Bookended by battle stages of the Second World War, the 58th London Film Festival takes the sound and the fury to the home front, as human relationships come under fire.
Russian Revolution by Mark Wilshin
Oh, those Russians. Not only did Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Leviathan win the Award for Best Film in this year’s Official Competition, the Ukrainans also took home Best First Feature with Miroslav Slaboshpitsky’s The Tribe. But for once, there’s an interesting dialogue taking place between the two nations – Leviathan a masterful epic of corruption and human failing, The Tribe a raw and visceral parable of human desolation. Like a good Greek tragedy, Leviathan refuses to show its violence, keeping its beatings for the most part off-screen, while Slaboshpitsky’s film ends in a bloody high of skull-smashing brutality. Perhaps an indicator of how each country views its violence – Ukraine’s and desperate bloodshed all too obvious on the streets of Kiev, while even in Russia’s frozen North, violence is buried beneath bureaucratic process and corruption. But for neither does violence provide a cathartic resolution – it’s simply another link in a chain of unavoidable misery. Cinematically at least, the two countries are deadlocked. But it’s their attitudes to voice that is most striking – The Tribe filmed entirely in sign language and without subtitles, as if hermetically sealed in a vacuum of civilisation’s ruins, while Leviathan, on the other hand, not only takes its title from the Holy Word, but depicts speech as a blunt instrument of control – used by the priest in his mollifying sermon, but also in the Law Courts’ verbose verdicts. Only the lawyer Dmitri’s evidence against the corrupt Mayor remains unspoken – the Word silenced by violence as Dmitri flees back to Moscow after the Mayor puts the squeeze on him. Either way, in both films, the word is found wanting.
Elsewhere, the Russian influence is also strong. There’s Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Palme d’Or winning Winter Sleep, based on (among others) short stories written by Chekhov and Dostoyevsky. It takes place on the Anatolian steppes at Cappadocia, but it couldn’t feel more Russian, with its winter chill, and its landlord-cum-writer at odds with the world. It’s a beautiful crucible of human relations – well observed and profound, giving us pause for many a thought on the nature of charity, the everydayness of evil and our dual capacity for both good and evil – a human nature which can either cherish and nourish the loved ones around us, or see them wither and dry. Almost its direct opposite, but charting a similar course, Love Is Strange sees a near-retired gay couple get married, lose their flat and rely on their friends and family for accommodation. A tender and moving portrait of the 1001 ways we can annoy even the ones we love, Ira Sachs uncovers the delicate minutiae of patience and sacrifice with a warmth that strikes a bright optimism far removed from this Russian gloom.
The forgiveness of friends is a theme that recurs in Laurent Cantet’s brilliant Return To Ithaca – a tender and moving portrait of five Cuban friends rehashing old wounds when one, after escape and living for 16 years in Spain, decides to return. One way or another, their lives have been cast on the rocks, suffering exile, alcoholism, poverty, corruption and the emigration of their children with a nostalgic kind of stoicism. But with teary-eyed, powerful performances from its cast, Cantet’s Return To Ithaca is an intelligent and pluralistic look at life in Cuba – as they move from blame, bravado and bitterness to a more profound friendship of togetherness and understanding.
Powerful relationship dynamics were on display throughout this year’s London Film Festival, most notably in Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash – a terrifying student-teacher relationship that takes on epic proportions, but also in Xavier Dolan’s explosive mother-and-son relationship Mommy and Ned Benson’s atomised The Disappearance Of Eleanor Rigby of a relationship in freefall after a family tragedy with James McAvoy and Jessica Chastain. Relationships on the slide proved the most fertile ground, and Sophie Fillières’ If You Don’t I Will is a stunning example of a downhill marriage. Think deliciously wicked comedy rather than Bergman, and with a sparkling script and electric performances from Mathieu Amalric and Emmanuelle Devos, it’s a bittersweet delight of lost love. Carlos Marques-Marcet’s 10,000km is also a hidden gem – as the lives of a Catalan couple attempting to settle down and have a baby are torn apart when one of them moves to Los Angeles. A portrait of a long-distance relationship through the lens of modern technology, it’s a warning against a lazy reliance on the things that bring us together but that ultimately drive us apart. On the opposite trajectory and hands down one of the most entertaining films at the festival is Peter Strickland’s The Duke Of Burgundy, with Chiara d’Anna and Sidse Babett Knudsen – a beautifully composed, autumnal story of a hermetically sealed relationship of masochism and unwanted sadism. Beneath the sublime costumes, set design, cinematography and montages à la Stan Brakhage, it’s a simple story of a loving couple, the eccentric demands of the individual and the compromises we agree to. When does giving become taking? It’s Strickland’s best film to date, and utterly unique.
With 248 films on show, there are still plenty of brilliant mood pieces (Girlhood), biopics (Mr Turner and Pasolini), political dramas (Court), documentaries (The Possibilities Are Endless and Citizenfour), adaptations (Testament Of Youth), social realism (The Wonders) and one-handers (’71 and Wild), but the very best films in this year’s London Film Festival weren’t just about war (The Imitation Game and Fury), artists (Mr Turner and Hockney), terrorism (Rosewater and War Book) or even getting lost in the desert (Jauja, Far From Men, Theeb), but rather unpicked the intricate tapestry of human relationships. Whether it’s the failed solidarity of Leviathan or the dog-eat-dog individualism of The Tribe, there’s a revolution brewing. And while the heat is on friendship and family, still there’s a cool Siberian wind blowing.
The Dog And Wolf Awards
Most Thrilling Whiplash
Most Chilling War Book
Most Moving Love Is Strange
Most Thought-Provoking Winter Sleep
Most Eyecatching Mommy
Best Performance Return To Ithaca (Alberto Pujols, Fernando Hechevarria, Isabel Santos, Jorge Perugorría & Pedro Julio Díaz Ferran)
Most Original The Duke of Burgundy
Most Controversial The Tribe
Worst Goodbye To Language
The 58th London Film Festival took place between 8th and 19th October 2014