Time flies whether you’re having fun or not. Looking back on my stay in London so far, half way through my trip as I write this diary entry, it seems such a long time ago that I set off upon this journey, early earlier earliest Friday morning, yet where have those five days gone? They’ve gone by in countless tube journeys, films (not quite so countless) and hours’ sleep (who knows?), on screens projecting films which I will savour for many days and decades more and films which I’ll never care to watch again. These five days have been wonderful! May the next five days be equally wonderful too.
If I seem reflectively melancholy, it’s probably because I am. Ten days forking out for a film festival aren’t for everyone, least of all people with 9 to 5 jobs like Thomas. As I write this, he’s returned home and I’ve moved room, from our functional little double room to a cheaper, barely-functional 20x mixed dorm, the same room that Thomas rather reasonably disapproved of last year. It’s not the relative discomfort that bothers me, nor the solitude. I have films to look forward to, after all. It’s just the fact that Thomas has gone. That’s all. This is set to be the longest stretch of time that we’ve spent apart since we met nearly two years ago; we’ve enjoyed one another’s company at least briefly every day since March. I hope the next five days will be as wonderful as the first five, but I know they won’t.
Today was films out my arse, having slacked these last two days with only one film on each of them. I had three scheduled, so it was non-stop; outside of Thomas’ departure, the day was fairly uneventful otherwise (it didn’t have much time to be eventful), so I’ll get to it. Film #1 was one of the titles I’d most been looking forward to; ditto Thomas – Hou Hsiao Hsien’s The Assassin. I lost a bet on this winning the Palme d’Or at Cannes in May – it won the Prix de la Mise-en-Scene from the Coen brothers’ jury – but there were no hard feelings, only high expectations. You know the thrill of a film, or any experience indeed, not merely matching high expectations but exceeding them? I’d regret to raise any of you readers’ expectations too high, but I wonder where too high might even be, having seen a film reach such heights of artistry as this.
Hou introduced the film via a terse introductory message, but no need to regret his absence. We were in the presence of his genius, after all. Fascinating to witness his style adapt to a period piece, and that genre’s characteristics adapt to his style. Wondrous to witness a film so whole in its construction, with every aspect therein both complimenting and informing each other. Sublime to witness talent of this level create art of this level of beauty. It’s far from hyperbolic to proclaim The Assassin one of the most ravishing films of all time – this isn’t just any film, after all – since true brilliance is usually fairly easy to identify. No doubt we’ll all still agree with that assessment many years down the line.
One hour between film #1 and film #2 Is enough time to write a couple of reviews, attend to a few online obligations and fetch a small bucket of the most expensive popcorn in the world. Film #2 would be Lucile Hadzihalilovic’s Evolution. I know, right? Try saying that one! No rly, try. It’s worth trying, since it’s her fucking name, and no alternative pronunciation will suffice! The introducer, whose name I fittingly can’t remember, maybe ought to have tried, pronouncing it incorrectly on both utterances. After a wuxia film that was largely anything but, here’s a horror film that’s a little too , to prove that to its audience; in fact, Evolution shouldn’t be so overtly reliant on horror tropes and techniques, since it’s a story rich and deep in potential philosophical analysis, told by a filmmaker with obvious ability and strong stylistic intuition. What that story entails, I’ll leave to your imagination, since this is a film where little appears to happen, even as a lot actually does, and where much of it happens early on.
Hadzihalilovic wasn’t keen to explain too much either, even when prompted to by an audience member who considered some parts of the film ‘obscene’, though I’m not even certain that he meant that as a criticism. Her assertion that the film is only what you make of it personally is an oft-forgotten fact about all films (and one which The Witch director perhaps ought to consider, even if his film is superior), yet I found myself appreciating ever more Hadzihalilovic’s lengthy explanations for every other question she was posed. She revealed her struggles to find financing for the film (it’s been 11 years since her last, Innocence), and the surprising fact that those struggles only intensified when she positioned the project as a more conventional, narrative-driven, less-provocative prospect. She told of her inspiration for the story, stemming back to a mundane but frightening trip to the hospital for an appendectomy. She referenced the two films by Belgian directors Helene Cattet and Bruno Forzani, Amer and The Strange Colour of Your Body’s Tears, both of which I enjoyed immensely and would highly recommend, the latter of which was my final film at LFF two years ago – Cattet and Forzani’s go-to DP Manuel Dacosse was the cinematographer for Evolution, and Amer’s costume designer Jackye Fauconnier also designed the wardrobe for this film. And she echoed Nemes László’s preference for film from the Son of Saul Q&A two days back, noting that she and Dacosse had to work hard to achieve a film-like effect even while shooting on digital due to difficulties, striving to achieve a tactility to the imagery that emphasised the textures, alongside a lack of focus and clarity reminiscent of dreams
Then Thomas left.
More work, more reviews, more time to be spent as fully as possible before film #3, Evangelia Kranioti’s Exotica, Erotica, etc. A funny one, in many ways – a film I selected on the strength of its synopsis and accompanying image in the LFF programme, a documentary about the lives and experiences of seamen and the prostitutes they frequent on the ports of the world. Its title is a tad pretentious, it screened in the BFI Southbank (which forbids cameras, so no shots of the film’s stunning beauty of a director) in its Screen 3, which forbids all food and drink. Its director had to endure a repeat mispronunciation of her name too – it had to happen to the two women, didn’t it?! Rather pleased that I caught two films directed by women today, and the other one is centred around a woman. Exotica, Erotica, etc. is vaguely obtuse, incomparably beautiful in its dramatic documentary cinematography, a bit pedestrian and unadventurous at times, but a quality artistic experience nonetheless, and at under 75 minutes. Like Evolution, I warmed up to the film more after hearing its director discuss it – Kranioti was most eloquent, open and well-informed on her project. She would be – she had over 450 hours of footage to craft a film out of, a film which began life as a photography piece which Kranioti filmed motion footage for in order to aid her memory in the editing room, and which morphed into an actual motion picture part way through. It was a process of discovery for its director, who was the only crew member aboard the ships on which she filmed most of Exotica, Erotica, etc.’s material – its main character, Chilean sex worker Sandy, came to Kranioti around midway through production, though even as she changed its course, this was a film that only took any kind of form in the editing room. Among another of its most notable elements is a sailor whom Kranioti contacted after eight years, having remembered their very brief meeting all that time ago and deciding that his voiceover recollections would serve the film excellently.
So what does a busy film lover like me do after a busy day watching films? See another film, ofc! Thomas, like much of the rest of the world, wasn’t impressed by the promotional material for Robert Zemeckis’ The Walk – since I have the time to see it alone, and on an IMAX screen (Belfast no longer has one of those), I made the five-minute journey from BFI Southbank to BFI IMAX, where I’d had such a fantastic time watching The Forbidden Room on Friday, to see this new release. Since it’s not quite as relevant to my festival coverage as the other films I saw today, and since I’m tired af and it’s late af as I’m writing this, I’ll keep it brief: The Walk is an utterly shite work of utter magnificence. Examine each element of it equally and individually and you’ll conclude that it’s a complete stinker; one individual element of The Walk is more equal than the others, however, and the vertiginous high-wire and WTC-scaling sequences that make up the bulk of its second half are absolutely astounding, and among the finest filmmaking of the year. The trouble is, they’re set alongside some of the most risible filmmaking that I’ve seen this year too.
I’ll take it easier tomorrow. I think I’ll have to. So here’s what to expect: Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Cemetery of Splendour, followed by the UK premiere and the LFF American Express gala of Todd Haynes’ Carol. Don’t be jelly, dickheads.
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