There’s a lot to celebrate at this year’s London Film Festival – over 300 shorts and features with some gems from some of cinema’s contemporary masters as well as some fantastic debut features from emerging talent across the globe. There’s a few jolts along the way to bring us back down to gloomy earth – the end of Sandra Hebron’s nine-year tenure as Festival Director and her personal appearance at screenings of Jafar Panahi’s This Is Not A Film and Mohammad Rasoulof’s Goodbye to read out a letter from renowned Iranian ex-pat directors deploring Iranian filmmakers’ lack of freedoms was also highly sobering. But above all, with its selection of the best from the festival circuit and a few world premieres, the London Film Festival gives us a chance to survey the cinematic landscape of 2011 and take stock.
One thing that’s immediately apparent is the sheer quantity of literary adaptations. Apart from Lynne Ramsay’s emotional riot We Need To Talk About Kevin, there’s Andrea Arnold’s atmospheric and visually arresting Wuthering Heights, which almost assumes not to need to tell its story in order to concentrate on its Hardyan texture. And speaking of Hardy, Michael Winterbottom is back with an Indian reworking of Tess Of The D’Urbervilles. Trishna is fascinating for many reasons – its narrative reworking thoughtprovoking as Winterbottom reconfigures rape into a confession of abortion and fuses Alec d’Urberville and Angel Clare into one. It’s likely to catapult Riz Ahmed and Freida Pinto into even greater stars, but it’s a strangely eclectic remix of Winterbottom styles all the way from Jude and 9 Songs to In This World and A Mighty Heart.
There are way too many others to mention, but David Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method gives a delightful leading role to Keira Knightley’s chin and Alexander Sokurov concludes his Power Corrupts tetralogy with Faust, a vivid depiction of Goethe’s original with a soul-piercing performance from Anton Adasinsky as the Mephistopheles character and punctuated with sublime visuals throughout. There’s also Mathieu Amalric’s Pierre Corneille inspired The Screen Illusion, all in rhyming couplets, Oslo, August 31st (loosely based on the same novel by Pierre Drieu La Rochelle which also inspired Louis Malle’s Le Feu Follet), Chantal Akerman’s Joseph Conrad penned Almayer’s Folly with a stand-out performance from Stanislas Merhar, Norwegian romp Headhunters and the sunnily gothic The Monk. Not forgetting of course the festival’s closing film, Terence Davies’ The Deep Blue Sea, based on the play by Terence Rattigan. Heartbreaking in its treatment of an illicit affair, it’s a lesson in love’s pain with beautifully anguished performances from Rachel Weisz and Tom Hiddleston.
Rachel Weisz also starred in the festival’s opening gala, Fernando Meirelles’ 360. With its circular narrative structure of brief encounters, 360 has a wide scope, but comes quickly unstuck with its unwieldy portmanteau structure and lumpen script. Of the other more original features, Shame stood perhaps tallest. A second collaboration between Steve McQueen and Michael Fassbender, it’s a brilliant study of a sexaholic, all NYC, OCD and dirty orgasms. Paolo Sorrentino’s This Must Be The Place is also enjoyably extravagant with Sean Penn stealing everyone’s thunder as a drug-addled, slow-shuffling kidult. Its plot takes an abrupt and unexpected right turn into Nazi hunting, but its hilarious script more than makes up for any narrative jolts.
One of the festival’s great dividers, Jeff Nichols’ Take Shelter was for me a fantastic, apocalyptic exploration of mental illness. With star turns from Michael Shannon and the ever-watchable Jessica Chastain, the film’s central metaphor of a brain storm is sensitively and imaginatively dealt with, lensed with absolutely stunning effects. Equally controversial were Gus Van Sant’s love-it-ot-hate it Restless and China’s highest-ever grossing film Let The Bullets Fly, a politically rather bizarre anti-capitalist wuxia western yearning nostalgically for the communist mores of yesteryear.
In all, it was a better year for female filmmakers than queer directors, Terence Davies’ Terence Rattigan adaptation rife with not-so-sub-text and Gus Van Sant’s Restless barely texting at all. The Queer Palme winner Skoonheid (Beauty) is a rather chilling look at South African homophobia and machismo. But with a great eye for the queer gaze and a startlingly violent conclusion, it’s a great slow-burn shocker. The most touching though was Weekend, Andrew Halgh’s depiction of modern gay life in Nottingham. It’s a little wordy perhaps, but a deliciously politicking depiction of gay experience.
While French films didn’t especially shine this year, Bruno Dumont’s power-of-prayer drama Hors Satan and Yves Caumon’s delicately touching L’Oiseau the brightest, Italian and German-language films fared much better. The three Dreileben films formed an interesting experiment in intertextuality by Herrn Christian Petzold, Dominik Graf and Christoph Hochhäusler. And while Three Colours it ain’t, styled more in the vein of Lucas Belvaux’s Trilogie with each film focusing on different characters in the same story of an escaped convict thriller. As a trilogy it lacks the guiding hand of one director, but it’s nevertheless an interesting lesson in artistic interaction.
Observational minimalism continues to flood our screens, and I have to say I’m finally getting bored. Perhaps these twin towers of no-frills naturalism and realism are the necessary evils of low-budget film-making, but a make-the-viewer-work aesthetic and an elegiac rhythm often fail to make up for an underdeveloped script never quite rousing the Bressonian emotional pay-off intended. While other people loved them, Julia Loktev’s The Loneliest Planet and Zuzana Liová’s The House felt to me like very lonely places.
And without getting into a Bazinian debate on the meaning of cinema, there was a lot of style and surface this year, but a little less soul. So while Alice Rohrwacher’s anthropological Corpo Celeste and Gianluca and Massimiliano De Serio’s Seven Acts Of Mercy were interesting mirrors of Berlusconi’s bel paese, of the Italian films it was Emanuele Crialese’s outrageously histrionic Terraferma that drew me in the most. The beautiful cinematography of John Shank’s Last Winter‘s didn’t quite redeem it from its Belgian agricultural gloom, while Rúnar Rúnarsson shone with Volcano, the touching Icelandic epiphany of a chauvinist patriarch taking on the cooking and cleaning for love of his suddenly sick wife.
Of the documentaries, Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975 is an engaging and politically inspiring Swedish take on racism in the United States while Jafar Panahi’s This Is Not A Film won many hearts for its sheer pathos. Is it an act of defiance or bitter helplessness? The film takes place almost entirely within Jafar Panahi’s flat, only breaking out in the final reel to look out beyond the gate. But as the director turns the camera on himself, overcome with frustration at trying to tell the story of his would-be film on a small square of his Persian rug, it’s a frightening look at the effects of Iranian justice albeit a fascinating and playful insight into the creative impulse of a brilliant filmmaker. Nick Brandestini’s Darwin is a delightfully intriguing look at life off the beaten track in Death Valley, while Jonas Mekas’ Sleepless Nights Stories, at times a who’s who of New York’s glitterati, is a thought-provoking odyssey through art, friendship and insomnia.
One of the best films though was Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Once Upon A Time In Anatolia, a stunning portrait of a night that change lives, when a doctor joins the local constabulary on a night drive through the steppes to uncover a buried corpse. Its slow-building character development is enigmatic enough to make a second viewing almost compulsory, but Ceylan’s mastery of the camera and his ability to both suggest and impose order on chaos is breathtaking. Of the ones that got away, most sorely missed were Michel Hazanavicius’ The Artist, the Dardennes brothers’ The Kid With A Bike, Dexter Fletcher’s directorial debut Wild Bill, Michael Glawogger’s Whores’ Glory, Yorgos Lanthimos’ Alps and Markus Schleinzer’s Michael. And the list goes on, happily.
The 55th BFI London Film Festival runs from 12th to 27th October 2011
Visit the BFI website for more details