LIFF 2015 – Part 3: Heaven Knows I’ve Green Bones

Son of Saul

At the time of writing this paragraph, Brooklyn was in the lead for LIFF’s Audience Award, though Victoria and Chuck Norris vs. Communism were in dogged pursuit. I could be wrong, but I seem to recall this award being announced before festival’s end, which would put Closing Night film Carol squarely out of the running. (Have no fear: Haynes’ film will be decorated in baubles come Christmas.) I can’t fight Brooklyn’s high positioning; its placement on Opening Night is more or less a self-fulfilling prophecy, and there’s a plethora of opinion online and in print (it’s Film of the Month inside the latest Sight & Sound) that makes a case for the film’s strengths. (In any case, Liza the Fox-Fairy has raced into pole position at the time of editing this paragraph.)

I take more issue with Son of Saul, briefly #4 in the festival rankings, recipient of the Grand Prix Award at Cannes this year, and a film that’s undoubtedly going to be labelled ‘important’ for the next year or so. Hungarian filmmaker Lazslo Nemes has impressed on his debut feature by most accounts, and I can’t discount his technical ability in isolation from the rest of the text. Nemes builds a world outward from prisoner-of-war protagonist Saul, shooting around his head in 4:3 shallow focus, either blurring or fully obscuring all surrounding action. Saul works in a Nazi concentration camp with fellow Jewish prisoners assigned to ‘clean up’ their captors’ grisly messes. With his wits about him, he sneaks out the body of a boy whom he believes to be his dead son, determined at all costs to afford the young victim a proper blessing and burial. This single-minded purpose is the impetus for DP Matyas Erdely’s 35mm tunnel vision, reducing the horrors of the Holocaust to the minimal radius around one man’s busied boffin. The critical press ordinarily give certain historical dramas a rough time for reducing the breadth and complexity of a watershed moment to a trite individualistic journey, but there appears to have been a double standard enacted here, courted by aesthetic accomplishment alone. One pretty picture does not a movie make; it would be perfectly admissible if Nemes were to hone in on Saul further, tipping the balance away from his environment and towards a richer interrogation of the man. Instead, Saul is reduced to an empty cipher, a brooding stand-in for Player One to take a ride through a watered-down Holocaust History Tour. The film would have us believe that Saul’s primary objective is the driving force behind the film, but that’s not true at all: every step in the film relies heavily upon the surrounding carnage as a thrill-fuel to spur the narrative forward.

Heaven Knows What

There’s better use of headspace in Heaven Knows What, directed by Ben and Joshua Safdie, and shot by regular Alex Ross Perry collaborator Sean Price Williams. Drug addict Harley is played by Arielle Holmes, and the film based on her actual experiences: Josh Safdie had a chance encounter with Arielle at a subway station and offered her the opportunity to write a book about her life, eventually adapted into this film. Her abusive on-screen boyfriend, Ilya (Caleb Landry Jones), is based on a real-life partner who overdosed, and to whose memory the film is dedicated. The camera here similarly fixes itself in and round the heads of its subjects, but the style is apt: the characters are homeless and drug addicts, so their head occupying the whole frame evokes the effect of being trapped in one’s mind, having the freedom to be anywhere in the city but knowing that you never fully belong to any of it. The lingering close-ups compound with Isao Tomita’s pulsating electronica to exacerbate frustration. These souls don’t have much of the structural rituals found in fictional protagonists, and no inciting incident to spark their three-act journey – the non-structure is beholden to the two fluctuating desires for love and heroin, and the restless frame reflects the impossibility of reconciliation.

Measure of a Man

More headspace: Vincent Lindon impresses in Stephane Brize’s Cannes entry The Measure of a Man, cited by festival programmers as the companion piece to the Dardennes’ own Cannes entry of last year, Two Days One Night. I found that one a rather proud and empty exercise – certainly the Dardennes weakest to date by their own standards – so this comparison didn’t fill me with much hope. Luckily, Brize’s film is the superior output. It tells the story of an unemployed man, Thierry, who finds work as a supermarket security guard and faces a number of a difficult situations that could well compromise his moral code. The camerawork is relatively minimalist, staying with Lindon’s face throughout uncomfortable protracted sequences. One of my favourite scenes sees Thierry evaluated by a jobseeker’s group for his performance in a mock job interview; Lindon has to retain his composure just as every small facet of his conduct is torn to shreds, betraying the barest hint of a broken heart. Lindon’s is a face that gives just enough away, never too much nor too little, and it’s a no-brainer to see why the Cannes jury awarded him the Best Actor award. This is a performance-centred film, and the subtleties of his turn elevate the material to something greater.

Conscience strikes again in One Floor Below, an engrossing social drama from Radu Muntean and another knockout Romanian offering for this year’s festival. Teodor Corban plays Patrascu, a husband and father who becomes an unwitting eavesdropper to a murder taking place in his apartment. Steering clear of the police investigation, Patrascu finds it increasingly difficult to keep the incident in his rear-view. In contrast to Measure of a Man, Muntean’s camera pulls further outward from its subject; while it follows Patrascu relentlessly as to continually hound him for his complicity, it also allows room for the bodies and voices around the frame to infringe on his space. There are some interesting contemporary ideas raised here, namely the morbid curiosity that alights when a terrible event occurs, concurrently disregarding one’s role as voyeur. Technology is implicated through the usage of Facebook and Xbox; the former enabling further insight from a safe, anonymous distance, the latter allowing one to be hermetically sealed away in a bubble of constructed reality. Helpfully, the clue is in the film’s title.

Green Room

Nothing ever goes off without a hitch, and my festival experience has proven no exception to the rule. Illness befell me and caused absence from In the Crosswind, Embrace of the Serpent and Another Country. My phone passed away, preventing me from tweeting instantaneous reactions after each screening; I ordered a new phone, but a needlessly overlong exchange with a customer service adviser caused me to miss Hirokazu Koreeda’s Our Little Sister, one of my most anticipated of the festival. Ironically, Koreeda’s gentle humanism was just the medicine I needed to calm my anger at that moment in time. The job fell instead to Men and Chicken, a black comedy of sorts from Danish director Anders Thomas Jensen that revels in the oddball mishaps of a group of reconciled brothers, chief among them one Madds Mikkelsen. Although Madds clearly relishes his role as neurotic manchild, the accumulated weirdness began to wear a little thin after a time, long before the pathos kicked in. Still, it was a triumph compared to All About Them, an unbearably dreadful French romance from director Jerome Bonnell. Awfully pleased with its own premise – a couple fall in love with the some girl – but deprived of the imagination to do anything innovative with it, the film flirts with comic intrigue before coming on overly self-serious, oppressively intimate yet utterly bloodless.

Night of the Dead at Hyde Park Picture House was a largely enjoyable experience, although I didn’t stay to the end. As positively delightful as Deathgasm sounded, I wasn’t keen to remain until sunlight and thereby jeopardise my noon start for the continuation of the festival. So I stocked up on caffeine, watched three films and made a brisk leave at 3am. The night’s proceedings began promptly at 9pm with Tales of Halloween, a portmanteau of ten amusing shorts – from Neil Marshall, John Skipp, Axelle Carolyn and others – centred around killer pumpkins, prankish devils and the lengths some kids can and will go for candy. There’s a vague sense of each film occurring in the same suburban neighbourhood, owing to small referential asides and a radio jockey whose voice carries through a few episodes, but aside from the obvious theme there’s really nothing tying any of it together, and cumulatively it doesn’t add up to much. Judging from audience reaction and my own personal response, the shorts start off strong, interest wanes around the midway mark, and the best is inevitably saved till last. Not all cooks add flavour to the broth – who knew?

Things took an upturn with Green Room, a claustrophobic thriller that confirms Jeremy Saulnier as a real talent following the promise of Blue Ruin two years ago. The majority of minutes transpire within the cramped confines of a music venue deep in the woods, where a punk rock band led by frontman Pat (Anton Yelchin) provoke their less-than-gracious Neo-Nazi hosts by delivering a throaty rendition of Dead Kennedys’ ‘Nazi Punks Fuck Off’; what little goodwill remains is stripped away when the band witness a murder backstage and find themselves implicated, surrounded and outnumbered. The fascist Big Bad is none other than Patrick Stewart, embodying something far removed from the benevolent patriarchs he portrayed in Star Trek: TNG and the X-Men films. His low mumble negotiates with an understated calmness that, when juxtaposed against the hysterical panicking of the band members, is all the more unnerving for it.

Saulnier rolls out the narrative at a breakneck pace, setting up audience expectations only to bat them away. Scenes of combat are rarely, if ever, played completely straight, the upper-hand switching back-and-forth rapidly so as to keep viewers’ nails gripped firmly in their teeth. There’s one scene involving a basement scuffle that’s more breathtakingly tense than any such scene in recent James Bond offerings. The interiors are flushed with a grimy green – apropos of the film’s title – though glinting with a sheen that’s reminiscent of David Fincher’s steely aesthetic. Saulnier claims to have made this and Blue Ruin as a form of juvenile catharsis; it’ll be interesting to see how he operates under a different mode going forward.

Bone Tomahawk

Lastly (for me, at least): Bone Tomahawk, a western-horror hybrid from S. Craig Zahler, and a welcome big-screen return for Kurt Russell, flanked by Richard Jenkins, Patrick Wilson and Matthew Fox. The film dips its toes in the two different genres but is hardly committed to either them: it carries on like a horror dressed up as a western. But the western bar interiors don’t feel truly lived-in, existing transparently as sets for actors to enter and exit as they please; so the film convinces more on the open plain, a free-reign canvas where Russell and his band of men set forth to rescue Wilson’s wife (Lili Simmons) from a pack of cannibalistic savages.  Most of the frights – if you can call them that – occur in the final twenty minutes, and until then the wheels largely spin for a perhaps indulgent runtime of over two hours, made enjoyable by a reasonably strong script and the welcome company of seasoned actors for whom chemistry isn’t a tall effort. There’s a death scene during captivity that was described to me as a tough watch, but I found that the manner of the execution was so utterly preposterous as to have its horror neutralised, hand-waved as something uncannily impossible, squarely in the realm of fantasy. For me, it paled next to the enduring fright of the festival, and a curious omission from Night of the Dead in place of – what others agreed – was a bemusing choice in the light-footed Bone Tomahawk: Goodnight Mommy, the only film so far to have me spy uneasily the nearest exit, and whose cruelty is so affecting precisely because it is plausible, and methodically enacted.


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