You know when you just wish everyone in the whole world would just die? Like, all of you, just leave me alone, you’re a bunch of pricks, you’re not helping, you’re making things worse, just go home and voluntarily drop dead? That’s how I’m feeling this morning. Oh don’t worry, it’s nothing too bad! Only the fact that I got a mere five hours of bad sleep, with the fellow in the bunk above me emitting snores that resembles the sounds of a dying rhinoceros, further passing on to me some hideous, feverish cold bug that has reached its inglorious nadir right now, at 7am, as a group of cacophonous Italians insists upon switching the lights on, chatting at full volume and having blazing arguments. And this was supposed to be the morning where I could get a lie-in.
Ok, ok, so my problems aren’t that bad. I mean, tell all that to Una, and would she care? Rooney Mara’s latest tour-de-force, as she continues to build an argument that all other actors ought to retire and hand all the roles in town over to her, is as the title character in Benedict Andrew’s Una, David Harrower’s adaptation of his stage play, which itself had previously been directed by Andrews, here embarking on his cinema debut. And what a debut! The film is full of bold cinematic flourishes and subtle stylistic gestures, and all in direct service of the provocative, psychologically-rich narrative: a young woman confronts the man who sexually abused her when she was 13, and, over the course of a day, the two work through their past together in an attempt to shape their future. It’s outstandingly acted by all cast members, especially Mara and Ben Mendelsohn in the leading roles, and sensitively, thoughtfully made.
Andrews was present for a post-screening Q&A – how prevalent these have become, being more of a rarity three years ago, upon my first visit to the LFF. You’d expect a stage director to be pretty verbose, wouldn’t you, and it was a privilege to hear an artist with so much of value to impart about his creative processes. Having helmed the play, Blackbird upon which this film is based, and having worked with Harrower in developing the conceptual changes made during the adaptation, he knows a thing or two about the material. Significant attempts were made at making it less theatrical, opened out not only in space but in scope – never mind the extended flashbacks and variety of locations, Blackbird is a two-hander throughout, whereas Una’s ensemble is full of important supporting players. Andrews was interested in what cinema could achieve that theatre could not, in particular the ability to manipulate time and duration, allowing the film to more immediately address the issues of old, lingering emotional wounds and the effect of memory on the characters, issues at the film’s very heart. He welcomes the variety of interpretations to the film, too, with its enigmatic ending; he regards it with more optimism than I do, though even I’m far from certain what I think of it. I’m certain of how I feel about it, though, and it’s certainly good.
I wrote yesterday of the lack of experimental films in my LFF 2016 lineup, in comparison to last year. But they don’t come much more experimental than Indonesian artist Fiona Tan’s Ascent, which was my second screening of the day, and only my second trip to Leicester Square of my four days in London thus far; even then, Curzon Soho is a few minutes’ walk away from the Square itself. It’s a bloody good show when your cinema has not one but two bars, so I helped myself to not one but two drinks (only two, though, and only because I didn’t have time for a third). And this is the kind of state I’m in: driven to delirium by a single pint of Peroni, possibly the effect of a cumulative cocktail of painkillers, throat lozenges, cough syrup, sugar-free energy drinks and alcohol, the first notes I made in my notepad appeared totally blank to my eyes in the darkness, prompting a frenzied scribble over the page, before realizing that the pen had been working all along, and I’d just made a barely-legible mess of the entire page. Now that’s experimental!
Ascent is titled as a ‘photo-film,’ and indeed it is a film comprised visually of photos alone, each one featuring an image of Mount Fuji. Some are as old as photography itself, others are professional, colour-corrected jobs, others are amateur and grainy, some are taken from the mountain, some from the ground below, some from the air, some are close and some far, some are of the mountain and some only feature it in the background, barely even glimpsed. Tan explores a lot in this quasi-documentary, with Fuji being the sole constant, and recurring themes of grief, loss, impermanence, love and longing. It’s quite moving, and very artfully done, but it’s a rambling, often distancing film that could, in this viewer’s opinion, have benefitted from a narrower focus.
Tan made an appearance after the film, and decided that, since her work was experimental, the ensuing Q&A session ought to bear some sort of similar quality – she turned the tables on her audience, asking us if Ascent had been the film we had expected of it. By and large, in fact, the answer was yes – the film is unusual, but in a usual way for unusual films. And equally alike to her fellow experimental filmmakers’ works, one’s impression of Ascent improved upon hearing of its production. The project was engendered as a museum piece, with Tan utilizing historical photos of Mount Fuji to form some kind of art piece; eventually, she decided to ask online for uploads of the mountain, and then worked from 4,500-odd shots to design a narrative around the project. It was a work in development along every step of the way, it seems, and Tan admits that she intentionally relinquished control over its direction at times. During editing, it transpired that the actual content of the film had yet to be formulated, since there was no indication of where to cut, with only still footage at the filmmakers’ disposal; the slightest change in one element could yield extensive rewrites, and the whole creative team was intimately involved in crafting the finished product. Tan wanted to explore the essence of cinema, to question its nature by reducing it down, questioning if it were still possible to create movie magic and tell a story when movement is taken away. For its failings, I’d argue that Ascent is proof that it is definitely possible to do so, though film projection is not Tan’s only concern here – this is a two-headed beasts, with an installation version of the film set over two rooms also in existence.
These directors sure can speak. It’s time for my first real mad dash of LFF 2016, the kind that I’ve lamented in previous years far too frequently, but have skilfully avoided this time out. And, in fairness, this one had nothing on those – less a mad dash than a mild hurry, and for once I haven’t had to sacrifice any Q&As (thus far) for the sake of timekeeping. But the hurry was wholly necessary; the final film of the day would be Albert Serra’s The Death of Louis XIV, with Jean-Pierre Léaud. That’s sure to be an unmissable event, thought I; it is an unmissable event, know I, and report I to thee. And if you’re apprehensive about the task of making it through such a bold work by such an esoteric artist, fear not, since The Death of Louis XIV is Serra’s most accessible film. He said as much himself, though the intention to make it so was never actually there, in an introduction where he commented that, upon premiering, it was the first of his films to see its audience significantly deplete over its runtime!
It’s a predictably strange, sumptuous film, featuring a performance from Léaud that sees the great actor pushing himself further than any other role has asked of him in recent years, and the character of the whole enterprise meticulously controlled by Serra’s idiosyncratic style. As riveting as it is, sparse and sparing in certain elements but compensating with an extraordinary richness in others, it’s also a hugely surprising film, with Serra veering left just when you think he’s about to go right, as is so appealingly typical of this most inimitable filmmaker. And of equal value to the film was the ensuing Q&A. Aside from a few conversational interruptions from the interviewer, the director was asked roughly one distinct question from the stage, and only two from the audience, such was the length and detail to which he spoke in his responses. From anecdotes about Léaud’s egocentricity to the origin of the project as a museum piece depicting his lead actor portraying Louis XIV in a crystal cage over the 15 days leading up to his death, to his plans for his forthcoming film, a comedy about an artist in the present day, there were also extensive descriptions of the shooting process. We learnt that Serra always shoots with three cameras, much to the initial befuddlement of his camera-aware lead, and films non-stop, amassing enormous amounts of footage, which is then edited down by mixing scenes together. It’s one of the most notable aspects of The Death of Louis XIV, the sense of time blurring, the days and nights becoming one long experience of tragic agony. Serra stated that death has a natural dramaturgy, in which even the slightest gestures could accrue huge significance, but also appreciated the contradictions in the film’s premise: that most unfair of things, the monarchy, being submitted to that most democratic of things, death; the banality of the event against the importance of these specific events; the intimacy of this private space (the entire film takes place with the camera situated in the King’s bedroom) against the public nature of what occurs there, in the Court, with one onlooker after another; and the fact that even the richest people can have bad doctors!
A fabulous way to end the day, and to end a stretch of seeing three films per day – that’s 12 films in just four days! Now onto a leaner schedule, with only 11 films over the upcoming six days. Tomorrow, Bertrand Tavernier’s 3-hour-plus documentary Journey Through French Cinema, followed by the first of two gay-themed Argentinian films, Marco Berger and Martín Farina’s Taekwondo.
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