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Presented below are a selection of short reviews from the 60th BFI London Festival, collecting the first impressions of our festival correspondents Patrick Pilkington and Matt Denny. We\"d love to hear more about your experience at LFF, or any other festivals you may have attended this year. Share your thoughts in the comments section, or via twitter.
Patrick’s Festival Diary
I was lucky enough to catch the eventual winner of the festival’s Best Film prize, Certain Women. The 7th feature from Kelly Reichardt, the film is perhaps the finest example of the filmmaker’s quiet brilliance so far, presenting a triptych of female character studies set in Reichardt’s favoured setting, the American Midwest. Laura Dern, Michelle Williams and Kristen Stewart appear in respective sections as one of the “certain women” in question; their three stories do not interlock so much as they gently graze each other, refusing to shoehorn meaning in the manner of many a more ostentatiously structured multiple-narrative film. Perhaps we can say that thematically, they are linked by a focus on longing, a lack of fulfilment, and the difficulty these women face in carving out their spaces in society, themes that are expertly rendered but rarely stressed or directly verbalised. This is perfect terrain for Reichardt, and the result is a wonderfully evocative film where meaning resides largely in pauses, the unsaid and the dramatic events that constantly threaten to occur - but do not. With this in mind, it’s fitting that amongst a very fine cast (shout out to Laura Dern and Jared Harris, as a beleaguered lawyer and her hopeless client, an unexpected but wonderful screen pairing), the performance honours go to breakout Lily Gladstone for the beautiful simplicity of her work as a rancher drawn to Kristen Stewart’s struggling law teacher. The film is overall a major achievement, and it’s heartening to see Best Film honours go to a film this remarkably understated.
Elsewhere my viewings extended to two films where the genre trappings of the macabre are used to examine personal relationships. Dans le Foret/Into the Forest (Dir: Gilles Marchand) tells the tale of a nightmare family holiday, as a recently divorced father (Jeremie Elkaim) leads his two young sons into remote woodlands, on a trip that exhumes a possible psychic bond between he and his youngest and, for the latter, invites increasingly disturbing visitations from something not quite human. Told largely from the point of view of the child (played very well by Timothe Vom Dorp), Into the Forest is very upfront about its influences, to the extent that the visual and narrative allusions to The Shining (Dir: Stanley Kubrick, 1980) initially threaten to overwhelm the film. This is a shame, because Marchand is skilled at ratcheting tension and using mise-en-scene to unnerve; a single static shot of a lowering barrier sectioning the foreground of the frame off from the characters as their ferry slowly departs for the forest conjures a greater feeling of foreboding than many an American shocker can muster. However, the film ultimately suffers from an ailment all-too-common to the current strain of arthouse-horror. The metaphorical resonance of the film’s monster is made blindingly obvious, and when this unknown becomes known, all horror evaporates. The result feels both obvious and not sufficiently realised.
The mixing of an arthouse sensibility with a horror cinema conceit is more effectively achieved in Personal Shopper which leaves its supernatural incarnations and their resonances open to greater interpretation. Following their successful pairing in Clouds of Sils Maria, Personal Shopper reteams director Olivier Assayas and star Kristen Stewart, here playing the titular employee of a high-powered Parisian fashionista. We very swiftly learn that she is also a medium, attempting to contact her recently deceased twin brother from the beyond, and that this endeavour may be bringing her into contact with far more malevolent forces than she anticipates. Stewart is excellent, exemplifying here, as she does in Certain Women, millennial malaise, while also tackling the supernatural plot with aplomb. Consider how often she is required to not only react but interact with invisible and unknown entities, often in long takes, and how convincingly she does it. These interactions, and wonderful moments of horror that include an eerie twist on that ever-relatable moment when a backlog of texts show up on your phone’s home screen, are expertly integrated into the film’s exploration of the fine line between the terror and the aching sadness of that which we cannot know. My only real complaint with this otherwise fresh, enthralling and uniquely unsettling film, is that Assayas betrays some slightly tired cultural biases in the unwaveringly disdainful way in which he depicts the fashion industry and celebrity, much as he did with mainstream Hollywood in Sils Maria. He should consider what the similarly disabused “low” cultural form of the ghost story has done for him here, and be a little more forgiving in future.
Matt’s Festival Diary
My London Film Festival Experience began with the world premiere of The Worthy, a grisly post-apocalyptic thriller from Emirati filmmaker Ali F. Mostafa. I was initially drawn to this film because I am entirely unfamiliar with the cinema of The United Arab Emirates and it is often very interesting to see how different national cinemas take up and transform genre cinema. The Worthy follows a familiar pattern, with familiar characters - such is to be expected of genre cinema. What’s slightly disappointing about The Worthy is that the film never really expands beyond the stock situations, characters, or themes. The film is tightly organised around a consideration of what it means to be “worthy”, mostly dramatized through a conflict between altruism and personal survival. Variations on this theme are fairly typical of the genre, but it is so very one the nose in this film. A climatic confrontation in the film literalises this theme to such an extent that any distinction between sub-text and text becomes meaningless. I usually enjoy that sort of thing, but in this case I’ll admit even I found it a step too far. Nevertheless, the film does feature several inventive and tense set pieces. The violence is often surprisingly gory - its shock value perhaps explained by the fact that all the violence is human-on-human. In all The Worthy is a competently executed if not particularly inventive film.
Where The Worthy was a jump in to the unknown, I felt on much more familiar ground with Arrival (Dir: Denis Villeneuve). Prior to the festival, Arrival had been the film I’d most eagerly anticipated. The teaser trailer had suggested in no uncertain terms that this would be “my sort of thing”, and the positive buzz from Toronto promised good things. While I’ve not seen much of Villeneuve’s work, I’m a great admirer of both Prisoners and Sicario, and it’s fair to say the bar I had set for Arrival was astronomically high. Thankfully, Arrival manages to exceed even my high expectations. While I certainly could attempt pick holes in the film, to do seems churlish. Especially when Arrival is not only an example of “my sort of thing” but very deliberately and explicitly engages with issues I actively look for when reading a film. Often, I have to do some fancy theoretical footwork to draw out those aspects of a film that might have something to do with perspectival reality, affirmation, and other Nietzsche flavoured things. I don’t have to do this with Arrival because Arrival is doing it for me. Yet nothing in the film feels laborious or overworked. So much is conveyed visually, intuited emotionally. It really is quite a wonderful experience, and a truly cinematic one. I’m tempted to describe the film as delightful - meaning it is chock full of delights, bursting with them - but the twee associations of the word don’t really do justice to just how good the film made me feel. Whilst that covers the very specific pleasures that Arrival afforded me, the film also offers many less solipsistic delights. Adams is wonderful, as always, delivering an understated but exquisitely expressive performance. Arrival will inevitably draw comparisons with Interstellar (Dir: Christopher Nolan). I believe Arrival to be a demonstrably stronger film, both intellectually and emotionally, although I’m slightly concerned that I might be constructing a straw-man out of Interstellar in my urgency to convince others of Arrival brilliance. Perhaps a more honest tactic is to report that I have seen Arrival twice now, and that I have left each viewing overflowing with happiness, optimism, and a desire to see the film again immediately.
While genre cinema dominated my LFF viewing, I did make an exception for the documentary David Lynch: The Art Life (Dirs: Jon Nguyen, Rick Barnes, Olivia Neergaard-Holm). Partially funded through kickstarter and pieced together from many hours of conversation with filmmaker David Lynch, The Art Life offers compelling insight in to the life of a director famed for his reluctance to explain or define or his work. Sharing some key personnel with the 2007 documentary Lynch, the film clearly benefits from the relationship the team has managed to cultivate with Lynch; not only in terms of the quality of the interviews but also in the use of Lynch’s music, short films, and paintings. The film is a delirious amalgam of home movies, pieces to camera, excerpts from Lynch’s short works, and examples of Lynch’s paintings. Lynch’s music also features, alongside a mesmerising soundscape by Jonatan Bengta . The film echoes the mixed-media technique of Lynch’s paintings, and is an interesting distillation of an artistic signature in a work exploring the life of that artist. The film focuses on Lynch’s early life and work, ending with Eraserhead and thus suggestive of a narrative of artistic struggle ending with success. As one might expect the film adheres to a largely unexamined auteurist belief that exploring the life of the artist can, if not explain, at least suggest an interesting perspective on the work of an artist. I’m not entirely unsympathetic to that position, and Lynch is the ideal subject for such an exploration given the way he so perfectly performs the role expected of him. A particular point of interest in the film is the examination of Lynch as father. This remains a marginal and spectral thread, largely implied visually, but seems particularly curious given the prominence of Eraserhead in the film’s conclusion.
Speaking of provocative auteurs associated with postmodernism; I was also lucky enough to see Paul Verhoeven’s latest film, Elle. Eschewing the conventions of the rape revenge film - a generic twist reflecting the central character’s desire not to be tied to someone else’s narrative - Elle is a film that leaves me puzzled, even now. I’m certain that I thought it was excellent, but I’m not sure what that says about me. I feel like Elle should be offensive - in fact I think it probably is offensive and yet I can’t quite find myself able to feel offended by it. To watch Elle is to be thrust in to a moral quandary without any easy answers. Yet the most delightfully surprising element of the film is its commitment to empathy. Even this is tempered by constant suggestions that people are utterly unknowable, perhaps most of all to themselves. It’s impossible to overestimate how much this careful balance relies on Isabelle Huppert’s performance. In particular Huppert sells the humour of the film, expertly switching tone and never less than sympathetic, even in those moments when Elle seems least understandable. A special mention should also go to the cat, a consummate scene stealer who will surely go far. The film flirts with several possible genres after denying the rape revenge premise. At times a family melodrama or comedy of manners, at others an investigative thriller or gothic romance, the film even touches on the perennial question favoured by rom-coms: Can a woman really have it all? Despite the uncertainty of genre and constant vacillation from empathetic to unknowable the film remains satisfying - in a diffuse, unsettled sort of way. It’s a film that demands discussion, and one that makes me refreshingly aware of how limited my own perspective is.
Ben Wheatley’s Free Fire offers a far more straightforward experience. Eschewing the dreamy-freneticism and non-linear plotting that typifies Wheatley’s film work, Free Fire is Wheatley in Brutalitst mode. Pushing the analogy to breaking point, if A Field in England is St Pancras, then Free Fire is Preston Bus Station. Apart from some essential preliminary exposition setting up the characters and outlining the stakes, the film is essentially a feature length shoot out. For all that it ostensibly recalls Reservoir Dogs (Dir: Quentin Tarrantino), Free Fire is quite a different beast. While double-crossing is at the heart of both films, Free Fire is considerably less concerned with leveraging the theme to explore questions of performance, truth, and perspectival reality than is Reservoir Dogs (Or is at least less amenable to being read as such by certain critics with a tendency to look for that sort of thing). Where Free Fire does excel is in exploring the absurdity of escalating violence and its association with macho pride. The dark humour apparent across the Wheatley oeuvre serves this theme well, as does the almost fetishistic attention to violence. The film is loud and brash and Armie Hammer looks wonderful even if he doesn’t get all that much to do. Cillian Murphy, Michael Smiley, and Brie Larson all put in solid performances; but Sharlto Copley is the standout player. Free Fire is a visceral and exhausting experience. The gunfire is exceptionally loud and the violence, once it gets underway, is relentless. One sour note in an otherwise highly accomplished film comes from a couple of exchanges between characters that might have played well in a Tarantino film but which fall oddly flat here, leaving a bad taste in the mouth. I assume that the use of “retro non-PC” (read: dated, offensive) language is intended to add period flavour or authenticity, but it feels, if anything, inauthentic, affected, and gratuitous. Perhaps this is an intended effect - or at the very least a benign side-effect? One reason such epithets don’t stand out in Tarantino’s work is that they come across as entirely natural and normalised. In Free Fire such exchanges retain their unpalatable edge, each utterance of a word signalling its own wrongness.
Continuing the theme of would-be exploitation fare is Alice Lowe’s Prevenge. Probably best known as one half of the writing duo responsible for the excellent Sightseers, Prevenge is Lowe’s debut feature as director. Next to Arrival, Prevenge was the film I most eagerly anticipated seeing at LFF. However, where I Arrival delivered exactly what I wanted and then some, Prevenge was something of a surprise - but an entirely welcome one. For reasons I can’t quite justify, I’d expected Prevenge to be an out-and-out schlock piece, an enjoyable slice of joyous exploitation. In my defence the selection of Prevenge as part of the laughter strain of the festival, as well as its absolute masterpiece of a title do strongly indicate a film of that ilk. Prevenge doesn’t disappoint in this area either. It’s very funny, very gruesome, and entirely true to its bonkers premise. Yet somehow Lowe manages to deftly weave the tale of an expectant mother urged to acts of murderous revenge by her foul-mouthed foetus in to a truly touching exploration of grief and identity. The film is also an interesting exploration of pregnancy through judicious reworking of body horror conventions. Too often body horror is taken to be a synonym for Cronenbergian, but Lowe’s approach to exploring the workings of body on mind and mind on body is refreshingly distinct. Lowe plays a character whose identity is in a state of indeterminacy. Under the dual pressures of pregnancy and a recent tragedy, [ ] sense of self has clearly been challenged, if not utterly fractured. New personas are adopted and shed when appropriate, but all are fleeting. I entered Prevenge looking forward to spending 90 minutes gleefully indulging my taste for squelchy horror. I left with my head full of questions about identity, the ethics of revenge, and the impact of grief. What’s particularly impressive about Prevenge is that it economically conveys these themes without departing from its comedy-horror framework. The film is far from the tone and sensibility of the recent wave of art-horror films, but is I think is more deserving of critical admiration. I’d argue that Prevenge conveys its ideas with greater clarity than either It Follows or The Witch. It is also a proof that humour and lightness of touch do not preclude the exploration of weighty issues.
Despite my deep admiration and affection for Arrival, a film I have been urging friends, family, and complete strangers to seen as soon as possible, Prevenge is my take away film from the festival. For all that Arrival is a masterpiece that grows with ever subsequent viewing, Prevenge is the film that surprised me the most.
Arrival is out in cinemas now. Prevenge will be released on 10th February 2017 in the UK. Certain Women and Personal Shopper are both released on 3rd March 2017 and Elle on 10th March. Free Fire is released on 31st March 2017. International release dates for The Art Life will be announced shortly via the film’s facebook page. Release dates are yet to be announced for Dans le Foret/Into the Forest and The Worthy.
This article was published on November 18, 2016.