And breathe. Wednesday was the calm before the storm; in addition to restoration of Howard Hawk’s Only Angels Have Wings, there were only two new films on my slate compared to eight consecutive films across Thursday and Friday. Most people would even balk at ‘only two new films’, and those people are to be found in the real world, where ‘two films’ is a luxury one indulges in over the course of a week, sometimes across an entire month. Cinephiles with too much time on their hands – myself included- can unhealthily gorge upon over a dozen films every seven days, using the rest of the time off to likely peruse criticism of those very same texts. Gone are the days when I could happily manage a regular routine of three films a day during an especially undemanding student way of life, though I do maintain a minimum tally to which I adhere strictly, and deficiencies in one week are compensated with extra viewings the next. Thus, the balance is restored.
In the age of Wikipedia, imdb and an endless charade of film bloggers (hi there), one certainly feels the pressure to keep up the pace, to score some level of as—yet-untapped expertise in a world where everyone fancies themselves an expert and often does a good job of pretending they are one. Once upon a time I had only need to watch these things called films in rapid succession; adolescence brought me to the writing table, and now adulthood finds me tweeting an opinion if only to prove that I do still exist, out there, somewhere, and I think things about the things we all love. The festival arena is the logical conclusion to this voracious consumption of one film after the next, with barely enough time between each screening to fully digest one’s rumbling thoughts. When I’m not in a film, I’m either writing within an extremely meagre window of time or – and this takes up most of my hours – scrambling to find somewhere in this city that provides 1) a space to write 2) a wall socket, and 3) working wi-fi.
This diary was intended to be half film-log, half a snapshot of London as I see it in real-time, simultaneously grand and grim. Only, funnily enough, I’m seeing nothing of London whatsoever. Just films, laptops and a limitless stream of coffees. And what’s worrying about this shortlist is that, back in my motherland of Cumbria, all these items are similarly guaranteed (minus the festival programme, of course). Life and cinema are symbiotic; one must be savoured to appreciate the other. Tunnel vision would have us not recognise the ostensibly familiar worlds we see depicted onscreen. Of course, the inverse of our overzealousness are those people with two feet in the real world and no care for art as a means of understanding their surroundings, themselves, others, histories or cultures. Down with both our absolutes!
But let us return to the regularly scheduled programming/marathon. I wasn’t entirely thrilled with the prospect of Matthieu Almaric’s The Blue Room; in fact, I noticed it clashed with Ulrich Seidl’s In the Basement and subsequently chalked that one down to, again, a lack of foresight. This one is a taut thrill at 75 minutes; Almaric directs himself as a husband and father implicated in a number of deaths relating to his affair with the wife of a very wealthy man. The film – adapted from Georges Simenon’s book – has sensual, unsettling ambitions yet lacks that an underscoring atmosphere, though Almaric’s face is an animation unto itself, capable of engendering sympathy and suspicion in the same instant. The ratio is 1.33:1, a box-frame visually appropriating the hemmed-in scrutiny faced by Almaric’s character. Bodies are often shot off-centre to further emphasise disorientation, and wide shots are forgone in favour of a series of rhythmic edits in and around inhabited rooms, on faces and twitching hands and other such details. It’s all perfectly capable filmmaking, but the slender running time zips past and will leave some viewers feeling ultimately indifferent.
Film of the day, then, is awarded by default to Christian Petzold’s Phoenix, though it’s a deserving winner in its own right. The Odeon West End was substantially less sold out than it had been on previous gala nights, perhaps owing to the popularity of the Surprise Film screening elsewhere – Birdman, if you didn’t already know. In Phoenix, Nina Hoss – on her sixth time round with Petzold, a director-muse collaboration that is fast becoming a thing of consistent remarkability – plays Nelly, a Jewish concentration camp survivor understandably beset by both physical and mental scars, who returns to post-war Germany to find that her husband Jonny (Ronald Zehrfeld) does not recognise her; moreover, he wants her to dress up as his wife – herself, in essence – so that he can inherit her fortune. Let’s go, Vertigo.
It was fitting that lead actress Hoss had showed up for the Q&A sans Petzold, because this is very much a film driven by a devastating central performance on her behalf. I bank on it as this year’s crossover hit a la Amour, a highly emotional ordeal centred on actors certifiably chewing the scenery. The backdrop is a Germany bombed to a crumble, the literal visual of ‘a shadow of its former self’ whose urban scenes are mostly set at night-time, where rubble remains rest under a blanket of shadow, and the most imposing light emanates red from the cheerily oblivious ‘Phoenix’ nightclub. Hoss’ Nina is largely confined to the inside of Jonny’s house where she battles privately against a distorted present, her struggle a microcosm of the fractured identity of post-war Germany coming to terms with its transgressions. It’s a powerful film, though I can’t help but think of the masterful final scene – to be seen to be believed – as being confused for an overall cinematic masterpiece by many. It’s one hell of a final note, a way to leave the audience on a gasp of breath and ensuing, awed silence; a fine film’s finest moment, its lasting punchline.