Tagged: London Film Festival

London Film Festival 2011 #2: Wuthering Heights (UK 2011)

James Howson as Heathcliff

It’s difficult to know where to begin in relation to Andrea Arnold’s Wuthering Heights; except to say that within minutes I knew whatever else was missing, this version would not leave out the hanging of Isabella’s spaniel. In playing the race card, by casting a two black actors as the younger (Solomon Glave) and older (James Howson) Heathcliff, Arnold has not subsequently backed away from making him and Cathy the elemental creatures of cruelty and obsession that underpins the brutality of Emily Brontë’s imagining. And it is all the richer for that act of faith in realising all the parts that make them compelling protagonists.

From the start, the elements play a vital role visually. Whilst previous British versions have to a greater or lesser extent ‘prettied’ their subjects, this film is distinguished by the real, visceral realisation of how these two characters inhabit the outside better than they do the inside – the sparse moorland scrub is their wordless playground and these are children who grew up in all weathers, knowing the mud, the rain, the gorse and often wearing it on themselves as a second skin. Cathy’s wasting away inside Thrushcross Grange is entirely logical.

If you are able to see the film you won’t need, so I won’t waste time, on lengthy descriptions of its cinematography (focussed on setting you into the middle of the action) and the powerful editing. Those of us who are lucky to live near the Brontës’ Haworth home – and get to walk on those moors – can recognise the bleakness that Arnold and Robbie Ryan (her long time collaborator) have realised in the best kind of visceral filmmaking. The wordlessness is important – in this stripped down imagining (it’s pulling away from the word adaptation) – the kind of characters Arnold has conceived of here would not be given to nineteenth century verbosity and witticism. The supporting players are convincing – Hindley is especially important since the narrative restructuring places more emphasis on the surrogate Cain and Abel rivalry and bitter hatred. (An honourable mention for Nichola Burley who did much with the usually insipid Isabella). The filmic language consistently places you in the perspective of the main character – because this is Heathcliff’s story told from the perspective of the outsider who enters a world and tries to determine to make it his own. All the performances are strong, I think, notably the non-actors/new actors in the two Heathcliffs and young Cathy (Shannon Beer). The moment where Heathcliff (Howson) beats his head against the tree in anguish – a usually uncomfortably theatrical and unconvincing moment certainly in some of the previous British adaptations –is, well, exactly how this man might express his emotions.

A love story, a revenge drama, a story of a rise to power? It encompasses all of these. I loved the stillness that was at the heart of the film – there is no non-diegetic music used during the narrative – a stillness that reminded me of Red Road and how Jackie’s (Kate Dickie) world was silent, alone and contained until Clyde (Tony Curran) introduced noise and chaos. As in that film, and in Fish Tank (which by comparison was a much ‘noisier’ story generally) there is great sophistication in moving sympathy and/or comprehension between the different protagonists – particularly those characters who do not fit typical moulds of heroism or sympathy or (like Clyde, like Heathcliff) act in a way that should deny it. One of the great pleasures of the original novel is how your sympathies shift as you re-read – particularly on getting older – so Arnold’s text promises the richness of rediscovery. It also has an aesthetic I felt was familiar from Andrew Kötting’s work, especially This Filthy Earth – which reminds me of the relevance of the more European novelistic tradition such as found in the novels of Zola. However, Brontë’s original protagonists are figures out of time and society, and her novel comments on the individual and the psychological – not on class or social systems. Andrea Arnold’s interpretation, though, appears to examine those constructions of power and how they dominate even within small societies. Just as Heathcliff enters the torpid village, steeped in adherence to old ways of religion and ownership, so the wider world seeps into this gothic and elemental classic tale through her bold construction of a real outsider.

London Film Festival 2011 #1: Shame (UK 2011)

Living in-between: Brandon (Fassbender) waits in 'Shame'

(NB No intentional spoilers – but this does discuss the film in detail)

A film about sex addiction? Given the way in which cinema can be all about fetishising what we see and the way we see it, Shame represents a bold piece of filmmaking but maybe not as you would think. The early publicity inevitably uses that easy shorthand of sex addiction. The film does more, including (but not exclusively) how it alters the action of looking by the way it is made as well as the content of the piece.

Set in New York and starring McQueen’s muse, Michael Fassbender, it follows a man (Brandon) who has the capacity for seduction and the an obsessive compulsion towards all forms of sexual encounters, ones which do not necessitate the intimacy of a full relationship. The arrival of his sister, Sissy, disrupts his carefully organised and guarded world.

Shot using film, the first composition suggests the same kind of textual depth that McQueen achieved in his first feature, Hunger – visceral in its recreation of place and time and simultaneously calling attention to the beauty of the image. However, this film gives way to a very different aesthetic, with striking blues and whites of the typical WASPish New York apartment joining to create an overriding tone of desaturated flatness. Meanwhile, New York itself glitters in the background in several scenes – a stereotype of its symbolic value as the place of all desires. (Something that will be developed in other ways). Early scenes have some resonance towards American Psycho in their evocation of the emptiness of that highly-paid, corporate existence.

Co-written by McQueen with British TV and film writer, Abi Morgan (very well-known in the U.K., most recently for The Hour and the upcoming Margaret Thatcher story film The Iron Lady) there is (a McQ trademark?) avoidance of dialogue for long sequences – relying on Fassbender’s capacity to move through an extraordinary range of emotions (and the performance’s quality testifies to the way in which McQueen is clearly Fassbender’s muse) – and it avoids trite explanations of background and psychological motivations. (Abi Morgan spoke at a festival event about creating “maximum impact with minimum words”). These could be a form of French New Wave characters – glamorous and attractive at times, inscrutable and dark at others. We experience them from the outside in this dispursive rather than concentrative narrative structure.

The theme of alienation plays through the whole film – the central figure struggles with a fear of intimacy that we are familiar with (a modern parallel with Soderbergh’s Graham in sex, lies and videotape and both films share the awkward interactions and missed connections of floundering associations. However, Soderbergh’s film was very certainly about something – sex and lying. In saying what McQueen’s is about, I think we have to start with the way in which the film embraces the experiential level rather than the simply thematic – which seems contradictory given its anti-realist narrative aesthetics (see the trailer below for some feel of this).

This might explain why the odd critic may have commented on being bored whilst watching – isn’t that maybe the point of some of it? McQueen’s mastery of the visual image subtly but relentlessly removes that traditional screen dynamic for sexual imagery so that the true, achingly banal and despairingly repetitive nature of these transactions is viscerally apparent. This is not necessarily new – there are numerous examples of interrupting the audience’s gaze. American Psycho (to return to the earlier example) chooses to go to parody and excess as its means of subverting the glamour (a technique, of course, that relies heavily on audience reading). However, by blurring focus, altering depth of field, holding long on discomforting close-ups (a face, a back of a neck), McQueen does not so much ‘subvert’ or ‘challenge’ typical spectatorship positions – rather he seems to have started from elsewhere. The striking human-ness of some of the flesh is what immediately stands out, the beautiful ordinariness of a face – compared to the dehumanised, virtual forms populating Brandon’s gaze (sometimes physically present, sometimes on screen). In addition, the emotional punch is helped by the symbolic use of the spaces of the city – the way in which the ‘in-between-ness’ of characters’ lives (the streets, the apartment lobby, the subway) is a powerful metaphor for their inner states (the loneliness of the long-distance porn surfer).

Sure – the alienation of modern living is no new theme. But, as in his first feature, McQueen’s filmmaking doesn’t worry about ‘saying’ something original – he just drops you directly into the melting pot to experience those people’s lives through the medium of an artistically stunning image. The intellectual engagement is fully there once we reflect on our discomfort. Discomfort because – as someone noted in a discussion with Abi Morgan at the festival – this is not a film ‘about’ sex addiction, just as Hunger was not ‘about’ a terrorist. I’m going to finish this idea by going off on a tangent to the choice of Bach’s Goldberg Variations (e.g. the famous Aria) as part of the soundtrack (the sound design is another technical achievement). It uses Glenn Gould’s recording which means the music includes his distinctive hum, well-known as part of the texture of his interpretations. Alongside those clean, baroque melodies (so representative of control and purification) the voice of a driven, obsessive, messy human runs along complementing rather than detracting from the music. Elsewhere, Brandon’s sister, Sissy, sings the blues – using an unexpected classic to do so. So, without being ‘about’ anything or one small section of society (sex addicts) – this film rather shows us how people are complicated, how real intimacy can be so unbearably difficult. Not a new theme you might think. But how I enjoyed the power with which that old tune was revoiced by McQueen, Morgan and the others not least by the depth of feeling those beautiful surface images could create.

LFF #4: Our last day

I could only manage two screenings on the last day and as it was I found it difficult to concentrate. How do professional festival hacks manage it? I was worried that because of my tiredness that I would not do the films justice, especially as both of them were relatively slow-paced. Fortunately I managed to keep alert enough to make the screenings worthwhile.

At first I thought that Zona Sur (South District, Bolivia 2009) was going to develop a narrative similar to that of La nana from Chile. Again we are in an upper middle-class household in a Latin American country. Again there are teenage children and a younger sibling. In the kitchen is a butler/cook named ‘Wilson’ and in the garden a maid named ‘Marcy’. The servants are indigenous people. Wilson calls the teenage son ‘whitey’.

Wilson rests in his room in Zona Sur

But there are differences between the two films. First, this is a very beautiful house, attractively furnished and with a wonderful luxuriant garden. The boy’s bedroom, where he makes love to his beautiful girlfriend, is stuffed with hi-tech TV and video. Second, the beauty of the mise en scène is enhanced by the very deliberate camerawork which uses slow 360° pans around the rooms – and eventually above the house, showing its position high above the Bolivian capital La Paz. This languid (but precise) movement threatened to lull me into torpor, but the detailed look at each character in the household held my attention and eventually I realised that this was a strongly metaphorical story  – seemingly about the decline of the European upper middle-class in the country (and perhaps in Latin America generally?). Yet this is in many ways a sympathetic study. Much depends on the head of the household, the divorced mother – or as she describes herself “the typical Bolivian matriarch”.

I won’t spoil the narrative surprises – suffice to say that the developments are intriguing without being apocalyptic. Bolivia elected its first leader from the Aymara peoples (one of the indigenous groups in the country) in the person of President Evo Morales in 2006. I’m assuming that Winston is meant to be Aymara – certainly he and Marcy are ‘indigenous’. I’d recommend the film and I hope it gets distribution.

The three young friends escape the tedium – and the tension of daily life in Srinagar

Harud (Autumn, India 2010) is a rather sombre but beautifully photographed and directed film from the team of Aamir Bashir (director) and Shanker Raman (cinematographer). They wrote and produced the film together on a tiny budget, only being able to fully finance post-production with support from the Hubert Bals Fund associated with the Rotterdam International Film Festival. This is Bashir’s first film as director. He has a track record as an actor in Hindi Cinema including roles in Peepli Live and A Wednesday, films in which he worked alongside Naseeruddin Shah who also played a part in getting Harud onto the screen.
The setting is Srinagar capital of the state of Jammu Kashmir where unrest over the last twenty years has seen the rise of militancy that has been met by increasing activity from ‘security forces’. The narrative focuses on a family who have already lost the elder of two sons – a tourist photographer who has become one of the ‘disappeared’. The younger son Rafiq decides to try to cross the mountains with a small group into Pakistan to join the struggle but he gets left behind and is brought home by his father, a traffic policeman. The main part of the story then follows Rafiq and two other young men as youths in the city trying to get jobs and ignore the tedium and the tension.

The film is an interesting mix of social realism and metaphor. Raman’s camerawork picks up the Autumn colours and in the interesting and informative Q & A with Bashir that followed the screening, the director explained that he saw the ‘slow decay’ of Autumn as symbolised by the changing colours of the leaf of the chinar (maple) as a metaphor for the slow decay of Kashmiri dreams of peace and economic and social development. Bashir himself left Srinagar in 1990 and he said that he had been profoundly affected by the isolation of the region during the period of economic growth in the rest of India. He uses the moment of the arrival of the mobile phone in the region in 2003 as a focus to emphasise this sense of being ‘left out’ as people clamour for something other Indians have known about for several years. ‘Autumn’ seems like a state of mind rather than a season. The Press Notes tell us that clinical depression is widespread in Srinagar.

Making the film was clearly a struggle – shooting for around 30 days with little help from the military authorities. The script was re-worked to include the Eid festivities at the end of Ramadan which would otherwise affect the shooting possibilities. The cast are mostly non-actors who had attended a workshop arranged by Naseeruddin Shah. He himself had to withdraw from the role of Rafiq’s father and this led to bringing in the Iranian actor Reza Naji. The fact that he doesn’t look like the other characters (and couldn’t speak the language) actually worked in favour of a character who is proud but also withdrawn and ultimately bewildered. Bashir explained that the film was made in Hindi rather than Kashmiri simply because no distribution in India would have been possible in Kashmiri. The film hasn’t yet gone to the Indian Certification Board and questions from the audience expressed worries that it might be cut. As it is, the Hubert Bals support has helped the film get entry in festivals.

I’d like to watch it again with the benefit of the Q7A and Press Notes. I suspect that I would get much more from a second screening – definitely one to look out for if it gets distribution in Europe and/or North America as well as India.

A press pack for the film is available here.

The trailer prepared for Toronto:

LFF #3: Young women – causing trouble or getting what they want?

Day 3 of my LFF visit produced a more varied programme than the first two days. Again I chose three films out of a total of more than 30 screenings across eight screens. The link between them is that they each feature one or more young women who aren’t simply decorative or submissive to men.

I started back in the Vue West End in the largest screen but with only a 70% audience for The Princess of Montpensier (France/Germany 2010) from Bernard Tavernier, the only big name director on my schedule. This has got UK distribution so I hope it is widely shown. It’s a 16th century swashbuckler combining political intrigues with a fascinating love story in an adaptation of a Madame de Lafayette short story. The setting is the struggles of the 1560s between the Catholic Monarchy and the Huguenot Protestant Reform group led by the Comte de Condé. The Comte de Chabannes is fighting for the Reform but gives up the struggle and turns his back on the war after a particularly brutal skirmish. Fate then places him back with his ex-pupil, Phillipe, Prince de Montpensier, whose father has arranged his marriage to Marie (an outstanding Mélanie Thierry). Unfortunately Marie is in love with Henri, Duc de Guise, Philippe’s rival at the French court. Chabannes finds himself torn between loyalty to Philippe and attraction to the ‘brash innocence’ of Marie as he tries to keep his head.

Mélanie Thierry as Marie when she is told by her mother to 'submit' and marry Philippe

The film is sumptuously shot in CinemaScope with glorious scenery – but it is also violent and bloody when necessary. It’s long at 139 mins, but I was enjoyably engaged throughout and I could have taken more. The performances are all good and it is a very skilfully confected film all round. The reviews following its Cannes screening this year were mixed, but I would go with the positive ones which praised the re-invention of the costume drama with realism, wit and intelligence. If you like costume dramas with just the beautiful images and a sense of dreamy romance, be warned. This will make you think.

The French trailer (it’s due out in France on November 3rd) gives you a good idea of the look of the film and hints at the violence. The young woman at the centre may be forced by convention to ‘submit’ to the men in society, but she’s more than capable of behaving as she wants when it comes to provoking love and desire as well as jealousy – though she doesn’t necessarily get what she wants.

The Mascara Band – women who can't be identified for fear of reprisal

Microphone (Egypt 2010) is undoubtedly the film that I have enjoyed most so far. Billed as an independent film about the underground art scene in the Egyptian city of Alexandria, it boasts some wonderful music director and some inventive ideas about telling its story. The director, Ahmad Abdalla, was present for a post-screening Q&A and he proved to be highly enthusiastic with an infectious personality. He explained that initially he had imagined a documentary about a single graffiti artist, but gradually the film just grew and grew. It’s now 120 mins but that represents a cut with much more material still available.Abdalla explained that making it a fiction feature helped it get distribution in Egypt since documentaries have never received a cinema release. (He hopes for 15 prints in Egypt which though still far behind the commercial films on 50 prints is still good for an independent – but the film still has to get past the censors.

Microphone never had a formal script and most of the musicians and artists play versions of themselves. The fictional story concerns Khaled (played by a major star of Egyptian Cinema, Khaled Abol Naga) who has returned to Alexandria after working for seven years in New York as an engineer. His old friend finds him a job in an organisation that manages projects for art and community work in the city. Khaled finds that the city has changed. On the one hand, there is a vibrant underground art scene that he slowly discovers and comes to appreciate very much. On the other, the authorities and other social pressures mean that it is very difficult to organise/promote the scene. The central narrative involves Khaled’s attempt to put on a concert featuring independent music acts, including hip-hop, metal and traditional music. At the same time he tries to communicate with his father and in a scene with his ex-girlfriend (which is chopped up and played intermittently out of sequence) he learns that she is now leaving to do a PhD in London. Khaled says that he will always carry a little bit of sadness with him after he realises that he has lost her.

The film includes many performance scenes as well as skateboarding, graffiti art and an enjoyable narrative strand about a filmschool (in the Jesuit college) in which a film professor tries to explain the difference between documentary and reportage and fiction. There is a useful website and the film’s soundtrack is being prepared for international release. I’m seriously considering buying it. I’ve thought in the past about visiting Alexandria and now I’ve seen the art (and the trams) and heard the music, I think it might be time to give it a go. Perhaps Alexandria could become the next Havana for music lovers?

Samira Maas is Joy

Joy (Netherlands 2010) directed by Mijke de Jong has a strong central performance by Samira Maas, a law student who had never acted before. She flew over to be at the screening and arrived in time to give an equally impressive performance in a Q&A.

The narrative for the film is very slight (and the film is only 78 mins long). Joy was abandoned by her mother as a baby and brought up in care. Now out of the hostel and working in a menial job she has persuaded the local authorities to show her the file on her mother. Will she meet her mother after all these years? If she does how will it affect her relationship with her Serbian boyfriend who invites her to his family celebrations and her relationship with her younger friend from the hostel who is heavily pregnant and wants her to be her birthing partner? Both these relationships with their strong emotional pulls cause cracks in Joy’s otherwise protective carapace. Is she really the hardbitten shoplifter and tough woman of the streets?

I thought at first this was going to be a slice of social realism, but although it does use its subject matter in that mode, the look and feel of the film is more expressionistic with a colour palette of mainly blues and greens and a sense of focusing on a single character who is somehow isolated from her environment. It is shot on HD in ‘Scope which gives it a different feel as well. In her statements after the screening. Samira Maas implied that the director manipulated her into dramatic situations, not so much directing her as forcing her to react to what the script set up. Maas is clearly an intelligent young woman who accepted this treatment in order to produce the required performance without being affected by it. She told us that she is interested in legal work on behalf of children and this no doubt influenced her decision to take the role. The flavour of the film is perhaps available via the trailer. Overall I was impressed by the performance and for this reason I thought that the film was worth seeing. I’m not sure that there was enough in the narrative otherwise but I’m intrigued enough to wonder what the earlier two films in de Jong’s loose trilogy about young women were actually like. All three were also written by women.

Press notes (in English) are available to download here.

The Dutch trailer gives an indication of the style: