Female trouble

There's nothing soft at the Women in Cinema Festival.

EYES FASTENED on their TV screen, a woman and her two daughters exchange un-pleasantries in a scene from the Austrian film Northern Skirts. The three watch, expressionless, as an airbrushed Cinderella rides into the sunset behind her prince. This schmaltzy televised fairy tale contrasts absurdly with the damaged lives on the couch. The mother is enduring a miserable marriage; the eldest daughter is pregnant by one of several men; and the younger one is being sexually abused by their father. Yet director Barbara Albert doesn't hit viewers over the head with this gaping divide between reality and mass-media fantasy. It's just another night in front of the TV.

WOMEN IN CINEMA FESTIVAL

runs November 12-18 at Egyptian

Such subtlety typifies the works in this year's Women In Cinema Festival. This is no moviemaking Lilith Fair, hitting one anguished note over and over again. These films brim with female characters who (mis)behave like real people and offer no apologies. In fact, the theme of the festival's panel discussion is "No Apologies".

The two heroines of Albert's feature, one of the best on the schedule, remain compelling even when they're impulsive and imperfect. In her film Freak Weather, Mary Kuryla even manages to make us care about a woman who's not only selfish, but downright cruel. Penny spends the movie getting kicked out of places—her abusive boyfriend's house, the trailer of a guy who offers her some pot, her own beat-up truck—but it's impossible to feel sorry for her. Dragging along her serious, bespectacled young son, she's the impetuous human equivalent of the summer cold snap that occurs halfway through the film.

Kuryla takes a notably unsentimental view of parenting, while other WIC films cast unclouded eyes on pregnancy and childbirth. Earthy humor and hard truth mark Larrisa Sadilova's Happy Birthday, a chronicle of several patients in a Russian maternity hospital. Shot in scratchy black and white, this fictional depiction of girl talk's ground zero has the look of recently unearthed newsreel footage.

A REAL-LIFE CONTRADICTION, Gypsy singer Vera Bila is the subject of Mira Erdevicki-Charap's documentary Black and White In Color. The Czech director follows Bila through photo shoots, tours, and rehearsals, a lifestyle at odds with her workaday home life. An enormous woman with a moon face and two threads of eyebrow, she sings with exquisite emotiveness. Offstage, she's a diva of Diana Ross-like proportions.

The WIC films' protagonists aren't always perfect, and they aren't always female either. The dreamlike memories of an Irishman on his deathbed shape the elliptical, absorbing effort I Could Read the Sky. Less a narrative than a poetic m鬡nge of images, Nichola Bruce's film compares the experience of Irish 魩gr鳠in England to "trying to talk to somebody out of a deep black hole."

Less engaging—at least initially—is the dope fiend who narrates Jesus' Son, an adaptation of the Denis Johnson novel. Yet another gaunt, sniffling romp through junkie love in the '70s (Drugstore Cowboy, anyone?), Alison Maclean's film takes a turn for the interesting when it explores life after rehab. Still, the inarticulate screw-up (nickname: "Fuckhead") on screen never quite matches up to the wry, reflective guy we hear in the voice-over.

SANWICHING THESE SLICES of 20th-century reality are two adaptations of literary classics. Patricia Rozema takes a crack at Jane Austen in the festival opener, Mansfield Park. Notable mainly for finding inspiration in Austen's least sympathetic heroine, Rozema's film at least fares better than the closer, Martha Fiennes' Onegin, making its US premiere. The lack of chemistry between Liv Tyler and Martha's brother Ralph turns Pushkin's tragedy into a series of costume changes punctuated by the reading of two feverish love letters.

The film does have one great moment, when Tatyana (Tyler), hidden amid tall grass, spies her beloved Onegin (Fiennes) lazing on the dock of a lake. The camera lingers on his body, creeping from his toes to the top of his head as if we were watching Baywatch in some parallel universe. Even if it doesn't do justice to its source, Onegin's definitely not just another night in front of the TV.

 
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