The 55th BFI London Film Festival 2011

Alan Pavelin

Talking Pictures alias






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As usual the London Film Festival featured an eclectic feast of some 300 offerings, of which I chose half-a-dozen which sounded of particular interest to me.  This year I went for three of my favourite modern directors, along with a documentary featuring a fourth, plus two other films whose subjects sounded appealing.  I would like to have seen The Artist and The Deep Blue Sea, but both were fully booked, and in any event they should get early releases.   To my mind there was little point in booking for films like Anonymous, The Ides of March, Miss Bala, or We Need To Talk About Kevin, with theatrical releases immediately after or even during the Festival, unless of course you get a thrill from seeing George Clooney in person.

The Bird (Yves Caumon, France)  This largely-wordless character portrayal concerns a woman, Anne, living in Bordeaux, who seems to find great difficulty in communicating with people. She works in a kitchen (whether of a restaurant, hospital, or whatever is unclear) and rejects the advances of a co-worker. She appears to identify with the suffering heroine of Mizoguchi's film The Life of Oharu, which she goes to see. The "bird" of the title, while possibly referring to herself, is more obviously the pigeon who finds a home in her flat. Gradually we discover things about her past life, and by the end she has made a decision about something suggested to her much earlier on.  Sandrine Kiberlain, on-screen almost the entire time, is the star of the show, but its appeal is probably too slight for it to become either a critical or popular success.

Correspondence: Jonas Mekas - J.L.Guerin (Mekas/Guerin, Spain-USA)  This documentary consists of an exchange of five cinematic letters each way between Jose Luis Guerin, who so impressed with the Strasbourg-set In the City of Sylvia (2007), and Mekas, a New York-based veteran underground filmmaker.  There is not much discussion of cinema itself, though some interesting places were visited, including Thoreau’s Walden Pond, the Jewish quarter of Krakow, and the grave of Yasujiro Ozu.  This last featured in the genuinely tense final scene, filmed in close-up by Guerin, of ants trying to haul a twig up the vertical face of the gravestone; you would be surprised at how gripping this was.  This is not a film likely to come round again, however, and personally I would have liked more discussion of cinema itself.

Elena (Andrei Zvyagintsev, Russia)  I loved this director’s two earlier features, The Return (2003) and The Banishment (2007), though the latter was misunderstood by some critics.  Elena is an equally powerful family drama, though set mostly in drab city surroundings rather than the Arctic wastes or country dacha of the previous films.  The middle-aged widow Elena has recently married a rich man who is in poor health; each has a child from a previous marriage but Elena’s son, with no real ambition in life, lives in the poor part of town and has two children of his own.  When the question of inheritance comes up Elena decides that the time has come for her to take matters into her own hands.  The film builds up to a tense climax and (for me) an ending which is totally unexpected yet utterly realistic.  The performance of Nadezhda Markina, as Elena, is absolutely stunning.  Zvyagintsev is one of the very finest writer-directors around today.

Faust (Alexandr Sokurov, Russia)  I am not sufficiently familiar with Goethe’s Faust, on which Sokurov’s Venice prizewinner is based, to have got the most out of this production.  Visually and aurally it is superb, with a whirling, swirling camera, a classic Middle-Ages middle-Europe setting, much overlapping dialogue (in German), and an almost continuous hypnotic musical score, but I found it a tad difficult to follow exactly what was going on.  The director’s evident love of the paintings of Caspar David Friedrich is echoed in several scenes, as is his trademark distorted bodily images (see Mother and Son, 1997).  So, my advice is to see Faust by all means, but mug up on Goethe first.  Oh, and if you don’t like gruesome bits, skip the first few minutes.

I Wish (Hirokazu Kore-eda, Japan)  I chose this on the strength of two previous films of this director, the delightful fantasy After Life (1998) and the wonderful Ozu-like Still Walking (2008).  I Wish is more of a gentle comedy than Still Walking, with children as all the main actors.  It concerns two brothers whose parents have split up; the older lives with their mother and her parents, the younger with their father, an unenterprising rock musician.  In a brief flashback we see a family row before the split.  Now the boys, communicating by telephone, decide to try and effect a reconciliation by meeting where two bullet trains are due to pass, an event at which, it is said, wishes will be granted.  Together with some friends, all with their own wishes, they duly carry out this plan.  Kore-eda is clearly a fine director of children (not to mention the adults), and this film should please his fans.  While not as formally perfect as Still Walking, it is a charming insight into modern Japan.

A Simple Life (Ann Hui, Hong Kong)  Based on a true story, this delightful film is part-comedy, part-weepie, and reminded me very much of Edward Yang’s masterly A One And A Two . . .(2000).  It tells of a maid who has served the same family for 60 years through four generations, until she suffers a stroke and is found an old folks’ home by Roger, a middle-aged family member who is also a successful movie executive.  This is a genuinely uplifting film which, with sufficient publicity, could well find a wide audience; it has already been entered by Hong Kong as a “best foreign-language” contender for the 2012 Oscars.  Do see it if you get the chance.

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