London Film Festival, Part 1: Pre-Gaming

Last Sunday night, on a whim, I took the bus into central London to watch David Lynch’s The Straight Story projected on 35mm film at my favourite independent cinema, the Prince Charles just off Leicester Square. It was almost 9pm, but the square was as crowded as ever. There’s more square footage of cinema here than anywhere else I know, but that’s not why the crowds are always gathered. In fact, I don’t know what exactly attracts them, because to local eyes it can be an ugly, tacky, obnoxious place. Sometimes, as the tourists cross back and forth through the dimensional gateway into M&M World, (which is a shop that only sells M&Ms, I guess? Keep it) they are briefly distracted by a film premiere nearby. Leicester Square is one of the only places in the world where it’s possible for such blockbuster events to barely make an impression, but it’s not for lack of trying. Add to that the constant stream of humbler (and usually better) offerings in the nearby cinemas, and I must admit that there’s something redundant about a London Film Festival.

It’s like a Mickey Mouse festival at Disneyland; it’s hard to turn the dial from 10 to 11. Across the river on the South Bank, the BFI already pursues its constant mission of programming a plethora of old classics and new foreign/independent films. I don’t know how they have the energy to run a festival, but run it they do, late in the year, so that in true British colonial style they can hoover up the rest of the world’s cultural treasures. Films from Cannes to Toronto and everywhere else come here for a final festival-circuit victory lap before the glory of a wide release or a slow fade into obscurity. Like much of London, it’s wonderfully gratuitous (you’ll be able to stream Netflix’s The Meyerowitz Stories a day after it plays at the festival), it’s unnecessary, it’s grossly gargantuan, and it’s exactly where I want to be. Press screenings started a fortnight ago, so I’ve been pre-gaming the festival, which officially begins this Thursday, for a while now, and I haven’t even puked once.

Which is more than I can say of the characters in Let The Corpses Tan, the latest kinky genre outing from the giallo-reviving husband and wife directing team of Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani, and a hell of an introduction to the festival. This one’s more like a dish of Spaghetti à la Weird West than strictly giallo, though the set-up recalls last year’s A Bigger Splash, of all things: a kooky conceptual artist hides out by the mediterranean sea with her boyfriend, an old flame comes to visit, and love rivalries develop. Except they’re also sheltering a brutal trio of armed robbers. The cops come calling, dressed for George Michael’s ‘Outside’ video, sun glinting off their aviator sunglasses, pistols unholstered in inadequate readiness. The movie creaks with leather, drips with blood, piss and molten gold, roars with gunfire, and glories in deliciously witchy surrealism. It’s based on a Jean-Patrick Manchette crime novel, and there’s definitely something Marxist/existentialist going on, but for now I’ll resist the urge to over-egg this thrillingly obtuse and spectacular pudding.

That screening was squirrelled clandestinely away in a smaller venue; my first genuine Event was Andrey Zvyagintsev’s missing child drama Loveless, a prizewinner at Cannes and part of the Official Competition selection here. As expected from the director, it forms a critique of Russian society, albeit in frustratingly indirect ways; I’m not sure what all the smug cutaways to selfies being taken are supposed to indicate. Its real strength is in the spareness with which it unravels the procedural elements of losing a child, and then trying to find them again. The parents, going through a bitter divorce and both wrapped up in aspirationally bourgeois new love affairs, neglect and belittle their sensitive young son, caught devastatingly in the crossfire. Forgetting he exists for one fateful, hedonistic night, they return to reality to find that he is not there. An angelic social worker and an army of volunteers is their only hope; trudging through wintry forests and abandoned swimming pools (classic Russian cinema), it becomes slowly apparent that they loved their child more than they ever showed, but might have missed their opportunity to show it. It’s bleak but marches to its own hushed, enchanting rhythm, and despite overreaching for contemporary relevance in its final scenes— TV news in the background and all— it leaves quite an impression.

Then came Takashi Miike’s Blade of the Immortal to hack-and-slash away my blues, but I signed an embargo form and can’t say more than ‘it’s very good’ until the 8th of this month. So instead let me tell you that 1. It’s been Stephen King season at the BFI, which means that the symbols on the toilet doors recognise the only two true genders: ageless clown-shaped demon, or telekinetic blood-splattered girl wreaking vengeance on prom night; and 2. In my first celebrity sighting of the event, I spotted 45 Years and Weekend director Andrew Haigh in the crowd after the Loveless screening and accidentally followed him into the Pennywise’s. I was already headed that way before I spotted him, to be fair. But once I noticed that we were walking down the same corridor, with only one possible destination, I realised that it probably wasn’t the right time to ask him for an interview.

Such parasocial relationships and their potential to devolve into obsession and even stalking is the subject matter of Ingrid Goes West, a satire of Californian Instagram lifestyle gurus and their aspirational fans by debut director Matt Spicer. The tight script and artful presentation is refreshing for mainstream American comedy-drama, and Aubrey Plaza makes the titular character sympathetic, but the film itself is too arch and distant; it seems unfair to mock social media culture by taking a mentally ill character and egging on her Single White Female behaviour. It lets the viewer off the hook and makes them complicit in mockery, rather than sympathetically amused by recognising their own behaviour—on the contrary, aren’t we all responsible for how social media shapes the mental well-being of others and isn’t translating loneliness into fake online connection something to which anyone might be insidiously susceptible? And Ingrid’s homosocial, possibly homoerotic efforts at female friendship may be unhealthy in their specifics, but the film has no limit on how much manipulative or stalkerish behaviour it will forgive in the name of heterosexual desire. O’Shea Jackson’s performance as a potential love interest is distractingly charming, but the film does him a disservice, and maliciously singles out Ingrid, by ignoring and even glorifying his character’s similar flaws. I’d like to complain about the ending because it is rather shamefully borrowed from another recent movie that trafficked in overrated arch satire, but I won’t spoil it— even though it is already well past its sell-by date.

But what do I know, I’m just a guy that has spent the past few weeks falling a little bit in love with a plethora of entirely fictional characters and the actors that played them, so maybe the tale of poor Ingrid hit a little close to home. I can’t wait to introduce you to more of my new celluloid friends in the next installment of this London Film Festival diary.

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