With the 57th BFI London Film Festival now in full swing, Virginie Sélavy, Pamela Jahn, Mark Stafford and Sarah Cronin report on more films being screened over the next nine days.
The Strange Colour of Your Body’s Tears (Hélène Cattet, Bruno Forzani, 2013)
As gorgeous as it is oppressive, Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani’s latest neo-giallo is an ultra-sensuous, hypnotic trip through dark desires and the disturbing, delicious lines between pleasure and pain, madness and sanity, dream and reality. With what has to be the best title of the festival, riffing on the wonderfully convoluted names of the films that inspired it, The Strange Colour of Your Body’s Tears strengthens the potent aesthetic vision of the directing duo’s 2009 feature debut Amer, focusing entirely on pure sensation. In this hallucinatory, obsessive psychosexual dream, every shot is a marvel of composition, every object and texture is fetishized: leather, gloves, boots, jewels, blood, mirrors, blades. Male and female bodies are repeatedly penetrated, skull wounds are shaped like sexual organs, broken mirror shards enter flesh, as sensual ecstasy becomes deadly and lovers turn assailants.
The narrative is even more minimal than in its Italian predecessors – a man is looking for his missing wife – and it serves as the pretext for an intense distillation of the visual and sonic motifs of the giallo. Just as its masters effortlessly found stunning decors in beautiful, decadent Italian architecture, Strange Colour makes great use of the Brussels art nouveau building in which it is set. With its exuberance of organic round shapes, flowery motifs, voluptuous naked women, twisted stairs, stained glass and golden curlicues, the building is like a living organism, the figures on its walls breathing and moaning with the rapture and agony of its inhabitants.
A baroque film composed of giallo elements that are themselves baroque, Strange Colour constructs a dizzying, infinite cascade of doubles and repetitions, of stories within stories and structures within structures, where everything is mirrored, multiplied and fragmented. While it pays brilliant homage to its models, it is compellingly alluring in itself, and its meticulously crafted world of lush excess, sumptuous sophistication and opulent illusion is deeply seductive. VS
Watch the teaser trailer for The Strange Colour of Your Body’s Tears:
Harmony Lessons (Boris Khlebnikov, 2013)
Directed by 29-year-old first-time Kazakhstani filmmaker Emir Baigazin, Harmony Lessons was one of the most impressive films in the international competition at this year’s Berlinale. In its essence, the film is a twisted school-bullying revenge drama revolving around introverted 13-year-old Aslan (Timur Aidarbekov), who is targeted by his ruthless classmates. In return, Aslan vents his anger and frustration on cockroaches and other pests and insects that he uses as guinea pigs for the cruel little scientific experiments that he conducts in his room. Things seem to get slightly better when a student arrives from the city and helps defy the bullies, while palling up with Aslan. However, when a murder takes place at the school, the main suspects are easily found, transforming both the characters and the plot into something deeper, darker and more mysterious. With its existential overtones and the creative assurance of a young director who seems to have little to learn from any arthouse veterans, Harmony Lessons is an inventive, genre-defying film located on the borderline between the real and the imaginary, and deserves more attention than it received in Berlin.
Watch a clip from Harmony Lessons:
Computer Chess (Andrew Bujalski, 2013)
“War is death, Hell is pain, chess is victory.”
It’s the early 1980s, and a nondescript American hotel is hosting a computer chess tournament, in which various teams will match their machines against each other over one weekend, with the winner to play against a human being for the grand finale. It’s a kind of geek Olympics, which the world, most assuredly, is not watching, and things aren’t going to plan: one of the competitors has failed to book a room and wanders the corridors at night; another team grow concerned as their computer seems determined to commit suicide on the battlefield. Tensions and conflicts grow, and to make matters more uncomfortable, these generally uptight types are sharing the hotel with a touchy feely ‘encounter group’ who have booked the same weekend.
Mumblecore director Andrew Bujalski’s Computer Chess promises at first to be something of a lo-fi Best In Show, a comic study of a particular group of obsessives in their own environment, a parade of analogue tech and bad hair. It’s shot in black and white, seemingly on a contemporary video camera, and starts in a naturalistic mode. But as the film progresses things get weirder: the late-night chatter revolves around artificial intelligence and the Pentagon, and the apocalyptic uses to which their technology might be put; cats multiply; smart people seem to be consumed by odd ideas; and a whole lot of sex doesn’t happen. There is the suggestion that the work that they are all engaged in may have altered the world in some way. It’s a funny, charmingly strange piece of work in which the unravelling of minds is reflected in increasingly inventive visuals, and massive ideas are conjured on a tiny budget. Cool. MS
Watch the trailer for Computer Chess:
A Long and Happy Life (Boris Khlebnikov, 2013)
City boy Sasha (Aleksandr Yatsenko) is now a farmer employing a handful of locals, and hoping to turn his land into a viable commercial operation when shady developers take an interest in the property. Everyone else seems to be selling out, and the council offers him no choice but to sign and take the compensation, which he is about to do until his workers convince him to make a stand against the powers that be. A deadline approaches, and a showdown seems assured, but while Boris Khlebnikov’s film is inspired by High Noon, it’s a very cynical, Russian take on that scenario. ‘You shouldn’t have listened to us… we’re morons,’ admits one of the more honest workers to Sasha’s face after it all starts to go south, in one of those ‘Hollywod scenes we’d love to see’ moments that world cinema occasionally throws up. A punchy 79 minutes. MS
Watch a clip from A Long and Happy Life :
Trap Street (Vivian Qu, 2013)
Li Qiuming is a naïve, trainee urban surveyor, who develops a romantic obsession with Guan Lifen, a girl he spots on the job, and tries to engineer ways to bump into her again, when not engaged in his sideline of installing secret security cameras. Vivian Qu’s film plays partly as a love story, but takes a darker turn when Li disappears during a date, and all that romantic behaviour is seen in another light. There’s nice play here with streets that don’t exist on maps, and maps that don’t stick to real-world geography, in a China where the truth is whatever the authorities say it is. ‘We don’t arrest innocent people,’ says a policeman at one point, as it all gets a bit nightmarish, in a low-key thriller with shades of The Conversation. MS
Story of My Death (Albert Serra, 2013)
In which an aging Casanova (Vincenc Altaio) moons about a mansion, strains on the toilet, indulges in an odd bit of wenching, and delivers monologues about the nature of the world for an hour or so, before repairing to the country, where Dracula (Eliseu Huertas) shows up. Casanova seems to represent the enlightenment, reason and open sensuality, Dracula something darker and more violent. It doesn’t end well. For the record this Count is hirsute of face, as in the Stoker novel, but sits about in the sunlight, which seems a bit off.
Albert Serra makes proper art-house films of the type that barely trouble art-house cinemas anymore, impenetrable things featuring dialogue with endless pauses, ravishing pastoral photography, gnomic visual metaphors and murky plotting. There’s much to engage with here if you’re in the mood, much to infuriate you if you’re not, but if the world had no room for baffling 148-minute-long indulgences like this, then we’d all be living in a poorer place. MS
Watch a clip from Story of My Death :
Shame (Yusup Razykov, 2013)
Almost certainly inspired by the Kursk tragedy, when 118 men died aboard a nuclear submarine after an explosion and an inept (if nonexistent) rescue attempt, director Yusup Razykov rejects the more obvious approach to the story – that of an on-board thriller – in favour of a slow-burning drama focused on the wives of the men lost at sea. Set in a remote outpost in the far north of Russia, the story mostly revolves around Lena (terrifically portrayed by Maria Semenova), who’s recently moved from St. Petersburg to the bleak, desolate, Communist-era ‘town’ inside the Arctic Circle, where her high-ranking husband has been stationed (though the audience never meets him; the only men left at the base are either the young or those unfit to serve). Lena, in her black high heels, keeps to herself, rejecting the company of the other, more matronly wives, and is seemingly indifferent to both them and her husband. Slowly, painfully, word begins to spread that a tragedy has struck the submarine, sparking a chain of consequences that sweeps through the lives of the devastated women.
Shame starts with an enigmatic mystery, only resolved much later; for the most part, events play out slowly until then, but the film has a compelling rhythm, while the cinematography beautifully captures the cold, heartless environment. What unfolds is a moving, at times heartbreaking, yet redemptive portrait of a woman and a community that exist at the mercy of outside forces. SC
Virginie Sélavy, Pamela Jahn, Mark Stafford, Sarah Cronin