Ah, now this is what I call a festival. Okay, two festivals. To emerge from Dendy Opera Quays at 7.30pm is to be greeted by a spectacular array of light shows that is Sydney's Vivid Festival, including moving-image installations on the sails of the Opera House, the Museum of Contemporary Art and Customs House.
The only disappointment is to see that Vivid and the Sydney Film Festival appear not to have teamed up to include film-specific content into the spectacular light carnival. (I can imagine films projected onto the side of buildings working a treat.)
Film is nothing but projected light so the two events should provide a natural fit. Indeed, a few years ago the SFF had the exterior of its then-opening night party venue, The Art Gallery of New South Wales, lit up with the festival's key imagery, so the idea of putting light shows and film festivals together is not startlingly new. Something for the two events to work towards for next year?
This year's opening night film, Not Suitable for Children, has the disadvantage of a title confusingly similar to that of the closing night film, Safety Not Guaranteed, but that's about the only negative thing I can find to say about it. Introducing his debut feature with a typically Australian mixture of semi-apology and self-deprecating wit, director Peter Templeman correctly observed that opening night audiences tend to be an oddball mixture of industry types (i.e. specialists quick to find fault with their peers) and sponsors (not necessarily a film-literate audience at all).
He need not have worried. His feature about a young man (Ryan Kwanten) with testicular cancer on a deadline to find a birth mother for his first and only child hit the mark as a just-about perfect opening night feature: entertainingly witty, well crafted and leaving the audience in a good mood for the after party.
A beef of mine is that US studios have painted rom-com into a female-specific corner, but Templeman's film works a pleasingly original, male-oriented twist that shows there is still life left in the sub-genre. And in its tremendous female lead, Sarah Snook, it showcases a significant new talent; I don't think I've been this knocked out by a previously little-known Australian female actor since Rachel Griffiths in Muriel's Wedding.
The after party was at a venue on King Street Wharf, a good 10-15 minute walk away, with no transport provided, and this being a rainy night, it all seemed too hard and I gave it a miss. Fortunately for the SFF, the rain had stopped as people emerged from the State Theatre après-film – a downpour would have seen many more people taking the early night option, resulting in an opening night flopperoonie.
Thursday, the first day of the festival proper, I see two features from Europe, the first a success, the second a dollop of cinematic landfill. Jonathan Zaccai's Play It Like Godard is an appealing French-Belgian mock-documentary about a film crew following around a 15-year-old enfant terrible named J.C. (Vincent Lacoste), a filmmaking prodigy who has already won the Cannes Palme d'Or.
If the premise sounds ridiculous, bear in mind that two years ago the winner of the SFF competition was Heartbeats, the second feature of the then-21-year-old French Canadian, Xavier Dolan, whose preceding feature, I Killed My Mother, had already won three awards at Cannes (and whose semi-autobiographical young protagonist bore similarly obnoxious qualities to the fictional J.C.).
Play It Like Godard (pictured) works both as a satire on pretentious film directors, and on the alleged egotism of Gen Y and their weak, spoiling parents. (In a recurring gag, the brat's folks always deliver his favourite Honey-Puffs breakfast cereal on demand.)
Interestingly, in French the film is called J.C. Comme Jesus Christ, a weaker title than its English handle, which at least announces its film-centred subject and references one of the best gags: a park bench conversation with Monsieur Godard, who wants J.C. to direct Breathless 2.
From the Dendy, it's up to CBD's Event Cinemas multiplex where thanks to inadequate signage, I join the wrong queue (there are three for festival films, not that this is obvious). Therefore, I miss the first couple of minutes of L, which the festival publicity promises is “very much part of the Greek weird wave". Not that I suspect it makes any difference, because this head-scratcher is constructed from a series of loosely linked tableaux vivants, most of them set in cars or on motorbikes, and narrative sense is a quality that does not detain its director, Babis Makridis.
How to summarise? Well, there's this moustachioed guy (Aris Servetalis) who looks like Vincent Gallo and drives around alone or with his children or various others in his car including a bearded ghost named Bear. Mr Moustache works as a professional driver delivering honey to a man who is always lying down, until the driver loses his job and gets into motorbikes.
Oblique comment on the Greek economic disaster? To be honest, you can read anything you want into this primary exhibit of Year One Art Student self-indulgence. With the mannequin-like cast spouting their dialogue as stylised announcements, I get that this is meant to be more absurdist dreamscape than naturalistic slice of life drama, but what starts out as potentially interesting rapidly becomes monotonous in its hapless straining for effect.
Imagine a Greek answer to Gallo's infamous The Brown Bunny populated by the helmeted figures from Daft Punk's Electroma – though that's doubtless to make it sound more intriguing than it deserves.