Odd how a screen full of flashing lights in a darkened public theatre can change one’s perspective on the world. One might think such an experience might be achieved elsewhere, at a time and in a place characterized by real interaction between humans, and between humans and their surroundings. No doubt, that’s true too, yet the cinema can be among the most concise (and cheap) means of undergoing these experiences, and among the most effective. We detach from reality to understand more about it, each of us staring in the same direction at the same magical moving pictures, brainwashed by their power and persuasiveness as though initiated into a cult from the comfort of a soft upholstered seat. Best, then, that we hand ourselves over to leaders in whom we can entrust our psyches – if we’re going to walk out through the same doors through which we came in with a changed perspective on the world, may it only ever be changed for the better.
I await my evening dose of wilful brainwashing each weekday at the London Film Festival with mounting impatience and equally mounting fatigue, whether doing so while too busy with university work to pen these dispatches or, as today, too busy with nothing at all. One way or another, I always seem to turn up at the cinema drenched in sweat; look on the bright side – it’s one of the less offensive bodily fluids. Upmarket Mayfair for the first of today’s screenings, entering that darkened theatre for some sunlight: Claire Denis’ Let the Sun Shine In. Every new Denis movie is worth the wait; one could argue the same for (nearly) every new Juliette Binoche movie, and no argument is required regarding every new Agnès Godard movie. I dream in Agnès Godard.
Denis dances through a series of romantic dalliances in this featherlight, throwaway romcom, a slender little soufflé of a film that runs barely over 90 minutes, yet is dipped in a bittersweet coating of oh-so-French ennui – a dark chocolate soufflé, perhaps, with lemon zest shavings. But so sumptuous, as the master leans ever inward, her carnal camera capturing a specific body part, or a line of mumbled dialogue with little particular meaning, or merely the silences between those mumblings and the space between those body parts. It’s a film of short-term desires depicted in real-time exchanges, a distinctly romantic movie about maybe-romances that somehow projects an air of anti-romanticism, a typically realistic, understated offering from Denis that is also typically idiosyncratic in ways that seem to chafe against our expectations of reality. Let the Sun Shine In is a curious film to behold, and a hard one to describe; it makes most sense evaluated against the rest of Denis’ oeuvre, wherein it frankly doesn’t fare brilliantly, and yet holds its own quite unfailingly. I wish she’d been there to take questions, or Juliette, or Agnès. I wish Agnès Godard were here right now, lighting my life, letting the sun shine in however she likes it.
If that was one person’s perspective on one life, then my next film is another person’s perspective on many, and a truly revelatory redefining of what it means to portray life on the cinema screen. Chen Zhou is announced to the global cinephile society as a voice of the future; his first work, Life Imitation is so bold as to feel like it has arrived from the future. It opens with a WeChat conversation, to which it returns a number of times throughout, moves into isolated documentary depictions of everyday existence among young gay people in contemporary Shanghai, and frequently delves into the digital world for a bleak vision of a parallel present using Direct Mode from Grand Theft Auto V. The disconnect between human emotion and digital advancement runs through each thread, informing the behaviour of the figures inhabiting all of them, either encouraging or discouraging openness, and ironically serving to connect the three approaches’ artistic and technical qualities in the viewer’s mind. Chen interrogates the emotional authenticity of real-life expression, while the almost-cathartic outbursts of frightening, threatening conduct that give the WeChat and GTAV sections their gripping edge act as bracing counterpoints. Life is a sad game, an imitation, appropriately, and one in which we may be slowly reducing ourselves to simple strings of 1s and 0s, and Life Imitation reflects this reality as we ought to see it. One steps inside this darkened theatre and falls further into the darkness, into screen after screen – walk out those same doors the same person, and I’ll know you weren’t paying one bit of attention.
The trailer for a re-release of Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest ran before the film, as it has done for a few screenings at #LFF2017, and before the filmmaker’s introduction. He commented that his favourite shot of that classic thriller was one in which James Stewart’s wrongly-accused protagonist “looks there, looks there, and looks there”, gesturing in different directions with each utterance of ‘there’. He hoped we’d have the same feeling upon leaving Life Imitation. Cheers, mate. Thankfully, Chen is much too engaging an interviewee to leave his audience feeling anything but delighted after a session with him, but that he’s hands down the best-dressed director I’ve seen in all my life was enough to please me. I almost gave him a handshake and congratulations for his style alone, never mind his talent.
Chen began at the beginning, as one does, explaining that he had no plan in place when he commenced filming Life Imitation, but that it came into focus during production. Three months of shooting his friends and a handful of bright ideas when playing on his PS4 coalesced into what we see now – he said it was like a tree that grew itself. He was coy in responding to a question about whether or not any of the documentary footage he gathered of his friends was spontaneous, though confirmed the legitimacy of the frank WeChat exchange displayed prominently as a major part of the film’s text. On the theme of female sexuality that features across all strands of the film, Chen was again reticent to go into a lot of detail, simply (though effectively) claiming it to be due to his familiarity with women, having grown up in their company; he doesn’t consider his film to be a political statement in this regard, describing feminism only as ‘fact’. He was more illuminating when probed about the multi-textuality of the film, mentioning that he chose to show the video game footage on a TV screen toward the start, then choosing a specific point where bridging real with virtual made sense, and progressing with the rest as though the game actually were real itself (he achieves this impeccably well). This is as our usual basic performance of life, largely undramatic, but no more nor less true. And we heard of a film currently in the works, a film around the concept of déjà vu that he has been developing since before Life Imitation, that he considers to be very different from it, and that he said would take at least 30 minutes to adequately describe, and so we were denied such a pleasure. It’s already high on my most-anticipated list for the future, that is as long as it stays this way. Maybe Chen is more prophetic than he’d like to be; maybe we’re all someday going to spot corpses drifted up on the shore and simply walk on past them.
I didn’t give Chen a handshake; I seriously considered it, but he was deep in conversation with LFF Experimenta programmer Helen de Witt, who had chaired the Q&A. I would have given her one too – she does an exceptionally good job every year in co-ordinating this section of the festival, but 2017 has probably been the best yet for forward-thinking filmmaking at the London Film Festival, as far as I’ve seen, at least. de Witt is one of the world’s most informed and experienced voices on cinema, with countless strings to her bow in the field. It’s been the utmost pleasure to enjoy her choices for Experimenta this year as every other.
Sorry, AD readers, I’ll get right back on track with the Oscar shit again tomorrow. You can have The Florida Project and Zama, howbow dah?
I’m still @screenonscreen, and if you’re still not following me, eat it!