Welcome to the Larry411.com Guest Columnists! April 27, 2013
In my travels to the best film festivals in…
On Monday, September 9, 2013 I attended the exciting North American Premiere of Le Grand Cahier (Hungarian title A Nagy Füzet) at the Toronto International Film Festival. The screening took place at the Scotiabank Theatre. The film was a selection in the Contemporary World Cinema section.
Le Grand Cahier is an epic coming-of-age drama set in Hungary during World War II. András and László Gyémánt play twin brothers (as they are in real life) sent away to live with their evil grandmother to escape the approaching Nazis. As their father heads off to the front, they make him a promise to keep a journal, writing everything down over the next few years until he can return and read about their exploits. The contents of this notebook form the basis of the narrative as told through the eyes of the 13-year-olds. It’s a simple premise but can’t come close to touching the heartwrenching, raw emotion of the twins’ journey and subsequent near-enslavement at the hands of their hostess, affectionately known as “The Witch” among the local villagers. Surviving adolescence is a challenging enough task. Doing it in a war-torn land with only your brother to depend on seems insurmountable, and is what makes Le Grand Cahier such a gripping experience.
The picture debuted at the esteemed Karlovy Vary Film Festival in the Czech Republic, one of the most competitive festivals in the world. It took top prize, winning the prestigious Crystal Globe for Best Feature as well as the Label Europa Cinemas Award. It went on to play La Rochelle in France before having its North American Premiere in Toronto.
Director/co-writer János Szász is an award-winning Hungarian filmmaker with a slew of acclaimed projects to his credit. 1994’s Woyzeck won the European Film Award for Best Young Film on the way to a half dozen other nominations and honors on the fest circuit. He’s performed and written for stage and television in addition to cinema. This is his fifth feature directorial effort. He co-wrote the screenplay with András Szekér and dramaturge Tom Abrams, adapted from the best-selling novel “The Notebook” by Agota Kristof. The picture's English title is The Notebook -- it played at TIFF as Le Grand Cahier and its original Hungarian title is A nagy füzet.
László and András Gyémánt (playing "one" and the "other," their characters have no names) are the heart and soul of the movie, and they carry it confidently on their young shoulders (they were 14 at the time). Notable performances are turned in by Piroska Molnár as the wicked grandmother, Ulrich Matthes as the father, Orsolya Tóth as Harelip, Ulrich Thomsen as the Officer, and Sabin Tambrea as his friend.
The widescreen film's dreamlike, washed out pallor is the work of legendary Austrian cinematographer Christian Berger, a favorite of director Michael Haneke. He shot The Piano Teacher in 2001 and picked up a dozen awards worldwide for 2009’s The White Ribbon, including an Oscar nomination. Finding just the right look for a 1940s Eastern European-set period piece is always a challenge as most filmgoers weren’t around then to be familiar with the clothing and fabrics, colors and textures, and language used at the time other than what they’ve seen in movies. What we have is cinema reality vs. actuality, and Berger’s use of available light in the many exterior sequences ensures authenticity. Similarly, with no electricity to provide light indoors, interiors are lit with the warm glow of soft candlelight or oil lamps.
Having twin boys as leads provides a creative framework within which the blocking takes care of itself. The balanced imagery provided by the actors themselves, as well as the theme of separation, dictates that both boys appear in frame whenever possible. It's a dramatic choice as well as an artistic one. It’s when they are apart that we feel what they feel, the loss of self, as if each brother is half of one whole.
As a result, Le Grand Cahier often plays like a genre film – the “evil twins” – with their deep set eyes, dark hair, and brooding faces belying the potential sweetness that may be present, albeit not always visible. The Gyémánt brothers rarely smile, save for poignant moments like their romp in the bath with an unlikely tubmate. It’s these coming-of-age moments of budding sexuality that bring a lightness and sorely needed touch of humor to the narrative.
Le Grand Cahier is a slow burn, hard to watch at times, unflinching glimpse of the horrors of war with unmentionable personal tragedies along the way. Told through the boys’ notebook, we get a real-time view from a child’s eye rather than an adult reminiscing about his youth. Growing up without a father, the bond between brothers (twins, at that), learning life lessons from neighbors and strangers rather than family, dealing with death and grief, and inevitability of separation – these are common themes in the genre but the context makes all the difference.
NOTE: See my photos of the North American Premiere Q&A. I selected Le Grand Cahier for my Toronto International Film Festival Top Picks. The picture is a co-production of Germany’s Intuit Pictures, Hungary’s Hunnia Filmstúdió, Austria’s Amour Fou Filmproduktion, and France’s Dolce Vita Films. Beta Cinema is handling worldwide sales. It has distribution in several overseas territories, including Hungary and Germany, and is awaiting deals for North America. Le Grand Cahier is Hungary's official submission for the Foreign Language Oscar.
The official trailer is posted below along with a set of stills.
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In my travels to the best film festivals in…