The organisers of the Karlovy Vary International FIlm Festival, taking place this week in the obscenely picturesque spa town of Karlovy Vary, Czech Republic, have hit on a canny strategy. The festival’s programming has for some years now been above reproach in every respect, something that has not always been the case in its storied 47 year history, that at one point saw the event pretty much shunned because of its apparent kowtowing to the communist powers-that-were. But those problems are a distant memory now, as this year’s carefully curated selection can attest: they may not get glitzy, high-profile Cannes-level premieres, but the film choice shows astonishing range, refreshing eclecticism and a deep passion for bringing challenging cinema to an apparently very enthusiastic and responsive Eastern European crowd. But the problem then becomes one of profile, and one of the ways the organisers have found to raise theirs, is with their honoree list. Leaning somewhat in the last few years toward the "established international grand dame" faction, (recent recipients include Judi Dench and Isabelle Huppert), this year the festival honors both Helen Mirren and Susan Sarandon. Mirren, here also promoting her new film with Hungarian director Istvan Szabo “The Door” (our review is coming soon), was up first, accepting a lifetime achievement award Friday night and then speaking to press Saturday morning.
She may have been a few minutes late but disarmed us as all immediately by calling out her apologies as she entered and blaming her tardiness variously on jet lag, broken hairdryers, husbands and being unable to find her make up. Needless to say, she looked immaculate. And said husband, director Taylor Hackford, himself also an Oscar-winner as she reminded us brightly (he won for a short film in 1979, and was later nominated for “Ray”) accompanied her, occasionally contributing anecdotes and tidbits, but mostly this was the Helen Mirren show. It was pretty much a sell-out.
1. Mirren is a passionate advocate of filmmaking roles for women at every level of the industry.
In her speech the night previous, Mirren had paid tribute to the remarkable career of Nora Ephron, viewing it, and her own lifetime achievement award, in the light of the role of women in the film industry. Noting how much things have changed even over the past few years, she mentioned approvingly the number of women serving on juries here, but went on to lament their underrepresentation in behind the camera roles, from directors right down to crewmembers. When she returns to Karlovy Vary in five years time, she said, she hopes to see a 50% representation of female-directed projects. “Actually no,” she laughed. “ I want 85 percent.”
On Saturday the theme continued, with Mirren mentioning often how very masculine a place a film set usually is, in both cast and crew. Not only did that make her celebrated nude scenes harder to perform, it also informed some of her more recent choices, like “Calendar Girls”: “The idea of doing a film with 6 or 8 women, who were all friends of mine...we just had an incredibly good time, laughing all the time. You never get to have that experience...it’s usually 5 or 10 male characters for every female.”
But if writers are worried about being able to deliver rounded female characters, she has some sage words of advice, apropos for someone who has twice recently appropriated roles intended for men (in ”The Tempest” and “State of Play”): “I always say to writers, ‘Don’t worry about writing roles for women, just write it as a man and give it a woman’s name. Let us do the rest.’”
But later she clarifies “I don’t complain about the roles for women in film, I complain about the roles for women in life” before tipping her hat to the new generation of female politicians and public figures that, she believes, are part of a (too slow but we’ll take what we can get) sea change in terms of gender perceptions, not just in the movies, but in every sphere of life.
2. Nudity may sometimes be exploitative, but she finds it less disquieting than violence
The inevitable nudity question arose, specifically whether she regarded her own experiences in the buff on film as exploitative or empowering. She replied, “You can look at it either way. I never felt particularly empowered by the experience, it was something I just had to get on with. And it was part of my personal journey towards a kind of liberation, but where it crosses the line into exploitation…I don’t think anyone’s ever clearly defined that.”
Her thoughts on the strange hypocrisy around sex vs violence, however, are clearly defined. “I think it’s kind of appalling in the industry at large that violence and torture are more acceptable than nudity and sexuality. I think that’s an appalling revelation of something very unpleasant in human nature. And you can’t lay all the blame for that at the feet of filmmakers because they know what the public want and they pander to that. So it’s something in all of us and we have to look at ourselves, really.”