Collected dispatches from the first few London Film Festivals I attended. Notes written in a frenzy, as an exercise or an experiment as much as anything else.
London Film Festival 2016 Dispatch #3 - Temporary Transportations
The latest in Albert Serra's series of imaginative retellings of the legends of historical or literary figures might be his best yet, and is certainly his most accessible. The Death of Louis XIV was conceived initially as a performance piece, commissioned by the Centre Pompidou and due to take place over 15 days there, and elements of this form remain. Starring a 71-year-old Jean-Pierre Léaud as the near-terminal Sun King, Serra's film takes place entirely within the royal chamber, ensuring the "unity of location, space and time" that the director insists - alongside multiple-camera setups, a refusal to rehearse scenes and an insistence on recording massive amounts of material whilst in production - is essential to producing fruitful artistic results.
The evidence of this film suggests there is certainly something to these rigorous methodologies and semi-pompous manner of explaining them. Serra argues that in every actor there are three components that play into the creation of a screen persona - the real person, the individual that comes out when a camera is pointed towards them, and the character they are inhabiting. One of the joys of The Death of Louis XIV is seeing these three versions of Léaud emerge through his minimalist, nuanced performance, and in a grander sense, to see how Serra, through his spirited reanimations of past lives, makes history human.
Confined largely to his bed and weak in health, Léaud's pampered, pompadoured Louis is choosing with his words, conveying the bulk of the film's emotive weight in looks, heavy sighs and loaded gestures. Around him are countless valets and attendants, a parade of giggling women, and a team of doctors trying, calamitously and often mordantly comically, to improve his condition. Serra's film - minimalist in structure but maximalist in the grandeur of the lighting, costuming and decor - is found in the interactions between these groups of servants and the king. As these attendants fawn over their faltering monarch, a connection is always palpable if often a ridiculous one. (One of the more absurd moments sees a group of courtsmen applaud after the king successfully eats a biscuit.) This contrast, between the strength of the King's power and his body's weakness, adds humility to his decline.
With Louis XIV, Serra humanises his King, in a way he never managed with the leads of his previous portraits. In those past films, he's used amateur actors who have always compelled and confounded in their roles, but rarely manage to move quite as Léaud manages to. One bravura moment - a long take in which Léaud, soundtracked by Mozart, looks directly at camera - is so emphatic and gestural, it almost stands apart within the director's feature oeuvre. Warm, rich and opulent, The Death of Louis XIV shows Serra in top command, achieving tonal balance and visual splendour within the most claustrophobic confines. Serra achieves pathos for his fallen king whilst simultaneously mocking the absurdity and injustice of inherited power. Ending affairs with a truly fantastic closing line, what is conveyed in The Death of Louis XIV is the universality of mortality and the banality of death. Prince or pauper, we die all the same.
For some, cinema acts as a replacement for travel, transporting the viewer to faraway locales, situations and mentalities that limitations like mobility, health or income might prevent them from otherwise reaching. Gabe Klinger's Porto does this for that beautiful Portuguese city - a film about fantasies and delusions, about temporary transportations of the body and mind, and about the wonder of totally inhabiting a minute and a moment. It's a beautiful film - made of gorgeous, varied, format-crossing cinematography by DoP Wyatt Garfield that captures the painterly quality of the city through a wash of soft blue-grey day hues and shimmering nighttime yellows - but one thats pleasures are transitory.
Mixing Super8, 16 and 35mm stocks, Klinger will be accused of format-fetishism, of a superficial attraction to the material of film, but that accusation is unfair. It is clear the choice to switch formats alongside timelines is a well considered one, one that aids the narrative experience as well as texturing it visually. With format changes, Klinger spans timelines and perspectives, showing an overnight affair between two outsiders brought to the city by chance, Jake (Anton Yelchin) and Mati (Lucie Lucas), over three acts from the side of both parties - first separately, then together. Divided three ways already with the act structure, the varying changes of viewpoint and chronology are further subdivided with camera-tech switches, producing an ever dissolving, frequently illusory canvas of time and memory that Klinger uses to confuse and complicate, replicating the sensation of obsessively delving through memories to try and ascertain some ungraspable truth.
In showing almost immediately that this affair is doomed, Klinger, a former critic and programmer well versed in the tricks and turns of the cinematic trade, creates a kind of get-out clause for the male-fantasy-wish-fulfillment scenarios that will follow - all this is not reality, it's the fallibility of memory, it's the warped interpretation of an obsessive mind, it's the heightened passion of the here-and-now hyper-accentuated by the turmoil of the aftermath. Porto is a real mixture. In the best moments, it's intoxicating, a wonderful melding of a lifetime of film watching that feels inspired without being derivative. In the more clumsy or overstated moments, it's a little awkward. "I've never came that quick... like a guy..." gasps Mati at the height of their tryst. The dialogue, often hyperbolic by design to replicate the extremities of love and lust, can be difficult to stomach; and the characterisation of the duo - how Mati the impassioned, self-describing "crazy" person allows herself to fall for Jake, neurotic but charming anyway - is a little troubling.
There's lot to admire in Klinger's first narrative feature, not least its (rare) sincerity. (He directed a terrific documentary before this, Double Play, about the relationship between Richard Linklater and James Benning, essential viewing if only for the scene with the two filmmakers discussing the merits of their relative cinematic styles over a game of backyard catch.) As a misremembered mix of passion, obsession and melancholy, a mood piece and city symphony, its charm is clear. As a narrative piece, with its (under)written characters engaging in a somewhat unbelievable affair, it's a little less comfortable.
London Film Festival 2016 Dispatch #2 - The Way of Nature and The Way of Grace
Eglantine, the first feature from artist and filmmaker Margaret Salmon, is full of love - love for nature, love for the family, love of earth and love of the land. A warm and sensuous film, Eglantine could best be described as "a healing film" - one that, as it radiates with calmness and purity, restores the senses and the soul through the viewing of it.
Bookended with readings from Robert Louis Stevenson texts that talk of the wonderment of exploration, Eglantine begins in strict documentary fashion. Salmon sets up the confines of her experiment - a camping trip in the Scottish wilds with her children - with the kind of transparency about the methods of production that artist filmmakers seem to favour: shots where the camera is dropped, clapper board is in view, or the orangey texture of light passing through film eclipses the frame. Quickly though, the perspectives shifts from Salmon's own to that of her daughter Eglantine, and the film drifts into more interesting, entrancing magical realist territory.
Using the camera to appropriate the wonderment of childhood, Eglantinedrifts through a journey that mixes tropes of the childhood film with a semi-ethnographic approach, Eglantine wandering away from her basecamp and into the wilderness. As the child explores her imagination, the landscape and the creatures and people she encounters, Salmon creates a wash of natural images, textures and sounds around her, a kind of sensory tapestry of wildlife that reflects the splendour of naivety. Here, instead of the undergrowth feeling perilous as it can in many children's adventures, the mystery Eglantine encounters is less a source of fear as promise, her innocence lending a tranquility to how she experiences the world around her, and how Salmon relates that in her colourful, romantic photography and fluid, dreamlike approach to editing and sequencing.
Eglantine's closest cousins are perhaps the films of Jessica Sarah Rinland, another UK based artist-filmmaker whose practise often involves close engagement with nature and harks back to simpler times, or, looking further back, even someone like Mary Field, a forerunner of wildlife television whose work humanised nature for younger audiences. Indeed, the film's main actors are the creatures that come inbetween Eglantine's wanderings. Credited alongside the human actors at the end, the list of animals featured is long and varied, and footage of wildlife fills out Salmon's feature in a manner that, depending on your affinity for animals, may feel like padding to reach feature length or an affirmation of the filmmaker's belief in a kind of oneness of mankind and the natural world.
Shot entirely on 35mm film across a variety of serene, enchanting Scottish locations, Eglantine is a beautiful film to look at. It's arguable that it isn't too much more than that, and that even at 70 minutes it's a little stretched. Then again, it's humble and beguiling, and creates a world that is a delight to be absorbed into for the duration. What more is needed?
The new film from Terrence Malick, Voyage of Time: Life's Journey - a 90 minute version of a 45 minute IMAX project, itself an extrapolation of the 'creation of life' sequence in Tree of Life - too concerns itself with the natural world. An expansive, non-linear exploration of the myriad delights of our universe, here Malick eschews any interest in narrative specificities, and instead builds a kind of Malickian Planet Earth, substituting Sir Attenborough's precise, informative narration for the more speculative, searching whispered form that have overlain his last few films. Read here by Cate Blanchett, the voiceover, sporadic as it is, is arguably Malick's most reaching - lines like "you devour yourself, only to give birth to yourself again" are hard to extract meaning from, and easy to mock.
The images though are conversely difficult to resist, as is the sense of wonder and joy with which the director imposes upon each and every object, place, person and moment he depicts. Whether CGI dinosaur, neon-lit jellyfish, volcanic eruption, subatomic structure or galactic particle, each and every fragment in Voyage of Time is treated as sublime spectacle, depicted with a richness and splendour that few image-makers can match. Jumping around in space and time, from landscape to creature, out of the microscopic and into a celestial level, Malick (and his team of multiple cinematographers, edit assistants and visual effects specialists) sequence everything with a remarkable fluidity and congruence, switching from high-definition recorded footage to constructed CGI images through almost indiscernible transitions.
It's dizzying, heady stuff - a cosmological, ontological journey that, if often more than a little silly feeling, is consistently beautiful and occasionally entirely breathtaking. It isn't however, much of a novelty and certainly not a film that does anything to subvert any expectations anyone might have of the filmmaker. The problem is not that Malick is making anything anywhere near bad, though those who accuse him of veering into self-parody will find much to reaffirm this belief here. It's more that a once singular, truly exciting filmmaker who could be expected to bring something new with each project has become entirely predictable. So much so that you could more or less describe the precise shape and content of Voyage of Time from reading a basic outline of the project. The reality of the film may induce wonder, but it likely won't surprise.
London Film Festival 2016 #Dispatch 1 - First Forays
Arriving fresh from TIFF, Barry Jenkins' three act identity tale Moonlight comes eight years after his feature debut Medicine for Melancholy. Other than being about relationships and the complicating factors that distance people from each other, this new film bares little resemblance to that mumblecore debut, especially stylistically. The style of Moonlight however, may be more familiar to those who have seen some of the shorts Jenkin made in the period between the two features. In particular, two commercial commissions (Tall Enough made in 2010 for Bloomingdales, and Chlorophylfor Borscht in 2011) are both vibrant, bold short films about relationships - one fractured and the other extremely harmonious - that show a penchant for striking use of colour that Jenkins builds upon in Moonlight.
A film of rambunctious, overflowing colours and spiky punches of sound, as synaesthetic and sensorially satisfying as Paul Thomas Anderson's Punch Drunk Love, Moonlight surges through it's story weighting key emotional moments with well chosen soundtrack cues and flashes of bold, vital primaries - most notably those various hues of blue that tug and pull at the emotions on some unknowable primal level. Jenkin's camera, often moving in roaming shallow-focus is continually intimate yet graceful, highlighting the gestures and actions within relationships, the looks and touches that come to make a difference over time.
Aesthetically then, Moonlight hits the mark, showing a director with astounding tonal control and a developing ability to impose emotion onto an image. Narratively, it's a little more troublesome. Over three clearly divided acts (and three well-cast lead actors), Jenkins paints a picture of Chiron, a young black man with an evolving, burgeoning sense of self that runs in opposition with his circumstances and lifestyle. A delicate film, Jenkins dials up and down emotional registers across his duration, operating in cycles of release and control that build towards an emotional explosiveness without ever quite delivering it. These flourishes, as resonant as they feel, somehow stand in the way of a more genuine connection, and the rapidity with which Jenkins' narrative advances leaves minimal room for character development, a flaw made most obvious in the thinly drawn, often archetypical supporting characters strung in alongside Chiron, the main focus.
Moonlight explores the intersection of various types of identities - racial, sexual and cultural, and how the coming together of these things can complicate the already turbulent experience of adolescence. "Who is you, Chiron?" the lead character is asked midway through. Moonlight shows not just how difficult it can be to answer that question, but also the immeasurable value of edging closer towards finding out.
Also a second feature that has been met with no small acclaim, Spanish filmmaker Oliver Laxes' Mimosas is his Cannes prize-winning follow up to well regarded 2010 hybrid doc You Are All Captains, and contains similar elements of bounding blurring, if leaning more towards the fictitious than with that first film. A meandering journeyman film of a type that has become increasingly popular in 'slow cinema' over the last ten years, Laxe leans heavily on Lisandro Alonso with Mimosas, particularly Alonso's most recent film Jauja, of which this seems to take direct inspiration. Also present is Ben Rivers, whose role as inspiration stretches more towards collaborator, Rivers using the filming of Mimosas as a source for two of his recent projects, feature The Sky Trembles and the Earth Is Afraid and the Two Eyes Are Not Brothers and accompanying Artangel exhibition piece A Distant Episode, which documents a kind of making of Mimosas, if not in any traditional, comprehensible sense.
Merging elements of ethnography with more traditional arthouse trappings in the way that Rivers has established his name by doing, Laxe's Mimosas is as abstruse and elusive as Rivers' recent films, though not without potency or intrigue. Split into several acts, Mimosas follows a group of travellers on a doomed quest to bury a sheikh in the place of his choosing, a holy site almost impossible to find amidst the endless stretches of indefinable desert and mountain landscapes they find themselves stumbling through. Some kind of examination into the idea of faith, Laxe subdivides his chapters into different positions of prayer (bowing, standing then prostrating), though how these divisions relate to the non-linear, loose narrative remains unclear as the imagery darts between past and present, employing a documentary mode sporadically that muddles the more straightforwardly fictitious approach employed for the most part.
As his travellers wander further into disarray, their commitment to fulfilling the wishes of their sheikh falters as the immensity of the task becomes increasingly clear. Building a humourously despairing tone, the films of Albert Serra also come to mind throughout Mimosas, specifically Birdsong, also a traveller film about men (magi) of wavering faith. At the centre is the conflict between two of the travellers, Ahmed (Ahmed Hammoud) and Shakib (Shakib Ben Omar). Ahmed's wavering commitment to their task rubs up against Shakib's dedication to it, powered by his insistence upon the revelatory power of prayer, and the two engage in near constant bickering, willing each other into continuation through their mutual stubbornness.
A kind of neo-western, Laxe's travellers walk and talk through a unforgiving landscape, silhouettes set against the open expanse, the indefiniteness and expansiveness of their journey apparent as much to them as the audience. Mimosas is very pretty, containing colourful 16mm photography and varying attractive landscapes, but also so detached and aloof, so wilfully cryptic, that finding a point of connection within its sprawling cinematic terrain proves difficult. Trying to do so is something of a reward in itself though.
If Mimosas is a film defined by its expansiveness, Cristi Puiu's Sieranevada is inversely contained. In a claustrophobic, exhausting film that takes place almost entirely within the confines of a single Bucharest apartment, Puiu spins a masterful nexus of conversations, contradictions and conspiracies that occur between a family forced into proximity with each other to honour the death of the extended unit's patriarch. Waiting listlessly for the arrival of a priest to commence the commemorative ritual, the family, increasingly hungry and hostile, lay into each other endlessly, initial civility dissolving into a barrage of micro-aggressions, personal slights and charged debate on all manner of topics personal and political.
Puiu's first two films, The Death of Mister Lazarescu and Aurora, both conveyed a director with an accomplished, if varying, sense of control. This one, falling somewhere in between the style of those two films - as verbose and anxious as the former, and as claustrophobic and despairing as the latter - shows the same mastery of restraint. Imperceptibly and delicately orchestrated, it's a carefully choreographed study in familial confrontation that plays out through the most straightforward of means - wherein eavesdropping becomes a cinematic act.
Employing the camera almost as a Michael Snow style shifting apparatus, most of Puiu's film consists of a mounted camera pivoting across several, cramped rooms of the apartment. Each dispassionate, rigid spiral serves to detach, taking any weight off the performative aspect of the camera in motion and allowing for the emotional flux of the film to fall upon the dialogues and the performance of them. Puiu's ensemble rise to the occasion, acting out a lengthy series of exchanges over topics as diverse in thematic content as they are in emotional tenor with skill and tenacity. Though many of these are charged, fraught collisions that transform into full on verbal battles between family members with wildly contrasting opinions and value systems, much of Sieranevada is comic, if often caustically so. Indeed, after nearly three hours of agonising, captivating conflict, those who remain active in Puiu's ensemble begin to laugh. Relief, for both those on the screen and those sat in front of it, comes in fits of laughter - as much at the absurdity as the futility of it all.
London Film Festival 2015 #Dispatch 5 - Some Documentaries
A few words on some of the documentaries that played at the festival. Three films about people and places and what it means to call a place home, for better and for worse.
Prolific critic and filmmaker Mark Cousins, best known for his autobiographical film history series A Story of Cinema, is in good favour with LFF's programmers. Albania travelogue Here Be Dragons and DH Lawrence film 6 Desires have both screened here in successive years, and he returns bringing new film I Am Belfast this year. A distinctly personal film for the Belfast native turned world citizen, I Am Belfast operates somewhere between travelogue and essay film, touring viewers around some of Belfast's sights whilst an old spirit (Helena Bereen) - claiming to be the 10,000 year old personification of the city itself - tells stories of the city's character, history and inhabitants.
A scrappy collage of many high minded ideas, Cousin's narration connects Belfast's modern landscape to its storied past, lingering longest, most interestingly and most affectingly, on what locals refer to as "the troubles," the Northern Ireland conflict. Cousin's attempt to redefine the city as not just a site of a battleground, but a place of people with a complex, varying relationship to the land and its past is noble, but his approach is a little uneven. Offering a mishmash of stories that interrelate the current function of a place with the significance of the site in the past; and conversations with bit part players, most amusingly two foul mouthed old ladies in a cafe, Cousins lacks a clear line or argument. Some parts make for compelling viewing but others drag out a little, like for instance the funeral for 'the last bigot' he stages as the close of film.
A slightly indulgent effort from Cousins, his increased access and funding displayed through the involvement of legendary cinematographer Christopher Doyle, whose talents are used only in shots featuring Bereen, and composer David Holmes, whose music is atmospheric, but not exactly necessary. As a city symphony, I Am Belfast will mean a lot more to those who know and love the city than those looking to learn to love it. As such it is hard to recommend wider than to those who will already seek it out.
A more impressive film from another name that may be known to LFF audiences. One of the finest working documentarians, Chile's Patricio Guzman. His latest film The Pearl Button, works as a kind of spiritual sequel to the one that came before it, Nostalgia of the Light, sharing the associative style and conceptual framework of that film, as well as referring primarily to the topic that preoccupies him and his work, the terrible and prolonged dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet. Both explorative essays that interlink the earthly with the cosmological, tying past traumas to present realities, Nostalgia of the Light took the stars as a launching point whereas The Pearl Button begins with water.
Floating through Patagonia's icebergs and vast bodies of water, capturing the stunning scenery with a sense that he is discovering the unseen, Guzman muses on some of Chile's first peoples - a group of nomadic boaters of whom only several remain and whose language is set to die with them - and their strong relationship with water. From here, with a seamlessness he has made trademark, he looks at a micro/macro history of atrocity that began with the colonial settlement of Chile and leads through to the the Pinochet atrocities, using the vast Patagonian rivers as the link.
The Pearl Button of the title acts a kind of neat connective between diverse subject matters, referring first to the currency used to trade for the first native person taken back to England by earth settlers and also the basis for the name given to him 'Jemmy Button'; then later showing up again, stuck in the large iron rails used to weigh down the corpses of individuals disappeared during the Pinochet dictatorship, weathered by the ruin of history and the weight of historical connection. In excess of 1400 of these bodies were estimated to have been dumped, Guzman reveals, and as vast as this seems, its only one aspect of the atrocities he's spent a career trying to unearth and pay reverence to.
Guzman has always had a knack for finding poetic links, and though some of the stretches made here do not seem as organic as those in Nostalgia of the Light, he still manages to tackle the most ambitious subjects in a fashion both down to earth and lyrical. The imagery is perhaps even more stunning than in Nostalgia of the Light, though coupled with his poetic, slowly spoken narration it can feel a little too close to a BBC nature documentary at points. Guzman deviates little from what made his recent masterpiece Nostalgia of the Light so successful, instead probing the same interests and grievances from new angles. Yet without the cosmos as basis, he isn't as impressively grandiose, nor always as poignant and insightful. For some, it won't work as well but for others the relative concision will appeal.
Much less ambitious, (Be)longing, an observational documentary from Portuguese debutant João Pedro Plácido takes matters back down to earth. Following a farming family in the isolated community of Uz, (Be)longing is a warmly affectionate, ambling portrait of a rural society that persists with a traditional lifestyle in unpretentious opposition to the pressures of modernity. Despite an ostentially observational format, Placido's documentary has the active sense of cooperation that comes from being embedded in a community for a long time, especially one with some personal significance, Uz being the home of Placido's grandparents.
Over four seasons, Placido follows the town's fifty or so inhabitants through daily work and evening leisure, a whole lot of cow-herding, land-tilling and small-talking. He focuses most on a young farmhand Daniel, who at 21 seems less restful than most in the area, and more eager to escape the confines of the community. The most exciting sequence involves the community's annual festivities, Placido's camera dancing around the revelry and gently overseeing Daniel's clumsy, humbling courtship of a visiting girl. Indeed, the mobile, sharp cinematography is the film's strength, capturing effectively both the landscapes and the people, and making use of the four season format to show the varying colours and climate of the picturesque area Placido is visiting. (Be)longing is an enjoyable, if somewhat slight piece of ethnography, slightly plodding at some points but genuinely beautiful at others.
London Film Festival 2015 Dispatch #4 - Of Horses and Lobsters
Two fractured coming of age tales, wide in scope and rich in feeling, that are both recognisable as traces of the nations that produced them; and two Greek films with British connections. One, a Film4 Co-Production that has a UK general release parallel to its LFF screening; and the other the recipient of the Official Competition prize at the festival, beating out Cary Fukanaga, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Terence Davies amongst others.
First the traditional. My Golden Days has Arnaud Desplechin in full Olivier Assayas mode, so much so that it is entirely possible to mistake it for one of Assayas' films. Showing the tempestuousness of youth through an expansive episodic structure that unravels Paul's (Quentin Dolmaire) disparate memories around a central affair with Esther (Lou Roy-Lecollinet), Desplechin catalogues a dramatic, tempestuous saga that stretched across only five years of Paul's life but has proved inescapable since. Early hip-hop and late disco soundtrack cues, along with elaborately composed mise-en-scene and set dressing establish the 1980s setting. Desplechin shows a time when distance relationships occurred over snail mail as much as train visitations, meaning the pair's fleeting romance lingers not only in their memory but also has the permanence of the handwritten word.
Paul - a character whose cool indifference to social and romantic mores is expressed directly through his two standard responses to all of the challenges life throws at him: "i felt nothing" or "life is strange," - is difficult to relate to, a smugly intellectual dillitant that admittedly matches well with Esther, a cocksure, initially distanced romantic who proves suffocatingly co-dependent once won over. As such, watching their ill-fated romance can prove as frustrating as much as it is invigorating. My Golden Days is a fluidly constructed melodrama with commendable scope and significant visual flourish, sweepingly entertaining in the moment, but after the fact, nothing that feels too fresh or, fittingly considering the theme of ephemerality, all that memorable.
Equally wide in scope, Sunset Song, a film that Terence Davies has spent 15 years battling to develop is an irresistible large screen experience, conservatively made but no less captivating for it. Shot in a mix of 65mm and 4K digital, cinematographer Michael McDonough captures the landscape - a beautiful melange of rolling fields, crops lulling in the wind, and sweeping highland vistas - with a breadth and scale that makes a fitting counterpoint to the intimacy of the story. Adapting what he describes as the "greatest work of Scottish literature," the titular novel by Lewis Grassic Gibbons, Davies works off the principle that the turmoils, battles and maturation of lead Chris (Agyness Deyn), are an internalised metaphor for Scotland as a whole. In Davies' Sunset Song, evidently a passion project of the highest personal significance, land and self are very much intertwined, and Davies' evocation of both wavers between the sweepingly broad and the touchingly close.
Davies' adaptation is made of three distinct acts - Chris's relationship with abusive father (Peter Mullen in monstrous form), her meeting, courtship and marriage with Ewan (Kevin Guthrie), and their separation by way of the First World War - and he glides through them with commendable fluidity, covering a crucial five years of the girl's life and the significant changes that occur in her through this time. Small expressions - such as the way she bravely confronts her husband compared to the way she couldn't challenge her father earlier - show her development from frightened patriarchal subject to strong, independent woman in a film that is anchored by an exceptional, evocative performance from Deyn.
It might have been interesting to see Davies spin a more unconventional take on the source material, as this is a much straighter affair than Distant Voices, Still Lives or The Long Day Closes for instance. That said, the film holds significant emotional power. In lesser hands several very well measured moments at either end of the dramatic scale would not have anywhere near the impact or subtlety that Davies successfully imbues upon them. In the same way that Terence Malick's late films can divide audiences, some may find Davies style here of very earnest, very traditional almost-melodrama difficult to stomach, but those who find themselves taken in early will, by the end, be utterly devastated by this elegant, expansive film.
Onto the modern. Chevalier, Greek director Athina Rachel Tsangari's second film after Attenberg doesn't deviate too far from what has come, for better or for worse, to be expected of her and her contemporaries. A group of individuals with rebellious instincts (here 6 men, isolated from their spouses on a boat trip agree to follow a set of arbitrary, increasing illogical rules (the game of 'The Best At Everything In General' wherein everything they do - be it cook, talk, sleep, swim etc. - can be judged, ending with a rank order of them as friends, husbands and crucially, men.) Perhaps where this one differs is that these 'greek new weird wave' films have had a tendency to lean towards the anthropological, showing a perturbing lack of humanity in the treatment of their characters, but Chevalier is much warmer, Tsangari conveying care for her characters despite effectively ridiculing them. Curiously observational certainly, Tsangari's position as a woman embedded in a society of men allows her to extract and exacerbate, often very humorously, the most ridiculous aspects of the male competitive urge, exposing masculinity for the fragile shambles it absolutely is.
Tsangari's dialogues are sharp and often very funny, pitting the men's egos and anxieties against each other; and the format is tight and clever, effectively isolating the situation but having it near enough to reality to not feel entirely absurdist, like say Dogtooth, which Tsangari had a hand in producing. The trajectory of Chevalier seems to be building towards total insanity, but it never quite breaks in this way. The most outlandish of all the contests is an erection contest, the loser obsessing over his loss for the following days before hilariously brandishing his "gigantic erection" to his competitors. It is probably stronger for this "realism," emphasising that which Tsangari ridicules without stretching the metaphor out too far. Chevalier works as allegory, with Tsangari very careful to avoid encouraging any single reading of her film, but it also works as a straight comedy, even if the descent into madness the audience desires doesn't quite arrive.
More disappointing was The Lobster, fellow Greek expatriate Yorgos Lanthimos latest smugly distanced film. A jet-black comedy about the codification of romance, Lanthimos's film runs two hours but disappointingly makes the extent of its primary point - that relationships and matchmaking through shared interests and attributes is a ridiculous, limiting concept - within thirty minutes, and does little to elaborate or expand upon it after that.
Lanthimos' mirrors the societal stigmatisation of solitude by depicting a alternative reality where singletons are dispatched to a hotel/prison camp and forced to find a partner within 45 days, facing penalty of transfiguration into an animal should they fail to meet a person they share an arbitrary physical or personality attribute with. The funniest parts come in this first situation, a rogues gallery of desperate suitors feigning a match worthy trait in order to escape solitude. (Ben Whishaw slamming his face on a table to simulate a recurring nosebleed or Colin Farrell letting a potential partner nearly choke to death in a act of mock-detachment.) From here, Lanthimos then inverts his alt-universe, the film's latter half exploring a society of escapees from the society of forced companionship. Expectedly this supposedly free community follows as stringent a set of rules as the prisoners of love.
Another film about the deconstruction of communicative codes, both physical and verbal, The Lobster is probably the weakest of Lanthimos' films, if also the most ambitious. His first english language effort, Lanthimos cleverly dodges the dialogue problem many directors turning to a second language face by having the characters talk in a deliberately stilted, phrasally awkward version of English. (Secondarily, this creates the amusing irony of filling a film whereby non-acting, or at least acting in the least performative sense, is a requirement, with a huge, star studded ensemble cast, Colin Farrell as the centre.)
Dogtooth worked because the material required distance, with Alps and now The Lobster, Lanthimos faces the problem of applying icy detachment to material that requires some level of humanism, first with grief and now romantic companionship. The trace element of tenderness comes from Farrell, his eyebrow-heavy expressions and clumsy gut imposing a softness on the film, a gesture from a director perhaps becoming aware of his status as icy observer. Visually precise and fatiguingly droll, made with a continually smirking deadpan, The Lobster is initially quite comic, but by the end barely at all, more of an extended piece of misanthropic conceptualism than a film.
London Film Festival 2016 #Dispatch 3 - Waking Dreams
At a film festival, sticking to known names can prove a little tedious. After all, half the fun of film viewership is the act of discovery. That said, when a new film from someone as reliably impressive as Apichatpong Weerasethakul shows up, it takes a special kind of commitment to the pursuit of obscurity to skip it. This dispatch sees the return of two favourites (who share a talented young cinematographer in Diego Garcia), and the discovery of a new name, whose career is far from young and her talent far from unappreciated.
First, that pleasant surprise: Murmur of the Hearts, from Sylvia Chang. (A name who, it should be noted, dominated the festival, also acting in Jia Zhangke's Mountains May Depart and co-writing and co-leading Johnnie To's Office.) A very moving, emotionally intelligent, romantic melodrama of a type not often seen anymore, Chang's first directorial effort in seven years looks at difficulties of communication and how relationships come apart. The dreamlike, graceful opening sets the stage and structure - a mother tells her two children a story, one that has stayed with them into adulthood. Chang then switches elliptically between this shared past and their separate presents, using the storytelling mechanism as a link. The girl (Isabella Leong), now a painter in a struggling relationship with a uncommunicative, psychological stunted boxer (Joseph Chang); and the boy (Lawrence Ko), a tour guide on a remote Taiwanese island Lyudao, distanced, inexpressive and lonely. Drawing in broad, emotive strokes, Chang explores the conflicts and shifts, both seismic and minute, that have served to distance these people; then crosses countries and chronologies to draw a wide, sprawling arc that brings them all together.
Chang's dreamlike visuals, an entrancing Tsai Ming Liang inspired palette of rain distorted Taipei neons and misty Lyudao greys and greens; and high-emotional register performances from Leong and Ko elevate an overwritten, needlessly complex script. Exchanges between the characters throughout the film are stuttered, the character's shared inability to express their individual yearnings pushing them towards looks and gestures instead. When it all comes together, and the characters get somewhere towards the resolution or reunion they separately desire, Murmur of the Hearts carries real emotional heft, the weight of the accumulative power of Chang's pocketed moments and memories meaning the importance of everything unsaid is understood, and the impact deeply felt.
Less revelatory, a much more ordinary film - also featuring a stunted romance between a boxer and an artist - the (un)imaginatively titled Box, from Romanian director Florin Șerban. For much of the film's runtime, Rafael (screen debutant Rafael Florea) stalks Cristina (Hilda Peter), silently, lustfully, and indeed very creepily following her around Bucharest's back alleys with a muted persistence. Șerban apes the stalks from Jose Guerin's In The City of Sylvia, but misses what made them significant there, the sense of connection and history.
In between, their characters and separate lives are fleshed out unsatisfyingly. He, a talented young boxer groomed by a coach, who, surprise surprise, doesn't have his best intentions in mind; and she, a stage actor creatively frustrated by a uninspiring project and unhelpful director. She goes home to an unappreciative husband; and he a distanced, overly masculine father. Neither communicate much, little happens. These runarounds should broaden a sense of the characters lives apart from each other, perhaps expressing the lack of fulfilment in their personal and professional lives that leads them together and lend a sense of believability to the idea that Cristina could somehow fall for her mawkish, admittedly handsome, stalker. Instead, they seem like filler surrounding a central affair that spends an overly protracted period in gestation. To the director's credit, after considerable tedium the payoff the ending provides is gratifying, Șerban using a callback to a significant piece of music to conclude his film excellently. The preceding ninety minutes could have benefitted from similar directorial presence however, Șerban mistaking distance for subtlety, meaning the resultant film is frustratingly inert.
A much better balancer of inertia and activity, Brazilian director Gabriel Mascaro brought his captivating debut August Winds to the festival last year. This year he returns with a similarly subtle, confident film; the wonderfully titled (and realised) Neon Bull. In a sharply observed, unassuming film, Mascaro, with cinematographer Diego Garcia, brings an almost documentary style approach to fiction. His portrait of a group of nomadic bull handlers draws upon the minutiae of their experience yet avoids becoming mundane by focusing heavily on the bodies in play, both human and animal. Like with his debut, Mascaro manages to control mood, tone and rhythm with a seemingly effortless restraint, eking out the humour, compassion and beauty from the most modest of moments.
Focusing on the physicality of his characters, Mascaro, despite the brashly masculine world he is exploring, establishes a representation of gender with considerable nuance. Besides the bull work, his protagonist’s true passion is for fashion, sewing lavish costumes and scribbling lingerie designs over nude photos in his spare time. In the film’s most brilliant, sensual scene, the culmination of this conflation of gender positioning sees him having impassioned, lusty sex with a heavily pregnant cohort in the textiles factory she guards at night, the tough shell of her guard’s uniform slipped away to reveal her vulnerability and beauty. Steamy, sensitive, and captured with a Weerasethakulian sense of languidity, it is the perfect moment of catharsis in a film that to this point had been quiet and undramatic. Mascaro's first two features have demonstrated a director with a real command over his craft, an effortless ability to depict ordinary situations with vivacity and sensuality. Whatever he does next will certainly gain the wider attention he deserves.
This considered, it is no huge surprise then to notice that Apichatpong Weerasethakul's new one Cemetery of Splendour was also shot by Diego Garcia. Recommended by Carlos Reygadas with the explanation that “he meditates, you’ll like him," Diego filled in for Weerasethakul's usual cameraman Sayombhu Mukdeeprom, who had been “stolen by Miguel Gomes to make Arabian Nights.” (Hearing all this doesn't exactly help to diminish any apprehensions that the world of international art cinema might be some self-serving boys club, but it is a little amusing regardless.)
Anyway, Cemetery of Splendour, a "simple film," to quote the ever humble Apichatpong, is also a tremendous, profoundly moving one, and as brilliant as any he has made. A paean to his hometown, Apichatpong's first film set in Khon Kaen is perhaps also his most melancholic. Split in half narratively, Cemetery of Splendour has Apichatpong's regular muse Jenjira Pongpas drifting, between states of consciousness, as well around the town's sleepy locales. First seen tending to inexplicably comatose soldiers in a hospital converted from the school she grew up in, the second half has her accompanying an awoken one, in person then, movingly, through the presence of a medium.
In a gorgeous, tranquil film that feels like a culmination of the style, themes and ideas of the director's previous work, Apichatpong plays with his form gently, working off the notion as cinema as an opiate by introducing a film as languorous and as ASMR inducing as any he has made to date with the instruction that "its ok to sleep during." As if to play up the unreality of filmmaking, the soldiers are treated with incandescent light-eminating poles stationed above their beds, acting like camera filters and bathing the actors in radiating neon washes. In the film's most beautiful, somnambulistic sequence Apichatpong fades from these hues to similarly intoned ones in the town's denigrated shopping mall, abstracting the two locations by double-exposing them together, exemplifying the mastery with which the film drifts transiently between states of place and being. In the next moment, the newly woken soldier notes that his senses are heightened. "I can sense all the smells in this market, I can feel the temperature of the lights."
More beguiling, serene and hypnotic than any film Apichatpong has made before; in Cemetery of Splendour it is never quite clear, even by the haunting, suggestive concluding sequence, whether Jenjira is dreaming or not as ghosts appear before her in human form and the narcoleptic soldiers pass in and out of consciousness. At one point, she is told that in order to wake up and see things as they are, she must open her eyes as wide as humanly possible, something referenced by the heartbreaking ending. In a nation suffering from a statewide malaise, a sleeping sickness that suffocates its citizens and silences its artists, no amount of pinching or eye-widening is going to help. Apichatpong's last film to be made in Thailand operates in many contradictory states, realistic and dreamy, hopeful and melancholic, and is a tragic, therapeutic farewell to a place he can no longer remain in.
London Film Festival Dispatch #2 - Visions of Hell
Moving onwards, more eclectic fare in a festival that caters widely. A seasoned auteur’s expansive, divisive vision of the state of affairs in his homeland (Arabian Nights, from Miguel Gomes) and a similarly confrontational, though decidedly smaller scale look at the tired state of the cinematic form from a relatively new one (Entertainment, Rick Alverson), as well as two oppositional takes upon the ‘horror’ form from two directors, one new (Robert Eggers) and one who has been away for a long time (Lucile Hadzihalilovic).
One of the more bewitching, singular films on display at LFF, and possibly also the most indulgent, Arabian Nights, from Portuguese director Miguel Gomes - split tripartitely but screened consecutively - ran six enchanting hours and captivated for at least four. Something of a sprawling state of the nation address from a director evidently entering the brazen, magnum opus seeking period of his career, Arabian Nights sees Gomes spin a number of ever unravelling yarns about Portuguese society as he sees it. Drifting wilfully between fact and fiction, modernity and “antiquity”, fantasy and reality, Gomes takes the devastating effect of a debilitating programme of economic austerity circa 2013/14 as the unifying factor.
These tales - some absurd (a rooster on trial for crowing turned town mayor, Portugal’s governors stuck with insatiable magic potion induced erections), some affecting (interviews with the recently unemployed, a beloved dog who transfers from one owner to another, offering relief amidst an otherwise miserable tower block complex), some fantastical (battles with wind genies, exploding whales and masked bandits confessing sins in high pitched squarks), and one bizarrely prolonged and inert (the perversely descriptive, ultimately touching, depiction of a community of competition chaffinch breeders) - are presented as tales from the tongue of Scheherazade (Crista Alfaiate.) A master raconteur storytelling to save her life, she appears frequently in some of the films most beautiful sequences. Each tale is entirely different to the last, and though variable in quality all have something to offer - some kind of recondite wisdom, oddball humour or emotional value - and as a whole they show Gomes at his most narratively disruptive, cinematically playful and, inevitably, also his most erratic and inconsistent. A film of bold colours and even bolder ambition, Gomes’ soundtrack selection in particular is phenomenal, transforming a tale from the ordinary into the distinctly extraordinary through some ingenious sonic-visual combinations.
Unlike Arabian Nights, it may be fair to say that Entertainment is exactly the film you would expect Rick Alverson to make following his debut The Comedy, but this is not necessarily a criticism. His style of endlessly protracted discomfort shows a gradually evolving nuance. Less directly confrontational but no less provocative than his first film, Entertainment sees Alverson again veer, often imperceptibly, between irony and seriousness, constantly and aggressively demanding the viewer to interrogate both his intent and their response. Gregg Turkington plays his alter-ego Neil Hamburger, an acerbic, mock-misanthropic road comedian whose entirely self aware act has him vomiting out venomous one-liners at consistently unappreciative crowds before berating them repugnantly for their indifference.
Off stage, Hamburger is found mostly moping around landscape tourist spots, captured by Alverson in painstakingly composed, wide angled frames presumably intended to send up a different, more classical type of art cinema than the modern american indie form that he deconstructed in The Comedy. (For instance, the most brazen piece of pointed mock-symbolism in Entertainment, has Hamburger wandering forlornly around a graveyard for crashed aeroplanes, and the most overtly mock-horror-surrealist moment has him deliver a baby, thick rimmed glasses splattered with blood.) Alverson has got to a point with his craft that its almost uncritiqueable, any seemingly flawed moment an expression of his condemnation of hack art cinema or an attempt to push it to its (un)natural limits, but it remains to be seen whether he can work in any other style or tone. Entertainment lacks the charged, highly targeted meanness that made The Comedy so special and timely - assassinating a generation obsessed with irony by imitating that mode - but is still effective when Alverson’s sights and Turkington’s performance align.
Certain to be a breakout horror success upon release, Robert Egger’s The Witch has the unfortunate problem of having generated so much hype that it is impossible to enter without the burden of preconception. After a rocky start - Egger’s tremendous mood building hampered by some unfortunately clumsy British accent work from his young American cast - The Witchmoves into increasingly unpredictable, pleasingly volatile territory. Forging his own twist on the Salem trials, New England native Eggers’ film centers on a family situated there in isolation (recent UK émigrés, hence the accents) that find themselves plagued by a number of difficulties, starting with a ruined crop yield, the disappearance of a child, and only increasing in strangeness from then on. Inter-family squabbling shifts the culprit of their misfortune around, the family’s stringent Catholicism forcing them to be in constant doubt of their own sanctity and the guilt of one another. Eggers keeps his audience constantly guessing as to what form the witchcraft of the title may come in, what is explicable by natural laws or what might be the result of “unnatural providence.” Ultimately, evangelism, whether in devotion to god or the devil, proves the enemy, splitting the family apart and welcoming chaos into their life.
Eggers’ handling of tone is superlative, slow building through gradual, foreboding zooms against a wiry droning soundtrack that switches towards chaotic strings as the film breaks out into some genuinely horrific moments. The Witch, whilst maybe not entirely deserving of the many proclamations of ‘greatest horror film in years’ it has been receiving, is distinctly more inventive and surprising, as well as more atmospheric and well composed, than a lot of the films that get described in this fashion.
A much more slippery, complex affair, and as good an indication of the uselessness of genre classification as any, Evolution is Lucile Hadzihalilovic’s first film in ten years, and carries that sense of time-earnt gestation with it. Meshing a Cronenbergian predilection for exploring queasiness of the body with the calculated ambiguity of Jonathan Glazer’s Under The Skin, Evolution is an enigma that entrusts the viewer to decode, or at least accept, a series of inexplicable, increasingly disturbing and abstract images. Opening with some of the most gorgeous underwater photography ever captured, it’s a consistently stunningly shot film. Lit mostly by dim, natural types of light sources that are associated most with genre work, each sequence is composed obsessively, striking image layered one after another - unnerving, sickly imagery that is dually alluring and repulsive, sequenced as to instigate a sense of continual dread.
A world of liquid symbolism, oceanic, bodily and environmental, Hadzihalilovic paints an initially ascetic coastside scene of steadily decomposing disquiet that swells with barely sublimated sexuality. The anxieties prevalent at the onset of male adolescence are channelled through a boarding school for young boys ruled with a calm totalitarianism by a convent of red headed, pale skinned mother figures, unseen horrors hidden in the shadows of its dank, crumbling walls. By the end, what looks like a slow-reveal proves to be a no-reveal, as Hadzihalilovic refuses any obvious solutions to character origins, motivations or most other questions viewers may be expecting answers for. Directors with this type of arthouse sensibility can sometimes rely on a kind of lazy ambiguity - a refusal to provide meaning to match their visual imagination - but Hadzihalilovic’s film somehow evades this. The surface meaning is evident, yet an endless array of interpretative possibility is present, encouraged but not exactly necessarily in order to enjoy a sensualist’s treat of queasily sensorial sounds and images.
Striking, often assaultive imagery connects the four films in this batch. Four slightly indulgent, decidedly cinematic visions of differing kinds of horror - political, social, religious and bodily - from four image makers of varying styles and capacities. None of these films are easy orders, nor is any one entirely satisfying in its accomplishment, but all are well devoting some time to.
London Film Festival Dispatch #1 - Talk and Trauma
Amongst the 240 strong programme, London Film Festival (LFF) is host to a large number of familiar names and flagpole films, acting as something of a net for the festivals preceding it. Mainly suiting a public (for many press, Karlovy Vary Festival or Krakow's New Horizons may serve the same purpose in more attractive landscapes), cine-literate, if conservative, population seeking varying fare from across cinema’s many spectrums; it is completely possible - though perhaps slightly unexciting - to navigate the festival entirely through known entities. Starting then, with one of the most well known, well regarded and satisfyingly reliable voices in world cinema.
Right Now, Wrong Then marks, some 17 features in for Hong Sang-soo, yet another formal experiment and, despite this sense of familiarity, proves to be one of his most successful explorative ventures. Two hours split down the middle by a reset. Two halves repeated wherein the circumstances, locations, even many of the conversational strands are identical, but the outcomes, occurrences, even the tone emerges as something entirely different. Slight directorial adjustments from Hong, and nuanced performative inversions from his co-leads Kim Minhee and Jung Jae-young, see that two distinct trajectories emerge from almost identical premises. In its emphasis upon the potentially major effect of minor variations, as well as the almost infinite variability of human experience, Hong encourages speculation over how minor alterations in tone, language or behaviour may effect the outcome of moments in a life, how the course of a personal narrative could be altered by even the slightest variation in what was done, said or suggested at any given moment.
Showing two chance romantic encounters that both reach the same non-conducive conclusion, Hong lets the viewer interpret even the most minor piece of visual information - the meaning behind a customary zoom, a downward turning glance or the placement of a prop within the frame - in any given way, opening Right Now, Wrong Then for reviewings and reinterpretations perhaps more than any of his films have before. Cinema as a mirror at its most natural, simultaneously simplistic and complex, this probably sits as Hong’s best since The Day He Arrives, as well as a fitting tonal-reversal (wanton and gleeful, to largely melancholic) of previous, similarly formally-tricky, delicately nuanced film Hill of Freedom.
Also seemingly familiar, Aferim!, from Romanian director Radu Jude. From the opening shot, a near silent horizon-crossing straight out of Albert Serra’s Birdsong, Aferim! looks like it could be recognisably by the books ‘slow cinema’ fare. A miscue however, as before long Jude reveals the differing direction his film will take. A frantically verbal, frequently funny, journey film that moves at considerable pace, Aferim! is more Aleksei German than Lisandro Alonso. In German’s Hard to be a God (similarly smart and acerbic, and also shot in beautiful B/W 35mm) the vulgarity was physical, but in Aferim!, its largely verbal. As they travel across picturesque Wallachia mountainscapes tirelessly after their target, an escaped slave, Constable Cindescu (Alexandru Dabija) spews a relentless tirade in the direction of his companion, son and receiving ear Ionita (Mihai Comanoiu.) Teaching him trade and tenor, Cindescu unloads a mix of unwieldy xenophobia, offbeat wisdom and peculiar, sidewinding aphorisms upon the witless, wide-eyed boy, an act entertaining and repellent in equal measure.
Intelligently, just as the constant barrage of sharply scripted (apparently sourced in part from historical texts) verbal digressions begin to bear down on the viewer, the film’s tone shifts towards something more serious. As a noble duty becomes a moral quandary, Jude generates more and more sympathy towards the now captive gypsy slave as his captors weigh up whether “the filthy crow” deserves his fate or if their prejudice might be misguided, in this case at least. Thus Jude opens a dialogue on the fragility of justice and the mindless barbarity of intolerance (now as much as then, Jude seems to be suggesting). A smart balance of wit and seriousness, and a well-measured inversion of the classical western, Aferim! was the Silver Bear winner at Berlin, and is also Romania’s Oscar entry, so singing its laurels hardly constitutes backing an underdog, but judging from the 6 people at the press screening (High Rise clash) and the lack of general discussion about it at the festival, it may have gone under radars, unjustly.
Less conspicuous was much lauded Son of Saul from former Bela Tarr collaborator and first time director László Nemes. A tremendous technical accomplishment if nothing else, Nemes’ film will continue to receive large amounts of attention for its vivid, unerringly grim (and newspaper-crit friendly) holocaust depiction, as well as its dogged dedication to a challenging aesthetic. Fixing immediately on Saul - a sonderkommando at Auschwitz (a jewish prisoner given minor privileges in return for being forced to work, tirelessly and horribly, cleaning the gas chambers) - Nemes’ film remains with him for the duration, Mátyás Erdély's roaming camera locked tight on either the front or back of his head for almost all of the film.
Apart from putting tremendous pressure on lead actor Géza Röhrig, this directorial choice means the horrors of the holocaust technically occur offscreen (though their presence is more than felt.) Firstly, in the edges of the screen or outside of it as characters approach Saul or he moves past the bodies, instruments and perpetrators of genocide; and secondly, through the impeccably cacophonous, traumatically loud sound design, the screams, crashes and bangs of the the camp clangoring around Saul as he journeys relentlessly on. Putting aside any debate over whether this singular focus spares the audience unnecessary exposure to the horrors of the situation or undermines the suffering of everyone but Saul, whose own mission is pursued with a fervid intensity that comes at the expense of many around him; it is slightly strange to see such immeasurable effort put into production design as well as set piece staging, for it to be almost entirely obscured by the claustrophobic framing and fuzzily low depth of field. Despite plot contrivances and telegraphing, Nemes’ film proves an impressive achievement, if a gruelling, somewhat monotonous viewing experience.
Also gruelling on the face of it, Happy Hour, a five hour long film about the turbulent feelings of a group of four Japanese women seems a hard sell, even within a festival setting, but emerged as an effortless joy to sit through. Cataloguing in detailed, unhurried fashion the cycles (work, family, leisure and love) of the regular lives of a group of women approaching middle age, this film from under-exhibited, evidently undervalued Japanese director Ryusuke Hamaguchi shows a cinematically underrepresented aspect of human experience captured with a remarkable sensitivity and acuity. Made mostly of extended conversations between the women, often reassessments following revelations, Happy Hour is anchored by a terrific, naturalistic script that achieves the difficult balance of fluctuating between the cinematically interesting and realistically mundane. As the fallout from one women’s divorce proceedings causes them to interrogate and reevaluate their own relationships, their sense of self and the nature of their engagement with each other, Hamaguchi’s dialogues (co-scripted with Tadashi Nohara and Tomoyuki Takahashi) replicate the experience of a conversation naturally expanding from the trivial into something deeper.
These conversations, often a response to the connective narrative event that proceeded them (a book talk, weekend workshop or away trip the women shared) have a tremendous flow that Hamaguchi imparts onto the film as well, constructing scenes that are afforded time to play out then segued together with a gentle sound bridge, piano interlude and a style of editing that creates a sense of gently forward-moving continuity between scenes. It is all straight forward, unpretentious stuff, but the combination of such observational precision and clarity of dramatic expression, and four terrific performances from the actresses, means that the resulting film is irresistible, iridescent even. Some technical sloppiness may betray Hamaguchi’s relative inexperience and negligible budget, but his calculated, multilayered understanding of the complexities of human emotion is that of an old master.
On the total opposite end of the spectrum stylistically, tonally and topically, but also well in tune with human emotion, Tangerine has Starlet director Sean Baker in pseudo-Harmony Korine mode, forging a kind of ‘Spring Breakers with sensitivity’, a sun-bleached, soundtrack driven feature that follows a transgender sex worker and friend as they chase down the girl who cheated on her pimp boyfriend - high drama from the offset. It’s a fast paced, vibrant film - utilising the iPhone (5S) camera for mobility as much as budget, allowing Baker and co-DP Radium Cheung to duck, dart and dive with a ferocity that is sometimes invigorating and sometimes irritating, whilst hyperactively rapid cutting to further generate energy - that seems to avoid slowing down to not give time for viewers to start to wonder whether or not this is exploitative.
Laughs come thick and fast thanks to towering, unreal performances from co-leads Sin-Dee (Kiki Kitana Rodriguez) and Alexandra (Mya Taylor), and for a while Tangerine feels invigoratingly new, jubilant as much as despairing of the area, people and culture it portrays. Unfortunately, it builds to a climax that feels over-orchestrated and farcical, a barrage of misfortune (self-inflicted and societal) that pushes patience slightly too far. It may come down to sensibility, but Tangerine seems to work best at its quietest, the song recital in the bar or the activity in the car-wash, which is also the mode it operates in least. It may be fairest to celebrate Tangerine for its successes - Baker’s care for his characters, ingenuity with his tools or the actor’s bravery and earnestness - but its also hard to not feel the film may have made a better short than a feature, bloated with filler sideplot (non sequitur back of the cab cameo characters, for instance) at feature length and often leaning on clichés that might have slipped the cut with a more compact structure.
The inverse of Tangerine and an exercise in absolute restraint, Paula from newcomer Eugenio Canevari shows, across sixty five sparsely filled minutes, a young nanny attempting to deal with an unwanted pregnancy in a country where abortion is illegal. Canevari follows Paula around her routines as she struggles listlessly to generate the currency required to fund the secret procedure, all the while invoking an unusual sensation - one of both immense leisure, in the feeling and tone of his languidly observational, long take filmmaking, and of a taut urgency, in the growing bump in the girl’s stomach and the strain upon her face. Velvety, low depth of field photography, often framed off centre or with an unusual focus point, gives the feeling of detachment, of a psychiatrist dispassionately examining a patient, which Canevari furthers by dialling up the ambient sound and lingering on pointedly empty moments, alienating his subject and emphasising the banality of those around her.
Despite suffering from slightly too evangelical adherence to the stylistic code of ‘what arthouse cinema should be like’, Paula manages to transmit a lot about the social situation it depicts (economic inequality, strained relationships, familial tension, and a bitter class divide) in few, lengthy shots and even fewer words. The patches of dysfunction that crop up across the films duration give way to full on malaise in a final scene showing a party at the family home, Paula sitting, toes in the pool, her expression moving from forlorn to total despair, Canevari's camera locked static on her and her alone. Right on cue, black screen and a cut to credits, predictable certainly but also disarmingly effective, her pained grimace lingering well past the duration.
A mix of expected deliveries from major names and well received newcomers, LFF’s first few films ran the course of what the year has provided, suggesting three differing perspectives (Happy Hour, Tangerine, Wrong Then, Right Now) upon the human interpersonal experience; as well as three films on personal suffering placed against a larger social situation, one (Paula) playing this pain out at the lowest of levels and another (Son of Saul) at the most aggressively, traumatically highest.