Opening and closing with the crowning achievements of the 20th century, the 59th London Film Festival brings the battle of the sexes, both past and present, centre-stage.

A Woman Is a Woman

by Mark Wilshin

From Sarah Gavron’s festival opener Suffragette via Cate Blanchett’s BFI Fellowship all the way to Athina Rachel Tsangari’s Best Film Award winning Chevalier, there’s an undeniably feminist slant to this year’s London Film Festival. Much like Todd Haynes’ achingly beautiful lesbian love story Carol or Lucile Hadzihalilovic’s Evolution, we’re free to imagine a world without men. Or in the case of Sean Baker’s snappy Tangerine, a strip on the Hollywood sidewalks where men prefer to dress up as women. For while Tsangari turns her gaze on an exclusively male universe, male directors have been doing this for years – from Douglas Sirk and George Cukor to François Ozon and Almodovar’s women. It’s perhaps strange, with Variety reporting the number of female directors in decline, that it’s left to the likes of Paul Weitz’s Grandma or Hirokazu Koreeda’s Our Little Sister to explore female experience. But now, with Chevalier, Athina Rachel Tsangari is redressing the balance.

Exposing a male cosmos of competition and oneupmanship on board a yacht adrift in the Aegean, Tsangari forces us to reflect on this cross-gender conundrum; is her image of masculinity a guilty secret male directors refuse to face? Or an exaggerated vision of men seen through the eyes of woman? And yet it’s not a question that springs to mind of Sebastian Schipper’s Victoria, John Crowley’s Brooklyn or Lenny Abrahamson’s Room – where onscreen heroines don’t explore the female experience of recklessness, emigration and abduction so much as provide a conduit into a universal human experience, with actresses often placed centre-screen to plunge emotional depths as yet uncharted by male counterparts. In the cases of Room and Carol, the female-centred experience of the authors who penned the original novels (Patricia Highsmith and Emma Donoghue) are tempered by male directors, with Haynes’ restrained love story in particular creating a delicate, out-of-reach female world suspended in a jelly of leather gloves and clasp hats. (Its exquisite Fifties’ look setting the aspic even harder.) But while it works with Haynes’ story of near-impossible love, Carol, much like Ozon’s or Almodovar’s works, becomes an almost idolising, male obsession with the female form. And while ultimately, neither Carol nor Chevalier reveal hidden, intrinsic truths about male or female experience, they still make for poignant reflections. Like a mirror – ever so slightly distorted, but still a lovingly lit likeness.

Masculinity on the other hand is in no short supply either – from Thomas Bidegain’s reimagining of the Western hero in Cowboys to Daniel Dencik and Ciro Guerra’s similarly themed Gold Coast and The Embrace Of The Serpent, which conflate a very male sense of morality and rectitude with colonial responsibility. Above all though, there’s Lorenzo Vigas’ Golden Lion winning From Afar, which puts masculinity on trial in the closeted world of Caracas, Venezuela, as it charts the gradual attraction of young street punk Elder for self-hating sugar-daddy Armando. Unlike Carol, it’s a love that dares not come to fruition, as a fragile sense of maleness fractures under the stress of homosexual desire when it comes too close. More than a proud celebration of same-sex love, the queer films at this year’s festival tend to put a seal on illicit desire, reducing it to a harmless, picturesque splendour of impossible longing, with Matt Sobel’s Take Me To The River or Sebastiàn Silva’s Nasty Baby getting lost in alternative chills and thrills. Instead, it’s left up to John Crowley’s brilliant adaptation of Colm Toibín’s Brooklyn to reveal the sexual subtext of playing it straight in Fifties’ Ireland – as Eilis, forced to emigrate with no prospect of either job nor husband, returns to the Emerald Isle only to be seduced into finding a place for herself there before the small-town tittle-tattle threatens to reveal her sexual secret. Like From Afar, Brooklyn reveals the impossibility of life in the closet, but like Carol, it forges a new path. And where else, but in New York?

With Jacques Audiard’s Palme d’Or winning Dheepan, Oliver Hermanus’ The Endless River, Sebastian Schipper’s Victoria and Jia Zhangke’s Mountains May Depart also depicting the ex-pat experience, emigration has gone global, with debut features Ixcanul and Desierto from Jayro Bustamante and Jonás Cuarón offering two very different takes on the South American dream of living north of the border. And compared to the glacial and symphonic epics of nationhood in Terence Davies Sunset Song and Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s The Assassin, the desire for movability and change is pitted against an equally powerful nostalgia for home with all its idiosyncrasies. This politics of globalisation comes in two very distinct flavours with Johnnie To’s all-singing, all-dancing Hong Kong financial crisis musical Office and Miguel Gomes’ six-hour epic Arabian Nights ruminating on the effects for everyday people in his alternately documentary-style or elaborate stories of easily tempted politicians, societal breakdown and lost traditions. But it’s part of a larger cinematic confrontation of the past, that we see in Paolo Sorrentino’s self-referential Youth, Arnaud Desplechin’s self-absorbed My Golden Days and Luca Guadagnino’s mystifying A Bigger Splash. But it’s in both László Nemes’ terrifying Son Of Saul and Alexander Sokurov’s groundbreaking Francofonia that the ghosts of history come most hauntingly to light, as battles are fought and lost between identity and conformity, resistance and collaboration.

Dealing with the past is also key to Lars Kraume’s The People Against Fritz Bauer and David Evans’ My Nazi Legacy as both feature and documentary try to lift the veil on the politics of German denazification and the human implications of reconciling the truth about one’s forebears with a son’s love for his father. But, strangely perhaps, it’s Danny Boyle’s closing film Steve Jobs that sees history best dealt with on the human scale – as Jobs overcomes his own ruthless detachment and feelings of abandonment to dedicate his masterpiece of personal computing to his barely recognised daughter. With Jafar Panahi’s Golden Bear winning Taxi Tehran ruminating on present-day Iran from the confines of his own car to Yorgos Lanthimos’ dazzling dystopia of modern-day love The Lobster, the 59th London Film Festival reveals, with 238 films from 71 countries, both past and present, male and female. And with BFI London Film Festival director Clare Stewart declaring this the year of Strong Women, there’s no doubt it was. And with strong films from female directors – including Malgorzata Szumowska’s Body, Laura Bispuri’s Sworn Virgin and Micah Magee’s Petting Zoo, the London Film Festival is a welcome showcase for films by women and about women. And much like Suffragette, a gentle reminder that democracy sometimes needs a helping hand.

The Dog And Wolf Awards

Most Thrilling Steve Jobs

Most Chilling Son Of Saul

Most Moving Room

Most Thought-Provoking Evolution

Most Eyecatching The Embrace Of The Serpent

Best Performance Brie Larson, Room

Funniest The Club

Most Original The Lobster

Most Controversial The Witch

Worst Desierto

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