log in

In Short, Europe: Happy Together review – a union uplifted by humour

The Guardian - Tue May 4 16:00

In the wake of Brexit, there’s a defiant note in the overarching theme – Happy Together – of this year’s survey of European shorts, brought to us by EUNIC London, an umbrella organisation for EU cultural institutions, and pulled together by London-based curator Shira MacLeod. But, as they say, it’s complicated: the “happiness”, as flaunted in many of these 19 short films, feels somewhat ironic; long-suffering humour the common currency in muddling through a bundle of dissatisfactions, gripes and misunderstandings.

In Barnabás Tóth’s Chuchotage, two Hungarian translators make unlikely sweet talk from the Euro-sustainability waffle they have to parse for an attractive client. The scenario walks a fine line next to creepy sexual harassment – before these cunning linguists get their comeuppance.

Personal lives thrashing tragicomically in the shadow of the political has been a hallmark of the Romanian new wave, and The Christmas Gift’s hilarious premise suggests director Bogdan Mureşanu could be another future star of that movement. After overhearing his dad badmouth Ceauşescu, a seven-year-old posts a letter to Santa saying his parent’s present should be for “uncle Nick” to die. “He’s no child, we’ve raised a snitch,” yells the panicked father. Meanwhile, Swimmer is a Mexican – or rather Swedish – standoff in a municipal pool as two policemen’s attempt to extract a lawbreaker wrings deadpan magic from piped Muzak, as director Jonatan Etzler floats a cheeky meditation on the boundaries between public and private space.

There are more solemn entries: Vanessa Del Campo’s Mars, Oman, shot with photojournalistic rigour, fruitfully collages Bedouin, trainee astronauts and aspiring Arab scientists, while a golden-haired youth freewheels through gentrifying Porto in Leonor Teles’s Dogs Barking at Birds, done with Claire Denis-like suppleness.

But the two standouts choose to play things light: the candy-coloured Czech animation Sh_t Happens, by Michaela Mihályi and Dávid Štumpf, is a three-part hard-luck story about a janitor in a building full of animal tenants, which has a Robert Crumb-esque feistiness and punchy sound design. And the hills are alive with hollers, trills and whoops in Hannes Lang’s RIAFN, an initially quaint montage of Tyrolean shepherds’ calls that builds into something as pure and invigorating as a mountain stream. At this altitude, European humour has left daily worries far below.