With this year’s 57th edition of the BFI London Film Festival just around the corner, Pamela Jahn, Mark Stafford, John Bleasdale and Pierre Kapitaniak preview some of the feature films screening in cinemas across London during the first week of the LFF, including Ari Folman’s bold, riveting and unmissable The Congress, Ivan Sen’s Australian western Mystery Road and Jia Zhangke’s angry, strikingly stylised A Touch of Sin, and J.C. Chandor’s All Is Lost, which features one of Robert Redford’s finest performances.
A Touch of Sin (Jia Zhangke, 2013)
Although director Jia Zhangke officially denied in interviews that his close relationship with Office Kitano was more than simply based on financial support for this production, A Touch of Sin feels like a ferocious piece of work very much in the same vein as the best films by the Japanese director and friend, albeit intensified by the social-political backdrop addressed here. Based on four real-life criminal cases (including a murder, suicide and a couple of killing sprees), Zhangke’s protagonists represent a cross section of contemporary Chinese society, from different areas of the country. Seen from that perspective, the film, which deservedly won Zhangke the award for Best Screenplay, is a sanguinary, tense investigation into the Chinese economic miracle and the brutalising effect it has on the lives of ordinary people at the bottom end of the ladder, who ultimately can’t help but vent their rage, rising up against authority, in a world not theirs. Likewise, on a visual level, A Touch of Sin is a powerful war of the senses, in the way the stylised violence seems gently aligned with the character’s innermost thoughts and emotions, enabling the audience to savour a similar cold adrenaline rush as those wuxia and Lady Vengeance-type characters on screen. PJ
Watch the trailer for A Touch of Sin:
Borgman (Alex van Warmerdam, 2013)
Alex van Warmerdam returns with Borgman, which masterfully plunges into the uncanny without ever fully acknowledging the supernatural dimension of the plot. Indeed, Camiel Borgman (played by Jan Bijvoet, recently seen in Alabama Munro) might well be the devil, as suggested by the Bible-like quotation opening the film: ‘And they descended upon earth to strengthen their ranks.’
The feeling of something otherworldly is introduced from the opening scene, in which two hunters, accompanied by a Catholic priest, hunt down Borgman and his followers, who are living in underground shelters in the forest (reminiscent of the Black Man in Warmerdam’s The Northerners). On the run from them, Borgman arrives at an upper-middle-class house asking for a bath and gets sorely beaten by the owner, while the wife takes pity and shelters him. From then on things go wrong, and we soon realise that Borgman is definitely more than just a tramp, as he turns into a literal night-mare, such as pictured by Henry Fuseli. Once again, in his very idiosyncratic style, Warmerdam combines social criticism of the bourgeoisie with mystical angst, leaving the audience to weave the threads of interpretation as they please. PK
Watch the trailer for Borgman:
The Congress (Ari Folman, 2013)
Opening this year’s Director’s Fortnight, Ari Folman’s follow up to his 2008 Cannes competition entry Waltz with Bashir is an idiosyncratic masterpiece, highly ambitious in its scale and complexity, and fuelled with dazzling animated beauty. In a daringly intimate performance, Robin Wright plays herself, an acclaimed actress just past her prime with a market value diminished to zero, her previous stardom being long buried in Hollywood history. When her agent, Al (Harvey Keitel), tells her she’s being given one last chance by her studio, Miramount, Robin reluctantly agrees to a meeting, unknowing what this final offer entails. The plan is to motion-capture Wright, to copy her body, feelings, memories, and gestures in order to create a digital alter ego that can easily be adjusted to fit into any blockbuster, TV show or commercial as required by the studio. As part of the deal that promises her both a generous pay-off and the guarantee of eternal youth on screen, the real Robin Wright must retire with no claim as to how her virtual self is being used in the future. At first, she refuses, but family constraints force her to reconsider.
So far, The Congress might appear as a vicious, darkly cynical take on the movie industry in the digital age and how Hollywood treats its ageing goddesses. What then happens, however, about 50 minutes into the film, is best seen first-hand. Loosely inspired by Stanislaw Lem’s The Futurological Congress, and again combining animation and live action to puzzling effect, Folman jumps forward 20 years to find the real Wright aged and out of business, while her alter ego has become one of the biggest action heroines on screen as ‘Rebel Robot Robin’. Invited to Miramount’s Futurological Congress, the actress must pass into a strange animated zone, which opens an entirely new, imaginary universe of its own, crowded with celebrity doubles who escape their daily misery through drug-induced hallucinations; it’s a place that visually blends the style of 1930s Betty Boop cartoons and the trippy aesthetic of Ralph Bakshi’s Cool World. At the same time, Folman slows down the action to plunge into something darker, deeper, more inventive and more existential than merely teasing the Hollywood system to the core. Soused in gorgeous imagery and surreal, intoxicated melancholy, the second half of The Congress meanders gracefully between philosophical, religious and ideological reflections on the human condition, yet despite minor flaws, never loses sight of its original premise. The film is a fiercely original, bold and riveting meditation on the future of the silver screen and the stars that make it shine. PJ
Mystery Road (Ivan Sen, 2013)
Ivan Sen’s fine, modern-dress Australian western impresses as much for what it doesn’t do as much as what it does. It’s unhurried, unprettified, and has a sparse soundtrack with minimal music; not everything is explained, and much is left unsaid. In other words it’s a genre film made for adults – remember them?
Aaron Pederson plays a man alone, an aboriginal copper, treated as the enemy by his own people, and hardly ‘one of the boys’ in the small police department he has recently returned to in outback Queensland. Tasked with a job nobody else wants – investigating the murder of a teenage aboriginal girl – he begins to uncover some murky business involving drugs and prostitution, in which his own force, and, more queasily, his own abandoned daughter, may be involved. Clearly headed into troubled waters, and with nobody to back him up, he begins to look more and more vulnerable under those wide-open skies…
The set-up is entirely conventional for any number of thrillers, but there are no Hollywood faces here, no extraneous action sequences, no master criminals either. The details of life in this harsh environment are well observed, and the atmosphere of menace is well sustained right up to the brilliantly delivered final confrontation. All the performances are pitched just right, with Hugo Weaving especially good value as the wayward and worrying leader of the drug squad (in terrifying double denim!). It looks great, too, especially the night sequences, where the land turns black, and the horizon is a riot of oranges and reds, with human figures picked out in sick green neon. Photography by Mr. Sen as well. Clever boy. Gold stars. MS
Watch the trailer for Mystery Road:
Under the Skin (Jonathan Glazer, 2013)
Jonathan Glazer’s return to feature films after an almost decade-long absence, Under the Skin stars Scarlett Johansson as a predatory alien who prowls Glaswegian streets in a white transit van, searching for young men who will not be missed. Mixing arthouse visuals of mesmerizing abstraction with naturalistic (and occasionally incomprehensible) street scenes and occasional lurches into Lynchian horror, the film escapes the gravitational pull of its genre and the dubious slightness – and potential misogyny – of its storyline. As with Johansson’s victims, we are beguiled by the look of the film, its self-confessedly empty eroticism and its otherworldly perspective on mundane British life. Whereas the criminally underrated Birth riffed on Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby, Under the Skin ditches the lightweight satire of the Michael Faber source novel to absorb the influence of Nic Roeg – The Woman Who Fell to Earth if you will – and create a disturbing trip into the other. JB
Watch the trailer for Under the Skin:
Vic + Flo Saw a Bear (Denis Côté, 2013)
Canadian critic-turned-director Denis Côté’s eccentric Vic + Flo Saw a Bear (Vic et Flo ont vu un ours) starts off promisingly, but gradually loses momentum, as well as character depth, before an unexpectedly superb, if bitchy, ending. Pierrette Robitaille as Victoria, who has been discharged early from prison for a life sentence, and Romane Bohringer as Vic’s former cell mate and now lover, Florence, who has her own agenda for consistently soft-selling Vic’s mounting fear that she will eventually drop her, both give convincing performances as the outlaw couple trying to make a new start somewhere in the Canadian forest. But Côté doesn’t quite manage to keep the viewer interested in his deceptive directing choices and the film’s enigmatic atmosphere, so much so that one doesn’t really care anymore when the trap that has been carefully laid out eventually snaps shut. PJ
Watch the trailer for Vic + Flo Saw a Bear:
Pamela Jahn, Mark Stafford, John Bleasdale, Pierre Kapitaniak