by Fabien Lemercier
- Winner of the Grand Prix des Amériques at Montréal, the firstfiction feature film by Tamas Yvan Topolánszky dissects the dilemmas encountered by Michael Curtiz while filming Casablanca
"We are in a time of war, Mr. Curtiz, and in times of war, there are only two camps: us and them." It’s at this particular crossroads between history and cinema that the young Swiss-Hungarian directorTamas Yvan Topolánszky plunges his audience with Curtiz, his first feature, a very sophisticated black and white film and winner of the Grand Prix des Amériques in September at Montreal World Film Festival, something that’s bound to make cinephiles everywhere very happy, given that it plunges us onto the set of one of the film industry’s most legendary movies: Casablanca.
Following a prologue in ascreening room where a newsreel talks about the attack on Pearl Harbour on 7 December 1941 and Roosevelt's speech, which confirmed America’s entry into World War II, we find ourselves in Jack Warner's large Hollywood office, where he is discussing the adaptation for the big screen of Everybody Comes to Rick's with producer Hal Wallis (Scott Alexander Young). They’re talking about a change of title, but also the film's message and its director Michael Curtiz (Ferenc Lengyel), a womaniser who does not respect delivery deadlines and is particularly "Hungarian" (despite touching down in the United States 15 years ago and already receiving three Academy Award nominations for Best Director), as Johnson highlights (Declan Hannigan), the suspicious government representative at the studio.
In fact, will be revealed later on when filming Casablanca in 1942, the filmmaker (a clay pigeon trap amateur) is naturally angry, proud and rather egocentric ("I don't owe anyone anything"). However, on top of constant pressure from Johnson, who wants to change the screenplay to something more explicitly anti-Nazi, Curtiz must also deal with his own family torment, due to a threatened sister who he tries to help flee Europe, and a daughter (Evelin Dobos) who springs up from nowhere to hold him to account for always ignoring her (after being left in New York with her mother, her father’s ex-wife). Serious dilemmas that cause the filmmaker to reflect on the immigrant he once was and the man he has become, a man whose ambition it is to become the greatest filmmaker of all time, but whose goal at this particular moment in time is to shoot a film out and come up with an ending...
With this first feature, Tamas Yvan Topolánszky demonstrates beautiful formal mastery (assisted by Zoltán Dévényi’s photography and music by Gábor Subicz). Cleverly avoiding showing the characters played by Ingrid Bergman and Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca, Curtiz beautifully captures the hive of activity of Hollywood studios at the time (Desperate Journey by Raoul Walsh and Across the Pacific by John Huston are being shot on neighbouring sets), as well as Curtiz's creative genius, brainstorming around a screenplay that's a work in progress (with Yan and Rafael Feldman in the roles of the Epstein brothers) and the impact of the war climate on American production. A ensemble that makes it a very successful tribute to a cult film, a golden age of production and a director for whom Casablanca resulted in a triumph at the Oscars in 1944 (Best Film, Best Director and Best Screenplay).
Curtiz was produced by Claudia Sümeghy for the Budapest-based company JUNO11 Pictures, which will be distributing the film in Hungarian cinemas next February and is currently looking for an international seller.
(Translated from French)
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