Leeds International Festival, now in its 29th year, runs for two weeks following the hoo-ha of Bonfire Night and during the first rumblings of Christmas-onset delirium. Placed near the end of the yearly festival cycle, LIFF cherry-picks a small handful of some of the year’s most lauded offerings from bigger festival fishes, whilst making ample room for some of the more under-sung prospects and world premieres-in-waiting. I’ve covered the festival on my blog previously, tallying around 56 flms as a watermark back in the heady student days of 2009, when free time was in abundance. This year, I’ve acquired 42 tickets, which isn’t too shabby for someone with a full-time job; what’s more, these 42 stubs and any other additionals I could care to snap up came under the purchase of a ‘Single Pass’ at £95. That’s near enough £2 per film. I couldn’t fathom anything of the sort being bandied about at the London Film Festival, and yet that’s perversely the exact place where such a deal is sorely needed, lest those of less fortunate circumstances be locked out of culture.Inspiration to write up this year’s slate took its good time to arrive. Festival opener Brooklyn, a Saoirse Ronan-starring period piece set between 1950s New York City and Ireland, is entirely the sort of safe card to play when easing an excitable crowd into the swing of the fest. The tale certainly resonates; it tells of Irish immigrant Eilis (Ronan) setting sail to Brooklyn to start a new life and find romance, only to find the call of home harder to hush than she reckoned. There were a number of sniffles in the audience, but I’m afraid to say this one left me entirely indifferent.
My hopes were high-but-dubious going in, owing to many critics dubbing the film – an adaptation of Colm Toibin’s novel by Nick Hornby, and directed by John Crowley – a pleasant surprise. To its credit, the film is considerably restrained; Ronan is a real talent, and her expressiveness is relied upon to carry the weight of the narrative. Further to the absence of award-baiting histrionics is a welcome dash of good humour, much of it taking place around the dinner table; indeed, the family dinner is regularly presented as a safe haven in which to refresh and unravel after a day’s events, deciphering the past and figuring the future course of action. It’s this daily ritual that solidifies in the viewer’s mind – and Eilis’ – the prominence and comfort of family and familiar community, foregrounding their tension with Eilis’ budding betrothal to Italian-American Tony (Emory Cohen). It’s all rather well-judged, but I found the direction a little too prosaic and anonymous to merit any further reflection. Period production is on point but never really pops, and the overall look of the film is a little drab.
A superior period piece is Terence Davies’ Sunset Song, itself adapted from a novel by Scottish writer Lewis Grassic Gibbon. The film follows Aberdeenshire farm girl Chris Guthrie (a revelatory turn by newcomer Agyness Deyn) through adolescence and adulthood: from anxiety and confusion centred around her god-fearing, strap-swinging father (Peter Mullan), to the blossoming of first love with eventual husband Ewan (Kevin Guthrie), and all that is gained and lost in between. There’s a pivotal moment which completely sprung up on me; I won’t spoil it here, and would urge anyone similarly in the dark about the story to remain that way before viewing, but the way in which the dynamic shifts at this particular juncture helps to further open up some of the film’s themes about men, women, and the burdens laid upon each.
The production detail feels, as ever in a Davies picture, alive and lived-in, and the Scottish landscape appears truly nourishing in anamorphic 65mm, courtesy of DP Michael McDonough. The bristling yellow corn and the light of the sky are their own players, nature’s extension of the love and lust for life felt by Chris in various stages of her life. Davies’ camera observes her coming-of-age with a respectful calm; every frame is non-intrusive and carefully composed without appearing contrived, and even the most graceful camera movements never call attention to themselves. In a time where the extended long-take is becoming something of a self-indulgent cliché, this is instructive. I’ll confess to having a tad bit of water in my eye by the closing credits, though where it came from I can’t say. Davies’ adaptation is a bittersweet odyssey, both life-affirming and tragically reflective, like the ray of sunlight that glows through the halls of Chris’ windows to remind her of the lives she lost and the love that endures them. This one’s a treasure.
Also strikingly well-composed but not so gentle is Robert Eggers’ accomplished debut The Witch. Bowing at Sundance earlier this year, snapping up distribution in a heartbeat and receiving subsequent festival acclaim along the way, Eggers’ horror is intensely unsettling precisely due to his assured command of form; jump-scares are a moot gimmick when one knows just how to utilise all the elements to spook an audience proper. Jarin Blashcke’s cinematography renders the woodland setting – where Puritan patriarch William (Ralph Ineson) and his wife Katherine (Kate Dickie) abscond with their family – as a nature that is sinister by default, whether by dusk, moonlight or flickering camp-fire. Inoffensive animals are enemies-in-waiting.
There is a witch in the woods, somewhere, but the family insist on looking inward at daughter Thomasin, who responds with increasing vexation. Played by an impressive Ana Taylor-Joy in her first full film role, Thomasin is the focal point of an inquisition that feels like a microcosm of the witch trials that occurred around the film’s 17th century setting. And like those same occurrences, the hysteria here is amalgamated from a sense of resentment, bitterness and pride within the family unit, proving once again that truly toe-curling horror is rooted in the real. Taylor Joy’s performance is a standout; you never know quite what those big eyes are thinking, or whether, in spite of their lunacy, her parents may have cottoned on to something.
Some of the archaic dialogue doesn’t quite roll of the actor’s tongues wholly convincingly, with ‘thou’st’ and ‘thee’ spattered around awkwardly in places. But visually the film rarely puts a foot wrong, knowing just when to hold a shot of an actor’s face and conversely withhold the very thing they’re seeing, and likewise Mark Korven’s score, comprised of eerie chorals and thrumming strings, only supplements the images without overshadowing, knowing just when to come in and when to leave. It’s tense to the very last second, a testament to Eggers’ ability to establish ambiguity and have the aesthetic chops to sustain the very same for a full ninety minutes.
If any horror had to follow such a strong showing as this, then leave it John Carpenter’s The Fog, playing as part of a festival retrospective which includes The Thing (inc. Q&A via satellite), They Live, Escape from New York and Big Trouble in Little China – the latter of which I am also attending. The Town Hall in which these films are shown has come a long way since 2009, when I recall watching Bright Star on opening night and getting increasingly frustrated with a pfft-pfft sound emanating from the speakers. The entire set-up has come a long way since – so much so that the organisers felt it necessary to blast out the new Star Wars trailer before Brooklyn – thus Carpenter’s soundscapes can be done proper justice. Other retrospectives lined up include Apocalypse Now and the final cut of Blade Runner; reams of pages have been written on these works, so I will not waste precious column space on them here.
One classic I hadn’t seen before was Jean-Pierre Melville’s La Silence de la Mer – also the very film that got me to snap open the laptop and start logging this festival proper. It’s a wartime parable set in France during Nazi occupation, and most of the action – or lack thereof – takes place in a single room, conducted by German officer Werner von Ebrennac (Howard Vernon) who lodges with an elderly French gentleman (Jean-Marie Robain) and his niece (Nicole Stephane). The silence of the title refers to these two hosts, who sit and squirm uncomfortably as von Ebrennac frequents the lounge night after night and bestows upon them successive monologues which help to reveal his inner decency, sensitivity and, crucially, his naïve idealism at what he perceives to be a fruitful ‘marriage’ between their two nations.
Vernon is a tall fellow, often shot from the height of an armchair to emphasise his imposing presence, and his slow knocks on the living room door each evening almost render him a phantom. Henri Decae’s stark black-and-white photography imbues the film with ghostly connotations, as Vernon’s presence intrudes upon the psyche of his hosts; as the balance shifts, they happen to inhabit his. Figures are often held in doorways, their heads in mirrors, as if to frame them as a lasting image imprinted upon the subconscious. There is much talk and consternation of humanity’s cultural achievements being left vulnerable to wanton destruction by ignorants; considering the demolition of centuries-old temples and artefacts in present-day Syria, this worry remains troublingly prevalent and very real.
Guru Dutt’s Pyaasa was another retrospective that swept me away. It’s not a second overlong at 146 minutes, morphing from the earthly to the spiritual within both individual scenes and across the entire narrative arc. Dutt stars as Vijay, a pauper poet who laments the selfish nature of the world and whose work is helped to publication to by Gulabo (Waheeda Rehman), a prostitute and one of Vijay’s only true friends. Musical numbers are peppered throughout, the lyrical camerawork keeping in step with its dancing characters. Vijay’s ordeal begins almost Shakespearean – mistaken identities, obstructed love, and bumbling, scheming kinsfolk – and steadily transcends into the Biblical. It’s no coincidence that one character lifts up a Time magazine with the crucifixion plastered on its cover, and when Vijay makes what seems to be a miraculous return from oblivion, he stands in a lighted doorway with his arms held out to the sides of the frame, silhouetted as Christ-like. V.K. Murthy’s camera steadily begins to capture Vijay as a spectral figure, not of this world. I am disappointed to discover no transcript online of Vijay’s final speech, which beautifully expresses sorrow for a world that has sacrificed its purity and humanity for hollow gains; it’s fascinatingly articulated , and never more pertinent than in a time where we bow in worship to the hand of the market
of the beast.
Jafar Panahi is still making art as if his life depends on it, even if it gets him killed. Ever since being placed under house arrest in 2009 by the Iranian government and forbidden from filmmaking, Panahi has remained less than inconspicuous by receiving awards and adulation for This Is Not a Film (smuggled out of Iran in a cake), Closed Curtain, and now Taxi Tehran, which won Berlin’s Golden Bear at the start of the year. Coming across as a logical extension of TINAF, Taxi is exactly what Panahi should have made directly afterwards (skipping out CC), but the five year time-span between the two films is certainly felt. The metaphor of entrapment and curtailment is manifested here in the taxi itself; in his newfound role as a cab driver, Panahi can invite people in and hear their stories, but his documentation of the outside world – and therefore, our shared viewpoint – is sadly relegated behind a windscreen.
You can see why the film won its award, not just for Panahi’s continued bravery but for how effortlessly watchable it is: tightly structured and edited for what is essentially 85 minutes of real-time inside a cab. As a modern snapshot of Tehran, it suffices, although the parade of characters that weave in and out of the narrative seem almost telegraphed to reinforce the theme of religious legalism and its stranglehold on artistic expression. There’s Panahi’s niece, instructed by her teacher to only make films in strict accordance with doctrine; the DVD smuggler who delivers ‘artsy’ films (and the Big Bang Theory) to discreet cinephiles; and two dotty old ladies desperate to deposit their goldfish in a shrine at noon. These obvious point-pushers remind me of why I’m so turned off by Abbas Kiarostami’s latter-day output, and they undermine the film’s pretence to docu-realism – or ‘sordid realism’, as the Islamic Ministry of Culture would have it. Still, Panahi’s bravery and passion is undoubtedly appreciated, and the film signs off on an elevated note, an abrupt coda that would signify a last gasp on the part of the filmmaker; a prescient estimation at what fate may await him if he continues delivering such brazen middle fingers to the powers-that-be.
The least meticulously orchestrated film thus far, Andrei Konchalovsky’s The Postman’s White Nights toes the line between documentary and fiction in admirable fashion. The director took to an isolated community village and amassed hundreds of hours chronicling the lives of non-professional actors truly living out their roles. In their midst he placed sole professional Aleksey Tryapitsyn as the eponymous Postman, and the villagers’ only conduit to the outside world. It’s a less controlled experience as some of the other films I’ve mentioned, then, but this near half-completion works to the benefit of the film and the viewer’s engagement, inviting deeper contemplation and rewatches, and the chance to imprint one’s own meaning and judgement.
This is a people living closely and within their means, with no awareness of the outside world even as the march of history skims across them, as shown in the rubble of destroyed buildings and the space rocket that fires into the sky in the background of one shot. The Postman has a few fissures in his daily routine, most notably the presence of a cat which, to my mind, appeared as CGI. Why animate a cat when a real one would suffice? Perhaps this is the technological advancement outside of the film’s bubble that manifests as a blot on the lead character’s reality. His existentialist shivers throughout the film are intended to provoke our own; just as he looks out, we look in at him, and the surveillance-type cameras in the corners of the villagers’ kitchens aid this notion: to see with them is to experience the earth anew, an inverse to our hurriedly advancing civilisation.