London Film Festival 2016: Day 3

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by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)

So I overslept.

This was bound to happen.  For one, and don’t snicker or roll your eyes when you read these words, a film festival schedule is a hard thing to work within.  You wake up every morning, mostly well before 7am, have to rush about showering and having breakfast and injecting your morning insulin and getting everything you need for the day, to then get the hour transport into the centre of London where most all the films are happening, and then spend the day watching films, occasionally rushing between cinemas to make it into rush queues (more on those in a later dispatch) for other films before they sell out, before eventually finishing up for the day well after the sun’s gone down, riding the Tube the hour back to where you’re staying, getting in and then spending upwards of 2 and a half hours transcribing all of the thoughts you have on the many films you saw that day, including the one you saw first thing in the morning and which may have been completely wiped from your memory by the many other films you saw, then FINALLY getting to collapse onto your bed and sleep for about 5 hours before getting up to do it all over again.  Oh, and you also need to fit in lunch, tea, a second round of insulin, and that irritating downtime where it’s enough to make you restless but not enough to allow you to go anywhere far and do stimulating activities.

And for two, I’d been over-sleeping my alarm at home for a few weeks prior to this trip, so this was inevitable anyway.

This is not a complaint, do not mistake me.  I’ve weirdly already settled into this routine despite only being at it for 2 days, like it’s something I’m born to do (more on that in tomorrow’s dispatch).  Rather, this is me explaining to you why even the most iron-forged and intricately planned-out festival screening schedules, set in stone well before you even start planning travel arrangements, have to be more flexible than you’d figured they’d be; that you need back-ups for all of your desired film choices, and back-ups for those back-ups, regardless of how desperate you are to see a certain film.  Also that the human body is a dick.

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So, as a result of oversleeping, I did not wake up with enough time to get to the official press screening of Shola Amoo’s feature-debut, A Moving Image (Grade: B).  However, to my joy, it turned out that the film had a digital screener available and so, even though I really don’t like watching films on a laptop, I still got the opportunity to watch the film before heading out for the day.  And it’s very good!  The film is described as “a multimedia project” rather than a straightforward work of dramatic fiction, incorporating as it does musical numbers, dance sequences, performance art, and non-fictional documentary footage in its tale of a former Brixton native, Nina (Tanya Fear), returning home after a few years away to see the area falling victim to gentrification and deciding to make a film about it.

Cleverly, the film does not shy away from the issue of Nina, despite ostensibly wanting to help, being just as complicit in the issue of gentrification as those she’s trying to help argue the case against – a Black former Brixton native, miserable about where she was, moves away for several years for reasons left mostly unexplained, and finally returns to her home-ground in the kind of trendy apartment that White middle-class hipsters have begun co-opting as their own.  Comparisons to Spike Lee works have been bandied about by critics, potentially due to A Moving Image featuring its own Radio Raheem expy, and whilst I get that in the sense of how the film depicts and builds the community featured – of a native Black working-class being pushed out by White middle-classes who shutter local businesses through their desire to only patronise chains and displacing homeowners through skyrocketing rents and luxury high-rise flats – I wouldn’t be so quick to.  Much of Lee’s best works are angry rebellious things, whilst Amoo’s film is more resigned and bittersweet, the weight of continued activism getting to the characters too much and making sure that they really can’t go home again.

My main issue with the film is that it’s too short.  That’s typically not a bad problem to have with a film, but A Moving Image is only 74 minutes long, so much of the drama gets glossed over or heavily cut down and that leads to the film never really achieving the heights it could have.  That’s especially a shame since the characters are all so well drawn and the performers are so likeable and entertaining to watch.  It can also lay on the meta-textual “film about this film” dialogue a bit too often, but otherwise this is a very solid debut feature that’s worth checking out if you get the chance.

I finished A Moving Image exactly one hour before the press screening for La La Land was due to start and hot-footed it to the Tube.  In my head, I had a feeling I wasn’t going to make it in time, anyway – the average Tube journey I have to take, so far, lasts anywhere between 45 minutes to an hour – but luck appeared to be on my side and I made it to the Picturehouse Central in just over half an hour!  I was pumped to join the queue of people outside the screens and proceeded to follow it to the back… and kept going… and kept going… still kept going…  That queue ended up snaking from the first floor of the cinema, out the front, along the cinema’s front displays, around the corner and into the middle of the pavement for the street leading to Piccadilly Circus by the time I got there.  Then it started to rain.  Once again, I resigned myself to most likely not getting to see La La Land.  But then the line started moving… and kept moving… and kept moving…  I allowed myself to hope again.  I may not get to go to the toilet despite my bladder being fit to burst, but at least I’ll get to see Damien Chazelle’s La La Land!  The queue moved inside, up the stairs, right up to the barricade…

Then, 3 people away from the barricade in, they broke the news that the screening was full and we were all turned away.  My thoughts could be summed up thusly.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QCfdKHz7b3c

Fortunately, and as previously discussed, I had hastily decided on a back-up that morning in case this very scenario came to pass, and – along with seemingly everybody else, given the queue that immediately formed for it as soon as La La Land’s doors shut – I instead put myself in for My Life as a Courgette (Grade: A-), whose title is strange but whose actual film is phenomenal and immensely sweet.  The film follows Courgette, a 9 year-old boy who accidentally kills his abusive alcoholic mother and is subsequently sent off to live in foster care, and the film deftly tackles the effects that the system, and the abuse that those there had suffered prior to arriving, has upon those within it.

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In particular, its stop-motion animation does an excellent job at visualising the issue in a child’s way.  The marionettes all have giant heads attached to smaller-sized bodies, with each child’s eyes having telling dark circles around them that betray the misery they had to and oftentimes still go through.  The colour palette is varied but muted, steering away from overdone greys or blacks and utilising alternately warm and cold shades of purple, orange, and yellow instead.  Whilst the rest of the world around Courgette and friends is purposefully made to resemble simplistic paper-crafting, completing that aim of representing the world in the same way a young child might see it.  That melancholic tone in the world also extends to the script, co-written by Girlhood’s Céline Sciamma, which, for just one example, is able to make one minor character’s habit of thinking that every visitor’s arriving car might be her deported mother’s tragic, then funny, and then some middle-ground between the two.

It’s arguably a crowd-pleaser, never dwelling on the worst moments of each character’s life for too long and actively minimising much of its conflict, and it could stand to run longer than its 66 minutes, but that tone carries it through.  That balance between finding the joy in the most unexpected of situations without ignoring the harsh realities of these kids being unlikely to find a foster family.  The characters are all lovable, the animation is excellent, and the whole film is so unreservedly sweet and charming that I found it impossible to not be won over.  I’ll admit to having even shed some tears at multiple points.  If I was given the opportunity, I would most likely have tried watching it again as soon as it was done.

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Having learned my lesson from earlier in the day, I made sure to get in the queue for Elle (Grade: B, score most likely not final) as quickly as possible, figuring that the return of Paul Verhoeven after, effectively, a decade’s silence would get butts in seats pretty quickly.  Unsurprisingly, it did, so I got to watch Elle with a full screen, something I absolutely recommend to all of you as…  well…  well, it’s definitely not dull, I can say that with absolute certainty.  Picture the kind of film that you would expect the director of Basic Instinct, Robocop, Starship Troopers, and Showgirls to make out of the premise of a middle-aged female videogame executive (Isabelle Huppert) being raped and subsequently stalked by an unknown assailant.   Elle is both EXACTLY the film you’re expecting and nothing at all like the film you’d think you’d get, if that makes sense.  In fact – and I recognise that my words mean very little here, being a man and also somebody who has not experienced rape himself – I actually think the film may be respectful and quietly empowering?

Let me put it this way, in your typical rape-revenge movie, the act of rape often becomes the sole characteristic and defining element of the woman at the narrative’s centre.  They’re not really allowed to exist prior to the rape, and afterwards their whole life effectively becomes consumed by the rape and its follow-up.  Elle, meanwhile, sets its stall out early, as Michèle, after being raped, rather than sob on the floor or call the police, instead picks herself up, tidies the scene, chides her cat for unsympathetically watching rather than attempting to so much as swipe at the assailant, resolves to get the locks changed, and then tries to get on with her life as if nothing happened.  It turns out that she has reasons for not going to the police, ones that add character drama but also double as commentary on how our patriarchal society often throws immediate scepticism on a woman’s rape allegations, but she primarily just wants to move on and get back to her daily routine.  When she eventually breaks the news to a select few of her friends and relatives, she basically orders the discussion closed as soon as she’s finished talking.

For much of its runtime, Elle is a more a drama about an older woman, and the various exasperating people that populate her life, who just so happened to be raped, rather than a rape-revenge film or even a drama about rape.  And isn’t that in itself quietly powerful?  Allowing us to see a rape victim as a Woman with a life and other concerns rather than just a victim, of watching somebody trying to pull their life back together and move on rather than let the event consume them?  The rape does eventually become an unavoidable aspect of her life, but that’s more out of a necessity due to the perpetrator refusing to leave her alone, making the issue something that needs dealing with.  In a way, all Verhoeven is doing here is applying that same provocative pushing-a-scenario-to-its-extremes touch that he applies to most of his best work to a story about rape trauma, but he manages to do it without ever losing sight of Michèle as a Woman and never losing sympathy or empathy for her either.

Much of the credit also needs to be passed on to Isabelle Huppert, without whom the film would most likely have completely flown off the rails into unwatchable-trainwreck land, even with the master of button-pushing cinema behind the camera.  She always keeps the film grounded, adding an extra edge and dimension to Michèle that a script on its own cannot provide, and sells the holy hell out of everything she’s given to do, whether dealing with workplace misogyny or masturbating over thoughts of her chummy next-door neighbour.  There’s complexity and dimension here, the film even allowing her to be massively flawed and unsympathetic from time to time, that abounds in positive ways and in murkier ways, particularly once the film reveals the culprit and spends the rest of its runtime flitting between a psycho-sexual thriller and the blackest possible black comedy that it is possible to make.  I’m really not sure what to make of the final third, hence why I clarify that my score is not final and may change, but I can tell you that it never tips over into being trashy and, at the very least, Elle is never ever boring.  I’m dying to hear some female critics’ voices on this one, cos I really have no idea how exactly I feel about this as a whole.

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With my press ticket application for the evening’s screening of Christine (Grade: B+) having been effectively declined by virtue of not-getting-a-reply, I arrived there nice and early in the hopes of picking up a press ticket in the Rush Queue – again, I’ll touch on that whole process in detail some other time – only to see quite busy public lines and staff members explaining to fellow budding press that we’d be unlikely to get in unless we paid for a ticket like everybody else.  Since Christine was one of my most anticipated films of the festival, along with its semi-documentary counterpart (screening later on) Kate Plays Christine, I resolved to bite the bullet and queue up in the hopes of buying a ticket like everyone else.  But then, in a massive stroke of luck, somebody trying to hock a ticket they didn’t need anymore completely gave up trying to get money for it and pawned it off in my hands, since I had already expressed interest in buying it but had no cash on hand.  Wins by technicality are still wins, folks!

Anyway, Christine is, for all intents and purposes, a speculative-fiction biopic about the final weeks of Christine Chubbuck, a depressed local news journalist who, in 1975 and just under a month before her 30th birthday, committed suicide live on television.  Outside of being one of the inspirations for Network, it’s a story that has remained largely untold throughout the years, despite being ripe with thematic material that is still relevant to this day – sexism in the workplace, the stigma of depression and anxiety, elements about the state of American gun control laws, the devolution of mainstream news networks – and which Christine proceeds to take full advantage of.

Contrary to so many Awards Season biopics that act primarily as showreels for their lead actors and actresses, Christine actually does act as a legitimate character study, with most of its filmmaking and storytelling decisions being consciously designed to put one in the headspace of somebody living with depression.  It resists the desire to make the film a miserable hopeless slog, to become too mired in some kind of overwrought mess, because it understands that depression is not like that at all.  It is still a sad and difficult film, don’t get me wrong, but there are moments of humour, moments of sweetness, good days and bad days, and the tone finds a way to return to this isolating sense of numbness.  Depression, self-loathing, and anxiety can make you feel crushingly alone and often bitter and unpleasant to be around, where those who try to help you can inadvertently make things worse, and Christine captures that and the difficulty that one can find in functioning “normally” with aplomb.  For me, it’s right up there with BoJack Horseman in terms of the best portrayals of depression that I’ve seen and, as someone who is clinically depressed, I really appreciated this film’s handling of the issue.

In particular, though, Christine works thanks to Rebecca Hall’s thunderous lead performance, which is every bit as outstanding as you have heard every single critic rave.  It’s hard for me to properly explain, because it’s still hard for me to properly talk about my depression and the ways it makes me act and feel, but watching her on-screen I felt a searing rawness to her work.  A truth, an honesty, a nuanced portrayal that doesn’t dare sand down any of Christine’s edges, as both Hall and the film correctly recognise that people suffering from depression can be unpleasant to be around and downright unlikeable from time to time.  The film can engage in the kind of excessive telegraphing that most tragic biopics like to indulge excessively from time-to-time, and the ending (whilst befitting the fact that this is Christine’s story first and foremost) does end up short-changing the strong supporting cast – including Tracy Letts as the alternately beleaguered and callous station head, and Michael C. Hall as the anchor Christine has possibly unrequited feelings for – but otherwise Christine is gripping viewing from start to finish.  Director Antonio Campos deserves vaulting up into the big time, Rebecca Hall deserves serious consideration in all Best Actress ballots for the year, and this film deserves to be seen.

Day 4: More foreign animation with Psychonauts: The Forgotten Children, a documentary about one of America’s first Black Discos, and more.

Callum Petch will never say anything nice again.  You can usually find him at callumpetch.com!  Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch)!

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