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Reviews From the 2014 London Film Festival: Part 2

Written by James Slaymaker.

Photo from the article In the concluding part of our two part feature, James Slaymaker reviews a selection of films from the 2014 London Film Festival, including Listen up Philip, Jauja, and Eden.

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

Listen up Philip (Dir: Alex Ross Perry; USA; 108 minutes)

Filmmaking: 5 Personal Enjoyment: 5

Alex Ross Perry’s previous feature The Color Wheel was one of my favourite films of 2012, and Listen Up Phillip is even better. Despite having only helmed three features, Perry has already established himself as an incredibly unique and mature voice. His cinema represents the best kind of humanism - unflinching yet sympathetic, and willing to explore the psyches of the most apparently unlikeable and irredeemable people without condescending them or forcing them through convoluted growth arcs.

Like The Color Wheel, Listen Up Philip examines the ways in which deeply insecure individuals construct superiority complexes to self-justify their own flaws. If Philip Friedman is a more monstrous creation than the protagonists of the earlier film, it’s because he’s actually achieved some degree of success. In the film’s opening moments, we see Philip (who’s just published his second novel, Obidant) meet with an ex-girlfriend for the sole purpose of rubbing his newfound literary semi-fame in her face. Within a span of one minute, he berates her for being late, not appearing sufficiently impressed by his accomplishments, not hiding the fact that she’s put off by his bragging, and, finally, for not supporting his dreams ardently enough while they were together. Afterwards, on a whim, he arranges a meeting with an old college friend who once harboured writerly ambitions to scold him for giving up on his dreams. What makes this opening stretch such a virtuoso example of writing, performance, and staging (in addition to Perry’s remarkable ability to pen relentless neo-screwball dialogue) is that it presents its character in what he thinks is a moment of triumph while actually revealing all of his flaws. It’s clear from the outset that Philip is a narcissist - bitter, self-aggrandizing, over defensive, envious, egotistical and convinced of his entitlement to treat everybody else with disdain. He belittles others (and he’s smart enough to do it only when he knows (or thinks) that he won’t incur any serious repercussions) with the intention of re-affirming his superiority, but only makes himself appear pathetic - inadvertently saying more about his own insecurities than his supposed targets.

Philip’s terminal belligerence is encouraged further by his bourgeoning relationship with Ike Zimmerman, an aging, reclusive novelist who is so enamoured by Obidant that he invites Philip to write at his country retreat, where he can work unencumbered by the clamour of street noise. The reclusive Zimmerman - who, astonishingly, is even more self-aggrandizing - is a cautionary tale disguised as an idol. Though he never quite lowers himself to treat Philip like an equal, he quickly strikes up a friendship with him by making him feel that they’re the two people in the world that aren’t idiots - verbally validating all of Philip’s romantic misconceptions about himself. In a killer subplot, Philip signs on to write a profile about Josh Fawn, an apparently more amiable and public-friendly author (from what we hear of his oeuvre, he seems to specialise in the worst kind of jokey, winking, self-aware literary fiction) who quickly reveals himself to be just as self-obsessed, but in a subtler, more socially acceptable way. “I’m a nice guy”, he explains at one point, “Read an article about me. I’m self-deprecating”.

Philip’s self-superiority is protective - by so aggressively convincing himself of other people’s shortcomings, he allows himself to evade noticing his own. But, his tendency to so resolutely project his anger outward has the effect of making him unable to fully comprehend his own unhappiness, and hence, make changes for the better. It’s also significant that there’s no other artistic profession in which the ideas of isolation and self-determination are so greatly lionized. Philip thinks of himself as an icon-in-the-making first and foremost, and is in love with the fabled genius lifestyle.

A large part of what makes Perry’s films feel so singular is their ability to shift from comic to tragic not by reducing the consistency of the jokes but by psychologically contextualising them - hilariously indulging in satiric misanthropy before gradually revealing the emotional roots of such a misanthropic worldview. Despite his obvious toxicity, Philip is also pretty appealing. This is not down only to his hyper-articulate wit, but to his ability to make those close to him feel as if they’re one of a select few singled out against the jerks and morons that make up the vast majority of the population. This makes Philip initially attractive but quickly grating. This seduce-suffocate dynamic that seems to be the basis of all of Philip’s personal relationships also drives the narrative. His dialogue initially comes across as funny and even oddly charming (in a “this is a guy with no inhibitions” kind of way), but, as the depth of his misanthropy and alienation starts to become clear, it increasingly registers as profoundly sad.

Unencumbered by the objections of his long-term girlfriend Ashley, Philip decides to extend his stay at Ike’s retreat from a few weeks to the whole summer, and, after that, takes on an adjunct teaching position at a nearby college. While The Color Wheel’s structure is built around the plunging of the viewer so firmly within the perspective of its central brother-sister duo that everybody in their orbit registered as faintly caricatured, Listen Up Philip pointedly flits between several points-of-view, most extensively that of Philip’s girlfriend Ashley, the character most negatively affected by his narcissism. This is significant in that it undercuts Philip’s (who can only perceive others as existing in relation to him) arrogance on a narrative level. During the 20 minutes in which she takes over as protagonist, Ashley’s convincing and hard-earned growth serves as a counterpoint to Philip’s Sisyphean stasis. Ashley’s pointed lack of evasiveness and pretence become the source of her power, as they lead her to honest reflection and self-awareness, while Philip continuously deludes himself into chasing superficial goals in the hopes of rectifying his unhappiness.

Perry - a former employee of the infamous rental chain Kim’s Video and sometime-critic - wears his influences on his sleeve, and, when discussing his films it’s easy to fall back on a list of names (Cassavetes, Fassbiner, Pialat, et all). But to do so would be to undersell how he combines these influences into a style that feels wholly original. Shot on sumptuously grainy, slightly over-exposed-looking handheld 16mm (a decision that sometimes makes the screen look a little like a pointillist painting), Perry’s camera is skittish and jumpy, as if itself quaking with anxiousness. With its choppy editing, casual jump-cuts and subtly mismatched reverse-shot sequences, it effectively communicates the hyper-speed at which Philip’s mind operates. As a counterpoint, its autumnal colour scheme, shadowy interiors and way of warping backgrounds stuffed with artificial light into flat mosaics of semi-translucent colour, suggests the beauty of this milieu - the kind of which the majority of characters are unable to recognize.

Listen Up Philip is built around structuring absences. For Ashley, this means having to come to terms with the increasing distance - both literally and figuratively - Philip. For Philip this means having to deal with the fact that by regressing into himself he’s becoming an absence in the lives of everybody he was formerly close to - ingeniously, Philip’s disconnection from others him is paralleled by his literally becoming unmoored from geographical location. By so stubbornly remaining the centre of his own thoughts, he’s become a peripheral figure in everybody else’s. It’s a film about the subjective nature of human relationships; how we create images of those close to us in our minds that are distinct from - and don’t necessarily have a whole lot in common with - the individuals themselves; how our personas are determined by the perspectives of others; and how we can sour these relationships by trying too ardently to get the other person to adopt the same perspective of ourselves as we hold.

Jauja (Dir: Lisandro Alonso; Denmark/Argentina; 108 minutes)

Filmmaking: 5 Personal Enjoyment: 4

Jauja is Lisandro Alonso’s first film in 6 years, and his first to feature a substantial narrative thrust, professional actors, and a considerable amount of dialogue. That said, the set-up is expectedly minimalist: in 19th century Argentina, military engineer Captain Dinesen, a member of a team of Europeans sent to conquer the Patagonian desert, wakes one morning to find that his 14-year-old daughter Ingeborg has eloped with a low-ranking soldier. Most of the running time is devoted to long, dialogue-free wide shots of Dinesen traversing the barren landscape alone as he searches for her, occasionally coming across a native or a dying Dane he interrogates for information.

Dinesen’s supposedly sophisticated European resolve becomes increasingly rendered useless by the indifferent, dwarfing irrationality of the landscape. He sees himself as a stoic hero, but is really closer to a bumbling interloper, never in command of the frame. Shot in boxy, rounded-edged 33:1 Academy ratio that resembles old-timey photography, Jajua’s static compositions have a painterly quality. The rich, hyper-real palette alternately evokes technicolour and fauvism. The landscape is almost always framed bisected along the centre, with chunks of both sky and ground given roughly even weight, as if a series of landscape portraits into which human characters just happened to have wandered. As the film wears on, the effects become increasingly disorientating, the over-saturated colours beginning to look slightly otherwordly.

Somewhat surprisingly, considering the duration-naturalism of Alonso’s previous work, the tone is pitched at an odd mix of both contemporary slow cinema and bizarre silent comedy. Dinesen is never in harmony with the environment - in fact, he’s never even comfortable within it - and his clumsy presence often off-balances the intricate compositions. His gruff, determined masculinity is increasingly frustrated and frayed, turning him into a bumbling, clumsy character. His movement through the landscapes is never smooth, it’s always hesitant, uncertain, prone to changing course midway. The film reminded me a little of Jarmusch’s Dead Man, due to its oneiric imagery, digressive plotting, amble-into-the-void trajectory and deconstructionist western subject matter. Towards the end, it crosses over from the woozy to the narratively abstract (The title refers to a mythical land that supposedly brings extreme happiness to anyone who can find it, but many men have gone insane trying to find it, and it’s revealing of Jauja’s storytelling sensibilities that I’m not quite sure whether it fits into the film explicitly or obliquely) with a Proustian wooden soldier that provides the key for an associative movement between time, geography and identity.

Eden (Dir: Mia Hansen-Løve; France; 131 minutes)

Filmmaking: 4 Personal Enjoyment: 4

Mia Hansen-L"ø"ve’s Eden imagines 2 decades in the life of DJ Paul as a hazy string of raves, recording meets and bull sessions. Along the way, a number of acquaintances and romantic interests drift in and out of his orbit, but they rarely register as anything more than ghostly, fleeting presences. The plot sounds rife for heavy-handed moralizing --"nightclubs and casual drug use have pretty much become a cinematic short-hand for punishable hedonism --" but Hansen-L"ø"ve, working in her trademark lyrical-naturalist style, has a lot more on her mind.

The story positions the trajectory of Paul’s life as a parallel to the rise and decline of French house music over the mid 90s and 00s, and the soundtrack’s repetitions and sonic loops create something akin to an aural incarceration for him. Paul is always on the cusp of success but never manages to grasp it. He thinks that by keeping his mind focused on his work and the immediate moment he’s securing his future fame, but it’s clear that this is largely a way of distracting himself from the passage of time. His adolescent routine (which involves a constant search of the next meagre paycheck and the next place to sleep) transforms from a transitional stage to a full-blown lifestyle so gradually he doesn’t even notice, and then he fails to comprehend why he’s beginning to be seen as irrelevant and pathetic. Unwilling to move forward and unable to recognize the missed opportunities and wasted hours until it’s too late, Paul remains locked in circular, self-destructive patterns of behaviour.

With its epic time span, elliptical structure, largely passive protagonist and focus on the ways in which an individual’s life interacts with the shifting pop culture trends, Eden brings to mind Linklater’s Boyhood. However, in a sense it’s the opposite - while Boyhood explores the ways in which social and cultural changes interact with one individual’s gradual self-actualization, Eden tracks the ways in which an individual can stubbornly refuse to grow despite the fact that the world is changing around them. The fact that Paul never physically ages transforms his body into a very literal symbol of stasis, and his insularity is highlighted by the frequent capturing of him in tight, lengthy tracking shots that frame the him from the shoulders up.

Hansen-L"ø"ve’s serpentine, almost calligraphic camerawork - constantly twirling and swerving and never cutting when we expect it to - breaks down concrete locations into impressionistic headspaces. The frequent use of low depth-of-field transforms nightclubs into glowing, smeary washes of neon, while daytime exteriors appear sterile and washed out, full of reflective glass and smooth white surfaces. If there’s a complaint to be made about the film, it’s that the ending seems a little neat and route, as if suddenly imposing a formulaic arc on a character who had previously been so convincingly human in his inaction. But, minor reservations aside, this is still consistently remarkable filmmaking.

This article was published on November 06, 2014.

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