Features / Festivals / Reviews

London Film Festival Diary, Part 8: FOXCATCHER, EDEN, JAUJA, THE TRIBE, WINTER SLEEP

Foxcatcher

Keen followers of my filmic musings (no one) will have recently noticed one small inconsistency between the slated films in my morning tweet and those covered in the ensuing blog post. To cut a long story short, I missed out on Gregg Araki’s White Bird in a Blizzard, and I’ll lay part of the blame on an overlong Xavier Dolan Q&A made entertaining by another of his casual dismissals towards Jean-Luc Godard, followed by some audience weirdo’s impassioned demand for more ‘male roles’ in Dolan’s films – because, of course, men are so criminally underrepresented in cinema. Get that voyeuristic gaze the hell away from me, stat.

I didn’t want to be one of those people that enters a film twenty minutes deep and fumbles past a row of rightly disgruntled ticket-payers, so instead I used the newly allotted time to spy out a café and catch up on my writing. Up popped the laptop screen, down the gullet went the caffeine, and out poured the productivity of a man whose body was, for lack of a better term, shot to shit. My notepad had been copiously scratched over with a gel pen in the aftermath of that day’s screenings; I am reluctant to attempt any note-taking in a public screening, since one can never account for the pet peeves of others, and the very motion of a hand gliding from left to right upon blank white can prove an irritable distraction to most others not typically privy to press ritual. The notepad stays in the bag out of sheer respect which – on the evidence of some attention-starved phone-checkers – is not always reciprocated. It’s after the film ends that I then begin to furiously recount the individual shots that stand out as emblematic of a director’s personal authorship. Such specificity is a rarity for the brief paragraphs that constitute these daily festival summaries, but in a private or press screening it is essential to, at length, pinpoint those crucial moments in the film that exemplify the total aesthetic package.

Take one such example in Bennett Miller’s Foxcatcher, based on the real-life tragedy that befell the ‘Foxcatcher’ amateur wrestling academy in the late 80s. There’s a visual towards the end featuring multi-billionaire John Du Pont, chillingly portrayed by the talented Steve Carrell, assuming a by-now familiar slump in his armchair, head ever-so-slightly tilted, mouth partly open as if catching his breath from simply making the walk from one room to the next. Miller shoots this set-up wide in order to capture the breadth of Du Pont’s surrounding trophy room, lavished with far too many honours for even one man to recall off the top of his head. Like most others scenes, this is captured with a preference for natural light that purposefully strips away any warmth and glamour ordinarily be associated with luxury, thereby emphasising the banality of amassing a wealth of gold and glory devoid of any true meaning. Du Pont is positioned halfway sunk into his chair, centre of the frame, dwarfed by the treasure beside and above him. It’s a simple but effective composition among many, and throughout the film this precarious stillness, loaded with dread, is as deftly handled as the no-frills wrestling scenes, felt more as strange ritual than uplifting trials of triumph.

Carrell’s Nosferatu-like performance is the obvious standout here, though Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo should be given equal credit for their turns as brothers Mark and David Schultz, respectively. Tatum especially is a deliberately tricky book to read, beginning the film with a frustrated thirst for validation and becoming increasingly, stubbornly closed-off as things progress toward the inevitable crescendo. The most glaring takeaway from the picture is a disturbance at the cookie-jar wrangling of the 1%, personified in Carrell’s Du Point, hoping to control and manipulate in order to attain a worthless platitude that speaks nothing to their own talent, or lack thereof. When Ruffalo’s goodhearted David enters the fray, countering the dispossessed power-lust of Du Point, a chemical reaction begins to spark; the route ahead is written in the stars, and it’s at this juncture that Rob Simonsen’s score, formerly a subtle surface-dwelling thrum, begins to blare louder as Miller’s direction falls back on obvious visual pointers. Most annoyingly, David’s consummate good-hearted, family-focused nature is driven forcefully home in order to concretely consolidate him as amicable foil to Du Pont. Overall, this is a story not really interesting enough to warrant a revisit or reconsideration, except for the impressive performances.

Eden

To relive, or perpetuate, is at the heart of Eden, another of Mia Hansen-Løve’s tales of longing set against the backdrop of time’s unsentimental tide. Split into two parts – ‘Paradise Garage’ and ‘Lost in Music’ – and spanning over twenty years from the early 90s to the present day, Eden tracks the rise of the French house music scene through a group of young optimists, specifically Paul (Felix de Givry), a DJ on the periphery of the movement, partly based on Hansen-Løve’s brother and script co-writer Sven. We hitch a ride onto Paul’s musical wave, barrelling through the years in speedy succession as key events tick themselves off, such as the first play of the seminal ‘Da Funk’ by Daft Punk, appearing as themselves. Unlike Oscar Isaac’s folk crooner in last year’s wintry Inside Llewellyn Davis, Paul is more never-been than has-been, still clinging knuckle-white to the edges of a constantly shifting culture as his friends of yesteryear move on, marry or die. The film’s second half is therefore more compelling, as it evokes the all-encompassing torture of finding oneself mired in a self-perpetuating malaise of failure, and this in spite of the film being about an ostensibly niche subject matter; it would do a world of good for contemporary pop culture’s boring self-mythologisers with absolutely nothing to say to observe this inclusive simultaneity. But the strength of the second half shows up a lack of aesthetic distinctiveness from the first, bulkier section; it’s also a payoff for what is essentially a biopic-esque series of obligatory markers along the 90s Roadmap of House. Patience with this is a personal preference, though tolerance for dishonesty is hopefully not: as I left the screening it came to my attention that a substantial fact had been bafflingly omitted from the film, that of the instrumental influence of the gay scene on House culture in France. Why the sibling writers overlooked this is a question I hope someone has asked them, or will ask, for it is not in the least an irrelevant preoccupation. Paul and his friends are the avatars of a moment, yet they are each curiously alike, only electing to branch out after the fact.

Jauja

I had heard from various quarters that Jauja, Lisandro Alonso’s first film in six years since 2008’s Liverpool, was a departure of sorts for a director renowned for his slow takes, minimal dialogue and non-professional actors. It certainly appears that way from the off, beginning with the deliberate casting of Viggo Mortensen as Captain Gunnar Dinesen, a Danish engineer fulfilling his part in the Argentinian extermination of an indigenous Pantagonian population. It’s advisable to approach this as an inverse to Alonso’s triptych of La Libertad/Los Muertos/Fantasma, wherein the protagonists of those first two films are drawn out of nature in the third and left to traverse ghost-like around the shadowed right-angles of a labyrinthine cinema. Here, we start off instead in the breadcrumbs of civilisation, contending with  commanding officer Pittaluga’s lustful urges towards Dinesen’s daughter Ingeborg, who soon enough elopes herself with the younger Corto. There’s more dialogue throughout this first-act in perhaps all of Alonso’s films combined. But when Dinesen sets out on his own to find and rescue Ingeborg from her lovers’ tryst, or maybe even from the savage Zuluaga stalking the outlands, we find ourselves in familiar Alonso territory: a man’s journey through nature, the search for family, and symbolic keepsakes are all part and parcel. Mortensen traipses through stunning landscapes captured in probably the most beautifully textured cinematography of the festival, courtesy of regular Aki Kaurismaki collaborator Timo Salminen, the frame whittled to a 4:3 ratio with rounded corners, a picturesque snapshot teeming with lush pastel colours.

Jauja is actually less of a departure than an expansion of Alonso’s procedure, cheekily drawing us in with a seemingly drastic change of tack from the outset, distracting us with overt notions of colonialism, proceeding to slow things down to the trademark Alonso crawl, and then finally blooming into new terrain of the mythical and spiritual variety, supplementary additions to his established mastery of the physical and psychological. This involves a surprising leap in the film’s final ten minutes which I’m still not totally sold on, as it threatens to offer the viewer a consolatory hand ordinarily avoided by this purposefully obfuscating filmmaker. Still, so much is contained within this brisk 101 minutes that it’s fast become the festival film I’m most eager to revisit, and Alonso, as ever, is one whose next course of action I most feverishly await.

The Tribe

Things were on the up. If Foxcatcher was ok, Eden was better, and Jauja was a lot better, then The Tribe left the lot of them in the dust. Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy’s film, set in a Ukrainian boarding school for deaf people, picked up the Best First Feature Award at the festival, and the buzz can only accumulate from here on out, whether it’s over the much-lauded fact that the entire film is soundless – all of its dialogue communicated via sign language, without subtitles – or because of its sheer uncompromising brutality, source of many a walkout in my screening. Once one does adjust to the sign language as default, the focus thereby shifts to the remainder: the pure visual form of cinema, delivered with brute force. The impact is in the hurling thematic momentum, of these young boys inevitably succumbing to the human tendency to form hierarchies, to barter money, goods and the human body as an act of self-preservation; it’s also in the presentation, from the swooping Steadicam shots that delineate the school’s geography, pressing along past walls of blue-chipped paint, to the unflinching gaze of a long takes centred on live abortions and head trauma. It’s certainly not pretty, but it begs to be seen.

On one end of cinema, the silent, violent fluidity of The Tribe; on the other, the talk-heavy shot/reverse-shot of Winter Sleep, impactful  by way of subtle intonations and small gestures. Either end is a treasure, the range and quality of their duelling aesthetics speaking volumes of cinema’s astonishing health in 2014. I had tactically scheduled Winter Sleep – Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Palme D’Or winner at this year’s Cannes – on the final evening of my festival schedule, ensuring a quality sign-off. The cosy albeit uneasy fireplace conversations that comprise its 200-minute runtime were an aesthetic comfort to a man who had binged through 26 films in 8 days, knew the end was in sight, and looked forward to an extended stay under the snug warmth of a duvet. Considering the film’s runtime was longer than the amount of hours sleep I’d had the previous night, I nevertheless managed to remain awake, alert and engrossed. This owes to Ceylan’s superior artistry; improving on the protracted introspection of Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, the Turkish filmmaker here hones in on the Cappadocia residence of hotelier and stubborn intellectual Aydin (Haluk Bilginer), and long-suffering wife Nihal (Melisa Sözen), for whom perception and self-perception are distinct, and mediated by a willful deception. It’s a rich, novelistic undertaking (I’m culturally obliged to use the word ‘Chekhovian’), a work of high philosophical import that takes its time in examining the truths and contradictions of its characters – extensive tangents to which other, sprightlier films would pay fleeting lip-service. A deserved award-winner, no doubt, and may its theatrical run work a magic spell on our collective patience in darkened rooms devoid of light pollution from smartphone screens. Turn them off, and turn on your eyes, ears and noggin. This film is about you.

Winter Sleep

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