The 12th annual edition of the Jeonju festival’s successful Digital Project has united three of Europe’s most consistently fascinating and independent filmmakers — Jean-Marie Straub, Claire Denis and Jose Luis Guerin — for an inevitably disparate and uneven program of commissioned short works. While Denis’ “To the Devil” is a lightweight though handsomely shot doodle that runs far too long, Straub and Guerin explore superb variations on their ongoing thematic and stylistic concerns. If past editions are any indicator, this one will widely travel to dozens of progressive fests.
Straub’s “An Heir” returns the filmmaker to his interest in the iconoclastic French author Maurice Barres (adapting from the tome “Au service de l’Allemagne”), whose work he and his late filmmaking partner Danielle Huillet first adapted in 1994 with “Lorraine!” Filming in a beautiful forest glen in France’s Alsace-Lorraine province, Straub makes a rare onscreen appearance (using his occasional pseudonym Jubarite Semaran in the opening credits) as a witness to the sometimes hair-raising accounts of a small-town physician (Joseph Rottner) as the two walk through a forest to a country cafe. This section has a different feel and form to it than most of the filmmaker’s recent work, centered on actors performing/reciting texts in rigorously framed exteriors.
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In the second short, “Memories of a Morning,” Guerin bounces back from his misjudged doc feature, “Guest,” with a magnificent contemplation of death and community. Sometime after the director moved to a flat in Barcelona’s Eixample neighborhood, a violinist named Manel jumped to his death from a window in a nearby building. Considering it a galvanizing event that brought together neighbors who seldom spoke to each other, Guerin visits several of them to glean their eyewitness accounts and reflections.
Strongly recalling his masterpiece “In Construction” (also filmed in Barcelona), “Memories of a Morning” manages to unify into an elegant whole the power of music, life’s transitory nature and big-city existence, among other elements. The director — who is his own superb cinematographer — continues to be a master of discovering great moments within small settings.
Denis’ “To the Devil” marks her latest foray into an African-influenced part of the world, in this case, the borderland of French Guyana and Surinam where the Lawa River flows. Researching an upcoming feature about a gold miner, Denis and her actor Jean-Christophe Folly venture upriver to meet the man and find out what makes him tick. What they find proves not terribly interesting, and may best be used as research material for Denis and Folly.
The Digital Project, which shifts from one continent or hemisphere to another, reps Europe this year, after last year’s Western hemisphere focus with films by Denis Cote, James Benning and Matias Piniero. Straub’s film screened in an alternate version in Jeonju, at an identical running time.
The ordering of the short films is particularly smart, with Guerin’s contribution placed last for maximum effect. If past practice proves true, the project can be expected to next appear at the Locarno festival in August.