FILM FESTIVAL FILM REVIEW: London Film Festival || Seen at Odeon West End, London, Saturday 19 October 2014 || My Rating good
There’s a certain kind of French film, like this one, which has a light and frothy quality to it — all well-heeled middle-class houses and high society fashion worn by venerable actors at the top of their game (including Catherine Deneuve) — while nevertheless trying to pick away at something hidden under that luxe surface. Here we get the story of a civil service accountant Marc (Belgian actor Benoît Poelvoorde) who finds himself doing an audit in a provincial town, where he bumps into Sylvie (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and they have a one-night stand. They agree to meet again in Paris, but he misses the appointment and doesn’t have any details for her. Some time later he returns to the small town, where he meets Sophie (Chiara Mastroianni) and strikes up a romance with her. She, of course, and unbeknown to him, turns out to be Sylvie’s sister. There’s a well-worn pleasure in the way things progress from here, ever reliant on some rather stretched plotting, but you get the sense that the filmmaker’s interest is in the way this conventionally-boring man can inveigle his way into the lives of others and upset their carefully-ordered world. There’s a recurring musical motif in the soundtrack that suggests the intended tone is more horror film or dark, psychological thriller than comedy, but if so, it’s a peculiar form of middle-class domestic horror. I’d perhaps have had more time for it if Poelvoorde was more convincing as the buttoned-up lothario character; I never really believed that these women would fall for him in the way they did. That said, it’s all perfectly enjoyable fluff that, unlike its central character, doesn’t outstay its welcome.
CREDITS || Director Benoît Jacquot | Writers Julien Boivent and Benoît Jacquot | Cinematographer Julien Hirsch | Starring Benoît Poelvoorde, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Chiara Mastroianni, Catherine Deneuve | Length 106 minutes
FILM FESTIVAL FILM REVIEW: London Film Festival || Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT2), London, Sunday 19 October 2014 || My Rating excellent
The films of Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan certainly have the kind of big, sweeping qualities that attract a film festival jury, hence his Palme d’Or award at the Cannes Film Festival this year, which to my mind is overdue (his last film, 2011’s Bir Zamanlar Anadolu’da, Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, still represents my favourite of his strong body of work). The camerawork is exceptional, picking out figures against the vast, beautiful landscapes he likes to work in, suggesting a harsh and difficult terrain for his characters, though the bulk of the film takes place in rather cosier indoor settings. There’s something of the epic quality that marked the films of similarly Cannes-feted Greek director Theo Angelopoulos — certainly a lot of the same kinds of weathered, world-weary faces — but with, to my mind, less pomp and less self-conscious artistry at work. The comparisons seem necessary as, quite aside from the award, Ceylan has inched beyond a three-hour running time with this latest work, a largely domestic drama set in the same Anatolian landscape as his previous film. What I enjoy about his films, which have for some time been co-written with his wife Ebru, is the precarious sense of relationships in turmoil and how that relates to a wider community. Here we have ageing ex-actor Mr Aydin (Haluk Bilginer), who owns a hotel on a beautiful hilltop promontory, and aspires to be a writer and academic. He has a younger wife Nihal (Melisa Sözen) who keeps her distance, largely due to Aydin’s pompous self-involvement — he can never let an argument go, and just keeps pushing at people, including his sister and a local imam who’s renting one of his properties. The imam and his family are living in poverty and their story runs alongside that of Mr Aydin and his wife’s charitable efforts, giving the lie to their own beliefs about themselves and the work they do. Even if Aydin is one of the more aggravating central characters of recent cinema, there’s still a sense of why he acts the way he does, and that it comes from what he thinks of as a good place, though more often than not the effect can be toxic on those around him. It’s all very subtly evoked and despite the excessive running time, I never felt bored with the way it unfolds, deliberately and at times slowly, but with a graceful majesty.
FILM FESTIVAL FILM REVIEW: London Film Festival || Seen at Curzon Soho, London, Wednesday 15 October 2014 || My Rating excellent
There’s flashy auteurism of the sort that baits the juries of Cannes and Berlin, and then there’s the kind of solid humanist filmmaking that Iranian cinema is so good at delivering. This is not to say it’s without cinematic artistry — it’s evident here as in most Iranian films which gain distribution in the West (not least in the films of that critical darling, Abbas Kiarostami) — but Rakhshan Bani-Etemad’s latest film exemplifies an attentiveness to the human dimension of storytelling, of just following the stories of a handful of characters over the course of 90 minutes. Which is all merely a wordy way to say that this was one of the most enjoyable films I saw at the London Film Festival. It comes on from the outset like one of those films (so popular with acolytes of Robert Altman in the 1990s) featuring multiple intersecting narratives, and though its tales do intersect, there’s no grand resolution, just the ongoing flow of human drama. One figure who recurs throughout is the video filmmaker (Habib Rezaei) who seems to hover on the edges of all the tales, though his attempts to document the world around him are frequently thwarted, whether by officious bureaucrats or unwilling participants. There are times when the proceedings seem a bit televisual (for some reason, the sequence set at a women’s shelter reminds me of a British TV play of the 1970s), but that needn’t be a bad thing, given the focus on dialogue, of people sharing with one another. There’s a real attentiveness to people’s stories, particularly of those who are powerless in different ways, and if there is something that unites all the various strands, it’s in Bani-Etemad’s clear desire to expose inequities within society, and her fascination towards people who are ordinarily marginalised. I could quite happily have watched many more such tales.
NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW || Seen at ICA, London, Tuesday 21 October 2014 || My Rating excellent
It’s fair to say that I was never quite compelled by the subject matter of this film, which sounded altogether too dour, well-meaning and social realist to hold my interest. I could have seen it at last year’s London Film Festival (where it won the main prize) and I dragged my feet upon its eventual release on these shores, but I am happy to say that, having now gone along to a screening, I am quite wrong to have been unwilling to see it. It is a fantastic film, very much more than a simple plot synopsis could convey. For while on the one hand, it is indeed the story of the eponymous novitiate nun who is spending some time with her harder-willed aunt, it’s also a film about personal identity, about Poland’s involvement in World War II and its subsequent history, and about the precarious relationship between Europe and its Jewish population (a story still resonant in a modern era where anti-semitic attacks occur with troubling regularity). It is set in the early-1960s and filmed in a beautifully resonant monochrome recalling iconic Polish films of the post-War period by directors like Andrzej Wajda and Andrzej Munk. It’s understated, too, in the way it allows its themes to develop, as our nun (newcomer Agata Trzebuchowska), who has been raised as an orphan and is on the verge of taking her vows, is sent off from her convent to meet her only living relative for the first time, her aunt Wanda (Agata Kulesza). Wanda reveals to her niece that her real name is Ida, that she’s Jewish, and that her parents were killed during the war, and so they embark on a search for their graves so that Ida can have some closure. But both women have some connection to this terrible unseen event in their history, something the film slowly teases out. Wanda has had more exposure than most to her compatriots’ failures — having served for many years as a high court judge, hearing cases related to war crimes — while Ida is (silently) grappling with her faith. As a film it packs in all kinds of ideas into its concise running time, and is every bit as tightly controlled as any film by Krzysztof Kieślowski. There’s also a striking use of framing, with characters often decentred within shots, generally at the bottom of the image, giving the impression of them sliding away or drowning (there’s a particularly nice example of this when Ida goes to see the confirmation of some of her colleagues). I couldn’t say it exactly has a happy ending, but it all just feels very right.
CREDITS || Director Paweł Pawlikowski | Writers Rebecca Lenkiewicz and Paweł Pawlikowski | Cinematographers Lukasz Zal and Ryszard Lenczewski | Starring Agata Trzebuchowska, Agata Kulesza | Length 80 minutes
FILM FESTIVAL FILM REVIEW: London Film Festival || Seen at Odeon West End, London, Friday 17 October 2014 || My Rating excellent
Mia Hansen-Løve is a young French director whose work has been gaining some acclaim on the festival circuit, and this collaboration with her brother Sven apparently springs from his time as a DJ. It’s a sprawling film that charts around 20 years in the life of one central character, Paul (the winsomely smiling Félix de Givry), from 1991 through to 2013, though like most such undertakings he and those around him don’t seem to age markedly (aside from a little stubble and changes of hairstyle here and there). However, this doesn’t seem particularly troubling given the rut of perpetual adolescence he seems to be stuck in, thanks to his career spinning house records at French clubs. To be honest, this isn’t a musical scene of which I have any knowledge, and like most people it begins and ends at Daft Punk (whose twin creators Thomas and Guy-Man have a running gag in the film of being turned away from Paul’s club, due to their level of anonymity). The film does feature appearances from some key musical acts, and includes a brief visit to Chicago, but you hardly need to be au fait with the scene to enjoy the film, as it focuses mostly on Paul and his stunted development and relationships, as well as the rise-and-fall arc of his career. It’s just as well, too, that de Givry is such a likeable screen presence, because for most of the film his character has difficulty dealing with grown-up situations and feelings, and tends to push away those he most cares about. It’s a credit to the director too that such a character in such a setting can still compel, but it does, a beautifully-shot and losely-structured ode to music, and the difficulties inherent in trying to carve out a career within it.
CREDITS || Director Mia Hansen-Løve | Writers Mia Hansen-Løve and Sven Hansen-Løve | Cinematographer Denis Lenoir | Starring Félix de Givry, Pauline Etienne | Length 131 minutes
FILM FESTIVAL FILM REVIEW: London Film Festival || Seen at Vue West End, London, Thursday 16 October 2014 || My Rating very good
I think it’s sometimes easy to dismiss the films of Gregg Araki, and I can understand critics who do. His films quite often have the look and feel of media which (for whatever reason) is often overlooked, whether it’s the dayglo teen-pop-cultural artifice of Nowhere (1997, a film I consider among his finest) or this one, which has a sort of Nicholas Sparks personal-journey soft-focus melodrama feel to it. I have no idea about the literary qualities of the source novel, but the way it comes across in this film suggests it’s an airport novel, one of those hokey thrillers that are easily digested in such an environment. However, there’s something almost Douglas Sirk-like in the way that the film’s surfaces and its dark undertow inflect one another, or perhaps Nicholas Ray’s Bigger Than Life in its evocation of suburban domesticity breeding madness. For while it’s on the one hand a mystery about a disappearance (the lead character’s mother, played vampily by Eva Green), it’s also a subtly-inflected coming-of-age of sorts, as teenager Kat (Shailene Woodley), growing up in small-town USA of the late-80s, negotiates a world of patriarchal pitfalls occasioned by her mother’s disappearance. There’s her uptight dad (Christopher Meloni) and deadbeat neighbour boyfriend (Shiloh Fernandez), both of whom try to control her in different ways, and a local cop she hooks up with after her mother’s disappearance. All the men in her life try to guide and mould her, but it’s to the film’s credit that Kat remains self-possessed and in control of her sexuality, unlike her mother for whom suburban domesticity has had a rather more warping effect. In the end, it’s a mystery-with-a-twist so familiar to moviegoers recently (see Girl Gone for the latest iteration), but it’s also about finding an escape from the ‘normal’ life that society pulls us into (something you’d expect Araki to know about, and something that permeates most of his films), and in negotiating these levels of meaning, the luminous Woodley gives a fantastic performance.
CREDITS || Director/Writer Gregg Araki (based on the novel by Laura Kasischke) | Cinematographer Sandra Valde-Hansen | Starring Shailene Woodley, Eva Green, Christopher Meloni, Shiloh Fernandez | Length 91 minutes
FILM FESTIVAL FILM REVIEW: London Film Festival || Seen at Ciné Lumière, London, Wednesday 15 October 2014 || My Rating excellent
Established directors with a distinctive style can attract backlash. For example, I like the films of Wes Anderson, but I gather that many do not, and that’s fine and understandable. It may be a reaction to many things, but I suspect primarily it’s the stylisation, the candy box set and production design, and the ever-so-slightly self-consciously stilted line deliveries of the actors. Lacking the widespread acclaim of Anderson, but making films every bit as stylised, is Eugène Green, who also originally hails from the States (New York, to be precise) but lives and works in France. In La Sapienza (translated as “Sapience”, an archaic word for wisdom, here applied specifically to the work of 17th century Italian architect Francesco Borromini), Green uses architecture as, ahem, a structuring conceit for a story of four people.
FILM FESTIVAL FILM REVIEW: London Film Festival || Seen at Odeon West End, London, Sunday 12 October 2014 || My Rating likeable
Jon Stewart is well-known already for his work as a comedian and host of The Daily Show, engaging on a regular basis with current affairs, world politics and the incompetencies of his own government, but with this feature he moves into filmmaking. Thankfully, on the whole it’s pretty well-made stuff with some entertaining digressions, about how journalist Maziar Bahari was arrested on a visit to his native Iran to cover the 2009 elections and accused of being a spy. In the lead role is Gael García Bernal, who may not be Iranian but seems to specialise in this kind of role these days (like in No), the small pawn ranged against wider governmental forces of oppression. He does pretty well at it, though the film is bogged down in its middle section by longueurs as Bahari is detained in Evin Prison, though enlivened occasionally by the dialogues with his captor, the shadowy figure known only as ‘Rosewater’ (played by Kim Bodnia, also not Iranian). It all looks great and is edited together skilfully, and though not perhaps as narratively compelling as Ben Affleck’s Oscar-baiting Argo of a few years back, I feel it avoids some of that film’s pitfalls in presenting Iran at times as an exotic, dangerous Other. What is emphasised is more of the shared experiences of people under that regime that may be common to journalists in similar situations around the world. It’s a fine first feature, and I only hope that Stewart continues to develop his filmic voice, though in the meantime his television show continues to do pretty well.
CREDITS || Director/Writer Jon Stewart (based on the memoir Then They Came for Me by Maziar Bahari and Aimee Molloy) | Cinematographer Bobby Bukowski | Starring Gael García Bernal, Kim Bodnia | Length 103 minutes
FILM FESTIVAL FILM REVIEW: London Film Festival || Seen at Curzon Mayfair, London, Monday 13 October 2014 || My Rating very good
Films set at girls’ schools form a fairly distinct ‘coming of age’ subgenre by this point, many of them distinguished by their undertow of the uncanny. I’m drawn back to Lucile Hadzihalilovic’s Innocence (2004), ten years ago now but still provoking indelibly eerie memories, so the fact that The Falling even comes close to the power exerted by that film is, I’d say, a good thing. It too is shot by a French woman (Agnès Godard, frequent collaborator of Claire Denis) and like that earlier film, the rites of adolescence are intricately bound up with mystery and death. Set in 1969, it centres on two young women, Lydia (Maisie Williams) and the free-spirited Abbie (Florence Pugh), but mainly within the context of their time at school, as they and their classmates share experiences and set themselves against the brusque Miss Mantel (Greta Scacchi) and the airily unconcerned headmistress. What’s interesting is not so much what happens, as in the languorous atmosphere, in which significant events are revealed in an almost off-handed way at times. The camera frequently returns to a sylvan scene of trees looming over a small pond, often empty shots of threatening portent, as if summoning some Pre-Raphaelite vision of drowned maidens, and it certainly adds to the general sense of uneasiness. By the end, things get pretty charged in ways that I’m really hoping function as allegory (in a live Q&A the director was keen to stress that at least some of it wasn’t autobiographical), but as a piece it is stylish, and carried by some excellent acting.
FILM FESTIVAL FILM REVIEW: London Film Festival || Seen at BFI Southbank (Studio), London, Tuesday 14 October 2014 || My Rating very good
The Filipino filmmaker Lav Diaz makes very long films. By all accounts, last year’s Norte, the End of History was among his most accessible features, and it’s three-and-a-half hours long. This new historical epic is a full two hours longer than that. It deals with a small coastal village (or “barrio”) in the early-1970s, in a period leading up to President Marcos’s declaration of martial law in 1972. However, if at a certain level Diaz seems to be railing against that regime and what it did to the country — and rather strongly too, given the occasional apocalyptic imagery (burning houses, cattle hacked to death, a treacherous rock with imputed healing powers) — it can also be seen as a rural drama of a community torn apart. The chief characters are Itang (Hazel Orencio) who cares for her developmentally challenged sister with little support or means to make money, a winemaker Tony (Roeder) with questionable motives, a tribal elder Sito (Perry Dizon) who despite everything wants to stick with his rice farming but also seems to be called upon to adjudicate community squabbles, and the priest Father Guido (Joel Saracho) who visits from time to time. Of course, over such a long running time, the interactions are developed in plenty of detail, and there are many other characters involved, but these are the chief ones, and it’s around them that the themes coalesce. The cinematography (also by the director) has a precise framing and its black-and-white palette is sometimes strikingly deployed. What drama exists is unforced and unravels slowly, the chief mysteries being what’s been going on around the village, and the arrival in town of first an itinerant woman selling goods, and then the military. It may not wow its viewers with big setpieces in the way of Hollywood thrillers, but over such an extended running time, it cannot help but linger in the mind for some time afterwards.
CREDITS || Director/Writer/Cinematographer Lav Diaz | Starring Perry Dizon, Hazel Orencio, Roeder, Joel Saracho | Length 338 minutes