In the introduction to Thursday night's premiere of Belgica, the festival programmer introducing the film noted that Sundance has been making a concerted effort to bring its world competition films up to par with its US competition films. Sundance has had a world competition since 1999, but its reputation as a showcase for American independent film has always come first. A "this matters to us, we promise" statement could easily be dismissed as lip service, but the next morning I saw a film that convinced me Sundance was putting its money where its mouth is.
A psychedelically gynocentric safe space
The Lure's logline is straightforward enough: it's a musical set in the 1980s about a pair of siren sisters who get hired to sing at a nightclub and also eat people. Why not, right? It's the first feature from Polish director Agnieszka Smoczyńska, and the fact that it exists at all is inspiring — the fact that it's gorgeous, rendered in lurid neon and dingy Miami Vice pastels, makes it go down even easier. Smoczyńska is surely a fan of the 1960s Japanense cult horror film House; her film has a similar give-no-fucks combination of violence, eroticism, and musical sequences. Its matriarchal narrative — the struggles and rivalries are between women, the men are all dolts, victims, or playthings — makes what could have easily been exploitative in the hands of another director feel more like a psychedelically gynocentric safe space.
The last third of The Lure makes little to no sense, but I find this to be the mildest of sins at a festival. I saw so much in its first two acts that I'd never seen before, and that feeling, of leaving the theater not entirely sure of what you just watched is, for me, the reason to go to Sundance. This is why I was so disappointed that I wasn't able to get into the premiere screening of Swiss Army Man; though the flood of reactions on Twitter was its own kind of show. If they weren't sputtering with rage, I saw countless critics refer to the first feature from music video directing duo Daniels as "the weirdest thing at Sundance." The fact that it has as vibrant a rival as The Lure alongside it is incredibly encouraging for a festival that in is weaker moments can slip into monotony after a few days. A lot has been made of Sundance not having any "big movies" this year, but I'd gladly trade A-list stars for pure unfettered weirdness.
But weirdness cuts both ways, and tends to work better when the director is emotionally invested in his or her oddities. That evening I headed out for the premiere of Wiener-Dog, the latest from erstwhile / lifetime Sundance darling Todd Solondz. I don't think I've enjoyed a Solondz movie since 1998's Happiness (and I use the word "enjoyed" loosely); I stopped seeing them after 2004's Palindromes. But Welcome to the Dollhouse, for which he won the 1996 Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, is near and dear to my heart (it was the first R-rated film I ever saw!), as it clearly was to many people in the packed Eccles house. (The mere mention of the film in the intro drew a huge round of applause.) I suspect many people in attendance at the premiere were like me; they'd fallen out with Solondz years ago after one too many betrayals, but the promise of a spiritual successor to Dollhouse hit too close to home to pass up.
The greatest thrills come from directors with everything to prove
Solondz described the film as a cross between Robert Bresson's Au Hasard Balthazar and Benji, which as ridiculous as it sounds is actually a great idea, and something that Solondz at his best would seem perfectly suited to take on. The problem is that Solondz doesn't seem to believe in the emotional possibilities of such a premise. Told in four parts, it follows the titular dachshund through multiple different owners (one of whom is the grown up Dawn Wiener, the protagonist of Welcome to the Dollhouse, played by Greta Gerwig despite Heather Matarazzo's continued existence as a working actress.) But Solondz seems to lose interest in this idea by the second half, and the dog becomes less and less consequential to the story. By the film's gruesome end, any attempt to identify a unifying thread is hopeless. A film is not an easy thing to make; especially one with a cast this fancy (Julie Delpy, Danny Devito, Ellen Burstyn, and Zosia Mamet also co-star), and one can easily imagine Solondz waking up one day and saying, "Oh, forget about it, I changed my mind, I don't want to make this thing." As a viewer, it feels like a betrayal, like any relationship where the other party isn't pulling their weight.
Wiener-Dog, along with Whit Stillman's Love and Friendship, are two films in this year's lineup coming from idiosyncratic directors who helped define Sundance in the '90s. But the greatest thrills come from the unknown quantities, the heaps of first-time directors with nothing to lose and everything to prove. Watching Sleight director J.D. Dillard introduce his film on Saturday while his cast and crew whooped and hollered in the back of the Library Theater was electrifying; even more so was watching the film unfold in all its utterly unique street-magic bio-hacking South-LA coming-of-age richness. There's an urgency in films like it and The Lure, a clarity of purpose; real stakes in whether or not it makes it to the screen at all. They may not be perfect or always make sense, but their willingness to exist makes them easy to root for.