LFF14 Official Competition reviews: “The Duke of Burgundy”, “Phoenix”, “Dearest”, “The Falling”, “A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night” and 3 others…

a girl walks home alone at night Sheila Vand ana lily amirpour vampire

Films reviewed: “Dearest”, “The Duke of Burgundy”, “The Falling”, “A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night” (pictured above), “Leviathan”, “The New Girlfriend”, “Phoenix” and “Son of a Gun”.

London Film Festival 2014 was split into strands including Cult, Dare, Debate, First Feature, Galas, Journey, Laugh, Love, Sonic and Thrill. However, this post covers the Official Competition which was, if you’re wondering, won by Leviathan. I wanted to catch everything in competition, but was unable to make Girlhood, The Keeping Room, The President and Timbuktu (which I actually saw, but was too tired to take in). Good thing I wasn’t on jury duty. Here are the reviews…

Dearest – 8/10

Original title: Qin Ai De
Director: Peter Ho-Sun Chan
Writer: Zhang Ji
Starring: Zhao Wei, Huang Bo, Tong Dawei, Hao Lei
Strand: Official Competition
“I only abduct women, not children. Child trafficking is evil.”

dearest Peter Ho-Sun ChanOne minute, 3-year-old Tian Peng is running along a Shenzhen street towards his mother’s car. Blink, and you might miss a mysterious figure snatching the boy in a scarily professional kidnapping carried out so swiftly, there’s clearly been a great deal of practice. As it turns out, the divorced parents – Tian Wen-Jun (Huang Bo) and Lu Xiao-Juan (Hao Lei) – are among many victims of child abductors who feature in Dearest, which dedicates its hugely engrossing first half on a support group unable to wake up from the nightmare. They even have a song: “I cry no tears when I’m hurt/ I have invisible wings that carry me over despair…” Deliberately cheesy, yes, but also an effective coping method brought out in high volume unison when any members are too far down in any aforementioned despair.

By picking a hot topic loosely based on a true story, director Peter Ho-Sun Chan has the emotional beats already written for him. While Dearest largely employs conventional string cues for predictably upsetting scenes, it also plays into the torment that never leaves if there’s no resolution. A year passes: the parents still anxiously dedicate days and nights to handing out fliers, raising awareness, and chasing any leads. Even sitting on a long-haul bus journey is an opportunity to gaze through the window, spying for any unusual shadows or faces in the distance.

However, Dearest changes gear midway and, while still riveting, shifts into uncomfortably fascinating subject matter by focusing on the abductor’s wife, Li Hongqin (Zhao Wei). As the boy’s loving mother, she claims to have been informed the child was adopted, and sees no reason to believe otherwise. There’s even an element of last year’s Like Father, Like Son in how the situation questions whether parenthood is more dependent on biology or who’s physically present during those formative years. The new mother, although technically a criminal, is the film’s most human character and clearly not a monster – although when you see the sleepless support group hunting for their stolen children, it’s apparent Dearest is far more complex than just any sob story.

The Duke of Burgundy
– 8.5/10

Director/Writer: Peter Strickland
Starring: Sidse Babett Knudsen, Chiara D’Anna
Strand: Official Competition
“So had I ordered a human toilet, none of this would have happened?”

the duke of burgundy Sidse Babett Knudsen, Chiara D’Anna peter stricklandThe silhouette of a midnight smooch will no longer suffice for cinematic expression of affection. Early in The Duke of Burgundy we see a woman urinate into the mouth of her grateful lover; the sub/dom exploits continue from there. Although it sounds like the kind of online video advertised by spambots (and a bit like episode of Friends where Ross drinks chicken fat to prove a point to Rachel), Peter Strickland has created one of the year’s most unique romances that’s made sweeter the more it deviates into unorthodox territory.

The world entered by the viewer is one without men or digital clocks. Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen) delivers lectures to an all-female audiences (not necessarily all-human) on her expert topic of butterflies, moths and the variations in between. However, it’s her all-female home life that dominates (pun kinda intended) proceedings. Her younger housekeeper, Evelyn (Chiara D’Anna), is another butterfly to catalogue, whose daily tasks are mapped as meaningless punishments (“Did I say you could sit down?”). Except waiting at the finish line is an actual punishment involving watersports – which is when the personas are whipped and undressed. It’s revealed that Evelyn follows orders during the day, but is actually always in control. Pillow talk at evenings consists of constructive feedback – generally it’s “be nastier” – before an intimate impasse of two sleeping bodies.

Playing detective is part of the experience. Strickland delights in feeding as little background information as possible. Berberian Sound Studio was about blurring the lines between reality and fantasy, and The Duke of Burgundy does the same – too well, if taking awkward moments when Cynthia breaks character to check on Evelyn’s wellbeing. (To be fair, even if Daniel Day-Lewis locked someone in a box for several hours, he would also at one point drop the facade to verify his captive can breathe.)

Simultaneously, the fun is in scrutinising facial expressions for strained hints of impatience, while drifting into the structure’s musicality and repetition. (The moth motif is a little overdone, but nevertheless still beautiful.) Cynthia, the older and more maternal of the relationship, develops back ache and physically can’t keep up with the demands. Surrounded by woodland, they live in isolation and rarely deal at length with outsiders unless it’s a sales pitch about human toilets (which come in two variations, apparently). For Cynthia, it means adapting to Evelyn’s fetishist fairytale, and being forced into a wardrobe in which half the outfits require an instruction manual. And as fairytales go, Strickland’s is decidedly adult, sensuous and of the kind that literally thanks Jesus Franco at the end with its list of shout-outs.

Each glorious frame – ushered by a dreamlike score by Cat’s Eyes – is there to hypnotise the viewer into Evelyn’s fantasy. The level of poetic and scientific detail is staggering, right down to the final credits listing “Featured insects in order of appearance”. What makes it even more absorbing is the absence of radios, TV or media interference; just books about cataloguing butterflies, to further cement the metaphor. When pissing down someone’s throat can be an everyday routine like making two cups of tea instead of one, it’s apparent that their love – or at least keeping a relationship alive – boils down to observing what the other isn’t saying. Strickland places the couple under the microscope to make a point that love means never saying no (unless the other person wants you to).

The Falling
– 7.5/10

Director/Writer: Carol Morley
Starring: Maisie Williams, Florence Pugh, Maxine Peake, Monica Dolan
Strand: Official Competition
“I suppose this can’t all be for nothing.”

the falling Maisie Williams, Florence Pugh carol morleyAlthough no audience members fainted at the press screening for The Falling, a dizzying atmosphere permeated from the screen into a room split between hushed awe and a small stream of walkouts. The suspenseful drama is mastered by director/writer Carol Morley – last seen with 2011’s Dreams of a Life – in a delirious 1960s coming-of-ager set at an extremely British girls’ school. At the forefront are Lydia (Maisie Williams) and Abbie (Florence Pugh), two adolescent BFFs in the mould of Heavenly Creatures and Me Without You; they’re inseparable, yet start to drift apart when Abbie loses her virginity and thus causes Lydia to feel inadequate. That’s when the woozy spells begin…

Teen crazes happen all the time and spread with ease. Well, The Falling has its own version of Tamigotchi when Abbie picks up a mysterious illness and, like all trends, Lydia catches on – and so do a handful of classmates. Although sometimes the symptoms consist of a nosebleed or vomiting, the general pattern is a slurred ballerina twirl, before crashing into a heap on the floor. The epidemic mainly affects adolescent girls – as well as the youngest teacher – with sly hints of sexual awakening manifesting itself as human behaviour held down by conservative school rules. After all, the setting is an all-girl school with hormones roaming corridors without an outlet, aside from occasional finger-sucking. Could the falling actually be intentional and therefore more of a dive?

While Dreams of a Life never lived up to its immediate hook, The Falling is concerned with keeping viewers hanging on – too effectively for some, I guess – with subtle twitches that leave you guessing who’s next in the queue for hitting the floor. There’s also a satisfying level of dark humour that’s a bit like if David Cronenberg directed the iconic “Story of Everest” sketch from Mr Show, in which a storyteller repeatedly slips and turns the “comedy rule of 3” into a “comedy rule of 10”. Strong supporting roles fit this odd balance of comedy and psychological horror; Monica Dolan is the sceptical headmistress who pretends to have already seen it all, while Maxine Peake takes to a scissor-wielding mother with fascinating menace.

Like all worthwhile coming-of-age stories, the notion of identity is a recurring thread. There are three different types of each person, apparently: who you want to be, how others perceive you, and who you really are. That can also apply to The Falling in that I’m sure it’ll spawn a thousand plausible interpretations upon its theatrical release. As Abbie says: it takes you somewhere else.

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night
– 7/10

Director/Writer: Ana Lily Amirpour
Starring: Sheila Vand, Arash Marandi, Dominic Rain
Strand: Official Competition
“A big storm from behind those mountains…”

a girl walks home alone at night Sheila Vand ana lily amirpour vampire 2Whenever I think of vampires, I end up thinking of the baseball scene in Twilight. Luckily, Amirpour’s deliriously stylish black-and-white flick introduces the vampire as a skateboarding icon with vinyl music preferences. Set in “Bad Town”, the Iranian western has more hipsters than cowboys, but at night-time it morphs into a poetic Leone world – and skateboards are definitely preferable to horses in the fashion stakes.

Sheila Vand plays the “Girl” of the title, riding around after hours on the hunt for blood. Framed like a graphic novel, she sinks her teeth into a misogynistic pimp, and returns home for some bedroom dancing to 80s electro-pop. It’s quite a life and would be just like mine if the vampire stuff was replaced by typing and weeping into a laptop. Underneath the stylish, moody set-pieces is a love story that must overcome religious, cultural and vampiric obstacles. I’m not how strongly I connected emotionally with the characters, but eventually I synced into the film’s alluring wavelength; as the night was just humming, I promptly fell off my skateboard.

– 7/10

Director: Andrey Zvyagintsev
Writer: Oleg Neguine, Andrey Zviaguintsev
Starring: Alexey Serebryakov, Elena Lyadova, Vladimir Vdovitchenkov
Strand: Official Competition
“So, where is your merciful God?”

leviathan Andrey ZvyagintsevNot to be confused with the in-your-face fishing doc of the same name, Zvyagintsev’s Leviathan features the skeleton of a beached whale as its lasting image. It might just be that the whale had a few too many vodka shots the night before, with the drama running rich with alcoholic spirits flowing through its depressed participants. Zvyagintsev presents Russia as a corrupt machine, engineered for the government to squash those who dare challenge the courts.

One man, Kolia (Serebryakov), welcomes the challenge when the state attempts to purchase his family’s sea-view home. The underdog becomes embroiled in a legal battle with a local mayor, leading to blackmail tactics that bring up questions such as: “So, where is your merciful God?” For all the biblical ambitions and broken humanity, the drama is consistently humorous and aware of its mastery of cold, distant themes. There are plenty of scenes that will be remembered for some time – just as long as the vodka doesn’t cause a blackout.

The New Girlfriend
– 5/10

Director/Writer: François Ozon
Starring: Anaïs Demoustier, Romain Duris, Raphaël Personnaz, Isild Le Besco
Strand: Official Competition
“My first time out: I want my legs to breathe.”

the new girlfriend Romain Duris francois ozonMaybe it’s the Vertigo wig transformation. Maybe it’s because Swimming Pool still paddles in the memory. Maybe because someone really loud behind me wouldn’t shut up about the comparison. But The New Girlfriend has more of a Hitchcock touch than its plot synopsis might suggest. Starting with a keenly melodramatic opening montage – not too unlike Up, now I think about it – Claire (Demoustier) and her childhood friend grow into adult BFFs; the latter, after marrying David (Duris) and giving birth, dies in a deliberately over-the-top wordless scene.

As it turns out, David identifies himself as a woman – Virginia, if you’re wondering – having suppressed the urge during marriage. Of course, being a widow brings back the temptation to return to old habits, and with Claire they forge a new friendship with shopping trips and all sorts of things. I wasn’t really feeling any of the riffs on identity or trauma, and I’m in a minority who found more substance in last year’s Jeune et jolie.

– 8.5/10

Director/Writer: Christian Petzold
Starring: Nina Hoss, Ronald Zehrfeld, Nina Kunzendorf
Strand: Official Competition
“I’m jealous of myself.”

phoenix Nina Hoss, Ronald Zehrfeld christian petzoldA disturbingly bleak “fairytale” plays out in Christian Petzold’s latest expertly crafted collaboration with Nina Hoss. Taking place in Berlin just after World War II, the barely lit city is populated by broken souls, some of whom emerge untenably fragile, while others forge a new exterior to erase the past. Nelly (Hoss) is a mixture of both: she returns to her hometown having survived the concentration camps with only facial disfigurement, but the subsequent surgery leaves her unrecognisable from her former self. Or that’s what she’s led to believe when her husband Johnny (Zehrfeld) is unable to spot the similarities.

That’s where Phoenix toys around with plausibility – depending on your reading of character motives. Johnny doesn’t decipher Nelly’s real identity, but hatches a plan whereby she impersonates his dead wife – as in she pretends to be herself – for a financial inheritance scheme. Nelly, still suffering from her recent anguish, plays along because a pretend marriage is tantalisingly close enough to their pre-war lifestyle. Now, it might sound unrealistic, especially when in close proximity Johnny still can’t connect the past and present. But, for me, there’s an insightful psychological tussle in which both characters cope with trauma and betrayal – namely the possibility that it was Johnny who handed Nelly over to the Nazis.

Petzold’s diligent, graceful direction places Nelly as a desperate woman who spent years under torture, dreaming only of returning to Johnny – and is now determined to follow through, even under absurd circumstances. The acting thus works on another level, based on the silence of “I know you know I know” intuition; anything to keep Johnny’s sanity in check, even if it’s in danger of building up to a spectacular fall. Hoss excels in a similarly complex role and becomes jealous of her former existence, even talking about herself in the third person. But the disguise doesn’t mask the pain that can only escape through singing someone else’s song.

Son of a Gun
– 3.5/10

Director/Writer: Julius Avery
Starring: Brenton Thwaites, Ewan McGregor, Alicia Vikander
Strand: Official Competition
“That’s checkmate.”

son of a gun Brenton ThwaitesIt’s rarely a positive sign when the most thrilling moments of a heist film concern chess moves. As in literal chess moves, not a metaphor for diligent planning. Thwaites stars as a 19-year-old inmate unaccustomed life behind bars, but attracts the attention of a more experience prisoner (McGregor) by being able to spot a checkmate three moves ahead. Son of a Gun is more of a checkers match in terms of its crude action scenes that have little originality or anything that’s inspiring me to make this review more than a paragraph.

Follow @halfacanyon for more.

About Nick Chen

26-year-old journalist who's written for places like Total Film, Sight & Sound, Little White Lies, Complex, SFX Magazine, Dazed and Confused, Grolsch Film Works, London Calling, Vice, and a bunch of other places. Why pencils have razors. Based on a book. Screenwriter. Buzz word. London. Twitter: @halfacanyon. Lesser known Olsen brother. Multiple instances of words misused contemporaneously.
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9 Responses to LFF14 Official Competition reviews: “The Duke of Burgundy”, “Phoenix”, “Dearest”, “The Falling”, “A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night” and 3 others…

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