London Film Festival ’09 Review

So there was plenty of great looking films to choose from (I particularly wanted also to see Jacques Audiard’s  A Prophet as recommended to me by Julien Planté, Joon-Ho Bong’s Mother, Jacques Rivette’s Around A Small Mountain, Elia Suleiman’s The Time That Remains, Jarmusch’s The Limits Of Control and Mia Hansen-Løve’s Father of My Children amongst others, guess I will have to wait for the DVDs) and I eventually chose rather a mixed bag.

Micmacs

Jeunet's latest stars Dany Boon (centre) as Bazil, here with his adopted family of eccentrics.

The first film I saw was the Gala opening of Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Micmacs (Micmacs À  Tire-Larigot) which I found to be not quite as good as Amelie of City Of Lost Children. Jean Pierre-Jeunet’s  last film A Very Long Engagement marked a departure to a more serious tone and epic scale and it’s been five years since then after an adaptation of Yann Martel’s Life of Pi  (tis a  shame I would’ve liked to have seen that) got too expensive, as Jeunet himself told us introducing the film. So there was a high expectation for this one.

 

The film follows the adventures of Bazil (Dany Boon) who nearly dies when a bullet accidently lodges into his brain. He sets out on a mission to find the arms dealers indirectly responsible for his near-death, and also for the death of his father in North Africa during his childhood.

He is aided by an adopted ‘family’ of eccentrics- including Jeunet regular Dominique Pinon as  Fracasse, a man determined to beat world records and Yolande Moreau as Tambouille, a sensitive contortionist- who live in fantastical underground caves under a refuge heap.

Jeunet has a lot of fun in vilifying the arms trade as represented by rivals Libraski (Jean-Pierre Becker) and Gerbaud (Patrick Paroux), showing Gerbaud viciously biting the heads off prawns and eulogising on the power of a land mine with power enough to take out an area the ‘size of a football pitch’, (cue Bazil imagining a football match where footballers randomly get blown up). And Libraski proudly displaying his morbid collection of celebrities’ body-parts (Picasso’s finger is insultingly manipulated at one point in one of the best visual gags).

And the schemes that Bazil’s team concocts against them are elaborate and clever, while Boon displays a Chaplinesque gift for physical comedy. The problem is that things run so smoothly in Jeunet’s escapist-wish-fulfilment worlds that you find yourself wishing that Bazil and his team met with more obstacles, and that things weren’t so charming and embedded in a simplistic black and white morality (Jeunet is definately the more mainstream Spielbergian side of French cinema which typically favours amoral ambiguities in its characters and narratives). Saying that though he does still manage to make some salient points about how life is based on so many chances, with Bazil’s life literally decided on a toss of the coin in an operating theatre.

But even when you think that the ending is going into more amoral territory, Jeunet turns it into something merely amusing, meanwhile emphasising the rushed romance between Tambouille and Bazil. But that’s Jeunet for you, and you can’t fault his gift for old-fashioned entertainment.  And he certainly has visual flair to spare but I’m afraid I’m one of those who prefers my French films socio-realistic with more sophisticated characterisation than Jeunet’s play at heroes and villains (though maybe this is also greatly to do with the fact that it’ s largely a comedy). I laughed but was left feeling a little dissappointed like I had expected Jenuet to be well, less Jeunet.

A Religiosa Portuguesa

The Portuguese Nun stars Leonor Baldaque as a strangely calm actress.

The second film I saw (on the recommendation of Kieron Corless in Sight & Sound) was Eugène Green’s The Portuguese Nun (A Religiosa Portuguesa) about an actress (Leonor Baldaque) who suffers from an instable love life. She visits Lisbon  to make a two-hander film about a nun and who makes some life-changing encounters along the way, meeting a real-life nun who inspires her to be a less selfish person and adopt a poor boy she meets. 

The film had some beautiful shots of Lisbon, it’s architecture, churches, city views and cobbled squares and alleys, the camera paying the city an adoring homage.  It also featured moving music of  fado  with singers Caminé and Aldina Duarte given wholes scenes to sing their songs, Green also concentrating on the emotional effects of the music on spectators.

There was also some funny moments such as when we see Green as the director in the film (so very meta) dancing like the old man he is in the disco and commenting on how it’s hard to be ‘hip’. But overall I think the film gets too bogged down in trying to be different. The camera persistently lingers on empty spaces or focuses for too long on anything from feet to door frames, refusing to follow the convention of following the main object of interest, i.e the lead actor.

This combined with the fact that the central actress keeps the same calm expression throughout the film, and all the actors speak in an unnatural mannered and slow tone meant that I continually felt disengaged from the film internally wishing Green would cut faster and stop being so pretentious. It also meant that it dragged, so it didn’t really work for me.

Ander

Ander is a moving little gem which stars Joxean Bengoetxa (left) as the titular character whose life is transformed when he meets Christian Esquivel's (right) Jose.

The next film I saw was Roberto Castón’s Ander which I loved, it got across profound things but in an entirely naturalistic and unpretentious way. Set in the Basque region it focuses on the life of the central character of the title, (played with great honesty by Joxean Bengoetxea) living in a secluded village on a farm with his mother (a comically grumpy and protective Pila Rodríguez) and sister (Leira Ucha) whose  limited existence is interrupted by the arrival of Peruvian Jose (ChristianEsquivel). A hired help who comes in when Ander has an accident and makes him acknowledge his true sexuality as a homosexual.

The rural area where they live is beautifully photographed, while also depicting the monotony and drudgery of Ander’s life as a farmer, as he gets up at 5.30 everyday to plough the land, feed the pigs and milk the cows with often only his radio for entertainment before Jose comes along.

He is surrounded by colourful and well-drawn characters in the community such as Panadero (a great and comically machismo performance from Jose Kruz Gurrutxaga) as Ander’s only friend, and a crude mismatched one at that who loves nothing better than shagging and drinking for whom the thought of homosexuality is something to be mocked and be disgusted by.

Ander also befriends Reme (another impressive performance from Maman Rivera)  a prostitute who is used by all in the village. She also takes her son around with her and we learn later that her husband has left her and she is desperately hoping for him to return. What’s great about her character is that we never judge her as she is so sensitively rendered. She is also the only one in the village that understands what is going on between Jose and Ander and encourages them, it is in fact her outsider’s position that allows her to be more open-minded than anyon-else.

The character of Iñaki (Eriz Alberdi) is also a delight and a moving character study of an elderly man who has been in love with Ander’s mother since the day he met her, but who is afraid to say anything because of Ander and his supposed loyalty to his father ( not realising that Ander was in fact tyrannised by him).(*SPOILER* in next sentance) So it is a very affecting when Ander’s mother eventually dies bringing forth all his previously restrained emotions.

Ander’s eventual realisation of his sexuality is realistically and touchingly realised as well, treating Jose with increasing warmth, and then contempt and indifference when he realises the effect he is having on him.  His realisation that he needs Jose comes then as he becomes more self-aware and sees that a life spent alone is no life at all.A beautiful film with sensitive performances from the leads, it had me thinking about it for days afterwards. I really hope this one gets a wide release despite it’s gay theme I think it’s meditation on loneliness  (as well as the  great shots of the Basque countryside) would connect with everyone.

womenwithoutmen

The beautifully photographed Women Without Men features Shabnam Toloui (centre) as Munis a woman determined to take part in the political events shaping her country.

The last film I saw was Shirin Neshat’s Women Without Men  (Zanan-e Bedun-e Mardan) based on Shahrunsh Parsipar’s magic-realist novel, which won the Silver Lion for best direction at the Venice Film Festival and was 6 years in the making. It is set in 1953 in Iran, at a time when the British and American-lead coup against the then elected Prime Minister Mossadegh and installed a military dictatorship in its place leading to more oppression especially for women. Hence also making us aware of Western involvement in the current state of Iran and the hypocrisy of Western government’s criticisms of Iran.

The film tells the story of four women living in these tumultuous times, Zarim(Hungarian actress Orsi Tóth),  a prostitute with anorexia, Munis (Shabnam Toloui) a woman who joins the Communists and rebels against her brother Ali’s (Navíd Akhavan) wish that she be married. Faezah (Pegah Ferydoni) a women who longs to marry Ali but is frustrated when he marries someone-else, and Forakh Legh (Arita Shahrzad) a woman who longs for her more bohemian lifestyle and former lover Abbas (Bijan Daneshmand) before she married.

The film shows the frustration, humiliation and desperation of these women’s lives (only made worse by the regime change), as we see the sadness in which Zarim lives her life, despondent about her job serving men and ashamed by her own body (in one painful scene she tries to scrub the bruises off her shockingly emaciated body), she is also a mysterious character who never speaks, perhaps in protest at the world around her.

The other women are more vocal in their defiance, Munis openly refuses to be married off and her determination to live her own life as conveyed by Touloi is inspiring and courageous, reminding us of the other women still now fighting for freedom in Iran and other oppressed countries after all these years.

While Forakh renounces her previous marriage and goes to live outside the strictures of society in a house situated on a beautiful magical orchard which provides a haven for all the women (Even the military who eventually enter the house soon become just part of the party she is having, and become enraptured by the moving Iranian music playing there). She becomes a mother to the women but also misses out on the love of  Abbas who has moved on.

Faezah represents a more traditional woman in her desire to get married but even she comes to realise the limits of a life enslaved and beholden to a man like Ali, who would her take her on as a second wife and make his first her ‘slave.’ Her rape also makes clear the privilege that men feel in Iran’s society to do whatever they like to women.

One of the most defining things about the film was the beautiful cinematography by Martin Gschlacht. The bleached out visuals like a faded photograph in the scenes in the city (shot in Casablanca in Morocco), contrasting with sumptuous colour of the flora in the magical orchard.  The camera inviting you in as respite from all the political turmoil in the city. The atmospheric  soundtrack by Ryûichi Sakamoto was also a great partner to the often poetic images, while the traditional Iranian music played in the film gave a sense of national culture and heritage as well as being very moving.

It’s just a shame about the ending which ended rather too abruptly for me after a climatic build-up. But otherwise it’s an enthralling and enlightening film that is definitely worth watching on the big screen if it manages to get on any cinemas here.

Till next time…

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