I hope I got your interest with Day #1. Now the challenge is to maintain your interest with #2, the ‘difficult sophomore album’ article. We’re gonna steer a little off the beaten Oscar track today, although if there were any justice in the Oscar race, we’d still be pounding it full throttle. As peculiar an experience as my 2016 London Film Festival trip has been thus far, compared to previous visits, this particular day is all set to go down in history, yes HISTORY, as a vintage day indeed. Do I still have your interest? Do I care though?
Coming here always reminds me of how little sleep I actually need. My commitment to writing reviews alongside these diary entries, and my equal commitment to reality TV, eats into my late nights and early mornings, and hostel life isn’t especially conducive to a good night’s sleep. After an early rise to catch up on work, my first engagement of the day was at the Curzon Mayfair, an attractive little cinema that I’d frequented before at the festival, though not at all last year, to see Cristian Mungiu’s Graduation. After some less-than-sure-things the previous day, I was bound to be in sure hands with Mr. Mungiu. Even Beyond the Hills, which was a Mungiu misfire, is still better than 80% of other films.
And Graduation is a return to form for the filmmaker, the leading light of the Romanian New Wave. Although no pithy plot synopsis could possibly serve the excellence of what he accomplishes in the film, you need only have prior knowledge of Mungiu’s talent to appreciate what he could accomplish with a tale of corruption in Romanian society, an examination of generational attitudes toward a back-scratching mentality of social advancement, with, at its centre, a father manipulating his daughter’s exam grades after she is sexually assaulted the day before her first test. The premise is promising, the screenplay is richly layered, and the directing is bold and subtly expressive. Mungiu’s neither pushing himself nor the medium with Graduation, but he’s on top form nevertheless.
And he’s an excellent speaker to boot. Both he and Maria-Victoria Dragus, the film’s co-lead and equally engaging as her director, appeared to introduce their film and to engage in a post-screening Q&A. He revealed interesting nuggets of information about the film’s production: that he had been interested in casting Dragus since seeing her in The White Ribbon, and she had been interested in working with him since age 14, and after a project on which they were working fell through, he wrote her part in Graduation for her – the first time he’s written a character as such; that he scrapped the original final 30 pages of the script and began shooting without a finished draft, rewriting as shooting took place. But most remarkable of all was this highly intelligent filmmaker’s grasp of the social and political factors that he exploits in the film to such marvellous effect. He discussed the impact of the fall of Communism on his country, and the disillusionment created by the brutal suppression of the fantastic hopes of the Romanian people in the early 1990s. One generation’s mass disappointment is borne down upon their children, and the culture of corruption infects their lives, spoils their moral purity and innocence. And to every seemingly minor detail in the film’s mise-en-scène, Mungiu stated: “Nothing’s by accident.” And you’d know it too.
Another film, another cinema I haven’t frequented since LFF 2014: Ciné Lumière at the Institut Français. You see how this year has been so peculiar now? A new hostel, a new cinema, several cinemas I’ve visited only rarely before, and not at all recently, and remarkably few screenings in those theatres that were once mainstays for me. It’s the kind of distancing dynamic that necessitates some degree of welcome, and welcome there was in Claude Barras’ My Life as a Courgette. A stop-motion animated film running just over one hour, this Swiss film represents Barras’ directorial debut, although its screenwriter, Céline Sciamma, will be more familiar to film fans, with titles under her belt such as Water Lilies, Tomboy and 2014’s Girlhood. But even none of her past achievements can compare to this wondrous film, a warm and supremely empathetic examination of human nature in children in the most trying of circumstances. The film’s main characters are youths in a care home, having all lost their parents to prison, deportation, death, you name it, or having undergone abuse in their former homes. The film is such an incredible success for a reason that is simple to state, yet must have been anything but to create: Barras, Sciamma, and Gilles Paris, who wrote the novel on which this film is based, display a dumbfounding intelligence to the manner of their young characters, to their thought processes, their emotional natures, their behavioural characteristics. It’s a tremendous psychological and artistic feat, and also a delightfully enjoyable film, one that is genuinely accessible to persons of all ages in a way that no other film to my recollection can match.
Gratifyingly, there were no disasters today! I knew where I was going! I knew where my hairband was all day! And, best of all, there wasn’t a dud in the bunch, with all three of the day’s scheduled screenings impressing me greatly. Last on the list was Paul Verhoeven’s Elle, and I guess this is where AD readers’ ears prick up. As with yesterday’s unexpectedly star-studded Q&A for Moonlight, here we had been promised an appearance by the director, which we received, but were treated to the previously-unannounced appearance of the star: Isabelle Huppert. Is it even possible that I could be even more excited to see Mme. Huppert a second time, having also witnessed her divinity in person three years ago at LFF 2013? What’s most striking about the great actor in the flesh is her size – it’s quite commonplace to note how celebrities look so much smaller in reality than they do on the TV, or in the pictures, but the apparent disparity is particularly pronounced in Huppert’s case, for on screen, she does indeed appear physically diminutive. But her emotional stature is so large as to engender a genuine shock upon seeing that, yes, this most magnificent talent is a petite, slender, just-over-5-foot 60-something.
Elle, by the way, is everything you’ve heard it is. It is bizarre, surprising, shocking, challenging, endlessly shifting and fluctuating and in constant indecision as to its nature and its purpose. And the manners in which it will have its curious effects on its audience will bewilder even those prepared for such a reaction, since they take on such an unfamiliar form. Elle is every bit the gauche genre provocation that Verhoeven’s English-language film fans anticipate, and every bit the bold inquiry into sexuality and psychology that his Dutch-language film fans anticipate, and, in amalgamation, it’s so much more still. It also boasts one of 2016’s most fabulous casts, brimful with shameless older women and an endless line of prime young male totty. Laurent Lafitte, get inside me.
What do you want to know about Elle? No doubt you couldn’t care less what I can tell you, but in what director and star alike can impart, you’ll learn more about this terrific film than a dozen articles, reviews, theses and textbooks on it could ever hope to contain. Regarding its unusual journey to the screen, Verhoeven related how the film was initially opted as an American production, which is where video game fan and schlock horror writer David Birke came on board to adapt Philippe Djian’s French novel; several American actors turned the lead role down immediately, however, and so the screenplay was translated back into French, and Huppert, who had been interested from the outset, was signed up. Her interpretation of the role was wholly apparent in her presentation of it, as she delineated her feelings upon Michèle, each one aligning perfectly with what she communicated in her performance. There was her idea of her as a ‘post-feminist’ woman, improvizing her actions and reactions to best befit her current circumstances. She thought that the more you know about Michèle, the more you realize that you actually do not know her, and thus the extreme qualities of her personality made her an ideal representation of what a human being is in their core, or at least what a woman is. In the pursuit of this sense of immediacy, the two recounted how little they discussed the character while on set, with Verhoeven stating that Huppert came perfect for the part, and Huppert remarking that over-directing can result in the loss of spontaneity in the actor’s portrayal; she wanted to “register multiple subtle nuances” in the present. It was a fantastic and funny Q&A, as director responded to a question on why there was no appetite for such a controversial project in the U.S. by expressing his confusion at the American character in general, with so much of its population pledging support to Donald Trump, and star responded to a question of why she accepted the role of another sexually deviant middle-aged woman after Michael Haneke’s The Piano Teacher by quipping, “It’s my thing, I love it!”
My two cents? America needs to get its act together. These magnificent artists, old-school, pragmatic, endlessly inventive, are being driven out of the industry by increasingly narrow definitions of what will, and what will not work for financiers. See how, alongside Paul Verhoeven’s once prolific output, the career of Brian de Palma has similarly slowed down significantly in this century. Elle is proof of how we’ve been woefully missing out in recent years.
I certainly wasn’t missing out today. That’s three for the ages, in the space of less than 12 hours. I hope you’re jealous. It’s the least you deserve. Tomorrow is an equally attractive triptych of films, with two Cannes hits from young female filmmakers, Maren Ade’s Toni Erdmann, then 26-year-old Shahrbanoo Sadat’s Wolf and Sheep – Afghanistan’s first female director with her award-winning second feature – and, finally, the chance to join Terrence Malick on his Voyage of Time: Life’s Journey. We have lift off!
Go read my blog: screenonscreen.blogspot.co.uk. Go follow me on Twitter: @screenonscreen. Virtual and physical stalkers both welcome.