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Taklub by Brillante Mendoza

By C.S. Leigh

I don’t know how they managed it but the team behind the London Film Festival this year presented over 200 films none of which had any connection to James Franco whatsoever. And you know what they say about not looking a gift horse in the mouth. At a festival last year I was a bit surprised to watch one of Franco’s directorial efforts in an experimental strand. Is a film still experimental when it costs six figures and features mainstream film stars? Does the method of production define what is truly experimental? I found myself asking these questions at the LFF when watching several films across the festival, including those in its sometimes  overly insular Experimenta strand.

But of course, the LFF is not an experimental film festival at its core any more than it is Cannes. It’s a consumer rather than an industry festival featuring films, which have for the most part already been seen and venerated at other festivals on the calendar mixed with high profile Hollywood and other mainstream gala premieres, which often figure in the upcoming awards season.

For cinephiles in London the festival is quite simply essential often providing the only chance to watch certain films in a cinema rather than on a computer screen. For example year in and year out the newest Brillante Mendoza film. This year it was the particularly fine Taklub about the devastating aftermath of Typhoon Yolanda in the Philippines in 2010. As always Mendoza pushes the form of the film to fit the content. It’s among his finest work.

The festival opened with Suffragette about the fight by militant women for the right to vote in the UK. The film directed by Sarah Gavron and starring Carey Mulligan and Helena Bonham Carter is so tame one could be forgiven for thinking it is a sequel to a heartwarming feel good film like Made In Dagenham. Despite several good performances, it makes no lasting impression. A film about bravery and revolution should be at least a little bit dangerous in my view. The fleeting presence of Meryl Streep as Emmeline Pankhurst only solidifies the impression of watching well known actors feeling courageous while wiping off their makeup and cashing their pay cheques.

The closing night gala Steve Jobs, as directed by Danny Boyle, likewise feels overly mainstream not because it lacks ambition but rather because as written by Aaron Sorkin, it feels like an extended episode of one of his television series many of which I admire a good deal more. The film which takes place at three Steve Jobs product launches actually feels more like a product than a film. You either buy it on its own terms or you don’t.  The lead performance by Michael Fassbender is for the most part adequate. He uses charisma as if it were a skill and it works for the first part and then slowly drains away leaving only void. Danny Boyle seems like the wrong director for the gig as he is never particularly good with dialogue which is all Steve Jobs has to offer. While occasionally well delivered by Kate Winslet as Steve Job’s «work wife» for the most part it falls flat.

While it is better than the disappointing Lance Armstrong biofilm The Program by Stephen Frears, another gala in the festival, it feels just as much like a missed opportunity.  It’s getting harder to make contemporary biopics work I think since we can see the people themselves on CNN and watch the stories unfold in something like real time. What more can we really discover about Jobs and Armstrong?

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Carol by Todd Haynes

Of the many strong works in the gala section, the best by far is the Todd Haynes film Carol, starring Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara as lesbians in love and lost in Eisenhower era America based on a novel by Patricia Highsmith. Haynes packs the film with more film scholarship than half a dozen essay films while never taking his eye off the story and characters. Just watch Cate Blanchett’s Carol get up off the floor of her living room and you have a key to understanding the inner workings of controlled Hollywood melodrama. In this way, I would say it’s as experimental as earlier more seemingly audacious work by Todd Haynes despite being more conventional in subject matter and execution. Surely in 2015 a film about lesbians can’t feel transgressive but the film itself is very much more than its story.

On paper Carol may be Cate Blanchett’s film. It proves otherwise as it is Rooney Mara who ultimately walks off with the audience’s admiration, not only because her character is more sympathetic but because she is given so much to play off by her director and co-star. Blanchett gives a star performance without any diva ticks. Dignity is very hard to play but she more than pulls it off. For his part, Haynes is so much in control of his material and actors at moments it’s almost overwhelming. Every performance is perfect from Sarah Paulson to Kyle Chandler who finally gives us the impression that he might be a proper film actor one of these days. If I have one tiny proviso to offer about Carol: it’s that I would like to see Todd Haynes emerge from the trope of historical fiction that he seems to be devoted to. He has certainly mastered it.  It may be time to leave it behind.

A festival with so many big important films is bound to have its share of disappointments and there were quite a few of those all over the festival. The Lobster doesn’t  seem any better now than I remember it from Cannes and Youth seems even worse. But the biggest disappointments came by and large from the French filmmakers I greatly respect and always have high hopes for. The worst of these is Evolution from Lucille Hadzihalilovic, whose first film Innocence more than ten years ago was such a revelation. Better though still a letdown is Arnaud Desplechin’s My Golden Days which starts off so strong and then very slowly falls apart. Likewise Valley of Love manages to squander not only the first reteaming of Isabelle Huppert and Gerard Depardieu in over thirty years but at the same time an opportunity to exert from Depardieu a deeply personal performance in a situation which he has sadly quite a bit of first hand experience namely the death of a troubled son so young. I still found Jacques Audiard’s Dheepan amazingly overrated. Where were Gaspar Noe’s better Love and Philippe Garel’s beautiful In the Presence of Women? But alas one can’t review a festival on the basis of what is left out.

Remainder by Omer Fast
Remainder by Omer Fast

From the films in the Experimenta strand, I found myself utterly exasperated by the Guy Maddin opus The Forbidden Room and bored beyond endurance by Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Cemetery of Splendour. The standout was Remainder by Omer Fast written by and based on the novel by Tom McCarthy. It’s beautifully made and satisfying in every respect. I would say this is one case where the film is well served by its large budget and the central performance by Tom Sturridge. The director wisely uses the star’s presence to keep the audience riveted and focused on itstheme of reconstructing time and memory. Remainder is not an easy film but it’s a superb one which never loses its power to surprise even if it feels at times like a big budget film. It remains subversive and experimental against the odds.

Inexplicably included in the documentary strand Alexander Sokurov’s brilliant Francophonia finds the always experimenting Russian auteur at the top of his form. On the surface this is a film about how the Louvre fared under the Nazi Occupation. But it’s more a mediation on art and loss as exhibited in a brilliant sub-plot about a freight carrying ship having to unload crates of art in a precarious situation at sea. Francophonia was the best film in the festival and I don’t expect to watch a better new film this year. It’s an intellectual and aesthetic work of art about how we take care of other works of art and how we sometimes fail. It’s certainly experimental in the best sense of the term. Its form is fluid and it possesses an abject and rich curiosity.

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Alexander Sokurov’s Francophonia

The most enjoyable film I watched at the festival was A Bigger Splash by Luca Guadagnino. A remake of the Jacques Deray film La Piscine starting Alain Delon, it had all the dodgy makings of the disaster Italian critics said it was after the Venice festival screening. Yet it’s a marvel on many levels. It may be the only film that realistically depicts what living the life of an artist is really like without ever falling in to cliche. The cast is uniformly good with a career defining comic performance by Ralph Fiennes which recalls Alec Guinness at his Ealing best. Equally high marks go to Matthias Schoenaerts who may be proving to be Europe’s answer to Channing Tatum. Guadagnino delivers a great film with a dexterity that is to be admired.

The festival included a few disasters the most disappointing being Notfilm in the Experimenta section about the making of Samuel Beckett’s Film, which stars Buster Keaton. Notfilm manages to make even the funnest pieces of information feel doctrinaire and it’s not helped by the director’s monotonous narration which reminds me why I never went to film school. No member of the audience could ever be as impressed by this film as Ross Lipman, the man who made it. The worst film overall had to be Nicholas Hytner’s The Lady in the Van based on Alan Bennett’s play and starring Maggie Smith doing hundreds of things she shouldn’t. If I had a gun I would have used it. All in all though a great festival.

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