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London Film Festival Diary, Day 4: 120 Beats Per Minute, Western, Dark River

Onwards and outwards with the 2017 London Film Festival at a rate of 120 beats per minute and no less! I’ll get to it, then, as day four of my festival experience began with just that – Robin Campillo’s 120 Beats Per Minute, otherwise known as Beats Per Minute, otherwise known as BPM, otherwise known as BPM (Beats Per Minute), otherwise known as 120 Battements Par Minute, which is probably the title on which we’d do best to settle, given that the English-speaking world doesn’t seem to have the slightest idea how to translate it (beats me…).

Saturday mornings were not made for early starts this far north, and given my new status as a full-time Londoner, there was no need for this day to commence any sooner than its first film. I made the journey into the Embankment Garden Cinema, somehow a most festive space despite its impermanence and its lack of luxury, just in time to take my seat for Campillo’s acclaimed activist drama, riding a wave of buzz from its award-winning Cannes stint through its autumn engagements to possible Oscar success a few months from now.

As with so many of his most renowned national contemporaries, Robin Campillo’s career is easily assessed as one that has never been easily classified; in 120 Beats Per Minute, he gathers the various stylistic impulses that have shaped each stage in that career and rolls them into a single, cohesive statement on the urgency of both passion and compassion in solving society’s most pressing problems. The early ‘90s in the thick of ACT UP Paris’ desperate, determined campaign to raise awareness about AIDS, to protest François Mitterand’s government’s ignorance and inaction, and to pressure big French pharma into showing that most basic care that ought to be their primary duty – intense times erratically jolting ever forward into an unknown future, itself ever constricting for the group’s HIV+ members. Campillo throws his audience in head first and refuses to relent – the film is an initial barrage of energy and information, gradually providing space for clarity as the viewer acclimatizes, then constricting that space as these political stories become inescapably personal. This really is politics in the first person, and Campillo’s film responds accordingly, an emphatic acceptance of the same responsibilities assumed by our courageous band of protagonists. It’s both a reaction to and a reminder of the indifference and the forgetfulness of a globe full of people too willing to look the other way unless stared at, and forced to stare back. That we even need told what 120 Beats Per Minute tells us is its most powerful attribute, among many.

Our director attended a Q&A after his marvellous film, filling us in, a deeply affected crowd, many of whom had evidently lived through the era depicted. Campillo had too – he was even a member of ACT UP Paris at the time. Personal experiences contributed to the narrative content of his screenplay, and his own character and opinions filtered through character after character in the large yet brilliantly inter-complimentary ensemble. A project that he had been mulling over even before he knew it, 120 Beats Per Minute formed out of a fear to make something unsatisfactory, and the realization that this story that had been so close to Campillo all this time was, in fact, the perfect story for him to tell. It proved to be a worthwhile decision, as he discovered that the younger actors comprising his cast, mainly LGBT+ actors, were unaware of the struggles of the period and the stories he was telling. Despite describing his motivation behind making this movie as purely selfish, the truth is plain for all to see – 120 Beats Per Minute is a film for all those who see it, for whom it may remind, provoke, entertain, or educate. It’s an authentic piece of work, a laser-focused, house-music-soundtracked, uncompromised vision of the truth, with direct permission obtained from Jimmy Somerville for his songs, and actual events lifted from Campillo’s past to bolster its legitimacy.

I replied to a missed call when exiting the tube at South Kensington. My boyfriend’s mother was in a state of panic. There’d been an ‘incident’ at the National History Museum. Irish mammies across the nation calling their UK-based children to check that they’d escaped unscathed. Never mind that the National History Museum is nowhere near Clapham, where we live – Irish mammies will be Irish mammies, and I’ll be gobsmacked if there’s not a generous package of food and other semi-essential supplies in the post within hours. Coincidentally, the National History Museum is indeed very near to South Kensington station, and police were standing by the cordoned-off streets outside on my route to l’Institut Français for my next film. An over-reaction? No, I’m just happy to live in a society that takes such cautions over the safety of its citizens, even if it’s intent on eroding our rights in countless other ways, and even if it shows a callous disregard for the safety of other nations’ citizens. An over-reaction from the media, perhaps, but who am I to whine – am I not almost a part of that media myself?

Valeska Grisebach’s Western was a sobering reminder of the ease with which we Brits live, the comfort of our circumstances on the whole, or at least those of us who had the good fortune to be born here, to white parents. A careful, context-rich exploration of pan-European national relationships, and a sensitive deconstruction of masculinity’s perception of itself, as developed over the years in the genre from which this film takes its name, among other sources, this is a finely-tuned work of dramatic excellence from an auteur whose 11-year absence hasn’t been sorely felt enough. Grisebach’s story of German construction workers stationed in rural Bulgaria while renovating the area’s water systems, and the cultural tensions ignited by their boorish attitudes, is informed by the full breadth of decades of political history between the two nations, and enriched by the writer-director’s exquisite feel for character dynamics, and outstanding non-professional casting. Western is a symphony of grace notes set against a canvas of vivid, imposing conceptual themes, whose significance is neither undermined nor undercut by Grisebach’s unfussy attention to minor details, but actually crafted through them. Every figure is sculpted with precision, their smallest motives and approaches treated with respect and empathy, the end effect one of hugely rewarding complexity.

Absent for the film’s introduction due to the inevitable travel delays in the area, Ms. Grisebach was able to attend the Q&A after the screening had concluded, and was joined by one of her chief supporting players, Syuleyman Alilov Letifov. All of her features have screened at the London Film Festival upon initial release, as host Geoff Andrews from Sight & Sound proudly confirmed, and her graciousness was matched only by her grace, stood before her audience looking like Glenn Close stepped out of the latest Céline lookbook. She explained the genesis of her idea for Western, in a long-time fascination with the genre and its exploration of the character of masculinity. Law, be it political, natural, social, concentrated within a few isolated souls in conflict, the tensions exacerbated by the particulars of her cross-European perspective. We discovered that the ensemble was one wholly of non-pros, and that Grisebach’s practice in bringing her script to the screen through their work was one less of memorizing lines than it was of figuring out the trajectory of each scene, each progression in the plot. Thematic concerns led to research which led to interviews and a casting process of sublime simplicity – a lead actor who’d look right on horseback, each actor queried on their memories of Western pictures, and a method of directing tailored toward each participant’s personality and their preferred needs as a performer. Letifov, aided by a translator, joked that she’d merely found him in a forest, and that he accepted the part given that “luck favours the brave!” A testament to the validity of Grisebach’s product: he commented that this one film represents roughly 80% of the full reach of real Bulgarian life. With over a year to rehearse between filmmaker and cast due to difficulties with financing (isn’t it just typical, waiting nearly a decade for a new film from a female auteur only to see it postponed for monetary reasons), it’s no wonder.

I regret to inform you, dear AD, that not all films on my #LFF2017 slate are future classics. They can’t all be winners, certainly not with a pessimist-perfectionist like me doing the judging. It’s a good job I’m not, probably. But rejoice in the delicious snack I had at a coffee shop next to Odeon Leicester Square while greasily grafting on one of these very diary entries, prior to a showing of Clio Barnard’s Dark River. Four years back, I attended my first ever LFF, and saw Barnard’s last film, The Selfish Giant, much to my delight. It was wondrous. Dark River is no disaster, but it feels like the kind of arbitrary small step up for the sake of visibility that I wish a filmmaker as talented as she did not require. Perhaps she doesn’t, though four years was a long enough wait, and I’d abhor to see her disappear from cinemas for a full Grisebach (as it shall now be known, since we don’t have a term in English for a period of 11 years, which is an egregious oversight in our over-stuffed language, don’t you think?). Ruth Wilson and some guy people apparently recognize from Game of Thrones (I didn’t, and I’ve seen every episode) star as estranged siblings whose re-encounter on their rundown Yorkshire family farm following their abusive father’s death wrenches long-buried demons out of both of their tortured souls. It’s an earnest, austere, gritty work, in that conventionally Yorkshire way, and enormously emotive in its delivery – Barnard is just astonishingly astute in her use of editing and sound in expressing bold emotion, and no doubt her actors show commendable dedication to their roles. But I rather felt sorrier for the sheep than the people, and the narrative, adapted considerably from Rose Tremain’s novel Trespass, offered nothing startling enough to supply a sufficient amount of inspiration, I felt. It’s tangibly realistic, and satisfyingly melodramatic, but a bit too predictable to linger for another full four years.

This being a festival Special Presentation, Dark River was not followed by a Q&A but opened with a live introduction, after the red carpet event. Actors Wilson, Mark Stanley (that’s his name, fyi), Esme Creed-Miles and Aiden McCullough took to the stage with Barnard, producer Tracy O’Riordan and execs Andy Harries and Lila Rawlings. A few spoke for a few moments, in no remarkable depth – a light entrée before the heady, 90-minute meal that was to follow. Following tomorrow, three more delectable délices: Chinese animation Big Fish & Begonia, Narimane Mari’s colonialism doc Le Fort des Fous, and debut director Léonor Serraille’s Cannes Caméra d’Or recipient Montparnasse Bienvenue (screening here under its original French title, Jeune Femme).

Per a question put to Valeska Grisebach today, enquiring as to the availability of her first film, 2001’s Be My Star, which has never received a DVD berth, we hear that it is currently on Festival Scope, which is a terrific online outlet for international independent cinema, and where I narrowly missed tickets for Le Fort des Fous, resulting in forking out for its LFF release instead. Get to it, Oscarwatchers!

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