara (Asmara Abigail). Zahara is living with her daughter Nika and other women on a supposedly haunted island, scratching out a meagre if enchanted existence by poaching turtle eggs. A man appears studying the turtles, the eggs, and her business – is it a clash of academic research and local culture? A budding romance? An economic struggle as newcomers muscle in on contraband business? The film navigates all of these questions in a series of dreams that Zahara has, such that it mixes romance, thriller, even horror elements, in a highly effective oneiric register. Perhaps most impressively, the film manages to apply its engaging mythical style to a number of social issues – Zahara is a refugee from Aceh – woven skilfully into the narrative complexity above. 

Human Flowers of Flesh

The French Foreign Legion has long held a fascination in film – likely for the fantasy of a human life utterly unmoored yet aggressively unbending – and Helena Wittmann’s Human Flowers of Flesh takes a novel approach to it by having her protagonist Ida, in meandering fashion, explore the Legion’s vestiges around Marseille and the Mediterranean. Human Flowers seems to engage with two important predecessors, Angela Schanelec’s Marseille (2004) as well as Claire Denis’s Beau Travail (1999), to which the film pays overt homage in its concluding sequences with a cameo by the unforgettable lead in that latter film, Denis Lavant. Director Wittmann was a student and assistant to Schanelec, whose Marseille was one of the cornerstones of the early Berlin School, that quasi-movement that emerged in the early-2000s with directors, in addition to Schanelec, including Christian Petzold, Christoph Hochhäusler, Ulrich Köhler, and that soon included others like Maren Ade, among others. Like both Schanelec’s 2004 work and Petzold’s Transit (2019), Human Flowers of Flesh is set in and around France’s second largest city, and in all three films, the dream-like quality of that mythical metropolis (at least for northern Europeans) floats in the foreground. Although Wittmann’s images are often beautiful – the contiguity of the arid landscape, undulating sea, and elusive legionnaires all suggestive – the film feels somewhat underpowered in story and concept. The Berlin School was known for its long-take dismantling of conventional genre, although, in this critic’s opinion, the success or not of the individual films often depends on just how they approach this dismantling. Schanelec’s Marseille managed to be a coming-of-age story for someone too late to be growing up, simultaneously rehearsing and varying the familiar German story of an artist going south in search of both aesthetic material and “authentic” self. Human Flowers, unfortunately, ranges too far – lengthy shots of someone tightening engine bolts sometimes do not reveal that much. When Lavant appears in the end sequences as a kind of culminating homage to Denis’s unforgettable dissection of the Legion and its colonial fantasies in Beau Travail, Human Flowers feels a bit too much of an insiders’ game.

A winner of a “special mention” of a First Feature award at the Festival, Valentin Merz’s At Night the Cats are Black has a slyly anarchic feel to it, with considerable humour high and low. Merz’s seems like joyfully open filmmaking, combining multiple genres at seeming random: period piece, zombie film, mystery, as well as a soft-core porn treatment of people smelling each other intimately. This jumble of filmmaking is often pretty entertaining – if just for the surprise element – but one has the sense that Merz also knows well the contrastive collisions of comedy. Part of these collisions is the border setting of the filming and the confluence of cultures there and in the film in general – French, Spanish, Swiss German – all of which the film embraces with gleeful abandon. The boisterous bedlam finds its footing a bit when the director Merz (played by director Merz with a tongue-in-cheek meta casting) goes missing and the police become involved in a set of amusing interrogations with the creative characters and then in organising a sylvan search. The absurdism can be non-sequitur amusing, for example, at one point the police lament having to search for the missing Merz at night because they won’t get as much bird watching in. Some of the jokes are more predictable, like when one of the period-attired actors insists on playing videogames on her phone, with a crew member wondering if she is even able to get coverage out there, but well executed nonetheless. 

Another coming-of-age story without I have Electric Dreams’ edge (albeit with more humour), Stella in Love follows the eponymous 17-year-old in her last year of secondary school in Paris in the mid-1980s. Stella is suffering from the break-up of her parents’ marriage, with her father leaving her mother for a younger woman and, soon thereafter, a baby son. Her mother provides much of the film’s sardonic humour, for instance, kindly observing for her daughter that life is a pile of shit from which you have to eat a bit every day. Stella navigates three milieus throughout the film: this boisterous café that her mother will have to sell to cover debts, the school that strikes her as hopelessly boring, and then a famous nightclub, Les Bains Douche, to which a wealthier friend introduces her. The last, unsurprisingly, becomes the place in which Stella is most comfortable, which affords the film the opportunity to restage and revisit the famous venue that drew numerous celebrities at the time, especially actors and models (at one point, they spot Jack Nicholson, who does not appear, but Stella does meet a cameo-ing Cathy Guetta in the bathroom at one point). At Les Bains, Stella she falls in titular love with a regular, André, with whom she does not even know how to start a relationship. Although many of the struggles – with wealthier or smarter or more popular friends and a stuttering first love – are pretty familiar, the best thing about the film, actually, is the way it depicts Stella’s confused lack of confidence as she negotiates these worlds. She completely misreads André, for instance, a number of times, which the film, to its credits, does not make fodder for kooky mix-ups but rather part of low-key maturation. 

Like a number of the competition films this year, Stella in Love is satisfying without being overly ambitious, a notable contrast to the deliberately challenging aesthetics of many Locarno competitions past and of some films of this 75th edition, like Rule 34, I have Electric Dreams, Piaffe, Tommy Guns, and Fairy Tale. In a year – and pandemic/war era in general – of many open questions, that unevenness nonetheless tended to a gratifying balance.

Locarno Film Festival
3-13 August 2022

About The Author

Jaimey Fisher is professor of German and of Cinema & Digital Media at the University of California, Davis. Fisher has written four books: German Ways of War (about German war films), Treme, Christian Petzold, and Disciplining Germany: Youth, Reeducation, and Reconstruction after the Second World War. He has also edited and co-edited several books and special issues.

Related Posts