Features / Festivals / Reviews

London Film Festival Diary, Part 5: NATIONAL GALLERY, THE SALVATION, LEVIATHAN

National Gallery

Several days deep into the festival and I became devastated to belatedly discover a glaring absence in my schedule: Bruno Dumont’s 200-minute crime-comedy Li’l Quinquin, very possibly my most anticipated of the entire filmy lot. The sudden realisation dawned on me as I downed a coffee preceding the AM’s screening of the three-hour National Gallery; I was searching my schedule for films of a similar length, horrified to find that my ticket stubs omitted one critical Mr. Dumont. A work of its length may not find these shores again for some time, unlike, say, The Duke of Burgundy, another anticipated film of mine that was purposefully dropped from the timetable due to conflicts, but will no doubt be due imminent release because a) it’s from a British director, Peter Strickland, and b) the buzz begun loud and resounding from TIFF over a month ago and has shown no signs of diminishing. Fortunately, the movie gods intervened: a convenient gulf in my Thursday before Horse Money at 3.30pm just so happened to house an 11.45 repeat showing of L’il Quinquin. Crisis averted! These are first world problems, people. We don’t know how lucky we are.

Even without the aid of my trusty old friend the Cappucino, my tired eyes were pried open and duly intrigued for the entirety of Fredrick Wiseman’s National Gallery, a documentary detailing the ins-and-outs of that towering Trafalgar institution, from curation to administration to restoration and more. The restoration work in particular was of profound interest to me – as it would be to most other cinephiles – and it gives deserved credit and attention to those working tirelessly behind the scenes to maintain the condition of historic artworks. These peeks behind the curtain are enough to persuade those who may balk at the prospect of a lengthy gaze at the National Gallery, perhaps preferring to visit the damned place instead. You can do both: whereas one’s own visit to the gallery will include a personal, subjective experience drawn out by extended reflection on a number of paintings, Wiseman chooses to mostly bypass the crowds and shine a light instead on the decision-making affecting each facet of the gallery’s operation. This precedence is made clear by the brief, second-long shots of one painting to the next, leaving no time for a closer inspection, and the shots of people looking are never guaranteed to match with the painting we’ve just seen or are about to see. High-level discussions are given a considerable length of time, covering such issues as the questionable integrity of aligning with Sports Relief, the reach of artistic expertise from curator to visitor, and an overall sense of true cherishment of art’s value that instils in one a admiration for this specific institution as one of seemingly few remaining vestiges of principle. Whether Wiseman captured the entire story is certainly up for debate, though on this evidence the National Gallery appears as a refreshing counterpoint to the ethical façade of institutions such as the one alluded to in a previous post. I hope my eyes were not deceiving me. I trust Wiseman was not deceiving me.

The Salvation

After a pleasant stay at BFI it was back to Leicester Square, where I found a vacant red carpet surrounded by absolutely no one bar myself, a security guard and an old lady who, despite there being nothing and nobody obstructing her walk across the crimson and into the cinema, complained that she ‘never used to have to wait out here’. Baffled, I pressed on ahead and found my seat in the gala for Kristian Levring’s Western entry The Salvation (actually sold-out, I should note), introduced by festival director Clare Stewart, positively giddy with excitement, as ‘everything one dreams for in a Western’. If primitive storytelling, captive princess syndrome and no discernible shades of grey make for an exceptional genre entry in this post-revisionist day and age, then we truly have regressed. The Salvation, though intermittently attractive and with its fair share of thrilling action set-pieces, sets the Western back by almost a century. It stars Mads Mikkelsen as a man named Jon whose murder of a pair of thugs – themselves responsible for the murder of his wife and son – attracts the attention of a sinister outlaw played by Jeffrey Dean Morgan, himself flanked by inanimate muscle in one Eric Cantona. The cast is rounded out by Jonathan Pryce as an unscrupulous undertaker, and Eva Green in the token role of a female whose status is only significant in relation to the man she stands beside – tellingly, she has not a single line in the entire film. There’s the odd fleck of ambiguity to chew over – the nature of Jon’s wife’s death arose in the Q&A – but otherwise the characters are apportioned separately and rigidly into camps of  ‘good’ and ‘bad’, with nary a touch less light or dark between them. I couldn’t help but to laugh during the final scene, wherein corrupt townies assure Mads that he is a ‘good man’ – in case we forgot – then begrudgingly depart from their hometown and into the wilderness simply on his orders. Minor plot quibbles like this are usually best left alone when touching on a film’s larger structural issues, yet The Salvation attracts this level of criticism by giving everything over to plot. Bearing this in mind, one wonders whether the audience has any incentive to ever return to the film over a superior genre classic. The audience were whooping and hollering, though I doubt they’ll even remember the experience in a year’s time.

Leviathan

Hold that up against Leviathan, a film that invites so many different interpretations it almost beckons an immediate revisit in order to fully unpack it all. Together with 2011’s Elena, this film forms part of a one-two punch from Andrei Zvyagintsev, a Russian filmmaker who understands, unlike Levring, and so compellingly depicts the fluidity of ‘evil’ in human nature, the susceptibility to sin that transcends class boundaries yet is nonetheless malleable to circumstance and privilege. Mikhail Krichman’s beautiful photography captures a Russia whose air has absorbed the blue of the sea and the grey of the sky, where answers are found at the bottom of a bottle of vodka that travels fast and easy down the hatch.

The film has been described as a loose reimagining of the Book of Job; I’m hesitant to detail any of the narrative save for the predicament highlighted at the film’s outset, of a man named Kolya (Alexey Zvyagintsev) struggling to halt the sell-off and demolition of his house to make way for a communications tower commissioned by the town’s corrupt mayor. As the hard times mount, characters and viewers alike are forced to examine the true locus of justice, the viewer’s omniscience detecting a certain disparity between those in power, whose dubious actions are encouraged by a misguided sense of divine purpose, and those in strife, whose misfortunes are attributed to the will of the divine – whether these two divines are the same is an unanswerable question. So too is the precise location of the titular Leviathan, be it in the church-embedded state power, manifested in its totality by the devastating pummel of a mechanical digger; or perhaps the Biblical wrath of God, more stinging to those who interpret themselves as perpetually on its receiving end; or, just maybe, the unceasing flow of nature, latterly manifested in the film’s parting shot of waves crashing against the shore – an earthly nature indiscriminatingly cruel, and a human nature within it striking in accordance to both privilege and chance. Heaven knows why this film didn’t win the Palme D’or; then again, heaven knows why Blue is the Warmest Colour won the year before. The jury works in mysterious ways.

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