London Film Festival 2017: Part Two, and the big day approaches
Lean on Pete is Andrew Haigh’s latest, and also the name of an ageing racehorse; Charley the name of the boy who befriends him while working a summer job for a run-down man named Del (Steve Buscemi) who owns run-down horses piloted by run-down jockeys— they didn’t start that way, but that’s what happens to everyone in Del’s orbit. Charley lives in Portland, Oregon, but this is as far from Portlandia’s hipster boutiques and feminist bookstores as you can imagine. He’s a natural at taking care of the horses, or at least Del tells him so; he’s much less of a natural at getting used to the steroid injections and animal abuse that underpin Del’s scant racing successes. But his dad’s in the hospital, so work he must. Andrew Haigh’s latest, based on a Willy Vlautin novel, is an unanticipated subject for the British director, but what Wim Wenders achieved with Sam Shepard, Haigh gets somewhat close to via his similarly foreign perspective on the modern American West, using unpredictable narrative rhythms to capture that unstable moment of adolescence when emotional distress and the loss of childhood comforts and illusions can ferment into life-threatening recklessness. Charlie Plummer is devastatingly taut and wayward in the central role.
Samuel Maoz’s Foxtrot also features unprepared youths unable to handle an excess of responsibility— a squad of Israeli soldiers guard a checkpoint. Their following of protocol, mixed with their prejudice and nerve-shredding fear, results in constant ritual humiliation for any Arabs unfortunate enough to need to drive through. When an atrocity is finally committed, and covered up by their superiors, it’s hardly a surprise. What’s surprising is how little time the film spends on anguishing over it in sympathy with the victims, or interrogating how such a thing could happen; instead, 2/3 of the film is close-up on the grieving parents of the soldier who first opened fire, whose death is unrelated to the event. Clumsy, stark metaphors abound, as does portentous, painfully self-conscious camera work. It’s the kind of inappropriately surreal experience that is intent on making you feel like you are in serious contemplation along with it. But it does not seriously, soberly, transparently contemplate. It fixates on grief in order to avoid facing up to injustices and systematic abuses of power. Nevertheless, it has attracted a lot of ire from Israel’s far-right Minister of Culture for implicitly criticising the military; if Maoz was going to cause such a splash even with this equivocating presentation, perhaps he might have dared to be more precise, more unsparingly critical.
Sympathy for victims is just the tip of the iceberg in Chilean director Sebastian Lelio’s A Fantastic Woman, a vibrant, playful drama about a trans woman with- and this shouldn’t be such an anomaly- an actual trans woman, Daniela Vega, in the lead role. As the camera exultantly inhabits her point of view, the narrative evolves past mere sympathy and towards more practical concerns, becoming a defiant portrait of Marina, a waitress and classically trained singer, taking her right to grieve from those who would deny it. She’s grieving for her suave, silver fox partner, Francisco Reyes’ hauntingly handsome Orlando, whose ex-wife and family assert their legally-sanctioned power to take the apartment, dog and anything else that the couple shared away from the bereaved woman, in addition to trying to block her from attending the funeral or seeing the body. Lelio refuses to manufacture misery from this scenario, and he finds artful ways to dissect transmisogyny, and its effect on Marina’s self-esteem, without enacting it (although a couple of scenes verge on harrowing). The probing and humiliation that cops and doctors subject her to in investigating Orlando’s death is just one example of a smartly chosen, heightened dramatic stand-in for the routine ways that trans womens’ identities are policed. On a cheerier note, although his imagery is a little over-determined, there’s a witty energy to Lelio’s emphasis on the ‘fantastic’ in the title, most notably in a weightless dream/dance sequence. But reality is best, ultimately: Vega’s talent as a singer is one thing, but as an actor in her debut film, she is completely in command, the author of her own story.
Time to pick up the pace. Les Guardiennes is Xavier Beauvois’ WWI drama about French women taking care of the farms and fields while their traumatised husbands, fathers, brothers and lovers come back and forth from the front. It’s mostly a lot of languid, misty, tasteful shots of women doing agriculture and domestic work for more than 2 hours. Not a bad thing; there’s a lot of scope and scale to be found in one small village, as the march of war and the advent of motorised farm equipment is punctuated by blips of class-conscious feminist drama and hasty romance. The legendary Michel Legrand is in charge of the infrequent music, which is a highlight. By the end, I felt like I’d temporarily aged 40 years, and for the rest of the day, I harboured an unfulfilled craving for cheap red wine and some sturdy bread and cheese. Then me and my hunger sat down for Racer and the Jailbird, from the director of The Drop, back to his native Belgium for a heist movie-cum-prison drama. The usually capable Matthias Schoenaerts, looking less like a thief and more like a rugby player in a beer advert, has an unconvincing romance with the titular racer (Adèle Exarchopoulos), and surely her unusual, thrilling profession as a RACECAR DRIVER is going to have some bearing on the plot of this CRIME MOVIE! No? It has no bearing on anything whatsoever? Not even a single car chase? The last hour is a succession of grim non-sequiturs? Will someone please get me something to eat…
A bad film experience can knock you straight into next Wednesday, so here we are, queued up in the a.m. for the press screening of the Opening Gala, watching the workers lay down the red carpet and surrounding infrastructure. Breathe is centred around its own deeply silly romance, between Andrew Garfield and Claire Foy, both doing their best BAFTA-grabbing plummy voices. Yes, the premier British film festival opened with yet another based-on-a-true-story drama about upper-middle-class twits stiff-upper-lipping their way through adversity in a cosy milieu with just a little dash of casual, unfiltered colonialism diffusing its way through the tepid brew. Andy Serkis directs for the first time, adding some much-needed flavour, the rest supplied by Tom Hollander, in another vintage catty performance, playing twin brothers in matching blazers and straw boaters.
And that was the first pleasant surprise of the morning; trust Serkis to have a sense of humour about these cricket-playing, tea-importing, ‘Keen-ya’ pronouncing types, even if it’s not exactly Powell and Pressburger. The exhaustingly worthy drama part comes in the form of Garfield’s character’s paralysis after a spell of polio, which leaves him permanently on a respirator; his wife insists that he live, breaks him out of hospital, and eventually he’s blundering through Europe shaking up the status quo and getting one over on those cold, unfeeling (bloody German!) doctors like the self-image of Nigel Farage made flesh. But look, if the UK’s mainstream film industry is going to get stuck manufacturing wistful memories of Empire, this is about the best outcome we can hope for. William Nicholson’s script zips along about as jauntily as an old-timey motorcar, its characters are self-consciously ridiculous people, and Serkis is more interested in letting the actors play with their characters than wringing the audience for every last paralysis-related tear he can. As you’ll discover in the next part, that was very considerate of Andy; I needed a full tank for the rest of the week’s screenings.