The 61st BFI London Film Festival

Tricia Tuttle’s first LFF as Artistic Director was notable for having 38% of its programme directed by women (up from less than a quarter last year). The theme of womens’ constant struggle against every aspect of life was common across the festival’s various strands, and reflects the wider campaigns for recognition that the film industry has been feeling in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein and pay disparity scandals. The topic of folklore and how people search the past to give their present shape and meaning – and the toil that can take – has also made its presence known.

Indeed the cost of Faustian pacts would be explored in both Rahil Anil Barve’s Tumbbad and Timo Tjahjanto’s May the Devil Take You. Tumbbad is a Grimm Fairy Tale writ large with the secret of Vinayak’s (Sohum Shah) material wealth from humble beginnings lying deep below his childhood home as he plays a dangerous game with a forgotten God. It’s a broad brush stroke of a tale where a decade can pass in a jump cut. This is a film unconcerned with character development in favour of a cautionary story of greed and obsession. Not for the only time in this festival rain will be a shortcut for ‘atmosphere’ (I’m looking at you, Long Day’s Journey Into Night). Nothing too original about the themes here, but South Asian cinema is not overly blessed with decent horror and this is a grimly enjoyable watch. May The Devil Take you is far more of a character piece but shows its hand too early and has too many elements to the supernatural threat. Are the disembodied spirit and the witch-like figure the same thing? Is the goat headed chap the Christian devil? It’s certainly full of impressive effects but if you’re going to make familial relationships crucial to the plot it would help not to have the characters quite so clichéd. And the isolated cabin setting invites unfavourable comparisons with The Evil Dead.

It was less problematic though.
Speaking of which, Dennison Ramalho’s The Nightshifter also comes across as too much of a Sam Raimi tribute. Stenio (Daniel de Oliveria) is a mortician’s assistant who can commune with the recently dead. He tries to have revenge on his unfaithful wife by having her lover framed for the death of a local gangster, with disastrous consequences. It favours spectacle over atmosphere and might have been better if Ramalho had used Stenio’s ‘gift’ to ruminate on life and regret post mortem. This felt like a wasted opportunity.

One revenge mission that certainly wasn’t, though, was Panos Cosmatos’s Mandy. A jaw dropping ride that’s as manic as it is beguiling. Some references are a bit too obvious (Crystal Lake anyone?) but as Nicholas Cage’s bloody revenge of his murdered lover (Andrea Riseborough) reaches its predictable climax, you’ll wonder if a ten-year old pitched the idea to producer Elijah Wood, who just went “alright”. Apparently, as a child Cosmatos would look at VHS covers of horror films he was too young to watch and imagine what they were like. Mandy is the result and it’s no surprise that it’s probably better than most of its likely inspirations.

“I bet there’s a chainsaw fight in this one.”
School’s Out, from director Sebastian Marnier, is similarly hard to characterise. Not quite a horror but full of the genre’s conventions, the story of a supply teacher’s obsession with several members of his class who he’s convinced are planning something shocking is tightly shot and chilling. Only the ending fails to satisfy as the original climax of the children’s suicide was vetoed in favour of an explosion at a nuclear power station, leaving you feeling slightly cheated. Children and death are of course highly controversial topics and the film I debated most about watching was Erik Poppe’s Utoya-July 22, depicting the real life Norwegian massacre in 2011. Unfolding in almost real-timem the film is a (nearly) unbroken 72 minute shot following Kaja (Andrea Berntzen) as she tries to find her sister as a gunman shoots his way through a youth summer camp. Poppe stresses this is a work of fiction but with a narrative built from interviews with the survivors of the attack. The camera is used in interesting ways, it hides and ducks like a character POV making the viewer feel far too close. Poppe talked about his motivation for this film and his focus being entirely on the victims and their terror and confusion. They’ve no idea what’s really happening, let alone the wider response. We may know it’s a lone gunman but they don’t. There’s even a rumour the police have turned on them. After the film three survivors took part in a Q&A to discuss why they gave their blessing to a dramatisation of the worst day of their lives, and how through them we learn the perspective that’s often lost in the debate in the aftermath of tragedy.

They didn’t even use professional actors. Not that you could tell.
Wolfgang Fischer’s Styx also examines the human response to an impossible situation, in this case the powerlessness of the individual against macro socio-political forces, as Susanne Wolff’s Rieke’s solo yachting trip to Ascension Island is interrupted by her encounter with a sinking boatload of refugees. The film raises the expected questions about personal responsibility, and of racism and privilege but having made these points doesn’t seem to know where to go with it for the last half an hour. But it’s more successful than Shock Waves – Diary of My Mind by Ursula Meier which examines the fallout of a schoolboy’s double parricide and his confessional, laying the inspiration at the door of his teacher Madam Fontanel (Fanny Ardent). And while it poses the questions of influence and impression, to do so in isolation seems to miss the wider point. This film was originally part of a Swiss TV series looking at real life crime and I wonder if it works better when presented alongside other examples.

Robert Redford never had to put up with this.
Gamorrah director Matteo Garrone returns to the LFF with Dogman, a dark fable concerning a mild manned dog groomer, Marcello (Marcello Fonte), and his abusive friendship with an ex-boxer, Simone (Edoardo Pesce), set in a rundown seaside town near Rome. It’s beautifully crafted with superb central performances but I was left wondering what point the film was really trying to make. It certainly isn’t a film about redemption or revenge, which is what I was expecting around half way through and it ultimately falls a little flat. By contrast, Amanda Kramer’s Ladyworld subverts expectation in the most engaging way possible, as what starts out like a cross between Lord of the Files and The Exterminating Angel goes somewhere far more curious. Fans of Żuławski and Fassbinder will find much here as a group of teenage girls are cut off from the outside world due to an earthquake. Shot more like a play or multi camera TV, with regular framing of shots as Renaissance works of art, it’s a lesson in how you don’t need a man present to enforce the patriarchy: women will do that to each other. It also enables women to lose control in a way that’s probably taboo within the confines of the male gaze, but I suspect I’d have to be a woman to fully appreciate that.

The male gaze is all over Holiday, Isabella Eklof’s first film and an entry into the LFF’s First Feature Competition. Following Sascha (Victoria Carmen Sonne) and the realities of life as a gangster’s trophy girlfriend. Set in the Turkish Rivera and contrasting with the luxurious setting, this is a cold, brutal film shot with clinical dispassion. It also contains the most disturbing rape scene I’ve seen depicted. No violence, just silent power and control. Holiday is the hardest watch I’ve had in a while and stayed crawling under my skin for some time. Assassination Nation did its best to provide me with an antidote. This ‘Femsploitation’ horror from Sam Levinson with four schoolgirls scapegoated for a data leak as everyone’s private messages are revealed to the whole town of (where else for a witch hunt?) Salem. It skewers the hypocrisy that demands girls send nudes while simultaneously slut-shaming them. An updated Heathers for the #MeToo generation, this is uber violent, uber funny and contains the best “NotAllMen” gag going.

Bet we’ll never see an all-male version of this, amirite Ghostbusters fans?
Border by Ali Abassi is a film I’m still trying to process. Based on a novel by Let the Right One In writer John Ajvide Lindqvist, what you would think is going to be an unconventional love story with points to make on identity and expectation goes somewhere so much darker (selling babies to porn film makers). I’m not sure how you’re supposed to react other than with shock and revulsion.

Happy New Year Colin Burstead sees Ben Wheatley channelling early Mike Leigh with brilliantly observed characterisation as the arrival of an estranged brother at a family’s New Year party throws the celebrations off kilter. A small, focussed piece with something for everyone here.

Suburban Birds is a delightful slice of Chinese hauntology as a building surveyor discovers the diary of a local schoolboy. We then follow both stories as they play out in parallel (and occasionally interact) despite taking place at different points in time. This is a dreamlike tale of friendship and love from Qiu Sheng, played against the backdrop of Chinese industrial growth where humans seem to be increasingly at odds with the buildings they inhabit and retreat back to nature of their youth.

Fans of The Wages of Fear will find much familiar in The Load. Ognjen Galvonic’s uncompromising story set during NATO’s 1999 bombing of Serbia, follows a truck driver Vlada (Leon Lucev) as he carried a dubious load through the broken country. We see snippets of the lives of the people he encounters and the horror of the world they inhabit (dumped bodies rotting a stones throw from a wedding reception) but you never spend long enough in any one place and by the end I felt a curious numbness which I suspect Galvonic intends. It’s how so many survive trauma.

Terry Gilliam’s distributor-less The Man Who Killed Don Quixote is less adaptation of Cervantes’s masterpiece than an attempt to describe the folly of making it. Not dissimilar to Michael Winterbottom’s A Cock and Bull Story, although grander in scale, the film centres on the journey film director Toby (Adam Driver) makes to discover the heart of the story and the consequences of his decisions as fact and fiction combine. Both Driver and Jonathan Pryce as Don Quixote are excellent but the film comes across as a disjointed mess. Some delightful set pieces don’t justify an overlong exercise in obliquity.

Wish one of them would just do an impression of Al Pacino.
One of my most anticipated films was Luca Guadagnino’s – if not remake then reimagined update of – Dario Argento’s Suspiria. The decision to retain the 70s German setting feels suitably alien, even if the Baader-Meinhof subplot is somewhat distracting but the horror inherent in the students’ dances reflecting the mutilation of the discarded girls is truly unsettling. As are Tilda Swinton’s dual roles of dance teacher and elderly (MALE!) Jewish doctor. The past setting seems to fit the almost clichéd ‘summoning’ climax but it’s so beautifully choreographed that Guadagnino just about gets away with it, and also answers the burning questions of who clears up all the gore after multiple sacrifice.

No shit.
Documentary Bisbee ’17 from Robert Greene looks at the little-known labour dispute from First World War America where 1,200 striking mine workers were rounded up and left to die in the New Mexico desert. It’s deftly handled as Greene arranges an enactment from the current townspeople while highlighting the fate of post-industrial America but the lack of information over the workers’ fate (did they all die? Where are they buried?) left me with a lack of closure, and as the film clocks in at nearly two hours, this was a little frustrating.

With more than a nod to Locke, Gustav Moller’s The Guilty is a lesson in low budget tension as a policeman (Jakob Cedergren) tries to track down a kidnapped woman via a series of phone calls. It’s a slow start that builds tension well to a gripping climax that deliberately challenges the viewers’ expectations and keeps you guessing to the very end. Apparently it’s being nominated as Denmark’s entry for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar.

I’m going to write about Peter Strickland’s In Fabric in greater detail in a separate post. Suffice to say it’s everything I wanted from a Strickland film and more. Chilling and laugh out loud funny in equal measure. In Fabric is an absolute triumph.

Gi Ban’s been watching Tarkovsky’s Stalker by the look of Long Day’s Journey Into Night (nothing to do with Eugene O’Neil). A beautifully framed if narratively weak experience. A man returns to his hometown looking for a woman from his past, culminating in a single 55 minute take shot in 3D. A rich visual feast (even if more could have been made of the 3D sequences). Just let it wash over you and enjoy the journey.

Alonso Ruizpalacios’ heist thriller Museum concerns a middle class veterinary student, Juan (Gael Garcia Bernal) stealing world famous Mayan artefacts to sell, only to discover no one will buy them – because they’re world famous. The story bobs along to its predictable conclusion and doubly suffers due to a lack of clear motivation. Not enough is made of why a privileged young man throws everything away on a high-risk fool’s errand. But at least Simon Russel Beale makes an enjoyable cameo.

Oh and they really want you to know it’s set in the 80s.
This is my fourth London Film Festival and probably the highest standard yet. There’s certainly been more thought-provoking fodder, both good and bad and I’m delighted to see that Tricia Tuttle’s been given the job full-time. Only the higher than usual number of screening changes marred the event, but only very slightly and in the words of Nicolas Cage’s Red, “Don’t be negative.”

Pictured: positivity.

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