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Reviews From the 2014 London Film Festival: Part 1

Written by James Slaymaker.

Photo from the article In Part one of a two part feature, James Slaymaker reviews a selection of films from the 2014 London Film Festival, including Hard to be a God, Ellie Lumme, From What is Before, and Pasolini.

You can read the second part of James's feature here

Hard to be a God (Dir: Aleksei German; Russia; 170 mins)

Rating: Filmmaking: 4 Personal Enjoyment: 4

Hard to be a God is the long-awaited final film from the late Soviet master Aleksei German, and it’s appropriately grandiose. Shot over a period of 6 years and completed by German’s wife and son after his death late into post-production, this loose adaptation of a 1964 novel by the Strugatsky brothers imagines a near future in which a team of scientists have discovered a planet that’s pretty much identical to Earth, but lagging roughly 800 years behind. A select few go undercover to conduct research, but are under strict orders not to use their advanced knowledge to intervene, even when they encounter gross unsanitary practices and offhand cruelty.

As a portrait of the pre-renaissance period, this is resolutely unromantic. The mise-en-scene is bustling and claustrophobic - shot mostly in low light and clogged with writhing, bruised extras in carnivalesque motion, often entering the extreme foreground suddenly to obscure the view. The film is light on plot and mostly constructed of a sequence of elaborate tracking shots - the perpetually-hovering camera circling and floating as if totally unmoored - creating a viewing experience that feels akin to diving into the middle of a Bosch painting. It’s a sprawling immersion into a world of infected skin and knee-deep mud and dilapidated wooden walls bathed in faeces and urine. I’ve never seen a cinematic vision of the middle ages with such a tactile sense of dank and muck.

It’s a culture that appears familiar yet oddly otherworldly in the extremity of its vileness, with the clearly dubbed voices adding an extra layer of unreality. German has created a remarkably detailed and fully realized environment, yet, despite the project’s ambitious nature, he avoids arthouse-spectacle flash in favour of a more intimate camera style - constantly drifting between medium-shots of claustrophobic hovels and windswept streets - that grounds us within the point-of-view of the characters.

The closest thing the film has to a protagonist, Don Rumata, pretends to be an aristocrat and is suspected by the land’s inhabitants to be a Pagan deity, is likely the fallen God figure the title alludes to. There’s nothing he can do when faced with the widespread barbarism except wait for civilization to evolve. His placement renders him all-knowing but inept, able to watch in horror but unable to intervene.

Ellie Lumme (Dir: Ignatiy Vishnevetsky; USA; 42 mins)

Ellie Lumme is the debut feature of MUBI critic Ignatiy Vishnevetsky, and it’s clearly the work of a cinephile - not in the sense that it’s referential, but because it seems informed by a personal, carefully cultivated philosophy of what cinema should reach for. Every cut, camera angle and music cue feels like the product of deep deliberation, grounded in a wide-ranging knowledge of both the history of the medium and contemporary arthouse style. It combines elements from number of temporally disparate influences (30’s silent cinema, modern cinema of sensation, new German cinema) into an aesthetic that feels remarkably singular and whole.

Ellie meets Ned at a party, and they establish a light rapport that’s generally amiable though a little offbeat. When, upon his pestering, she turns him down as a potential suitor, he begins to follow her around, insisting on her blindness to the depth of their kinship. Before long, his bitterness over being rebuffed takes over, leading him to torment her with increasingly intrusive verbal abuse and cruel pranks. This is a nocturnal film, set in shadowy apartments and deserted alleyways. Vishnevetsky employs a palette of muted greens and greys with odd spots of eye-popping super-saturation. Night-time exteriors use shallow focal lengths to abstract background light - streetlamps, car park fluorescents, windows of passing trains - into dots of colour, lending everything on screen an eerie faint glow. Ambient noise is lightly dialled-down, and voices sound soft and somnolent. The result is a milieu that registers as simultaneously a tactile and lived-in environment and an externalization of a psychological space.

For all its complex craftsmanship, however, the film feels wholly in tune to the feelings and sensations of its characters. Ned may be a ghoul, but he’s a convincingly human one. He’s self-loathing and deeply insecure and trying to protect himself from emotional harm by externalizing his anger and elaborately self-justifying his flaws. He doesn’t view his acts as immoral, but justified in the face of Ellie’s sadism. Ned’s absurd accusations that she toys with the emotions of men like himself for the purpose of play - when all she’s really done is look pretty and act indifferently towards him - is a typically psychologically acute example of how male bitterness and entitlement expresses itself through the language of indignant misogyny.

Ned’s a narrative-weaver, prone to projecting images onto others and then working to get them to conform to these images. His initial pursuit of Ellie is, at first, very methodical - he lists the traits he has that he believes she should admire, and explains how her traits (or, at least, the traits he thinks she has) compliment his perfectly. When he realizes for sure that he won’t be able to possess Ellie, Ned slides from clumsily embodying one stereotype (the aloof romantic hero) to another (the wronged villain). Having Ellie’s affections is less important to Ned than being able to totally manipulate her emotions; he will only feel validated if he commands her attention. He only sees her in relation to himself and can’t conceive of her existing independently.

Of course, everyone engages in a performance, to a certain to extent, when talking to someone else, shaping their identity to match what they imagine the other person would want to perceive them as. Ellie Lumme is about how we add meaning to our lives by constructing narratives in our minds and casting ourselves as archetypes. It’s also about how these narratives inevitably fall down when we expect others to embody the roles we immediately assign to them.

From What is Before (Dir: Lav Diaz; Philippines; 338 minutes)

Rating: Filmmaking: 4 Personal Enjoyment: 4

After the relatively mainstream-friendly Notre, The End of History, Liav Diaz returns to the variety of mammoth-lengthed, glacially paced monochrome parable that made his name with From What is Before. Its 5-and-an-hour long running time is almost entirely made up of static, lingering wide shots crammed with negative space, each one composed as elegantly and elaborately choreographed as landscape paintings. Diaz’s approach to framing and editing evoke early silent cinema, but combined with the rich depth-of-field and stillness of digital imagining, the overall sensation is hallucinatory and uncanny --" particularly when small technical flaws (water on the lens, obscured sound) are employed for sensory effect.

We’re introduced to the plot piecemeal over the first hour or so, in between shots of the placid countryside: in an isolated, tight-knit Manilan village during the early 70s, the tight-knight inhabitants are being plagued by a series of mysterious calamities. cows are being slaughtered, people are disappearing without explanation, malicious rumours are being spread by a saleswoman who has just arrived in town. Before long, a military presence establishes itself, allegedly to preserve the community’s safety.

The discord builds slowly, with the visual harmony between the villagers and nature present in the opening moments - the soporific rhythms, muted soundscape, and low-contrast lighting giving it the aura of a lingering dream - being gradually disrupted, space compartmentalized. As usual in Diav’s work, personal issues serve as a microcosm for national ones. As the increasingly violent incidents start to occur, the tight-knit community starts to be fragmented by suspicion and paranoia, making individuals increasingly isolated and individualistic.

It takes a while for the events to be contextualized. As it turns out, this is on the cusp of the Marcos regime (and the subsequent introduction of martial law), and the military are laying down the foundation through the dissolution of rural life. The driving idea being that a fearful and de-stabilized rural population will be desperate for a strong-willed leader to re-instate a feeling of safety and security. So what emerges is a portrait of a village in transition, eventually becoming a shell of its former self. The inhabitants either flee, are forcibly removed, or meet a less harmonious end. This is accompanied by a self-reflexive interrogation of what it means transform such historical atrocities into the stuff of art. The question of whether mining real life tragedy for subject matter from which an aesthetic object can be moulded is necessary or exploitative, and whether it honours those who were there or cheapens their experience, remains pointedly ambiguous.

Pasolini (Dir: Abel Ferrara; France/Italy/Belgium; 338 minutes)

Since 4:44: Last Day on Earth, Abel Ferarra has jettisoned the snowy celluloid textures of his early features in favour of a steely, chrome-and-amber bathed digital landscape. This means that in place of the sumptuously rough, scratchy impressionism of films like New Rose Hotel and The King of New York, Ferarra is now working with a lucidity of light and geometry - which doesn’t mean that his latest films are any more “realistic” or visually “concrete”. Though clearly visually distinct, he’s retained his penchant for slow dissolves, chiaroscuro lighting, cross-fades and fluid handheld camerawork, lending every image a sense of hazy, bruised beauty.

Pasolini recreates the last day of the titular filmmaker, novelist and theorist, as he works on his final script, edits Salo, gives interviews, attends a dinner party, and is finally murdered in a spontaneous act of prejudice. Considering Ferarra’s back catalogue full of unflinching portraits of severely tortured and self-destructive characters, combined with the reputation Pasolini’s less-than-idyllic private life, it’s surprising how subdued the film is. Constructed largely as a naturalistic series of fairly mundane events, this portrait is tender and reverent in a way filmmaker’s never been before. In terms of tone, it couldn’t be more different from the other Ferarra-helmed biopic released this year, the relentlessly angry yet not-unempathetic Welcome to New York.

It’s clear that Ferarra idolizes his subject, and it doesn’t difficult to see why. Not only are they both controversial outsiders with little regard for popular notions of “good taste”, they both share an interest in the theoretical critique of contemporary capitalist power structures, a willingness to gaze into the depths of human soullessness, and the creation of works that are simultaneously visceral and diffuse. Through its minimalist construction, the film undercuts the mythologizing of genius common to most modern biopics, which tend to make their subjects out to be fated visionaries whose every thought and gesture carries extreme weight.

Pasolini isn’t placed on a pedestal here, he’s treating him as a fairly ordinary person - intelligent but not totally self-assured, soft-spoken and somewhat distant - who had to go through the same unromantic practicalities of artistic creation as everybody else in order to produce something great. For such a controversial artist, his work routines and home life appear unexpectedly quotidian. There’s a gulf between the greatness of the work and the banality of the processes that get it completed. Likewise, Ferarra portrays the murder (the details of which still remain mysterious, leading to much speculation by conspiracy theorists) as a random act of hate. Avoiding the kind of glamorization that the premature deaths of great troubled artists are often subjected to, Pasolini’s death is framed as meaningless and arbitrary, the sudden end of a man who should have been allowed to continue to flourish.

Interspersed throughout are segments based on two ultimately unrealized projects Pasolini was working on at the time of his death: Porno-Teo-Kolossal, intended to be a feature, and Oil, a behemoth 1,700-page novel about the economic systems that governed Italy. Ferarra’s imaginings of Pasolini’s projects underline these connections without simply trying to ape his style.

Part 2 to follow shortly

This article was published on November 01, 2014.

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