For me, the London Film Festival is essentially Christmas and my birthday rolled into one. This year I caught 38 movies and two talks over twelve days. I figured I’d review them in pairs, because… why not. So, here are my first eight…
Two movies about loving monsters
THE SHAPE OF WATER and GOOD MANNERS
THE SHAPE OF WATER (del Toro) is a slick, beautiful, slightly airless fable about “loving the monster” as David Bowie almost sung. Doug Jones once again does commendable physical labour under the prosthetics – Sally Hawkins sells the heart out of the thing, and Michael Shannon brings the menace. All of them are playing utterly to type, but bring their A-game and throw themselves into it with almost operatic gusto. As has been increasingly the case with del Toro, though, the heavily-engineered production design takes this world beyond “fully realised” and all the way into “hermetically sealed”, and the too-tightly written script leaves little space to breathe. But, oh, those images; Hawkins peeping lustfully over the shoulder of her merman lover is one for the ages.
In GOOD MANNERS (Dutra & Rojas) a bougie trust-fund girl and her cleaner defy the class and race divide to embark on a passionate gay affair. But the situation is complicated by the fact that one of them is pregnant, and her foetus is… not entirely human. Good Manners is strongly reminiscent of CRONOS and AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON. The use of matte-painted backdrops gives everything a glorious fairytale quality that reminded me of the old-school Disney skies (from things like Pinnochio), and the superb (practical?) effects on the new-born child cast a convincingly magical spell.
In fact, to my mind it’s the actually pretty del Toro-esque Good Manners that weaves its way deeper into the dark subconscious, and lingers there much more strongly, than del Toro’s own The Shape of Water. It’s completely enchanting.
Two elliptical tales of haunted women
ON THE BEACH AT NIGHT ALONE and COLUMBUS
ON THE BEACH AT NIGHT ALONE (Hong) has a phenomenal dreamlike stillness and power.
Kim Min-hee plays a Korean actress in Hamburg, discussing romantic woes with a friend while she waits for a potential lover who may or may not be arriving soon. Later we see her back in Korea, and after that on vacation in a costal town. At least one of these sections is largely a dream, but even in the other parts an unreality has permeated life. A mysterious man wanders into shot, or peers in through the window of the holiday apartment, unremarked upon by the guests. Kim becomes aggressively combative over dinner, then reverts to tipsy bonhomie while her companions remain unfazed.
Kim’s relationships have broken down somewhat following an affair with a married director, and as the film progressed that sense of isolation crept into my bones. Hong has a strong sense of how you can be most alone when you are with other people, and of the struggle to reconnect with people when a deep inner alienation is dragging you down. In some ways this is a ghost story – Kim is haunted by the spectres of men, of gossip, and of love, which may or may not fade in the dawn light.
In COLUMBUS (Kogonada), Casey (an incredible performance from Haley Lu Richardson) is struggling to repress her urges to leave town and continue with her education, instead staying to support her mother through addiction withdrawal.
Columbus draws power from a dreamy disconnect between its scenes, and a stripped back style that allows a focus on performance. It also finds transcendence in the modernist architecture that Haley shows to John Cho’s Jin on their tours around the city.
Is this, his first feature, Kogonada develops his video essay style and mostly aligns the bold, formal lines of the buildings with the frame of the camera, providing a sense of visual harmony suggestive of a serenity that the characters themselves can identify but not obtain. The stillness and intensity that Richardson and Cho bring was a highlight of the festival; never more so than in the scene where they stand outside Haley’s favourite building and she teasingly mimics Jin’s well-meant faux-casual question back to him, again and again: “and your mother, was she on meth?”.
I saw this for Cho (and to a lesser extent, Parker Posey), but Richardson was so, so good in it I’ll certainly now be seeking her out in ‘Edge of Seventeen’. Few actors are able to harness the hidden power that Richardson wields, seemingly effortlessly, and even fewer are able to deploy it with such precision.
Two interesting but insufficiently labyrinthine noirs
YOU WERE NEVER REALLY HERE and GEMINI
I thought that Lynn Ramsey’s WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN had an incredible grasp of mood, theme and imagery, but that the plot itself was thin and the characters cryptic. That felt like a defensible artistic choice at the time. The film didn’t demand a complex plotting, and the theme of the terror of familial unknowability meant the shallow affect of the characters seemed to conceal hidden depths.
With YOU WERE NEVER REALLY HERE, Ramsey’s strengths and limitations are clearer still. The film starts out as a character study of Joe, an emotionally devastated PI/hired muscle (Joaquin Phoenix). He’s amazing, of course, a hulking, soulful, blank-eyed bear of a man – a thousand-yard stare in human form, except for the touch of warmth we see when he’s with his mother. We follow him out on his brutal jobs, and Ramsey’s sense of mood and style draws us into the heart of this monster/hero, and the underworld he inhabits. After a certain point, though, you want a more substantial plot to kick in – and it does. And that’s when things go awry.
Half way through, YWNRH reveals itself as a conspiracy noir – no-one is necessarily what they seem, important men glimpsed getting in and out of limos may be behind everything, and for all we know the trail of corruption leads right to the top! This seems great – I love this genre. But if you’re operating in the same area as BLOW OUT or THE PARALLAX VIEW you need a proper plot, proper twists, a real labyrinth in which to chase down a minotaur.
Sadly, YWNRH doesn’t provide it. Things seem murky, but there’s a string sense that it’s because Ramsey is simply choosing to present things in an unclear manner. The stylistic flourishes now seem to be getting in the way of progressing the story. With only so many minutes available in a movie, long moody takes seem to rob us of the potential for twists, subterfuge and reversals. Instead, things progress from A to B fairly directly, with a brief stop-off to get shot at, consider suicide, and buy a hammer. After an exhausting fight, key revelations are buried in method-acting pants and grunts. There’s a bold but unsatisfying anti-climax, and then a crass coda that while admittedly effective in its shock value has been done better elsewhere.
Am I judging this movie too harshly, based on what I want it to be rather than what it is? Maybe. I genuinely liked this film – it has an undeniable power and mood, is never boring, and as a character study it lands with the force of one of Joe’s hammers. Ramsey’s direction is excellent, Thomas Townend’s cinematography gives us one of the best city street hellscapes since Taxi Driver, and Phoenix throws everything he has into his performance.
But the plot! There’s no need to blow the conspiracy-noir horn so loudly at the half-way mark, and then fail to follow through on most of what an audience would really want from that genre. It’s a very good film, but lacking the rich storyline that would have elevated it to greatness. And giving Joe what I counted to be three – three! – separate traumatic flashbacks to explain his insularity was with hindsight a waste of precious screen time. YWNRH is based on a relatively thin novella, but things could have been expanded. Next time, please, just a touch less stewing in the mood and a few more twists and turns.
GEMINI (Katz) conjures up a beautifully filtered vision of LA and its environs as a sun-drenched neo-noir dream, where the whole point of living is to not be what you seem and everyone comes to disappear.
Katz claims Lola Kirke effectively co-created the movie while workshopping her character with him, and she is great as the PA-cum-PI Jill, stumbling through an investigation of the murder of her boss, actress Heather (Zoe Kravitz, enjoyably enigmatic). Like all the best amateur detectives, Jill gets a long way by deploying her key weapons of instinct, determination, and sunglasses – plus a willingness to jump into the nearest closet if disturbed. Good to see John Cho getting some solid work in too – though his role of “playfully suspicious cop” hardly stretches him, he’s still fun. If Gemini and Columbus prove anything, its that we need more roles for John Cho.
Again, though, a great neo-noir needs a labyrinthine plot – or at least some fully developed red herrings. Once GEMINI’s twist is deployed (and it is a cute twist, very 2017) the case is wrapped up in the click of two fingers, and the dream dies in the dawn light.
Two period-set coming-of-age movies
WONDERSTRUCK and CALL ME BY YOUR NAME
WONDERSTRUCK is without doubt Todd Haynes’s worst film to date, and probably his only true misfire. It starts off as a cute idea about two children who run away to New York, one in 1927 and one in 1977, the way their paths criss-cross and mirror each other, and how they are connected in other ways. But Haynes can’t master his own material. What should be mysterious instead becomes cloying and fake. He leads the audience through everything by the nose, clearly aiming to appeal to children – yet the endless cross-cutting diffuses any sense of interest in either of them, and even adults seemed to find themselves unable to stay engaged for all of its 2 hour runtime. I have no idea what kind of child would stay interested. It lurches between tones, slamming emotionally manipulative music over everything as if berating viewers into having the correct feelings. In fact, the artificial way in which information is clumsily withheld by the director so as to drum up a sense of mystery is tiresome and alienating. And bad luck if you’re keen to see Michelle Williams – she’s in it for three or four minutes, tops.
There is, however, one great scene. In the silent 1927 section, Millicent Simmonds (who does great work here, as trite as her story ends up being) plays a deaf girl who enters a cinema to watch something called DAUGHTER OF THE STORM, which seems to be riffing on Von Stroheim. The film, in which Julianne Moore plays the leading actress, is enormously affecting, and Simmonds is left with tears in her eyes. Once the lights come up, she is among the last to leave the theatre. As she exits to the street, she turns, looks up and sees a sign: “Coming Soon! Talkies!”. The camera maintains a discreet distance. It’s a wonderful moment of quiet heartbreak in which everything comes together.
In the final analysis, though, this is a movie in which a lead character quotes “we all live in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars”, and complains he doesn’t know what it means. At the end, all the characters join hands, the music soars, and they all look gormlessly up at the sky.
For all its flickers of beauty, Wonderstruck is clunky as all hell, and a major step down from CAROL. In fact, is it significant that between CALL ME BY YOUR NAME, MOONLIGHT and Carol, the greatest love stories of the decade have been gay? Straight romance seems to be confined to (mostly terrible) rom-coms these days. THE BIG SICK was decent enough, but only an unapologetic romantic melodrama, stripped of irony and bearing its heart fully, can give you the true sense of vertigo that is the mark of love.
Call Me By Your Name (Guadagnino) is overwhelmingly human, tender, romantic, and wistful. Its emotional register swoops and turns: at one moment it’s as if we are hovering in a bubble about to rupture; at another, as if pinned to the bottom of the ocean. Doors seem to be opening, but the film is infused with nostalgia, and so seems haunted by the possibility of those same doors closing again, even before it happens. Perhaps it’s inherent for a first-true-love story, if presented as a period piece, to be touched with a gentle foreboding or melancholy. But we can at least enjoy the pleasures of the moment: Armie Hammer iconic dancing to ‘Love My Way’, or Michael Stuhlbarg demonstrating everything you might want from a parent, in that instant, in that memory.
Plus, its a beautiful love letter to the early 80s, and to northern Italy, and there’s nothing wrong with that.
So there you go! The best of these movies (Good Manners, Columbus, On The Beach At Night Alone and Call Me By Your Name) were among the very best at the festival, and are hugely recommended.
Beyond that: eight down… thirty to go. Pictured below: me, wondering when I’m going to have time to write them up.