Tuesday, March 01, 2011

EUFF’11: Bibliotheque Pascal

Bookworms are creepy. Just ask Mona, a Hungarian woman trafficked into a life of sexual servitude in literary-themed brothel. The story of how she got there and how she might escape constitutes one of the darker cinematic fairy tales to grace screens in recent years. Given its subject matter, writer-director Szabolcs Hajdu’s Bibliothèque Pascal (trailer here) might be an unlikely choice to launch the 2011 European Union Film Festival, but its distinctive style and assured execution will make a strong impression this Saturday at the Gene Siskel Film Center. For those who will not be in Chicago, it is also already available on i-tunes.

Mona Paparu has led an eventful life, as she explains in flashback to the Hungarian social worker who has taken custody of her young daughter. It all started when she had a falling out with her Roma saxophonist lover. Parting ways, she is more-or-less taken hostage by a fugitive on-the-lam. The clueless Viorel is only around long enough to conceive Viorica, the daughter he will never know, but who inherits his ability to project his dreams.

Through a particularly grievous betrayal, Paparu finds herself tricked into a life of bondage, laboring as Joan of Arc (a la Shaw’s St. Joan) in the high-tech dungeon of the Liverpool sex club bearing the name of its deceptively cherubic proprietor, Pascal. Yet, in the spirit of the fairy tales Paparu tells at carnivals, a generous helping of magical realism awaits in the third act. Anyone who might have a problem with any of this should probably steer well clear of Biblio.

Officially submitted by Hungary for best foreign language Oscar consideration, there was no way Academy voters would go for a film as edgy as Biblio. However, unlike the in-your-face perversion of György Pálfi’s Taxidermia, a previous Hungarian submission, Hajdu’s film has a soul beneath the lurid material, all of which is in the film for a definite purpose. In fact, Hajdu juggles the sensational bits with the fabulist elements rather deftly.

Likewise, cinematographer András Nagy also shows tremendous versatility, conveying the clinical coldness of the Bibliothéque, as well as the golden warmth of the shared dreamscapes. The jazz-influenced soundtrack, featuring electro-ambient themes of Flanger and some Roma jazz helps propel the film through its more unsettling moments (the choice of a high church rendition of "Silent Night" for the closing titles is a bit of a head-scratcher though).

Despite its narrative structure, Biblio often confounds expectations. The nuanced iniquity of Shamgar Amram as Pascal is a case in point. His sharply written scenes with Orsolya Török-Illyé, as the resilient Paparu, crackle with intensity. Indeed, he is one of two highly memorable villains in the film—the other being Razvan Vaslescu as Paparu’s profoundly problematic father Gigi.

Rendered with verve and surprising sensitivity, Biblio features a strong heroine and a consistently intriguing supporting cast. Though not for all tastes, it represents accomplished filmmaking, recommended for sophisticated patrons when it screens at the EU Film Fest this Thursday (3/3), Friday (3/4) and the following Monday (3/7) at the Siskel Film Center.