by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)
By the time I had reached the Picturehouse Central at about 8:35 in the morning, the lines were out the door for Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation. I was not here to see that, though. Despite it satisfying much of the criteria I had with regards to my screening picks (that I outlined yesterday), I am choosing to withhold watching The Birth of a Nation until it is no longer possible to avoid doing so. See, I’m not sure if you’ve heard this, but Nate Parker is a piece of sh*t. Although he was acquitted of his rape charges, his co-story writer on the film, Jean Celestin, was not, and Parker was alleged to have led an organised harassment campaign on university campus against the rape victim (the university settled), actions for which he has showed no particular remorse for throughout the press tour for his film. You can see why I am very hesitant to support in any particular fashion a film that he wrote, directed, produced, and stars in.
No, instead, I was there to see The Stopover (Grade: A-), the new film from The Coulin Sisters, Muriel and Delphine. Set over 3 days at a five-star hotel resort in Cyprus, the film follows a French army regiment stuck there on their way back from Afghanistan to decompress from their time at war, primarily seen through the eyes of childhood friends Marine (Soko) and Aurore (Ariane Labed). What is meant to help them unwind and work through one particularly horrific flashpoint that has left the group coming apart at the seams, instead turns into a slow-building pressure-cooker of poorly-handled PTSD, toxic masculinity, and rampant unchecked misogyny as the boy’s club atmosphere of the army becomes exacerbated by woefully inadequate therapy that’s only making things worse.
It’s an environment where any weakness is pounced upon, mocked, and stamped out as quickly as possible, where your emotions must remained bottled up for fear of being labelled “a crazy” and risking not being able to go home again, and where the default insult is gendered despite some of their fellow comrades being women. It’s not healthy, and oftentimes horrifying, and Marine and Aurore provide the perfect P.O.V.s to experience this disintegration via. They’re not as boorish and disgustingly hateful as their male counterparts, but they’re also trying to conform to that masculine culture of keeping their emotions and trauma bottled up rather than trying to work through them, because they have to. It’s bad enough that their comrades all think that women are useless fighters and “bad luck,” what would happen if they were to crack? Soko and Labed put in excellent performances, cultivating a lived-in relationship between one another and communicating that balance of depicting restrained on-the-edge emotion and letting the viewer in so that they can witness what the rest of the characters cannot with grace.
The film is unflinching, particularly as it speeds towards its surprisingly tense final third when Marine and Aurore realise that they can’t outrun their problems and that volatile pressure-cooker even if they escape to the rest of the island. The gradual disillusionment of its various protagonists and antagonists plays against a gorgeously shot backdrop of sun, sand, and hotel pools in a way that can occasionally tip into ironic dark comedy – one particularly charged group “debrief” is immediately followed by bundling all of these miserable, irritable people onto a boat in order to go for a swim out to sea. In a way, The Stopover ends up being just like a real holiday, and what’s worse for a group of heightened people who hate each other than a holiday? It’s a brilliant little movie and one of my favourites of the festival so far.
I was heavily tempted to cash in on my pre-bought matinee ticket and see Arrival again (which was covered in Day 6), but I figured that you lot would prefer to hear new words about new movies rather than even more words about something I’ve already covered. So, after handing off the ticket to a friend of mine who lives in London, I headed back into the Picturehouse and caught one of the films I wanted to see but would otherwise have missed due to general scheduling issues: The Pass (Grade: C-). Taking place over the course of 3 scenes and 10 years, The Pass follows professional footballers and best friends Jason (Russell Tovey) and Ade (Arinzé Kene). In 2006, they’re both second-string players partying by themselves in their hotel room the night before a pivotal Champions League match. Excessively macho talk about a desire to sex up all the women, playful wrestling matches, and blackface-whiteface jokes eventually turns bitter when the issue of their professional rivalry gets brought up, then occasionally tender, personal and intimate as the night goes on. Then, Jason leans in to kiss Ade.
The following two acts deal with the fallout, and it’s a very interesting premise – utilising the blatant homosexuality and competitive masculinity of the world of professional football in order to examine the emotional toll a closeted homosexual would have coming to terms with his identity in a sport, and accompanying mainstream media, that still looks down on such things as nothing more than scandalous behaviour. The film even succeeds where Una completely failed in depicting a stage play (which this was) in cinematic terms without coming off as overly so, by not blowing the staging up to big screen levels whilst still preserving the intimate nature of the story and dialogue. It’s a tightly-wound, intimate film that commits wholly to its premise and, aside from the time jumps, never pushes itself into falsely becoming something bigger than itself.
That said, it’s really all for naught because – in addition to its second act being just generally poorly written and ultimately pointless to the story – it’s all in service of depicting one of the most vehemently unpleasant lead characters I’ve witnessed in recent memory. Russell Tovey plays Jason incredibly well, don’t get me wrong, but the character is just a massively unlikeable drain to be around, particularly the further on the film gets. It’s not the fact that he’s struggling with that self-loathing and internalised homophobia despite being gay himself, it’s that he’s just so relentlessly cruel and hateful for so much of the film’s runtime. He has this anger and this conflict, but he lacks even cursory moments in the film’s late stages of vulnerability or redemptive qualities. At the risk of sounding callous, because I know that there are a lot of people who struggle in the sorts of ways that Jason does in reality, I just found him to be a tiring and unpleasant drain to watch, which may be the point but meant that I ultimately stopped caring by about midway through the third act.
Continuing the weird coincidence of 3s popping up in today’s screenings was Porto (Grade: D), a film that I have basically nothing to say about because there’s basically nothing to the film in the first place. Porto is effectively a short filmmaking exercise stretched out very painfully and very noticeably to just about feature-length. Its end credits music is a full minute longer than the end credits themselves, and I know this because the song keeps going even after all the credits have wrapped, that’s how much it’s stretching to get to feature-length. I feel like offering a plot synopsis is a spoiler because my doing so would be to genuinely recap the entire 75 minute film within one sentence. Jake (Anton Yelchin in one of his last roles) and Mati (Lucie Lucas) have a passionate one night stand in Porto that Jake mistakes for something more, things end as quickly as they start, and then, about 10 years later, they reminisce independently of one another about said fling.
That’s it. That’s the whole movie. Porto lays out everything it has to say and do within its first 10 minutes, and then just sort of idles about for the remaining 65 having shot its entire load within those first 10 minutes. Split into 3 chapters for no discernible reason, the film’s timeline is fragmented even further via admittedly stylish filmmaking choices. It’s all shot on Film, but each section of the timeline is shot in a different type of film – the night of passion in warm 35mm, its ugly aftermath in colder 16mm, and the future where neither Jake nor Mati are particularly happy in more worn-out Super8 – and each of them have different noticeable elements of wear-and-tear to them. It is a pretty film to look at, but it only serves to highlight the total emptiness of what that film is being used to depict and so, after a while, even pretty cinematography ends up being a negative.
There’s just nothing going on here. It’s deeply unromantic in part thanks to that structure, which withholds the whole night until the end, long after we’ve seen Jake become a full-fledged abusive stalker and the film seems wholly incapable of recognising that. That back third becomes weighted down with endless sequences of Jake and Mati talking about love and passion that are neither sincere nor are they anywhere near profound enough to justify the amount and length of them, and constant sex scenes that do nothing to advance the movie after the first 2 instances. Porto very quickly starts ping-ponging back and forth between “boring” and “irritating” and doesn’t stop until the final piano note makes its faintly embarrassed exit from the whole enterprise. There is just nothing here, no story, no theme, no aspect that justifies its existence, beyond throwing away 75 minutes of my life that I am never going to get back.
Breaking the trend of 3s but fittingly bookending the day with another film by a French-Belgium writer-director family double-act, we have The Dardenne Brothers’ The Unknown Girl (Grade: C+). A murder-mystery procedural, the film follows Dr. Jenny Davin (Adèle Haenel), the resident-in-charge of a drop-in clinic who, one night, refuses to let in a woman who bangs on her door after closing time and is subsequently found dead in mysterious circumstances the following morning. Wracked with guilt over not admitting the woman, Jenny sets out to find out her identity so that the woman’s family can be alerted and she can maybe clear her conscience somewhat. Veterans of the Dardennes will likely be confused by the “murder-mystery procedural” tag a little while back, given that the Dardennes are more well known for their simple, quiet, contemplative, hyper-realist personal dramas rather than a complex murder-mystery, and therein lies the problem.
Let me quickly state, for the record, that The Unknown Girl is not, by any measure, a bad film. The Dardennes are too good a pair of filmmakers to turn in something less than watchable, and Haenel adds herself to the long list of strong central performances in Dardenne films with a tangibly heavy and world-weary yet compassionate performance that provides the believable centre integral to your typical Dardenne feature. Unfortunately, more attentive readers will already note the two qualifiers hidden in that previous sentence: “watchable” is beneath the Dardennes, with much of their work (and especially 2014’s exquisite Two Days, One Night) being closer to essential viewing, whilst The Unknown Girl is not “your typical Dardenne feature.” It’s a murder-mystery, and that’s just not something that fits the duo’s skillset. A good murder-mystery slowly ratchets up the intensity as time goes on, loses itself in the miasma of red herrings, shifty suspects, and withholding witnesses. A Dardenne film loses itself in small-scale personal drama where the stakes never rise above immediate relationships or perhaps continued employment.
The two don’t have much of a crossover dynamic, basically, especially since the Dardennes are not in the slightest bit interested in changing their filmmaking style to reflect the shift in genre and requirements. Consequently the film never manages to get out of second gear, and the typical beats of a murder-mystery procedural – such as the violent intimidation, the tearful confession, or a suspect shoving our protagonist into a hole in order to give them enough time to escape – come off awkwardly and jar with the world that the Dardennes have created. There’s even the opportunity for the film to make some commentary with how the White French police force don’t seem particularly motivated in investigating the potential murder of an identity-free Black woman, given how they disappear almost entirely from the film once they’ve arrived on Jenny’s doorstep, but it’s not interested in doing so.
The Unknown Girl is at its best when it focusses more on Jenny’s day-to-day life; her troubled relationship with her intern Julien (Olivier Bonnaud), house-calls to lovely recurring patients, verbal abuse from those looking for unnecessary handouts. It even has a more typical Dardenne plot built-in, with Jenny debating whether to move up to a better-paying and more-respectable position in a private medical facility or to take over the clinic full-time from its original owner and her former mentor, only for that to be swept away by the murder-mystery investigation. It’s just not something that the Dardennes are a good fit for, resulting in the first film of theirs in a long while – perhaps ever, although I haven’t seen all of their works – that’s merely “watchable.” Props for trying, though.
Day 8: Alice Lowe, whilst 7 months pregnant, writes, stars, and makes her directorial debut in the dark comedy Prevenge.