BFI London Film Festival 2017, Week 1: The First Discoveries
Chloe, Ryan and Alistair of Film Inquiry are attending BFI London Film Festival, and share some of their first impressions!
This year, Film Inquiry have been fortunate enough to attend major film festivals across the globe. With the BFI London Film Festival due to kick off in early October, Alistair Ryder, Chloe Walker and Ryan Morris have been fortunate enough to get press access to the festival, which kicked off two weeks early for critics, who get a first look at the smaller, under the radar discoveries before the festival (and the big, A-list premieres) kick off. Here’s a roundup of what the Film Inquiry Team have seen so far.
Ava (Léa Mysius)
Alistair Ryder: An energetic debut from director Lea Mysius, Ava tells a unique coming of age tale pitched somewhere between The Diary of a Teenage Girl and Badlands. At the start of her summer vacation, 13 year old Ava (Noee Abita) is diagnosed with decreasing vision, meaning she will soon be fully blind. Her mother decides to approach this news in an unusual manner, by treating the vacation like any other. However, Ava’s behaviour suddenly turns reckless and increasingly criminal, from petty crimes like stealing a dog, to teaming up with an 18 year old to rob and steal their way across the holiday resort.
The film masterfully handles its tonal shifts from irreverent coming of age comedy to something approaching an impressionistic tale of criminality with ease. However, there is one thing refraining the film from achieving greatness, and that is the sheer amount of times director Lea Mysius casually sexualises a character who is 13 years old. Although the actress is older and the director is female, the sheer fact we’re repeatedly objected to this character being naked, in positions designed to provoke her would-be sexual suitor, does leave a sour taste.
It may be depicted as part of her increasingly reckless behaviour following the diagnosis, but even when handled with care by the director it can’t help but feel exploitative, detracting from many of the elements that makes Ava such a refreshing take on a distinctively female coming of age story.
Chloe Walker: The first feature from Léa Mysius follows Ava (Noée Abita), a young teenager on the verge of losing her eyesight. On holiday with her mum (Laure Calamy), and baby sister, she meets the mysterious Juan (Juan Cano), who is in trouble with the authorities. Together with him, she makes the most of the time she has left with her vision intact.
Ava is dazzling debut from the 28 year-old Frenchwoman. From the very first scene, where a big black dog runs along a beach crammed with tourists, the film is shot with a vivid, distinct style. Up until the closing credits Ava graces your eyes with vibrant composition after vibrant composition. There’s always something going on, the frame is always active. A Buñuellian dream sequence leaves a particularly big impression.
Further than just the visuals, Ava impresses with its sensitivity. Ava is a spiky character, because of course she is; it’s awful to lose your sight at any age, to lose it at thirteen is particularly cruel. She doesn’t ever discuss her emotions around her illness, but with a performer as expressive as Abita, she doesn’t need to. You always know just what she’s thinking without her having to say a word.
Ava does lose some steam in the third act, when it transforms into a Bonnie and Clyde-esque crime story. It never loses its style though, and overall, remains an astonishingly accomplished debut.
Beast (Michael Pearce)
Ryan Morris: From the moment Michael Pearce‘s directorial debut Beast opens with an impressively wide shot of a moonlit sea, you get the impression you’re about to watch something quite striking – and striking this film is. With its dark, ever twisting narrative and a star making performance from Jessie Buckley, Beast is an wholly captivating entity from its first frame right through to its last.
A love story at its core, Beast finds Moll (Buckley) falling for local outcast Pascal (Johnny Flynn). Moll’s family don’t approve, but then again: her Dad is too sick to really pay attention; her sister upstages her at every possible moment; even her own mother (a brilliantly sneery Geraldine James) is a manipulative, controlling force in her life. Set on the British island of Jersey, their town is currently plagued by a killer whose victims are predominantly young women, and when the investigation starts to point towards Pascal, Moll’s newfound love story threatens to come undone.
Pearce’s debut is gorgeously shot, frequently bouncing between frames of beauty and more seductive, provocative visuals – sometimes with the same focal item. Beast contrasts the sea with itself frequently, shooting it in every possible light and creating a stark new tone to every image of the water surrounding Moll’s town. It’s a story that relies on the sense of entrapment, and Pearce nails this feeling – when Moll talks about wanting to leave, we can’t help but get the feeling that it just isn’t possible.
Buckley is terrific in the lead role, bringing vulnerability to Moll without losing sight of a kind of feral history to her – a backstory to her character briefly takes centre stage in a particularly powerful sequence too spoilery to discuss in full detail here. Supporting performances vary in quality, but Buckley is strong enough to anchor the piece singlehandedly.
Beast threatens to derail in its final few moments, and I’m still not entirely sure how I feel about the film’s ending, but it’s one sure to spark discussion the very second you leave the cinema. It may not be as polished as its other drama-romance counterparts, but Beast is a bold, ambitious debut from Pearce – I’ll be keeping an eye on this guy, and you should too.
The Cured (David Freyne)
Chloe Walker: It’s an undeniably great concept. What if zombies could be cured? How would they be introduced back into society? What would it be like to live with the memories of all the people you killed, even though their killings were not your fault? These are the problems facing Senan (Sam Keeley), one of ‘the cured’, who returns to a hometown that hates him and others like him.
The performances are good, in particular, Keeley as our morally conflicted hero. Ellen Page also shines, as a grieving woman stuck between love and fear, and Tom Vaughan-Lawlor makes for an unsettlingly human villain.
Unfortunately, The Cured takes this gift of a concept and talented actors, and produces a film that is ultimately rather dull. Visually it’s dreary: browns and greys, and quotidian camerawork. Narratively, despite the plot’s obvious potential, the film doesn’t take a single surprising step. It’s too heavy-handed to be incisive political commentary, not scary enough to be classed as a horror movie, and too maudlin to be any fun.
The Cured has everything going for it, but ends up far less than the sum of its parts. It’s a waste of a brilliant idea, a waste of some great actors, and ultimately, a waste of time.
Ex Libris (Frederick Wiseman)
Chloe Walker: Frederick Wiseman makes long films. At three hours and eleven minutes, Ex Libris isn’t even his longest. It’s the gargantuan length that hampered the film for me.
An exploration of the mammoth institution that is the New York Public Library, Ex Libris looks at the many different facets that make up the larger whole. If you learn one thing from the film, it’s that the NYPL is much more than just books. We see music recitals, job expos, computer lessons, community meetings, and talks delivered by Ta-Nehisi Coates and Elvis Costello. In fact, physical books barely make an appearance.
There are a lot of great scenes in the film. Any scenes featuring children are lovely. As is the man in charge of the picture collection, whose enthusiasm about his job radiates through the screen in the most delightful manner. When Wiseman trains his camera over the shoulder of the library patrons, looking at what they’re looking at, it is a satisfying scratch to the curious itch that inspires you to watch these kind of documentaries in the first place.
And yet Ex Libris is so punishingly long, by the time it is over, it’s hard to feel anything but relieved. Whilst there is a lot of interest within the film’s voluminous confines, there is also a lot that doesn’t add anything to the movie but extra time for your posterior to grow numb. It’s a big, impressive work, but I just wish it didn’t feel so much like work.
Gemini (Aaron Katz)
Ryan Morris: I’m just going to dive straight into this one: Aaron Katz‘ Gemini is brilliant. It grips you from its simple but utterly transfixing opening titles all the way until it cuts to black for the final time. It has two first rate leads in Lola Kirke and Zoë Kravitz, and it makes terrific use of them: their dialogue snaps and crackles with every word, and both Kirke and Kravitz are clearly relishing in such well formed, sparky characters.
Essentially a neo noir in its handling of the detective story, Gemini is concise in its focus on not one, not two, but three female leads (Greta Lee is equally as strong here, even if focused on less). Gone are the femme fatales and the dark, shadow bound male detectives, Gemini is something new entirely. Where most films might chuck in a snide comment on such a matter, giving themselves a pat on the back for doing this, Gemini refuses to do so. It acts like its genre subversion isn’t a big deal, which allows the film to really focus on its characters and narrative without getting sidelined by unnecessary self appraisal.
And yet even still, Gemini is surprisingly very funny. It allows Kirke and Kravitz to banter around a lot in the opening act, both setting a playful but dark tone while also establishing their characters as likeable people. Once Gemini’s central mystery opens up the humour is fittingly dialled down, but never abandoned. Katz‘ screenplay settles on a tone early on and sticks by it all the way, creating a smooth and assured film that never dips in quality. Perhaps its final reveal could do with a bit more expansion as to its logic – the ending is frustratingly abrupt – but Gemini remains a deeply enjoyable, satisfyingly subversive and uniformly well crafted modern noir mystery. You don’t want to miss this one.
Jailbreak (Jimmy Henderson)
Alistair Ryder: Film festivals aren’t all about prestige dramas, as disreputable cult favourites of the future also get their debut screenings buried beneath all the respectable fare. One such film is Jailbreak, a Cambodian martial arts film that has had mammoth success at the Cambodian box office, and seen numerous comparisons to The Raid– not least because it’s another case of a Western director heading East to make a martial arts movie.
This is the third film from Italian director Jimmy Henderson, and as an entrance point to Cambodian martial arts, it has a lot more in common with classic Hong Kong cheese than it does the violent, nihilistic grit of Gareth Evans’ Indonesian action duology. Although possessing a handful of enjoyable action sequences, many are staged somewhat awkwardly, with the distinct feeling that they have been manipulated in the editing room to unfold at double speed. The choreography in many sequences is also particularly unimaginative, failing to push the limits of the enclosed setting in the way The Raid effortlessly achieved by focusing on straightforward fight sequences.
The moments the film does truly stand out are the offbeat comic interludes – a notoriously violent cannibal prisoner, we are informed, once cut off his own testicles and ate them simply because he was hungry. You wouldn’t get that kind of madness in a Hollywood actioneer, but the fairly unimaginative fight scenes presented throughout are more typical of Western filmmaking than the stylish madness of the East.
Loveless (Andrey Zvyagintsev)
Alistair Ryder: After his fiery, internationally acclaimed socio-political drama Leviathan briefly got banned in his native Russia (only for this decision to be reversed when it was forwarded for Oscar consideration), it was only a matter of time before director Andrey Zvyagintsev made yet another damning critique of how his country’s oppressive political system was failing its people.
On initial viewing, Loveless appears to be too dense with allegory for international viewers to fully process, with commentary on everything from the crisis in Ukraine, Russia’s rejuvenated religious extreme right wing and the personal effects of living within a hyper-masculine political culture all visibly present in the margins of a child abduction narrative.
As an allegory for Putin’s third term in presidential office, Zvyagintsev’s film couldn’t be more ferociously damning if it tried – even if he does lay on the political context a little too thick, with multiple scenes soundtracked by radio and TV news broadcasts of major occurrences within Putin’s regime. However, taken at face value as a drama about a bitter divorced couple forced into collaborating to find their missing son, the film isn’t as successful. The two parents are the most detestable in recent memory (although the lead performances by Maryana Spivak and Aleksey Rozin are quietly two of the year’s very best for that very reason), making their plight to find a son they don’t have particularly strong affection for failing to resonate beyond its wider allegory.
The film is impeccably directed and performed, but its sheer coldness made it harder to embrace as anything more than a cinematic thinkpiece, designed to leave you pondering its allegorical arguments. The title “Loveless” has never been more apt when it comes to these characters and the world in which they inhabit.
Ryan Morris: Loveless definitely lives up to its title. This is a cold, calculated, emotionally distant film that has little to no interest of making you like any of its characters. It’s also about a child that goes missing and the tough ordeal this puts his parents through. These two separate elements probably shouldn’t be attached to the same film, yet here we are, and Loveless is pretty much exactly what you’d expect from a film of its type.
Both parents here are deeply unlikeable people, and while the film does make efforts to at least expand on their overwhelming hideousness it still puts us as the audience in an uncomfortable place. Zhenya (Maryana Spivak) and Boris (Alexei Rozin) hate each other and violently argue all the time, and while that certainly creates an interesting dynamic their relationship is so bitter than I wasn’t ever sure if I wanted their child to be returned to them. That sounds like a unique angle for a well worn story to explore, but when you question whether you want a film to reach its predetermined end goal the feeling you’re left with isn’t exactly a satisfying one.
Loveless manages to surprise though, turning expectations on their head in its final act. I’m not quite sure it justifies the woefully slow burn approach the film takes to get there, but between the ice cold cinematography, breathlessly powerful performances and a dark, instantly encapsulating soundtrack, the film certainly has enough on its side to make it worth the borderline depressing trip. Maybe save it for a rainy Sunday afternoon, this is one hell of a mood killer.
Princess Cyd (Stephen Cone)
Chloe Walker: The titular Cyd (Jessie Pinnick), fed up with her overbearing father, agrees to spend the summer with her aunt Miranda (Rebecca Spence), who she hasn’t seen since she was very young. The two are very different personalities; Cyd likes sports and Miranda likes books. But by the end of the summer, they have learned a lot from each other.
It sounds a cheesy thing to write for a film so quietly profound, but Princess Cyd is about the way we find our own happiness. For Cyd, this mainly means exploring her romantic feelings towards Katie (Malic White). Princess Cyd gives this relationship room to blossom in the most welcoming way. The effortlessly diverse characters that make up the cast create an environment nothing short of utopia, and it’s ravishing to witness.
It’s not all plain sailing for our characters. Cyd and Miranda are so different that it’s no surprise they chafe against each other. The confrontations though, produce some of the films best scenes; passionate, blunt discussions about the nature of our personalities, differences, and joy. When the storms have passed, you really feel you’ve learned something.
Princess Cyd is a glorious movie, warm and wise and loving. It truly is a special film, one that leaves you feeling nourished to your very soul.
Roller Dreams (Kate Hickey)
Chloe Walker: In Venice Beach during the 1980’s, a group of talented roller dancers drew huge crowds. They attracted thousands of tourists, and inspired a craze of roller-dancing movies. But by the time of the early nineties, they were no longer performing.
Roller Dreams takes you through what happened to these predominantly African-American dancers and the area that was their safe haven; the eighties hey-day, the nineties gentrification that drove them away, and how they’ve been spending their time in the years since.
It’s a riveting story mainly because the characters we follow are so interesting. Mad, the leader of the group, is such a vibrant personality, he almost seems fictional. The others certainly talk about him as if he was a mythical figure; that they still hold him in such high regard more than thirty years later is just one of many highly emotional elements of Roller Dreams.
Another is the way that these dancers were robbed of their performance space by the racist authorities. They were a good influence for young black kids in a place so close to where the Watts and Rodney King riots happened, and where the Bloods and the Crips dominated (and still do) whole neighbourhoods. Mad and his crew just wanted to dance, and were driven away thanks to the colour of their skin.
Roller Dreams will make you furious, but glad that this important story is finally being told.
Summer 1993 (Carla Simón)
Alistair Ryder: Summer 1993 is a quiet, understated debut from director Carla Simón, that manages to take what is a heartbreaking story on paper and transform it into something that’s moving without ever being remotely emotionally manipulative. The film tells the story of Frida (Laia Artigas), a six year old girl sent to live with a new foster family in the countryside after her parents die of AIDS. From this set up, Simón’s film avoids the usual dramatic contrivances that you’d expect in both a story about grief, and a youthful fish out of water narrative.
Frida never misbehaves, or attempt to cause a ruckus in her new family home, nor does she explicitly display any signs of overplayed emotion, largely because Simón’s screenplay is wise enough to know children don’t have the same perception of mortality as adults. She’s sad that her parents aren’t with her, yet the film is mostly about the process of adapting to life with a new family – although the brilliant, infinitely moving final scene suggests she may yet grasp the full concept of her loss.
Simón deserves all the plaudits for directing her young lead actress in a brilliantly naturalistic performance, which feels genuinely perceptive of how a child forced into this new living situation would handle it. Outside of this central character study, she manages to add depth the surrounding community; one memorable moment is a playground sequence where Frida grazes her knee. This is greeted with silent panic from a nearby parent, worried that Frida’s blood may end up near her child – a sequence handled with surprising delicacy, despite being the only overt AIDS reference within the film.
Despite the emotionally heavy setup, there is also plenty of humour too. Any audience member whose heart isn’t completely warmed by the sight of Frida and her new younger foster sibling dressing up as grown-ups (complete with fake cigarettes) must have their pulse checked for signs of life. The film has been selected as Spain’s official submission for next year’s foreign language Oscar – and it would be a shame if a film as understatedly moving as this fantastic debut were to slip through the cracks.
We’ll be back next week with another round up of movies we’ve seen at the BFI London Film Festival. Which of these movies are you most looking forward to?
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