This year the Gene Siskel Film Center presents the 20th edition of its annual European Union Film Festival, with Chicago premieres of more than 60 new features. If you're familiar with the fest, you know it's one of the most vibrant and eclectic film gatherings the city has to offer, and this year's edition includes new work by Olivier Assayas, Icíar Bollaín, Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne, Dorris Dörrie, Bruno Dumont, François Ozon, Carlos Saura, Albert Serra, Lone Scherfig, and Thomas Lilti. Following are reviews of 16 features screening through the end of the month; for a full schedule and more information visit siskelfilmcenter.org. —J.R. Jones
- The Country Doctor
The Country Doctor A graying rural doctor who still makes house calls (François Cluzet of Tell No One) learns that he has cancer and reluctantly agrees to surrender his rounds to another physician while he undergoes chemotherapy; his replacement (Marianne Denicourt) is an attractive middle-aged woman with long experience as a nurse but little regard for her patients as people. Director-cowriter Thomas Lilti, a doctor himself, brings a store of medical wisdom to the drama ("Ninety percent of the diagnosis is provided by the patient," the ailing doctor tells his replacement, admonishing her to listen instead of talk). But that professional insight was exploited more profitably in his breakthrough feature, the biting Hippocrates: Diary of a French Doctor (2014), than in this sensitive, faintly smarmy romance. Also known as Irreplaceable. In French with subtitles. —J.R. Jones 99 min. Fri 3/17, 2 PM, and Wed 3/22, 6 PM.
Dawn Shimmering black-and-white cinematography by Wojciech Staron affords the only pleasure in this grim, unsparing drama about a Soviet collective farm in Latvia in the 1960s. Writer-director Laila Pakalnina riffs on a now-debunked propaganda story about a member of the Young Pioneers (the communist equivalent of the Boy Scouts) who was murdered by his loutish father after denouncing him as an enemy of the state. Aside from the boy, there's no one in this 2015 feature to root for—not the peasants, who are easily incited to mayhem; nor the bureaucrat sent to evaluate the farm, whose avuncular manner masks his disdain; nor the sleep- deprived head of the collective, who's struggling to increase production. The utopian goals of the revolution are mocked throughout the film; in the final sequence, the last thing the dying boy hears is a fairy tale about crop yields. In Latvian with subtitles. —Andrea Gronvall 96 min. Fri 3/17 and Tue 3/21, 8 PM.
- Ethel & Ernest
Ethel & Ernest Adapted from a graphic novel by Raymond Briggs, this innocuous but charming UK animation tells the story of the author's working-class parents from their first meeting in 1928 (when Ethel was a lady's maid and Ernest a flirtatious milkman) to their deaths in 1971. The artwork is straightforward, the characters archetypal (Ethel is a Tory, Ernest votes for Labour), and their history fondly remembered, as if it's been polished smooth by years of repetition. At times the movie threatens to melt into a pool of bulldog nostalgia, but it's rescued by a wealth of authentic social detail, especially as the young couple keep a stiff upper lip during World War II (in the darkest days of the Blitz, they sleep in a bed-size metal cage to shield themselves from falling debris). Their boy Raymond comes of age in the swinging 60s, takes up art, and marries a woman with schizophrenia, developments that prompt Ethel and Ernest to wonder what it's all about before they disappear into the past they've so lovingly tended. Roger Mainwood directed from his own screenplay. —J.R. Jones 94 min. Fri 3/17 and Sat 3/18, 2 PM.
- The Fixer
The Fixer Inspired by actual events, this 2016 drama tells the story of a "fixer" (Tudor Istodor) hired by a French television crew to guide them through Romania in search of a young prostitute who's been repatriated from France. The film unfolds seamlessly, with a brisk tempo and a cool, gray look that match its straightforward depiction of the crew's wheeling and dealing. Much of the story revolves around ethics and how far the insecure protagonist will go to prove himself to the others as a journalist. Adrian Sitaru, directing a script by Adrian and Claudia Silisteanu, seems to be building toward some explosive revelation; it never comes, though the climax and conclusion, focusing on the protagonist's moral and ethical growth, are quietly satisfying. In French and Romanian with subtitles. —Leah Pickett 99 min. Sun 3/5, 5:15 PM, and Wed 3/8, 8 PM.
- A German Youth
A German Youth Jean-Gabriel Périot, a French filmmaker preoccupied with found footage and archival material, makes his feature debut with this history of the left-wing Red Army Faction—more commonly known as the Baader-Meinhof gang—that terrorized Germany throughout the 1970s. The documentary draws heavily on the RAF's own agitprop films, created by radical students from the German film and TV academy in Berlin, and on news footage from West German media, much of it focused on the glamorous journalist-turned-radical Ulrike Meinhof. With no commentary of any kind, the movie lacks any controlling political consciousness and soon becomes a struggle between two counternarratives, one underground and the other mainstream. That's an appropriately radical approach to the story, though viewers unfamiliar with the RAF's complicated history may be in for a bumpy ride. In German and French with subtitles. —J.R. Jones 93 min. Sun 3/5, 3:15 PM, and Tue 3/7, 6:15 PM.
Godless Set in a remote Bulgarian town, this 2016 debut feature by writer-director Ralitza Petrova follows a morphine-addicted nurse (Irena Ivanova) who steals ID cards from her elderly patients and sells them on the black market. The woman seems stifled—she provides for her unemployed mother but they barely speak, and she and her boyfriend seem to share nothing except their addiction—yet Petrova is less concerned with the reasons for her behavior than with the consequences of her actions. Ivanova is a fine actor, but her character lacks dimension; the nurse's sordid environment and the abasement she endures to the point of numbness make her feel like a personification of the country's political corruption and social unrest. In Bulgarian with subtitles. —Leah Pickett 99 min. Sun 3/19, 5:15 PM, and Thu 3/23, 8:15 PM.
- Just Drop Dead!
Just Drop Dead! As source material, the communist era is a gold mine for national cinemas of the former Soviet bloc, and this Hungarian caper movie offers a light interpretation of those dark years. A childless, middle-aged widow (Adél Kováts) tracks down the bimbo mistress (Eszter Ónodi) of her recently deceased husband and meets their surly teenage daughter (Virág Alma Pájer). The mutual antipathy is instantaneous, but the three women soon become allies when they're targeted by the dead man's hitherto unknown criminal associates, intent on reclaiming valuables he stole. As the bewildered widow unravels her spouse's past, she's haunted by memories of totalitarianism and her zealous apparatchik mother-in-law, and faces her own possible complicity in her husband's undoing. This was the final film of writer-director Zoltán Kamondi, who died a few months before its 2016 release. In Hungarian with subtitles. —Andrea Gronvall 105 min. Sat 3/4, 4 PM, and Tue 3/7, 8:15 PM.
- On the Other Side
Losers High school misfits in a sleepy Bulgarian town await the arrival of a touring punk band they hope will set the place on fire. Writer-director Ivaylo Hristov aims for social realism, shooting in black and white to heighten the sense of gray industrial boredom, but his romance between nerdy Koko, whose parents have parked him with his mentally disabled grandmother, and rebellious Elena, whose mother drinks and sleeps around, comes across like "Nick and Norah's Eastern European Playlist." As in American teenpics (not least the movies of Richard Linklater), there's the sense of a hermetically sealed adolescent world: in the opening sequence, the heroine marches all her friends out of school to an abandoned office space for a communal groove to a music track that has just dropped. Intercut with the high school story are scenes of the approaching punk band, whose leaden comedy suggests hokey music videos from the 80s. In Bulgarian with subtitles. —J.R. Jones 97 min. Sat 3/4 and Wed 3/8, 8 PM.
The Olive Tree As a girl, Alma climbs into a giant olive tree, loved by her grandfather, to protect it from being uprooted from the family farm and sold for a handsome sum; grown to adulthood, this determined young punk (Anna Castillo) sees the grandfather slowly dying and resolves to bring the tree back and revive him. British screenwriter Paul Laverty is best known for his long collaboration with director Ken Loach, and to judge from this Spanish drama, his second script for director Icíar Bollaín, he needs Loach's steadying social-realist hand as much as Loach needs his sense of fancy. Bollaín is a strong director, and Castillo gives her plenty of juice as the heroine, who tears around on a motorcycle and won't take no for an answer, but their best efforts fall victim to Laverty's moony premise and increasingly contrived plot developments. In Spanish with subtitles. —J.R. Jones 99 min. Sun 3/19, 5:15 PM, and Mon 3/20, 8 PM.
- The Olive Tree
On the Other Side A middle-aged nurse (Ksenija Marinkovic) in Zagreb, Croatia, receives a phone call from her estranged husband, who betrayed his family and his country by fighting for the Serbs during the Croatian War of Independence 20 years earlier and now wants to see her and his children again. This 2016 drama from director Zrinko Ogresta is understated but packs an emotional wallop nonetheless. Ogresta uses long, unobtrusive takes to capture the family's interactions and reactions to the patriarch's reemergence; Marinkovic, in particular, expresses more with a twitch of her cheek than with most of the character's dialogue. The subtle script, cowritten by Ogresta and composer Mate Matišić, challenges one to fill in the blanks of the spouses' decades-long relationship, which makes the film more mentally exacting but also more rewarding once the final twist is revealed. In Croatian with subtitles. —Leah Pickett 81 min. Sat 3/25, 6 PM, and Mon 3/27, 6:15 PM.
- Personal Shopper
Personal Shopper Thematically this is Olivier Assayas's darkest feature since Boarding Gate (2007), though it's much better, owing largely to Kristen Stewart's mesmeric performance as a young Parisian who works as personal shopper to a jet-set model and, in her spare time, communicates with the dead. Her twin brother, also a spiritual medium, has recently succumbed to a heart condition that she shares, and each promised the other that the first to die would try to make contact. Assayas stages numerous scenes in near darkness as the heroine prowls around seeking her late sibling, and an inordinate number of scenes fade to black, suggesting (intentionally or not) the boundaries of consciousness. What gives the story its spooky resonance, however, is a confluence between the unmoored exploration of the protagonist's spiritualism and the international rootlessness of the model's world. In French with subtitles. —J.R. Jones R, 105 min. Sat 3/4, 4 PM, and Wed 3/8, 6 PM.
- The Sense of an Ending
The Sense of an Ending Julian Barnes's engrossing novel about an old, divorced Londoner radically reassessing his past gets a conventional but effective treatment from director Ritesh Batra (The Lunchbox) and the perfectly cast Jim Broadbent and Charlotte Rampling. The protagonist (Broadbent), owner of a vintage camera shop, lives in peaceful coexistence with his ex-wife (Harriet Walter) and pregnant lesbian daughter (Michelle Dockery), but then an unexpected bequest from a will forces him to reconsider the suicide of an old college pal four decades earlier and to make contact again with the lover they shared (Rampling). Screenwriter Nick Payne has a hard time objectifying Barnes's sustained musing over the intricacies of time and memory, but the melodrama alone conveys the writer's conviction that even in old age one's understanding of life can be swept away in an instant. With Emily Mortimer. —J.R. Jones 109 min. Batra attends the Thursday screening. Fri 3/3, 2 PM, and Thu 3/9, 7:45 PM.
Shelley A young Romanian housekeeper (Cosmina Stratan) agrees to become a surrogate mother for her employers, a Danish married couple with infertility issues (Ellen Dorrit Petersen, Peter Christoffersen), in this creepy but unfocused horror film of the demon- baby variety (2016). The couple eschew modern technology and live off the grid; why they do this is never explained, though placing the characters in an antiquated cabin in the woods allows director Ali Abbasi (who co- wrote the script with Maren Louise Käehne) to milk the atmospherics of their isolation and show how their shrinking world contrasts with the fetus expanding too fast inside the young woman's belly. The film appears to be about the fear and uncertainty involved in carrying someone else's child, but viewers hoping for an exciting or even thought-provoking payoff will have to settle for a steady thrum of prenatal anxiety. In English and subtitled Danish and Romanian. —Leah Pickett 92 min. Mon 3/27 and Wed 3/29, 8 PM.
- Slack Bay
Slack Bay Cannibalism may not be everyone's idea of funny, but French director Bruno Dumont (L'Humanité, Hadewijch) elevates it to ghoulish camp in this slapstick skewering of the French bourgeoisie. Fabrice Luchini and Valeria Bruni Tedeschi play fatuous aristocratic wannabes summering on the Channel coast in 1910; they enjoy the "beauty" of the local fisherfolk, who in turn view tourists as their next plat du jour. Adding a surrealistic dimension are Didier Després as a rotund detective and Cyril Rigaux as his shrimpy sidekick—clad in black suits and bowlers, they're Laurel and Hardy by way of Magritte. Dumont tips his hat to Luis Buñuel's The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, but this fanciful satire lacks Buñuel's bite. With Juliette Binoche, hamming it up as the Luchini character's imperious sister. In French with subtitles. —Andrea Gronvall 122 min. Sat 3/11, 4 PM, and Thu 3/16, 6 PM.
Truman Truman is a slobbering mastiff owned by an earnest movie star with terminal cancer (Ricardo Darín of The Secret in Their Eyes), and parting with the dog is one of the tasks the man must complete now that he's decided to discontinue his treatment and die with dignity. You're probably gagging already, but this Spanish-Argentine drama (2015), set in Madrid and framed by a four-day visit from the actor's witty old friend (Javier Cámara), is pitch-perfect, its comic drollery rooted in character and its awkward, poignant good-byes credibly staged. Director Cesc Gay, who cowrote the screenplay with Tomàs Aragay, understands what each of his characters needs from those good-byes and takes careful note of the pas de deux we all perform out of respect when someone is not long for this world. In Spanish with subtitles. —J.R. Jones 108 min. Fri 3/24, 2 PM, and Sun 3/26, 5:15 PM.
- Two Lottery Tickets
Two Lottery Tickets This enjoyably deadpan Romanian comedy follows three village barflies—a bumbling auto mechanic (Dorian Boguta), a compulsive gambler (Dragoş Bucur), and a conspiracy theorist (Alexandru Papadopol)—as they scramble to recover a winning lottery ticket that's been stolen from them. The laughs build as the buddies search every floor of the mechanic's apartment building for witnesses to the robbery, grilling a trio of stoners, some gypsy fortune tellers, a bespectacled dominatrix, and a self-composed little girl (whom Papadopol's character insists "knows something"). A road trip to Bucharest to corner the thieves sets up even more daft encounters, though humor gives way to pathos en route. Director Paul Negoescu has created a good ensemble, integrating the finely tuned performances of his three professional leads with amusing walk-ons by amateur supporting players. In Romanian with subtitles. —Andrea Gronvall 86 min. Sat 3/18, 2:15 PM, and Mon 3/20, 6:15 PM v