Dublin International Film Festival 2020: Memorable matriarchal themes

Writer, actor and activist John Connors has two directorial efforts in the festival

One week into this year’s Virgin Media Dublin International Film Festival VMDIFF and we’re a Volta down. Trine Dyrholm, the Danish star of The Legacy and In a Better World, charmed all-comers as she accepted the statuette at the Irish premiere of Queen of Hearts, a heated melodrama framed in cooler Scandi-tones about a lawyer who has an affair with her stepson.

Broken Law offered the first of many John Connors projects. The writer, actor and activist has two directorial efforts in the festival, including the Virgin Media pitch prizewinner Innocent Boy, which screened on Saturday. Broken Law has been a labour of love for the writer-director Paddy Slattery who has spent almost a decade bringing this lively tale of two brothers on opposite sides of the law starring Tristan Heanue as a Garda and Graham Earley as the sibling emerging from prison. Slattery's crime drama easily boasts more swear words than any other title in the festival and received a standing ovation from a thoroughly entertained audience.

Imogen Poots and director Lorcan Finnegan were on hand to introduce festival opener Vivarium. A twisty dystopian fantasy in which a young couple (Poots and Jesse Eisenberg) are trapped in an inescapable suburban sprawl with a baby to tend to, the film was nominated in the Critics Week sidebar at the Cannes Film Festival last year and goes on general release on March 27th.

Other Irish galas included Tomás Ó Súilleabháin's Arracht and Rose Plays Julie. The former, a dark, compelling drama set in Connemara during the Famine, is powered along by charismatic turns from stars Dónall Ó Héalai and Saise Ní Chuinn, and Kate McCullough's crystalline cinematography. If you missed the sold out premiere, the DIFF national outreach tour, in association with the good folks at Access Cinema, is already in full swing.


Rose Plays Julie, the third theatrical feature from visual artists Joe Lawlor and Christine Molloy (Helen, Mister John) unfolds as a sequence of increasingly chilly tableaux as a young veterinarian student (Ann Skelly) goes in search of her biological mother (Orla Brady).

Vivienne Dick, the pioneering Irish experimental and documentary filmmaker, revisits her No Wave years with New York Our Time, a moving catch-up with such artists as photographer Nan Goldin and vocalist Lydia Lunch.

Mark Cousins's epic 14-hour history of female filmmakers, Women Make Film: A New Road Through Cinema, has proved a fitting centrepiece in a programme that features such contemporary female practitioners as the hotly tipped Rose Glass (Saint Maud) and Marjane Satrapi (who was proved great post-screening value at the premiere of Radioactive). Those who were paying attention were not too shocked to learn that How to Build a Girl, a comedy based on the life of Caitlin Moran and starring Booksmart's Beanie Feldstein, was this year's surprise film.

Fantastic Flix got a headstart on the grown-ups with an early workshop led by Russian animator Maria Steinmetz inspired by the pioneering silhouette films of Lotte Reiniger.   The junior strand also boasts two of the festival's strongest titles in Kifaru, a documentary about the Sudanese rangers who tend to the last known male white rhino, and Marona's Fantastic Tale, a stunning and heartbreaking French animation in which a little dog reflects on her life and various human companions. If you missed the rapturously-received premiere, you and your canine chum can still avail of tickets for next weekend's dog-friendly screening.

Other big international hitters in the larger programme include The Domain, an epic saga in the grand old style of Giant or Written on the Wind that starts in the 1940s and works through the Carnation Revolution. Theatre actor Albano Jerónimo is tremendous as the patriarch of a landowning Portuguese family.

Luca Marinelli is equally impressive in Martin Eden, an award-winning adaptation of the 1909 Jack London novel, in which a young sailor (Marinelli) seeks to improve himself in order to win over the aristocratic Elena (Jessica Cressy) and her family.

Most of DIFF's memorable turns have, however, been more matriarchal in theme. Eva Green puts in a career best as an engineer selected for a pre-Mars mission that will separate her from her young daughter. This gripping, thoughtful new film from Anna Winocour, the screenwriter of Mustang and director of Disorder, was made with the cooperation of the European Space Agency and the Star City cosmonaut facility outside Moscow.

Ditte Hansen and Louise Mieritz were welcome red carpet additions at Ditte + Louise, a movie spin-off of their Danish television series, in which Hansen, fed up with auditioning for aged hooker parts, dresses up as man. Sexy, silly fun ensues.

The great German actor Nina Hoss is flakier than JK Simmons in Whiplash, yet more contained than Isabelle Huppert in The Piano Teacher in The Audition, the latest addition to the mad music teacher subgenre.

The County, Icelandic director Grímur Hákonarson’s follow-up to the similarly deadpan Rams, is anchored by an impressive performance from Arndís Hrönn Egilsdóttir. She plays a newly widowed dairy farmer determined – fiercely determined – to break the monopoly of the local cooperative.

Vitalina Varela, featuring the Cape Verde born actor of the same name, reunites her with Horse Money costar Ventura and Pedro Costa, the master of stygian framing and post-colonial reckoning.The Golden Leopard winner at the 2019 Locarno Film Festival, as ever with Costa, it's beautifully shot in the darkness, and no matter how slithered the lighting, it's impossible to take your eyes off Varela.

Asian superstar Yao Chen switches gears from the action films that prompted New York Magazine to call her the "Angelina Jolie of China" for debuting director Teng Congcong's wonderful Send Me to the Clouds. In the film, Sheng Nan (Yao Chen), a journalist who, as an unmarried 30-something, is now part of the PRC's new "leftover women" demographic, attempts to raise money for surgery and entertains various unworthy suitors after she is diagnosed with ovarian cancer.

Other Chinese contenders include Spring Tide, an intergenerational tale touching on cramped contemporary living arrangements and the remarkable If You Are Happy, a clock-ticking thriller concerning a father’s frantic attempts to swindle his daughter into a better school.

Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am was the first of several delightful biographical documentaries on offer this year. Timothy Greenfield-Sanders's portrait of the first Black woman to win the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1993 features a winning account by the late author and testimonies from Angela Davis and Oprah Winfrey.

Aznavour by Charles draws on the singer and diplomat's own film dairy, made over several decades on a camera gifted by Edith Piaf. Cultural marvels, including his collaboration with Truffaut, sit alongside such personal tragedies as the death of his son Patrick "in a whirlwind of drugs."

An even impressive non-fiction entry was Jawline. Liza Mandelup’s award-winning doc follows 16-year-old Austyn Tester, a rising star across various live-broadcast social media platforms, as he tries to escape small town life in rural Tennessee. Inevitably, things don’t go to plan.

Other Anglophone offerings included Mickey and the Bear, Annabelle Attanasio's muscular piece of Americana, which was selected by the Association for the Distribution of Independent Cinema at Cannes last year, and Military Wives, a new spin on the tried and trusted Full Monty formula, featuring Sharon Horgan and Kristen Scott Thomas.

Meanwhile, an impressive collection of rep titles were shored up by Jacqueline Audry’s Olivia and, screening as in association with EURO2020, Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait.

The Virgin Media Dublin International Film Festival continues until March 8th