By now, several of the films I’ve mentioned, or am about to mention, are on show normally. It’s a slightly odd feeling, having taken them in already. In theory, this should make room for more, which is good. However, it does mean that the turnover in cinema listings feels particularly slow, when there’s nothing “new” on.
The next of my London Film Festival screenings was Phoenix, by Christian Petzold. Before it started (at Odeon West End, or OWE as it says on the tickets), I heard someone explaining Tarkovsky’s Solaris to her companion, decrying the Soderbergh version. Films of his I’ve seen are Yella, an acidic commentary on the corruption of German business and Barbara, a harrowing tale of political oppression in East Germany, both starring the wonderful Nina Hoss. She was present for this screening, and I think she gave one of the best Q&As of the entire festival. The interesting question is, I suppose, whether this coloured my view of the film. It covers the immediate post-war period in Germany, which is not one I’ve seen dramatised before. As usual Hoss is startlingly good. She took on a special walk, to “hide her femininity” and described her character as a “newborn”, an
“alien, who doesn’t know who she is”
All of this she conveys successfully, the most heartbreaking aspect being when the character can’t help herself, and is almost giddy, even though this giddiness is pushing her to make bad decisions. The plot is clever, with a particular song and its performance straddling the war and post-war periods, forming the arc of the film. Very highly recommended – I’m not sure when it will be released properly.
In passing, I note with dainty disdain that a man was watching Siralan on his tablet before the film started. Tsk.
The next day, at OWE again, was Mommy. I think this was one of those I bought later, after the festival had begun, when a scheduling conflict was removed. In the lobby I saw people taking “selfies” with a fairly short, well-dressed man. During the Q&A I realised this was the director, Xavier Dolan, and that he provoked a lot of excitement in the crowd. In my ignorance, I wasn’t particularly aware of his work, and had chosen this one for that reason. Because it was a gala screening, there was free chocolate again. The first thing I noticed about this film was the strangeness of the Canadian French dialect/accent, very different than the seemingly standard French you normally hear. It’s a slightly hysterical story, relying upon bold performances from the mother (who was a little reminiscent of the mother in Secrets and Lies) and the son, with a pretty downbeat ending. There’s an impressive moment when the aspect ratio completely changes, in a scene reminiscent of the imagined escape in The 25th Hour. Dolan said that he argued at length with the cinematographer about this and he felt he’d won the argument when there was applause at this point during an early screening. During the Q&A there was a rather pointless political question, lamenting the fact that Dolan had made films about mother figures but not father figures. The eager crowd booed at this and Dolan responded that he’d see the questioner for his next film, which is about a father. Another interesting point was about the music chosen for the soundtrack, which he defended from accusations of crude ironism. He said he
“wasn’t being funny”
with those choices. They were songs that were important to him.
After two days with just one film a day, it was back to the multiple film experience the next day, starting with a daytime screening of Foxcatcher. Here I think the less you know about the plot and the historical incident on which it’s based the better. I knew nothing and felt I enjoyed it more that way. Steve Carrell is chillingly good as du Pont. In fact, I didn’t realise it was him until afterwards. Adopting the Tom Paulin role, I’d have to say that it’s as much about America’s view of itself now, compared with the relative impunity of America in the 1980s, while also reflecting on the sinister narcissism of what in the old days we would call magnates. I agreed with the verdict of the person I overheard saying:
“That was a deep one. Extraordinary story. Those two were so good”
(referring to the two lead actors). Mark Ruffalo is also very good. One experience I couldn’t share was that of the person talking about the
“very expensive tour I did of the gardens, they were by du Pont”.
There was a bit of time before the next film, so I walked to the LRB shop, and fixed a niggle in my magazine obsession by finding an issue of the LRB that I’d missed, in the pile they have at the counter. Relax.
Back to the Vue West End this time, for 1001 Grams. I’d previously enjoyed Bent Hamer’s Kitchen Stories and Factotum, and the context of the Norwegian Metrology Service was curiously appealing. The scenes of the special meeting about the new kilogram were quietly hilarious, as was a cameo from a zealous French customs official. The overheard verdict this time was:
“Gentle, wasn’t it. A bit slow.”
I think gentle and slow go together and it’s a very satisfying film. Ambient quotations from the audience, not related to 1001 Grams:
“The Gobi. I always think of that being more Northern Mongolia”
“Everything that should have been made of wood, was made of tyres”.
I will be tracking down films of his I’ve missed, after the pleasure of this one.
Before the third festival event of that day, for reasons of proximity I walked to the National Portrait Gallery to see the Virginia Woolf show. Because it was one of their “Late Shift” Fridays, there were musicians warming up and drones filled the entrance hall. The lady who sold me the ticket sighed over these noises. Someone sneaked in through what was supposed to be an exit, and was spotted by the staff, but excused herself as being “with someone”. The exhibition told the story of Woolf’s life well, the paintings and photos by various Bloomsbury Set members and their associates drawing you through her life. Her letters, often when she was in great distress, were very poignant, while the black book of people the Nazis planned to suppress upon invasion, which included Leonard and Virginia Woolf, was chilling.
The evening event was a Screen Talk with Bennett Miller, who directed Foxcatcher and Moneyball, both of which I enjoyed. He was an engaging, diffident interviewee, among the quotes being that “every portrait is a self portrait”. He referred to
“the price of answered prayers”
“How do we know a story?”.
Talking about his experience of filmmaking with one of his collaborators he said
“we had a wonderful miserable time together”.
Asked about style, he claimed that
“Style is inherent, like the colour of your eyes.”
His description of his journey through film school and into eventually becoming a director was interesting and I liked his quiet confidence in his work.
On Saturday 18th I saw Winter Sleep, the Palme D’Or winner by Nuri Bilge Ceylan, now on general release like Leviathan. The person giving the introduction described it as
“quite an interestingly long film. An inaction film”.
It’s only a little over three hours, so not that long really. Apparently, some think it’s not as good as Once Upon A Time In Anatolia, which I confess I haven’t seen yet. There’s very little action, it being much more a character study, in Ceylan’s usual Chekovian mould, though there is one scene that in context is very shocking, reminding me of a similar highly charged moment in The Idiot. If you can sustain interest for this sort of duration, it’s very satisfying. One of the three best I saw at the festival, along with Phoenix and Leviathan.
The final film for me was 6 Desires: D.H. Lawrence and Sardinia by Mark Cousins, at the ICA. It’s a form of re-creation essay documentary, but with Cousins’ usual impish authorial reminders and interventions. His narration voice guides you along, giving way to his collaborator’s voice half-way through. As with his bracing A Story of Children and Film, at first he makes you feel bad for not having seen or read as much as him, but then inspires you to try and catch up. Right at the end he claims he will deny us something, for valid artistic reasons, with the possibility of relenting… An unusual treat for my own ending.