London Film Festival 2011: part 3
Last part of our coverage of the 2011 London Film Festival by Mark Stafford, Sarah Cronin, Lisa Williams, Frances Morgan and Virginie Sélavy.
On April 22, 1988, three gendarmes were killed and 30 others taken hostage in a botched operation by independence fighters on the French colony of New Caledonia. In this fictionalised account, Mathieu Kassovitz plays Captain Philippe Legorjus, the leader of a special operations unit who is sent to the island to negotiate a peaceful settlement, only to find himself outmanoeuvred and sidelined by his own colleagues. The latest from the actor-director mixes docu-drama and action thriller elements to create a wrenching, powerful and intelligent film that exposes the arrogance and brutality of the French elite during the 10-day hostage crisis. Kassovitz opens the film with a tableau depicting the final moments of the stand-off, before piecing together a day-by-day reconstruction of how events went tragically wrong; tension builds quickly, immediately immersing the audience in the politically charged story. It’s impossible not to sympathise with the islanders’ struggle to take back their country from the French; the scenes of the Kanak people performing their endangered rituals are extremely moving, while the unfolding actions of the French army are increasingly sickening (the film ends on a particularly grim note). The hostage crisis took place against the backdrop of the closely fought presidential election between Mitterrand and Chirac, with political allegiances and ambition outweighing any real desire for a negotiated end to the conflict. The politicians back in Paris wanted it over before the elections, and the French army, invading a colony for the first time since Algeria, had enough incentives to ensure the rebels – horribly dehumanised in the French media – were violently suppressed. In Rebellion, Kassovitz has created an impressive and gripping piece of genre filmmaking that is also an indictment of France’s colonial legacy. SC
Joyce Carol Vincent’s body was discovered in her Wood Green flat three years after she had died. Documentary maker Carol Morley has attempted to piece the life of this mystery woman together and has built a portrait, not of the ageing shut-in that most people might have imagined from the tabloid reports, but a pretty would-be singer and bubbly social girl who seemed to hang around in other people’s lives and never quite become herself. Fascinating stuff, with brilliantly assembled material that makes you ponder what effect you have on those around you and what impression you will leave behind. It’s a pity that the long, stagey reconstructions just don’t work and seem to strain for an effect that they don’t achieve, because the talking heads quietly reduced me to tears. MS
We Need To Talk about Kevin
We Need To Talk about Kevin is a chillingly apt title as Lynne Ramsay’s latest film contains precious little dialogue. Quite a feat given that it is based on the much-lauded novel by Lionel Shriver in which Eva, the narrator, describes the events leading up to her son committing a dreadful crime and reflects upon its consequences. This format would easily lend itself to a verbatim expositional voice-over in a film adaptation but, as was obvious from her 2002 film Morvern Callar, Ramsay knows the power of silence.
That’s not to say the film is noiseless. In fact, it is charged with sounds which, to Eva, evoke that fateful night when she discovered the full extent of Kevin’s crimes. But, rather than rely on dialogue to tell the story, Ramsay brings out Tilda Swinton’s extraordinary abilities as an actress to communicate Eva’s living hell. We see her close her eyes in almost orgasmic relief when a roadside drill drowns the wails of her crying baby, for example, and – when a doctor tells her that toddler Kevin’s reluctance to talk is not down to autism – what you see register on Eva’s face looks suspiciously like a faint flicker of disappointment.
Combined with arresting cinematography by Seamus McGarvey, and disturbing performances from the three actors who play Kevin from infant to teenager, Ramsay’s restraint elevates into poetry what could have, in the wrong hands, been turned into a gruesome misery memoir. LW
The Kid with a Bike
Another fine film from the Dardenne brothers, who seem to have a way of making low-budget films about people from the wrong side of the tracks that just don’t run along the same rails as others. Nothing here harangues us about ‘issues’ in society. It’s just the story of Cyril, the hell-on-wheels 11-year-old of the title. Living in a children’s home, but escaping to pursue the dad who put him there at every given opportunity, Cyril’s single-minded, resourceful zeal blinds him to the fact, evident to all others, that his father is a bit of a shitbag. Still, somebody up there must like him, because one of his misadventures throws him into the arms of Samantha (Cécile de France), who agrees to take on the little terror on weekends. Is it possible that she can help Cyril to save himself from the world of pain he’s so energetically chasing? There are no ostentatious camera set-ups or performances here, just lean, intelligent filmmaking that finds the best way to get to the heart of scene after scene. For my money, it’s not up there with L’enfant (which just seemed to have more going on), and I kind of wonder how long the Dardennes can repeat a winning formula. But hell, this is great stuff. MS
Matthew Lewis’s sulphurous Gothic novel adapted by Dominik Moll, director of the wickedly brilliant Harry, He’s Here to Help, with Vincent Cassel in the role of evil monk Ambrosio: it sounded terrific on paper, but the film did not quite live up to expectations. To be fair to Moll, it is a very difficult novel to adapt: narratively labyrinthine, it relies on the intricate echoes and contrasts between its different strands to create depth and resonance; forced to concentrate on one story, the film feels strangely bare. In keeping with the nightmarish quality of Gothic novels, Moll has gone for a dreamlike, artificial world, which sometimes works (the addition of the mask for the character of Valerio is eerie and chilling; Ambrosio’s recurring dream, which is not in the novel but perfectly fits with its spirit, is strikingly evocative), but too often descends into cartoony Gothic clichés (night outings to the cemetery, gargoyles, thunderstorms, etc.). Vincent Cassel is great as the conflicted monk battling repressed desires, and both he and Moll clearly give their all, but the result of their efforts is oddly paced, narratively meagre and stylistically overwrought. VS
Amiably filthy road trip, as a childless Christian wife (Rachael Harris) tracks down the junkie fugitive fruit (Matt O’Leary) of her husband’s sperm bank habit, after hubby has a stroke while, well, having a stroke. It’s pretty familiar American indie comedy stuff as the odd couple learn from each other, and you can kinda predict where it’s going most of the time, but the central performances are fine, it makes you care, and the dialogue is foul-mouthed and funny. (‘Maybe we can go see a unicorn take a shit made of lullabies.’) I liked it a lot. MS
Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai
Last year, Takashi Miike remade a little-seen 1963 samurai film by Eiichi Kudo, 13 Assassins, which was undeniably a lot of fun, but uncharacteristically conventional for the director, both in its filmmaking style and its attitude to the traditional values of the samurai. Puzzlingly, this year Miike has directed a 3D version of Masaki Kobayashi’s acclaimed 1962 Harakiri (Seppuku), a virulent, powerful indictment of the hypocrisy of Japan’s feudal system and the samurai’s code of honour. Miike is clearly going through a chanbara phase, although he seems a bit unsure of where he stands in relation to the samurai tradition. This may explain why Kobayashi’s searing condemnation of the samurai’s rules of conduct as empty, rigid and inhuman is blunted in the dialogue and weakened by lethargic direction and melodramatic excesses in Miike’s version.
When Miike doesn’t water down the original film, he simply reiterates it. The story of a poor ronin, whose request to commit ritual suicide in the courtyard of a prestigious family’s house conceals a desperate act of revenge, is told through exactly the same series of flashbacks as in Kobayashi’s film. The striking image of the ronin kneeling down in the courtyard surrounded by the almost geometrically positioned samurai simply repeats the exquisite compositions of the earlier film.
Visually, Miike adds 3D, which has the effect of making the colours dull and dark while being completely superfluous, given that there is little action. The most striking 3D scenes are those that show beautiful autumn leaves in the foreground against stony walls in the background, snow falling in the feudal house’s courtyard, and the credits rolling in front of the house’s symbolic samurai statue. Nice, but hardly indispensable. Which is a fairly accurate description of this pointless remake. VS
Shock Head Soul
It’s beautifully shot, and I love the typewriter jellyfish manifestations, but Shock Head Soul renders what seems to be a fascinating psychological case study into an achingly serious, ponderous trudge. It offers no compelling characters or observations of note and I found myself, after half an hour, wanting the whole thing to just shut up, which is possibly not the compassionate reaction to mental illness that the filmmakers were aiming for. Maybe I’m too stupid, too stupid to understand. MS
Intimate Visions: Films by Chick Strand
While the LFF closing gala screenings took place on the other side of the river, there was a tiny audience for the NFT’s programme of six films made between the 1960s and 1980s by Chick Strand, the Californian experimental and ethnographic filmmaker who died in 2009. It was a rare chance to see Strand’s work, and we got to sample a few different facets of it, from found-footage pieces that make use of archival material to her poetic, intimate approach to ethnographic filmmaking. The witty and, in the case of Loose Ends(1979), sometimes disturbing montages of old film and audio – in which sound and vision are juxtaposed in a way that recalls the darkly funny audio-visual collages of People Like Us – have dated less well than Mosori Monika (1970), a dreamlike, compelling portrait of a missionary settlement in Venezuela with conflicting voice-overs from a Catholic nun and an indigenous woman. Meanwhile, Artificial Paradise (1986), shot in Mexico, is both a gorgeously tactile, hypnotic piece about human and animal bodies in motion and in close-up – dancing, running, riding – and a comment on the exoticisation of those bodies: an example of having one’s cake and eating it, perhaps, but it’s spellbinding stuff. Strand’s feel for physicality and use of found footage are combined in Angel Blue Sweet Wings (1966), in which a male dancer whirls in the sunshine to the sound of Aretha Franklin’s ‘Doctor Feelgood’, while lights and sequins pulse in joyful sympathy, articulating a feminist vision that’s as sensual and playful as it is critical. FM
It’s always nice when the bad guys in an ensemble film neatly take themselves out of the picture, isn’t it? Saves you having to, ooh, I don’t know, write something that might actually happen in the real world. Fernando Meirelles’s latest features a host of fine acting talent (Hopkins! Weisz! Debbouze! That bloke out of The Baader-Meinhof Complex! ummm… Jude Law!) and puts them to work in a series of interlocking scenarios based around travellers from Vienna, London, Paris, Denver and Phoenix. I’d be lying if I said it had nothing going on, with this many characters and stories something was bound to click, and the dissolves and transitions are inventive, but really, this is tossycock of the first order. Tossycock, I tell you! MS
Mentions of the Strugatsky brothers and Tarkovsky in the LFF write-up on this futuristic Russian tale were enticing, but Target turned out to be a pompous sci-fi soufflé, philosophically fluffy, insipid and indigestible. The story follows members of the Russian media and political elite as they seek to obtain eternal youth by travelling to a remote, abandoned astrophysics base and exposing themselves to the cosmic rays channelled into its central well. But the experience is so intense that its consequences are extreme, in a manner both positive and destructive. Unlike its illustrious predecessors, the self-important and portentous Target offers strictly no insights into the human condition, and no ideas of any interest about the future or the universe over its sprawling two-and-a-half-hour running time. The wide screen attempts to convey an epic feel, the sun’s rays over the ‘target’ in the barren landscape are meant to be humbling, the urban settings are as slick and modern as in Hollywood science fiction, and the whole is entirely empty and soulless. And then there’s the sex. Laughably bad sex, made worse by startling outbursts of bombastic music, in case the audience did not quite get how passionate it all is. And in a couple of instances, even dodgy sex, in which the women are barely consenting. This is one Target that is way off the mark. VS
With its punkety rockety /sex ‘n’ drugs/ monochrome on the scuzzy streets milieu, Gandu/Asshole kind of put me in mind of the Cinema of Transgression flicks of the 80s and 90s. Most of those films, however, ran for 20 minutes tops. Gandu runs for 89, which is a long time to spend in the company of an unbearable, un-pretty solipsistic douchebag, who smokes smack, nicks money from his hooker mom’s clients, and bemoans his fate as a would-be hip hop star in an Indian backwater that has no need of one. It all looks like photo spreads from Vice magazine, or Dazed and Confused, there’s some of yer actual unsimulated sex, and a datura trip and all kinds of Daily Mail baiting whatnot, but it was only while reading the notes in the programme that I realised that the mother character was supposed to be his mother, which pretty much sums it up. Has its moments, visually and musically, and it has energy to burn, but at the end of the day, it’s bollocks. MS