BFI London Film Festival 2023 Part 1 by Helen M Jerome:
To be honest, 2023 ranks as one of the best BFI London Film Festivals I’ve attended – and I’ve been going for a couple of decades now. Buoyed up by the rolling camaraderie and enthusiasm of my fellow cinephiles, I found myself championing movies with enormous and tiny budgets, almost grabbing people by the lapels to convince them that they simply must see this debut or that documentary. Rather than lumping together films from a certain country or culture, I’m going to serve up everything I saw, as the festival organised it. Starting with the big, glossy, star-laden features and spreading out into some of the themes and groupings, Part One of my festival review covers the feature-length ‘fiction’ – and follows below.
Then in Part Two (imminent) I’ll look at the most promising directorial debuts, plus documentaries – and, of course, our annual and much-coveted DVDfever Awards. So let’s go!
Saltburn or as I like to call it, ‘Casualties of Waugh’, is director-screenwriter Emerald Fennell’s follow-up to her impressive debut feature, Promising Young Woman. This is a class-ridden riff on the classic Brideshead Revisited or Great Gatsby narrative of a usurper entering a closed-off environment. It also has a classy cast, led by Barry Keoghan as the usurping, self-styled working class lad made good, plunging into a wondrous world of wealth in the summer of 2006 (ie, immediately pre-smartphones, that might ruin the plot). As well as her previous star, Carey Mulligan – having a high old time here as a previous, rather dim interloper – Fennell casts Jacob Elordi (more of whom later) and Alison Oliver as the entitled offspring of hopeless and indulgent parents Rosamund Pike and Richard E. Grant. Surrounded by hedonistic, costumed parties of drink, drugs and dancing in the grounds of their stately home, the family discard friends like litter. Priceless dialogue skitters around the script, including Elordi declaring that public school teaches you “Latin, water polo and child abuse.” It’s as if F Scott Fitzgerald’s Careless People took in Jarvis Cocker’s Common People, but failed to anticipate a messy outcome. And the noughties soundtrack washes it all down a treat.
All Of Us Strangers from Andrew Haigh has an equally affecting soundtrack that reduced me to tears as the film ended with Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s ‘Power of Love’. Set in two periods, the main draws are obviously Andrew Scott and Paul Mescal as a romantically entangled 21 st Century couple, Adam and Harry. But it’s Claire Foy playing Adam’s mother who punches right through the drama, alongside Jamie Bell as his dad. You begin to wonder if Adam is revisiting his past or his past is revisiting him, while the strains of the Housemartins, Fine Young Cannibals and Alison Moyet accompany his life now and as a 12-year-old. Meanwhile he’s falling hard for the easy charm of Harry – just as the audience is doing with Mescal. There’s so much that Haigh explores here, from never-ending grief and loneliness to modern masculinity, but don’t say I didn’t warn you to take a hankie along.
Director Jeff Nichols is off to a fine start by casting Jodie Comer as a chirpy biker gal – and our narrator via a series of interviews her character gives to Mike Faist – in The Bikeriders. Set in 1965, this boasts another banging soundtrack of period tunes, from the Staple Singers and Shangri-Las to Muddy Waters. It also contains all the glamour, grit and grisly violence you’d expect from the subject matter. Started as a motorbike racing club, the Vandals explode onto the Chicago scene and spread out into other cities before post-Vietnam schisms tear them apart. With a top bunch of actors including Austin ‘Elvis’ Butler, Tom Hardy and the peerless Michael Shannon, this feels authentic, and makes you feel that the Vandals are another institution where you can check out any time you want, but you can never leave.
Having already given us his take on westerns with The Harder They Fall, director-screenwriter Jeymes Samuel turns his gaze east, to the Bible, and specifically the Gospels, in The Book Of Clarence. Its punchy opening goes straight from the crucifixion to a chariot race with Mary, and Samuel’s scale is typically epic, with huge sets, loud, funky soundtrack, and an all-star cast. Apart from LaKeith Stanfield, Alfre Woodard, Omar Sy, RJ Cyler and Anna Diop, he playfully uses Brits, including Micheal Ward, James McAvoy, David Oyelewo, and Benedict Cumberbatch, with the latter having a ball as a Jesus impersonator who uses this resemblance for a moneymaking scam. The plot takes a bit of unravelling, but suffice to say the unbelievers – including Stanfield as Clarence – actually start doing some good and there’s a redemptive arc overlaying the snippets of wit and wisecracking.
Alexander Payne’s new 1970s comedy drama The Holdovers (above) takes as its premise an unfortunate group of small town private school students forced to stay behind over the Christmas break with their least-favourite teacher (Paul Giamatti). So it’s all a bit Breakfast Club at the beginning, with too many characters. Then it hones in on a trio of performances that effortlessly bounce off and complement each other. Crusty and uncompromising, Giamatti has never been better or more spaniel-like, and his sidekick, bereaved Da’Vine Joy Randolph, is a maternal font of world-weary wisdom. The revelation, however, is young Dominic Sessa as last student standing, Angus, with nowhere to go when others leave, and questions about his past that constantly nag him. Warm and witty, Payne’s film contains darkness, yet is somehow unsentimentally sentimental, and reminiscent us of his past triumphs.
Director David Fincher might have thought he’d created the perfect vehicle for Michael Fassbender in The Killer, but in truth this becomes a Tilda Swinton movie masterclass the moment she enters, and steals not just her scene, but the entire film. Trent Reznor provides a haunting, intimate and sometimes loud soundtrack as Fincher has fun amidst the frequent location and identity changes for his leading man. I’m not entirely convinced by some of his disguises (he’s wearing a different hat!), but I do admire Fincher sticking to his relentless running joke of new identities, each time using a sitcom character’s name, from Sam Malone (Cheers), Felix Unger and Oscar Madison (The Odd Couple), and George Jefferson (The Jeffersons) to Howard Cunningham (Happy Days), Reuben Kincaid (Partridge Family), Archie Bunker (All in the Family) and even Lou Grant! The plot is wafer-thin, after a simple mistake unravels and presents ever more complex challenges for Fassbender, but he does get to see some sights as he flees from Paris to Dominican Republic, New Orleans, NYC and Florida. But he didn’t spot Tilda running off with his film!
I wonder if Killers Of The Flower Moon is the epic, meaningful movie that director Martin Scorsese has secretly always wanted to make? Written with Eric Roth, it’s a tale of greed, wealth, racism, corruption and murder in 1920s Oklahoma. And it’s also based on the true story documented in the David Grann book of the same name. Basically, the land belonging to the Osage Nation is awash with black gold, or oil, and the white folk want to get hold of it, by any means necessary. Leonardo DiCaprio, Robert De Niro and Lily Gladstone are the main triangle of sadness the plot revolves around, with Jesse Plemons entering the fray later as an FBI agent investigating events. Leo’s face is like a clenched fist as Ernest, as he struggles with his slowness, his swaying moral compass, and attraction to smart Native American ‘heiress’ Molly, played by the astonishing Gladstone. Suicides, murders and acts of terrorism mount up, and Ernest goes from bad to worse in his pursuit of wealth above even love. De Niro feels like an early incarnation of the Trump clan, a Mister Sociable and snake oil salesman happy to deploy religion and family loyalty to get what he wants. The sinuous soundtrack holds it all together, and there’s a nod to the region’s musical culture in also casting authentic Americana stars Jason Isbell and Sturgill Simpson. Finally, look out for Scorsese himself in the epilogue…
Just as Tilda Swinton steals The Killer from under Michael Fassbender’s nose, so Carey Mulligan steals Maestro clean away from her director and co-star Bradley Cooper and his prosthetic nose. Somewhat airbrushed, and mostly shot in pristine black and white, this is a biopic of the gifted 20 th Century conductor and composer Leonard Bernstein. One thing it conveys superbly is Bernstein’s lust for life, and he indeed declares: “I want a lot of things!” Cocky, self-assured, and attracted to men, he nevertheless meets his match in Mulligan, makes her his muse, and marries her. She just asks that he’s discreet with his gay liaisons. Her patrician, ever-so-slightly Katherine Hepburn voice is perfect, and the couple often talk as if in a Howard Hawks’ screwball comedy. Many sections are framed as if interviews on TV, and as their marriage splinters, Mulligan gets all the best lines – including “your truth is a fucking lie” and “if you’re not careful you’re going to die a lonely old queen” – and to be honest, the beautiful music throughout and Mulligan’s presence and acting chops just about save the movie.
Todd Haynes sets May December in 2015 – deliberately just before the advent of Trump, populism and Fox News. Haynes returns to his long-standing muse, Julianne Moore, accompanied by Natalie Portman playing respectively the subject of a tabloid story and the actress about to portray her. The audience has to do a little work, piecing together the fragments of information to reveal that Moore had a fling with a young boy and went to prison for it. But she’s still very defensive about this, having later married him (Charles Melton) and had his children. Remarkably, Haynes managed to complete the shooting in just 23 days – probably because both Portman and Moore are such pros. Final tidbit: having used Michel Legrand’s music from the movie The Go-Between on-set and while prepping, he ended up rerecording and using this score as his own highly dramatic soundtrack here.
Expectations will always be high after Ladj Ly’s debut, Les Miserables, and he’s followed up by filming Les Indésirables (aka Batiment 5) in the same Parisian postcode and with the same co-writer, Giordano Gederlini. Starting with the stark, focused tragedy of a funeral, where they’re struggling to get a matriarch’s coffin down the stairs in their block of flats, it opens up into a study of race, power, corruption, class and money. The grief, frustration and anger of the building’s residents escalate when the new mayor (Alexis Manenti) starts employing reactionary, divisive politics and using brutal tactics to suppress dissent. As he welcomes new Syrian migrants, those already there feel aggrieved and abandoned, and even the level-headed peacemaker Haby (Anta Diaw) starts to push back when curfews on local youths are enforced, declaring “being young isn’t a crime.” Chaos and bedlam ensue, and everything builds to an extraordinary, explosive climax in a movie perhaps even more politically charged than its predecessor.
I honestly didn’t expect to laugh so much at Richard Linklater’s latest, Hit Man (above) which he wrote with Glen Powell, who also stars in the comedy-thriller. Visual and verbal gags abound, and it’s an absolute delight, as Powell’s nerdy, nervous teacher is bounced into an undercover role he didn’t expect. Equally unexpectedly, he thrives in this work, setting up multiple arrests in New Orleans, while sporting a succession of disguises as his new alter-ego, ‘Ron’… until he meets someone he falls in love with. This complication threatens the entire operation when he becomes trapped within his own contrivance by a jealous colleague. It’s hard to see how he can escape this, and there’s a lot of fun as we cheer his progress – and setbacks – along the way.
Another film that surprised is Michel Franco’s Memory, in which the excellent Jessica Chastain carries us through an emotionally complex and nuanced story of generational harm, addiction, abuse, forgetting, and not forgiving. As recovering alcoholic Sylvia, she avoids social situations and intimacy, and sticks to her day job in an adult day care centre while bringing up her well-balanced daughter. When lonely Peter Sarsgaard follows Sylvia home from a school reunion, memories resurface and a tangled attraction threatens her calm existence. Sylvia’s mother might be getting her hooks into her granddaughter, but remains in denial about anything remotely damaging in Sylvia, her older daughter’s, past. So it’s up to peacemaker and younger daughter (wondrous Merritt Wever) to finally speak up. There’s much light amid the darkness, and you probably won’t predict the conclusion either.
It might be deliberate, but somehow director Sofia Coppola has surgically removed all charisma and sex appeal from her Elvis Presley (Jacob Elordi, from Saltburn) in biopic Priscilla. The other drawback is having pretty much zero music from Presley throughout, presumably as they didn’t have the rights. Instead we hear contemporaneous pop acts like the Honeycombs and Bobby Darin on the soundtrack. Cailee Spaeny is convincing as the ridiculously young Priscilla who falls for the already-famous singer when he’s posted to Germany to do his military service. As two lonely souls they’re drawn together, and her childlike innocence, gazing up at him in a reverie, is deliberately emphasised by Coppola. Soon they’re popping pills together, even when she’s still at school. You also sense Elvis’ addictive personality and control over his girlfriend and soon wife, as he chooses her clothes, hair and look – much as Colonel Tom Parker controls him. There’s a hint of violence when Elvis pulls a gun, and you soon feel that she’s down at the end of lonely street.
Make sure you eat before seeing Pot Au Feu (above), as it’s the kind of sensory cinematic experience that makes you want to immediately go out and feast on the finest food imaginable. In fact, it would be amazing to experience it with added ‘smellovision’. Filmed solely in the huge kitchen, the wonderful vegetable garden, and the dining room, this is a gastronomic feast for the eyes. Directed by Anh Hung Tran, it stars the peerless Juliette Binoche as Eugénie, the cook inventing and perfecting sublime dishes, with Benoît Magimel as her gourmet soulmate, Dodin. So we are not left in the dark – and in silence – it cleverly uses the device of a young protégée learning on the job, enabling them to commentate, question and explain the ingredients and techniques as we see them. Amidst the best cooking and eating scenes ever, there’s talk of Careme and Escoffier and the Ritz, so you sense the growing idea of French haute cuisine. Another key thread running through the film is Dodin’s devotion to Eugénie, expressed by each sumptuous and entirely heartfelt course he cooks just for her. My foodie film friends are already planning to see it again…
Shot in ‘period’ 4:3 format, Cédric Kahn’s courtroom drama, The Goldman Case is based on a famous case from 1976, with an unlikely antihero at its core. Goldman (Arieh Worthalter, excellent) pleads guilty to the charge of robbery, but innocent of a double murder, and his supporters in court ramp up the tension and pressure, while the accused keeps interrupting. Somehow confining the action to the claustrophobic
courtroom makes it seem more explosive and the outbursts more potent.
Also based on a true story, Marco Bellocchio’s Kidnapped shows the power of the Catholic church in the 19 th Century, when Rome is not just above the law, but is the law. A young Jewish boy, Edgardo, is rumoured to have been secretly baptised, so the Papal State sweeps in, takes him away from his family by boat from Bologna, and claims him as its own. There is worldwide fury at this flagrant kidnapping by the Pope, but meanwhile Edgardo (Enea Sala, another fine child actor) is successfully indoctrinated and schooled in the Catholic faith. Above all this is an extraordinary portrait of power and wealth, inevitably careering headlong into a messy finale.
It might seem simple to grab the rights to a book or play to adapt, but it’s definitely not. When they work, though, they can knock your socks off.
Following up The Favourite was never going to be easy, but Yorgos Lanthimos makes it look like a breeze by once again casting Emma Stone at the heart of his wonderful movie, Poor Things (above). Adapted from Alasdair Gray’s novel by screenwriter Tony McNamara – who co-wrote The Favourite – this is the story of Stone’s charismatic, oddball character, Bella Baxter, and her emotional, sensual and literal voyage of discovery. Without giving too much away, the man she calls her father, Willem Dafoe, is a rule-breaking surgeon who keeps the feral, destructive Bella contained in his lavish home, surrounded by a menagerie of creatures he’s patched together from various animals. Raffish cad Mark Ruffalo calls Bella a “very pretty retard” and Dafoe says “she is an experiment”. Devoted medical student Ramy Youssef is entranced by her, while Ruffalo steals her away and pries her open like an oyster as they sail off and adventure in Lisbon, mesmerised by its colour and the sound of fado music. Bella quickly discovers alcohol, gambling, philosophy, socialism and compassion – and even makes friends in a Parisian bordello run by the magnificent Kathryn Hunter. Lanthimos has apparently been trying to make this film since acquiring the rights to the novel in 2009, and I can only say that it’s been worth the wait for us cinephiles.
The cool, calm, matter-of-factness of Jonathan Glazer’s The Zone of Interest is one of many things that make this film so chilling. Set in the Second World War, it stars Christian Friedel as Rudolf, commandant at Auschwitz, and the exceptional Sandra Hüller (Anatomy of a Fall) as his wife Hedwig. They live right next door to the concentration camp with their children, basking in the sunshine in their beautiful garden, laughing, playing, going swimming, and doing their everyday chores. It’s a picture of domestic bliss. Meanwhile they simply shut their curtains and windows to block out the smoke from the camp chimneys and the noises of dogs, gunfire, screams, and trains arriving. Filmed throughout in muted, period colours, with the only exception being the black and white, night-time sections that reveal one woman’s brave attempt to help those in the camp. Almost in passing, we observe the young son’s hobby of collecting teeth, and Hedwig getting new clothes – taken from those who’ve entered Auschwitz. Taking Martin Amis’ novel as inspiration, this feels less of an exploration and more a documentation of the banality of evil.
If you saw their previous feature, Loving Vincent, you’ll be eager to see director-screenwriter couple DK Welchman and Hugh Welchman’s latest labour of love, The Peasants. Based on an epic Polish novel of the same name, this has taken more than four years to make, initially filming the story with live actors. They then utilised the same oil painting technique as Loving Vincent, this time with 40,000 individually painted frames and 40,000 frames slotted in between. The result is beautiful, with light flooding and flickering in every frame, giving an almost fairytale quality to this tale of Polish rural life. At first benign, with colourful scenes of nature through the seasons, traditional dancing, and gently simmering dreams, this soon boils over into a story of hopes dashed, forced marriage, and forbidden love among the cabbages. This further spills into vengeance, jealousy and brutal exile, accompanied by Lukasz Rostowski’s fine acoustic score and orchestra. And as the filmmakers point out, its themes of patriarchy, slut shaming, mob rule and double standards are still relevant.
My only expectation of Eileen came from director William Oldroyd’s previous masterpiece, which thrust a young Florence Pugh into instant stardom as Lady M. This time Oldroyd’s source is a novel by Ottessa Moshfegh, who is also the co-screenwriter with Luke Goebel. And this time he seems to have pulled off the same trick to make young Thomasin McKenzie a star, again in the title role. Opposite her is Anne Hathaway as sultry siren, Rebecca, who’s just moved into the small town, and works at the same prison as Eileen, instantly bewitching the naïve, younger woman. Timid Eileen is desperate to escape her dreary, grey existence, living at home with her alcoholic ex-cop father, when Rebecca explodes with colour, excitement and fancy knitwear into her vision and dreams, to the point of obsession. There’s also something satisfyingly Hitchcocky about the characters, the plot, the suspenseful, jazzy soundtrack, and the massive – and I mean massive – twist towards the end. Fabulous.
Every animated film from Hayao Miyazaki is greeted with glee, and The Boy and the Heron is another feast for the eyes and the imagination, with central themes of friendship and dealing with grief. A young boy, Mahito, has lost his mother, and the family leaves Tokyo, where he finds a new mum and a baby sibling on the way. A slightly menacing heron, along with fish and toads, talk to the boy, and as the story unfolds, it is dense with myths, with Mahito both subject and narrator as he faces his fears. In a parallel world he must go on a heroic journey – with his father as a knight figure – in search of lost souls. There’s even a nod to the rise of fascism in the shape of the threatening parakeet outsiders. Meanwhile, wonderful music swirls around and carries the narrative throughout.
Based on John McGahern’s novel, That They May Face The Rising Sun is director Pat Collins’ gentle portrait of a tiny community of lonely, often lost, souls in the 1980s. The rural Irish landscape plays its part in lifting and crushing them, old enmities resurface, hope does not spring eternal, and the idea that you can never go home again feels very pertinent.
FILMS IN COMPETITION
If you want a barometer of the imagination and intent of filmmakers worldwide you could do a lot worse than check out the titles in the Official Competition this year.
Big gun Ryusuke Hamaguchi (Drive My Car) deservedly won the top festival prize with Evil Does Not Exist (above). It’s also the film that provoked the most discussion with fellow cinephiles – each with their own theory on exactly what happened and what it all meant. Fairytale elements abound, including a woodcutter, and a child in the forest. But there’s also a bigger message about creeping development in rural areas, threatening their very livelihoods in the name of progress, tourism, and money. Classic small town versus big business. The haunting score further accentuates the leakness, and the threat to the heart of the idyllic countryside. Dialogue inside cars is key – as with Drive My Car – and you ignore other details at your peril, as Hamaguchi is the master of precise plotting around elusive, unknowable characters. A must-see.
Director Christos Nikou is making his English language debut with Fingernails, hot on the heels of his delightful, absurdist comedy, Apples. Written with Sam Steiner and Stavros Raptis, this is a high-concept and slightly futuristic romantic drama. The idea is that you can scientifically test whether you’re really in love and a good match with your other half… it’s a bit painful for a few days, but at least you get a love certificate and know definitively. Or at least that’s the idea. Starring Jessie Buckley and Riz Ahmed as co-workers, and Jeremy Allen White as Buckley’s boyfriend, there’s something reductive and dystopian in the theme, but it’s nevertheless hopelessly romantic, with Buckley and Ahmed a well-matched, acting dream duo.
It really helps to have seen Lukas Moodysson’s original Together movie, set in 1975, before viewing his follow-up Together 99. Using broadly the same cast, but a quarter of a century on, he homes in on their variously fractured lives and relationships, their disappointments and unrequited loves. Bitterness hovers above their reunion for a big birthday, and warm nostalgia is leavened by old enmities when they start to resurface. New faces and a possible interloper also unsettle the dynamic between the old gang, and we’re in safe hands as the director and his favourite actors, including Gustaf Hammarsten, Anja Lundqvist and Shanti Roney, clearly relish working ‘together’ again.
There’s no hiding the message behind Sudabeh Mortezai’s ambitious film, Europa. It’s all about asset-stripping, not just of individuals, but of a whole community and perhaps whole countries. Again, much like Evil Does Not Exist, it’s small town versus big business. Shot almost like a documentary, this shows how vampiric capitalists send in friendly, often female, faces to gain the trust and negotiate away the rights of poor families in places like Romania. And once they wise up, it’s too late.
LIVE, LAUGH, LUST
To say Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Monster (above) was highly anticipated by yours truly would be an understatement. I loved his previous films, Shoplifters and Broker, and admire his subtle nudging at the edges of big issues to bring them gently into the spotlight. This time his chosen screenwriter is Yûji Sakamoto, who has previously done much TV work, and knows how to create compelling, but accessible storylines. In this movie, a widow (Sakura Ando) and her son, Minato (Soya Kurokawa), are just about managing, although he seems to believe his brain was switched with a pig’s. Minato also appears to be the target of bullying by his schoolteacher, Hori (Eita Nagayama), but nothing is quite as it seems. The clever device Kore-eda uses is multiple points-of-view (POV), so you rewind and revisit the same scenes and timelines from the POV of others involved and implicated, then piece together what really happened for yourself. Guilt and grief and blame permeate the story, with Hori pushed to the very brink, and another of his students, Yori, the subject of systematic bullying by his classmates, as well as by his own father. Kore-eda clearly has a keen eye for children’s behaviour and the complexity of seemingly simple situations, so there’s no clean and easy closure here. Definitely one to revisit to spot the many layers and clues.
Another couple of child actors shine in Lila Avilés’ latest feature, Totem. Previously known for The Chambermaid, Avilés got her leading lady from that film to recruit the young stars for this, most notably Sol (Naíma Sentíes). All shot in one domestic location in Mexico, it focuses on one sprawling, affectionate, troubled family who hire someone to come in and try to rid the house of bad spirits. There’s preparation for a party, but also an imminent death, and this movie further proves that Avilés is one to watch.
You know you’re going to get something wry, warm and human in an Aki Kaurismäki movie, and he doesn’t disappoint in Fallen Leaves. The quiet humour and brevity of the tense opening sequences, including a karaoke scene, set the tone of the film. You feel that all the lonely, central characters – beautifully played by Alma Pöysti, Jussi Vatanen and Janne Hyytiäinen – are living on a precipice, just one false move away from destitution. To bring the action screeching into the present, we witness an awkward courtship and romance potentially snuffed out by bad luck, all playing out against a background of Russia’s invasion and war on Ukraine.
Utterly charming from minute one, Julia Jackman’s Bonus Track, written by Mike Gilbert from a story by Josh O’Connor, is a coming-of-age story with a musical twist. Indeed, each section of the film is structured as a mixtape ‘track’. Our hero is a failing student, George (Joe Anders), isolated and bullied in his final year at school. Then into his class – and life – steps new boy Max (Samuel Small), the cool, glamorous son of a rock star (Colin Salmon), who between them make everyone swoon, from classmates and headmistress Nina Wadia, to George’s mum. Initially swooning himself, George is befriended by Max and they start making sweet music together, literally and metaphorically… Of course, the soundtrack is simply fabulous. And O’Connor himself even turns up as their friendly local tattooist!
Norwegian satire The Hypnosis, from Ernst De Geer, stars Herbert Nordrum, from The Worst Person in the World, and star-to-watch, Asta Kamma August (yes, she is the daughter of director Bille August). Written by the director and Mads Stegger, the plot revolves around an oddball young couple, Andre and Vera, who are pitching their idea of a female health-centred app. Everything about the competitive conference in which they’re pitching is spot-on, from the airless artifice, pressure and intense socialising, to the awkwardness and the money splashing around. There are layers of irony and comedy you don’t see coming, not to mention Vera’s invisible dog, and her triumphant mastery of the situation, against all odds.
French Canadian director-screenwriter Monia Chokri’s The Nature of Love stars her best friend Magalie Lépine-Blondeau in a film variously inspired by bell hooks, animal documentaries and Robert Altman. Sensual, earthy and playful throughout, it’s a well-observed and amusing story of the awakening of Sophie, a woman of a certain age. Much like an erotic drama, the plot jump-starts into life when bored wife Sophie opens her chalet door to hunky handyman Sylvain (Pierre-Yves Cardinal) and they quickly fall in lust. Played for laughs, Chokri imbues her characters with a sense of mischief and abandon, and the only setback to a potential future together is their different backgrounds, class and education. Accompanied by a jaunty soundtrack of Canadian music, this is one of the best portraits of female desire in the festival.
Another, more problematic look at female desire dominates Catherine Breillat’s Last Summer, which could be paired with Todd Haynes’ May December. Here top lawyer Anne (Léa Drucker) falls for her teenage stepson Théo (Samuel Kircher) despite her best intentions, and they embark on a passionate affair that seems destined to only end in tears and rancour. Clever and ironic parallels with one of the cases she’s representing further accentuate her moral transgression. One to inspire debate.
Who would imagine you could make a comedy about yoga teachers? Well, Martín Rejtman has with The Practice (above). The story revolves around Argentine couple Gustavo and Vanessa (Esteban Bigliardi and Manuela Oyarzún) living in Chile, who have recently split up, and are airing their dirty laundry to a therapist. They are also rival yoga instructors, each with potentially fresh romantic interest and a handy weekend retreat where they can take them. There’s high and dry comedy round every corner, with each relationship getting ridiculously tangled, and Gustavo so accident prone…
Asog is director Seán Devlin’s deceptively gentle, post-typhoon, Filipino trans-romance and road trip and stars two of his co-screenwriters, Jaya and Arnel Pablo, plus Ricky Gacho Jr. Initially centred around a drag contest, it has slightly surreal bits, as meanwhile a bigger eco message flows through the film, along with a parallel story of human resilience and resistance, with genuine results.
Some twisty-turny thrillers in the festival definitely shifted me right to the edge of my seat. One of the best is Shujun Wei’s grimy Chinese noir Only The River Flows, filmed with period colours and feel, and covering a police investigation taking place onstage in a theatre. Everyone seems stressed out and there’s a clever jigsaw puzzle – literal and metaphorical – at the heart of the movie. Much as in a Bogart film, people keep turning up dead just as they’re questioned, and the main suspect seems too convenient. Superb performances by Yilong Zhu, Chloe Maayan and Tianlai Hou, and a heart of darkness make this linger long after it’s finished.
Kim Jee-woon’s Cobweb (above) is a film about filmmaking, with multiple layers and knowing winks to the audience. We are transported back to Korea in the 1970s where director Kim believes he’s an auteur making a masterpiece, despite his work resembling that of a hack, and the studio just wanting him to churn out more of the same. At the centre of the plot is the re-shooting of a key part of his precious film, while facing endless setbacks. His lead actors are having an affair, drunkenness abounds, and his own hubris won’t let him compromise. With melodrama and comedy to the fore, it’s a fun journey!
Opening like a classic thriller, Lost In The Night from Amat Escalante jump-starts with a protester being dragged away and ‘disappeared’ in Mexico. We fast-forward three years, and her son, Emiliano (Juan Daniel García Treviño, excellent) is trying to solve the crime amid shimmering heat, a religious cult, powerful rich residents, and bent police. There’s also a parallel look at the blind pursuit of fame for ame’s sake, when the rich daughter (Ester Expósito, already a huge social media star herself) aims to achieve ultimate live interaction with online fans through her ‘reality show’ stunts, which finally intertwines with the main plot. Intense and intriguing.
You could say that Jaione Camborda’s The Rye Horn is a Galician Vera Drake, but set decades later in oppressive Spain, when it wasn’t a great time to be a woman. This has the feel of a 1970s documentary crossed with a thriller, and we witness the dire consequences for Maria (Janet Novás) when she tries to help other women in search of termination. Everyone is judgmental when she falls pregnant herself, and is forced to go on the run. There’s a symmetry in the structure of the film, a great fado soundtrack when they’re on the border and inside Portugal, and something rather magical in the way it shows women instinctively helping other women.
Director-screenwriter Axel Petersén’s Shame on Dry Land (above) is an eye-opener that uses its edgy, thriller plot to almost incidentally reveal the epic crime and corruption in Malta, with some 10-15,000 Swedes relocating there for the bright sunshine and dark money. Everyone is established as well dodgy, and no-one trusts anyone else. Then a figure from the past (Joel Spira) turns up with secrets up his sleeve and possible revenge on his to-do list and the simmering situation threatens to boil over.
Stolen is director Karan Tejpal’s nightmarish voyage into the unknown by two wealthy brothers seeking to help a young Bengali mother who’s had her baby stolen. The men are meant to be en route to their mother’s wedding, but the theft of the child at a busy railway station sets off a seemingly unstoppable chain of events. They all clash with each other on almost everything, but unite against the casually rough cops. At times brutal, the film spotlights the social and wealth divides in India, while the plot is nowhere near as straightforward as it seems – so don’t expect a neat, happy conclusion…
Myriam U. Birara’s The Bride is brilliantly acted by Sandra Umulisa, Aline Amike, and Daniel Gaga. Almost Shakespearean in its themes and characters, it’s set in the 1990s, across the divide after the Rwandan civil war. Eva is violently pushed into a forced marriage, and even as she discovers more about her new family and their own bloody history, she tries to push back against stifling patriarchy and tradition.
Shoshana is director Michael Winterbottom’s valiant attempt to capture events in Tel Aviv back when the Brits were still in charge and the place is constantly ripped apart. And it obviously feels very relevant now.
A bit of an epic at three hours, Giorgio Diritti’s Lubo shows revenge as a dish served ice-cold by the broken Lubo, played with panache and playfulness by the brilliant Franz Rogowski. He proceeds to break everything and everybody that gets in his way. He sows his seed, changes his identity, batters and bruises, but knows he will never restore his pre-World War II happiness. You root for Lubo even as he leaves destruction in his wake, and wonder if his past will catch up with him. Beautifully filmed in stunning locations, it also reveals a bigger scandal lurking just underneath.
ALL OVER THE PLACE
As promised, coming soon is the second, concluding part of our round-up, where we’ll look at some directorial debuts and documentaries – plus the much-coveted DVDfever Awards.
That’s everything from BFI London Film Festival 2023 Part 1. Coming soon… As promised, in the second, concluding part of our round-up we’ll look at some directorial debuts and documentaries – plus my worst picks from the festival (to save you money). And, of course, the much-coveted DVDfever Awards.
Check out the London Film Festival website.