A kind of Fifty Shades for the arthouse crowd, Duke of Burgundy is Peter Strickland’s follow-up to the much acclaimed Berberian Sound Studio, which I didn’t enjoy at all, frankly. So although this wasn’t top of my list of films to see, word of mouth at the festival was so good that I found a sneaky ticket at the last minute. It was a wise decision, this is a beautiful, strange and melancholy film that is so stylish it credits a perfumier in the opening credits.
The Duke of Burgundy introduces us to a world that’s sort of but not quite the 70s (the opening titles are full on 70s pastiche) and where men seem to have become obsolete. We only see a small part of this world though, so there could be a whole rugby club round the corner with the scent of Je Suis Gizelle in their nostrils.
It’s summer, and everything is beautifully hazy. When Evelyn (Chiara d’Anna) rides in on a bicycle, her hair blowing in the sultry breeze, there’s such a retro vibe that I kept expecting someone to shout out ‘is she or isn’t she?‘. She’s on her way to work as a maid for her rich mistress, Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen). Cynthia is a lepidopterist – try saying lesbian lepidopterist after a couple of gins – and her house is filled with beautiful specimens, pinned into frames. It probably takes a lot of dusting.
Evelyn isn’t a particularly good maid, and Cynthia has a range of punishments lined up for the frequent times when her delicate undergarments haven’t been washed to her satisfaction. This ranges from a bit of light whippage to the rather full on human toilet, with the hapless maid a bit too keen to submit to her mistress’s demands.
Expertly portrayed by d’Anna and Knudsen, Evelyn and Cynthia are embroiled in more than just a bit of kinky stuff, and it’s how that is slowly revealed that makes this such an engrossing watch. Much of the darkness – and the warm humour – of The Duke of Burgundy comes from the shifting power balance between the two women; the focus here is on how far you’re willing to go for the person you love, and how much of yourself you can give up for them.
Visually stunning, emotionally compelling and utterly enchanting as well as managing to be sensuous rather than titillating, this is masterful work from Strickland.
Nuri Bilge Ceylan is not afraid to take his time telling a story; Winter Sleep rocks in at 196 minutes. That’s three and a quarter hours. You have to be confident if you’re asking your audience to sit tight for that long, and you have to be able to keep them with you despite, in this case, the lure of things like M&M world and Wong Kei’s all you can eat buffet just up the road. Sadly, there were quite a lot of people who couldn’t resist the rattle of M&Ms: there was a steady stream of walkouts once we hit the two-hour mark. The woman next to me fell asleep after 15 minutes, spent two hours snoring, then woke up and left. But for anyone immune to the pain and suffering that the Odeon West End seats can bestow on even the softest bottom, Ceylan’s Palme D’Or winner was a real treat.
Winter Sleep is a beautifully unfolding tale of a dead marriage, and a man waking up to the realisation that his life isn’t quite what he imagined. It’s quite different to Ceylan’s Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, which I loved, but the themes and the landscapes are similar.
The story is told against the cold, bleak mountains of Anatolia – beautiful, silent and watchful, they stand stoic against a sulky grey sky filled with heavy snow clouds. Aydin (Aluk Bilginer) is an aging actor, running a hotel in the hills with his beautiful much younger wife Nihal (Melisa Sozen) and his sister Nekla (Demet Akbag). You may remember Bilginer as Mehmet in EastEnders but there are no echoes of his soap opera days here, this is a very calm, measured performance. Aydin is lord of his manor, and in his eyes the good, benevolent sort of lord who is adored by his subjects on whom in return, he kindly bestows his wisdom. He’s no longer acting, filling his time writing a pompous newspaper column that nobody reads and thinking about writing a book on Turkish theatre. With the emphasis on thinking about.
Aydin has inherited property from his father but doesn’t seem particularly interested in it, or the people he rents homes to, beyond the financial security it provides. But when a small boy throws a rock through his car window, Aydin’s carefully constructed world starts to fall apart. It seems that maybe he isn’t as wonderful a man as he likes to think.
Nihal is slowly dying of boredom, and full of rage at the quiet life she’s been tricked into leading. She married a famous actor for god’s sake, she thought there’d be parties, not an old man who ignores her most of the time and talks as if he’s still on the stage. When she tries to find something to fill her time, Aydin just can’t cut her loose.
Much of the film happens in dark, claustrophobic rooms lit only by the fireplaces, where we eavesdrop on ramblng conversations. There’s a lot of humour here, but the overriding feeling is of people trapped in lives they dream of escaping from. It’s a long film, and it won’t be for everyone. But if you can hole up in a comfy cinema with a frothy coffee, it’s the perfect chilly afternoon escape.
Maybe for me not quite as gripping as Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, but Winter Sleep is a fascinating story of crumbling lives, related by a master storyteller.
Before Whiplash stole its thunder this was the talk of the festival circuit: Steve Carell, Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo doing the acting in Bennett Miller’s follow up to Moneyball. On the face of it, that’s a promising line-up, although to be honest I found Moneyball a bit tedious so that’s not a big draw for me.
Foxcatcher is a true story – take my advice, if you don’t know it, don’t google until you’ve seen the film, it’s worth not knowing. Mark Schultz (Tatum) and his brother Dave (Ruffalo) are Olympic wrestlers. Dave is at the end of his career and turning to coaching, but Mark still has another gold medal in his sights. When eccentric millionaire John Du Pont (Carell) offers to coach him at his luxury ranch, Mark is fastening his seatbelt on Du Pont’s private plane before you can say chinlock; he doesn’t have anything to leave behind, except a diet of supernoodles and his tv. Dave isn’t interested in joining him despite a big bucks offer – he’s married (to Sienna Miller) with kids, and has no desire to uproot. It all starts off well for Mark, but before long the temptations and pressures from the increasingly bonkers Du Pont are too much and everything goes a bit pear-shaped. Well, a hell of a lot pear-shaped actually. But as I said, don’t google it.
Carell, Tatum and Ruffalo are excellent, playing against type and uglying up – all wearing tshirts that say OSCAR BAIT under their wrestling vests. Well, Tatum uglies up as much as he can, his Mark Schulz is an archetypal neanderthal wrestler, lonely and looking for a father figure. He’s a sad case, the gold medal is the only thing he has in life and he clings onto it like a life raft. Ruffalo probably has the least to do out of the three, playing the good big brother and stepping in when Mark’s life starts to spiral out of control. But Carell is almost unrecognisable as Du Pont, a man so rich he doesn’t have to answer to anyone except his mother (a totally underused Vanessa Redgrave). He wears a prosthetic nose so large that at times you can see him struggle to act around it. It’s actually quite amazing he can hold his head upright.
But what should be a slick film about ambition, loneliness and repression turns out to be a rather dull and overlong plod through a story that doesn’t really have enough meat on the bone. You can have the best acting in the world, but if the audience aren’t gripped by what’s going on, it’s a bit of a waste. There’s a lot missing here, parts of the story feel a bit disjointed, we don’t really learn much about Mark Schultz or John Du Point other than that one is desperate to be his big brother and the other is a spoiled rich kid afraid to acknowledge his sexuality. Everyone’s a stereotype.
Ultimately disappointing, Foxcatcher is three great performances in search of a story.
If there’s one film that everyone wanted to see at the LFF this year it was Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash. I’d had it on my list after seeing the trailer (watch it and tell me you don’t immediately want to see the rest) but was a little dubious because of the jazz. It’s not my favourite musical genre, by quite some way. But I have to be honest, I’m listening to Caravan now. So will you, after you see this. It’s one of those films that gets hold of you by the scruff of the neck in the first couple of minutes, then when it finally lets go and you leave the cinema, it feels like the world has shifted slightly.
Driven by two blistering lead performances, Whiplash follows a young jazz drummer at an elite music school in New York. Andrew Neyman (Miles Teller) dreams of becoming one of the greats and getting there means winning a spot in the school band, conducted by Terence Fletcher (JK Simmons). Fletcher is a hard taskmaster who works his musicians as if they were doing life for some awful crime. He’s not one of those teachers who is cruel to be kind, Fletcher is kind to be cruel and is more likely to follow up a polite comment about your timing by throwing a chair at your head and telling you off for being a pussy.
Simmons so inhabits the role you can’t imagine him being anything other than a fist-pumping maniac although I’m sure he’s a very mild-mannered chap off screen. Fletcher is a heart attack waiting to happen, veins popping, sweat pouring, fury so ingrained that it’s coming out of every pore all the time. Even when he’s playing nice, you can see it, just under the skin, waiting to explode out of him like some sort of ectoplasm. Does he really believe this is the way greats are made? Or is he just a violent bully taking out his own shortcomings on people more talented than he is? You’re never quite sure – and we know nothing of Fletcher’s back story so we can only go on what we see. It’s without doubt one of the performances of the year.
Miles Teller is equally impressive. Desperation and desire seep through Andrew’s pores in the same way that the fury seeps through Fletcher’s. Andrew is so focused on drumming that family, girlfriends, dignity and the skin on his hands all come cruelly second – and he doesn’t see anything wrong with that. Like Fletcher, he has to lose the human side of him in order to get what he wants.
The climax is exhilarating, with the two facing off like gladiators in the ring. By the time we reach that last paradiddle you feel as beaten up as Andrew’s drumkit, exhausted and more than a little delirious. Though hopefully not spattered with blood. Good job, Chazelle.
Obviously I was disappointed the BFI London Film Festival’s Surprise Film wasn’t Inherent Vice, but I got over that fairly quickly when Alejandro Inarritu popped up on screen to introduce Birdman. It’s been a while since the surprise was anything genuinely exciting. In fact last year, I did a runner after 20 minutes of The Grandmaster, so it was a massive improvement on that.
Birdman arrives with impressive reviews from the US and lots of awards chatter. It stars Michael Keaton as Riggan Thomson, a has-been movie superhero trying to make a second go of things on the Broadway stage. He’s divorced, egotistical, paranoid, and still fantasizes about his time in the feathers. When another egotistical star, Mike Shiner (Edward Norton), joins the cast, tensions rise and the play’s previews descend into chaos.
There’s some impressive camerawork here from Emmanuel Lubezki who won an Oscar for his amazing work on Gravity. Birdman is shot to look like a single take, although of course it isn’t. It feels quite claustrophobic at times, as if you’re in Thomson’s poor messed up head, confused and angry about the bird you used to be and the man you want to become.
I know I should have enjoyed this more, all the elements are there – it’s very funny, it looks good, and Norton and Keaton are fantastic. But I just felt a bit disappointed. Maybe Riggan is just too unlikable. Maybe Inarritu just needed to rein it in a bit. Maybe ultimately Birdman is just a bit too pleased with itself. And it did that thing that always annoys me – if you’re going to end a film just end it, don’t fanny about pretending it’s the end then going on a bit longer. Only Blazing Saddles can get away with that.
There’s a lot to admire here, and god knows I’d rather see something like this than one of the tedious superhero blockbusters that keep being churned out. But sorry, Birdman, you just didn’t fly for me.
Winner of the BFI London Film Festival’s best film award and definitely one of my favourites of the festival, Leviathan is a tale of modern Russia, in turns hilarious, harsh and heartbreaking.
Director Andrey Zvyagintsev has created a film that carries its grand themes on small shoulders, focusing on one man’s battle with a corrupt politician. Zvyagintsev skilfully blends in enough humour to lull you into a false sense of security, so that when the film plunges into darkness, it’s that much more shocking.
Kolya (Alexey Serebryakov) is a mechanic whose family have lived in a small, barren village by the sea for generations. The environment is grey, full of striking landscapes and forbidding clouds. Decaying fishing boats slump in the harbour and on the beach, the skeleton of a whale lies like the remains of a prehistoric creature, its bones slowly being bleached by the light. Most of the villagers live in small, dingy concrete apartments, a far cry from the beautiful house Kolya has built with his own hands. So it’s easy to see how quickly Kolya’s world crumbles when the local mayor decides he wants the land for himself and Kolya is faced with a compulsory purchase order that will leave him, his attractive young wife and his teenage stepson with no option but to move to the concrete bunkers. He has to fight back. But bringing in an old army friend to give him legal advice has consequences way beyond anything he could have foreseen.
The mayor has more than a touch of Boris Johnson about him, a bumbling buffoon drunk on power and vodka – a dangerous combination. He’s brilliantly played by Roman Madyanov who pretty much steals every scene he’s in. Serebryakov is superb too as Kolya, a man who is desperately clinging on to everything around him and unable to comprehend or battle the injustices being heaped upon him. Injustice, it appears, is the one thing you can’t fight in modern Russia.
The desolate, beautiful landscapes provide the perfect frame for Leviathan’s stoic but fragile characters. And Zvyagintsev’s habit of letting the big dramatic moments happen off-screen only adds to the atmosphere of tension and helplessness.
Leviathan blew me away, it’s one of those films you immediately want to see again once you’ve got your breath back – full of grand themes and powerful imagery, and giving a harsh reminder of the corruption at every level in Putin’s Russia.
Alice Rohrwacher’s The Wonders is a tender coming-of-age tale filled with magical touches and gentle humour.
Gelsomina (Maria Alexandra Lungu) is 12 and lives with her two younger sisters and their parents on a ramshackle farm in Italy. She spends her days looking after the family’s bees with her irascible father Wolfgang (Sam Louwyck), using time-honoured farming traditions. The honey is collected in rather unsanitary conditions that might make you think twice before pouring it on your porridge and if the bees swarm, Gelsomina is the one who has to scoop them back into their hives, sometimes from the top of trees. It’s clear that in the absence of a son, Wolfgang sees her as his successor.
Times are hard, and the family are at real risk of losing their home. To raise some cash, they foster a troubled young boy who arrives with a police guard, never a good sign. Martin says little but quickly falls in with the ways of the family, working alongside Gelsomina to produce the thick honey. A friendship between the two is on slow boil but the pair are awkward and reluctant to trust each other. Soon Wolfgang starts taking Martin to help with the bees instead of Gelsomina, and her simply ordered life is shaken. When she chances upon the set for a tv show promoting a competition for local food producers, she is enchanted by the glamorous hostess (Monica Bellucci) and becomes obsessed with the idea of entering and using the prize money to solve all their problems. Wolfgang, of course, is dead against it.
The young actors all give beautifully understated performances not least Lungu in the lead role, and Louwyck is great too as the father struggling to keep his home together while remaining faithful to his hippy ethics.
I loved Corpo Celeste, Rohrwacher’s debut, which had a similar ethereal quality, setting harsh truths against people’s hopes and dreams. She clearly has a deep affection for the rural life (her family were beekeepers from northern Italy) and she portrays it with understanding and tenderness. This lot might bicker, but the love they share is the sticky honey that holds them together.
It’s a simple tale, but there’s something about The Wonders that entrances.
This is an impossible film to write about without sounding either like a pretentious asshole or an idiot. So instead, here’s a fair representation of what was going on inside my head while I watched it on an enormous Imax screen.
Whoooo Jean-Luc Godard in 3D on this giant screen, I’m so arthouse. Everyone here is very excited, I’ve got my 3D glasses ready to roll. Here we go! Whoah the titles are in shiny red 3D coming at me. Whooooo look it’s as if I was picking that book up myself. This is great. Look at the man! This feels so French. Whooooo! Hang on, is this bit from a different film? I’m not sure what that bit was about. Who’s he? Someone just got shot. I wonder who. Ahhhhh doggy. Is that the same lady? Oh, she’s in the nip. So’s he, but his bits are in the dark. It’s like you’re sitting in the lounge with them! 3D is great. Wait a minute, is he having a poo? Ahhhh doggy. Starting to feel a bit nauseous. Goodbye to Lunch. I like that Hitchcock style music though. I wonder if anyone else knows what’s going on. Ooh that was a good bit. HANG ON – if I close one eye I can see a totally different scene. That’s amazing. Has anyone else noticed? Maybe it’s my eyesight. Is that Gregory Peck? Definitely feel sick now. And she needs to put a top on. Ahhhh doggy. Oh it’s finished. Can I get out of here without going arse over tit?
Often it’s the small unexpected films at the BFI London Film Festival that impress me most. Macondo is no exception, a coming-of-age tale of a Chechen refugee in Vienna, it’s an impressive feature debut for documentary maker Sudabeh Mortezia with a magnetic lead performance from newcomer Ramasan Minkailov.
Ramasan (Minkailov) is 11 and lives with his mother and two sisters in a run-down housing estate in the outskirts of the city. His father has died in the Chechen conflict and as man of the house, Ramasan looks after his sisters and acts as translator for his mother with the immigration authorities. When Isa (Aslan Elbiev), an old friend of his father, turns up and starts to threaten that role, Ramasan’s whole understanding of his own identity begins to unravel. He’s a boy who needs a father figure, but can’t handle the impact this has on his own role. We watch as he’s torn between his family, his religious leaders and a child’s natural urge to rebel – and between the idealised image of his war hero father and the rather less than glorious truth.
What’s incredible about Macondo is that nearly all the roles are taken by non-professionals; Mortezia has cast the refugees that live on the Macondo estate. Apart from finding a remarkable lead in Minkailov, the cast give entirely natural performances. Everything we see is so close to real life that it’s hard to see the joins: these are their homes, and these are to a great extent, their lives.
Macondo is an incredibly touching story, beautifully realised. What’s inspiring is that Mortezia’s relationship with the people whose stories she’s told here is continuing and making a real difference to their lives. With echoes of the Dardennes, this is a simple tale, beautifully and movingly told. I hope it finds its audience.
Jon Stewart’s first outing as director isn’t quite as bad as some of the early reviews might have you believe. It’s not perfect, and there are a few slightly naff touches here and there (enough with the hashtags), but he’s assembled a strong cast and it’s a story that needed to be told.
Maziar Bahari was reporting for Newsweek from Iran during the controversial elections of 2009. When some of his footage of the ensuing protests was broadcast internationally, he attracted the attention of the authorities who accused him of being a spy and imprisoned him in solitary confinement for 118 days. During this time he was interrogated by a man who, let’s say, wasn’t the sharpest tool in the box but knew the power of psychological torture. And the occasional kick to the guts.
Gael Garcia Bernel plays Bahari with quiet dignity and Nordic Noir favourite Kim Bodnia is great as his interrogator (who was always splashed in rosewater cologne). The nameless interrogator is in turns terrifying and hilariously dim – a dangerous combination – perfect for Bodnia who has a weird likeability even as the baddy. I felt a bit sorry for Claire Foy whose role as Bahari’s wife Paola seemed to be restricted to lounging around at home and patting her pregnant belly (when in fact Paola was a key instigator for the campaign to release him).
The film starts with exhilarating footage of Iran as it heads to election full of hope, and mixes in some of Bahari’s own footage to great effect. It falters a bit once Bahari is imprisoned – yes, we feel the angst of being locked in solitary for months on end, not knowing what’s going on outside, but it doesn’t make for an entirely fulfilling cinematic experience. I understand that Stewart wanted us to experience the isolation that Bahari felt, but relying on ghostly visits from his relatives felt like a bit of a lazy way to let us into his state of mind.
It’s Stewart’s smart humour that make the film watchable, his eye for the absurd is the perfect way to highlight the ridiculous paranoia of the regime. And of course the Daily Show had its own role to play in Bahari’s story so I guess this goes some way towards an apology. It’s a promising debut for Stewart, flawed but there’s enough here to make you want to see where he goes next.
It is also worth noting that there are still many journalists falsely imprisoned by extremist regimes around the world and if nothing else, Rosewater is a timely reminder that they need still need our attention.
There’s a BBC Scotland documentary about Scottish musician Edwyn Collins and his recovery from a massive stroke – it’s fairly standard stuff, and quite well done, I was surprised someone had made another one really. Much as I love Edwyn’s music, and inspiring as his story is, two documentaries about it seem to be a wee bit OTT.
But this is no ordinary documentary. The Possibilities are Endless is a stunning recreation of what it’s like to lose yourself. Directors Edward Lovelace and James Hall have created something really special, moulding a work of art from disjointed conversations and whispered reminiscences. You’re lost in the darkness for much of the film, with no sign of Edwyn other than brief shots of him as a spunky young popster. You’re not sure where he is for a while. Then you stagger out of the darkness with him.
This is wonderfully brave filmmaking, perfectly paced to match the impact the strokes had on Edwyn and his wife Grace Maxwell without being maudlin or overly sympathetic. The soundtrack, put together by Edwyn himself before he’d seen anything of the film, is outstanding.
There’s no self-pity here, it’s a portrait of a strong loving couple dealing with something that most of us can’t imagine, and doing it with dignity and humour. The suggestion that the film is a love story brought howls of laughter from Edwyn after the screening, but that’s exactly what it is. It’s about passion, and how Edwyn’s love for Grace and for his music pulled him back from the brink. And it’s about his passion for home, for the sea and the familiarity of the place he grew up. It’s about how those things can find you, no matter what.
The Possibilities are Endless is surprising, moving and expertly realised – a remarkable film about a remarkable couple, I absolutely loved every minute.
We’re all moving to Helmsdale now, right?