Karlovy Vary 2015: Norwegian newcomer Halfdan Ullmann Tøndel manages to break the mould with his debut short, Bird Hearts (Fuglehjerter).
Sex in film: got to be a winner, right? Wrong! Your average movie-sex (leaving aside the sex movie) is neither artistically interesting nor even especially sexy. ‘The beast with two backs’ is so difficult to film well that most directors are prudent enough to let well alone. Not so young Norwegian newcomer Halfdan Ullmann Tøndel (grandson of Ingmar Bergman) who apparently doesn’t know any better than to debut with a 25-minute short that’s pretty much all about sex. It turns out he knows exactly what he’s doing.
If you see one sex-film this summer, make it this one. If nothing else, it will all be over in half an hour, even allowing for a cigarette and a decent scrub-down. The film was featured at Future Frames – a great new international showcase for young filmmakers, here in the august surroundings of the old spa-town of Karlovy Vary, the venue of the Czech Republic’s A-list film festival. Ten European ‘directors to watch’ were selected, Tøndel among them.
His submission (also for examination!) provides a fascinating first look at an exciting new talent. Apparently he’s barely out of film-school; his teachers must be scratching their heads for, if Bird Hearts is anything to go by, he already commands his medium like an old hand.
It’s not often you see someone do everything they really shouldn’t and still come up smelling of roses. If you were to put together all the terrible sex scenes from the history of cinema you would be in for a marathon that could well send you off to asleep, perhaps never to be aroused again. Cloisters could use a compilation like this as preparation for a life of celibacy. I can practically hear one of Halfdan’s teachers: ‘Stay away from sex, son, it’s a poisoned chalice.’ If this conversation ever took place, we can be happy Halfdan took not a blithe bit of notice.
Sex stands central in Bird Hearts (if you’ll pardon the expression), without being either gratuitous or one of those empty, art-house vessels, grudgingly utilised for the purposes of plot development. Here ‘the nasty’ is rather a brilliantly visualised metaphor for all our anxieties and insecurities. The act that on one level can seem like the most vacuous of physical reflexes is nonetheless a paradox: it can also mean an awful lot – though not always in a good way.
It can be so many different things, of course: an act of love, an arena of competition, or a tender and, by turns, furious examination of self-worth. And yes – believe it or not – this fresh new director does manage to portray the sex-act in a way that means something, that is, to help him tell a damn good story. He avoids both pitfalls, to be gratuitous or just plain painful to watch.
The theme is the human fear of comparison – to fail to ‘measure up’ and hence to be found wanting and perhaps unlovable. It takes just 25 minutes for the problem posed to reach a kind of resolution: be content with who you are, and glad if you are loved – whatever your limitations. Wise ‘words’ indeed from such a young man! The film’s ‘resolution’ is masterful without degenerating into formula. It doesn’t abolish problems and contradictions, but provides a sense of wry and melancholy resignation with which most of us could probably identify.
Tøndel has the true eye of a filmmaker, allowing him to reach out beyond the confines of age-cohort, gender or special interest. Bird Hearts expresses the freshness and vigour of youth without surrendering the scope of its appeal. There is probably no-one, young or old, male or female, who hasn’t occasionally struggled with the feeling of being overlooked.
Hence there is a universal comic appeal to something like the birthday-party scene. Who cannot feel for the protagonist as he is practically coerced into showing the film he made, and then circumstances conspire with a sort of relentless inevitability to ensure that no-one pays it – or him – any attention whatsoever?
All in all, this is an accomplished and surprisingly mature piece of work from a brand new director. Halfdan Ullmann Tøndel has nonetheless managed to exhibit the exhilarating audacity of youth. We can only wait with interest and even a little trepidation to see what he does next.