BFI 61st London Film Festival Part 2: What a time for international filmmaking – and particularly European movies from our near neighbours, Spain, Italy and France, plus Hungary, Austria and Poland. Vive la difference! So let’s plunge straight into the richly rewarding pick-and-mix bag of delights from abroad, showcased at the 2017 London Film Festival. And don’t worry, we won’t hold back if something’s terrible; we’ll give it to you straight. Likewise, if something’s unmissable, we’ll tell you. Here we go…
We’ve had endless strong Hispanic characters in Pedro Almodovar’s films, but you could argue that Chilean Sebastian Lelio’s A Fantastic Woman goes one step further. It starts fairly blissfully on Marina’s birthday, until her long-term lover, Orlando’s health suddenly deteriorates that night and he dies in hospital. Daniela Vega plays larger-than-life trans-woman Marina so unsentimentally and matter-of-factly that your sympathies are all with her. Hospital officials and police officers insist on calling Marina ‘him’ and no-one will believe her relationship was real. There’s pressure from her family, we see the brutal hostility from Orlando’s ex-wife and son, and cops insist on a degrading physical examination. Yet there are glimmers of hope for Marina as she shows bravery even as she’s being treated abominably. And Vega is sensational as the fantastic woman.
Catalan writer-director Carla Simon makes an instant impact with her debut, Summer 1993, which tells the story of a childhood bereavement. Frida (Laia Artigas) is only six, and has lost both parents, so she is sent to live with her uncle (David Verdaguer) and his wife and their little daughter, far away from her home in Barcelona and into the Catalan countryside. Heartbreakingly lovely and naturalistic, this explores boundaries, new ‘sibling’ rivalry, and love, and is also strong on Catalan identity. Recommended.
The charming David Verdaguer turns up again, with Natalia Tena, to reunite with their 10,000km director Carlos Marques-Marcet on his follow-up, Anchor And Hope. And this time they’re joined by Oona Chaplin (with her own mother, Geraldine Chaplin, playing her on-screen mum) in a story set on London’s canals and focusing on a love-friendship-triangle. Relationships simmer and sometimes boil over, mainly in the confines of their canal boat as they argue about having a child, and the plot seems to be heading in one clear direction until the final frames of the film. There’s definitely more to come from Marques-Marcet and co.
Justly celebrated, Call Me By Your Name is Luca Guadagnino’s masterpiece of holiday romance, starring Timothee Chalamet as Elio, Michael Stuhlberg (from The Shape of Water) as his dad, and Armie Hammer as glamorous visiting academic, Oliver. Set in Italy in the shimmering, hazy heat of a 1980s summer, with Elio’s piano-playing and the Psychedelic Furs’s Love My Way as the soundtrack, it boasts a James Ivory screenplay based on André Aciman’s novel. Barely suppressed desire is constantly just beneath the surface, as Elio is drawn to Oliver, while still flirting with his own local girlfriend and cycling around the gorgeous Italian countryside.
Based on a real-life Mafia kidnapping, Sicilian Ghost Story is written and directed by Fabio Grassadonia and Antonio Piazza, who previously made the remarkable Salvo. Teen first love for Luna (Julia Jedikowska, superb), who is obsessed with Giuseppe, turns to desperation when he disappears virtually from under her nose. Sinead O’Connor’s music and posters on Luna’s wall emphasise the 1980s setting, and vivid dreams and visions help give an extra nightmarish quality as Luna tries to find him, aided by her best friend, but mainly blocked by adults.
Nico, 1988 from director Susanna Nicchiarelli, makes its first bold move in casting Nordic star Trine Dyrholm (The Legacy) in the title role, which she totally owns – but also boldly backs John Gordon-Sinclair to play her manager and would-be lover. Both are grittily believable, as Nico and her post-Velvet Underground band drive around the highways and less salubrious hotels of pre-Velvet Revolution Europe in a beaten-up van, arguing, flirting, performing, but mainly arguing. Nico is trying to track down her estranged son, and even starts to get clean, as at long last her life is turning around, until tragedy strikes… See it for Dyrholm.
France never disappoints in the quality and depth of its movies, and 2017 was a classic year. If you liked Of Gods and Men, you’ll love director Xavier Beauvois’ latest, The Guardians, based on a 1924 novel, and starting in the middle of the First World War. It stars debutante Iris Bry as wide-eyed innocent orphan girl, Francine, employed as a maid by farming matriarch Hortense Sandrail (marvellous Natalie Baye), across scrupulously-observed, Hardy-style rural scenes of back-breaking work, ploughing and harvesting. It’s hypnotic how in-tune the women are with nature, even as farming is on the cusp of change and mechanisation. But the spell is broken when Francine falls for the charms of returning soldier, and apple of his mother Hortense’s eye, Georges (Cyril Descours). Lust and envy splinter family unity, and a misunderstanding threatens Hardy-esque tragic consequences, even though everything still continues to look splendid.
With Hidden and Amour, Michael Haneke showed that he’s capable of mining great drama and pathos, while coaxing intimate and award-winning performances from top stars. Amour acting giant Jean-Louis Trintignant is again at the forefront of Haneke’s latest, Happy End, which also co-stars Isabelle Huppert, Mathieu Kassovitz, our own Toby Jones, and breakout young actress Fantine Harduin. The backdrop is Calais, as the Jungle and refugee crisis grows, with Haneke delivering parts of the story through vertical format smartphone filming, email chats and messaging. But the subjects tackled range from class, race, inheritance and dementia, to a further echo of post-colonial guilt (as in Hidden). A masterly ensemble acting class.
BPM, also known as 120 BPM, is Robin Campillo’s documentary-style dramatisation of France’s ACT UP Aids activists in a crucial period in the 1990s, when they were fighting ignorance, prejudice and illness. It feels very fly-on-the-wall, taking the audience into meetings, fleeting liaisons, protests, even going clubbing, and makes you feel like you’re really getting under the skin of these characters. Never worthy, always restless and in your face, it feels like an important and very personal piece of work from Campillo.
Although Michel Hazanavicius’ Redoubtable is visually witty, even playful, with great central performances from Louis Garret as Jean-Luc Godard, and Stacy Martin as his muse, it doesn’t quite work as a film on its own terms, or as an homage to Godard. Split into sections, if anything this biopic makes Godard seem more opportunistic, perhaps even sleazy, even as the revolution swirls around them – and the humorous tone might not please his fans. But if you can get around these narrative and tonal drawbacks, it does look fantastic.
Family feature Big Bad Fox is really a composite of animated short films stitched together with an endearingly low-tech feel. Knowing wit, flawed characters, slightly surreal plots, gullible farm animals and villains-you-love-to-hate give it an appeal across the generations. You might even find yourself cheering on the fox himself.
There’s nothing light-hearted or endearing about Xavier Legrand’s Custody (right), which is another French domestic masterpiece about a splintering family. Filmed in realistic, documentary style from multiple angles, it shows frightened Lea Drucker and seething, paranoid Denis Menochet as the parents who cannot live together, and young Thomas Gioria as their conflicted son, Julien, who doesn’t know which way to turn. The lingering threat of violence from a controlling parent underpins every scene, as it builds to a thriller-type conclusion. Notable winner of Best Director and First Film at Venice, this shows Legrand as another name to watch.
With a similar domestic triangle of arguing, separating parents and young son caught in the middle, Loveless, from Leviathan director Andrey Zvyagintsev, won him the Best Film award at the London Film Festival again, and it’s hard to argue with such a beautifully shot, artfully framed, carefully-paced movie getting the prize. You could freeze-frame almost any section and it wouldn’t look out of place displayed in the Museum of Modern Art. Aleksey Rozin and Maryana Spivak excel as the unlikeable couple, who continue to explore their extra-marital affairs even as the main narrative focuses on the search for their missing son. It won’t be the last award for Zvyagintsev.
Cargo is the solid, well-crafted debut feature from Belgium director Gilles Coulier. It tells a story of family fracturing over their Ostend fishing business, when the patriarch literally goes overboard from their trawler. Will they sink or swim when the eldest son takes over? How will his two brothers react – and what about his own young son? Finely acted, beautifully shot, highly promising.
Go to page 2 for more movies from the BFI 61st London Film Festival Part 2!