For me, the biggest surprise of the London Film Festival thus far hasn’t been something I’ve seen on a cinema screen, but something I’ve discovered via my computer screen. I knew that writer-director duo Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz were an unusual filmmaking combo of nephew and aunt, but what I didn’t know was that Franz is herself a mother of two. My initial assumption is that she is the mother of two hell-sent demons, not solely because all children are, but because… well, if you’ve seen Goodnight Mommy, you’ll probably know what I mean, and if you’ve seen The Lodge, you’ll definitely know what I mean. Yet, for all the terror inflicted by this chilly horror movie’s two grieving youngsters, there’s the suggestion that said terror is, in fact, being inflicted upon them. When rich with ambiguity, The Lodge is masterfully cagey about just who (or what) qualifies as its principal villains, and succeeds in framing virtually every character with typically Seidl-ian contempt; when it succumbs to clarity, it continues to reap rewards from the complex, even conflicting shades with which it’s coloured these characters.
Fiala and Franz’s vision repeatedly promises to be crafted out of familiar tropes, or to yield to cliche, or to signpost its way into blinding obviousness, only to take a swift turn down another psychological rabbit hole of fear and despair. As with Goodnight Mommy, it’s a bleak, graphic meditation on grief, only the loss is foregrounded here, and its fallout examined in forensic, though not dispassionate detail. Under these filmmakers’ lens, sharper focus inevitably means even less sympathy, though the technical excellence provides a certain solace to the cinephiles among us. The Lodge is not about fearing what we cannot see, but what we can see yet cannot believe. Enigmatic youth, unknowable trauma, an inaccessible locale, the spectre of religion lingering cruelly over all as a sporadically benevolent force of torture – all converge to create a potent and unrelenting menace. I particularly felt the sting of the filmmakers’ blade slicing through the false pities of faith, a warmth in all this bitter cold that turns ever deadlier the closer you come (multiple oblique references to Scientology make this an especially interesting watch when considering its lead, Riley Keough’s history). Chilly and chilling, and very fine work yet again from the film world’s hottest/only nephew-aunt duo.
Things may heat up a little in Jayro Bustamante’s Tremors, but the end effect is equally icy. A lawyer from an evangelical family comes out as gay to his family, wreaking havoc upon his personal and professional lives as they attempt to reconcile reality with their innate urge to refute it. This is not, classically, a violent movie, but it’s an exceptionally bruising one, as indignance upon indignance is piled upon a character whose gente amiability is as much a vessel for an open-minded audience’s sympathy as it is a target for some close-minded characters’ manipulations. The sour truth of living as an actively marginalized citizen, not merely the loss but the brutality of the circumstances surrounding said loss and the sheer pointlessness of it invoke bristling outrage that eventually mutates into comical absurdity, then piercing sadness, then… is that, perhaps, a glimmer of hope?
For such a punishing watch, Bustamante has made welcome efforts to provide Tremors with levity and soothing earnestness, and his depiction of the loving relationship that has proven so disruptive to all the hate-filled relationships within this poisonous family of fools is mercifully sweet – something to counteract the acrid taste left by an assemblage of bigots and idiots trying to turn a good man’s life to rot. Honesty, friendliness and directness jostle within the cramped space of a sidelined existence, while dishonesty, cruelty and subterfuge echo through the lavish surroundings of a post-colonial upper-middle class. These aren’t simply comfortable stereotypes, however; these are plausible characterizations rooted in authentic socio-economic and political history and culture. As in The Lodge, it is in religion that the truly lost seek unsatisfactory solace, yet find only ironic damnation. Would that they could see past the blinding light of god’s ‘love’.
Want a good movie? Go whistle! OK, maybe that’s a bit harsh, but Corneliu Porumboiu’s snappy little crime comedy, The Whistlers, rang in a touch off-key with me, despite its many, evident pleasures. Indeed, when it is a pleasure, it’s a tuneful delight, awash with bold colour and brimming over with offbeat humour. Porumboiu, ever the dour technician of the Romanian New Wave, here displays the flipside of his formalism, facing every situation with a cheeky grin and an insouciant, ironic wink; he’ll forever be too smart an artist, too concerned with the artistic integrity of what he produces, to make an outright bad movie. Yet The Whistlers has all the hallmarks of a work of genuine brilliance, but often only the hallmarks. Strong points are left unexplored, while weak points are lingered over with bewildering attention: there’s a callous streak of sexism across Porumboiu’s depiction of women, while his handling of the twists and turns of a double-crossing crime thriller narrative left me utterly out at sea. If that was the intention, then fine, but I fail to see the benefit. The Whistlers may be about not what is communicated but how it is communicated, and it navigates that theme handsomely, but how it communicates a great deal of material is unfortunately lax. Whistle away, mate, I’m off to the opera!