London Film Festival 2016: Day 9

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by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)

When you’re at a film festival, tough choices have to be made.  Do I choose to spring for the more expensive full meal that I know my body would love but would drain the bank account too much, or do I choose to subside purely on McDonalds value meals for two full weeks consequently saving vital cash but going to bed every night feeling super hungry?  Do I risk being able to have a proper toilet stop, or do I order my sphincter to stay clenched throughout the fortnight because every second is busy being used up by other far more important activities?  But the most important choices are always schedule related: do I go and see this film, or do I try this film that’s on at the same time instead?  One will always fall by the wayside, oftentimes a film that you’re really excited or interested in, and you’ll spend much of the rest of your time wondering, “What if?” particularly if the film you saw instead of it is a heaping helping of garbage.

Thursday morning had a lot of that.  Do I get up super early for the press screening of Lone Scherfig’s Their Finest despite utterly despising her previous feature, The Riot Club – a film I named the worst of 2014 and was almost 10 seconds away from walking out of?  Do I take a risk and see Spike Lee’s Chi-Raq, finally getting a UK release over a year after it was dropped onto American shores, or Xavier Dolan’s It’s Only the End of the World, purely so I can finally understand what one of my film critic friends is on about when they constantly extol the virtues of Dolan?  Or do I do none of the above, as that would mean missing out on the press screening of Makoto Shinaki’s Your Name (Grade: B), which had already totally sold out all three of its public screenings.  If you actually paid attention to the teaser at the bottom of Day 8’s article, you’ll know that this choice was a very easy one for me.

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Your Name follows Mitsuha (Mone Kamishriaishi), a Japanese high-school girl living in the rural town of Itomori, and she’s not happy with the state of her life.  The town is so isolated that it lacks any excitement or even so much as a single café, and those total lack of prospects or friends or any particular reason for remaining there beyond carrying on a village tradition whose meaning has been lost to the winds of time is starting to get to her.  After one particularly bad day, Mitsuha yells out her wish to be reincarnated in the next life as a handsome Tokyo boy, only to wake up the next morning to find her wish granted.  Mitsuha has swapped into the body of Taki (Ryunosuke Kamiki), a hyper-masculine high-school boy in Tokyo, and vice-versa, and this appears to happen randomly between the two several days a week.  Much body-swap hilarity ensues, with Mitsuha both taking full advantage of and trying to improve Taki’s life, whilst Taki in Mitsuha’s body mostly obsesses over having boobs, until the two souls go trying to physically find each other.  Then the laughter very quickly stops.

For its first half, Your Name was on the verge of being one of the very best films I had seen all festival.  It’s both funny and affecting, utilising the body-swap mechanic to explore teenage dissatisfaction, gradual maturity, elements of gender dysphoria and especially gender performance to the rest of the world, and awakening sexuality, particularly when Mitsuha gets bummed about not being able to be in Taki’s body the day of the date she had arranged for him with his crush, Miki (Masami Nagasawa).  The comedy is broad but impeccably timed, and its heart is always on its sleeve with a sincere earnestness to proceedings that’s infectious to watch.  The animation really helps in this regard, adhering to your standard Shōjo designs but utilising a gorgeous colour palette and raw artistry to create a film that’s beautiful to look at even before it starts busting out money shots in its second half.

BUT, and there is a but… there’s a whopping great big twist here as to what exactly’s going on, one that shifts the entire film completely for its second half.  Not just in tone, but in theme, switching to examining missed connections, relationships out of time, and our relationship with history.  In a way, it changes the dynamic of the film more to something more in line with, coincidentally of all things, Denis Villenueve’s Arrival and especially Studio Ghibli’s When Marnie Was There and, like with Marnie for me at least, it slowly begins to lose steam once its cards have finally been laid on the table and we see what game the film has been playing.  I don’t mean that it suddenly goes down the toilet, it’s still genuinely affecting and its big scenes still hit their beats with precision.  I mean that, like with Marnie’s eventual reveal, it turns the story into something more traditional and heteronormative than it appeared to be leading up to, and than I personally would have liked.  For all of that fun body-swap build-up and fun cross-body bickering between Mitsuha and Taki to be revealed as needlessly complex groundwork for a star-crossed lovers romance – both literally and figuratively – with an ending stolen straight from The Butterfly Effect… it’s personally disappointing, especially since a romantic connection doesn’t gel with the prior set-up.  Your Name is still a great watch, but it self-sabotages to avoid becoming an essential watch from the halfway point on.

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You know what I haven’t experienced enough of during this festival?  Divisive films.  Not that I’ve done much talking to people, due to the crippling anxiety and social awkwardness and all, but those that I have talked to or overheard talking throughout the festival seem to mostly be in total agreement over what was good and what’s been crap.  Even Paul Verhoeven’s Elle, a film practically scientifically-designed to divide and piss off as many people as is humanly possible, appears to have reached a consensus “that was actually really good and surprisingly tasteful” amongst the critical community.  Nocturama (Grade: A (the joys of a rating system other than /10, I can feel more confident in giving outstanding films with minor flaws the highest possible score if they affect me that much)) was here to change all that, and about damn time too.  I overheard, as I exited the film, everything from “that was 2 hours of my life that I’ll never get back” to “I really enjoyed it up until the ending” to “I didn’t get it” to “I have no idea what to think of it.”  This one split the capacity screening I was in, and not unintentionally either.  This is a harsh, angry, deliberately provocative film that could not give a f**k what you want it to be or do.  It is often nasty, it is deliberately static, and it gives off the constant false impression that there is nothing going on here.

And I absolutely f**king loved it.

Nocturama, in both the most straightforward and accurate terms that I have managed to come up with, is Spring Breakers but for terrorism.  Written and directed by Bertrand Bonello, the film follows a group of young French radicals as they plan and then execute multiple simultaneous terrorist attacks throughout city of Paris.  Why?  We don’t know and, more to the point, it seems that our cast don’t quite know why they are compelled to do so either.  Some of them talk about starting a war, but they never seem to figure who they’re fighting a war against.  They assassinate a banker, blow up two abandoned floors of a skyscraper office, set off four car bombs in a row in a random street, blow up part of a government building, and spontaneously combust a statue, but there’s a randomness and remove to their targets.  If it’s a war against the status quo, then what exactly is the status quo they’re warring against?  Why do they never talk about why they did what they did?

In truth, there doesn’t seem to be a reason, ideological or otherwise, to their actions or why they united together, and if there is, Nocturama says, that’s not the real point.  More than anything, their actions appear to the result of youthful anger and arrogance, a deluded belief that “setting the city on fire” will somehow spark a giant revolution, mass panic in the streets, or at least something more than the government working together to bring a swift resolution to the crisis and general public indifference.  Terrorism is practically a daily occurrence now, one that we experience vicariously when we turn on the news or have accepted the risk of happening to us when we choose to live in a populated area today.  To believe that some kind of societal war can begin from one (notably diverse) group of disaffected young people pulling off one set of attacks, that one small group of radicals can somehow represent and spark a fire in those who would never dream of committing terrorism, is youthful naivety at best and massive egocentrism at worst.

The attacks are some of the tensest cinema I’ve seen all year, which is saying a lot because this has been a fantastic year for the mid-budget thriller, and they take up pretty much the whole first hour of the film.  The timeline constantly cycles back and cuts between each of its cast as the specifics of their plan start coming together and, more importantly, each commits a tiny but ultimately significant mistake – forgetting to sign the back of a credit card despite repeated reminders to do so, accidental witnesses, becoming hit-and-run victims, exiting the scene of a crime with their gun still drawn when they go back into public.  They may have been able to put their plan together and execute it, but they’re not infallible and, far more importantly than that, they’re all amateur mistakes that draw attention to how these are impulsive, reckless, and self-centred kids with no noble cause or grand reason for committing these acts.

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From there, those that are left regroup and hole up in a high-end shopping mall for the night, planning to split up and get away the following morning once the heat dies down.  Except that this plan failed to account for one thing: these are, for all intents and purposes, immature kids.  They are given very simple strict instructions at the beginning of the night – don’t go outside, don’t go near the lighting aisle as that’s the only one with the security system still on, ditch all of your phones, and stay away from all windows – and every last one of them proceeds to break those rules almost immediately.  Some experience severe crises of conscience, some succumb to paranoia, others are undone by their cigarette addictions, others still are too bored to care about their own safety, whilst the rest spend their time indulging in the rampant materialism that comes with the store.  Sound systems blast out thumping hip-hop, everybody upgrades their clothes to something high-end and classy, one guy does laps of one floor with a go-kart and takes a bath made with buckets of tap water, and another serenades the group with a lip-synced performance of “My Way.”

It’s an absolutely scathing indictment of youthful egocentrism, where their every action acts as them bringing about their own downfall, potentially as a pathological act of self-sabotage – despite storing spare Semtex in case they get found out, nobody bothered to bring the charges or detonators required to use them.  But unlike even Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers, which found an occasional sympathy or understanding in its various cast members, Bonello has absolutely no sympathy or patience for his cast – I hesitate to call them characters, as the film deliberately leaves all of its players thinly sketched, which will only further divide viewers.  He directs at a remove, even when they’re constantly indulging themselves at the Mall; Blondie’s “Call Me” has never sounded more like a funeral march.

His ultimate judgement of his cast is ruthless and clinical, much like the Special Forces that eventually storm the Mall, and even that ending carries no catharsis or pleasure.  There’s no sympathy for what happens to these people, but there’s no joy in seeing them get their comeuppance, either.  Watching them be hunted like rats, powerless, terrified, out of plans and options as if they had any to begin with, as they are each taken down with horrifying precision, one bullet a time.  It’s the biggest “f**k you” and most blatantly confrontational stance one can take with its audience, and it’s absolutely befitting Nocturama.  I haven’t been this in love with a film that despises its audience and its entire cast this much since Only God Forgives.  This is relentlessly tense and gripping viewing that grabs you by the scruff of your neck and refuses to release that hold until the credits have finished rolling.  Aside from some clunky and unnecessary flashbacks during the attacks to the planning of said, this is an absolute masterpiece.  More than any other film I’ve covered this festival, I cannot guarantee that you will react to Nocturama the same way I did, but I can guarantee you that it will provoke you, and that’s something that more cinema needs to try doing.

¨ Two Lovers and a Bear ¨ / Directed by Kim NguyenPhoto: Philippe Bosse

I turned up for my third, final, and press-ticket-approved film for the day, Two Lovers and a Bear (Grade: C), purely due to it starring Dane DeHaan and Tatiana Maslany.  They also ended up being the only great parts of the film, disappointingly, although that goes a lot further than most redeeming factors in overlooking larger flaws.  DeHaan and Maslany play Roman and Lucy, two lovers living in a remote frozen town, and both running from dark pasts involving their fathers that have left them damaged people.  Lucy ends up getting accepted to study Biology down South, which would separate her from Roman, and after Roman has a suicidal sulk brought upon by said baggage and his rampant alcoholism – that’s not being facetious, either, Roman really does go through his entire character arc before the main plot kicks in – the pair decide to use their snowmobiles to drive down South together across the frozen and inhospitable wasteland that separates them from their destination.

Two Lovers and a Bear is weird, needlessly so.  Ostensibly a drama, the film also has elements of comedy, philosophy, magical realism, and one long detour into attempted horror near the end once the pair stumbles upon an abandoned military outpost, and the tone is all over the place as a result.  Lucy’s past trauma is personified by an actual ghost following her around everywhere, and it’s really serious and dark, but then it can be followed up by a scene where Roman talks to a bear heavily implied to be a God of some kind as it tries to drink his vodka, and the whole screen burst out laughing.  In particular, whilst Lucy’s ghost at least makes a sort of sense, Roman’s ability to talk to bears doesn’t have much of a bearing on the film as a whole beyond adding needless quirk, with even what I think was supposed to be a poignant exchange at the conclusion still causing laughter because it’s so off-beat, even with a film that switches gears into being a horror for 5 minutes for absolutely no reason.  Off-beat does not automatically equal good or even worthwhile, and writer-director Kim Nguyen fails to understand that.

Maslany and DeHaan go a very long way towards why Two Lovers and a Bear is at least watchable, if nothing else.  Whilst they never manage to find the characters they’re supposed to be playing, too hobbled by a script uninterested in properly psychologically examining its two leads despite the set-up, they do get by through sheer blunt force of charisma and a sweet chemistry once Roman stops acting like a massive dick.  For Maslany, it’s ultimately minor work given the continued existence of Orphan Black, but for DeHaan it’s work that’s long overdue given his constant unfortunate roles post-Chronicle.  It’s just a shame that the film surrounding them isn’t focussed enough to back them up, particularly with an ending that’s supposed to be tragic but ends up having no impact due to arriving suddenly as a result of a montage and being proceeded by another bear conversation.  Again, off-beat does not automatically equal good.

Day 10: Tom Ford finally returns to the world of filmmaking with Nocturnal Animals.

Callum Petch will call you for your lover’s lover’s alibi.  You can usually find him at callumpetch.com!  Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch)!

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