London Film Festival – a moving return to images
The cinema was to be one of the first victims of Covid-19: the popularity of the visit to the cinema would drop, said the merchants of doom, in favor of the inexorable rise of streaming platforms. Indeed, despite a sharp drop in box office figures, the fatal blow never struck. The appetite for the collective thrill of discovery remains, as evidenced by the many sold-out screenings for this year’s London Film Festival.
Following last year’s lightweight hybrid version, which combined limited, social-distancing screenings with an online program, this year the focus returns to the in-person experience, although a virtual component remains. And, building on last year, the event continues to expand beyond London with partnerships with regional cinemas.
With the big screen experience at the heart of the festival, Artistic Director Tricia Tuttle said the film she was most excited to share with audiences was Todd Haynes’ thrilling and comprehensive film. The velvet metro. It’s not hard to see why. One of the highlights of this year’s Cannes Film Festival is an exemplary musical documentary, which rekindles the sense of discovery and excitement in music, however familiar it may be. Haynes captures the perfect storm of influences that spawned the band – what Tuttle describes as “the cultural amniotic fluid that created them.” She adds, “I can’t wait for people to just have the hairs on the back of their necks coming up with this. ”
Another screening likely to be memorable is that of this year’s Cannes Palme d’Or winner. Titanium, Julia Ducournau’s transgressive bodily horror. It has so far polarized audiences, with some welcoming the jolt of provocative energy and others crawling into a corner to be sick.
But as long as the appetite remains, perhaps the way audiences engage with cinema has subtly changed. A confirmation bias is present: we unconsciously seek and take up the thematic elements that we expect to encounter. So when asked to identify trends and general themes for this year’s program, Tuttle points out that there is little full-blown comedy. On the contrary, there is a darker, more ruthless and sometimes even misanthropic flavor to the humor.
Two other Cannes titles prove it: that of Joachim Trier The worst person in the world is formidable: the portrayal of a chaotic 30-something (Renate Reinsve) who revel in her personality flaws, her egocentricity, her catastrophic bad decisions, but always finds space to empathize with her.
Meanwhile, the protagonist of Red rocket, the ruthlessly ruthless and very funny follow-up of Sean Baker The Florida project, is even less easy to love. Mikey (Simon Rex) is a failed adult film actor who returns to his hometown of Texas and his ex-wife in hopes of rebuilding his life, only to fall back into deplorable behaviors. Said Tuttle: “I love it. I think it’s a really good movie, but [Baker] does not explore the best side of humanity.
Another festival theme that she identifies, which may reach a wider audience as we struggle to re-engage with the world around us, is “community and connection between communities”. “There are movies about trying to connect and not being able to, like The power of the dog, the film by Jane Campion, and The lost girl, Maggie Gyllenhaal’s film, about both this urge and this inability to connect with other people. So in the context of the year that we had, these films really resonated with me and with the program team.
London’s “festival of festivals” approach has always seen it pick some of the hottest titles of the year among other events, starting at Sundance in January. As such, it’s a good place for awards watchers to get a feel for what could become of some of next year’s Baftas and Oscars big hitters. Both Campion and Gyllenhaal’s films tick that box, the latter being an adaptation of an Elena Ferrante novel with another sublime performance by Olivia Colman.
But given his Audience Award won last month at the Toronto International Film Festival (often an indication of future awards performance), the one to beat could be Kenneth Branagh’s. Belfast, a tender semi-autobiographical portrait of his own childhood set in the 1960s and giving a childish perspective on the beginning of the Troubles.
In the acting categories, Kristen Stewart’s incredibly vulnerable turn as Princess Diana in Pablo Larraín Spencer is a strong possibility, and the film, with its tonal mix of campy melodrama and gothic horror, is a lot of fun.
A Dark Horse Contestant, who garnered an enthusiastic reception after its Sundance premiere, is Rebecca Hall’s elegantly frosty directorial debut, Who passed. Starring Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga, the film explores the delicate relationship between two high school friends, reunited by chance, whose rekindled friendship threatens the delicate balance of their two lives.
And, given the rave reviews that have recently welcomed Macbeth’s tragedy At the New York Film Festival, Joel Coen’s film, which stars Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand and closes the LFF, looks likely to be a solid rewards bet across the board.
But for many, the main draw of the program is the opportunity to think outside the box and try your luck with lesser-known talent. And it is here, without doubt, that the festival really excels this year. Take the road, the debut film by Panah Panahi, the son of dissident Iranian director Jafar Panahi, is one of the most exciting and confident debuts in years – a family trip that effortlessly juggles tumultuous comedy and heartbreaking pathos , sometimes at the same time. Tuttle agrees, “A trendy mini bomb is going to go off when people see this movie, just because it’s so unexpected and so special.”
Other highlights include Ferit Karahan Her brother’s keeper, a skinny social-realist drama set in a boys’ boarding school in eastern Anatolia. When a child becomes ill, his friend desperately seeks help, but layers of indifference and guilt, not to mention several feet of snow, loom in the way. Then there is a wonderful lyrical tale about motherhood and grief in Italy: Small body by Laura Samani is steeped in folklore and earthy mysticism, and takes place in a world ruled by superstition and magic.
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Perhaps the best way to celebrate the return to the cinema is to watch a movie that can only be seen in a theater. The after-light, by Charlie Shackleton, is a collage composed of excerpts from actors who later died. Part memorial for ephemeral lives, part memento mori for the cinema itself, the film only exists on a single 35mm print, without digital backup. Once this print is destroyed, the artwork will cease to exist.
Tuttle says, “The process of showing the film is imprinted on the story of this film. He becomes a record of all the places he projected. It’s so exciting, but it’s also a huge responsibility. I must say that it scares me very much.
October 6-17, bfi.org.uk/lff
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