Just because I’m at a film festival doesn’t mean that I’m not willing to spend my valuable spare time and money on going to the cinema for non-festival titles. That’s the mark of a true obsessive, there – dealing with their withdrawal by finding new outlets for their addiction. Aren’t you proud of me? See, I’m a pretty fucking cool guy, so I get Fridays off my course, presumably for some sort of study or something equally useless, and on the fifth day god created the opening day matinées for enterprising poor people like me. Anyway, Blade Runner 2049 wasn’t gonna see itself, certainly not in IMAX 3D, and though I had my qualms about seeing Denis Villeneuve’s hyped-about sequel sans boyfriend (who could totally come with me again once the festival’s over), I’m confident now, post-film, that he probably wouldn’t have liked it anyway, so I made the right decision, which is nothing new for me.
It’s not quite germane to my LFF exploits, but BR2049 left me a tad miffed, much like Ridley Scott’s 1982 original. I guess this franchise isn’t quite for me, though I was shook to my core by the technical excellence of what Villeneuve has created. If you can be arsed paying them extra dollars, there’s no better venue for this title than IMAX, and without a Roger-Deakins-colour-graded-post-production-intensified-shadow of a doubt in 3D!
My #LFF2017 schedule was drafted prior to finding out my university timetable for the semester, so all weekday screenings are packed into evening shows, and weekends are just wall-to-wall films. Hence a generous lie-in followed by a mammoth-length dystopian sci-fi almost as long as Ryan Gosling’s face, then followed by a trawl of London’s West End in search of an appropriate spot to access Wi-Fi without the need for selling my body in exchange, and I tell you I came damn close to just that. So many cinemas and tourists in Leicester Square, there’s no room for any other basic necessities: Wi-Fi-equipped cafés, ATMs, sensible people walking at a productive pace! Eventually, 6:30 rolled in, and I exhaustedly dribbled myself into a front row seat at the lovely Prince Charles Cinema for a screening of John Cameron Mitchell’s How to Talk to Girls at Parties.
And so did everyone else! JCM was there, joined by co-writer Philippa Goslett, producer Iain Canning, and stars Alex Sharp, Ethan Lawrence, Abraham Lewis, Ruth Wilson and Joanna Scanlan. LFF programmer and prolific attendee and interviewer Kate Taylor asked a rowdy crowd if this world were all we were living for. Cast member Elle Fanning was tentatively promised to appear via FaceTime post-screening. Mitchell pondered the logistics of disposing of the microphones during the film – his implied solution was the finest one of which I have thus far been able to think. The audience cheered and laughed and heckled, in a very 21st-Century, middle-class, wannabe-punk kind of way, but it’s as punk as you’re gonna get in this end of London while the sun’s still in the sky – will it ever fuck off?! – and I suppose that’ll have to do.
How to Talk to Girls at Parties makes a number (and it’s a big one, a hefty, girthy, veiny one) of statements about something or other over its 100-minute-odd running time. Space is gay! Penetration is life! Pleasure is key! Conformity is evil! Nicole Kidman is queen! A ramshackle Neil Gaiman adaptation, it combines cults, cannibals, punks, aliens and serious sexual deviancy, mixing roughly for not nearly long enough, bunged into the oven at an extraordinary heat until everyone has been at least a little bit singed. Expectations and artistic red lines can get fucked – like the punks for whose legacy it raucously pines, How to Talk to Girls at Parties makes no concessions in delivering a carefree audience everything it wants, and delivering a careful audience the steaming pile of shit they never knew they needed. Mitchell said it himself in his introduction: those French critics just didn’t get it, and it looks like they’re never gonna get it. I’m mightily glad it’s been served up to them, though, every breath an original, every rule made up on the fly and broken immediately thereafter, every joke a cracker, every costume a killer, every message made in utter earnest.
As you struggle to read my keenly-honed prose, I struggle to read my hastily-assembled Q&A scribblings. John and Philippa were accompanied by Kate for the joyous discussion, in which viewer participation was encouraged to a greater extent than I’ve ever previously observed in such sessions. After all, this is a film made for its audience, so why not chip in?! We discovered, in the process, informative details amid the gags: that our filmmakers strove to maintain fealty to Gaiman’s short story, expanded upon to enormous length here, whilst aiming for a Midnight Movie feel that was calibrated nonetheless to avoid coming off as too try-hard in its pursuit of cult status; that costume designer Sandy Powell called the shots as far as her department went, requiring the makeshift usage of body stockings for one crucial outfit which she simply didn’t have ready; that U.S. distributors A24, and their international counterparts, have declined to bother with an awards-qualifying run, and that we’ll be seeing the film in theatrical release next Spring; and that Elle Fanning, indeed present via FaceTime for a brief moment, is currently working on Woody Allen’s new movie. That went down well. You know what I mean. She did too…
After a full day of hauling a laptop, litre upon litre of sugar-free energy drinks, and the department store’s worth of products needed to keep me looking vaguely the right side of repugnant for more than 30 minutes, and upon hearing that my beloved Thomas can’t make it to the next film – one of only two he’s attending this year – a 9:30pm start while surrounded by idiots isn’t anything close to what my emotionally-raw psyche demands. Trust me, these people are idiots. The crowd leaving Odeon Leicester Square from the premiere before mine (Journey’s End, for which why one would shell out on a redundant gala engagement baffles me to no end) was dressed up like they were going to the fucking opera… in 1875. These are the types who take any excuse to shuffle down the red carpet at the absolute minimum speed, you know, in case the Press Association fancies an interview or the Daily Mail thinks their Debenhams dress and Marks & Spencer shawl deserves set next to the celebrity-sported Dior and Gucci loans making their sporadic appearances at the LFF. No, Helena, they don’t! Take your stupid seat and ingest your stupid coffee-table culture before I slice your soul clean in half with nought more than a single raised eyebrow!
What better way to distract one’s attention from that sense of emotional fatigue than an emotionally fatiguing Hispanic melodrama? Sebastián Lelio stunned many with his previous feature, Gloria (although perhaps not so much myself), and he’s stunning many more with A Fantastic Woman, its title an unambiguous announcement of its thematic content, if not its narrative content. Throughout this beguiling film, Lelio shows a remarkable sensitivity for transforming those qualities of existence most scorned by society into objects of sublime art, purely through the distinction of a different perspective. Daniela Vega the incomparable fleshes her character from the inside out, delving ever deeper within for an ever more ebulliently expressive performance, literally quivering with heartfelt intensity – Marina grieves the loss of her boyfriend, whose family places all manner of sickening obstacles in her path to mourn his passing and move on with dignity, simply due to her identity as a transwoman. Ignominy piles on ignominy for Marina, and what rage Lelio and Vega instil in their viewer modulates into an acutely uncomfortable fear and apprehension. Gone, mostly, is the satisfaction I tend to feel when a film character stands tall and defiant against their oppressors, replaced by dread, dread, and more dread. Lelio’s direction is formally casual and gentle on his story, with those bold stylistic gestures one expects from South American cinema enlivening the mise-en-scène here and there; even these are handled deftly, though, and in complete and total service to the material. In retrospect, note how many of these might have been injurious to that material were they fumbled – the early shift in focus from one character to another, potentially disorientating choices in soundtrack and shot, Lelio’s tendency toward maximalism in otherwise minimalist artistic devices, and the sheer depravity of the torture inflicted upon our protagonist. I found Gloria a touch too supple and adaptive to take proper hold of my emotions; A Fantastic Woman is so fantastic, it took a hold of my already-naked emotions and shredded them to sorry little pieces.
Although our director was not present for the Q&A afterwards, he sent a message to apologize for his absence, to thank his audience, his distributors and those who appeared in his place, and to offer us all grandes abrazos. There instead were: co-writer Gonzalo Maza, who explained that his desire to make a story inspired by his own experience with the death of a loved one was combined with Lelio’s desire to make one about the experience of a transwoman; composer Matthew Herbert, a Brit, who related his director’s instruction to write for the film a dreamlike accompaniment, and his own impulse to create something out of empathy and love, an elegant composition in a world where division is so often sewn around hate, and geeking us out with details of his self-imposed challenge to set a soundtrack in middle grounds, using mid-range instruments like the alto flute, and the underused sample rate of 44-48kHz; and star of stars Daniela Vega herself, whose interpreter informed us of Lelio’s trust-building practice of allowing a free space for all contributors’ ideas on set, thus coaxing out of her such a brilliant perf, including a number of scenes of live singing, of her connection to the character (and its physical legacy in the handbag she nicked from the set), and her inspirational closing speech, imploring the audience to know and respect ourselves, and to love one another. Film, she said, saved her life. Might this particular film do the same for someone else, and someone else again.
There ought to be Oscars all around for A Fantastic Woman. Small chance of that, unfortunately, but it doesn’t prevent it from being true, and perhaps no more disappointingly so in light of that concurrent truth of the Academy’s oft-questionable taste in determining the finest films of the year. I’ve seen several of those already at #LFF2017, and it’s only day three of twelve. Tomorrow, a few more, I should hope: Robin Campbillo’s Cannes Grand Prix winner 120 Beats Per Minute, Valeska Grisebach’s long, long-awaited Western, and Clio Barnard’s festival Special Presentation Dark River.
Where are all my new followers?! @screenonscreen on Twitter, tyvm!