Days of Heaven: Treasures of Cinema Under the Midnight Sun

CRITIC'S NOTEBOOK: The Finnish festival that never sleeps celebrated its 30th anniversary while paying tribute to its late artistic director, Peter von Bagh.

Midnight Sun Film Festival: Cinematic Treasures Unveiled in Finland
Courtesy of Santeri Happonen

If you happened to attend this year’s Midnight Sun Film Festival in northern Finland — one of those bucket-list destinations for the handful of globe-trotting movie lovers who’ve heard of it — you might have allowed yourself to be hypnotized by all five-and-a-half hours of “From What Is Before,” Lav Diaz’s black-and-white historical epic about the collapse of a barrio in his native Philippines. Then again, you might have opted for the more manageable endurance test of “L’il Quinquin,” Bruno Dumont’s 197-minute comic miniseries about murder in a small French village, or perhaps sampled one of three two-hour installments of Portuguese auteur Miguel Gomes’ “Arabian Nights,” a recent critical sensation at Cannes.

These are films that, if you give yourself over to their dense narratives and marathon running times, can dramatically alter how you experience the passage of time. As such, they made for ideal viewing at a festival that wreaks delightful havoc on your sense of not just where you are, but when you are. For the record, it is mid-June, and you are in Sodankyla, a tiny village in the Finnish province of Lapland, some 100 miles north of the Arctic Circle — a time and place where the sun never sets, and the lucky moviegoer rarely sleeps. This year, on the occasion of the festival’s 30th anniversary, some 30,000 attendees descended on this town of fewer than 9,000 residents, lining up for around-the-clock screenings of silent gems and contemporary Finnish films, recent festival triumphs and Hollywood classics.

It’s normal under these sun-drenched circumstances to feel a bit wobbly on your feet, and not just because you’ve been sampling the local tipple. I had my own firsthand experience of Midnight Sun euphoria (and Finnish generosity) at a 1 a.m. screening of “The Last Days of Disco,” during which a friendly local plopped down in the seat next to me and offered me a sip of whiskey. (I declined, at least on that occasion.) We staggered out of the theater at 3 a.m., around the same time the lost New York nightclub scene so intoxicatingly depicted in Whit Stillman’s 1998 touchstone would have just been starting to wake up. Of course, 3 a.m. in midsummer Lapland doesn’t look all that different from 3 p.m., and as I proceeded to walk down the town’s quiet, shop-lined main street, I couldn’t help but feel a faint twinge of identification with Stellan Skarsgard’s paranoid, sleep-deprived detective from the 1997 Norwegian thriller “Insomnia” (played by Al Pacino in Christopher Nolan’s 2002 Hollywood remake).

In this case, my extreme guilt stemmed not from having accidentally shot my colleague to death, but rather from having missed the festival’s 70mm screenings of “Vertigo” and “2001: A Space Odyssey” — just as I would later reluctantly pass on a much rarer presentation of Frank Borzage’s 1929 silent melodrama “Lucky Star,” starring Janet Gaynor, and accompanied on the piano by the great Italian musician Antonio Coppola. As it happens, Sodankyla offers no shortage of tempting, non-film-related activities for the international guest, which partly explains how I managed to find myself grocery shopping one afternoon with the director Mike Leigh, both of us keen on smuggling home some reindeer jerky and other local delicacies. And I confess that no film I saw proved quite as invigorating as the icy plunge I took one sunlit evening into the waters of the river Sattanen, after spending just a few minutes in a scalding-hot sauna that left even the non-natives among us feeling sweaty, blissfully relaxed — and Finnish to the core.

The big-ticket events at Midnight Sun are typically shown inside the festival’s largest venue, an enormous red-and-blue circus tent where most of the audience is packed into wooden bleachers. This is where hundreds of festival-goers raised their arms to the rafters for a karaoke screening of “Purple Rain,” complete with violet-tinted mood lighting. It’s also where the festival held its centerpiece screening of Jacques Feyder’s marvelous silent opus “The New Gentlemen,” presented with an exquisite score (performed by Finland’s Avanti! chamber orchestra, under Coppola’s baton) that wittily captured the story’s graceful flurries of romantic comedy and political satire. (The audience, meanwhile, supplied its own accompaniment with a regular refrain of clinking beer bottles.) Adapted from a popular play by Robert de Flers and Francis de Croisset, the film follows a young Parisian ballerina (played by Gaby Morlay) who falls in love with a young left-wing activist (Albert Prejean), to the chagrin of her elderly and aristocratic paramour (Henry Roussell), who conspires with French Parliament to ensure a political and romantic victory.

“The New Gentlemen” provoked a modest scandal in 1928 when it was briefly refused distribution in France, having rather too accurately assessed the laziness and corruption of the political scene at the time. Seen today, Feyder’s film remains a work of supreme intelligence, from its downbeat ending to its unusually sophisticated visual grammar. Employing a subtly dreamlike approach to framing and editing, with relatively few intertitles, the picture ably foreshadowed its director’s ascension to the front ranks of French poetic realist filmmaking in the 1930s (it’s worth noting that one of the assistant cameramen on “The New Gentlemen” was none other than a young Marcel Carne), though that would not come about until after Feyder spent a few frustrating years spent toiling in Hollywood.

Another discovery, for me, was the work of Nils Malmros, a Danish filmmaker celebrated for his astute, often autobiographical explorations of childhood and adolescence. The best-known of these remains “Tree of Knowledge” (1981), a deeply enveloping memory piece set and shot over two years in the lives of a group of children as they go to school, play games, learn to dance, form and dissolve friendships, discover each other’s bodies, and slowly, inevitably change. A remarkable paean to lost innocence, the film has a diffuse, vignette-like narrative structure that nevertheless remains vivid and focused from start to finish; rarely if ever have I seen the emotional and sexual confusion of puberty captured with such piercing clarity.

Just two days after watching “Tree of Knowledge,” it was a bit surreal to see the making of the film (and its subsequent premiere at the 1982 Cannes Film Festival) re-created in Malmros’ 2013 drama “Sorrow and Joy,” a troubling look at, among other things, the possibilities and limitations of confessional cinema. An account of unimaginable horror and similarly unimaginable forgiveness, the film revisits a tragedy from the director’s own past — the killing of his infant daughter by his wife during a psychotic episode — in a manner that feels at once raw and calculated, ruthlessly honest and strangely unpersuasive. Treating this anguished material with a calm that presumably reflects the wisdom of time and distance, Malmros clearly wants to get us beyond shock and outrage, and there’s courage in his conviction that this is his story to tell, in whichever manner he chooses. The couple’s own offscreen journey (both were in attendance at the festival) remains an astonishing testament of grace, which can’t entirely be said of the difficult and irreconcilable film it inspired.

Malmos was one of a handful of guest directors in Sodankyla — among them Christian Petzold, Malgorzata Szumowska, Leigh, Stillman and Gomes — who were honored with partial career retrospectives, along with lengthy Q&A discussions of their work and influences. (The list of past guest directors includes such world-cinema luminaries as Olivier Assayas, Francis Ford Coppola, the Dardenne brothers, Jacques Demy, Claire Denis, Stanley Donen, Abbas Kiarostami, Irvin Kershner, Paul Schrader and Agnes Varda.) Always among the festival’s defining moments, these panel talks afforded us the wondrous sight of Leigh seated before a packed house, describing the primary impulse in his wide-ranging choice of film subjects (“Everything is interesting. Everybody’s life is ordinary and extraordinary”), or Stillman drolly commenting on the challenges of writing and directing such a consistent, interconnected body of work (“If they hate one, they hate them all”).

The casual, free-flowing intimacy fostered here among filmmakers, journalists and other attendees is just one of the ways in which this event at times suggests a Finnish response to the Telluride Film Festival, a comparison further borne out by the relatively short duration, the remote, wooded setting, and the absence of anything even resembling swag or a red carpet. Yet Telluride, with its coveted awards-season titles and its prohibitively expensive badges, remains a much clubbier, more exclusive and industry-linked affair. At Midnight Sun, by contrast, a screening ticket costs €8, and the audience consists primarily of Finns who make the trek up from Helsinki and elsewhere to camp out, get drunk and watch movies. The very existence (and endurance) of an international film festival in such improbable environs suggests the punchline to some wry and quintessentially Finnish joke — one very much in keeping with the deadpan sensibility of local auteur Aki Kaurismaki, who, like his brother Mika and their countryman helmer Anssi Manttari, is one of the festival’s founding fathers.

If anything cast a long shadow in Sodankyla’s ever-present daylight, it was the fact that 2015 marked the festival’s first year without its longtime artistic director, the author-filmmaker-historian Peter von Bagh, who died in September at the age of 71 — an incalculable loss that sadly coincided with the event’s 30th-anniversary milestone. And yet von Bagh, whose rich film scholarship and passion for movie preservation served as a guiding light for the Midnight Sun program, was unmistakably present. His bespectacled face could be seen beaming gently down at audiences from screens and posters everywhere, and the festival paid tribute by screening several of the 60 or so films he directed — a remarkable body of work that has indelibly shaped the world’s understanding of Finnish life and culture, and that continually reasserts the simple, treasurable beauty of a black-and-white image flickering on a giant screen.

“The real experience of cinema is more fragile than ever,” von Bagh wrote in the introduction to his 2010 book “Sodankyla Forever. “Film has become a commodity in a way that seems irreversible.” We may not be able to turn back the clock, but for five bright days in the land of the Midnight Sun, it was possible to believe that time and cinematic entropy had, at least for the moment, stopped in their tracks.