November 28, 2019 at 11:52 am EST | by Brian T. Carney
AFI Euro Showcase 2019 bursting with queer content
AFI European Union Film Showcase, gay news, Washington Blade
Adèle Haenel and Noémie Merlant in ‘Portrait of a Lady on Fire.’ (Photo courtesy NEON)

The AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center in downtown Silver Spring has a spectacular holiday present for LGBT fans of international cinema: the 32nd annual AFI European Union Film Showcase.

According to Abbie Algar, AFI’s associate film programmer and PR manager, this year’s Showcase includes, “46 films representing all 28 EU member states, including award winners, regional box-office hits, debut works by up-and-coming talents and new works by leading auteurs, plus 10 U.S. and North American premieres and 11 of the top contenders for this year’s Academy Award for Best International Feature Film.”

The festival runs Dec. 4-22; information on screenings and passes can be found here.

As usual, the festival features outstanding queer films. Written and directed by acclaimed French lesbian filmmaker Céline Sciamma (“Girlhood” and “Tomboy”), “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” is a brooding historical romance set on the rugged isolated coast of 18th century Brittany. An Italian Comtesse (a delightful Valerie Golino) hires budding painter Marianne (Noémie Merlant) to paint the wedding portrait of her daughter Héloïse (Adéle Haenel). But, there’s a catch. Héloïse refuses to have her portrait painted, so Marianne must sketch the bride-to-be in secret at night from memory.

Sciamma’s sumptuous and passionate examination of love and art won the Queer Palm and the Best Screenplay award at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. The minimalist script is taut and elegant, the acting is superb and the wind-swept cinematography is simply splendid.

Another queer highlight of the festival is “And Then We Danced.” Written and directed by Levan Akin, the Swedish-Georgian coming-of-age drama has been selected as the Swedish entry for the Best International Feature Film at the Academy Awards. 

Descended from a long line of traditional Georgian dancers, Merab (a dazzling performance by Levan Gelbakhiani) and his partner Mary (Ana Javakishvili) are the star students at Georgia’s conservative national dance academy. Merab’s position as the lead male dancer is challenged by the arrival of talented newcomer Irakli (Bachi Valishvili). Things become even more complicated for Merab and his family when their feelings of rivalry between the two turn into feelings of mutual attraction.

Akin offers a compelling portrait of life in contemporary Georgia, including the emergent LGBT community. The acting is solid, including great supporting performances from Giorgi Tsereteli as Merab’s neer-do-well brother and Kakha Gogidze as his strict instructor at the academy. The choreography is stunning, especially in Merab’s explosive final solo, a passionate challenge to the rigid gender roles that shape traditional Georgian dance.

The film has generated controversy in Georgia; citing the movie’s depiction of a gay romance, the Ministry of Culture refused to fund the company’s trip to the Cannes Film Festival. In addition, the choreographer chose to remain anonymous and is not credited in the film.

LGBT themes also emerge in the Austrian thriller “The Ground Beneath My Feet,” the Portuguese film “Variações — Guardian Angel,” a biopic of a flamboyant pop music icon, and “Maria’s Paradise,” a Finnish movie based on a real-life scandal.

Queer content is also front and center in the Belgian comedy “Patrick” which is the closing night selection for the Showcase. Patrick (Kevin Janssens) is the handyman and carpenter at his family’s nudist camp. When he loses his beloved hammer, his search for the missing tool unearths the camp’s dirty little secrets and reveals a family history he never imagined. 

The film is the feature debut of Tim Mielants (who has directed episodes of “Legion” and “Peaky Blinders”); the supporting cast includes New Zealand comedy icon Jemaine Clement (“Flight of the Conchords” and “What We Do in the Shadows”).

The opening night selection is the whip-smart political drama “Alice and the Mayor.” Directed by Nicolas Pariser, the film stars Fabrice Luchini as the bureaucratic mayor of Lyon and Anaïs Demoustier as a new hire who challenges the status quo.

Fans of zombie films can enjoy two enthralling movies that use the figures of the undead to explore recent history. In the silent Austrian movie “The Children of the Dead,” based on the novel by Nobel laureate Elfriede Jelinek and filmed with an amateur cast, both Jews and Nazis join in a zombie uprising. “Zombi Child” by French director Bertrand Bonello (“Saint Laurent”) mixes zombie lore, mean-girl angst and French colonial history in a fascinating film that unfolds on a sugar cane plantation in Haiti in 1962 and in an elite boarding school in contemporary France.

In addition to these excellent films, Algar has a few more recommendations:

“Young Ahmed” (Belgium). The latest film from the acclaimed Dardenne Brothers focuses on Ahmed, a 13-year-old boy who falls under the influence of a charismatic imam who preaches an extremist interpretation of Islam.

In the disturbing French comedy “Deerskin,” Jean Dujardin (“The Artist”) becomes obsesses with his suede jacket.

“The Truth” is a French domestic comedy starring Catherine Deneuve, Juliette Binoche and Ethan Hawke, and the dark Romanian caper film “The Whistlers” brings together a corrupt cop, a femme fatale, a Mexican mobster, government surveillance, double crosses, a mattress full of money and an indigenous whistling language called “el Silbo Gomero.”

Finally, in the holiday spirit, there’s “On A Magical Night” from out French filmmaker Christophe Honoré, who wrote and directed the excellent AIDS romance “Sorry Angel.” In this delightful mash-up of the classic Hollywood screwball sex comedy and Dicken’s “A Christmas Carol,” Maria (award winner Chiara Mastroianni) goes on a magical journey to reexamine the romances that were — and those that could have been.

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