Films reviewed: “Goodbye to Language 3D”, “Hard to Be a God”, “Metamorphoses”, “Mommy” (pictured above), “Thou Wast Mild & Lovely” and “White Bird in a Blizzard”.
London Film Festival 2014 was split into strands including Cult, Debate, First Feature, Galas, Journey, Laugh, Love, Official Competition, Sonic and Thrill. However, this post covers Dare, which this year erred towards consistent festival favourites like Xavier Dolan, Gregg Araki, Jean-Luc Godard and Abel Ferrara – except I couldn’t make Pasolini because I saw Timbuktu instead. Why am I pointlessly filling out this intro with unnecessary info? Here are the reviews…
Goodbye to Language 3D – 7.5/10
Original title: Adieu au langage
Director/Writer: Jean-Luc Godard
Starring: Héloise Godet, Kamel Abdeli, Richard Chevallier
“I hate characters.”
Forget Gravity – there’s a new 3D release to badger your friends about. After revitalising cinema in the 60s by droning over vibrant images, Jean-Luc Godard has sort of done it again with the fittingly titled Goodbye to Language. The inventor of La Nouvelle Vague finds a novel way to be vague with an abstract collection of cut-up images and excerpts of a troubled relationship, while teasing the viewer with a mirage of disorientating colours, sounds and patterns. It’s an enthralling way to spend 69 minutes that feel like at least two hours.
The 3D itself is like nothing else I’ve seen before and – although this gets said all the time, it’s really true – would be completely pointless in 2D. At one point, two separate images appear in the left eye and right eye. It must be seen to be believed, and was rather upsetting when it ended. Someone in the audience laughed hysterically, another walked out. Thank Godard for cinema that pushes boundaries, and thank whoever’s dishing out irony because this is apparently receiving a straight-to-DVD release in the UK.
Hard to Be a God – 7.5/10
Original title: Trudno byt bogom
Director: Aleksei German
Writers: Svetlana Karmalita, Aleksei German
Starring: Leonid Yarmolnik, Aleksandr Chutko, Yuriy Tsurilo
“I had a dream of Earth.”
Hard to Be a God makes it hard to be a reviewer, given the gruelling sci-fi’s contradictions: a future set in the past; a masterpiece with little substance; a three-hour epic where everything and nothing happens at the same time. Adapted from a 1964 novel of the same name, Russian director Aleksei German spent his final decade before death shooting and editing the film, but had actually endured a much longer period on a script. The final product, emerging like the last survivor from a wasteland, is so bold and uncompromising that it feels – and smells – like a lifetime project.
Snot, urine, shit, mud, dead animals – each frame is a twisted version of someone’s rendition of “My Favourite Things”. One of the few discernible plot points is how the action occurs on another planet that looks just like Earth 800 years ago (or 850 years now, I suppose). A few scientists visit from Earth to study inhabitants – seemingly cast for non-Hollywood looks – who proudly break wind, spread disease, and spit at each other’s faces. Everywhere is squashed with disease, dirt and a wry sense of dark humour. It’d surely be one of the most unpleasant filming experiences possible, if it wasn’t for how often the actors glance at the camera with a slight grin. They’re almost saying, “I can’t believe I’m doing this, and I can’t believe you’re watching this.”
Don Rumata (Leonid Yarmolnik) ruminates on how difficult it is to be a God, without explicitly mentioning it’s because he isn’t one. When society is so chaotic, superiority is within the grasp of those willing to eliminate (and burn) potential enemies in a not-so-subtle analogy for Stalinism. Or maybe I’m wrong. Despite the detail, the repetitive tone never shifts; if you don’t get it at first, chances are you won’t be enlightened by the end. (Which almost excuses the numerous walkouts.)
Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, the authors of the How to Be a God novel, were also responsible for the novel on which Tarkovsky based Stalker. Having seen Stalker for the first time not that long ago, I sensed a running pattern in these cesspool planets which feature key scenes with dogs scuttling through the decay of mankind’s needless self-destruction. German does at least find some joy in his nihilistic comedy sketch – his crazed maniacs also happen to be dapper jazz enthusiasts.
Metamorphoses – 5/10
Director/Writer: Christophe Honoré
Starring: Amira Akili, Sébastien Hirel, Damien Chapelle
“That’s no comparison. When I was a woman…”
Knowing that Christophe Honoré had a new film playing the festival, I did my homework by delving into Beloved and La belle personne – the latter is terrific, by the way. Really, I should have been studying Ovid’s mega poem. Honoré adapts Metamorphoses with a 21st century take that still treats it like an ancient mystery that happens to take by a train station. It also takes the form of an elliptical puzzle, rather than the dumbed down manner in which high school comedies interpret Shakespeare.
The cast of amateur actors (including Amira Akili, Sébastien Hirel, Damien Chapelle) take on a who’s who of famous Greek celebrities like Narcissus, Jupiter and Europa. Stories intertwine – as do riffs on multiracial relationships and the freedom of sex-ops – with occasionally dizzying effect, but never won me over. It might be the intrusion of modernity – young girls swim naked, cigarette in mouth, listening to French pop in overdone pop parody – or the way scenes would end on a shot lingering on a nearby motorway. Days after, I’m still wondering if I misunderstood a masterpiece. It requires a second viewing – but until then, I’ll made do with George Clooney in O Brother Where Art Thou.
Mommy – 9/10
Director/Writer: Xavier Dolan
Starring: Anne Dorval, Antoine-Olivier Pilon, Suzanne Clément
Strand: Dare Gala
“I’ve seen tons of kids in and out of here. You save some, you lose some.”
With a frustrating 1:1 aspect ratio and one of the worst soundtracks ever compiled, Canadian wunderkind Xavier Dolan continues to be unfettered by established taste and convention with an exhilarating, hyperactive drama that’s designed to look good on your phone. After Tom at the Farm slyly shifted its frames, Mommy is more direct by boxing the frame for the “Instagram look” – a term that belies how the gimmick is actually a nostalgic throwback to childhood. Mommy is, among its many ideas, about savouring youthful memories before reality’s ugliness (hiding somewhere in the black bars) takes over.
What’s most apparent in Mommy is how far Dolan has matured and evolved as an artist during his five – only five! – years as a filmmaker. In fact, it’s almost impossible to not make comparisons with I Killed My Mother, given how both feature Anne Dorval playing the maternal role to a wayward son who’ll readily fight back with words and spite. She plays Diane, a single mother whose loneliness is disrupted when her son Steve is sent home from boarding school for setting fire to the cafeteria. By telling the story from both sides, Mommy could just as well be titled I Killed My Son.
While Dolan might have in the past taken the role of Steve, Antoine-Olivier Pilon engrossingly plays the part with so much offensive, suffocating energy that it’s comically ridiculous to the character squashed inside a 1:1 picture. Steve isn’t exactly an ideal son: he throws food at cars, he’s openly racist to strangers, and he likes Oasis. Diane, even with her own sassiness, requires assistance and asks her neighbour Kyla – a teacher, recovering from a breakdown, played by Suzanne Clément – to provide private tutoring sessions. Amid tense scenes of Oedipal standoffs and melodramatic screwball comedy, the trio form a family unit glued together by a willingness to dance to Celine Dion.
Inevitably, the screen widens for dramatic purposes, but it’s also a wonder that the frame doesn’t suddenly expand into an IMAX image given the over-the-top emotional discourse on show. Steve is understandably the film’s focus, given his volatile behaviour as someone moments away from threatening loved ones with a knife. But in the sidelines are two wonderfully nuanced performances from two of Dolan’s now regular collaborators. Diane is a more subtle match for Steve’s outrageousness, while Kyla is the introvert whose stutter is cured by being accepted by her two new pals. It all somehow works, and it all somehow threatens to collapse.
For extra dramatic consequence, Mommy is set in a dystopia where a parent can institutionalise their child without a court procedure. With that hook in place, both sides have ammunition in a Cold War where the weapons are based on love. The ultra-poppy music and fashion (a gold necklace reading “MOMMY”) blend in with Dolan’s unique aesthetic that’s unlike anything else out there. If he keeps this up, there’ll be another few five-star films by 2020.
Thou Wast Mild & Lovely – 3.5/10
Director/Writer: Josephine Decker
Starring: Joe Swanberg, Sophie Traub, Robert Longstreet
“Do you have any friends?”
“Yeah. [pause] No.”
Farms are a bit like the house in The Shining in that it’s where people go crazy until they cut off the head of a human or chicken. Decker’s poetic mood piece gently loses its haunting tension – the kind when even fields of grass look poisonous – by turning into a mundane plot that kills any mystery.
White Bird in a Blizzard – 5.5/10
Director: Gregg Araki
Writers: Gregg Araki, Laura Kasischke (novel)
Starring: Shailene Woodley, Eva Green, Christopher Meloni
After the explosiveness of Kaboom, Araki has somehow made a very “Gregg Araki” movie that takes his pop aesthetics without the emotional or anger. Some of the shots should be familiar to Araki regulars: a teen wanders through a dreamland built on childhood memories, stepping through a shoegaze soundtrack that’s occasionally interrupted by a bratty voiceover. 17-year-old Kat (Woodley) is Araki’s new hero, never quite the same after the disappearance of her alcoholic mother (Green). Darting between a boyfriend of her own age and a much older hunk, Kat is troubled by being someone yearns to be an adult – yet can’t handle the unfinished adolescent business she’s leaving behind, primarily the location of her mother.
There are quite a few intriguing subplots rattling off each other, especially with Meloni as a creepy dad and Kat’s outsider friends providing vocal comfort for her exploits. But there’s a degree of aimlessness that makes the film feel as much of a director-for-hire job as Smiley Face. While Woodley shines in a pulsating coming-of-age role that takes in intertwining sexuality and maturity, the rest of the cast are cardboard cut-outs from one of Araki’s satirical 90s output – and if the actors are aiming for just a standard Gregg Araki feature, then it’s no surprise if that’s the overwhelming effect.
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