By their very nature, every edition of every film festival is different from every other. The locations, the time of year, even the general clientele may remain largely the same, but the content of the films necessarily shifts with each new frame. For me, though, 2017’s edition of the London Film Festival is the most unique yet, with my new residence in London and my increased business due to university commitments. I’m not slacking on seeing films – shit no, I’m seeing more than ever before – but I’m dealing with a much-altered schedule, and Day #6 of the fest being a Monday, that schedule today involves almost as much course study as it does cinema study. I had to grow up some time, I guess. Would that I knew how…
Now living in this city, if primarily underneath it on one sweltering tube journey after another, my #LFF2017 diaries are somewhat lacking in anecdotal content compared to previous years – the more time spent here, the less special it seems, or at least the smoother things run. You’d expect me to be capable of regaling you with tale upon tale of my scandalous, Samantha Jones style escapades in this big, sexy city, and yet if I could even recall quite what I did this past Monday, I doubt it’d be of much interest to you darling readers. Somehow, I succeeded in wasting ten consecutive waking weekday hours on what must have been responsible activities. You mightn’t feel like you know me very well with such scant information on my private life, but I’m beginning to wonder if I know myself!
Enough about me, as if there ever were such a thing, and onto the films, the #1 reason I’m in London, and the #4 reason I’m writing these articles. As promised, today I kicked off my screenings with a debut project, from South African director John Trengove: The Wound. Since opening at Sundance in January, this acclaimed drama has been on a remarkable run of festivals worldwide, building its profile and the resultant praise from viewers to the point that it has been selected as its country’s official entry for the Foreign Language Film Oscar. A young Xhosa man in the Eastern Cape must serve as caregiver for an initiate undergoing the circumcision ritual that signifies his coming of age; our caregiver hides his sexuality from all but his childhood friend and once-a-year lover, though his initiate is wise to his secret as well. I say to those who complain that that they’ve heard stories like this too many times what I said to myself upon thinking something similar: grow the fuck up. As long as stories of oppression in minority and/or marginalized communities exist in reality, so too should they exist on the cinema screen, our greatest, grandest mirror for that reality.
The Wound literally undresses masculinity, identifiable in its codes and conventions across cultures across the globe, to expose the hypocrisy that not only fuels it but characterizes its most essential qualities, gives them their drive and their purpose. It’s a film of unsettling, uncompromising directness, fearless in its emotional openness and potential for eroticism and social provocation. Trengove films in disorienting extreme close-up, examining psyches on the brink of splitting as they wrestle with the burden of following impulse and obligation in equal quantity, with equal effort, yet in opposite approaches. This kind of psychological probing begets a palpable intimacy, finely establishing the film’s crucial timbre of instability as disorder chips away at the rot both destroying and protecting these characters in their individual, conflicted existences. All seems possible as The Wound tumbles toward a fitting conclusion that could therein be interpreted as taking an easy option in offering resolution to this story, even as it ironically shuns the very notion of resolution.
Trengove attended the Q&A after the film alongside South African pop star, Nakhane Touré, who is openly gay and who plays the film’s lead, Xolani. Touré, for whom this is his first screen credit, was initially approached by the new filmmaker in 2013 in the hopes of providing music for the film. The musician/actor describes the ideas he then had on writing the soundtrack to this first draft as terrible, though the work he’d end up supplying would be anything but. At the time, Xolani was a supporting part, one which Touré hoped might involve some singing upon being asked to try out by his director; over time, the role was written up to lead, a new composer was hired (João Orecchia’s atmospheric score is one of The Wound’s many artistic high points), and the film as we now know it took its form. Like his co-stars, Touré is a Xhosa man himself, indeed with a royal lineage, as Trengove felt it important to ensure his cast brings a feeling of authenticity to their performances, a feeling that he intensified by concealing the content of his narrative from all but the three lead actors.
Inevitably, rumour spread through the set during filming, though director and actor both express the good spirit with which the film’s gay themes were accepted upon being ever more publicly disseminated. We heard of the numerous death threats sent to Touré and others involved in the production following its Sundance bow, and of the subsequent apologies sent from the same sources when The Wound was finally seen by select South African audiences. It didn’t prevent Touré from having to back out of filming another project in the Eastern Cape, however. The topic of homosexuality in Africa and attitudes toward it was touched upon by the interviewees, who mentioned that an LGBT film festival in Uganda has arranged to screen the film in their selection. As a keen student of colonialist history in Africa, I was pleased to hear Touré refer to the nature of many of these negative attitudes as one stoked up by Western occupation, as opposed to the lines figures such as Zimbabwean premier Robert Mugabe feed of homosexuality as a symptom of Western decadence. It has existed in this continent for as long as it has existed everywhere else, and was historically tolerated as much there as it was anywhere else, arguably even more.
Big screen! Big speakers! Big impact in Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani’s Let the Corpses Tan, my second and final film of the day, showing in the plush new Screen 5 at Vue Leicester Square. I first discovered the genius of these Belgian spouses upon watching horror anthology The ABCs of Death seeing their short contribution, O Is for Orgasm, and experiencing nothing less than a multiple one myself! I caught up on their feature debut, 2009’s Amer (also fantastic), and saw their 2013 follow-up The Strange Colour of Your Body’s Tears on my first year at the LFF – indeed, its inclusion on the lineup that year was the impetus behind me attending then, and thus arguably to blame for every last one of these tiresome posts I keep dribbling out on AD each October. Blame the Belgians!
They were mightily gleeful that we’d be seeing their newest creation, adapted from Jean-Pierre Bastid and Jean-Patrick Manchette’s 1971 novel, on this big screen with its big speakers, and so was I! And that sensation of glee has sustained – Let the Corpses Tan is every bit as astonishingly original and beautiful and impactful as their other works, and in fact should form the definitive statement on the legitimacy of their artistic vision, even originating from the minds of other artists. In a different, plot-driven context, Cattet and Forzani’s stylistic signatures don’t so much transform in their construction as they do in their effect, imbuing an otherwise straightforward, linear progression of occurrences with a crazed new function, as parallel to this plot as it is wildly diverging from its structural demands. The duo plays every conceivable trick with their medium, evoking in the viewer a response of utter, joyous amazement, potent and unusual, much like their film. The blazing colour of bronzed bodies in the Mediterranean sun, the seductive squeak of leather against leather against leather, the fundamental allure of sex and violence in an art form that trades in these fields like no other. Let the Corpses Tan is an invigorating advancement in the career of these two, until it begins to deflate a touch as the logistics of drawing this extravagant affair to a close – logistics with which they’ve played so fast and loose prior as to render them largely irrelevant, in a thrilling twist to the question of how to stage an extended shoot-out with coherence and clarity – but no mind. It’s one of the most unique, and one of the very best films of #LFF2017 all the same.
There are few directors whose absence for a post-screening Q&A I’ve lamented more over my five years at the London Film Festival than that of these two, four years ago, so it was with delight that I welcomed their presence today. It could have been quite different, though: The Strange Colour of Your Body’s Tears was almost the couple’s last film as a pair, but the neutral ground of existing source material in the book they’d both read 12 years before gave Hélène and Bruno the ideal ground on which to build another new project together. They spoke of finding certain details in Bastid and Manchette’s novel that opened doors to their own artistic universe, noting its focus on behaviour over psychology, while recognizing their need to adapt, breaking with the source’s linearity to indulge in what Bruno described as a vortex, as the ‘fantastique’ for which they’re known.
Highly referential filmmakers, Hélène and Bruno departed from the Giallo stylings of their earlier films for a Spaghetti Western approach to Let the Corpses Tan, though their process is more reverential than referential, and they mentioned a desire to avoid obviousness – taking inspiration from Bava and Leone, but only inspiration, feeling that imitation would only produce a less intense version of what these old masters created. Now, they use Giallo music in their Western picture, as they once used Western music in their Giallo pictures. Bianchi’s Cry of a Prostitute came up as an important influence, and they described the use of a moodboard in pre-production to determine the style and direction of filming. It was thus that we were led into a vortex of our own, learning of a method of filmmaking employed by the duo that is of such intense detail, they doubted whether or not they could spend less than the same four years it took to make Let the Corpses Tan to make any of their future projects. Storyboarding takes six months, every single shot and sound effect is detailed in the script (there’s only one sound engineer on the set, purely for the purpose of capturing the most essential sounds, like dialogue), the edit is planned in depth during pre-production; it took the filmmakers a full year to scout the perfect shooting location, a hilltop stone shack in Corsica that was 30 minutes by foot from the nearest road access point. “Each shot is a word in a sentence,” claimed Bruno, and each sentence of such specific importance that not a single frame of coverage is shot on a Cattet/Forzani set, and if one shot is missed one day, there’s no substitution – they’ll just have to wait to get it the next day.
Sounds almost as torturous as writing these articles, which itself is only half as torturous as being forced to read them, as I sit here prizing open the withered eyelids of the local Clapham trade, offering milk and stale bread in exchange for proof-reading and the occasional fondle. I’ve got a big one for you tomorrow, reader, and I’m seeing a pretty big film too: Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water! See you then, baby.