57th London Film Festival overview by Colin Dibben
This year I’ve only seen a quarter of the number of films that I saw at last year’s LFF, and I’ve been even more heinously mistaken with identifying award winners. But here’s the best of what I have seen – and thank golly Adam and Simon were on hand to cover most of the festival.
Two astronauts, adrift in space, travel from wrecked space station to wrecked space station in search of a means of survival.
This is truly sublime, spectacular stuff, well worth watching on the biggest screen you can find. The film is so good that even Sandra Bullock’s throwaway ironic line ‘I hate space!” takes on profound resonances. It’s tense and scary and develops like one long catastrophe in space.
And what a catastrophe! The sequences of zero-gravity explosion/implosion/structural collapse are immensely beautiful and terrifying to behold. The London-based Framestore team behind the special effects deserve every award there is, as does Emmanuel Lubezki (Terrence Malick’s DoP of choice) for making Earth’s orbital space look so vertiginously beautiful.
It’s not hyperbole to say that Gravity reinvents the ‘space film’: never before has the precariousness of humanity in space been experienced on cinema screens in such an immediate fashion, with every painfully exerted, spinning movement on the part of the astronauts being torn from the immense vacuum of space. An absolute must-see.
12 Years a Slave
There may be 27 million slaves in the world today, more than at any other time in history, but there can’t be any people amongst the demographic for Steve McQueen’s new film that think that ‘slavery’ is ‘a good thing’ or even ‘acceptable’. And that’s always been the problem with films about slavery – they’re smug, relegating the issues to a historical past about which there is consensual agreement, thereby making us feel warm and fuzzy and like nice people; whilst said 27 million carry on getting royally fucked over on a day-to-day basis.
I was prepared to feel smug about identifying the smugness in 12 Years a Slave, but was instead totally engaged by the nuanced exploration of the antebellum slave system it presents. (I’m sure there’s a human interest story or two in the film as well, but I’ll leave it to others to mope over that aspect).
I think it’s probably McQueen’s ‘video art’ background as well as John Ridley’s excellent screenplay, but there’s a refreshing focus on details and specificities of action and environment in 12 Years a Slave that makes it truly remarkable. The focus on detail sometimes has the effect of overturning a familiar image: the paddle steamer journey that’s reduced to a close up of the paddles rotating, accompanied by a nightmarish and unrelenting soundtrack roar; but sometimes the details do more than strip the polite veneer from images with which we are more or less comfortable.
The intimacy of slavery’s ‘climate of violence’ is perfectly captured in the proximity of plantation houses and slave quarters; the urgent realities of the economic activity behind antebellum slavery are highlighted by the precise way we are shown details of cotton picking and sugarcane harvesting; the ethical issues are complicated by the presentation of the role of debt economy in the power relations of slavery; the central character’s valued distinction between ‘life’ and ‘survival’ is called into question by the prosaic aspects of life, as when prize-cotton picker Patsey sits humming to herself, making husk dolls.
The whole film is at pains to refute the melodramatic treatment its story might have incurred – Solomon Northup’s story is told as an unexceptional tale that’s all the more terrifying for that.
Kelly Reichardt’s quiet and intense eco-activist drama is much more of a brooding mood piece than a thriller, despite telling the story of three young alt-lifestylers who plan to blow up a dam near Portland, Oregon to protest excessive energy consumption.
Jesse Eisenberg’s face embodies the mood of the film (did I mention quiet intensity?) and that mood envelops every aspect of the film from the deep, depressive colouration of the forested Oregon expanses to the credibly realistic presentation of life on a co-operative farm. It’s a calm look – as if from within – at alternative eco lifestyles, despite the fact that the three leads find themselves out of their depth once they’ve crossed the line into direct and violent action.
Even then, very nicely, the mood of the film doesn’t really change – there’s a saturnine auteur vision in evidence here, as much during the whispered planning of the outrage as during the outbursts of nervous frustration that follow it.
Let the Fire Burn
MOVE was – and still is – a militant, grungy, back-to-nature black movement, set up in the 1970s in Philadelphia. In 1985, police dropped a bomb on the roof of their HQ in a residential part of Philadelphia – in an attempt to get the armed group to vacate the premises. The subsequent conflagration, left to burn on purpose, killed 11 people, including five children; and destroyed 60 townhouses over three blocks.
Made up of archival footage from news report and public enquiry hearings, Jason Osder’s documentary explores the event and its backdrop. It’s a harrowing tale – made more so by the inevitable, depressing violent racism of the cops and the self-serving rationalizations of the public servants involved – neither of whom were even doing what they’re accused of nowadays, ie protecting private property. Instead, they seem to have been acting out their own weird law-and-order agenda, in acts of pure revenge and self-protection.
The sequences where MOVE survivors give witness in court are riveting; you wince at their skewed arguments of the ‘rupture defense’ variety – accusing the accuser etc – even as their righteous anger burns through to the viewer.
Top five LFF 2013 films by Simon Bull
- Why Don’t You Play in Hell?
- Lebanon Emotion
- Norte, The End of History
- Bad Hair
- Manila in the Claws of Light
Top five LFF 2013 films by Adam Hollingworth
- 12 Years a Slave
- The Selfish Giant
- The Zero Theorem
- Only Lovers Left Alive
Honourable Mentions: Blue is the Warmest Colour and A Touch of Sin
LFF BLOG DAY 11: ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE AND DON JON by Adam Hollingworth
The final day of my London Film Festival was bittersweet in two distinct respects. I’m completely exhausted and my bank balance has been battered beyond belief, but it has been an unbelievably consistent parade of truly excellent films, and I feel as if I have been spoiled by a cinematic banquet. The other way in which it has been bittersweet is that whilst my penultimate film, Jim Jarmusch’s meditative and blackly comic vampire story Only Lovers Left Alive, is one of the strongest and most enjoyable films I’ve seen over the last week and a half, the final film I saw, Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s porn addiction comedy-drama Don Jon, was by far and away the worst thing I’ve seen at the Festival.
Let’s start with that so I don’t end everything on too much of a downer. Gordon-Levitt plays Jon, a young self-obsessed, narcissistic Italian-American bartender whose life revolves around partying in clubs to elicit casual sexual encounters, screaming at people from his flashy car, enduring stereotypically Italian family dinners with his crassly stereotyped family, pumping his still puny muscles solo in the gym, submitting himself to half-hearted confessions in his local church, and most importantly of all indulging in internet pornography in round the clock masturbation sessions. His addiction to internet porn has skewed his perception of both sex and emotional connectivity with women, and this will come to be interrogated through sexual relationships with two very different women: brassy and beautiful rom-com addict Scarlett Johansson and bereaved but emotionally and sexually mature older woman Julianne Moore. This film is despicable in numerous respects. It’s portrayal of Italian Americans is horribly clichéd and nasty, the supposedly likeable central character is a misogynistic and arrogant oaf who barely experiences any kind of redemptive lesson, the direction mistakes shock tactics and aimless business for style, the writing is entirely dependent on dim-witted bawdiness, and the emotional void supposedly at the heart of Jon’s character is insulting to people with genuine emotional problems as a result of addiction. Worst of all the film’s ideology is hideous: equating skewed male expectations of relationships as dictated by porn with skewed female expectations of relationships as dictated by romantic comedies confuses a perpetual and ultimately harmless ideology with what is increasingly becoming a troublesome social evil, severely warping the minds of younger people exposed to it…something the trivial nature of this film does absolutely nothing to address. Gordon-Levitt is generally genial and talented on-screen, but he should be thoroughly ashamed of this tripe.
Only Lovers Left Alive is a witty, intelligent, swooning and intoxicating return for Jim Jarmusch, which sees the master of indie hipster outsiders reach what could only for him be a logical social conclusion: that immortal vampires are behind every major artistic and scientific advance in human history, and having consumed all the knowledge and experience available to them have become bored, melancholic drifters through the post-millennial world. Adam (Tom Hiddleston, channelling a kind of public-school educated Goth rocker) lives in isolation in Detroit, composing music he aims to gradually disseminate into the world through human avatars, and ordering the suicidal manufacture of a wooden bullet. Returning to his company from Tangier to restore his joie de vivre is Adam’s long-time wife Eve (Tilda Swinton, never more perfectly cast), an art and literature-obsessed sparkling waif. As the pair rediscover their love for each other and a reason to continue their perpetual, barely changing existence, their rekindled romance is rudely interrupted by the arrival of Eve’s troublesome, wayward little sister Ava (Mia Wasikowska, brilliant as a Courtney Love nymphet). The opening montage is a swirling metaphor for the circularity of Adam and Eve’s many centuries on Earth, and Jarmusch’s superb script creates a wonderfully unique take on the vampire mythology even as it exploits all the inherent humour in vampires having dictated most major human affairs: John Hurt, as the present day vampiric incarnation of Elizabethan playwright Christopher Marlowe, gets some especially good zingers playing on the authorship of Shakespeare’s plays, and Jarmusch’s barbs similarly take in Los Angeles and the music industry to bruising effect. His use of the empty, abandoned city of bankrupt Detroit beautifully complements the sense of waste and restlessness at the heart of the film, and although the final Tangier sequence is perhaps a tad overlong this is overall a film of enjoyably wry, sly humour and palpable, moving melancholia…and the music, a fusion of classic Jarmusch electronica and recurring Renaissance melodies, is perfect.
LFF BLOG: DAY 11 by Simon Bull
The more I watched Heli¸ the more I thought of Michel Franco’s remarkable debut, Daniel & Ana. At the heart of each film is a scene that has the potential to shock and provoke. Yet I don’t think either scene is about provoking and shocking, but rather it’s about the after-effects. The characters’ responses the event and shifting dynamics between protagonists is the focal point of both films. Each film trains its camera with a long and focused gaze on its subjects in order to watch them emotionally and psychologically unravel. But therein lies the difference between the two films. Franco seems to have a much better grasp of cinematic language: what makes his characters tick and how we interact with them. They are fully formed, interesting, and undergo total self-destruction. By contrast, Heli’s director Escalante doesn’t seem to follow his character’s self-destruction through to the end. The characters seem half as formed, half as interesting. And also half as unravelled. A good film, but hardly above average.
LFF BLOG: DAY 10 HELI by Adam Hollingworth
The latest in a profuse subgenre of films specifically dealing with the corrosive social, political and psychological impact of Mexico’s seemingly omnipotent and irrepressible drug cartels, Amat Escalante’s Heli takes the central conceit of the lives of an ordinary, impoverished Mexican family ripped to pieces through involvement with the drug world to arguably its apotheosis. The family involved is ordinary to the point of severe mundanity; their exposure to the drug world is fleeting, accidental and horrifically brutal; and the aftermath of this experience is painful, soul-destroying, and melancholically inevitable.
Heli is a young Mexican labourer diligently working the nightshift at a car manufacturing plant, which his father also works at during the daytime. They live together, alongside Heli’s wife Sabrina, infant child, and younger teenage sister Estella. Estella is secretly meeting with her older boyfriend Beto, a none-too-bright trainee policeman who is daily exposed to a gruelling regime to train him to effectively fight the regional drug war. When Beto steals two large packages of cocaine and gives them to Estella to hide, the profits from selling which he intends to use for their elopement and marriage, Heli catches the pair and disposes of the drugs. Heli briefly relaxes under the belief that he has ended their relationship and evaded involving the family in any narcotics entanglement, but when the sadistically violent cartel the cocaine belonged to catches up with Heli and Beto, the consequences are dire and the damaging drive towards enraged vengeful is irrevocably planted in Heli’s mind.
The tranquil domesticity of Heli’s family and their ordinary lives is expressed in the film’s slow-burning early scenes, which nonetheless capture a relaxed family dynamic to involving effect alongside the desolate barren landscapes of their rural Mexican town: one appropriately feels like working families and drug gangs alike are occupying the same desert wasteland, defined by empty vistas and oppressive skies. Escalante directs with a firm and totally controlled hand: each scene unfolds in a subtly mesmerising fashion, always framed and composed in a dynamic manner which avoids ostentatiousness, and the apparent placidity of the transpiring drama soon simmers with the terse possibilities of sudden violent acts. This melting pot is the result of a relatively short but shockingly memorable central sequence in which various members of the family are abducted and tortured by the local drug gang. This prolonged sequence of extreme corporeal suffering and explicit animal cruelty is problematic: it is unclear how far this is meant to be an honest reflection of real-life drug cartel actions, or whether it is irresponsible provocation. In any case, it is horrendously memorable, and is more than effective precipitation for Heli’s spiritual collapse in the film’s second half, in which violence begets violence and the only recourse for the drug war’s unfortunate victims is to permit their own degradation into the same abyss of evil.
LFF BLOG: DAY 10 by Simon Bull
I must admit I only really watched A Long and Happy Life to fill gaps between films, rather than actually wanting to watch it. But I was very pleasantly surprised by this existential Russian drama about a city man who retreats to the countryside to run a farm, only to come up against a bureaucratic wall led by the local council who want to evict him. Add into the mix, his farmhands are set on fighting back, and his girlfriend works at the council. With themes of immorality, fatalism and the consequences of our own actions, it’s part fable, part social commentary that tells us a great deal about shifting Russian ideals and values.
I don’t think I really grasped how good Thy Womb was until its final scene. A circular film that begins and ends with a birth, the first scene plays out like an observational documentary, indicating the film’s function as a realist document, a meditation on poverty and tradition in the rural Philippines. The final scene, by contrast, is pregnant with narrative, and it represents both the end of a journey and the beginning of another one. It hangs heavy with notions, representations and ideologies that have built up throughout the film, but fully take on meaning here: religion; culture; fatalism. The film follows husband and wife Bangas An and Shaleha as they cross between rural islands in an attempt to find a new wife to bear Bangas An’s child, and their journey is at once fatalist, realist, magical and transcendental. The film is directed by prolific Cannes award-winner Brillante Mendoza (Kinatay, Captive) and has been hanging around the festival circuit for a while (it’s appeared at nearly 50!), but there doesn’t seem to be any news on UK distribution. Hopefully it won’t be long before we see this wonderful film again.
Luton is the first film I’ve walked out of in 13 years. A truly ugly film that wallows in pretension and voyeurism, it completely lacks respect for its subjects. Surely there are better examples of Greek talent out there?
LFF BLOG: DAY 9 by Simon Bull
First up was New Zealand drama The Weight of Elephants. At its best moments it creates a poetic-realist landscape that veers between dream and nightmare, in which issues such as loneliness, abandonment, depression and illness are seen from the very specific perspective of children.
I made a few last-minute changes to my schedule. Concerned with not being able to get down from a shorts programme in Islington to the BFI in time for Sono’s latest, I sold on my ticket to the shorts and opted instead for soon-to-be-released Cutie and the Boxer. Cutie and the Boxer is an intimate documentary about the marriage between artists Ushio Shinohara and Noriko Shinohara, who met in New York in the 70s when Ushio was pursuing a career as a Neo-Dadaist (he paints by closing his eyes and punching a canvas). Taking the opening of Noriko’s new show as its central premise, the film delves back into archival footage to show us two artists struggling with failure, alcoholism, hard partying and poverty. In part, director Zachary Heinzerling both pays homage to, and deconstructs, the romantic notion of the 70s New York art scene, with its open door policy and notion that all artists are suffering. In modern day footage, Ushio is clearly in love with the camera and putting on a show. But it’s Noriko that becomes the focal point of this documentary, and who is the most multilayered. Her words and expressions, while often very funny, at times demonstrate resentment and bitterness, and at other times demonstrate love and selfless devotion. The distributor Dogwoof is releasing the film in November, and I believe there are already some post-festival previews arranged. A fascinating, revealing documentary that’s well worth catching.
Where can I start with Why Don’t You Play in Hell? After the misstep that was The Land of Hope, it’s great to see Sono Sion back on top form, and it’s my favourite of the festival so far. Stylistically and structurally it’s most similar to Love Exposure (it even uses some of the same music), it continues Sono’s obsession with cults and gangs. This time, rival yakuza gangs come together to shoot a film (with its many departments, isn’t a movie crew the ultimate gang?), and this draws together multiple narrative strands into an ultimate play-off between stylisation and realism. There are lots of seemingly throwaway remarks about cinema (“35mm is dead”) and visual gags (at one point the cameraman literally begins to shoot). There are generic and visual nods to yakuza films, martial arts, samurai films. Collective and individual thought dialogue with each other in a subversive subtext, while there’s a constant undercurrent of violence, so that seemingly innocent moments such as sound booms raised in the air resemble hoisted swords preparing for battle. Violence and trauma lie just beneath the surface in a film that’s as much about Japan’s unstable and conflicting past as it is a love letter to cinema. An absolute masterpiece.
LFF BLOG: DAY 9 12 YEARS A SLAVE by Adam Hollingworth
A richly deserved, rapturous standing ovation greeted director Steve McQueen and actors Chiwetel Ejiofor and Lupita Nyong’o at the conclusion of the European premiere of their Toronto-winner and current Oscar favourite 12 Years a Slave: an impenetrable work in intention and execution that addresses a black hole in cinema history, the void created by the absence of films about this morally repugnant historical evil. It has taken a film of tremendous, unflinching honesty and audacity to appropriately tackle this vivid exposition of the slavery-era American South, and it demands considerable stomach and commitment from its audience too…yet the end result is a truly redemptive, cathartic piece which elevates McQueen to the status of being one of contemporary cinema’s greatest, and most important, filmmakers.
Solomon Northup (Ejiofor) is a talented violinist living a placid, carefree life with his wife and two young children in New York State, the veneer of civilization only occasionally afflicted by moments of casual racism. Whilst his family are absent, a business proposition from two apparently eminent travelling circus men ends in a drunken Solomon being sold into slavery, and transported by galley to the Southern States when his freedom papers become lost and none are able to vouch for his true identity and social status. Renamed Platt, Solomon passes through the hands of three masters: the pompous flesh dealer Freeman (Paul Giamatti), the deeply religious and quasi-sympathetic Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), and finally, following a near-fatal incident with a wimpishly antagonistic overseer (played with snivelling glee by Paul Dano), to the sadistic and abusive cotton plantation owner Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender, at his most astonishingly cruel and conflicted), under whose vicious regime Northup spends the majority of his servitude. Faced with no hope of escape in a world where educated black men are mercilessly crushed, Solomon is forced to conceal his identity and suppress his emotions and intellect, debasing himself psychologically and physically to an animalistic level…yet never letting go of his past or the hope of his salvation.
Steve McQueen’s self-professed desire to tackle subjects of import in his work, combined with running themes of physical degradation and the absence of choice, is as prominent in 12 Years a Slave, if not more so, as it was in his previous films Hunger and Shame. It differs from those works, and is subsequently a superior film, because in this instance the subject is so unequivocally harrowing and evil that the director’s care to put forward a balanced and truthful account of his subjects is unhampered by any sense of divisiveness. Furthermore, in representing a (slightly) more conventional narrative in structure and familiarity 12 Years a Slave sees McQueen control and channel to greater effect his installation art sensibilities: it surfaces here in the embers of a burnt letter that could have saved Solomon from slavery, and in his unbearable tip-toed ordeal to remain alive with his head in a noose. McQueen and writer John Ridley cling to recurring motifs of Biblical scripture and the strikingly beautiful placidity of the natural world, the clear implication being the apparent absence of God is explicable only through maintaining the view of slavery as a pestilence upon the entire American nation: indeed, early in the film a wide shot of Washington DC shows the Capitol building to still be incomplete, an obvious but effective visual metaphor for a nation desperately malformed.
Every performance in the film is a marvel, with newcomer Nyong’o as the much abused favourite of the savagely vindictive Epps a particular standout, and Ejiofor and Fassbender too have never been bettered. John Ridley’s screenplay harnesses the same literate verbiage that made Lincoln such an aural joy, almost deliberately soiled in this case by the necessary profligacy of racially discriminatory language; Sean Bobbit’s cinematography is exquisite beyond words; and Hans Zimmer’s quietest score may also be one of his most effective. Above all it’s a triumph for McQueen, who has inspired all of his collaborators to deliver a profoundly moving and genuinely important piece of cinema which, an unfortunate piece of meta-casting involving producer Brad Pitt aside, is virtually perfect in every respect, if deeply and necessarily upsetting.
LFF BLOG: DAY 8 THE PAST by Adam Hollingworth
Already selected as the official representative of Iran at next year’s Academy Awards, Asghar Farhadi’s latest film The Past, which won Berenice Bejo the best actress award at Cannes, lacks the socio-religious consciousness and intelligence which defined his masterful breakthrough work A Separation and which might almost be seen as an obligation for one of the few Iranian directors who is actually permitted by the country to make films. What it lacks in this area, however, it compensates for in dense plotting and complex characters, and shows the writer-director to possess the same subtle mastery of form as was present in A Separation and indeed also in the littler seen About Elly.
Ahmad (Ali Mossafa) is a genial and benevolently pacifying Iranian returning to the Parisian suburbs after four years in Tehran to see his ex-wife Marie-Anne (Bejo) and finalise their divorce so she can marry her new partner, Samir (Tahar Rahim), the owner of a nearby dry-cleaning firm. Re-entering the family home he used to occupy as patriarch, Ahmad quickly realises the tangle of secrecy, malaise and discontent which has been brewing in what has become a hugely complicated reconstituted family dynamic: Marie-Anne and her two daughters, who she had prior even to her marriage to Ahmad, lives with Samir and his young son Fouad, the wife and mother of whom is currently confined to a vegetative state after a failed suicide attempt. The longer Ahmad finds himself remaining in the house, the more his attempts to reconcile all the adults and children involved in fact lead to the gradual revelation of the many painful untruths threatening to crumble their slim façade of normality.
The Past by and large involves lengthy conversations playing out across a small number of domestic spaces, and this in combination with Farhadi’s eloquent dialogue, tightly controlled structure and comprehensive development of his characters lends a literate quality to the film. Like in A Separation, we are left to put together the situation playing out before us one piece at a time, which manages to absorb the audience into the drama just before the string of deus ex machinae come into effect. The cast all work impeccably from the script Farhadi has gifted them, and as a director of actors he is clearly also incredibly skilled: Bejo and Rahim are more than their reliably excellent normal selves, and Mossafa steals the film with his endearing and richly layered performance, but every actor in the film is pulling in precisely the right direction. Farhadi’s camerawork is unassuming and lacks ostentation, which ideally complements the theatricality of the film. Like much modern theatre, however, the mechanics of such consciously orchestrated and inorganic plotting eventually overwhelm Farhadi, and The Past ultimately goes a revelation too far. However, this is overwhelmingly a confident and mature chamber piece which confirms once and for all the director’s quality as a cinematic dramatist.
LFF BLOG: DAY 8 by Simon Bull
The films of Dutch auteur Nanouk Leopold seem criminally under-appreciated outside of her home country. Usually relegated to the festival circuit, and rarely attracting press coverage or serious writing, it’s great to see that her latest, It’s All So Quiet has been picked up by Peccadillo Pictures, and is scheduled for a June release (it’s one of four the distributor has at the festival). About the claustrophobic life of a middle-aged farmer stuck looking after his elderly father, tensions and frustrations slowly build, making this a film of quiet intensity, and driven by a great central performance. I was saddened to learn after watching the film that lead actor Jeroen Willems died suddenly last December and this makes the film seem even more poignant.
The Ravine of Goodbye would make a great double bill with Imamura’s The Eel. As well as other similarities, both are about the effect that trauma has on the present, and the ways in which its characters are caught up with and respond to that trauma. The film’s director, Ohmori Tatsushi, has already established a reputation for himself with such films as The Whispering of the Gods and A Crowd of Three (though this is the first I’ve seen). It’s a brave film to make, about the consequences of rape and murder on both victim and perpetrator, a film revels in moral complexities, obscure and uncertain truths and confrontational observations on human behaviour. With its sombre tone and slow pacing, it won’t be for everyone, but I’ll certainly be seeking out his earlier films. I was very impressed.
French auteur Guillaume Brac is fast establishing himself as one to watch (though I’ve yet to see his highly acclaimed A World Without Women). Tonnerre refers to a small village in Burgundy where his latest film is set. A character-driven tale about a failed rock star (played by Vincent Macaigne, also star of 2 Autumns, 3 Winters), who embarks on an affair with a much younger journalist. When she leaves him, he is driven by obsession and jealousy to kidnap her and drive her out into the snow-covered countryside. Smartly directed, brilliantly structured and beautifully shot, it’s one of the best French films I’ve seen cross the Channel in recent years.
LFF BLOG: DAY 7 by Simon Bull
I’d been looking forward to today. Catherine Breillat was one of the first directors whose work I fell in love with. I’ve exhaustively studied and analysed her films and interviews, and written at great length on her early works, and I’ve kept a close eye on the development of her latest film since its production was announced last year.
Abuse of Weakness sees Breillat in good spirits, and typically self-reflective. The film quickly establishes one of its central premises; that of the lead character suffering a stroke (which mirrors Breillat’s real-life experience). While recovering from the stroke, and dealing with its associated hardships, she meets a swindler who she is set on casting in her next film. All the usual Breillat preoccupations are there: re-enactment; power plays; self-examination; more obliquely, feminism; and, yes, autobiography. But is it really her most autobiographical and most personal as many critics have claimed? I don’t think so. A scathing and heartbreaking film, it contains lots of wonderful gestures and body movements that are central to Breillat’s films.
Later in the day, Breillat appeared for a ScreenTalk. She talked about her career, from her first book, written at 16 (and banned for those under 18) through to Abuse of Weakness, and she spoke candidly and passionately on the subjects of pornography, representation, art, autobiography and feminism, and working with Asia Argento and Isabelle Huppert. It ended far too abruptly (she would have clearly loved to have talked for longer, and we would have loved to have listened, but it did finish with a clip from my all-time favourite film, 36 fillette. Roll on a Breillat retrospective at the BFI.
Amidst these two events, I caught Diego Quemada-Diez’s debut, The Golden Cage. A film that’s both poetic and realist, it follows a group of teenagers migrating from Central America to Los Angeles. Shot in chronological order as the actors and actress took the exact journey of their characters, the film mixes fictive events and real occurrences, and the fact that the director was originally planning to make a documentary will come as no surprise to anyone who watches it. In fact, the entire narrative is based on some 600 testimonies from migrants the filmmakers contacted before and during filming. There are also a few shocks along the way. It’s scheduled for release in April next year.
It’s amazing what can happen on-stage in front of hundreds of people, without anyone noticing. That’s the premise that Grand Piano takes, a smart thriller starring Elijah Wood as a pianist who is given a little unconventional help to overcome his crippling stage fright. Edge-of-your-seat stuff, with more than the occasional nod to Dario Argento, the film revels in being audacious, over-stylized, and every bit as grand as the piano in the title.
LFF BLOG: DAY 7 THE SELFISH GIANT by Adam Hollingworth
Artist turned filmmaker Clio Barnard’s second feature is a much more conventional work than her genre-bending debut The Arbor, but after so compellingly blurring the lines between reality and invention The Selfish Giant sees her attain a powerful surge of moral and situational truth in a bleak and poetic social realist marvel.
Hyperactive and entrepreneurial young scallywag Arbor and his lumbering but soft-hearted and tender friend Swifty (remarkably affecting and primal performances from unprofessional actors Conner Chapman and Shaun Thomas) are virtually inseparable as they scamper around the stark Midlands countryside just outside Bradford, escaping the grim reality of their deprived and troubled home and family lives. After they are excluded from school, Arbor draws Swifty into working with Kitten (Sean Gilder), a grizzled, amoral and cruelly exploitative rag and bone man, for whom the boys begin salvaging scrap metal strewn across the landscape. However, when Swifty’s passion and natural affinity with horses leads him to become the favourite with the cart-racing Kitten, Arbor’s rejection and jealousy spur him onto ever more defiant and dangerous acts of scrap salvage.
British social realist cinema is such a prolific genre that to make any meaningful contribution to it a film has to be simply stunning, bursting with freshness and vitality: Barnard achieves this in spades with The Selfish Giant, which occupies its grimy Midlands settings with the same colourful sense of character, dialect and place as the finest work of Shane Meadows. The desaturated photography of the film is achingly beautiful in a misty and gloomy way, and Barnard and cinematographer Mike Eley’s experimentation with focus pulls and a kinetic hand-held aesthetic reap immersive dividends. Her writing impeccably encapsulates the speech and behaviour of the characters occupying this desolate milieu, and the authenticity captured on camera feels all the more remarkable and sparking with vitality when set against Barnard’s directorial sublimations, wherein images of grazing horses and looming pylons, and the sound of humming electricity, all contribute to the omnipresence of dread, sorrow and despair. It’s an unhappy fable but not by any means a tough watch, elevated as it is by the gentle warmth and sense of brotherhood expressed in Arbor and Swifty’s friendship.
What the film actually has to do with Oscar Wilde’s titular fairy tale is left as something of a mystery to be teased out of the film, perhaps relating to Kitten’s self-serving opportunism leading him to crush and expel the carefree joy of childhood from his life and the world surrounding him. Whatever the connection, it has inspired Clio Barnard to make one of the best British films of the year.
LFF BLOG: DAY 6 by Simon Bull
Today was dominated by two giants of documentary filmmaking.
First up was the great masochist Fred Wiseman’s latest (his words – not mine, referring to the 4-hour bladder-training running time). Wiseman is renowned for his direct, ascetic approach institutions, and At Berkeley is an astonishing example of that. About a university caught at a particular point in time, battling up with budget cuts and shifting political agendas. It’s a film that manages to look both forwards and back, as it cuts from boardroom to classroom to science lab and university grounds. Given the lengthy scenes giving coverage of meetings and lessons, it gives the impression that events have been compiled in chronological order, but this isn’t the case. Condensed from 240 hours into four hours, the activities of selection and compilation give it a dramatic structure and authorial direction, and agree with his views that his films are in no way objective or observational. I disagree, however, with his assertion that the people in the film weren’t putting on any sort of performance; it’s my belief that if you knowingly have a camera pointed at you, behaviour will inevitably change. I think he and I would probably argue a lot, but as always with a Wiseman film, I took a lot away from it.
Next, I crossed the Atlantic to see a film about another type of institution. Nicolas Philibert’s latest, La maison de la radio was a love letter to the people, voices and sounds that inhabit the building of Radio France. Often capturing the eccentric and the quirky, he was allowed unlimited access to the rooms and people behind what is heard on the radio, from the news readers to famous guests and sound artists. Again, it’s about capturing an institution at a particular time, holding the weight of its past, but also of its future (Philibert explained in the Q&A that radio is a very robust industry that has adapted well to the digitized era). In a hilarious moment in the Q&A, the director’s interpreter mis-translated “hive of activity” into “beehive”. So, bottom line, this is a film about a beehive. Need another reason to watch it?
African noir Of Good Report made waves earlier this year when it was banned on the night of its premiere at the Durban Film Festival, for its depiction of sexual relations between teacher and underage student (even though the lead actress is 24). This no doubt helped its international reputation. A tale of Humbert Humbert-like character that becomes obsessed with his young pupil, Nolitha (see what they’ve done, there?), there were lots of things I liked about it. It’s a brutally stark and unsettling tale of a man slowly unravelling with obsession and desire. Shot in black and white, there are some great close-ups of tears rolling down cheeks and of teeth being pulled out of a skull. The soundtrack is great, and there are some truly surreal moments. But somehow it doesn’t all gel, and I think the problem lies partly in the script, as well as some poorly handled tonal shifts.
LFF BLOG: DAY 6 INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS by Adam Hollingworth
It’s been a longer absence than usual for the Coen Brothers, their last film being 2010’s rather underwhelming remake of True Grit, but they’re back on consummate and idiosyncratic territory with Inside Llewyn Davis: a wholly original take on the pre-Dylan Greenwich Village Folk music scene of the early sixties.
Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) is a couch-surfing solo artist in New York in 1961, dependent on recurring gigs offered at a friend’s café venue and struggling to attain success following the termination of his previous musical double-act. Alongside his financial dire straits and creative frustrations, he’s managed to get lumbered with the roving cat of one of his well-to-do friends, all the musicians surrounding him seem to be achieving the success that eludes him, and his haughty ex-lover Jean (Carey Mulligan, again showcasing her versatility) is pregnant and wants him to pay for an abortion. With the fragments of his life in New York seemingly crumbling around him, Llewyn attempts a last-ditch hike to a club-owner and manager in Chicago (a supremely cynical F Murray Abraham) for his shot at something resembling the big time.
Inside Llewyn Davis isn’t the great film it was hyped to be by the critics at Cannes, where it won the Grand Prix: rather it is yet another fine addition to the stunningly diverse Coen Brothers canon. Everything you would want from a Coen Brothers film is here in confident, immaculate form: the writing flows subtly between dialogic comedy and downbeat seriousness, the photography is tremendously evocative (shot here by Bruno Delbonnel rather than regular DP Roger Deakins, who at the time of filming was engaged on her majesty’s secret service, so to speak), the sixties Greenwich Village period is captured in sublime detail, and the quirky supporting cast is all present and correct. It’s an especially welcome return to the Coens’ movies for John Goodman, playing a grotesquely self-absorbed gasbag. Oscar Isaac shines in the lead role, and his folk performances of tunes produced by the great T-Bone Burnett are the scenes which lift the film to another level of soulful contemplation. The Coens’ direction displays virtually none of their usual brio, settling instead for a gentler and more nuanced approach, which perfectly suits the distinct tone of the film and demonstrates once again their ability to reinvent themselves with every new work.
LFF BLOG: DAY 5 BLUE IS THE WARMEST COLOUR by Adam Hollingworth
Blue is the Warmest Colour, Abdellatif Kachiche’s intimate epic chronicle of an intense love affair between two young lesbians, arrives at the London Film Festival on a wave of synchronous praise and blame: the director and his two lead actresses shared the Palme D’Or at Cannes, but since then negative press and comments have clouded the film’s reputation with an air of bitterness and controversy. This doesn’t overshadow or muddy the fact, however, that the film itself is a courageous, organic, unconventional and cathartic coming of age drama.
Adele (Adele Exarchopoulos) is a 17 year old high school literature student tentatively discovering and exploring her burgeoning bisexuality. After two aborted school romances, one male and one female, she is drawn into a relationship with Emma (Lea Seydoux), a blue-haired, confident bohemian studying fine art at college. The two girls’ relationship moves from sweet-natured naiveté, to passionate eroticism, and finally to deep-rooted emotional connectedness as they move in together. Years go by, and Adele’s work as a primary school teacher and self-perceived intellectual inferiority begins to distance her from Emma’s crowd of pretentious art-world socialites, and the exhilaration of the early days of their relationship is gradually eroded by the complications of dedicating your life to a sole lover.
Blue is the Warmest Colour is on the most basic and fundamental level a typical narrative of a relationship, charting the heady early romance through to its painful collapse, yet Kechiche clearly forged such an inventive and creative relationship with his actresses that, over the course of three hours, every nuance of character and every contour in the central lesbian relationship is explored in languorous and minute detail. Onto this classic coming of age tale is placed time, unfolding here over years instead of months to heighten our dramatic investment, and some of the most challenging and unconventional creative decisions ever taken in a film of this kind: scenes run on much longer than filmic convention dictates, dialogue drives character and behaviour rather than plot, and female homosexuality is foregrounded with refreshing frankness and perception in a manner which from a male director seems almost unbelievable. Of course, the real credit here must go to Seydoux and especially to Exarchopoulos: their performances are daring, courageous and inspired, and the film’s dense and involving texture is as much down to their honest and fully exposed work as it is to Kechiche’s writing and directing. Of the much hyped sex scenes I will say only this: they are performed with such powerful passionate force and convincing emotional commitment that they become dramatically essential and truly erotic, in a way which reclaims real on-screen sex from the seediness of pornography.
Engrossing, exhausting and executed with extreme integrity and honesty, Blue is the Warmest Colour isn’t quite a ground-breaking masterpiece, but in its own way it may be a game changer as far as the passion and intensity of sex is represented in narrative cinema.
LFF BLOG: DAY 5 by Simon Bull
I must confess I’m in love with the films of Ishii Yûya; charming, very funny tales of misfits finding their place in an ever-changing world. The Great Passage is a bit more subdued than the screwball effort of his previous theatrical outing, Mitsuko Delivers, but it’s an equally engaging film. It follows introvert Majime as he finds love and learns how to interact with people and the world while compiling a “living dictionary”. A film that’s about falling in and out of touch with modern life, the most tender moments lie in its astute observations on relationships and human interactions.
There’s a distinct French flavour about Eliza Hittman’s Brooklyn-set It Felt Like Love. Think Breillat’s early works (specifically, A Real Young Girl and 36 fillette) shot through the psycho-sexual identity crises of A ma soeur! and Water Lilies. One of several in the festival this year that have filtered down from Sundance.
Lebanon Emotion is a real oddity. A hard film to describe, and just as hard to interpret, it’s an allegorical tale of life, love and death. Filmed as the director was working through a period of depression, it starts out as a tale of chance encounters before evolving into something completely different. Capturing beautiful, barren South Korean landscapes, it completely defies expectation at every turn. It really has been one of my highlights.
LFF BLOG: DAY 4 by Simon Bull
Ladder to Damascus is clearly a very personal film for Mohamad Malas, a film that’s about the political revolution in Syria. Its political ideologies are diluted through the multi-layered and multi-faceted veil that is cinema, and it embodies tropes of drama, theatre and poetry. There are plenty of cultural references, though I must admit I only really got the cinematic ones. A ghost story caught up with ideas of permanence and memory (which made me draw parallel with the far superior The Three Disappearances of Soad Hosni), its strength lies in its striking visual style.
Few films manage to get as close to the subjects of depression and self-destruction as Wounded. Told in very direct and un-cinematic terms, it’s not as bleak as the lead character’s desperate situation (it’s up to thee individual whether that’s a good thing). A painful film, not least because it is the most truthful and accurate representation of mental illness I’ve seen outside of documentaries, it’s an impressive and compassionate debut from Fernando Franco, editor of Blancanieves.
Dumont’s films have long embodied elements of 19th century literary realism epitomised in France by Zola, Flaubert and Balzac. But nowhere is this more evident than his latest, Camille Claudel 1915. It shares the same aesthetic and philosophical concerns, as well as a transcendental and existential relationship between character and environment. While not a patch on his best films, it’s still a pleasure to watch two new films from him in the space of a year (Hors Satan was theatrically released in the UK in January).
LFF BLOG: DAY 4 ENOUGH SAID & THE ZERO THEOREM by Adam Hollingworth
In a rather more relaxed Sunday than the half-insane quadruple-bill that was my Saturday, I nonetheless took in two films at virtually polar opposites of the generic and stylistic spectrum: a mid-life romantic comedy followed later by a brain-boggling philosophical dystopian sci-fi drama.
Enough Said arrived on the festival circuit with the sombre appendage of being the last film performance of the greatly admired character actor James Gandolfini, but writer-director Nicole Holofcener’s touchingly insightful and perceptive film is worthy of considerable attention in its own right. Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Gandolfini play two middle-aged divorcees with daughters preparing to abandon them to take their places at out of state colleges: Eva is a vivacious and good-natured masseuse and Albert a slovenly but charismatic television archivist. However, when Louis-Dreyfus discovers that one of her clients, a successful but lonely poet (Catherine Keener), is in fact Albert’s ex-wife she decides to keep both relationships secret from each other in order to discover Albert’s flaws and decide whether their romance has a future. Before this narrative conceit comes into effect Enough Said is a witty, literate and moving meditation on modern relationships, middle-aged loneliness and the parental sorrow of allowing your children to fly the nest and achieve independence, all bound together by a refreshingly loose, free-form narrative which indulges Holofcener’s wonderful writing and the cast’s uniformly excellent characters. After the conceit is revealed the film sadly lapses into a more typical genre structure, but the warm humour and dramatic richness of the film’s first half thankfully survives the transition intact, and it is at all times a brilliant showcase for both Gandolfini and Louis-Dreyfus.
Terry Gilliam’s latest film The Zero Theorem represents one of the smallest budgets the director has ever worked with: not that it shows for a minute in a simply stunning, visionary head-scratcher that stands amongst the greatest films of his career. Qohen Leth (Christoph Waltz, merging physical aggravation and introspective angst in a career-redefining performance) is a computer hacker working for a faceless corporate giant in a brightly-coloured, retro-punk dystopian future obsessed with technology and its commercial exploitation. Perennially waiting for a phone call he believes will explain his existence, he is also engaged by his work on a project that may come to prove the meaning of life, re-ordering chaos to prove that everything adds up to nothing…but distraction comes in the form of nymph-like beauty Bainsley (Melanie Thierry), who has taken an inexplicable shine to the flustered introvert. Gilliam goes about orchestrating his customary visual chaos, popping with so many dazzling ideas that the film surely requires numerous viewings, yet everything hangs upon a clear and definite, wholly unique future-scape alongside a philosophical, anti-religious thrust that only gradually comes to reveal itself. An eye-popping feast of a film, this is Gilliam’s most accomplished and intelligent work since Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.
Enough Said deserves praise as a superior romantic comedy, but The Zero Theorem doesn’t defy so much as reinvent genre, and is all the more remarkable for that…and until you’ve seen a bald-headed Tilda Swinton rap, you haven’t truly lived…
LFF BLOG: DAY 3 by Simon Bull
I was desperate to see Lav Diaz’s Melancholia when it did played international festivals in 2008-09 (I still haven’t seen it). Then I was blown away by Butterflies Have No Memories. When positive reviews came out of Lav Diaz’s Norte, The End of History earlier this year, I hoped and prayed it would come to LFF, and was absolutely delighted when it did. A film that’s caught between realism and lyricism, between drama and anti-drama, it’s brilliant. In fact, it has an interesting relationship with drama. The more Diaz trains the camera on his subjects, the more he’s able to extract drama from everyday situations. And the events that should hold dramatic weight serve as catalysts for him to explore this. It’s a morally complex film that’s about suppression and oppression in its many forms, and akin in some ways to Dumont. At four hours, it’s certainly cramp-inducing (though one of his shorter films), and much to the chagrin of the man sat next to me, there’s no intermission. But if you enjoy intelligent, challenging filmmaking, those hours will fly by. A rare pleasure from a distinct authorial voice, I absolutely loved it. But nobody mention the silly term “slow cinema” to me.
I finished the day in style with the neo-giallo psycho-experiment in body trauma and scopophilia that was The Strange Colour of Your Body’s Tears. Like Amer before it, The Strange Colour of Your Body’s Tears was a visceral, erotic maelstrom indebted as much to the experiments of Brakhage and Buñuel as to 70s Giallo; as much to Noé and Carax as to body horror. Yet it somehow manages to transcend and deconstruct all those influences to become something wholly unique. I’d need a second or even third viewing before writing further. Luckily, it’s scheduled for release early next year.
LFF BLOG: DAY 3 ALL IS LOST, LIKE FATHER LIKE SON, JODOROWSKY’S DUNE & THE DOUBLE by Adam Hollingworth
Well, today has been an exhausting but rewarding banquet of cinema for me: I had steeled myself for a Saturday triple bill, but upon dashing frantically into my first film after an oversleep my viewing buddy surprised me with the announcement that he’d booked us yet another film for that evening. Thankfully all four films were thoroughly engrossing and meritorious, and each subsequent film in our programme was aptly of surpassing quality.
All is Lost sees salty sea dog Robert Redford’s sailing yacht crash into an abandoned freight crate some 1700 miles out from land in the Sumatra straights. Patching up his damaged vessel, however, turns out to be the first in a literal storm of problems for the gloriously grizzled Sundance Kid, as his navigational equipment fails, the weather takes a nightmarish turn, and his vital supplies rapidly begin to dwindle, leaving him battered, sun-scorched, half-drowned and only able to guess his hopeless geographical position. JC Chandor proved his deft and insightful skills as a writer of character and dialogue in his debut Margin Call, but the only crossover between that and this follow-up is his attention to the minutiae of technical detail, in this case sailing as opposed to financial trading. Instead his powers as a director are put to the test: an examination he passes utterly convincingly as he crafts an observant and confident physical film which neither aspires to traditional suspense techniques nor lets our rapt attention decline for a second. This is something assured by the inspired casting of Redford: a veteran legend with such powerful gravity that even in his quietest moments you can’t take your eyes off him.
Like Father Like Son is the latest in a line of family-driven, traditional social narratives from Japanese director Kore-Eda Hirokazu that have seen him likened to the great Yasujiro Ozu. The plot revolves around two families being thrust together following the revelation that their now 6 years old children were mistakenly swapped as babies: Keita has grown up the lone child of a prosperous and privileged city couple, his father Ryota an industrious yet distant presence somewhat pushily encouraging his son’s successes. His natural son has been raised under the name Ryusei with two siblings in the suburbs with a working class, mildly impoverished couple who compensate for their lack of material wealth with abundant time and affection for their children. The age-old questions of nature over nurture and what it means to be a father and a son are raised, but this is ultimately about Ryota’s rediscovery of the transience and preciousness of childhood, something his work had previously caused him to neglect. Kore-Eda clings to the somewhat simplistic stereotypes of a rich but less affectionate family dynamic contrasting a poorer but more overtly loving one, and his focus being so firmly upon the affluent parents triggers a dissatisfying and slightly imbalanced perspective, but this is nonetheless personal and heartfelt filmmaking determined to savour its finely crafted dramatics at its own gentle and leisurely pace, and the writing and performances are all exquisite.
Jodorowsky’s Dune sees young documentarian Frank Pavich tell the story of an abandoned 1975 film project which may well be the greatest film never made: cult filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky’s colossally ambitious attempt to film Frank Herbert’s seminal sci-fi novel Dune in the wake of the director’s success with El Topo and The Holy Mountain. Interweaving an extensive conversation with animated and passionate raconteur/mystic Jodorowsky with his key collaborators on the project, including producer Michel Seydoux, conceptual artists Chris Foss and HR Giger, and the director’s son and choice to play Paul Atreides, Brontis, the film charts the origins of the film’s development up until the projects eventual failure to secure the final funding it needed from Hollywood. Along the way, we learn how Jodorowsky conceived the film as a mind-expanding philosophical prophet piece in the same mould as his previous surreal works; how he only acquired the services of designers, technicians, producers and musicians in whom he felt a kinship as “spiritual warriors;” how he courted and secured the provisional cast of David Carradine, Mick Jagger, Orson Welles and Salvador Dali; how he storyboarded the entire film and the specifics of various mind-blowing key sequences; and how the abandoned project continues to circulate Hollywood, its vastness of ideas re-appropriating themselves in more or less every major sci-fi film that would follow it, beginning with George Lucas’ Star Wars. Jodorowsky’s Dune follows a conventional documentary format with the exception of short animations bringing several of Jodorowsky’s incredible storyboards to visual life, and may ultimately only be of interest to avowed film fans, but it’s a remarkable, mad and brilliant story told with vitality and hilarity by Jodorowsky, and finally offers the curious a tantalising glimpse of a film which may well have altered the course of film history, even as it damns Hollywood’s fear of anything truly creative, unconventional and ingenious.
The Double is the latest from beloved British comedy performer Richard Ayoade, and proves to be just as remarkable a showcase for his visual inventiveness as his debut Submarine. Adapted very loosely from a work by Fyodor Dostoevsky, Jesse Eisenberg plays Simon, a severely shy and introverted worker in a nightmarishly bureaucratic office in a dystopian retro-future, not so much overlooked at work as unknown to even exist, who is hopelessly in love with fellow lonely soul Hannah (Mia Wasikowska), who works in the same company and occupies a flat in the building across from Simon. One day, Simon’s existence is shattered by the appearance of James, also played by Eisenberg, who is an exact physical double of Simon, but is contrastingly a brashly arrogant extrovert who immediately wins over the hearts and minds at work. He at first offers to use their physical resemblance to raise Simon’s stock at work and with Hannah, before abusing his power to gradually dominate and destroy Simon’s life. For me, Ayoade’s previous film Submarine was a dramatically unsubstantial film marred by its distracting close stylistic resemblance to Wes Anderson and Nouvelle Vague, and its most referential The Double similarly starts to look a little too much like the Terry Gilliam of Brazil and the Paul Thomas Anderson of Punch Drunk Love. However, it’s an overwhelming, dazzlingly visual and sonic experience at its best, bursting with energy and directorial brio, and fizzing with a kind of retro subcultural miasma, and perhaps this is the beginning of Ayoade’s work as a director aspiring to a uniquely cinematic conception of comedy not seen with this kind of mould-busting originality since the prime of Jacques Tati. What makes the film really strong, though, is the combination of this aesthetic bravura with a genuinely bittersweet, darkly sinister yet hauntingly touching evocation of loneliness as displayed in the non-romance between Eisenberg and Wasikowska, both superb.
LFF BLOG: DAY 2 by Simon Bull
- Bad Hair
Today marked my first full day at 2013’s LFF. Unexpectedly and pleasantly surprised by films I knew very little about, and disappointed by others that I expected to love, I believe I may have already found one of my festival favourites.
First up was Emir Baigazin’s uncompromising debut, Harmony Lessons. An anthropological examination of the pecking order at a rural Kazakh school, it’s a fascinating interplay between the internal and external, health and sickness, morality and corruption. A tad too on-the-nose (its ideas are demonstrated repeatedly and explicitly) it’s still a visually stunning, motif-driven film bursting with ideas.
I’d not seen any of Roberto Minervini’s previous films, but was inspired to see Stop the Pounding Heart (the third of his so-called Texas trilogy) when a friend returned rapturous from Low Tide earlier in the year. Stop the Pounding Heart is a wonderfully direct and downbeat look at love and life in a rural Texan community. A sumptuous blend of documentary and fiction, it plays out like an observational documentary throughout, capturing the minutiae of everyday Texan life. Refreshingly free from judgement, representation and ideology, it’s a delightfully subtle film with delicate and tender moments.
And I went from the languorous freefall that was Stop the Pounding Heart to the meticulously composed, carefully framed One Day When the Rain Falls. Told in three interlinked segments, each one using the tropes of a different genre (broadly; drama, horror and comedy), it’s awash with visual reference points and broad characterization. A slight, forgettable film that never really finds its feet, I was expecting a lot more.
I heard the term neorealism hastily bandied around with reference to Stop the Pounding Heart earlier in the day. But if any film is indebted to the neorealist filmmaking approach, it’s Bad Hair. More specifically, the film’s aesthetic is something akin to the magical realist films of de Sica. A story of a young boy’s search for identity amid social and economic hardship in urban Venezuela, this film is as much about the city of Caracas as it is about its lead character. Geography, economics, gender and sexuality all find their place here. And like the films of de Sica, there’s a lightness of touch and enthusiasm that comes when a director’s truly in love with their craft. A rewarding and extraordinary film, I can’t believe I nearly ditched it at the planning stages.
LFF BLOG: DAY 2 NEBRASKA & A TOUCH OF SIN by Adam Hollingworth
My second evening at the London Film Festival consisted of a double bill of Cannes Film Festival award winners. Alexander Payne’s Nebraska was awarded the best actor prize for Bruce Dern’s career-reviving, gruffly dour lead performance, whilst the film itself sees Payne further concern himself with the same gentle tragi-comedy of familial reconciliation that marker his last film, The Descendants. Jia Zhangke’s A Touch of Sin took home the prize for best screenplay: a richly deserved accolade considering the narrative and thematic richness onscreen, with any of its four separate vignettes being worthy of singular feature film attention in its own right.
Nebraska sees mentally and physically unstable old grouch Woody Grant (Dern) receive a flyer from a Magazine Marketing sweepstake claiming that he’s won a million dollars, but instead of dismissing the leaflet as a commercial gimmick takes it in earnest and becomes doggedly obsessed with making his way from Montana to Nebraska to collect his winnings. Rather than allowing Woody to make the journey alone on foot, his youngest son David (Will Forte), tired of his dead-end job and coping with the recent departure of his girlfriend, offers to drive his father to Nebraska. Along the way they find themselves stuck in Woody’s old hometown, lurking in which are various long-forgotten friends and family members, comprising a uniquely backward and bitterly nostalgic community, all of whom seem to think Woody owes them money. Nebraska is less concerned with the destination than it is with the journey, which taking its lead from the great American road/drifted movies of the early seventies, evoked immediately in the presence of Bruce Dern, becomes a spiritual journey into the past: both a nostalgic odyssey into America’s small-town pastoral idyll, long since consumed by urban development, and into the roots of Woody’s character flaws and his distant relationship with his son. Phedon Papamichael’s grainy black and white photography is appropriately beautiful and melancholic, suggesting the bittersweet nature of nostalgia, and Payne’s direction is marvellously lucid in its classicism; his recurrent sideways pans symbolise the rambling lack of momentum and progress in Woody and David’s journey; his composition of expansive mid-Western vistas recall the shots favoured by John Ford; and his crumbling townships bear more than a passing resemblance to Peter Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show. The film is gloriously steeped in cinematic tradition, yet in the distinctive and perfectly suited folk score, Bob Nelson’s hilariously laconic and insightful script, and the cast’s idiosyncratic deadpan performances Nebraska successfully asserts its own unique identity, one both very funny and very moving.
A Touch Of Sin features the same story played out in four distinct and separate milieu situated in contemporary China: namely that of the post-Communist country’s economic iniquities permitting the wealthy urban classes to oppress and bully underprivileged working class rural dwellers, for whom the only antidote to their suppressed possibilities for social mobility is extreme and opportunistic, not to mention vengeful, violence. The film is comprised of four separate stories, which glancingly intercept though are told one after the other. The first segment sees a charismatic mid-level worker at a rural village coal mine, determined to expose and punish the corruption and wrongdoing of the company’s higher-ups and the bribed village elders, resort to extremism after he is publicly humiliated. The second segment sees a young man return for New Year to his traditional, impoverished home community to visit his mother, brothers, wife and young child: yet the nature of his work has clearly rendered him an uncomfortable outsider looking in at the innocent existence he once knew. The third segment sees a woman involved in an affair with a married man from the city caught between her impoverished present circumstances and the world of comfort and privilege she feels close to occupying if she can convince her lover to leave his wife. The fourth segment sees a young man flee his job at a sweat shop after an accident only to fall in love with a sex worker at his new place of employment: a bizarre luxury brothel catering to the corpulent wealthy classes. In each scenario, Zhangke expertly plays off the industrial, decadent city against the naiveté and vulnerability of rural communities, offsetting images of consumerism against the animals which symbolise each of the four leads, respectively identified with a tiger, a bull, a snake and a lion. It’s a fiercely absorbing and defiantly angry work which combines slow-burning, character-drive narratives and immersion within contemporary Chinese culture with strikingly graphic shock tactics, and whilst one can debate whether these violent denouements are a conceptual step too far, perhaps even undermining the socio-economic thrust of the film, one can only admire Zhangke’s gutsiness and outrage in pushing his stories into such extremities.
Of the two, A Touch of Sin is perhaps the greater work, both culturally important and dramatically abundant, but Nebraska has a depth and winning charm all of its own.
LFF BLOG: DAY 1 GRAVITY by Adam Hollingworth
It’s been a long time since Alfonso Cuaron’s last film, the intelligent and broodingly dystopian thriller Children of Men, but he’s lost none of his directorial precision and control in a spectacular yet minimalist thrill ride that stands as a testament to the power of cinematic execution. Gravity is a film of such fluid grace, technical complexity, brilliantly escalated suspense and depth of character that the only way it could ever succeed is for the vision in Cuaron’s head to have been transplanted exactly onto the screen: something the finished film miraculously achieves thanks to his key collaborators, namely cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, special effects supervisor Tim Webber, and lead actress Sandra Bullock.
600km above the surface of the Earth, a small team of astronauts conduct repairs to the Hubble telescope somewhere between the ISS and a Chinese Space Station, in zero gravity and suspended between the two colossal spectacles of the Earth’s surface and the infinite blackness of space. Amongst the team are the introverted scientist and space novice Stone (Bullock), and the more relaxed veteran space jock Kowalski (George Clooney), in his element and happy to shoot the breeze, drift lackadaisically and admire the view.
Their mission is brutally aborted when a shower of debris from a meteor storm gets caught in their gravitational orbit and hurtles into them, severing their link to the telescope and damaging their shuttle beyond repair. Stranded together with only a lifeline cable connecting them, Stone and Kowalski must race against failing oxygen and propulsion to get back to the safety of the ISS: however, they’re also against the clock of gravity itself, since after 90 minutes the storm of debris will complete its orbit and smash into them once again, and this time they won’t be protected against it.
Like Ang Lee’s Life of Pi, the use of 3D ultimately doesn’t enhance a film that’s visually extraordinary in its own right, but the format’s usage is justified thematically through its application to a situation in which the action is quite literally suspended in space, characters and objects drifting in a multi-dimensional void, and 3D’s illusory nature also helps blur the seamless lines between CGI and physical sets, aiding the potential of the film’s visual effects to truly suspend our disbelief. Indeed, Cuaron also finds in the debris storm a fun, jaw-dropping and justified excuse for the gimmicky 3D trope of having objects fly into the negative space.
Aided by Steven Price’s excellently judged score, moderating between tense build-up and booming catharsis, the film’s set pieces are astonishing to look at and genuinely terrifying. Lubezki’s camerawork again allows Cuaron to indulge in breath-taking tracking shots, though the apotheosis of this can be found in the film’s opening sequence: a single unbroken shot, lasting many minutes, of astronauts and scientific equipment all swirling around each other above the aching sight of the Earth from space.
As the film progresses, it extends its reach beyond that of an excitingly visceral thriller into the realms of psychological drama: as we come to learn more about Stone, her emotional past plundered in a physical career-best performance from Bullock, space becomes less the creation of Cuaron as a master of suspense and more a projection of Stone’s mentality, namely a place to drift and forget, isolated and alone yet cushioned by its sheer immensity from earthly pain and sorrow. A final thematic shift into the realms of spirituality is hinted at rather than developed, though there is an appropriately superhuman appraisal of the astronautical ability throughout the film equating these unfathomably courageous and ingenious individuals with something more godlike.
A gripping and expertly realized suspense drama, with real depth beneath its immense surface thrills, Gravity sets a very high benchmark for my London Film Festival experiences this year.