Art’s potential to shock and surprise will never not be an underrated quality. How easy it is to dismiss a work when one’s primary response is that of alarm or discomfort, or of simply being proved wrong. I’m not at the London Film Festival to be placated, to be pandered to. Just take a brief glance at the film’s I’ve programmed for my 2017 slate and you’ll find evidence aplenty, not merely in the low profile of nor creative originality displayed in some of these titles, but in their variety. Inevitably, a variety of quality is to be expected, but where the unexpected creeps in – surprising, even shocking perhaps – is in the distribution of that quality.
The BFI Southbank cinema in Central London has changed a little since I was here last, with a new Mediatheque for its visitors’ free usage, but it’s my same old home from home from home during the LFF, even as I’ve enjoyed fewer opportunities to frequent this location than I’d prefer this year. You’re generally guaranteed that this theatre, as is the case throughout the year for films on general release, will showcase some of the most unconventional fare on offer, and what little convention there was to be found in the two films that occupied my afternoon on the South Bank. I started with Chinese animation Big Fish & Begonia from debut filmmakers (and I mean debut – neither has a single other credit on IMDb in any capacity) Liang Xuan and Zhang Chun. The film has people living in an under-underwater society, transforming into dolphins for release into the human world as a coming-of-age practice, and then exchanging their lives and wellbeing for the reparation of damages caused in the process, these very actions imposing extreme weather disturbances on their sub-planet and threatening its annihilation. That’s about as succinct as I can get it, though I’m not quite sure I ever actually got it myself.
Whereas much of the Far East’s most acclaimed animation receives western praise for its subtlety and softness of tone, Big Fish & Begonia is a vibrant, maximalist fantasy extravaganza, for better and worse in almost-equal measure. Its restless, scrappy narrative is matched by its uneasy mix of animation styles, its detailed and colourful production design, its utter disregard for tonal and emotional nuance, and its vast bed of references acting as unfortunate cues to the superior works that have blatantly served as direct inspiration. Liang and Zhang go for broke at every available juncture, and the film undoubtedly breaks several times over in the course, yet its overall gregariousness and shapelessness enable them to eke out a strange sense of security amid all this insecurity. Without question, Big Fish & Begonia’s ebullience, its sheer volume of wonder and inspiration, exhibited with verve and resolute sincerity throughout, work to establish its worth as a project in its own right, in spite of the seemingly endless calls back to one existing animated film after another, and even beyond the genre. One for a dull weekend afternoon, and then some.
I’d like to take this whole day and set it as mandatory viewing for all my new acquaintances at university, curious on what types of film I like, upon hearing of my interest in the field. It’s never quite enough for them to hear “All types,” though I doubt I could rhyme off Big Fish & Begonia and Le Fort des Fous without prompting yet more probing. My page of notes on Narimane Mari’s 140-minute enquiry into historical colonialism and its subsequent impact on immigration in Europe is more black ink than white space, yet I’m still not settled on what I think of the documentary, which is often only a doc insofar as it foregrounds its writer-director’s intentions in depicting what she does, alongside the intended reaction of her viewer, if she might ever have been capable of calibrating such an intention. This is dense, experimental, provocative cinema, an oblique descendant of mid/late-era Godard or Straub/Huillet, with the most esoteric elements of each butting heads in an even-less approachable juxtaposition over the film’s three semi-distinct segments.
Would that Mari had been in attendance herself – a Q&A would have been most valuable, though my tight schedule obliged me to leave the Southbank pretty swiftly anyway. Le Fort des Fous is a singular study on its topics and its methods in tandem, a work of jarring and distancing contradictions that is, in fact, all the more intriguing for these apparent defects. Mari assembles her thoughts and interpretations of social and political events of the past and theories of the present, mostly about the future, alongside those of contributors both featured and unwitting, respected, challenged and outright ridiculed. The film’s first, extraordinary chapter reframes the French occupation of Algeria almost as farce, exploring what it means to speak and to be understood, and what one means when one speaks. Mari demonstrates a perception of space and situation visual, aural and emotional, and orchestrates a profound, meaningful, fiercely well-informed spare symphony of comments and commentary, slipping into a middle chapter of less individual import, but plenty of intellectual resonance in conjunction with the first. Pasolini declares innocence a fault, and Mari encourages a long, quiet contemplation on his inflammatory remarks in this, the film’s most overtly fiction-esque portion. It lingers shorter than it should, and says more than it appears to, I suppose. Once Mari has inserted herself into her work for the final chapter, a pair of monologues, essentially, split over a series of interviews with two contrasting though complimentary voices on the fate of displaced former colonized peoples, she rather undermines the excellence of what we’ve just witnessed – flat and po-faced, and scarcely as eloquent as when she herself tries not to be, this is filmmaking that likely could never be excused were it not accompanied by content imbuing it with obviously deeper meaning, though there’s an irony there of which Mari seems unaware: it concurrently makes Le Fort des Fous’ closing chapter come off as silly, overlong, and largely devoid of purpose.
If nothing else, that was quite the shock, and quite the surprise. Big Fish & Begonia were among my most-anticipated of #LFF2017, while today’s last screening was among my least-anticipated. You’ll understand, I expect, since Léonor Serraille’s Montparnasse Bienvenue looks very fine, and has enjoyed rave upon rave review since opening in Cannes this May, but the objective eye has trouble seeing it as anything but just another visually-modest, overly-verbose, low-budget character drama from France. So the surprises kept coming – this is a joyous, consistently engaging film that is all of the above, only without the aura of exhaustion. Laetitia Dosch is a proper force of nature as a woman at all sorts of ends in Paris, having run her life so low into the ground she’s forced to scrape her way back to the surface, in startling style! Serraille’s structural choices in building this mini-odyssey of semi-redemption are to practically jettison all suggestion of structure, to narrow in on the realities of daily life, only a daily life that bears little resemblance to the mundanity with which we associate that phrase. Scene by scene, this is dynamic, fun, unusually stylish stuff, within such an unassuming framework; a strange, defiantly honest conception wobbling wildly between tragedy and comedy even in the same breath. It’s also a tart rebuke of the romanticism of so many other Paris-set films in a similar vein, implying that an existence like this is accessible only by the destitute, and not by choice!
It’s not a day at the London Film Festival without at least one Q&A, and here I was thinking I’d make it through three consecutive films without attending a single one. Serraille took to the stage at the Curzon Mayfair to explain herself, and the jury’s verdict is that she’s guilty of being fucking fantastic. A graduate of Le Fémis along with co-writer and editor Clémence Carré and DP Emilie Noblet, Serraille made her first film under unenviable constraints, including a budget of €800,000 and a shooting schedule of five weeks. After casting Laetitia in the intention of breaking from the monotony of the cast of familiar faces that too frequently dominates her country’s cinema, the two worked together for two months prior to filming, reading and re-reading the script, talking about how to finesse it in preparation for the tight shoot time, with Dosch adding her own analysis of her role to her director’s, as far as including her own dialogue. During filming, as many as four or five sets could be covered in a single day, with many locations changed on the fly; under such conditions, there was no room to film sequentially, as one audience member asked. When asked also about the significance of a female director telling a female story, Serraille was initially a tad coy, commenting on the character’s individuality and the singularity of her story, and on her personal motive of simply spending time with a character, regardless of their gender. But she admitted to the freedom she insisted on bequeathing this woman in the choices she makes to define herself as a figure of independence and integrity, and remarked on the disparity in how female-focused cinema is often perceived – Montparnasse Bienvenue being described by some as a ‘portrait of a woman,’ she noted how rarely one hears the phrase ‘portrait of a man’ in film, if ever.
Tomorrow, I return to my university schedule, whose workload is only increasing by the day – a great thing, to be sure, just not especially helpful given my LFF duties. And so I return to just two films per day, with John Trengove’s The Wound, and then Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani’s Let the Corpses Tan. Both The Wound and today’s Montparnasse Bienvenue are competing in the LFF’s oldest competitive strand, the First Feature Competition, for the prestigious Sutherland award.
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