Category Archives: London Film Festival 2013

Casse-tête Chinois – 2013

Casse-tête-chinoisThe ultimate conclusion of Cédric Klapisch’s story, nine years after Les Poupées Russes, life is once again complex and irritating for Xavier (Romain Duris). Xavier acts as narrator as he tells the plot of his life (and his book) to a publisher on Skype. He’s told in no unclear terms, that happiness is boring – you can’t have a story where everyone is fulfilled. In the Q&A following the film Klapisch said that his first attempts for the script of Casse-tête Chinois everything had been left as optimistic as it was at the end of Les Poupées Russes, and the script was dull as can be.

Once more the characters from the previous films are pared down to leave only four. These performances are now totally comfortable and confident. When Xavier (Romain Duris) flies to New York following Wendy (Kelly Reilly) it seems only natural that he would end up on the sofa of eternally free-spirited Isabelle (Cécile de France). With the cast happily relocated to a new city the film makes full use of the environment. Early on in the film Xavier’s property hunt is rendered as a hilarious sequence with prices popping up on buildings and Google maps tours of the area, as well as a clearly doomed encounter with a landlord who is much less open to the modern family.

If L’auberge Espagnole and Les Poupées Russes were concerned with the emerging European identity, Casse-tête Chinois confronts globalisation. A French man follows an English woman to New York where his Belgian friend sets him up with a place in Chinatown. On a human level it’s the simplest thing imaginable, friends help one another regardless of international borders. Symbolically it represents the blurring of differences between nationalities and whether their identities will slowly disappear in the times to come. Thankfully Klapisch doesn’t dwell on these, he merely presents them as an oddity to be reckoned with and moves on to the comedy. Casse-tête Chinois is spectacularly funny. It makes the previous films look like that re-run of Friends that you laugh at out of habit. The comic culmination puts every single character into the smallest space imaginable. If circumstances had played out differently it could all have ended in heartbreak, but instead this awkward tension drives the laughter as Xavier and his friends continue to get away with their lies and muddles.

In the end it’s all fabulously uplifting. It seems that these characters won’t be seen on screen again, after all, they’re happy. As Xavier’s eternally glum publisher says, you can’t write about them when they’re happy. Regardless of whether you’ve seen the first two films, Casse-tête Chinois will leave a smile on your face.

  • Entertainment: 5/5
  • Artistic:              4/5
  • Intellectual:       3/5

The Invisible Woman – 2013

invisible womanRalph Fiennes’ second turn as director is just as unapologetically English as the first. It seems that his goal truly is to secure himself as a national treasure taking on Shakespeare first and now Dickens. Another film destined to join the supply cupboards for English teachers with no lesson plan, The Invisible Woman is strikingly dull from start to finish.

The film’s topic is the hidden love affair between Charles Dickens and Nelly Turner, a young actress. In the plain light of day there is very little drama or intrigue to this story. There are rumours and the fear of discovery, but really nothing much more interesting than the usual “man in loveless marriage seeks attractive young woman”. By attempting to inject high level drama into this situation, mainly through a clumsy manipulation of flashbacks which serve to distract rather than enlighten, Fiennes’ film begins to feel like a two hour Downton Abbey special rather than a piece of cinema. Neither the direction nor the script has an ounce of subtlety or nuance and, as the music swells and we cut to Felicity Jones walking tearfully across a windswept beach, you have to wonder ‘oh what now’.

This is not helped by the entire lack of onscreen chemistry between Fiennes as Dickens and Jones as his lover. Fiennes is more predatory than romantic and Jones’ performance consists almost entirely of looking confused. An awful lot of the main characters seem to confuse stoicism for blankness and give stiff, uninteresting performances from behind their period trappings.

What cannot be faulted is the production design, every book, hair and speck of dust is painstakingly recreated to throw us into the Victorian age. Unfortunately, Fiennes doesn’t take advantage of the beautiful sets thrown up around him, instead relying on the production design to distract from the uninspired cinematography. In the end the film just feels weighed down by accuracy, as if the whole budget was spent on props and left no coin for a script supervisor.

The film will undoubtedly put bums on seats and sell a lot of DVDs. There will never be a shortage of people who watch quintessentially English films about quintessentially English things. Yet it truly saddens me that somewhere there is someone whose only understanding of what British culture and cinema is about comes from films like this one.

  • Entertainment: 2/5
  • Artistic:              4/5
  • Intellectual:       2/5

12 Years A Slave – 2013

TWELVE YEARS A SLAVESteve McQueen’s newest film is nowhere near as cutting edge as his earlier works. It feels a little bit like an easy way into the mainstream eye, helped along by timing a film about slavery to coincide with an anniversary of its abolition. This doesn’t make the film any less enjoyable though.

McQueen sticks with his tried and tested formula of really delving into the mind of one character. It takes about half an hour of McQueen’s script and Chiwetel Ejiofor’s performance combined to make the audience completely engaged with Solomon’s character. By focusing so closely on one man his plight becomes the most important, his suffering the most bitter. His actions border on the egotistical, but it is understood as survival instinct and so Solomon never loses the audience’s sympathy.

This is not to say that there are not other great performances or characters. Lupita Nyong’o gives a harrowing performance as Patsey, the unfortunate favourite of the plantation owner. Paul Dano, while his role is barely more than a cameo, is electrifying for every second that he is on screen. His interpretation of a slave-driver is deliciously evil and amoral. It is a testament to McQueen that, although these characters are clearly the villains, there is never any demonization in his presentation. It’s all very matter of fact. I remember watching Spielberg’s Amistad and being irritated by the many details which existed only to firmly delineate right from wrong. It felt like a filmmaker uncertain about his material, resorting to a sledgehammer to crack a nut. McQueen doesn’t fall into this trap, right and wrong are self-evident in 12 Years A Slave and so it can be presented dispassionately.

The film could have been excessively harrowing if it were not so beautiful to watch. McQueen teams up again with Sean Bobbitt (Shame, The Place Beyond the Pines) to deliver breathtaking visuals throughout. The most unpleasant and brutal situations are portrayed without gore or ugliness yet they lose none of their impact. The audience reaction is intellectual and emotional, rather than visceral. It prompts the viewer to really think, rather than react with simple anger or disgust.

It’s a beautiful film, and it certainly leaves an impression on the viewer. If nothing else, it may at least stop schoolchildren from having to watch Amistad. It may even get Steve McQueen that elusive Oscar nomination. It just isn’t what I expected or hoped for from a Steve McQueen film, not after the daring and captivating back-catalogue.

  • Entertainment: 4/5
  • Artistic:              5/5
  • Intellectual:       3/5

As I Lay Dying – 2013

as i lay dyingI have to admit, when I first walked out of James Franco’s As I Lay Dying I was not at all convinced. As time has gone one, however, I have found myself reflecting more and more on this strange film.

Franco’s choices of narrative style are bold and uncompromising. From the very first moments the whopping 2.35 : 1 widescreen blankets your entire vision creating a sense of momentousness and huge-scale importance. When this screen divides to show two images at once you literally have to turn your head to take in both halves of the story. This splitscreen technique is Franco’s interpretation of the multiple narrators in Faulkner’s novel. After the first few scenes, which are incredibly jarring and difficult to watch, this technique settles down and is not only comprehensible but highly enjoyable. Gone is the shot, reverse shot formula that has plagued cinema, instead replaced with seeing everything relevant all at the same time. The film is undoubtedly beautiful to watch, and the cinematography captures the beauty of country. Franco also neatly sidesteps the problem of the film seeming too historical. The script and style are so achingly modern that there is no sense of distance or irrelevance as can sometimes happen in period films.

Most of the lead actors have to, at some point or another, deliver a stream of consciousness monologue directly to camera which is then intercut with action. Not a single one of these occasions feels contrived or forced. These monologues are the main thing which drives the emotional subtext within the story. Without these interludes the film would be a very dry, dull road movie. So much of the substance of this film is in this subtext, the stolen glances and silent secrets between the characters. The nuance involved in capturing this is truly an artistic accomplishment. The cast is one of the strongest in recent memory since every one of them has their moment in the sun. The narrative style means that there are no minor characters, and it is extraordinary to see each cast member add to this complex painting of the emotional ties and conflicts within a family.

There is not any aspect of this film which falls down. Franco’s script even shows us the gut-wrenching futility of everything we have seen. The final punch is delivered so casually that there’s nothing left for the audience except to be stunned. It leaves a bitter taste, but over time it becomes apparent that this is the great strength of As I Lay Dying. It takes a series of appalling circumstances and somehow wrings beauty out of them.

  • Entertainment: 4/5
  • Artistic:              5/5
  • Intellectual:       3/5

Parkland – 2013

PARKLANDParkland is an outstanding achievement for a first-time director. Peter Landesman crafts an engaging narrative out of a story most people know, at least half of, by heart. Original newsreel footage is mixed with the current cinematography with real skill, reminiscent of the electric opening 20 minutes of  Ben Affleck’s Argo last year. What’s more, the film never feels unrealistic or sensationalised. Never do you feel that Landesman’s script is inventing for the sake of drama.

As far as the cast goes the standout performances come from some of the more secondary roles, namely Zac Efron as Dr Carrico and James Badge Dale as Robert Oswald. Both roles share the status of being just outside of the main thrust of the drama. They are not the protagonist or antagonist of any story but their own. Efron, having well and truly grown up from his High School Musical days, gives a masterclass in playing stoicism without appearing closed or hard. His portrayal of the conflict between compassion, patriotism and the Hippocratic oath is possibly the most interesting part of the film. Dale’s performance similarly presents the turmoil involved in discovering his brother’s crime. Yet it seems as if his talent is underused in such an archetypical role; we have seen deep betrayals many times on film.

The film’s narrative divides between the national tragedy as opposed to the human tragedies that each character experiences. It seems to me that the power in this film comes from the personal stories and the juxtaposition between the personal and national. This is most evident in the portrayal of both Kennedy’s and Oswald’s funeral, the pomp and circumstance as compared to a grave no one will fill. This sequence in particular is a triumph of editing and cinematography. It demonstrates that Landesman’s talent lies a long way away from the gritty pseudo-documentary style of Parkland’s opening. The weakest parts of the film are the most documentary; when it focuses too closely on the national tragedy, the government officials, the national grief. I think that this is ultimately due to the massive cultural shift between the filmmaker and a global audience. These scenes are, all told, too American. As an English viewer it is inconceivable to me that a political figure could be so adored. Parkland, when it can, revels in this idolatry and loyalty, relying on those embedded cultural notions to land its emotional beats. Even when compared to the closest English equivalent, Princess Diana, it still doesn’t sit right on the foreign palate.

  • Entertainment: 3/5
  • Artistic:              4/5
  • Intellectual:       2/5

Jeune et Jolie – 2013

jeune_et_jolieAfter his success with Dans la Maison last year, Ozon’s most recent film is much more understated and quieter. Rather than tackling the realms of voyeurism and metafiction Ozon’s Jeune et Jolie focuses on a much smaller story, almost a character portrait.

French model-turned-actress Marine Vacth plays Isabelle, a 17 year old girl who, after an unsatisfying sexual awakening, turns to prostitution. Her performance is subtle and often nearly silent, but is nevertheless totally engaging. The camera blatantly loves her face and Ozon makes full use of this is by employing as many close-ups as is reasonable. There is a slight blankness in her performance which suits the mystery and confusion that surrounds Isabelle’s actions.

Lamentably, apart from the comic interludes with her younger brother (Fantin Ravat), the characters that surround Isabelle all seem terribly generic. The overly-concerned mother, the disinterested step-father and the sweet-but-unexciting boyfriend. It would be so much more interesting to watch the schism between sex and love develop in Isabelle’s head if she had someone to bounce off. The film attempts to provide this in the form of a cameo by Charlotte Rampling who also divides sex and love, but for very different reasons. Yet by the time you have arrived at the end of the film, through dull characters and a completely superfluous structure involving seasons, it’s not enough and Rampling’s sudden appearance just seems bizarre.

You come to expect some kind of meaning or payoff in Ozon’s work but Jeune et Jolie doesn’t have this. It seems to hold to an idea of the innate mystery of female promiscuity rather than deconstructing its protagonist like Dans la Maison or Le temps qui reste. While Vacth’s performance is good, it is Ozon’s treatment of the material that makes the film so beautiful to watch. Ozon avoids romanticising her prostitution or allowing the film to become distasteful. His style even reserves all judgement and leaves that to the viewer. Directorially Isabelle is neither condoned nor condemned, and Ozon offers the grey area of consent and vulnerability up for discussion.

  • Entertainment: 2/5
  • Artistic:             4/5
  • Intellectual:      2/5

L’inconnu du lac – 2013

StrangerByTheLakeThis years’ Cannes film festival boasted not one, but two films that came with homosexual sex controversies. This is perhaps the less talked about of the two, despite the recurrent ‘real sex’ debate it has once again stirred up.

L’inconnu du lac is a strange piece of cinema. Being set entirely on a gay cruising beach it naturally includes the encounters and interactions of these characters. However, it seems as if the film switches genre halfway through. At the beginning it appears to be some kind of murder mystery, except the mystery doesn’t exist for the audience and the investigator lacks the flamboyance of a Poirot or Sherlock Holmes. However it reveals itself more and more to be a high-stakes relationship drama, adding the fear of death into the inevitable fear and vulnerability of a love story. Given these starting points the inclusion of ‘real sex’ scenes seems obvious as a way to push the audience into that vulnerable place as a viewer. It’s a daring and interesting way of pulling the audience out of their comfort zone.

What is entirely unnecessary, on the other hand, is the smug tendency of the camera to linger over and revel in the male form from every possible angle and distance. There is no reason for these shots to be so frequent and it has the unfortunate effect of rendering the atmosphere of the film borderline pornographic. Sadly it seems to be there purely to attract controversy and press attention as it serves no narrative or artistic purpose. In addition to this, the film employs narrative quirks which quickly become passé as the sequence of days repeats itself, over and over, to signal time passing. This is a shame. There are certainly ideas to be gleaned from this film, some very interesting ideas, but they are lost in the trite and ugly form of observation.

Without wishing to give too much away the ending really lets this film down. Having built up a tense and shocking environment Guiraudie allows it to spiral into some kind of morbid farce in the last ten minutes. It’s a cross between a cheap horror film and a Greek Tragedy and it leaves an unsatisfying taste in the mouth.

  • Entertainment: 3/5
  • Artistic:              2/5
  • Intellectual:       2/5