The 59th BFI London Film Festival 2015

Alan Pavelin

Talking Pictures alias






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Avoiding the usual crowd-pleasers which can expect an early nationwide release, I picked on three films from this festival, from three different continents and all by established directors.  Two are documentaries, or perhaps "cine-essays" is a better term.

Cemetery of Splendour (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Thailand). 

I have seen three previous offerings from the director I henceforward refer to as A.W., of which Uncle Boonmee is the most acclaimed and Syndromes and a Century my personal favourite.  A.W.'s latest is his usual mix of quiet beauty, long static shots, mysterious happenings, and Buddhist sensibility, far from fully comprehensible to Western viewers but very absorbing for all that.  Some soldiers are lying immobile on hospital beds, apparently having succumbed to sleeping sickness.  A disabled woman volunteer, who has an American man friend, devotes herself to tending to one of the soldiers who has no visitors, and strikes up a friendship with a young woman who seems able to communicate with the unconscious men.  The film ends with a close-up of the disabled woman's face, looking extremely anxious about, presumably, what she has learned.  The film has, we are told, some relevance to the political situation in Thailand.  If you want a film to be fully comprehensible, then this isn't for you (unless you are Thai, presumably) but, like A.W.'s other films, it has a strangely hypnotic effect.

Francofonia (Alexandr Sokurov, France). 

Russia's best-known living director has made many of his films outside his native land, and here is another, though the unseen narrator (Sokurov?) is Russian, with other dialogue in French, German, and English.  It is a complex, semi-dramatised documentary about the Nazi occupation of Paris, complete with newsreel footage, and, in particular, about the attitudes of both French and Germans towards the artworks of the Louvre museum and their relation to French history.  Reminiscent of Sokurov's single-take tour-de-force Russian Ark, various paintings and statues are shown, inevitably including the Mona Lisa, while an actor dressed as Napoleon points at paintings of himself and announces "that's me!"  Other actors portray Louvre director Jaujard and Nazi art overseer Count Metternich, who apparently got on quite well together.  Several mysterious scenes show the narrator speaking via Skype to the English commander of a container ship transporting artworks, while other references are to Russian history (shots of Tolstoy and Chekhov).  A film which probably repays two or three viewings. Most unusually for a modern production, the credits come at the beginning.

The Pearl Button (Patricio Guzman, Chile). 

A more conventional documentary than Francofonia, this is a follow-up to Nostalgia for the Light (2010), Guzman's poetic study of looking back into past time through astronomy, linking it with the women still searching the desert for any evidence of their loved ones who disappeared under the Pinochet regime.  The Pearl Button follows a similar pattern, comparing the fate of the indigenous tribes of Patagonia, who lived much of their lives on water, with the many opponents of Pinochet who were simply dumped in the ocean.   On one level this is a film about water, with an opening shot of a 3000-year-old quartz crystal containing a tiny drop of water, and with some stunning subsequent close-ups of drops of water, the beautiful lakes and mountains of the region, and some reminiscences of elderly surviving tribespeople.  Guzman's quiet narration cannot hide a passionate denunciation  of everything the Pinochet regime did to Chile, not to mention what the Spanish colonisers, out of good motives, did to the Patagonian tribes people's way of life.  The film's title refers to a man brought to Britain in the 1830s to be "civilised", also to a button which was found attached to a heavy rail used by Pinochet to sink dissidents in the Pacific.  A beautiful, heartfelt, passionate film.

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