“One day a fugitive appears in a village. He enjoys the calm, friendly atmosphere there, but also senses that something is not quite right.”
This is the intriguing setup, listed in notes for the film Gutland, from the official program for the 30th Tokyo International Film Festival (hereafter referred to as TIFF-JP, in order to differentiate it from the Toronto International Film Festival, where Gutland made its world premiere in September). Writer-director Govinda Van Maele, who hails from Luxembourg, first became a figure on the film festival circuit ten years ago with a short film entitled Josh. It seems only fitting, then, that the person behind this blog—coincidentally also named Josh—should take a quick stab at reviewing Gutland, which screened in competition this year at TIFF-JP and which marks a very assured feature film debut for Van Maele.
Film Review of 'Gutland'
For those hesitant about watching a slow-paced foreign film with English subtitles, rest assured, Gutland’s basic genre premise as a “surrealist rural noir” is enough to lure in the viewer and sustain interest throughout its 107-minute running time. The film is engrossing from the first minute, when the aforementioned fugitive, Jens, played by Frederick Lau, comes wandering into town in search of seasonal work as a farmhand.
While American audiences might be unfamiliar with his face, Lau’s rugged physiognomy does hold the screen. With his long hair and Qui-Gon Jinn beard, he could almost pass for Liam Neeson’s long-lost brother. As Lucy, the local girl who seduces him, Vicky Krieps also has charisma, her smile managing to convey a beatific charm that renders it all too believable when Jens begins to fall for her like a sailor heeding the siren’s call.
As he settles into the mundane job of harvesting wheat and dealing with dairy cows, it is not long before Jens starts to discover that Lucy’s agricultural community holds some dark secrets. “Chekhov’s knock-out dart” gives us, if not him, ample warning that the bucolic setting of Schandelsmillen, as the village is called, may seek to subdue someone before the film is over. By the time Jens gets lost in a cornfield with a combine harvester bearing down on him, the village has begun to feel like a prison from which there is no escape.
Gutland is an actual region of Luxembourg; the name means “Good Land.” At one point, Lucy talks about how she does not have the guts to leave, but other than that line, and the sight of a big belly here and there, the significance of the movie’s title appears to lie more with how it puts an erotically charged film noir spin on the notion of a “Good Land.” Such surrealism as there is comes mostly in the form of light touches: a woman disappearing in shadows, photographs that seem to change, a brass band performance that could be unsettling and/or redeeming, depending on how you look at it.
Govinda Van Maele Press Conference (Potential Spoilers)
This veers close to spoilers, but at a short press conference following the film’s screening at TIFF-JP, Van Maele discussed the real-life inspiration for that band, saying:
“There are a lot of brass bands in Luxembourg, in every village, and they like to play Hollywood theme songs. When you walk around at night, you can hear songs from Lord of the Rings and Jaws in the air as they rehearse. I wanted to give my film a kind of kitsch Hollywood-sounding ending. It’s both a nightmare and a happy end at the same time.”
The interesting thing about Gutland is how it almost plays out as an unlikely redemption story, raising questions about the line between conformity and group harmony. Is there happiness to be found in assimilation?
Note: the following preview has NOT been approved for all audiences by the Motion Picture Association of America. This is effectively a red-band trailer ...