Never heard of Karlovy Vary? Well, it’s in the Czech Republic and a spa town like few others. They drink the healing water all the time and wander the vast gardens before and after. It’s near Marienbad where Alain Resnais made his famously indecipherable classic Last Year at Marienbad.
But that’s not the only film connection. Every year at around this time, there’s an international Film Festival which comes neatly between Cannes in May and Venice in late August. It’s a huge event, attracting thousands, from old critical hacks to keen young students. And it is now in its 51st year. It is chiefly housed in the mammoth and transcendently ugly Thermal Hotel and complex which dominates the gardens like an evil spirit. They’ve tried to pull it down and build a better venue. But all attempts have failed, chiefly because they found the valuable spring waters underneath.
I remember travelling to KV many years ago when the festival was under heavy Russian influence, and got into trouble for casting aspersions on the Soviet films on display. Shortly after my report appeared in The Guardian, there was a knock on my hotel door and what I presumed to be a KGB heavy politely asked me to stop criticising Soviet films unfairly. He intimated that, if I complied, there was “some fun to be had” and that included some “lovely ladies” who would love to meet me. Perhaps foolishly I politely declined.
Nothing like that would happen now though most of the hotels are Russian owned the spa has a direct flight daily to and from Moscow. The festival, however, is now fully independent and has been for many years. It attracts American stars rather than Russian who this year included Willem Dafoe and Charlie Kaufman, director of Anomalisa, which I still regard as the best film of the year and certainly one of the finest animated features ever made.
One of the festival’s main problems in that coming between Cannes and Venice there is not much left for the competition section. But around it there is much to see and, if you want parties, there’s nothing quite like KV, particularly at time when most festivals are cutting such expensive events to a bare minimum.
Consider last night, for instance. First, there was a Slovakian do, then a Variety event, then an Italian dinner and finally a noisy Polish shindig. And that doesn’t count an industry event and a distributors dinner. If you can survive that lot, you’re a more avid delegate than I am. I gave up halfway and went to bed at midnight, ready for the 8.30 press show in the morning.
This was a beautifully acted Polish film called Waves, about two young hairdressers learning the trade from scratch and trying to cope with difficult family lives back home. As a portrait of teenage woes, the film, directed and written by Grzegorz Zariczny and taken from a short he made last year, is in competition and could easily get an acting prize for Anna Kesek, one of the two girls the film examines. She is extraordinary while not seeming to act at all.
One of the festival’s strengths lies in its documentary section which includes a remarkable film about five autistic children, one a burgeoning piano virtuoso, from the Czech director Miroslav Janek. The film poses the simple question: who is to determine what’s normal amidst the frequent absurdities of modern life? And talking about absurdities, I have lost count of the number of Brits, castigated for Brexit by disappointed and often angry Europeans, who have protested either than they are Scottish or have Scots blood in their veins.