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October 24, 2004

Aaltra is breezy, Adam and Eve sleazy at Chicago International Film Festival

As the oldest international film competition in North America, the Chicago International Film Festival (CIFF) has kept a tradition of fulfilling two goals: to present new filmmakers and to recognize their artistry and innovation. Tucked in between special screenings of upcoming films (this year it was The Polar Express and Finding Neverland) and critics' picks are the hidden gems of independent filmmaking. Since we never know if we've stumbled across one, the point is to search.

An audience favorite at the Rotterdam Film Festival, Aaltra is a Belgian-French road comedy centering around two neighbors whose feud leaves them both wheelchair-bound. Gus is an easily agitated white-collar commuter who is completely absorbed in modern culture. His neighbor Ben is a gruff, slovenly agricultural worker regularly caught napping in the cab of his tractor.

It is impossible to determine why they hate each other, but their daily bickering has become a routine, and the two seem resigned to mutual loathing. One day, Gus reaches his breaking point. He picks a scuffle with Ben, and their legs are crushed by a malfunctioning tractor.

At first, both men are indignant at their sudden expendability, but eventually they reach an uneasy truce and head to Finland to lodge a complaint with Aaltra, the company that manufactured Ben's tractor.

The resulting journey isn't filled with inner discoveries and self-actualization; if anything, their characters actually become more complacent and thoughtless. Instead of realizing their mortality and treating their lives with care, they end up hitchhiking their way through Europe.

At the Namur Grand Prix (Gus is a motorcycle enthusiast), we encounter an obnoxious fan who taunts them for their disability. However, this movie is so morally unconcerned that we wonder if the two invalids actually deserve this treatment. Ben wrestles food from a child, Gus takes an expensive automatic motorcycle out for a joyride, and both of them regularly torment their hosts. These men are thoroughly undeserving of our pity.

Because they are such irredeemable men, the odd moments of emotional resonance jut out awkwardly. Early in the movie, we come across a nighttime scene, featuring separate shots of the two men turned away from each other in their beds, both sobbing silently for the mobility they never appreciated before. Perhaps if the film took a more sentimental approach to their situation, that scene would not feel so tacked-on. There are also several scenes involving Gus's malcontent, cheating wife, who is unnecessary to the plot except as an additional source of frustration.

Despite this snag, the film succeeds because of its deliberately objectionable sense of humor and because the directors (Benoît Delépine and Gustave Kervern, also the co-stars) have a genuine eye for artistry.

The cinematography has a surreal touch with long, photographic shots of the characters in bizarre situations. At one point, some disgruntled benefactors leave the two men passed out on a beach. During their slumber, the tide rises, and when they wake up they find their wheelchairs submerged in water.

The use of sound is worth mentioning as well. The dialogue is sparse and often what needs to be said is expressed through the use of background noise—the sound of wheelchairs rolling over cobblestones, for example, or the existential crashing of waves as the two men slumber.

The conclusion, however, is of no consequence. At some point, the film becomes less about revenge and reparation and more about, well, the two men and their wheelchairs. They're having too much fun to care about the endpoint of the journey, and when they finally arrive in Helsinki and the great irony of their fate does strike, they shrug and embrace it.

The exact opposite of Aaltra in mood and tone, the film Adam and Eve (Still) is a pessimistic view of the biblical pair, set in the slums of modern-day Mexico City and Buenos Aires.

Suppose that when Adam and Eve were banished from the Garden of Eden, they had tasted the fruit of the Tree of Life before leaving. Director Ivan Avila Duenas postulates that the immortal pair have become so completely desensitized to the pitfalls of human nature that they have no qualms about sexual deviancy (they see it as the everlasting search for something new, something they haven't experienced yet) or moral detachment.

Adam spends his days sprawled in bed like an angel or a murdered man, and goes clubbing at night, an activity that usually finds him tumbling into a hotel room with two strangers. Eve adopts the role of a prostitute, submitting to the will of horny businessmen with strange fetishes. No matter what paces she is put through, her expression never changes from a vague dispassion.

The first half of the film repeats more of the same. Each day Adam and Eve try more exotic foods, and each night they seek more exotic pleasures, but death is the only experience they have never been given (although they certainly try). The second half starts out with Adam leaving for Buenos Aires in the company of a wealthy woman, and Eve staying behind in Mexico City to try her hand at normalcy one last time.

The problem with this film isn't that it is offensive or gratuitous (it's both, but that is forgivable) but that it drags. Lazy panoramic shots and delayed panning are the director's preferred techniques, used to represent lethargy and the abandonment of time. Adam and Eve are bored. They are bored with each other, bored with sex, bored with modernity, bored with eternal life, even bored with their hair and their clothes. They are bored of everything and, in return, their boredom bores us.

The characters are so detached from themselves and the world around them that it is impossible for the audience to be emotionally invested. We would feel more sympathy for Eve if she would show some emotion while a client draws blood from her shoulder. When he drops her off afterward, bloody and near-naked, she refuses his payment, saying instead, "Clean me up, please." He doesn't give a damn about Eve, obviously, but then again neither does she.

It's these random fits of self-consciousness—sudden displays of decency—that make the film slightly less grueling. When we first see Adam's sex partners make their way into the hotel room, we are offered several voyeuristic moments before one of the participants disengages from the tangle of limbs and closes the door modestly.

This film would have worked better as a photographic exhibition or a short performance piece. Instead, it paints a world so disaffected and so unconcerned about morality that it has become numb and unintelligible. What thoughts run through Adam's and Eve's minds? What do they think about during those long silent stretches when Adam is spread-eagle on the bed and Eve is letting her cigarette die on her lips?

Despite the paint-peeling pace of the film, it introduces brave concepts, and it does have redeeming qualities. However, as a feature film, it babbles without really reaching a conclusion.

Both of these films are up for an award in the Best New Directors category, but they appeal to drastically different audiences. Aaltra is the more marketable of the two, drawing upon unconventional screwball humor, while Adam and Eve (Still) was made for darker tastes. Such is the way of the Chicago International Film Festival, offering a consistent output of quality and variety representing the global filmmaking community.