On Monday I was at long last liberated from Leicester Square due to three of my four scheduled films screening across the Thames at BFI Southbank. Shit dates in franchise restaurants aren’t my bag, so after checking that the skate park was still there – yet to be demolished by money-minded machine men plotting another Pizza Express – I pressed on past the aisle of interchangeable eateries and made for my film mecca, that old brick of grey known as BFI Southbank. I’ll be straight up and say that this place, replete with its vast library and its myriad seasons devoted to directors, movements and genres, was instrumental in my initial move to London, and now that I’ve temporarily departed, I have strangely only just made purchase of a BFI membership. Every time, without fail, I march through the front and enter the bookshop at the back, waiting to see if that slender Raul Ruiz Poetics of Cinema book has finally been discounted from its obscene £21.99 price tag. Monday’s tragedy: it was no longer in stock.
First up in NFT1 was Pasolini, Ferrara’s tribute to the maverick Italian director, starring Willem Dafoe as Pier Paolo himself in the days and hours leading up to his storied death. Despite drumming up fervour for the film’s release with grave assertions – “I know who killed him.” – Ferrara is hesitant to swat away the mist obfuscating whatever true motive lay behind the murder, in spite of plentiful plausible theories floating in the ether. A key image at film’s end is the swoop of the camera toward the motionless bloodied skull of our revered artist, flat-out dead on the beach. He’d spent the last 80 minutes living, existing, being there; now he is no more, and the camera’s gaze on his head, a chrome latterly packed to bursting point with creativity and political pontificating, is in the blink of an eye – and the rev of a car engine – snatched mercilessly from the world.
If Mike Leigh’s Mr Turner was less about the man himself and more about the larger questions pertaining to the public and private artist, Ferrara’s film adopts a more specific approach, electing to hone in on key beats that help illustrate the man behind the camera, be it flights of productivity or press interviews delineating his views on consumerism. Death approaches in the meantime, yet aside from the gloomy, dark green and brown hues there is no sense of impending doom as found in, say, Ferrara’s 4:44: The Last Day on Earth. Pasolini’s diary, as his life, is a work-in-progress, and as a character in his fictional screenplay puts it: “There is no end. And so we wait, until something happens.” Dafoe’s turn exhibits a fine-tuned expressive pitch, his eyes often locked behind tinted glasses, threats of emotion suppressed in the wrinkle of a mouth and a tensed finger pressed lightly against the brow. Drawing a line from this to Pasolin’s The Gospel According to St. Matthew and Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ – starring Dafoe as the Son of God – one could get the impression that the Pasolini here, as embodied by Dafoe, departs from the world as a sort of holy martyr. Then one considers the image of that vacant skull, and remembers mortality.
I stuck around BFI for Eugene Green’s La Sapienza, a gentle picture about an architectural designer, Alexandre (Fabrizio Rongione), who is encouraged by his wife (Christelle Prot) into begrudgingly accommodating tag-along student Goffredo (Ludovico Succio) on a research trip to Rome, where the legacy of Francesco Borrimini inspires in the pair some choice revelations about the requisite spiritual beauty one has an obligation to infuse in their artistic creations. Every dialogue scene establishes a two-shot as its foundational base, before shifting into alternating first-person perspectives and steadily tightening the frame into close-ups over the course of the conversation. It’s more or less the way Ozu did it, only here the artifice is palpable by way of its repetition and stilted delivery; Green admits there is no intention of naturalism to his interactions, and indeed each sentence has been pared down to its simplest phrasing, but for a lesson in art’s intrinsic soulfulness I found it strangely devoid of vitality. One lady stood up during the Q&A and applied the film’s crux a little closer to home: the marked difference between St. Paul’s Cathedral elegant design and something as spiritless as the Gherkin. Let the clothes fit the crime, I say.
A torrential downpour was all that opposed me as I scurried across Waterloo towards the BFI IMAX for – and it still baffles me to say this – Jean-Luc Godard in full 3D. Goodbye to Language had been at the top of my must-see list since its bow at Cannes earlier this year, and although I’m fighting tirelessly each day to quell my inner auteurist and steel for disappointment against even the most sure-fire successes, I couldn’t help but have a spring in my step over this one. The screening represented something of milestone for me: Godard’s Week End had introduced teenage Ed to the notion that film needn’t require a plot, that there was more to the medium than stories with beginnings, middles and ends. Week End knocked me for six and remains a firm favourite to this day. Further to this, I have a love/hate relationship with the IMAX; it’s the last remaining place on earth where I can still suffer pangs of anxiety, usually around the point where an usher stops short of informing you that there’s no way out, and the tightness is further exacerbated during trailers, when anticipation, trepidation and impatience are at their peak. I used to have a real issue with anxiety attacks in cinemas, often forcing me to leave a film halfway through and either re-enter when I’d well recovered or simply go home. So when Goodbye to Language began, and that first red ‘ADIEU’ burst outward from the screen, my chest seized itself; thereafter, I knew where I was, what I was dealing with, and so the air began to find its way in again. My long-standing symbiosis of cinephilia and self-sabotaging bodily ailment had come to an absurd convergence and then travelled their separate ways. Strangely enough, it was the gentleman sitting directly in front of me that began swaying back and forth, ultimately submitted to his anxiety attack, and had no option but to exit the screening. He has my utmost sympathies, naturally.
Back to the film: Godard has utilised 3D – Hollywood opiate par excellence – as one would snatch up a Rubix cube from a toddler, solve it and toss it aside like yesterday’s news. What Godard has achieved with the form here can, ironically, only be topped by another director that is willing to meet him on an aggressively Brechtian playing field, a feat that illusion-merchants Marvel would hardly be game to attempt. Much has been reported from Cannes concerning key scenes in which the image splits in half and overlaps itself, causing the viewer to see a completely different shot in one open eye to the other. A good joke is never told three times; Godard uses this trick sparingly, though there are subtler moments where I alternated between each eye and found significant yet understated differences in several shots.
The closest scenes amounting to any kind of narrative are those that involve a couple (Kamel Abdeli and Heloise Godet, both present for the Q&A) struggling to communicate inside a bland abode, and the pair of them are understandably upstaged time and again by the quaint, poetic sight of Godard’s pet dog Roxy, aimlessly navigating the landscape as classical music cuts in and out. We can never truly know how this creature interprets the world around him, but we can assuredly discount the signs and signifiers that subconsciously ferry we humans from each deliberation to the next. The interior wherein the couple resides is a home furnished of things that have function and further meaning ascribed to them. In one shot, a woman sits facing away from her television, the English audio of the DVD understandable to the viewer, yet the French subtitles – and her means of entry into the complete experience of the film – are to her unseen. As one watches hands silently exchanging eyephones with not an audible word shared between them, one begins to read the ‘Goodbye to Language’ title as a final resignation from the auteur against an irrevocable devaluation of cultural interrogation, an embittered sigh towards the human eye’s state of flux. I shall dwell for a time on the image of a man speaking to his wife from the toilet seat, the sound of his diarrhoea sloping into the bucket as he speaks – the point being, after all is said and done, that men, women and dogs all speak one common language: defecation. And maybe that’s all we deserve.
It seemed strange, almost treacherous, to travel from a belligerently difficult Godard film to its polar opposite: It Follows, a meticulous horror picture whose prerogative is to scare its audience silly via an uninhibited cinematic arsenal. Director David Robert Mitchell isn’t giving viewers the shivers through philosophical treatises on semiotics, but nor is he content to let them sit back and wait for the monsters to materialise in a flash-instant. Wide-angle compositions and depth of field keep the audience immersed and engaged in those in-between moments, searching for the nasty that may or may not be lurking in the background of a scene. Liable to appear at any moment are spectres whose forms are personalised to effectively spook the character that notices them; our lucky winner is 19-year-old Jay (Maika Monroe) who after an intimate encounter receives a sexually-transmitted curse pre-packaged with a slow-moving spectral stalker, a trauma-tailored phantom that can and will find its prey at any time of the day, anywhere. Pare this ostensibly preposterous device down to its central conceit for clarity: how many of us have dreamed of a person or thing chasing us, slowly, casually, often taking the form of someone we know? And when we’re powerful enough to outrun and escape such threats, the knowledge that it’s still out there causes us to repeatedly look over our shoulder – or in this case, around the widescreen frame.
There are no adults in this world unless you look for them (and I’d argue that the frequent emphases on family photos are a tad on-the-nose), confining this ordeal as unique to those stuck in the feeling-out stage between teenage years and adulthood. Sarah’s accompanying band of brave merry friends call to mind Buffy the Vampire Slayer, a show that also featured a set of teenagers whose traumas project as horror. Nothing on that show looked and sounded quite this good, however: the electric score from Disasterpeace travels the range from bruising to soft-tempered, complementing Mitchell’s effortless oscillation between tones of sweet and deathly sour, and there’s enough compositional flair and inventive camera movement by cinematographer Mike Gioulakis to satisfy those certain cinephiles ordinarily indifferent to the horror genre. In all, it’s a tight package.