KVIFF 2023: Russell Crowe Band invades the ‘East of the West’

P. Stuart Robinson (b. 1958), is an Associate Professor in Political Science at the University of Tromsø. He is a regular contributor on cultural events for Tromsø’s net publication, «Tromsø by».


KVIFF 2023: Never underestimate the proverbial margin; it’s where new things are born. Karlovy Vary International Film Festival’s (KVIFF) signature programme East of the West may be gone but the concept resonates more than ever. Even big stars can come from ‘the back end of beyond,’ like New-Zealand-born Russell Crowe. Was this a metaphorical homecoming?

The phrase ‘East of the West’ captures the idea that ensnared Ukraine, as it sought to cement its ties to Western Europe and, not least, distance itself from Russia. Ensnared is right. At worst, this was a kind of trap. At best it’s a long and dangerous road. An opportunistic Russian backlash followed. First came threats, then armed attacks and, finally, full-scale invasion. Just now the war looks a lot like a trap – or a ‘quagmire’ as the Vietnam war was once described. Even as I write from peaceful and peaceable Karlovy Vary, it continues to wreak its destruction along the Western borders of the ‘Eastern’ behemoth, with little prospect of a conclusion anytime soon. A Western orientation can meet with more intrinsic and banal pitfalls, however – even here – if Russell Crowe’s arrival is any guide.

All political – and military – hazards notwithstanding, the idea of a sort of Eastern frontier to Western civilisation has an enduring purchase on the popular imagination, not least right here in the very bosom of old Bohemia. Indeed, it continues to lend a unique point of view to this particular A-list film festival from its literally elevated vantage-point in the historical heartlands – and foothills – of Central Europe. Starting last year, the programme was nevertheless no more. I was frankly surprised and, as I frequented the usual festival haunts, I heard many a festival veteran lament its passing. The decision must have been taken before the February invasion. With hindsight, the timing seems unfortunate.

And here we go again, to the hills – and valleys – of old Carlsbad, more commonly known, at least since the Second World War, by its Czech name Karlovy Vary. Whatever the language, this has always been Charles’s baths, reputedly discovered and established by Charles IV himself, Holy Roman Emperor (and King of Bohemia), in 1349. The festival arrived a little later – in 1946. Vary is perhaps the perfect, mixed-up place for an emerging cinema of modern social contradictions. It’s a spa town with many faces. It was once the playground of the crowned heads of Europe.

Later, it was exploited as an ethnic-German pawn in Hitler’s pre-war geopolitik. Still later, strangely, it became home to that hyper-modernist concrete expression of socialist values in the very seat of old power: the Thermal Hotel, once described as ‘a potato in a jewellery box,’ now the beating heart of the festival. We should not decry that potato too readily. It is arguably a brutalist masterpiece. Indeed, we should remember Knut Hamsun’s eulogy to den vidunderlige potet (the marvellous potato). Potatoes are beautiful too, in their own way, and all that glitters is not gold.

Thermal is buzzing now at any rate. The festival is on and promises to be as paradoxically routine and unpredictable as ever. The streets are bustling, Russell Crowe is coming and so too, as tradition dictates, is a torrential downpour. The opening ceremony displayed its own customary contradictions, a celebration of art in suspiciously red-neck packaging. Still, the performance, a sort of mini-icecapades, was not as sexist as it could have been: all-female, all-beautiful performers, yes, but also all outstanding athletes. The centrepiece of the opening soon followed. It’s that, at best, mixed and always uncertain blessing, the invited big star to be honoured with a Crystal Globe for their ‘Outstanding Lifetime Contribution to World Cinema.’ Russell Crowe certainly rose to the challenge of his latest ‘role’ by mixing things up splendidly.

The speech was insulting in all respects, including form – shortform in this case. And though his ‘off the cuff’ musings were done and dusted in next to no time, still the content seemed just too much. He probably intended to break the ice with a little disarming honesty, but his unvarnished admissions were more like the ignition of a series of weaponised home truths. He began by confessing that, before being invited here, he had never actually heard of the festival.

Then came the opportunity to leaven this admission with something a little more positive. So, then we are informed that, compared to the many more important events he had graced with his presence, this was by far the best organised. Indeed, it ‘runs like clockwork!’ Behold the object (or abject?) lesson in how to damn with faint praise! A short eulogy to himself, his integrity, and the marvellous career he therefore continues to enjoy followed, with an even shorter aside about the marvellous potential of cinema per se. He concluded with his final admission, that the concert he and his band, Indoor Garden Party, would shortly be allowed to perform was ‘the real reason’ he was here.


Alicia Vikander in «Firebrand».

The speech of the supporting star, Alicia Vikander, the recipient of the President’s Award, was perhaps even less satisfying. She provided all the conventionality that Crowe conspicuously disdained and then some. Sadly, the film in which she stars this year, Karim Aïnouz’s Firebrand(2023), was equally conventional and even more tiresome. This is strange, because the title alone betokens the intention to shake things up, speak truth to power, etc. Nevertheless, tired, superficial period drama is not necessarily transformed by its determined revisionism. Indeed, the effort to rewrite history according to the filmmaker’s feminist agenda was the root and branch of its superficiality – and tired conventionality – to the point of repeated text-overs to emphasise and educate us on women’s achievements.

Fireband is the tale of Henry VIII’s last wife, Catherine Parr, who unusually managed to survive her king. It’s a worthy theme, perhaps even a little too worthy? Was its urgent importance what prompted the overly didactic, one-dimensional storytelling, to celebrate and exaggerate the historical achievements of this and any women who might be pressed into narrative service? The effect is strangely contradictory in feminist terms: to minimise the historical oppression and marginalisation of women.

This is exemplified by the film’s conclusion (spoiler alert!) when the obligatory explanatory text unrolls to tells us obliquely, knowingly, that soon a Queen would take the throne and provide 45 years of peace and stability, the kind that habitually eluded the despicable male rulers who preceded her. A new monarchical despot would take to the throne but (thank God!) female this time, capable of maintaining the kind of traditional order and privilege the English aristocracy deserved. Bravo!

«We Have Never Been Modern».

To be fair, expectations are never too high for the opening film and plenty of good material (mostly) is now flowing freely through festival venues. Matěj Chlupáček’s We Have Never Been Modern (2023), for example, a Czech period drama with a sophisticated story to tell, provides a welcome antidote to the toneless posturing of Firebrand. The film takes us to rural Czechoslovakia in 1937 to address the contradictions and tensions played out through a case of intersexuality and its suppression. The film distributors would do well to match the candour and sensitivity of the filmmakers, however, and not dress this up as a detective drama.

The promoters would have us believe that this was Central Europe’s answer to Agatha Christie, rather than a nuanced and affecting window into our collective social history. They seem, in a way, to follow the same playbook as the festival organisers. We may scratch our heads at the loss of sense and meaning but must invariably defer to the technicians of marketing none the less. Sadly, they are probably right within the narrow market-divining financial logic they are at such pains to follow. The festival may indeed need to widen its horizons to have any hope of taking its international profile to another level. By the same token, this film’s sensitive portrayal of intersexuality may indeed reach a wider audience if it’s smuggled into distribution undercover, in a more palatable and generic wrapping.

«The Hypnosis».

As the festival continues to unfold its cinematic tentacles, another paradox looms. There seems to be plenty of interest and enthusiasm here in the Czech Republic for Scandinavian and – not least – Norwegian films – yet their appearance here has been rare – perhaps increasingly so.

This year, however, a Norwegian-schooled young filmmaker Ernst de Geer is coming to town with Hypnosen (2023), his debut feature. Under hypnosis, one of the partners of a Norwegian start-up suffers an attack of honesty and self-expression as she prepares to deliver a commercial pitch for their new app. I’m looking forward to it with a mixture of hope and trepidation – so watch this space for more about that one!

Hypnosen promises, strangely enough, a satire of markets in all their ‘wisdom’ and the blinkered and dispiriting market thinking it spawns. Maybe Czechs and Scandinavians will share a laugh about this one – and even pause for thought…? I hope so! All disappointments and lost programmes notwithstanding, I cling to the belief that both the East – and North – of the West can still be counted among its most critical voices. For dark clouds are gathering over Karlovy Vary and we need those voices now more than ever.

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