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Rifkin’s Festival

Chaotic marriages and infidelities clash with the idyllic setting of the San Sebastián International Film Festival, in Woody Allen's messy new creation - live from San Sebastián

We open with the protagonist in therapy. Titular Mort Rifkin (Wallace Shaun) is recounting his recent trip to Donostia-San Sebastián for their world-renowned Film Festival. As it happens, the film is also premiering at said festival, giving with a weirdly self-congratulatory resonance to proceedings. Ouroboros eat your tail out. Thankfully the film is not really about this event and there are no screening or award ceremonies depicted. That is the offscreen world of Mort’s publicist wife Sue (Gina Gershon), whom he accompanies on suspicion of infidelity with her latest charge, intensely forward breakout director Philippe (Louis Garrel).

This is a tale of two intergenerational seductions – thin ice for Allen to skate. Whilst Philippe offers Sue exuberance and smouldering unselfaware pretensions, her passions laying dormant after years of drudgery with snobby Mort. Sensing the dam is near to bursting, Mort becomes infatuated with local doctor Jo Rojas (Elena Anaya). True to form, his attempts at courtship involve conjuring ever-more banal ailments as excuses for further appointments at the clinic to drop some more filmic erudition on her with each instalment. Jo is not immune to these advances, having spent some time in the arthouse cinemas of New York and Paris.

The way Rifkin keeps returning, each time armed with more prior knowledge of her fractious love life and looking for an opportunity to worm into the cracks is off-putting and personally justified by some misplaced White Knight Syndrome. Whilst Sue is portrayed as independent and confident, Jo is competently intelligent but cast in a tragic light due to her bad choices in men and her unfaithful husband. Obviously the 76-year-old former film professor is the one to save her from this troubled life.

Indeed, the film would fail a reverse Bechdel test – rarely do two men speak to each other about anything other than a woman they are lusting after. Throwaway lines are funnier than Allen’s last outing A Rainy Day in New York (2019), with the industry bods and film scenesters providing ample ammunition. Still, some set-ups peter out to nothing and the same is true for the over-frequent black-and-white daydream/nightmare scenes. These are modelled on classic scenes from classic European film directors and isn’t it all just so classic. These moments give colour to the light debate on film artistic snobbery versus sincerity and the pretensions of both that runs through the film.

Wallace Shawn is good value for money as Wallace Shawn – solipsistic voiceovers accompany his aimless wandering through picturesque city streets and parks in scenes reminiscent of the opening to My Dinner with Andre (Louis Malle, 1981). As a resident of Donostia, it is satisfying to see that the geography of these transitions and other excursions actually makes sense. Also present are the stereotypical Basque summer conditions of grey skies that magically disappear into glorious sunshine whenever characters are inside. This washed-out yellow sunbeam lighting is overly distracting but helps craft the illusion of a ‘magical’ festival in the ‘enchanting’ city. Similarly, auxiliary characters exist seemingly just to repeat how magical and enchanting everything is without that much of the city itself being shown beyond the beach, the 2000-quid-a-week-hotel they are installed in and a brief glimpse from the floor-to-ceiling windows of a Michelin-starred restaurant.

There is almost a white-washing of any Basque culture beyond the city as a Spanish destination resort and this has fomented some unrest among Donosti locals who see the film as nothing more than a tourist brochure. Allen himself practically confirms this in an earlier press conference and again, with the same word-for-word spiel, in a pre-recorded segment shown before the film: the people who were financing my movie wanted me to make a film in Spain and I thought to myself I’ve been to San Sebastián and I worked backwards from there. The onstage quickscrabble of producer Jaume Roures to insist that Woody insisted on San Sebastián from the beginning would be humorous if not for the context of the issue in a long and at times violent history of Basque secession. See also HBO’s recent television adaptation of the book Patria, premiering at this same festival. The terrorist group ETA have disarmed but an upswell of anti-tourist sentiment has taken their place with skyrocketing property prices as a result of the Airbnb effect. On the night of the premiere, groups of young protesters gathered with banners reading “We are not extras in our own city” in Spanish and Basque. Having seen the film, they are not even that.

Rifkin’s Festival has just premiered at the San Sebastian International Film Festival.

By Charles Williams - 19-09-2020

Charles Williams is a researcher in San Sebastián, Spain. Consumption of popular media and food are two major hobbies, leading to review writing as a further pastime. His film tastes are varied, from...

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