As the 58th London Film Festival draws to a close, Philip reports back on another selection of choice titles. Some you may want to choose to avoid, mind. As with any festival, the goodies on offer are a mixed bag. Dive in and see what you get!
Pasolini (dir. Abel Ferrara) (Irish release date: TBC)
If anyone had to direct a film about the life (or death) of Pier Paolo Pasolini, few would seem as well qualified as Abel Ferrara. They would appear to be kindred spirits; both are concerned with the point at which flesh, violence and faith intersect. Indeed, Pasolini fits neatly into Ferrara’s filmography, sitting well alongside the chilly elegance of King Of New York and the portrait of moral corruption offered by this year’s Welcome To New York. If it isn’t quite up to those film’s standards, it’s not for lack of trying.
Willem Dafoe may seem like stunt casting given his physical resemblance to Pasolini, but he magnificently inhabits a man defined by a quiet sense of mischief. A gay Marxist who adapted both the New Testament and the Marquis de Sade for the big screen, the role calls for intelligence, a sense of humour and a certain world-weariness, and Dafoe delivers. Primarily set around the last day of Pasolini’s life (2nd November 1975), the film opens with Pasolini giving an interview to French journalists whilst they all watch a French dub of the newly-finished Saló. Languages and accents (not least Dafoe’s distinct American twang) clash in a way that Pasolini would doubtlessly have appreciated.
Flashbacks to formative moments (political influences and youthful sexual dalliances) fill in gaps as Ferrara attempts to link the man’s past to the politics of his present. Even more daring are attempts to dramatize scenes from Pasolini’s unproduced screenplay Porno-Teo-Kolossal, as confrontational and offbeat as one would expect. At times, it all feels a touch dry, as the film is shot with an elegance few of Pasolini’s own films ever enjoyed. Despite that, Pasolini has more than enough ideas and a great performance at its heart to ensure it stands as a worthy tribute to cinema’s greatest scandaliser.
The Western is not a genre normally associated with Scandinavia, even though Ingmar Bergman did declare John Ford was the greatest of all directors. Director Kristian Levering clearly loves the genre, but The Salvation is not the worthiest addition to the genre.
With an opening creidts sequence flanked by wooden buildings and railroads, The Salvation hints at being an unremarkable affair; perhaps Deadwood spoiled us. It’s 1871, and Ex-soldier Danish emigre Jon (Mads Mikkelsen) awaits the arrival of his wife and son from the homeland to make their new life with him in the newly-United States. As the risk of sounding spoilerific, the family has only just been reunited when mother and son are kidnapped and murdered, sparking a hunt for revenge. This all happens in the first fifteen minutes, indicating the overly-rushed pace at which the film operates. Jon gets his revenge on the perpetrators, but the idea of an eye for an eye works in the ol’ West, leading to a well-worn vengeance plot that didn’t need another airing,
Jon faces a fight as gang leader Delarue (Jeffrey Dean Morgan, chewing the scenery) seeks revenge for the men Jon killed. Jon must fight to save himself and the local townsfolk from Delarue’s grasp. There’s an impressively high body count in The Salvation, but the tension is drained when you’re laughing at Eric Cantona attempting to look menacing as one of Delarue’s henchmen. Worse still, an interesting supporting cast goes completely to waste. The likes of Mikael Persbrandt and Jonathan Pryce aren’t given enough to do, while Eva Green’s sultry tones are eschewed as she plays Delarue’s mute plaything.
The Salvation has more than enough blustering egos and wide open vistas to make something interesting, but the plot is far too choppy, going far too quickly to allow events to take on any sense of significance or stay g power. It tries to make a mark, but it offers nothing interesting to a genre riddled with tropes. Must. Try. Harder.
Phoenix opens in 1945 in Berlin, as a car pulls up to Checkpoint Charlie. The car is being driven by Lene (Nina Kunzendorf), with an unidentified passenger. The guards shine their torches on the passenger to find a heavily bandaged and bloodied face. In a similar way, director/co-writer Christian Petzold wants to shine a light on the crimes of the past in this efficient German drama/thriller.
The passenger is Nelly (Nina Hoss), a concentration camp survivor who’s on her way to reconstruct her face and her life. Berlin lies in ruins, while Lene looks for whatever remains of either her family or Nelly’s. Everyone lives in the shadow of war; Nelly gets her reconstruction, but it will be a long time before Berlin is restored to its former glory, if indeed that ever happens.
Nelly sneaks out in hopes of finding her husband Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld), as well as some answers. She finds Johnny, but the reunion is marred by the fact he doesn’t recognise her, though he sees a resemblance. Johnny has plans for his wife’s doppelganger, and Nelly opts to go along with this to see what truths may be unearthed. This plotting demands a slight leap of faith from the audience but, in uncovering some bitter truths about German denial post-World War II, it proves effective. Hoss’ trembling porcelain face sells it, as disbelief and anguish morph into determination and steadfastness.
In an early scene, as Nelly recovers she wanders about the hospital in a daze, her heavily bandaged face and head recalling Franju’s Eyes Without A Face. Another character directly references Murnau’s Frau Im Mond, and a scene of Nelly singing with piano accompaniment is a nod to Fassbinder’s Veronika Voss. Both Petzold and his film know their history, cinematic and otherwise, and it is their commitment to remembering the past that make Phoenix a notable achievement.
A strong contender for the title of ‘coolest film of the year’, A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night is achingly hip, but when your (impressive) touchstones are Jarmusch and The Lost Boys, it can’t but stand out, not least as one of the most impressive directorial debuts of 2014. Ana Lily Amirpour’s film many not be the first film to link vampiricism with drug addiction (check out Ferrara’s The Addiction), but it’s a terrific variation on the idea, full of youthful wit and verve.
The town of Bad City seems to be be a breeding ground of drug dealers and users. Hossein (Marshall Manesh) is a long-time user, while his son Arash (Arash Marandi) is getting into dealing. Between this and Lyle Vincent’s gorgeous monochrome lensing, death feels like it’s stalking Bad City’s streets. Then, The Girl (Sheila Vand) arrives in town to make to put some flesh on that metaphor. The Girl is a vision in a veil, part Virgin Mary, part Louise Brooks’ Pandora. Expect her striped t-shirt combo to be a favourite at Halloween parties in years to come.
The visuals in Amirpour’s debut are arresting. The cinematography is lush, the shadows are long and foreboding and Vand’s eyes are dark pools of gorgeousness. Indeed, most of the film feels like a fantasy with just the right amount of horror added; a scene in which the Girl terrorises a little boy is a child’s worst nightmare. Meanwhile, the scene in which Arash meets the girl and begins to fall for her happens under a lamppost, a tenderly romantic setting for a lovely pairing.
A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night wears its influences proudly, so some may not appreciate the Jarmuschian pacing or the hipster-inflected soundtrack choices. Then again, they’ve worked so well before (Only Lovers Left Alive, Jarmusch’s own vampire flick, was one of last year’s LFF highlights), so doubters be damned. This girl’s got real bite.
Most anyone knows that relationships cannot be condensed down to one story and one point of view. Few directors of romances, whether drama or comedy, seem to get that. Also failing to get that point is Harvey Weinstein, whose interference in the edit of The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby has left behind a good film, but one can’t help but wonder if the original untampered versions work better.
Writer/director Ned Benson’s Eleanor Rigby project was originally two films, Him and Her. Each film told the story of a marriage on the rocks from one of the spouses’ point of view. A re-edit later and we get Them, playing like a greatest hits that gets a lot of things right, but also makes you wish to see the whole picture.
Jessica Chastain and James McAvoy play Eleanor and Conor, a seemingly-happy married couple, absolutely in love. The film opens on an early playful date night, with smiles and laughter all around. After the opening title card, we cut to Eleanor attempting suicide for reasons that are initially unknown. She survives, but needless to say this is a far darker story than one might expect. Her reasons for the attempt, and their separation afterwards (the ‘disappearance’ of the title), offer narrative drive. The main reasons for our investment, however, are Chastain and McAvoy. McAvoy is all raffish, underplayed charm, with enough gristle when the scene calls for it. As for Chastain, her smile is so radiant that any frown is heartbreaking. Her chemistry with McAvoy in flashback is so electric it could light up a city. Their innate charm ensures that Eleanor Rigby rarely feels forced or false. As the separation continues, truths and temptations face our central duo, and we’ll want them to pass the test.
An outstanding supporting cast surrounds his couple (including Isabelle Huppert, Ciarán Hinds and Viola Davis in particularly spiky form), but while the film just about manages to sit together in one cohesive whole, one can’t help but wonder what the original two-parter project would bring to this tale of love cleft in twain. There are two sides to every story, goes the tagline. While Them is perfectly fine, we shall wait to see what Him and Her have to say.
In many ways, Love Is Strange plays like a companion piece to The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby. It deals with the romantic strife of New York academics as pressures from within and without threaten a loving relationship. John Lithgow may not look much like Jessica Chastain, but it’s just as effective an evocation of the ups and downs of relationships, not least the practicalities of life and love while the outside world and age begin to take their toll.
The film opens with Lithgow’s Ben finally marrying George (Alfred Molina), his partner of 39 years. They host the reception in their apartment, surrounded by loved ones while bashing out ditties on their piano. Love may be strange, but the normality with which this gay relationship is presented is a joy to behold. Ben and George love each other, but they also have to struggle with the typical day-to-day practicalities of a marriage, plus occasional hostility.
As a result of the marriage, George is dismissed from his teaching job at a Catholic school, which forces the couple to live separately for a while whilst they find a new apartment. George takes the couch in their cop friends’ apartment downstairs, while Ben moves to the spare bunk bed in his great nephew’s room. All parties try to muck in as best they can to help, but strains start to show. Ben’s nephew (Darren Burrows) and his wife (Marisa Tomei) slowly begin to lose patience, while Ben and George themselves start to grow lonely. The angst is all over Lithgow and Molina’s faces; both actors are a joy to watch, embracing the giddy highs and saddening lows in an unfussy way, drained of camp.
Truth be told, the strangest thing about Love Is Strange is how little a fuss it makes of its couple. It just shows their practical traumas, and the stresses it puts them under, the same as any other couple. It doesn’t say much new, but it’s still a heartfelt paean to love, strange as it may be.