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Women destroy the joint in diverse BBFF dramas

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Digby Hildreth

Ukraine has been in the headlines more than usual lately, in a situation that would challenge even the satirical skills of its comic actor-turned-president Volodymyr Zeleniskiy, in dialogue with some other real-life clown.

But there’s nothing funny about the ugly war that has been simmering in the east of the country since the height of the violence in 2014–15, and which provides the backdrop for a surprisingly gentle romance – Julia Blue – screening at this year’s festival.

Polina Snisarenko and Dmytro Iaroshenko in Julia Blue

Julia Blue is set in Kiev and the countryside in the foothills of the Carpathians, far from the fighting, but the characters – primarily ‘English’, a brooding soldier back from the front-line, and Julia, a talented and exuberant photo-journalism student, are not unmarked by it. He, with an injured hand and more serious psychic scars.

The pair fall in love and exchange memories – but he has seen things he can’t talk about, and while this is primarily a story of a woman carving her own path, it’s also a depiction of the damage war inflicts, even upon the survivors.

Julia Blue was made by Roxy Toporowych, who will be coming to Byron for its Australian premiere at the festival.

The theme of women choosing their own destinies runs through several dramas at BBFF2019; films that have been collecting a slew of nominations and awards at festivals around the world.

Julia Blue won the Best Director Award at the Sonoma International Film Festival last year, Best Director World Cinema at the Woodstock Film Festival 2018 (Special Jury Mention) and Best Film at the Anchorage International Film Festival 2018.

And a drama focussing on a Parisian woman’s struggle for autonomy, Alice, made by Josephine Mackerras, won the Queensland-born director both the Cherry Picks Female First Feature Award and Grand Jury Award (Narrative Feature) at SXSW.

Like Julia Blue, Alice is both subtle and powerful in its story of unfolding womanhood and self-realisation. It is striking for its cool-eyed presentation of ethically-fraught questions, effortless French style and enthralling performance by Emilie Piponnier.

When her husband splurges all their money on costly escorts, Alice is forced to find some money quickly to save her home. While investigating her husband’s misdemeanours, she discovers a way out.

The film handles her new role with empathy and a lack of sensationalism; focussing on the independence it gives her, while Piponnier’s oscillation between vulnerability and strength makes Alice profoundly real and recognisable. 

Similar themes are explored in the beautifully shot Portrait of a Lady on Fire – but in 18th century Brittany. Director Céline Sciamma picked up five awards including; Best Screenplay, Queer Palm and ICS Palme d’Or at Cannes, and People’s Choice Award for Best Narrative at Melbourne IFF, as well as six other nominations.

Marianne is an artist commissioned to paint the wedding portrait of Héloïse, a reluctant bride-to-be, and a reluctant subject. The painting must be done in secret, from memory. The long gazes this requires from Marianne are reciprocated, and lead to something unexpected – and forbidden. 

It’s a simple narrative, but filled with tension, tenderness and restrained erotic rapture. ‘As intricately layered, coded and gilded with symbolism as an Old Master,’ gushed The Hollywood Reporter, ‘made by a filmmaker who is herself on fire.’

Mia Wasikowska in Judy and Punch

The heroine of Judy and Punch also defies social conventions. Its Australian writer and director Mirrah Foulkes describes her film as an ‘absurd dark comedy, an epic female-driven vengeance story, speaking volumes through its feminine inversion of the traditional hero’s journey’. It is also, she adds, ‘bat-shit crazy and fun’. 

It’s set in the 17th century, in the land-locked town of Seaside, plagued by superstition and misogyny, witch-hunts and stonings. Judy and Punch’s puppet theatre is the one vestige of civilisation, but Punch (Damon Herriman – Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Lambs of God etc etc) has become a drunk; leaving a long-suffering Judy to carry the show (a magnificent Mia Wasikowska – Tim Burton’s Alice). A disastrous bender of Punch’s gives her the chance to have her revenge, on him and all who have wronged her.

Foulkes’s film has been nominated for awards from Munich to Sundance where it premiered, and was a contender for Best Film at Sydney FF.

A scene from Litigante

Litigante’s Silvia is also a woman under pressure – a caregiver for her cancer-stricken mum, single mother, and hard-working lawyer. Her mother is quarrelsome, there’s a corruption scandal at the office, and a new relationship beckons. 

It’s the way life happens sometimes, and the film, with director Granco Lolli’s own mother and cousin in the lead roles, has a disquieting authenticity to it, as Silvia struggles to stay afloat, with integrity and grace. Litigante opened Critics Week at Cannes and paints an empathetic portrait of overburdened modern motherhood that will resonate with many in the audience.

Lupita Nyong’o and friends in Little Monsters

From the dramatic sublime to the absurd – Little Monsters – a hilariously over-the-top zombie comedy featuring a feisty kindergarten teacher, a slacker getting over a relationship break-up (Alexander England), a kid-hating children’s entertainer (a wildly camp Josh Gad), and a field trip to a cuddly petting zoo, which happens to be beside a military base which has accidentally bred hordes of flesh-eating monsters; who have escaped.

Thank heavens for the otherwise gentle and fragrant Miss Caroline (a delightful Lupita Nyong’o – several Star Wars, 12 Years a Slave), the only one capable of rolling up her sleeves and tackling the threat, while protecting her five-year-old charges from the nasty action.

While Little Monsters may lack some of the socio-political gravitas of the other female-centric dramas (look, it’s a zombie comedy) it’s still a very welcome celebration of girl power.

BBFF’s Flexi-Passes of 6, 10 or 20 tickets at discounted prices make it easy to ensure you see all of these great films, or to share them with friends and come as a group. 

Byron Bay Film Festival runs from October 18–27. For program and ticket details, visit www.bbff.com.au.

CORRECTION: On the BBFF page published in The Echo 25 September the photo captioned ‘A scene from A Different Gallery’ was attributed incorrectly. The photo was taken by Lyn McCarthy.

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