What to Watch: Radical New Films About Eras Past

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Julieta, 2016, Film Still, Pedro Almodóvar

As Poland's 2016 New Horizons International Film Festival revealed, this year's most daring movie releases turn back the clock to achieve bold new feats in cinema

Where there’s cinema, there’s often also nostalgia. It’s an artform frequently haunted by the past – but this can manifest itself in startling new ways. The T-Mobile New Horizons International Film Festival in the Polish city of Wrocław has made a name for itself in the 16 years it’s been running as a European festival committed to screening daring, innovative work. So it’s only natural that in July’s most recent edition the films about memory and former eras were some of the freshest to be seen today. Here are our picks.

The Love Witch 
American indie filmmaker Anna Biller’s ample DIY talent is infused with adoration for old Hollywood glamour and the B-movies of the 1960s and 70s. For her elaborately decked-out homage spectacles, she designs the sets and costumes, writes music, directs and acts, all with a wicked humour and anything-goes energy that revivifies genre tropes with a buoyant feminist twist. Her latest, The Love Witch, is a delicious riot of sass. Elaine (Samantha Robinson) is a New-Agey spell-caster. She’s determined to net the ideal man, but the disappointing specimens that cross her path can’t survive the strength of her sensual powers. A Wrocław retrospective of Biller’s work included her 2001 short A Visit from the Incubus, a hybrid of the Gothic vampire tale and the Western, and her sexploitation-style 2007 debut feature Viva, the adventures in sex and drugs of a neglected housewife.

The Last Days of Louis XIV 
Albert Serra borrows from the Old World with renegade audacity and grim humour. The Catalan avant-garde maverick stunned a few years ago by blending the legends of Dracula and Casanova in baroque oddity Story of My Death, and now he’s returned with another ornate, high-costumed wonder. The Last Days of Louis XIV takes us back to 1715. The French king’s health is failing and he finds it hard to leave his bed. We’re shut up in his chamber as his staff tend his whims. It’s far from a sterile period drama, as Serra cares less about plot than textured, visceral atmosphere: we can almost smell the cosmetic paint, gangrene and absolute power.

For Julieta the past is a source of painful loss and secrets. She has tried to block it out, but a chance encounter on the street brings it flooding back in Pedro Almodóvar’s latest. This sends us into a long flashback to a passionate train-journey encounter and an ensuing relationship by the sea (not to mention 80s New Wave style channeled to perfection by a spiky-haired Adriana Ugarte as Julieta’s younger self). The Spanish auteur’s characteristic vibrant flair is stamped all over this mix of sad melodrama, popping colours and larger-than-life women, which is based on three short stories from Alice Munro’s 2004 book, Runaway.

Julieta is out in the UK on August 26, 2016. 

United States of Love 
Warsaw director Tomasz Wasilewski looks back on 90s Poland just after the fall of communism in his third feature United States of Love, drawing on his own early memories growing up in the close confines of a Soviet-style apartment block. The past he portrays is one of limited options and uncertainty but his vision is one of bold freshness, as he chooses to show this world through the eyes of four complex women in search of greater personal fulfilment. Intense emotion and desires clash with social circumstance as they grasp at a still shaky, new concept of freedom – at times with drastic, extreme consequences. Wasilewski enlisted renowned cinematographer Oleg Mutu to create the film’s distinctive, washed-out pastel tint – the anaemic look of a world straining for life. 

United States of Love is out in the UK on November 18, 2016. 

The Childhood of a Leader 
The aftermath of World War I is the historical backdrop of The Childhood of a Leader, indie actor Brady Corbet’s first foray into directing. A hugely ambitious and surprisingly strange adaptation of a Sartre story, it hooks us in with wicked humour and an over-the-top plot that plays out in the painterly gloom of a French country chateau. A future fascist dictator develops from unnervingly intense, malicious brat to full-fledged monster, terrorising his mother (Bérénice Bejo) and French tutor (Stacy Martin). Robert Pattinson pops up as a politico, but the most revelatory thing is Scott Walker’s ominous and inspired, thundering score.

The Childhood of a Leader is out in the UK on August 19, 2016. 

In the Last Days of the City 
Tamer El Said’s melancholy, minutely observed portrait of his home city won Wrocław’s main prize. Rich with subtle visual detail, it centres on Khaled, a filmmaker who is making a movie about the Cairo he has an obstinate and conflicted love for, even as it seems ready to checkmate him at every turn. As he struggles to find another apartment to rent and a former flame prepares to leave town, even the cityscape itself, often shown bathed in the fading light of sunset, seems rife with signals that he is no longer welcome. His artist friends in Baghdad and Beirut share their existential quandaries on whether or not to emigrate. It’s before Egypt’s 2011 revolution, and as unrest stirs in the streets against Mubarak’s regime, an atmosphere of endings is in the air.