Austrian filmmaker Barbara Albert's feature debut follows five young people from different backgrounds whose lives intersect in the bleak industrial outskirts of working-class north Vienna. Set in 1995 against the backdrop of the Bosnian conflict in a city that serves as Central Europe's crossroads between east and west, "Northern Skirts" remains too fragmented in its presentation of characters and plot to bring its themes of family and emotional connection fully into focus. Still, the melancholy drama remains interesting thanks to two strong central performances that should help it secure festival and TV slots.

Austrian filmmaker Barbara Albert’s feature debut follows five young people from different backgrounds whose lives intersect in the bleak industrial outskirts of working-class north Vienna. Set in 1995 against the backdrop of the Bosnian conflict in a city that serves as Central Europe’s crossroads between east and west, “Northern Skirts” remains too fragmented in its presentation of characters and plot to bring its themes of family and emotional connection fully into focus. Still, the melancholy drama remains interesting thanks to two strong central performances that should help it secure festival and TV slots.

Albert carved a reputation as a director to watch with her short films and with the impressive half-hour opening episode of the three-part feature “Slidin’ — Bright and Shiny World,” which showcased a trio of Austrian tyro helmers. That film centered on female friendship, exploring the bored alienation and aimlessness of two teenage girls.

While it purports to take in a larger group, the director’s first solo feature also concentrates mainly on two women friends, this time in their 20s, who share an unfulfilled need for love.

Plump Austrian pastry-shop waitress Jasmin (Nina Proll) spends her free time liberally dispensing sexual favors as a momentary distraction from her unhappy home life and abusive father. Serbian Tamara (Edita Malovcic) works as a nurse and suffers from the isolation of being separated from her family in Sarajevo. The former childhood classmates renew their friendship when both become pregnant and their paths cross in an abortion clinic.

Largely a two-hander, the drama functions best when it keeps a tight focus on the two contrasting young women — soulful, serious Tamara and irresponsible good-time girl Jasmin — as they attempt to provide each other with closeness and support.

The men that drift into their lives are Tamara’s Austrian boyfriend Roman (Michael Tanczos), whose absence for military service and desire to keep their child places a strain on the relationship; Romanian Valentin (Tudor Chirila), who dreams of a new life in America and provides romantic distraction for Tamara; and Bosnian refugee Senad (Astrit Alihajdaraj), who saves Jasmin’s life when she is dumped in the snow following a drunken bender, sparking a hesitant affair.

But while the mix of social and ethnic backgrounds and evidence of the repercussions of war and political upheaval all add texture to the somber drama, coverage of the male characters remains secondary and unsatisfying.

Structured very loosely, as a stream of short, detached glimpses into the lives of young adults all struggling to establish bonds and fit into a harsh environment, film’s style slows development of the narrative and creates a distance that lessens the immediacy of its characters’ problems. But Albert displays a keen visual sense, and despite the familiarity of its themes from any number of recent Euro productions, the drama has its share of acute, sensitive observations.

In her first acting role, Malovcic is intensely expressive in a quiet, unshowy manner, while Proll’s tough, touchingly awkward characterization earned her the Venice fest’s Marcello Mastroianni award for best young emerging thesp.

Northern Skirts

(DRAMA -- AUSTRIAN-GERMAN-SWISS)

Production

A Polyfilm release (in Austria) of a Lotus Film (Vienna)/Zero Film (Berlin)/Fama Film (Bern) production in association with ZDF/Arte, ORF, SRG/SF DRS. (International sales: First Hand Films, Zurich.) Produced by Erich Lackner. Co-producers, Martin Hagermann Rolf Schmid. Directed, written by Barbara Albert.

Crew

Camera (color), Christine A. Maier; editor, Monika Willi; art director, Katharina Woppermann; costume designer, Alfred Mayerhofer; sound (Dolby Digital), Andreas Kopriva, Bernhard Weirather; casting, Eva Roth, Klaus Pridnig. Reviewed at Venice Film Festival (competing), Sept. 2, 1999. (Also in Toronto Film Festival.) Running time: 109 MIN.

With

Jasmin ..... Nina Proll Tamara ..... Edita Malovcic Roman ..... Michael Tanczos Valentin ..... Tudor Chirila Senad ..... Astrit Alihajdaraj
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