My penultimate day at the London Film Festival started with a screentalk from Kasi Lemmons, director of Harriet (part of this year’s festival, though sadly a film I shan’t be seeing here, as it was a late addition), but also many other films I’ve loved over the years. Her five feature films were all covered, with clips provided, in an interview chaired by Gaylene Gould, and I’m reminded of how underrated and funny Talk to Me (2007) is, not to mention her seasonal musical drama Black Nativity (2013), though of course it’s Eve’s Bayou (1997) which received the most attention, and for good reason. Lemmons was voluble about her career, which stretches back to her early childhood as an actor, and is an inspiring figure in general, happy to speak to her many admirers after the screening. I did not ask a question, although I do wonder how the film will be received Stateside, given the recent prominent critiques of Black British actors playing iconic African-American figures. I certainly plan to see it though, and Cynthia Erivo has already shown in Widows that she’s a star in the making. Of the four films I saw, they span several countries, including two German films (one from the East in the 1960s, and the other a recent mystery thriller) both with slightly tricksy narrative structures), two black-and-white films (the East German one and a recent Saudi film directed by a woman in a magical realist style), and one documentary.
This new German film has shown up at festivals and now on general release on a wave of film geekiness around the fact it’s shot in one continuous 138-minute take, which is of course impressive, but doesn’t make it de facto a good film. Other films have gone this route in the past (Aleksandr Sokurov’s Russian Ark most notably, which I am embarrassed to say I found boring and inert, though I don’t mean to impugn its filmmaking credentials by any means), and far more films have pretended to (last year’s Birdman, or Hitchcock’s 1948 film Rope, most famously). Victoria seems to be the real deal, though, and technically yes it’s very accomplished.
As dawn rises over Berlin, the camera sinuously follows our eponymous protagonist (Laia Costa) from a club to palling around with some lads outside, chiefly the chatty Sonne (Frederick Lau), to getting sucked into a heist — which, as heists tend to do, goes badly wrong. If the method of presentation does anything it shows how easy it is to be pressured into something that turns out very badly for everyone, not to mention keeping an oppressively close focus on Victoria herself and her feelings, largely impassive though Costa’s face remains throughout.
Victoria’s backstory, the emotional crux of the film, is a short scene between herself and Sonne in the cafe where she’s working, about half an hour into the film, when she plays the piano for him. It highlights the struggle she’s had to make her way in life, and the bitter blow that this has dealt to her self-esteem, such that for all its genre trappings the film as a whole seems to really be about just how bleak the situation is for the younger generation (explaining to a certain extent why she’s willing to place herself in what seems to us complacent viewers as danger). For all her training and opportunities, she’s teetering on the edge of the precariat, living away from home (from Spain originally), speaking no German yet working a less-than-minimum-wage job at unsocial hours with no benefits or apparent prospects, certainly not much more than the lads she meets up with. It hardly seems surprising she should grasp at any opportunity, if not to succeed, then just to do something, and that’s an emotional nugget which the film seems to get right.
Still, given the way it’s filmed, Victoria is hardly action-packed, and there are long digressive stretches of quiet observance, for periods of which the sound is replaced by a musical score (perhaps the dialogue was less successful at these moments). Maybe the film shouldn’t work, and yet it largely does, thanks to the single-mindedness of its actors, its director and of course (as has been mentioned many times already) its indefatigable camerman Sturla Brandth Grøvlen.
Director Sebastian Schipper; Writers Olivia Neergard-Holm, Schipper and Eike Frederik Schulz; Cinematographer Sturla Brandth Grøvlen; Starring Laia Costa, Frederick Lau; Length 138 minutes.
Seen at Picturehouse Central, London, Tuesday 5 April 2016.
Spielberg by this point is pretty adept at crafting a solid historical drama with period details and excellent ensemble acting. In this case, his current ‘everyman’ Tom Hanks is in the lead role as James Donovan, an insurance lawyer called on to defend an accused Russian spy in late-1950s New York. Donovan does what he can with an open-and-shut case, ensuring that the accused, Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) is not executed, an insurance policy which pays off years later (somewhat telescoped by this film) when surveillance pilot Gary Powers is shot down over the Soviet Union and the two men are exchanged by their governments, with Donovan acting as the intermediary. There are, then, essentially two acts, with Hanks stepping up to the courtroom drama with aplomb, the screenplay hitting hard on ‘what it means to be American’ (i.e. follow the guiding light of the Constitution), although at the very least not in a way as facilely patriotic as in some other US films. The real revelation is theatre actor Mark Rylance, whose acting style notably contrasts with Hanks’ familiar good-natured shtick (although the character of Donovan has a hard edge in negotiations — if not in action — that Hanks does bring out well). The second act of the film is set in snowy Berlin, and is almost comedic in its portrayal of the competing bureaucracies of the Soviet Union, East Germany (rather sore at not being a recognised state) and the US, with a foolish university student pulled into the mix. There’s nothing shabby about the production as a whole and it’s put together with all of Spielberg’s well-honed craft, aided by the Coen brothers sharpening up the screenplay. It will probably win awards, and why not, eh?
Director Steven Spielberg; Writers Matt Charman, Ethan Coen and Joel Coen; Cinematographer Janusz Kaminski; Starring Tom Hanks, Mark Rylance, Amy Ryan, Alan Alda; Length 141 minutes.
Seen at Omnia, Rouen, Saturday 5 December 2015.
This Austrian film, set in the early-19th century, is a curious one. It unfolds in a very deliberately paced way, with a series of largely unmoving tableaux compositions with centred groupings of actors, brightly lit in brightly coloured, meticulously tidy rooms. The line delivery resists any overt melodrama while the actors tend to remain still in the centre of the frame, so outwardly this all suggests the formal rigour of, say, a Straub/Huillet film. One might easily assume that nothing happens — as a story about a real life love affair with a tragic denouement, there’s very little of the kind of hand-wringing content you might expect. (I’d go so far as to say this represents some canny anti-Valentine’s Day programming, coming out so soon before that particular festival.) But between the married Henriette Vogel (Birte Schnöink) and the doomy romantic poet Heinrich von Kleist (Christian Friedel), the film conveys plenty of emotion, through its focus on the minutiae of the exchanges between them. Meanwhile there are vast changes taking place in the very social fabric of everyday existence, as the effects of the French Revolution filter through, and Henriette’s husband is tasked with levying taxes on the now newly-emancipated populace of the Austrian empire (much to the chagrin of the aristocracy, one of whom is seen bewailing this invidious novelty). What particularly sets the film apart, though, is its wry take on the figure of Kleist, a self-involved fantasist so wrapped up in his own death-fixated romantic ideals that he seems uncomprehending that the women he meets should not want to join him in death’s loving embrace. He’s a figure more of laughable pretension, and it’s Henriette who seems the more clear-minded despite her terminal diagnosis. As a period costume drama, it certainly bucks the usual dramatic signifiers, but emerges no less clear-sighted for all that.
Director/Writer Jessica Hausner; Cinematographer Martin Gschlacht; Starring Birte Schnöink, Christian Friedel; Length 96 minutes.
Seen at ICA, London, Tuesday 10 February 2015.
This screening was presented as part of the ongoing celebrations of author and filmmaker Iain Sinclair’s 70th birthday. It’s a film by his colleague and friend Chris Petit, who has made some excellent films and documentaries over several decades (some with Sinclair), and I hardly wish to go on at length about a film I found disappointing, especially when it’s a film that is relatively obscure and unavailable. Therefore I shall keep my comments brief.
Petit’s film, his third feature following his excellent debut Radio On (1979), is built around a mystery involving a woman, Susannah (played by Tusse Silberg), though it’s never quite clear what she’s involved in. We are introduced to her being taken from her German hotel to be interrogated by police agents, by whom no more than teasing hints are dropped as to what’s happened, before the film flashes back to her arrival in Berlin. Susannah meets up with her sister, and then, giving an assumed name, falls in with a handsome young Scot, Jack (Ewan Stewart), at a cafe. He has followed her from her sister’s workplace, and it turns out that he, the sister and the sister’s husband are all wrapped up in something shady — again it’s never clear what. There’s also a sense that Susannah is running from her past, as her husband Nicholas (Paul Freeman) is in pursuit of her, though he never quite catches up. And then there’s Eddie Constantine, who just shows up as himself (an American-born French actor), as part of the sister’s circle of contacts.
I suppose my problem with the film is just that the narrative is so oblique about what has happened to the protagonist, that it becomes difficult to retain attention for long stretches of the film. It doesn’t even feel as if any significant hints are given, and perhaps in fact this is part of the film’s strategy, that it’s more about the character’s journey than in what exactly she is trying to escape. There’s certainly a feeling that this is some steely mid-80s play with narrative conventions, but if so it’s one that hasn’t aged particularly well, like the haircuts and the clothes.
That said, the cinematography has a cool cleanliness to it that still retains a high gloss and stands up well 30 years later. There’s also some nice framing, as in a scene where Susannah and Jack are on the phone to one another, the compositions mirroring one another as each shot shows a second figure lurking in the background listening in. There’s also some ancillary pleasure to be had in observing Berlin of the 1980s, before the fall of the Wall.
And yet the discursive way the film is structured makes it a difficult watch. There’s a bit of play with images (the sister is a photographer), with scenes of her developing photos suggesting some deepening of the mystery à la Blow-up (1966), but that, like so much in the film, is a red herring. The protagonist may be in flight but we never quite find out why or from what. It’s a film of hints and suggestions, but the lack of resolution makes it ultimately frustrating.
Director Christopher Petit; Writers Petit and Hugo Williams (based on the novel Strange Days by Jennifer Potter); Cinematographer Martin Schäfer; Starring Tusse Silberg, Ewan Stewart, Eddie Constantine, Paul Freeman; Length 91 minutes.
Seen at Goethe Institut, London, Tuesday 11 September 2013.