Aesthetica Short Film Festival, the BAFTA-qualifying festival set across and in some cases carving out cultural spaces in the city of York, marked its fifth anniversary in 2015. Once again, 300 films were on show across fifteen venues and four days. Beyond the genres of drama, comedy, thriller, documentary, animation, music video, family friendly, experimental, and artists’ film, this year – after their introduction as part of the 2014 iteration of ASFF – saw fashion and advertising return for a second stint, and the debut of films devoted to dance.
Three special anniversary screenings brought together category award winners from the past five years, with panels afterwards discussing the celebrated works. Brazil, China, and Cuba were the guest countries for 2015, while there was also a showcase of films in French. And ‘The Raft of the Medusa’, the hour-long radio play by Simon Armitage set to visuals by Richard Heslop – inspired by the filmmaker Derek Jarman and the artist Theodore Gericault, and first aired in its audio form on BBC Radio 4 earlier this year – probed themes of flooding and isolation with a single showing on Friday.
As usual there were masterclasses, workshops, talks, and networking sessions with industry figures from the likes of Ridley Scott Associates, Channel 4, and the National Theatre. There was an opening event across the long Thursday evening, a party on Friday night, and an awards ceremony come the close of proceedings on Sunday. And in an understated but highly practical addition to ASFF, the festival’s first videotheque, hosted at Explore York, afforded attendees the chance to experience the full catalogue of shorts. In all I managed to attend nine screenings and view 51 films.
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‘M as in Martha’, a German film by the director Lena Knauss, is a cutely composed but insubstantial tale of forsaken romance. A young couple, Helene and Martha, summer in a small village in Poland, staying at a cottage frequented by Martha as a girl. From the outset, Helene – the narrator of the piece – struggles to grasp her love, knowing little of Martha’s background, and realising that this headstrong waifish woman, alternately carefree and taciturn, will not easily be possessed. Considering whether Martha loves her in return, she intuits that Martha would answer ‘yes’ to the question without knowing herself that it is a lie.
The couple flutter through a litany of tasks meant to indicate an unaffected and sensuous romance: they sing and play music together, pick flowers, swing from a tree, throw frisbee, and Martha frolics seductively in the pouring rain. But inevitably one morning Helene awakes to find Martha gone, and she tears outside and cries her name, but a photograph is all that is left. The scenery is attractive and the chemistry between the two lead actors compelling, but otherwise this is an adolescent vision, a dream about a relationship with an unattainable object of desire rather than an artistic exploration of anything real. ‘M as in Martha’ is sentimentally overwrought, and with a conclusion we fully expect within the first moments of this twenty-seven-minute film.
‘Throw Me to the Dogs’, directed by Aaron Dunleavy and Joseph Ollman, certainly captures something of life on an especially grim Blackburn council estate. But there are flaws: the father here, who rounds up his son’s bullies so that they might win a few hundred pounds competing as a team in a football tournament – thereby paying for the window which they have previously smashed – surely lacks the money for such niceties as kits and entry fees. And the extent of the film’s violence, and the unknowing cultivation of the bullies by the father, all seems a little stretched.
The atmosphere of ‘Kittiwakes’, by Iain Mitchell, is bleaker still, as an out-of-work trawlerman takes an equally needy young welder away from his fledgling family, and out to a derelict sea fort hoping to plunder scrap metal. When the welder’s perilous task proves a stretch too far, the men face up to death in their damp isolation. ‘Room 55’ by Rose Glass, set in 1950s England, elaborates the insipid affair of a middle-aged television cook, who spends a night of lavishly disciplined sexual gratification inside a mysterious hotel.
‘Cruelty’, by Anna Blandford, is interesting as a psychic exposition of the twin threats of miscommunication and violence inherent at the beginning of sexual relations. It would be wrong to read the work as too critical of either lover. But the tension that the film seeks to build, after the clumsy killing of a desperately injured dog, fails to quite add up. Finally ‘Fawns’, a Greek film by the director Thanasis Tsimpinis, completed the arc of Drama 4: managing in just three minutes to conjure a richly woven narrative on the same theme of romantic loss aimed at by ‘M as in Martha’. ‘Fawns’ is a moving blend of image, narration, and music, its exquisite black and white cinematography capturing male lovers alone at a launderette, as one recounts to the other the selfless care a female deer shows for her young.
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‘Hiatus’, by the China-born, France-based director Franchin Don, is a stylishly presented, thorough and original work of art. It offers an unusual perspective on tragedy, showing us the interaction between a mother and her daughter’s boyfriend in the immediate aftermath of her daughter’s death – the newly pregnant Sarah the terrible victim of a motorcycle crash which left her boyfriend, Clement, with only cuts and scrapes. And more than this, the course of their interaction is unique, as they unfold the following day as it had been planned before the accident took place.
Thus Sarah’s mother, Jeanne, and Clement – who as far as we are aware, have never previously met owing to some undisclosed estrangement between mother and daughter – spend a full day out field recording, in a quarry, atop a hill with a small church, finally reaching a barn come the evening. Each noise constructed by Clement and then Jeanne, every scrape of every rock and every thump against the bark of a tree, becomes an act of pure expression, a release and a means of wordlessly navigating impossible pain. Inside and alone in the barn, ‘Hiatus’ ends with Jeanne and Clement having sex: a conclusion which could easily have felt tawdry in another film, but here proves hard won.
Reshaping and rebuilding the interest of the audience after such an accomplished work is never easy, but ‘Suspended’, an Australian film by Damian Walshe-Howling, managed to maintain the standard across Drama 9’s wonderful sequence of five films. A young boy named Caleb lives with his counter-cultural, hippie parents. They play folk and blues music and are always high on drugs of some sort, while Caleb’s father strikes his son in fits of temper and equally abuses his wife, refusing to end a sexual relationship with another woman. Caleb finds oblique release with the aid of a thunderstorm and a blind neighbour, Eddie, who lives in a shack in the backyard. The heightened drama of the piece and several of Damian’s virtuosic effects briefly threaten to overwhelm ‘Suspended’, but the film succeeds, with boldy frazzled colours and an earnest warmth and curiosity between Eddie and Caleb.
Who knew that intimations of incest could provide such fertile ground for drama? ‘Mary No More’, set in the Norfolk countryside and directed by Joshua Carver, is the burgeoning of a young woman with lots going on: a mother focused on work at the expense of family life, but more pressingly the death of her grandmother, and a dalliance with her cousin, who she hasn’t seen in a number of years. Both Mary and Cameron are in the early parts of adulthood, unsure how they feel and how they ought to feel about their grandmother’s death, attracted to one another physically as much as temperamentally, and disinclined to forego sex. But beyond the plot, ‘Mary No More’ is an eloquently composed character study, with fine acting and gentle pacing, a quietly challenging meditation on maturity and the spell of time.
‘When I Stopped Worrying About Scoundrels’, a Brazilian satirical comedy with heart by Tiago Vieira, displays a man named Joao Carlos verging on breakdown. His partner appears to be betraying his trust, although Joao’s own fears and inadequacies lead him to visualise something extravagantly seedy; his friendships amount to agitated political confrontations, as he expresses his admiration for the presidency of Lula, for instance, only to be assailed by incessant critiques; and as his work life also suffers, he imagines himself becoming like the bigoted city taxi drivers who crudely ensnare customers with their fares and their points of view. A dawning realisation impels Joao to find new friends and embark on rectifying his life, in this astute, self-aware, and resonantly funny film.
Finally ‘Malaguti Phantom’ is an uproarious Dutch take-off on Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive, by the director Sam de Jong. A sort of cosmic preface to his debut feature Prince, released earlier this year, it follows the story of an awkward, already scarred, lilac and lime green track jacket-clad young biker who, in order to fit in, is forced to remodel his tastes and appearances. But by co-opting the dance music of the popular bikers, and becoming one with his new leathers and helmet, our hero earns not only a peculiar acceptance but preeminence at the head of the gang: the apotheosis of a mask.
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Courtesy of Mads Erichsen, ‘The Witch’ touches lightly upon magical realism within a harrowing tale of an alcoholic father and his two sons. They live in rural Denmark, and one day while David and Jonathan are roaming the woods which cloister their home, they encounter an African prostitute who appears to be on the run. Between the vicious beatings the older child, Jonathan, suffers at the hands of their drunken and religiously devout father, the younger child, David, begins sneaking crumbs of food to an outbuilding in which the woman hides. Though he fears the repercussions, Jonathan hesitantly also begins to offer his help. The woman speaks no Danish, and the trio have to communicate largely by sign, but she briefly becomes a kind of surrogate mother to the two boys, a shield from the brutality of their world, a source of play and hope.
When the father discovers the woman, he becomes irate: she offers her body in a healing gesture, but he ties her up and assaults her, leaving her covered in blood. The two boys help the woman escape, but they feel bound to stay with their father, hoping that their actions have forever tilted the balance of the family home. ‘Ice Floe’, directed by Maria Loyter and set in Arkhangelsk in northern Russia, is an equally accomplished film, searching similarly for a glimpse of compassion amid desolate circumstances. A shy fourteen-year-old girl named Alya lives in an orphanage, and becomes enchanted by her music teacher Svetlana: the only person who is kind to her, and her only model for the sort of elegant self possession to which she might aspire. The two bond in and out of school, but when Svetlana stands up for Alya, the teenager responds with an unsolicited kiss.
‘Flawless’, a short by Keith Allott which considers mortality and potentiality, rests clumsily on a father who crouches over in the middle of a busy road. ‘The Lobster Kid’, set in Taiwan by Joseph Chen-Chieh Hsu, is a bittersweetly entertaining if hyperactive depiction of a thirteen-year-old girl who dreams of moving to Taitung. Siang understands that the place boasts the world’s best lobsters, but she is stuck working as a vendor for a local street gang. Told to make money fast or face the consequences, she shuttles from door to door without success, shooed away until she is rescued by a silent monk who has unexpected authority in the criminal underworld.
‘Pyrohans’, a Swiss-German film by Marion Tuor, momentarily shifted the focus of Drama 15 from childhood towards the relationships adults share with their parents. After the funeral of their other sibling, Esther compels her reluctant brother Samuel on a drive to visit their distant father, a pyromaniac who lives in a hut in the woods. By sabotaging their planned return home, Esther manages to secure a measure of reconciliation between Samuel and her father, but though ‘Pyrohans’ has visual style and makes for a pleasant enough film, it lacks spark despite the fireworks. And back with the kids, ‘Crocodile’ by Matt Freeth concluded Drama 15 with an inane hypothetical.
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Comedy is hard to get right. Everyone is so sure when it comes to their own sense of humour, and while comedy can be generated from hectic or hesitant pacing, the genre tends to demand at least a smattering of clever writing and an unusually high shine. Comedy struggles to rest solely on atmosphere, and perhaps the short comedy film has it especially tough: too long to persist as a relocated television sketch, too short to cohere as a series of sketches, it seems to ask for a single funny idea raised to a narrative whole.
ASFF always affords more than its share of laughs across the full scope of its selection, but there were few to be had during the screening of Comedy 5. Comedy and tragedy might share an innate bond, but many of the directors here simply transitioned between the two without rhyme or reason, an empty gesture in place of detailed thought. Johnny Vegas can be relied on to endow his roles with traces of fading energy and restless pain, but ‘Dark_Net’ by Tom Marshall is narratively weak, straining in the first half for humour, clasping in the second for something unduly bleak. In a bar, Alan tells his incredulous friend that he has found an assassin on the darknet, whom he intends to have kill his ex-girlfriend’s current fling. He hopes to win back his love, but when money is drawn from his bank account, matters tumble out of hand.
‘Cool Robinson’, by Nafsika Guerry-Karamaounas, single-handedly made Comedy 5 worthwhile. Set in Greece, and only comic in its conclusion, it lingers on an attractive young couple whose motorboat fails out at sea. Forced to row to the nearest beach, their initial agitation yields as they come to appreciate their remote surroundings. With its beautiful cinematography, in faded tones of blue and beige, the romance of ‘Cool Robinson’ is memorable because it resides as much in the time the couple spend apart. When they wake after their first night alone on the beach, they soon go their separate ways: John off to seek some form of civilisation and sustenance, while Marina stays by the beach and begins to fashion something homely out of a stone pergola. Calmed and made receptive by nature to the world around, they dwell in each other while wandering solo.
John finds food, fish and grapes, and his interactions with the locals are happy because he knows he will not have to be about them for too long, and because he is looking forward to returning to Marina. They enjoy another night alone on the beach – but wake the following morning to find that inadvertently, John’s brief encounter with civilisation has popularised a new beauty spot, their beach now besieged by tourists. Shown in a thirteen-minute cut during Comedy 5, a longer version of ‘Cool Robinson’ was available at the ASFF videotheque, and only gained from the added length.
‘Ringtone’, by Andy Hui, is a broad and simpleminded comedy based solely on a conversational aside, the redundant thought ‘remember when we used to buy ringtones?’. ‘The House Job’, a Brazilian effort directed by Filippo Capuzzi Lapietra, is a harmless but uninspired farce about a burglary, planned for the purpose of insurance fraud, which goes wrong at every step. ‘All the Pain in the World’, by Tommaso Pitta, an indulgent and off-putting film, relays a man who becomes irate when a pet store refuses to listen regarding a trapped fish. It relies on the trope that an exploding Englishman, whose patient uprightness finally wears out, is a surefire source of comedy. And ‘Greetings! From Prison’, a too-long American short from Matthew Byori Mann and Tommy Beardmore, offers nothing new to the genre of prison comedy.
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‘Tumbang Preso’, directed by Joey De Guzman, provides a concise and evocative glimpse of the traditional Filipino children’s game of the same title. With a simple goal but bustling and hectic, tumbang preso involves groups of players tossing slippers or flat stones at an upturned tin can, while one person guards the tin and repositions it when toppled. ‘Karin and the Counselor’, a Swedish documentary directed by Monika Andreae, depicts the change in her aunt Karin since the death of Karin’s husband, a charismatic priest. Rooted in Karin’s caustic fatalism, in some ways typically Swedish, and filmed effectively as a series of monologues from the seat of a sofa, intercut with photographs and brief passages of narration, Karin reveals a boldly assertive personality: empowered by her husband’s death, she has embarked on elaborate money-making schemes, enlisting her former counsellor in a role somewhere between partner and personal assistant.
In ‘Mr X’, shot in black and white and directed by Alex Nicholson, the South London tattooist Duncan X briefly recounts his life through tales of drug addiction and fatherhood, while reflecting on the meaning of his art. ‘My Heart Is In The East’, by Liron Zisser, is a compelling look at the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through the eyes of two prominent figures living in London: Laila Shawa, a Palestinian artist, and Dr Ahron Bregman, an Israeli academic. Bregman’s account is particularly interesting, as he served in the Israel Defense Forces before becoming a leading critic of the country’s continuing military presence in the occupied territories. And ‘The Last Smallholder’, by Francis Lee, is a fond and broadly representative picture of fading farm life in the hills of Yorkshire.
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The short screening of Animation 2 was a nice surprise: most of these films had real narrative substance, complemented by an exciting array of visuals. In ‘The Voice Over’, an Italian stop-motion animation by Dadomani Studio, an ageing Keith Richards-esque figure ponders existentially from the precarious confines of a lofty cell. ‘Somewhere Down The Line’ by Julien Regnard, in a pretty cutout style despite the peculiar red noses, afforded one of the most convincing portrayals of loss at ASFF 2015. A boy sits in the backseat of his parents’ car as they bitterly argue, and at a rest-stop he decides to drive off alone, growing up to become a taxi driver, which allows him to steer without engaging those around him. But when he meets a pretty girl – abandoning his passengers to make her acquaintance – they fall in love and start a family, only for the man to find that he cannot avoid replicating his parents’ mistakes.
‘Fulfilament’, by Rhiannon Evans, features a clever title and the innovative use of illuminated puppets, but it feels overlong for its easy metaphor in which a light bulb has to find the right sort of screw in order to spark. ‘The Shipping Forecast’, drawn by David Blanche within the locale of a quiet British coastal town, is a wrenching depiction of dementia and its impact on an elderly couple, the condition well captured by the grey and lurching animation.
Dhaneesh Jameson’s ‘The Blue Sweater’ is a bravura piece of filmmaking, telling the touching story of a promise made by a girl to her younger brother, drawing upon local spirits and conjuring an enveloping sense of place, and animated in a graceful blend of black, white, and cerulean blue. Jameson unfolds his curious childhood narrative within a flickering white border, splits his screen into two or four parts, and scrapes and blurs the surface of his page in a manner that resembles wash painting in watercolour and ink. As a result, ‘The Blue Sweater’ is not only beautiful, but uniquely lively and utterly captivating. Rounding off the screening, ‘A Lucky Girl’ by Andrew Griffin & Martin O’Neill uses decorative collages to animate an effervescent interview conducted with the Flemish actress Bettine Le Beau, who remembers surviving the Holocaust before playfully discussing the early years of her career.
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It is rare to like everything shown at an experimental screening, but not unusual to like some things lots. In ’06 Rue Fontalie’ by Matt Smith and Kate Hannah Papi, a smug gentleman hangs about an abandoned studio loft, spewing streams of syllables which neither make overt sense, function as insightful juxtapositions, or possess the qualities of sound poetry. The striking black and white cinematography of ‘Under’, by Kevin Frilet, shows bodies in seminal interplay submerged beneath the surface of water.
‘The Sand Storm’ manages to do plenty within its nine-minute duration, a sprawling narrative set in a dystopian future, which centres on a subverted love triangle – the woman who we initially believe is being cheated on turns out to be the adulterer – and features Ai Weiwei as a liminal water bearer. Directed by Jason Wishnow, based in China, and described as a ‘lo-fi sci-fi’ short, ‘The Sand Storm’ is an absorbing film from its muted palette of olives, browns, and greys, to its set-up wherein society is gripped by a major water shortage. There is foreboding in the narrow passageways and winding streets of the drab and smoggy city, but when Ai Weiwei drops off his passenger in the outskirts in front of a small greenhouse rotunda, also a sense of hope.
‘Hybris’ by the Dutch filmmaker Arjen Brentjes undercuts the philosophical speculations of a scientist who, interviewed on a television talk show, predicts the course of human progression towards eternal life, with images of casual romance set in an archetypal 1960s luxury apartment. The conceit works brilliantly, conveying a peculiar stasis, posing original questions about the nature of love.
‘Seven Times a Day we Bemoan our lot and at Night we get up to Avoid Dreaming’, cast by director Susann Maria Hempel as a ‘cinematic devotional book’, is an uneasy experience and hard to evaluate: based on interviews with an East German amnesiac, its visual style enacts the process of a deteriorating memory, its cardboard bathroom walls and plastic forests grubby and vulgar and rooted in a groping repetition. ‘Markasit’ by Nico Joana Weber reads better on the page than it shows on screen, not a bad film, but less an exploration than a languid passage between the concrete brutalist architecture of the Ruhr University Bochum and its rural environs.
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Guest Country: China
‘Down River’ by Cathy Yan, born in China and based in New York, was one of the most rounded works on display at ASFF 2015: a wonderfully nuanced story interlacing moments of unconstrained humour with deep pathos, and with Wang Zhihau giving a substantial performance in the lead role. Based on real events which occurred in 2013, in the small town of Jinze outside of Shanghai, a pig farmer struggles for money. He is in debt to an agitated local creditor, and his pigs are unsaleable, having succumbed to the disease which has seen thousands of the animals dumped into the Huangpu River, a tributary of the Yangtze.
Extravagant by nature, and eager to put the difficulties of his situation out of mind, the man has instead been spending his time showing off his new widescreen television, gathering a cluster of neighbours and shopkeepers in his home as he adorns 3D glasses and gazes at the flickering screen. He is already receiving money from his sister, who runs a salon and has little to spare, and from his son too, who bought him the television, and who by all accounts is making a success of professional life in Shanghai, recently mustering the funds for his first house and car. The farmer fully intends for others to make up his debt. But when he is rejected by his sister, a trip to Shanghai unveils the truth of his son’s living as a waiter.
This makes the monthly stipend paid by son to father more noble, an act of real sacrifice. But the farmer walks away bewildered and upset, perhaps less because his opinion of his son has changed, more owing to an abrupt disturbance in his sense of self. He returns to his village to find his house littered and his television gone to service the debt, and he has to peer in from the corridor to catch sight of it in its new home. The man is undoubtedly at fault, but he is so recognisable, and so gregarious in his few moments of fun, that we neither desire his revenge nor take joy in his misery, and have to seek for a third term, which is life itself.
‘Dinosaur Rider’ by Tingerine Liu tells the story of a teenage punk band, blistering with something of the energy of the genre at its best, focusing on the eighteen-year-old guitarist Xuan and his relationships with his best friend, the band’s lead singer, and with a girl who works at the local record store. ‘Katyusha’ by Ding Jie also centres on teenagers, here still in high school. Xu falls from afar for one of a group of girls who have been given parts in a costume drama, playing kick-ass coquettes in Red Army uniform. He calls her ‘Katyusha’, and in an attempt to get close to her earns a part as an extra, but this short film exposes grand divides in opportunity and class.
Directed by Xiaoxing Cheng, ‘Ideal Match’ is a plainspoken documentary on an amusing subject: the ageing parents of working adults in China who spend their time – often unbeknownst to their children – petitioning in parks in the hopes of obtaining sons and daughters-in-law. These pensioners come armed with curriculum vitae and passport photographs, bartering so that their child might secure the best deal on a future spouse. Last but not least ‘Horoscope’ by Maya Rudolph, shot on location in Beijing, is an alluring film about two young girls who align around boys each morning on the bus to school. Xinxin and Xiao Lu believe that an encounter with a stranger presages love, but they are not quite sure who for, and though they have always skipped the city in tandem, their friendship might be scooting apart. In bright sunlight and with an expressive soundtrack featuring music by Skip Skip Ben Ben, ‘Horoscope’ brought this series of five exceptional Chinese films to a reflective close.
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French Language Showcase
‘Terremere’, a French-Senegalese production directed by Aliou Sow, at thirty minutes was one of the longest films shown at ASFF 15, but it has the scope and the quality of an epic, an odyssey from France to Mauritania to bury the body of a young man. The body belongs to one of Abdoulaye’s brothers, killed in a car accident, and Abdoulaye leads a small group of friends on the precarious journey across the Mauritanian desert to the village of his parents. Sow’s skill is in forging a grand narrative out of a few set pieces: a vehicle breakdown, an attempted robbery at gunpoint, before the group reach their destination only to find that the religious elders of the village will not allow burial on the family plot, as the body of Abdoulaye’s brother contained traces of alcohol. As Abdoulaye, Oumar Diaw gives a remarkable performance of contained intensity.
Harald Hutter watched Last Year at Marienbad and had an idea, and a better idea than one might expect, for after the success of ‘Léthé’ last year he was back at ASFF with ‘L’Esprit de l’Escalier’, another near-parody of French cinema with none of Marienbad‘s surreal rhythm, pulsating psychology, visual precision, or sense of looping time. An old man thinks he might recognise a young woman as she flits past a lift, and he delves into a realm of memory equally vague and stunted.
On the other hand last year Marie Enthoven’s ‘Naive’ was one of the festival highlights, a dark comedy about a grown woman whose only friends turn out to be her mother’s paid representatives. This year the Belgian director’s ‘Taxistop’ is more broadly comic, but it is another delightful work of cinema, about a middle-aged motivational speaker whose four keys for team building do little for his ex-wife, or for his fractious co-riders on a carpooling trip to Geneva. Enthoven has a knack for drawing out, in immediately pleasurable but constantly surprising ways, the black humour in contemporary phenomena. The fun is as much in the details as the situation, and after Antoine very deliberately gives up on his trip, tramping from the side of the road to sit forlornly in the middle of a field, we find that at length he is able to assert himself.
‘Lila & Valentin’ by Adrien Lhommedieu is an overexcited and overindulged sci-fi short. The title couple have been in a car crash, and they lie next to each other in dire straits, Valentin marginally better off than Lila, who is in a coma. Valentin attempts to enter her mind in order to save her, in a film with skittish doctors and a vapid romance not saved by the abundance of tealights. In ‘On the Road…’, an enjoyably offbeat film from Marion Laine, three unfamiliar women – a roadhouse waitress, a trucker, and another with a newly broken heart – obliquely endanger the lives of complacent men. And ‘Some Like It False’ by Baptiste Magontier is a bland recapitulation of differing perspectives after a first date.