There are details one mightn’t expect about London that strike one upon arriving, at least from a place like Belfast. You know it’s going to be louder, busier, significantly more multi-cultural. But there are other, odd qualities to this city that continue to make an impression on me, each time I visit. There’s the friendliness of the shop assistants, waiting staff and baristas. There’s the increased diversity across all spectrums, from race to age to sexuality and further. And there’s the remarkable proliferation of attractive people. Today, I exempt myself wholeheartedly from this category. Bloated, low on sleep and in possession of a growing cold – the result of sleeping in a room full of people of various different nationalities and all the bugs they bring, harmless to them but not to the rest of us – I’m in need of a boost today.
And a boost is what I got in Maren Ade’s Toni Erdmann. Armed with an energy drink as my sole source of early morning fuel, I settled in for one of the most buzzed-about films of the year, a German tragicomedy about familial responsibility and the perils of an increasingly corporate society, running the guts of three hours. The audience at Cannes in May likely cringed at the thought too, though the ecstatic reception received by this extraordinary film both at that festival and at various others since had my hopes up that I was in for one of the most unique, memorable and worthwhile experiences of my trip to LFF this year. And Ade’s film is every bit as thrillingly audacious, sensitive, original, masterfully-made, unexpectedly creative as I’d heard, and as you’ve probably heard too. There’s barely a reliable voice in the international cinephile and critical community that doesn’t agree: Toni Erdmann is a landmark film, and emphatically one of 2016’s very best.
It was a treat to be joined for a Q&A at Embankment Garden Cinema, the temporary location that has been rather like my unofficial HQ for LFF 2016 (well, it and the Starbucks opposite), with exactly zero trips thus far to my usual hangouts, by actors Sandra Hüller – you’ll know her from Requiem, if you’ve any taste at all – and Trystan Pütter, who you’ll certainly know after seeing this film, in particular one excellent scene (among very many) that somehow slipped past the MPAA when they reached their classification decision… They were enthusiastic speakers indeed, perhaps rather too enthusiastic, although they provided valuable insight into the filming process. The audience learnt that more than 100 hours of footage were shot, with lengthy rehearsals and several takes in which the entire cast would be instructed by Ade – sometimes through earpiece – to approach their part from entirely different perspectives. Hüller remarked that she only felt like she knew her character once she saw the finished product, since she’d experimented with so many versions of the part during production. In the end, despite hour upon hour of cut footage, and a huge amount of improvization on set, the stars felt that Toni Erdmann actually resembled the shooting script rather closely, however. Toward the end, the two were joined by fellow star Lucy Russell, the sole English-speaker in a film that alternates between German, English and Romanian (and which was reportedly even filmed partly in French in some takes). The three commented on their surprise at the impact of the film, which has been embraced as a comedy yet was filmed with virtually no intention of serving as one. Asked on their opinions on its controversial shut-out at the official jury awards at Cannes, they stated that the reception they’d received there was worth far more than any award, that they felt close to the audience in a way that they’d only ever before seen theatre achieve. This theatre seemed to feel similarly – like at Cannes, there were at least two bursts of spontaneous applause mid-movie. Knowing British audiences like I do, that’s quite the compliment.
Have I mentioned how peculiar a festival this has so far been for me? Yes, I have. And I’m going to do it again, because in my sad little world it’s pretty remarkable. The BFI Southbank, the institute’s national HQ, used to be my most-frequented cinema – this year, I’ll be there for two films (out of 23), and both on the same day. And Vue West End, also a prominent fixture in previous frames at LFF, will only be visited a mere two times this year by myself. Indeed, its location, Leicester Square, is receiving rather short shrift. I attribute this to the types of films which drew my attention from the programme this year – whereas 2015 boasted high-profile screenings, obscure arthouse fare, and plenty of experimental works, with few mid-range titles, this year is mostly a mid-range selection, with films like Graduation, Toni Erdmann and After the Storm emblematic of the majority of my lineup. And these films don’t generally show in the major theatres, nor those more dedicated to the fest’s most abstract, under-the-radar films. Yet next on my list is one such film, showing at Ciné Lumière in Kensington, a location that’s pulling in plenty of Paddy’s pennies over these ten days!
That film is Shahrbanoo Sada’s Wolf and Sheep. If the director’s name doesn’t ring a bell, shame on you. She’s Afghanistan’s first ever female film director, the youngest ever director to be selected for the Cannes Cinéfondation residency, six years ago at only 20 years of age, and the recipient of the prestigious C.I.C.A.E. award for this film at Cannes earlier this year, where the film featured in the Quinzaine fest. A portrait of rural life in the mountains of Afghanistan, a tiny community in a region as-yet untouched by the various terrors wreaked upon this troubled country in recent decades, from Soviet invasion to Taliban control to the U.S.-led war and the subsequent resurgence of the Taliban. Focusing on the children in this little village, from their rustic hobbies to their work as shepherds for their parents and extended families, it’s a tender and understanding film with some striking artistic gambits. Sadat interweaves strands of magical realism into the narrative, and constructs some stunning compositions with cinematographer Virginie Surdej, shooting in Tajikistan due to fears for the largely-international crew, and to scenes featuring nudity. Not all of what Sadat attempts here entirely works – Wolf and Sheep feels a little too nonchalant and inconsequential at times, not least for a film shining a light on a culture that’s wholly unknown to most of the world, and it’s debatable whether or not she fully matches style to content. But it’s an interesting work no doubt, and worth checking out for anyone wanting to expand their cinematic horizons.
After Wolf and Sheep, I minced my way over to Mayfair to join old Terry M on his merry jaunt through the universe, Voyage of Time: Life’s Journey. Big Catey B was there to provide narration, and Tezza’s crew of 18 editors working with over 6,000 hours of material shot over 73 years were still at work, feeding the film into the projector in any oul order! Who cares! As long as there’s something on the screen and something on the soundtrack, we’re all good! Rachel Weisz’s role as a triceratops was cut, alas; ditto Christopher Plummer’s favourite speech in which his character, a particularly verbose amoeba, expounded upon the gargantuan efforts to which his devil director had gone simply to obscure the cast’s genitals in an extended sequence of bountiful nudity. Ken doll crotches are just one of Voyage of Time’s many problems, but their number is dwarfed by the sheer amount of sheer wondrousness on show. I’m a Malick fanboy, and so I should be – we’ve gone on a few benders in our time, just to provide him with the inspiration for his next films (I’ve still got no idea where he got the idea to cast Colin Farrell in Pocahontas 2, though) – and this documentary, his most esoteric, most Malickian movie yet, ought to give any film fan adequate reason to bow down and worship alongside me.
I’ve got a later start tomorrow, so I’ve got plenty of time to get back to the hostel and catch up on as much reality TV and junk food as I fucking like, and stay up until whenever I want cos I’m not a kid anymore, ok mum?!?¬!.Wqrkek
The menu for Day #4 is as follows: a second film about rape, Una, an experimental documentary about Mount Fuji, Ascent, and Jean-Pierre Léaud as Louis XIV in The Death of Louis XIV, a film about the death of Louis XIV, with Louis XIV as the main character.
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