Day four of the London Film Festival is the first weekend, and so the first day on which I have bought myself tickets to more than two films — only three, mind, and with fairly generous spacing, so there’s no running from screen to screen today. Two of them are in Spanish (one is Catalan although mostly in Castilian, the other Uruguyuan) and two are coming of age stories (The Sharks and The Orphanage). Oh, and all three are directed by women of course.
After yesterday’s solitary first film, I saw two films at the London Film Festival this evening, both of which highlight people’s lives in different places (the Côte d’Ivoire and Thailand respectively) but bring a sort of outsider’s perspective, albeit using quite different genre cues.
British director Clio Barnard has been exploring local stories, primarily ones that deal with working-class lives, since her debut feature The Arbor (2010) and then again with The Selfish Giant (2013).
I think Clio Barnard is a very talented director, and I think there are sequences here that are beautifully edited and put together: nicely shot, good use of sound and aural cues, and of course with the acting of Ruth Wilson (who is superb). It’s another film set in the North English countryside — not so much God’s Own Country as The Levelling (or indeed Barnard’s earlier films, though they were more urban I feel) — but here the glowering oppressive sky really is that, a crushing force on everyone. Like that latter film, it deals with poisoned relationships between fathers and daughters (I think now of Sunset Song too in that respect), and it doesn’t take very many flashbacks for it to become clear just what that is going to turn out to be. In fact, it’s obvious from the very first second of the very first flashback just where this particular arc is tending, but the way it’s developed in a melodramatic final act seems somewhat heavy-handedly literal. However, the acting (by Wilson, mainly), and the sheer filmmaking nous is for me enough to carry the film. Sure it’s dark and it moves lugubriously, but it is a properly cinematic film.
Director/Writer Clio Barnard; Cinematographer Adriano Goldman; Starring Ruth Wilson, Mark Stanley, Sean Bean; Length 89 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Wednesday 28 February 2018.
Denis regular Alex Descas and this year’s Cannes Grand Prix-winning director Mati Diop take the key roles in this film, which remains one of my favourites of the decade. Much of my love for it is not so much in what happens as in how it unfolds — just the one scene in a backstreets Parisian bar soundtracked to the Commodores’ “Nightshift”, which is for me the emotional core of the film, seems to lay bare all the dynamics going on amongst these characters: a father, Lionel (Alex Descas); his daughter Jo (Mati Diop); an older woman and neighbour, Gabrielle (Nicole Dogue), who’s always been in love with the dad; and Grégoire Colin as Noé, who has a crush on Jo. They are all trapped a little bit, as neighbours in an apartment block, as people whose lives seem to be following a set path (in the case of Lionel, who drives trains, very literally so) and who don’t know what exactly they do want. There’s a sense of pain at getting older, but also a comfort in gestures like eating together, with the film opening and closing on images of rice cookers, the sort of symbolic centrepiece of shared family meals (and it’s no surprise, perhaps, to learn that an Ozu film was the inspiration for this one). I love the feeling of movement, the cautious emotional resonance, and the burnished look of the film. It’s a glorious ode to the richness of life and even a modern city symphony in its own way.
Director Claire Denis; Writer Denis and Jean-Pol Fargeau; Cinematographer Agnès Godard; Starring Alex Descas, Mati Diop, Grégoire Colin, Nicole Dogue; Length 100 minutes.
Seen at ICA, London, Sunday 26 May 2019 (and earlier at the Renoir, London, Sunday 26 July 2009).
As a film about guilt and grief, those mainstays of the low-budget indie drama repertoire, this does better than many films. It gets into the character of Clover (Ellie Kendrick) very well, as we get to understand her relationship to her father Aubrey (David Troughton) and recently deceased brother better over the course of its taut running time. There are thriller elements as she slowly gathers the information about her brother’s last days and hours, but there’s also an almost documentary interest in the day-to-day running of her dad’s farm, from which she left (or was forced out) to go to university. The acting has a peculiar way about it, perhaps from the screenplay, and to me it all seems a bit too stagy, deliberate and careful, but those are positive attributes in the editing and pacing of the film, which remains quite beguiling. I’ve seen a lot, lot worse films in this vein.
Director/Writer Hope Dickson Leach; Cinematographer Nanu Segal; Starring Ellie Kendrick, David Troughton; Length 83 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Saturday 13 May 2017.
Watching this on a plane means I was probably more predisposed to tears than usual, but I did find the central character’s story to be rather affecting. It follows Rosie, a part-Chinese part-Iranian young woman, learning about her father and his life in Iran, and one can only assume that the director’s own mixed ancestry contributes to her feeling for the way Rosie is torn between two disparate cultures (or three indeed, given she lives in Canada). The animation is eye-catching and takes in multiple styles on various poetic digressions (formally integrated into the narrative, as Rosie is literally a poet). I also love diaspora/immigrant stories, though I did find the rendering of Rosie’s eyes distracting (in the sense of not feeling like I was getting the same range of emotions from them as from the animated non-Chinese characters). Still, it’s a lovely little work, which you might not get much of a chance to see if you don’t happen to fly via Canada.
Director/Writer Ann Marie Fleming; Starring Sandra Oh; Length 89 minutes.
Seen on a flight from London to Vancouver, Wednesday 5 April 2017.
It’s been quite the festival darling, and I can’t help but wonder if maybe one’s reaction to it really does depend on being in the right room filled with the right group of people reacting favourably. I mean, I hardly disliked Toni Erdmann (and even laughed at a number of sequences), but it doesn’t quite elicit from me the same rave reviews others have been giving it. Calling it a “comedy”, for a start, is a bit misleading, as like the other films by director Maren Ade I’ve seen (2009’s Everyone Else and 2003’s The Forest for the Trees) it’s essentially about a person profoundly failing to connect with other human beings, so there’s a pretty deep sense of pathos to it — but then, that wouldn’t be unusual for the comedy genre.
The title character is an alter ego of Winfried (Peter Simonischek), the father of corporate consultant Ines (Sandra Hüller), and the film’s centre of attention shifts between them, following him for the first section, then her, then him again. She has a client in Bucharest, and so, feeling like she needs some further direction in life, he arrives unannounced to visit her. He’s a practical joker, she’s a business woman, and that’s where the comedy really comes from: that sense of hyper-awareness about how his actions are being seen by her, and some of the biggest laughs come from the abject fear you can sense behind her eyes, though she remains outwardly composed for those around her. Yet for a film that sort of bases itself in the comedy of humiliation, and as someone for whom that humour (mostly found in the sitcom format) is among my least favourite things, it never feels quite as squirm-inducing as I worried it would become, and perhaps the length at which it allows its scenes to unfold help with that (it’s not a short film).
It touches on a lot of issues pertinent to the modern world, and sure, locating a malaise at the heart of corporate culture isn’t exactly startlingly new, but it does it very nicely all the same. The generational disconnect is explored winningly too. And even if it never quite struck me as a masterpiece (cf. also La La Land), I certainly enjoyed it and for all that the characters may have been bored at times (or rather, perhaps, filled with ennui), I never found it boring to watch.
Director/Writer Maren Ade; Cinematographer Patrick Orth; Starring Sandra Hüller, Peter Simonischek; Length 162 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Aldgate, London, Sunday 22 January 2017.
For all the rippling abs and tattoos sported by hero Inder (Harshvardhan Rane), there’s something old-fashioned to the way this film plays out (which may perhaps be due to the fact that there have been several films of this title over the years, not that their plots seem to bear much similarity). It’s a romantic melodrama, in which two neighbouring young people from either side of the metaphorical tracks fall for one another. Saraswati (Mawra Hocane) is a frumpy librarian (of course!) from a good family whom nobody wants to marry, and Inder is a sexy ex-con with a very long line in laconic brooding and trouble committing to relationships (although there’s a hint that he may have a backstory of privilege). When they are caught talking in his apartment (she wants a makeover to snag herself a business school graduate), her father dramatically severs all ties and performs funerary rites for his now-dead-to-him daughter.
To be honest, for all its big soap-operatic storylines, the film largely had me in its thrall up until the interval. Hocane is delightful as the dowdy Saru, with big dorky glasses looking for all the world like Anne Hathaway in The Princess Diaries (2001; a masterpiece, of course). This does all mean that inevitably there will be a makeover scene, and there’s a song and dance to go along with it that’s quite fetching. Meanwhile, the film spares no effort in showing quite how ripped and sexy Inder is, as he’s constantly caught topless (certainly, he’s never without at least three buttons undone on his shirt), or doing pull-ups in his apartment, throwing glances Saru’s way and even joining the library so he can bump into her. Naturally Inder has feelings for Saru that go beyond her looks, but he isn’t able to express himself (because backstory… it all comes out later on), and so every time they’re together (which is most of the time), there’s a whole lot of longing looks and sultry gazes off camera, eyes filled with conflicted emotions — you know the drill, really. Their relationship feels even a little transgressive, as they fall in love in spite of their families’ wishes (both have strained relationships with their dads, and that’s a big issue in this film, and one imagines in wider Indian society).
It’s just that the last third wraps things up just a little too neatly. Things take a sudden tearjerking turn as an illness plot is introduced, seemingly to punish Saru for her feelings (or maybe to punish her father). Needless to say, the patriarchal needs of society are healed, and it’s too bad for our lovers. Sure, doomed love is a plot as old as time, but when you care about your characters, sometimes you hope for something more.
Directors/Writers Radhika Rao राधिका राव and Vinay Sapru विनय सप्रू; Cinematographer Chirantan Das चिरंतन दास; Starring Harshvardhan Rane హర్షవర్ధన్ రాణే, Mawra Hocane ماورا حسین; Length 154 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Wood Green, London, Tuesday 9 February 2016.
I’ve seen a couple of Scottish documentaries this year dealing with the late stages of terminal illness (the other was Seven Songs for a Long Life) and both have confounded my expectations in different ways. Perhaps it’s just because I’m not facing that finality yet myself, but I expected both to be difficult and depressing in ways that neither is. The more remarkable of the two, perhaps, is this one by Scottish multi-media artist Karen Guthrie, whose mother suffered a stroke which left her immobile. Documenting this altered new reality, interspliced with footage showing her mother before the stroke, seems to be the direction things are going until it becomes evident that this isn’t really a film about Guthrie’s mother at all, but about the apparently well-meaning and kindly father who lingers in the corner of most of the shots, making gruffly sardonic comments while doing sudoku puzzles, his head bowed almost permanently either through age or (perhaps?) some form of guilt. For all that Guthrie tries, her father remains a frustrating enigma as a character, but his life and his fractious relationship with his wife come to take centre stage as family secrets are unveiled. This method of drip-feeding revelations to the audience is not uncommon to the family documentary (Stéphanie Argerich did something similar in a film released here earlier this year), but when the audience cannot know the life being told, it has a greater effect. Therefore, I shan’t spoil anything, except to say that it leads the viewer down unexpected roads, with Guthrie’s ever-present voiceover helping to contextualise her own uncertain responses to her father’s life decisions.
Director/Writer Karen Guthrie; Cinematographers Guthrie and Nina Pope; Length 91 minutes.
Seen at Picturehouse Central, London, Thursday 12 November 2015.
Even by the standards of Sofia Coppola’s films about ennui amongst the lives of the rich and overprivileged, Somewhere is a slow one, but that feels of a piece with its protagonist, movie star Johnny (Stephen Dorff). We open with him speeding around a race track, the camera unmoving as his car loops into and out of frame, repetitively, for several minutes. Other long takes show him sitting prone on his bed or a sofa, watching identical twins give him a pole dance in his Château Marmont hotel room where he’s living. It’s a carefully-delineated existence of perfect boredom, alleviated only by occasional desultory sex with pliable women, and drinks with his friend, all of this taking place again in his hotel room. It’s only when his young daughter Cleo (Elle Fanning) shows up for a day, and then again for a longer period during which time they jet off to Milan for a press junket, that Johnny slowly starts to re-form emotional connections. Watching this painfully slow process unfolding, via almost impercetible changes in his mood and activities, is the core of Coppola’s film, beautifully shot by her regular DoP Harris Savides. It’s less accessible perhaps than Marie Antoinette before and The Bling Ring after, both dealing with similar themes, but it still has an almost hypnotic beauty to it that rewards attention.
Director/Writer Sofia Coppola; Cinematographer Harris Savides; Starring Stephen Dorff, Elle Fanning; Length 98 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Thursday 29 October 2015.