Although there were considerably fewer cinemas at the time, it's unlikely the 1998 film Happiness was ever officially released across the UAE. While highly acclaimed, this intensely dark, thought-provoking satire was one of the year's most controversial, touching on unsavoury subjects such as paedophilia, rape and sexual harassment (among others). The film picked up the International Critics Prize at Cannes and thrust its director and writer, Todd Solondz, into the spotlight. His subsequent releases, while not quite as well-received, didn't stray far from the same shocking and often opinion-dividing themes. Solondz's films became synonymous with the bleaker aspects of humanity, travelling where few directors would dare to tread.
Given this introduction, Solondz seems an unlikely candidate to appear at a Middle Eastern film festival. But this evening, the director brings his latest film, Dark Horse, to Abu Dhabi. Starring Christopher Walken and Mia Farrow, Dark Horse tells the story of Abe (Jordan Gelber), an overweight man in his mid-30s who lives with his parents and collects action figurines and movie memorabilia.
The subject matter may sound like decent grounds for a thoroughly depressing and darkly comical look into one individual's troubled psyche, but on paper, it doesn't appear like your average Solondz tale. As it turns out, this was entirely intentional.
"I wanted to perhaps up-end certain expectations about what a film of mine is really about," says Solondz. "I wanted to, I suppose, relieve myself of some of the baggage that accrued over the last several films."
Solondz isn't the first to visit the "man-child" territory, with recent titles such as Failure to Launch,The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Greenberg each involving a character living in some state of permanent adolescence.
"I was aware of this 'genre', so to speak," he says. "I think I obviously have a different approach to the subject matter, with different aims in mind."
And Solondz's different approach, which sees the lead character Abe retreat further into his own mind after having fallen in love with the equally troubled Miranda (Selma Blair), provides enough clues as to the man behind Dark Horse.
"I don't think anyone would confuse this movie with any other director's. It's certainly evident that I don't need any sort of controversial subject matter per se to be identified as a film of mine."
Before coming to Abu Dhabi, Dark Horse screened at the Venice and Toronto film festivals. So far, the reviews have been largely mixed, something Solondz suggests has more to do with what has come to be expected of him. "If this were a first movie, it would be a very different response. But it's not. It comes after a series of much more overtly politically charged, sexually social critiques and so forth."
One complaint, says Solondz, has been that Dark Horse is too mainstream. "I wish it were, because that would mean that it would be profitable."
But it would be irresponsible to assume what might be deemed mainstream in Cannes and Toronto will be greeted in the same manner in the UAE. Will Dark Horse shock the Abu Dhabi Film Festival?
"Different films shock in different ways," says Solondz. "I don't set out to shock, although I do like to provoke in the same way I like to be provoked when I go to see a movie. First and foremost, I never aim to please anyone but myself and all I can do is hope that people respond in the way I do. I guess we'll have to wait and see what kind of response this world has in Abu Dhabi."