Wednesday 30 October 2013

Drilling deep into the BFI London Film Festival #lff (Part 1)

You really know that down time for Borderlines is over when the BFI London Film Festival comes around, 9 - 20 October this year. A decent proportion of its 200+ films are likely to open in the lead up to our own festival so it's a good opportunity for some concentrated viewing (topped up by a weekend of Independent Cinema Office screenings in early November) and to catch a few of the far-flung films that will only get very restricted cinema windows. 

Being there ('be here' is the LFF's 2013 strap line) is a pleasure, but a grinding one. So much to choose from, endless jiggling and juggling, so many unknown quantities. 

A rather well-worn copy of the Press Screening schedule
Press and industry screenings have multiplied this year so that instead of three choices in any given time slot there are now six or seven, housed for the first time in Cineworld, Shaftesbury Avenue, deep in the bowels of the Trocadero, an uneasy cross between an enfeebled version of Pleasure Island in Disney's Pinocchio and a cavernous modern stage set for the musical of Dante's Inferno.

Pleasure Island or the Gates of Hell? Trocadero
In addition, you have to submit requests for up to four public screenings the day before and this can be a strategic exercise, calculating how much time it will take to trot from Leicester Square over the Hungerford footbridge to BFI Southbank, or down Piccadilly to the Curzon Mayfair. And will you be able to fight off sleep for a 9pm screening of a film that will creep over the 100 minute mark, especially when followed by a Q&A with the director?

Hotfooting over Waterloo Bridge
How do you glean what's worth seeing? The official write-ups in the brochure are a guide to content but naturally imply that every film is a masterpiece. Word of mouth, interrogating other delegates on the hoof, in queues, on escalators, in adjacent seats, crossing roads, at the entrance to Underground stations and acting on their recommendations can be productive, along with snatching a moment to read a smattering of often contradictory reviews and Tweets.
Chance plays its part too. The festival is preceded by three weeks of press screenings at BFI Southbank and, refreshingly, you get what you are given, just three films per day from 10am to 4ish, a few gems, a bit of dross, and in between, much of interest that you might well overlook. 

One example during my three day's worth of pre-festival viewing was a curious Indian film called Fandry (Pig) that castigates the caste system through the story of an 'untouchable' teenage boy who, fuelled by a major crush on a fair-skinned classmate, Shalu, a girl from a much higher caste, strives with a bright optimistic enthusiasm to improve his lot. A final climactic scene of public humiliation as he and his whole family are forced to round up a herd of stray pigs, an 'unclean' job that no other villager will undertake, dramatically thwarts his efforts.


So, how to assimilate the 50-odd films seen over about 15 days? It's natural to group them into clumps, not necessarily along the lines of the now established LFF strands: LOVE, LAUGH, THRILL, DARE, JOURNEY... - a friend suggested
WINCE as an alternative - each with its own gala.

LFF Brochure
Here are my own categories:


The new Jim Jarmusch, Only Lovers Left Alive, with Tilda Swinton, white-haired, white clad, and Tom Hiddleston, black-haired and black clad, as a pair of languid and symbiotic 21st century vampires, fell into this category. I found it smug, static, pretentious and boring, others revelled in its wittiness and cool. 

Only Lovers Left Alive

British director Joanna Hogg's third feature, Exhibition, provided an intriguing counterpoint; another reclusive couple, both artists, played by non-actors, Viv Albertine, former Slits guitarist and Turner Prize nominee Liam Gillick, live within the dispassionate spaces of a modernist London house that they are about to sell. This one I inexplicably liked; the detachment of the characters left room for thought and speculation, but I can see that its slow pace and introspection may well irritate, if not alienate, audiences.


 One thing that struck me quite early on during the Festival was the high count of strong middle-aged or older female protagonists, often women on their own, many, many divorcées.  The BFI Statistical Yearbook 2013 reveals that, for the first time in 2012, the largest proportion of the cinema-going public over 15 is now the 45+ age group (though it makes no mention of the divorce rate), accounting for 36% of the box office. Is this beginning to reflect in the content of the films themselves, across national boundaries?

One of the most glorious of these is Gloria, a Chilean film about a divorced woman in her late fifties with two grown-up children, who loves disco and dabbles in the singles scene, meeting a man who seems to promise emotional and sexual reassurance but turns out to be not quite what he seems. Intimate, colourful, unsentimental and absorbing, Gloria offers a marvellously resilient portrait of the eponymous heroine from Paulina García.

Enough Said, directed by Nicole Holofcener, offers another appealing 'older woman' role for Julia-Louis Dreyfus as a masseuse who meets a man (the wonderful late James Gandolfini) at a party. Though not immediately attracted to him, the two (both divorced) have great rapport, reflected in the comic agility of their exchanges,  and an intimate relationship develops before coincidence and Eva's doubt-fuelled anxieties seep in to undermine their closeness.

Eva (Enough Said)

Back in Romanian cinema, a heroine of a different calibre in the winner of the Golden Bear at this year's Berlinale, Child's Pose. Cornelia is a formidable matriarch, a professional woman (not divorced but her husband comes across as a shadowy, emasculated figure) who knows everyone worth knowing, at ease in bourgeois society but fretful about her feckless grown son. When he, Barbu, kills a boy in a hit and run accident, Cornelia summons all her power, influence and steely composure in order to keep her son out of prison.

Cornelia (Child's Pose)

There were a couple of films in this category that veered towards the ludicrous. The very first film I saw, Adore, showed two childhood friends (Naomi Watts and Robin Wright) growing up together in an idyllic Australian bay to become middle-aged but sensationally attractive mothers (status: widowed, adulterous/divorced) who end up son-swapping - in the full carnal sense. 'Who is this for?' I kept asking myself. The answer came back pat, 'For older women, as a kind of sop that these days they can have it all, that their sexual appeal will not diminish with maturity and they will still be able to magnetise younger men.' There was not a glint of reality, irony or conflict in this film and I found it rather distressing to see the talents of Ben Mendelsohn and James Frecheville, both last seen in the dark recesses of Animal Kingdom, frittered away on this supposedly subversive bit of fluff. Here is some sample dialogue:
One mother: 'What have we done?'
Other mother: 'We've crossed the line.' 

Roz and Lil (Adore)

Labor Day was a bit confounding too. I was expecting if not wry humour, then a degree of dark dryness from director Jason Reitman (Juno, Up in the Air). What we were served up with was decidedly squidgy.  Drained, reclusive, yes, and a divorcée, Adele (Kate Winslet) finds light and her own repository of fantasy in the form of intruder and fugitive from justice, Frank (Josh Brolin), who ends up being deliciously handy about the house in every conceivable way.

Adele (Labor Day)

Futher classification to follow...

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