Sunday, 21 October 2012

London Film Festival 2012 Weekend: Day 1

This year's London Film Festival was another treat for the senses. I saw eight excellent films last weekend, and here's the low down on all of them - including, drum roll, the first 5 CHEESE film of the year! Cue hollering. Small disclaimer: these reviews are not as lengthy as I would have liked, but, I will be seeing a fair few again in the coming weeks at various screenings and the Leeds Film Festival, so I'm hoping to write up a more detailed review then, with the added bonus of a second viewing to cement my opinion.

So, Friday:

Laurence Anyways
Xavier Dolan's third film is a departure from his earlier works, which feel naturalistic and autobiographical, to a film which has a much weightier subject matter: a man in his mid thirties finally takes the decision to become a woman, having felt trapped in his male body all his life. His life changing decision will have an impact upon his colleagues at the school where he teaches, his parents whom he has always been distant with, but more prominently his girlfriend Fred, and this is the main relationship Laurence Anyways focuses on and spans a chunky 168 minutes. And boy, do you really feel its length. It's not the sort of film which drags and makes you look at your watch every 15 minutes, but it does struggle in its final third to find something new to say: arguments circle over and over again, stomping on previously trodden ground as we stutter to an end conclusion. The end scene, in which we see how Laurence and Fred first met, is actually a beautiful and a poignant finish, but it could have come a good 20 minutes or so earlier. Dolan not only tackles transgender and transsexuality in this film, the idea coming from a story he was told by a friend, but also abortion, adultery, assault, prejudice - and this meshing of heavy themes with Dolan's extravagantly lush visual playfulness is successful mostly, but at times becomes indulgent and irrelevant - this lad sure likes to hang the camera out to dry. There are gorgeous scenes with water, mist, and leaves and he is only growing as a filmmaker with impeccable eye for angles, moving tableau's, and eye popping colours (the fashion and decor is once again divine). The melodrama is there too - these characters scream more than they do talk - which gives the film that watchability and escapism. But Dolan shows his age and naivety at times, and with such an ambitious and bold film it can only be expected. The power of the film stutters as the dialogue begins to contradict the actions of the characters, or muddies the context. It's perhaps more realistic this way, as who sounds completely articulate in a fight?, but doesn't match the melodrama Dolan is a master of - the dialogue should have been more effective, and should move the story forward, but after the second or third time you're just begging for these characters to stop going round in circles and show some initiative. Despite this, the performances are universally excellent - Melvil Poupaud plays Laurence's transformation with real verve and a quiet intensity. Suzanne Clement (I Killed My Mother) is pure raw emotion as Fred, and for me is stronger both on screen and in memory for it - the scene where she lets loose at a cafe worker who continually probes Laurence about his brave styling is powerfully acted. There's strong support too, from Mona Chokri (Heartbeats) as Fred's sarcastic moody sister, and Nathalie Baye as Laurence's mother. Dolan is a master of the strained and complex mother/son relationship on film, and this is actually the true emotional arc of the film for me: as Laurence who has always been estranged from his mother finds a way back into her life, she admits: "I never saw you as my son, but I see you as my daughter." What's lacking from this fine cast is Mr Dolan himself, this time staying firmly put behind the camera (save for a blink and you'll miss it appearance at a showbiz party Fred attends) and his absence is a shame. Not his best, but a remarkable achievement considering he is only 23, and there's so much more to come from him, and I'll be there for every film he makes. I'll be working Laurence Anyways at the Leeds Film Festival in November, so expect more thoughts from me then on this lush but overly long epic love story.

Welcome back miss Cate Shortland! I have loved this Australian director ever since she brought The Secret Life of Us into my life, and then 2004's Somersault - this is her first film in EIGHT years and I'm so pleased to have her back! She returns with Lore, a film which is based on the short story by Rachel Seiffert, the daughter of the woman titular character Lore is based upon. Lore is the oldest child of a SS man's family, living well in Germany until comes 1945 and the downfall of Hiter's assault in Europe, and Lore and her family go into hiding in the Black Forest as the allied forces take over. But it's not long before their father is hunted down, and their mother, with little choice, must also turn herself in for questioning. She tells Lore to head for Hamburg and their grandmother Omi's house, but with Germany now sectioned off into districts of France, England and Russia and a curfew enforced, travelling across her homeland which is now a hostile and barren country forces Lore to not only grow up, but fester a deep anger that threatens to overcome her. The vulnerable children are helped on their way by Thomas, a vagrant soldier who is revealed to be Jewish, clouding Lore's teachings in the Hitler Youth against his compassion to her siblings and his attraction for her. I do love "difficult journey" films, and this film has such an interesting angle, coming from a family in war torn Germany that were devotees of the Fuhrer and his regime, but also just innocent children. Lore has plenty of Shortland traits in it: the eerie quietness and sumptuousness of nature and colour which she brings to the frame, and also the tender brutality she brings to her relationships. Lore is a young teenager still exploring her sexuality when she pries on her parents, her father clawing at her cold and passive mother, she witnesses a rape at a camp, and she is both repulsed and curious about Thomas's want to touch and be near her. Thrust into the role as mother and protector of her brothers and sisters, she is but a child herself, and relief when it does come at the end of the film does not distill the pain and confusion she has had to live with day after day. There's a scene where her younger sister tries to dance with her, and she woodenly accepts before stopping and running away, declaring, "I can't... I just can't." It's a stunning portrayal by newcomer Saskia Rosendahl, who is reminiscent of a young Scarlett Johansson or Cate Blanchett here. The beauty of this film is tinged with the horror of war and loss, and Shortland's camera does not shy away from the traumatising aftermath and does not give us a resolution. It's a transformation of character, and shows the lengths a superhuman girl will go to to protect her family, but also her weaknesses as a young girl with a load too hard to bear - in a moment of madness she tries to kill herself and her baby brother. The sparse dialogue only adds to the film's power, however the spell of Lore wanes in time, and after a whirlwind weekend of films this hasn't had the staying power of others. Very bleak but beautiful, it's a worthy return from Shortland. Hopefully the next film won't be so far off in the making! There is also an excellent scene where a woman offers the young baby an egg, and he throws out his little squidgy arms in eagerness. What a great baby.

My surprise of the festival! I had seen Ursula Meier's debut film Home a few years ago but had remembered little detail about it other than I had liked it. Her second film, Sister, slipped under my radar as it premiered earlier at this year's Berlin Film Festival and won the Silver Bear award. It was on the premise alone that I garnered interest in it, which was then given a lovely bonus to find out who the director was. Meier again goes back to her native Switzerland as the setting for this film, this time focusing on a ski resort popular with rich European families and also the community at the bottom of the mountain which is infinitely poorer and home to Simon (Kacey Mottet Klein) and his sister Louise (Lea Seydoux). They live alone, struggling to get by on Louise's bit jobs as a waitress and a cleaner. But it's Simon's exploits on the mountain that generate the most income, as he sneaks through changing rooms and lockers to steal brand new equipment from the rich and then sells it as secondhand to unknowing customers and grateful friends. He also steals packed lunches - something of a gourmet meal for Simon and Louise. Their relationship is key to this film, intriguing from the off. Simon devotes on her, desperate to please her and even more so, desperate for her to spend time with him. But she is always pulled away by new boyfriends, and abandons him for days on end as he continues to go up the mountain to provide for them. At 12 years old he is the father of the family, and there's a lovely scene where he steals some skis and then gets Louise to polish them up herself and teaches her how to go out and sell them for the biggest buck. But just as he can be responsible, and a charming wheeler-dealer figure in his theft scam, the young boy in him often creeps out, and no more so than when he meets idyllic mother figure Kristin (Gillian Anderson). Simon befriends her, giving himself the same name as her son, and helping them out on the ski slopes - what he's missing in his life is a role model mother: someone who is beautiful, kind, and loving, and his fascination with her will lead to a big emotional climax later in the film as his lies unravel. Mottet Klein's performance here is just extraordinary, and is tantamount to his engaging presence on the screen that makes Sister for its first half such a joy to watch. We see the ups and downs of his misadventures - having a great profitable day selling equipment to guests, being caught by one of the chefs at the resort's restaurant (Martin Compston) but then developing a brotherly friendship with him, but then also being chased by an angry guest whom he steals from, and is publicly heckled and slapped in front of goggling onlookers. All the while he protects his sister at the bottom of the mountain, and as she finds a true happiness with a new boyfriend - very quietly - the film pulls a massive unexpected twist on the audience. You'd be forgiven for thinking it's another joke or play tactic until you realise its truth and from that moment on the film's tone which was mostly jovial and full of humour and wise cracking from the young boy becomes more poignant and far reaching. I'm not going to spoil that twist here, you can discover it for yourself when the film comes out in the UK on October 26th. Perhaps because of the risky nature of the two's survival antics, there is an underlying threat of danger throughout the film which at times gave me cause to flinch and jump, even when nothing is actually happening (there's a scene with the two of them arguing and pushing each other on the side of the motorway that I just couldn't bear to watch). And the cinematography is just gorgeous, particularly at the ending of them film as the skiing season comes to and end, and Simon spends the last night up on the mountain. It's a test, to see if his sister will come up to find him, and it's only in the morning after when he realises what he means to her - and the film achieves a beautifully apt ending when I was worrying it was rummaging around blind.
This film will also be memorable for the fact we met a slightly deranged Gillian Anderson fan on the way home who was tarrying outside the cinema and bemoaning the fact that she was really petty when she signed a picture for him last time, deliberately writing her name on a black background. We wished him well and escaped.

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