The always-interesting German director, Christian Petzold explores a modern take on the mermaid myth in Undine. He centres the story around Berlin historian Undine (Paula Beer), whose job it is to explain how the city has been constantly reshaped. Cue a sudden accident and oodles of liquid imagery, and Christoph (Franz Rogowski, from Hidden Life and Petzold’s Transit) is in her thrall. Almost like a siren, she seems to have left a trail of watery casualties in her wake, including a previous lover. Great performances pull you through the narrative of fish tank, mermaid, diver and an overall feel of inescapable fate.
A couple of Argentine films also make their mark. The Intruder, directed by Natalia Meta, focuses on a voice artist, Ines (Erica Rivas, compelling) dubbing an exploitative thriller, and there’s a fine line between her dreams, imagination and reality. Her needy, controlling, exploitative boyfriend is suddenly no more after a struggle, but was he killed by an external or internal intruder? The sound design appropriately carries much of the suspense, and the sound engineers Ines works with are suitably creepy, reminiscent of Berberian Sound System and even Hitchcockian dreams within dreams. Sometimes nailbiting, it’s also playful with the idea of being possessed. More realistic, but also suffused with the feeling of impending threat, A Common Crime from Franciso Marquez centres on Cecilia, a middle class academic living in a nice Buenos Aires suburb, who fails to open the door to her home help’s son late at night when he’s knocking furiously to be let in, as he’s being pursued. Then he disappears, the oppressive police are blamed, and she is racked with guilt, which she cannot conceal. Very unsettling.
More brutal and controversial is Michel Franco’s New Order (above) from modern-day Mexico. The rich and their poor servants are divided by money, geography and opportunity, coming to a head when a society wedding is in full flow at the precise moment when unrest starts to pour through the city, beginning with bloody carnage at the hospital. Some of the imagery stays with me even now, as the poor start to slip down over the walled property of the rich wedding party. Then it escalates quickly into a trail of terror with nods to films like Lindsay Anderson’s If, though far bloodier. And just when you think it can’t get any worse as a hellscape, the army seize control and employ terror reminiscent of the terrible days of the disappeared, rounding people up for ransom or exploitation or torture. Utterly shocking from the start, this is full-strength, provocative filmmaking and not for the faint hearted.
200 Meters feels like a very personal drama from Ameen Nayfeh. Set on the border in Palestine, where construction worker Mostafa gazes across the slim divide to his family back in Israel. But when he suddenly needs to return, things turn Kafkaesque as he faces endless bureaucracy, being ripped off by smugglers, and his desperation increases as events spiral out of control. What starts as a domestic drama soon morphs into an excellent thriller.
Based on the original hit play, One Night in Miami is Regina King’s directorial debut, and she coaxes some fine performances from her leading men, notably Leslie Odom Jr (best known as the original Aaron Burr in Hamilton) as crooner Sam Cooke, and Eli Goree as Cassius Clay at the precise moment when he converts to Islam and becomes Muhammad Ali. The story centres around these two stars in their respective fields meeting fellow African American icons from American Football (Jim Brown) and politics (Malcolm X) in a motel room to thrash out their next moves and their beliefs in urgent, heated discussions. And this all takes place straight after Ali has fought Sonny Liston, and flashy hotels with colour bars won’t accept them. Their dismissive, transactional attitudes to women are exposed here, but the rest of the film tends to paint the quartet in rose-tinted hues, where something harder hitting and more nuanced might have lifted the film from good to exceptional.
The charming, not-quite-road-movie Supernova feels very close to home for young British director Harry Maqueen. Taking to the country lanes in their camper van, lifelong, loving couple, irascible author Tusker (Stanley Tucci, beautifully measured) and musician Sam (Colin Firth) bicker as they skirt around the subject of Tusker’s dementia and end of life plans. Veering from sentimental to pragmatic, the film was developed with help from the Wellcome Trust, and its beautiful travel sequences are a great advert for the UK as holiday destination.
Rather more full on and explicit, there’s also gay romance at the heart of New York indie pic Cicada from Matt Fifer, who’s also its co-writer and star. This might even be the start of a new genre of gay mumblecore, as this portrait of the sweet, multiracial couple of Sam and Ben plays out, with Fifer’s co-star Sheldon D. Brown also stepping in as co-writer in what’s a very personal story.
Loosely based on the later life of horror writer Shirley Jackson, director Josephine Decker’s boss move in her movie Shirley is casting Elizabeth Moss in the title role. A genius novelist, but superficially unlikeable and unpredictable human being, we begin to see what makes her tick through the eyes of young acolyte Rose (Odessa Young), when Rose and her husband Fred are lured into the Jackson household by Shirley’s professor husband (Michael Stuhlbarg). The creaking house, the claustrophobia, and the misogyny of the lecherous professor have obviously shaped Shirley, who turns to Rose as a muse, and there’s a distinct whiff of David Mamet about the way women are crushed, demeaned and confined to helpless, always repeating fate. Some great quotes in here too, including Shirley saying: “a clean house is evidence of mental inferiority.” Worth seeing for the magnetic Moss.
Another film featuring divine qawwali music (like Mogul Mowgli) is The Disciple, from the director of Court, Chaitanya Tamhane, with Alfonso Cuaron as exec producer and cheerleader. It doesn’t quite cut through as the impressive Court did, possibly because it’s a tad overlong and the characters aren’t quite as compelling. A slowly measured tale of expectations and musical legacy shot around Mumbai, the devotional soundtrack almost rescues it.
Farewell Amor, from Ekwa Msangi is a very modern, yet timeless story of a man who left his family behind to make a new life on a different continent. Main difference here is that after 17 long years, his wife and daughter are coming over to join him, finally. And the cultural clashes between their home back in Angola and their new destination in NYC bring not only conflict, but also hint at an underlying sadness. His wife in particular is adrift, valuing her religious conviction over her husband’s love for dance, though there may be salvation in the latter. Almost falling into YA territory, yet not quite Coming To America, there’s wry, universal observational humour to carry the audience with the central trio.
Parallel stories in the face of adversity – again with Africa at their heart – come in Eyimofe: This is My Desire, from Arie and Chuko Esiri. The film starts by focusing on Mofé, who has lost everything, family, home, work, and cannot decide what to do and where to go, facing a blizzard of Kafkaesque paperwork and feeling squashed by his desperate, almost Ken Loachesque situation. The latter half of the film concentrates on Rosa, also ground down and frustrated, lusted over and always short of money. Very promising from the Esiri duo.
From the Cartoon Saloon team, Wolfwalkers is a sparky, delightful, animated Irish feature set in 1650. Telling its story in highly distinctive style and colour palette, with fabulous music, it also has some fine voice actors to draw you in – including Sean Bean with his Yorkshire grit, and the suitably menacing Simon McBurney as the Lord Protector aka Cromwell. The animation successfully entwines history and ancient myth, and nature pivots from bucolic and pretty to raw in tooth and claw, and it could be just the ticket for a family audience.
NOT THIS TIME
There’s almost certainly a good movie somewhere inside Genus Pan (above) from Lav Diaz. After all this Filipino film won the best director award in Venice. Shot in black and white and stretching across over two and a half hours (which is apparently quite short for Diaz), this is a literal journey through jungles for three gold miners trying to get home. They veer into delirium and confess of past transgressions and as we witness their bleak unravelling – representing mankind – the moral of the story is that we are all just like animals. Not for the casual moviegoer.
At over two hours, Wei Shujun’s Striding into the Wind also feels too long and fails to grip. In Hong Sang-soo style (and they even reference him in the script), it’s a bit meta, with film students led by the laidback Kun (Zhou You) carrying the haphazard plot. It’s basically an off-the-beaten-track, almost autobiographical journey within China for the director, and you have to feel thoroughly invested in the Kun character for the film to work.
Played mainly for laughs, Talya Lavie’s Honeymood shows a newly married couple’s relationship quickly unravelling once they arrive at their hotel suite. Veering from quirky and absurd to intense, it’s hard to muster much enthusiasm for the characters’ plight.
Horror is the latest genre to try to tackle dementia – following in the footsteps of Kirsten John’s comic documentary Dick Johnson Is Dead, and Florian Zeller’s drama The Father – and there are indeed some moments in Natalie Erika James’ Relic that resonate. The physical manifestation of the effects of dementia, including post-it notes, lack of inhibition, forgetting, and mood swings are turned all the way up for maximum terror when arguably something as subtle as Elizabeth Is Missing, starring the impeccable Glenda Jackson, conveys the condition for the sufferer and their friends and family more effectively.
There’s also horror and a constant feeling of impending doom running through Rose: A Love Story, from Jennifer Sheridan. Tight and claustrophobic, it centres around a young couple holed up in their remote cabin in the woods, she a writer, he a hunter. But are they both becoming bestial with their leeches, animals and experiments? This feels like a darker version of Sightseers crossed with Misery, with the added ingredient of a stranger wandering into their territory…
Not too many absolute stinkers this year. Just two or three. How much did I dislike Abel Ferrara’s Siberia? Let me count the ways. First off, what a waste of the talents of actors like Willem Dafoe and Simon McBurney in a narrative that flips back and forth between the most remote bar conceivable and various dream/nightmare scenarios. What’s real and what’s imagined by Dafoe? Frankly it’s hard to raise any enthusiasm to interrogate this. Meanwhile gratuitous, heavy handed nudity and violence spatter across so many scenes it becomes a blur of unnecessary exploitation masquerading as art. On the plus side, the huskies are very good in their roles.
Hated every minute of Brandon Cronenberg’s Possessor, which feels like a tribute act to his dear old dad, Dave. There’s body swapping involving Andrea Riseborough, lots of bloody scenes and some decent sound design to accentuate how grisly everything is, and Jennifer Jason Leigh adds unhinged edginess. As for Ismael Ellraki’s Zanka Contact, well, it has a groovy intro like a music video, then… crash! An ageing rock star is kidnapped and falls in with a… (wait for it) prostitute with a heart of gold, and they journey around Morocco with random threats and acts of violence at every step, but at least the locations look good.
That’s it for the London Film Festival 2020 Part 1 round-up. In Part Two we’ll focus on the documentaries, archive films, episodic releases, and shorts – and, of course, we’ll round up the much-coveted DVDfever Awards.
Also check out the London Film Festival website.