On Oct. 5, the Denver Film Society announced the full program for the 44th Denver Film Festival. Running November 3-14, this year’s DFF will be in-person and virtual, with plenty of activities and talks. I’ve been attending DFF since I was in college (back when it was the Starz Denver Film Festival) and covering it since 2014. Over the next few weeks, I’ll be looking back at DFFs past in preparation for festival present. Up next, from Boulder Weekly Vol. 24, No. 14, dispatches from the 39th Denver Film Festival: “A couple of clowns.”
There is something in the air at the 39th Denver Film Festival (DFF), something musical. Be it Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling channeling the spirits of Rogers and Astaire in the opening night film La La Land, the swinging jazz musicians found in post-World War II Poland, The Eccentrics, or even the diverse array offered in the Music Video Mixtape program—music and musicality are taking a forefront at DFF. But they can’t compete with the husband-and-wife team behind Rumba (2008), The Fairy (2011), and Lost in Paris (2016), the recipients of this year’s Rare Pearl Award: Dominique Abel and Fiona Gordon.
The Belgian Abel and the Australian Gordon met over 30 years ago in a Parisian circus working as clowns. Now in their 50s, Abel and Gordon continue the time-honored tradition of screen clowns in their unique and idiosyncratic works of art. Time hasn’t slowed their antics, but it has sharpened their skills, and with DFF featuring three of their films, with Abel and Gordon in attendance, there is no better time to familiarize yourself with the many lovable aspects of these cinematic pearls.
The best of the three is their most recent work, Lost in Paris, a romantic comedy with Fiona (Gordon)—they use their real names in all their movies—as a Canadian librarian who dreams of finding love in the City of Lights. She finds it when she crosses paths with Dom (Abel), a charismatic and chivalrous tramp in the vein of Charlie Chaplin. The first we see of Dom, he is wandering happy-go-lucky along the Seine with one pant leg baggy and the other hiked-up—a sly reference to both Chaplin, with his ill-fitting and baggy pants, and the spindly Jacques Tati, who wore his pants tight and high.
Though Abel and Gordon channel the spirits of their predecessors, their work is wholly theirs. Take an early scene from Rumba where Abel and Gordon, who are both still shy and reserved around each other, sit quietly while their shadows leap up and consummate their relationship with dance. Synonymous with ballroom dancing, the word “rumba” means party in Cuba, and that double meaning perfectly describes Abel and Gordon’s films.
Sometimes that dance is composed through shots and edits, as is in The Fairy with Abel playing a night clerk at a hotel full of slapstick-prone tenants. There is real musicality every time Abel runs up or falls down the hotel’s staircase.
All of these set pieces are goofy, vibrant, and expressive, and few of them rely on language to explain the scenario. Instead, Abel and Gordon work wonders to set up and payoff each gag visually, a technique that was a staple during the silent era of cinema but has dwindled ever since wisecracks took precedent in comedy. But that doesn’t mean Abel and Gordon are throwbacks or nostalgists. They are simply entertainers that use their bodies to entertain. They are clowns, and they are the best kind.