If you’re a sophisticated cineaste living within the M25 (like we are) then chances are the BFI London Film Festival features pretty prominently in your events calendar. Now in its 56th year, no-one would argue that the LFF is one of the world’s most prominent film festivals. From an industry perspective, it’s not like Cannes, Venice, Berlin or Sundance, where the worlds’ most leading art film makers debut their new works. Wong Kar-Wai or the Coen Brothers would no sooner enter their film into London’s main competition over those other festivals we mentioned. But by virtue of the fact that it’s not a keystone event for the film industry that it always ends up really being a terrifically well-curated festival designed with film fans in mind.
This year, the programme includes a number of World, UK and European premieres including acclaimed documentaries, comedies and dramas; a number of Sundance favourites as well as the winner of this year’s Palme d’Or. In this article, we could tell you about the gala premieres enjoyed by big studio films like Tim Burton’s Frankenweenie or Mike Newell’s take on Great Expectations but we won’t. Instead, we’re going to give you a run-down of the films that will likely be making their way to your local art-house cinema over the next year.
Compliance (USA) dir. Craig ZobelA film that proved too challenging for many audience members on its US release, Compliance asks its audience a lot of tough questions, the answers to which might shock us were we to answer honestly. In the very first scene, the manager of a small town fast food restaurant (Ann Dowd) is already having a pretty challenging day: she’s short staffed and a lot of her produce has been spoilt by a mistake the night before. When a man phones up the back office claiming to be from the police, Dowd does her best to deal with the situation. The man claims that one of her employees, a teenage girl (Dreama Walker), has been caught on camera stealing money from a customer and that Dowd needs to keep her detained in the back room until an officer can come down. Under his instructions, Walker has her phone and bag taken away — and eventually her clothes. It’s no secret that the film gets darker, as every other restaurant employee brought into this ‘interrogation’ seems to comply -in varying degrees- with the man’s orders.
At some point, audience credulity will be stretched to breaking point: how could anyone believe that a real cop would instruct a stranger to conduct a strip search? How could anybody do this to someone they know? It would be totally unbelievable… had it not actually happened in real life. In fact, similar incidences have occurred over 70 times in the US, according the film’s post script.
At times, Compliance is incredibly tough to stomach, in no small part due to director Craig Zobel’s economical script and the cast’s incredibly believable performances. More terrifying than most horror films we’ve seen, Compliance peels back some ugly layers on the human condition, confirming what normal decent people are capable of doing when they’re merely ‘following orders’.
Doomsday Book (S. Korea) dir. Yim Pil-Sung, Kim Ji-woonA collaborative project between two of South Korea’s most prominent genre film-makers, Doomsday Book is a delightful anthology of short films about the end of humanity. In Yim’s first entry, Brave New World, an awkward research assistant inadvertently ignites the zombie apocalypse when he throws out a fetid apple (it kinda makes sense in the film). I think it’s supposed to be a sly reference to an apple banishing Adam and Eve from Paradise but, whatever. It feels like the first act of a decent zombie film with a hurried second and third act tacked on. Still, Yim manages to keep the action fun with a number of funny character details including the researcher’s awful bourgeois family and his blind date with a girl who likes to capture every moment on her camera phone.
The second film comes from Kim (I Saw the Devil, The Good, The Bad and The Weird) and is set in a future where robots are a part of everyday life. When an order of Buddhist monks announces that one of their androids is in fact the incarnation of Buddha, the unit’s manufacturer gets pretty concerned. Consider the implications: if robots can do everything better than us, at what point do we become obsolete? A robot deity is probably a symptom of the human decline. This is indeed a beautifully made episode, even if its spiritual musings often flew over our heads. I suspect it would play better to an audience more familiar with Buddhist teachings.
Last of all is Happy Birthday, by far the wackiest of the three films. When a young girl accidentally breaks her billiards-obsessed dad’s prized 8-ball, she orders a replacement from a strange website. You can imagine her surprise when she finds the ball is in fact 10km wide and hurtling towards Earth. The world goes into a panic – we watch Korean news anchors count down their final hours on Earth: the weather girl is pretty psyched to be on TV but the co-anchor isn’t taking imminent extinction too well. The young girl and her family take refuge in an underground bunker and discover that they might be able to do something to stop the ball’s delivery before it’s too late. This entry deeply enjoyable, but strange in a distinctly Korean way. To put it in a way the public might understand: it’s like a slightly understated, 30 minute version of the Gangnam Style video.
All three of the shorts function well on their own but as a single feature, they lack the kind of thematic cohesion that would mark this out as a must see. Like with any anthology film, no matter how good, at some point you’ll find yourself checking your watch to see how much more there is to go. When the credits finally roll, there’s almost a sense of relief when you realise there isn’t another movie to come.
Amour (France/Germany/Austria) dir. Michael HanekeMichael Haneke, the peerless master of European cinema returns with perhaps his most affecting film yet. Jean-Louis Trintignant (Three Colours: Red) and Emmanuelle Riva (Hiroshima mon amour) are a married couple in their 80s. Formerly piano teachers, they enjoy the spoils of retirement: reading books, drinking wine and attending concerts starring their former pupils. They’re living the kind of golden years you often see in insurance ads… that is until tragedy strikes. Riva is hit by a series of strokes and attacks, causing her health to deteriorate slowly but surely. Her condition robs her and her husband of their old lives. He looks after her the best he can, but even his best cannot stop his wife’s decline. It’s a really rough subject matter but Haneke handles it with sensitivity, framing scenes intimately, with great economy and a light touch.
The film takes place almost within their Parisian home, a lovely period flat that seems wonderful and luxurious at first, but soon becomes a prison for them both. The lead actors are absolutely heartbreaking, crafting two physical-taxing performances despite being well into their 80s. Amour really takes its audience through the wringer, balancing sentiment and emotion with moments of clarity and dry humour. Haneke deserves all the accolades he has received for this film: it’s undeniably great.
Wadjda (Saudi Arabia/Germany) dir. Haifaa Al-MansourThe first film ever to be entirely shot in Saudi Arabia, director Haifaa Al Mansour’s achievement is made all the more impressive by the fact that she is a Saudi woman. In a country where women still have to remain covered in the presence of men; she had to direct many of the street scenes from her production van via walkie-talkie. The film tells the story of a 12 year-old girl in the capital city of Riyadh: she lives with her mother and (largely absent) father in what looks like a fairly comfortable middle-class home. She’s sharp, rebellious and incredibly enterprising (she sells friendship bracelets that she makes at home and haggles with a classmate who asks Wadjda to deliver a letter to her boyfriend). We follow her quest to buy a new bike, something that sees her entering a Qur’an competition just so she can win the cash prize.
we see her at home and at school, where she’s witness to the kind of limitations placed on women in Saudi culture: because she isn’t permitted to drive, Wadjda’s mother relies on drivers to take her to work; when Wadjda’s school headmistress spot some men working on a distant roof, all the girls on their lunch break are forced to move inside. Although we get the impression that her father might be a nice guy, there’s an under-riding suggestion he might be forced to remarry because his wife cannot bear him a son.
Truly, women get a pretty terrible ride in Saudi Arabia but Al-Mansour’s film is never despairing or depressing. For all the knock-backs that Wadjda and her mother face, this is a warm and funny film that doesn’t pity its characters. It’s both enormously entertaining and hugely important, giving us an insight into a modern culture that we rarely see on-screen. This is truly an excellent family film that deserves to be seen when it’s released here in the UK. Seek it out, film fans!
Zaytoun (UK/Israel) dir. Eran RiklisAlthough its set during the 1982 Israeli-Lebanese War, we see that there’s a third party caught in the conflict: the Palestinian refugees in Beirut. The Israelis have evicted them from their homes on the West Bank and they’re treated like dogs by their Lebanese hosts, some of whom seem to shoot Palestinian kids on a whim. Children like Fahed (Abdallah El Akal) are drafted into a ramshackle militia-of-sorts and told that one day, they will retake their homeland by force. But when the militia capture an Israeli fighter pilot (Stephen Dorff), Fahed sees an opportunity. In exchange for springing him from his cell and smuggling him to the Israeli border, Dorff agrees to take Fahed to his family home. What happens next is essentially the second act of a road trip movie, kind of like a middle-eastern Midnight Run, with the boy and the pilot learning that they are perhaps not so different after all! As their relationship develops, director Eran Riklis often hits upon buddy movie clichés that feel at odds with the charged political context of the story. The performances are strong, especially from the young lead but the anger of the opening act gives way to too many sentimental moments, compromising the powerful ending that Riklis is obviously aiming for.
Sister (Switzerland/France) dir. Ursula MeierTwelve year-old Simon lives with his sister (Léa Seydoux) in a run-down industrial town below a fancy ski resort. His sister seems to have trouble keeping jobs and steady boyfriends, so Simon earns some money on the mountain, stealing skis and ski-gear from rich tourists and fencing them in town. Meier does an excellent job contrasting the two worlds: affluent families enjoy themselves on the slopes while Simon hides in a toilet cubicle, eating swiped sandwiches and rummaging through his pilfered goods. It’s a pretty solitary existence, punctuated by lonely gondola rides back home. He has one friend, if you can call him that: a Scottish cook (Martin Compston) who buys his stolen skis. He tries to form a bond with a rich British woman (Gillian Anderson) on the slopes but their strained interaction ends uncomfortably when he insists on paying for her food. But even if Simon did manage to connect with any of them, it would hardly matter: come the end of the season, everybody leaves. Simon’s sister, for all her flaws, is all he has.
This could very easily have been a miserablist story about the haves and have-nots of the world, but Meier has instead taken a very compassionate, almost Dickensian approach to Simon’s character, revealing a brazen, confident young man in search of something he can’t seem to find. It’s an immensely well-made film that confirms Meier’s standing as a talent to watch for.
In the House (France) dir. François OzonArt House darling François Ozon follows up his broad 2010 comedy Potiche with darkly comic meditation on the art of writing. Snobbish High School literature teacher Fabrice Luchini is one of those educators who have long since given up on making a difference. The school administration has just implemented a new uniform policy that designed to ‘change the culture’ but Luchini has taught for long enough to know that it’s not the case: when given the assignment of writing about their weekends, most of his pupils submit two-line essays, mostly along the lines of ‘ate pizza, watched TV’. The only exception is Claude, the boy in the last row.
Claude has written an elegant confession, detailing his budding friendship with classmate Rapha; a relationship entirely predicated on a fascination with his family. Luchini probably knows that he shouldn’t encourage Claude’s borderline sociopathic behaviour, but he’s intrigued by the boy’s talent. Claude continues chronicling his experiences with Rapha’s family -–his obsession with the mother (Emmanuelle Seigner), his disdain for the father– while his teacher continues commenting on it as though it were prose exercises. And as Luchini points out to him, we as the audience/reader have started to question his writing: Do his essays actually reveal the truth of Rapha’s family? Which parts are more a reflection on its author, or indeed its intended reader? We’re really not doing the film justice with this explanation, but it tackles this lofty concept well, balance its more cerebral elements with streaks of black humour and middle class satire.
Ozon keeps us guessing what kind of film this will end up being: is it a comedy or perhaps a domestic thriller (let’s just put it like this: young Ernst Umhauer could easily play the title role in a French remake of We Need to Talk about Kevin)? It really is something special that a movie about writing can turn out to be so tense! But the end of the day, In the House is a film that works better on an intellectual level than on an emotional one. For some viewers, this may leave them feeling cold but for others, it might be the kind of daring film-making they’ve been looking for.
*On a bit of a side note, Kristin Scott Thomas also stars as Luchini’s wife, the curator of a gallery that seemingly caters to the worst excesses of modern art schools. It’s no coincidence that she mainly appears in French films these days – English language films these days don’t provide many great roles for les femmes d’un certain age. British films really wouldn’t know what to do with actresses over 40, apart from making them the mother or the crazy aunt.