The 48th Times BFI London Film Festival

| November 8, 2004 | 0 Comments

The 48th London Film Festival wakes the British public from its soporific summer of blockbusters and once again presents an incredibly varied and diverse programme.
The presentations are less showy than last year but feel more important. The festival kicks off with Mike Leigh’s Vera Drake which has already won awards in Venice, and concludes with the international premiere of David O. Russell’s I Heart Huckabees. Films in the mix include work by Eric Rohmer, Jean-Luc Godard and Francois Ozon. The Experimental strand has been expanded, the World Cinema programme ranges even further and deeper than ever (although lacking the coup that brought Osama and its director to London last year). The festival can even boast a unique first: a screening of Tracey Emin’s autobiographical art/ film Top Spot. Expect Emin to carry the controversy and the critical acclaim mid-festival. Emin’s work is part of a subdued but interesting New British Cinema strand, much of which explores multiculturalism. The French and European strands are similarly lowkey but include a great deal of important, challenging work.
The World Cinema strand is where the festival really comes into its own. Films from Iraq to Angola explore nation, identity, love and death. Of particular interest this year are the films from and about China–the state’s policy of inviting underground filmmakers back into the mainstream cultural fold (‘recuperating’ their talent) bears fruit in two films by Zhu Wen (South of the Clouds) and Jia Zhangke (The World). Films presenting a more dissident view of China include the documentary What remains of us about Tibet and Diao Yinan’s Uniform. There will also, of course, be the much anticipated 2046 by Wong Kar-Wai.
As at last year’s festival, documentary is showing strongly. Films range from the epicure (Jonathan Nossiter’s Modovino, drawing on his experiences as a sommelier), through work on Hank Williams (Hank Williams: Honky Tonk Blues) to political films such as the biography of black congresswoman and ’72 possible presidential nominee Shirley Chisholm (Chisholm ’72–Unbought And Unbossed). Many of the experimental documentaries work with found footage and compilation, including Los Angeles Plays Itself (Thom Anderson), Oh, Man (Yervant Gianikian and Angela Ricci Lucchi), Public Lighting (Mike Hoolboom) and Throw Your Watch To The Water (Eugeni Bonet). These films explore assembled footage and previously unseen representations of the war and the city, aspects to be discussed at History Replayed: The Found Footage Film panel discussion. Discussion panels form an interesting and important part of the festival. Don’t forget, as ever, to take in the experimental material (lacking, sadly, this year a 12-hour epic to rival last year’s marathon but with enough diverse madness to keep anyone interested and engaged all through the festival). Tarnation, by Jonathan Caouette, looks like a key film and is presented as a Gala screening.
Many films by key directors make their newly restored bow: On The Waterfront (Kazan), Mr. Smith goes to Washington (Capra), The River (Renoir), Spione (Lang) and Paths of Glory (Kubrick). Rescued from social marginalisation and restored is Alfred E. Green’s controversial Baby Face.
The highlights? Any new work by Godard is to be at least celebrated. Mike Leigh isn’t my cup of tea but his high profile is important to the British industry as a whole. Wong Kar-Wai should be up there when the awards are handed out this year. Mira Nair’s Vanity Fair should be the crowd-pleasing intelligent film of the festival, and might signal Reese Witherspoon’s entry into the big time. As ever, wandering in to films from South Africa or Argentina you’d probably not have thought of will provide the most interesting and jawdropping moments. Despite all this important cerebral talent, I’m heading directly for the first UK screening of The Incredibles…
The following films were reviewed at the bfi Times London Film Festival by our London staffer, Jerome de Groot.
Melinda and Melinda (Woody Allen, 2004)
You wonder what the point of another Woody Allen film is. Obviously you go along, and appreciate the odd joke about Kierkegaard or the punchy one liners, or you celebrate his longevity and achievement. But why is he making movies anymore? What does he have to say to us? This new film checks all the standard boxes for a recent Allen movie–patchily funny, invested in various versions of ‘high’ art like opera and tragedy, revisiting old themes, avoiding new ones. The film is eerily 70s and self-referential, invoking a New York that I can’t particularly recognise other than from other Woody Allen movies. Post-9/11, post-Scorcese, post-Spike Lee, post-Sex and the City (even), Allen seems increasingly to be speaking to a shrinking audience about things they might be interested in. After the splenetic ‘Deconstructing Harry’ Allen seems content to settle into a groove, producing variations on a theme and making gentle movies that go nowhere. If he were French we’d be saluting his minimalist genius.
Which is not to say that I didn’t enjoy it. Any Allen film is generally worth a watch, and they tend (as this one) to be tight, short, and funny. The motif this time is of the same story being told in two distinctive ways (‘comic’ and ‘tragic’). This twinning works relatively well, although the ‘tragic’ story is something of a minefield. The tragic Melinda is something of a misogynistic creation, a fallen woman murdered whose nerves are shot and who tries to kill herself, finally. She is seen to be ‘tragic’ in the same way that Blanche DuBois is tragic, a flaky woman who can’t cope. I’m suspicious of this kind of caricaturing, and it does Allen no favours.
The most successful elements are the ‘comic’ story, and in Will Ferrell Allen has found someone who can do his ‘anxious-whiny’ role with much charm and humour (more, it might be suggested, than Allen himself sometimes). Ferrell is really the standout performance, and he lights up the screen.
That said, the remainder of the ensemble is relatively anodyne (including the normally luminescent Chloe Sevigny). The stories are well put together and well worked, and the funny bits are a return to form. We expect so much from him; I guess amongst all my carping if I’d seen this as a first movie I’d be extremely impressed.
Notre Musique (Jean-Luc Godard, 2004)
He’s still the daddy, still mad as hell (in both lunatic and angry senses) and still bashing them out. Godard’s latest experimental film-type-narrative-installation explores life, death, politics, the middle east, film and suicide. A three-part meditation, the piece eschews obvious narrative elements whilst incorporating into its form one of the oldest of all, namely the Dantesque trinity of hell-purgatory-heaven. ‘Hell’ presents footage of warfare and torture to a piano piece, a sparse and oddly self-regarding section. The wars presented range from contemporary to ancient, and therefore the footage is both verite documentary (newsreel, video film) and created fiction (war film, silent movies and the like). War is both reflected by and a product of celluloid, it seems. These images are horrific insofar as they represent both reality and entertainment. The musical track seems to underpin this, building to crescendos and directing the action, adding a layer of falseness to an otherwise raw expression.
‘Purgatory’ is set in Sarajevo and meanders more, incorporating discussion of middle-eastern politics, native american rights, digital film and death. Godard himself appears, teaching a film class on shot-reverse-shot which suggests that each ‘shot’ is the same and that history is not a progressive dialogue of shot-reverse-shot but simply a repeated image of horror that will never end (hence purgatory, I think). Somehow cinema is complicit in this, particularly with the intervention of digital technology, but this section is much the more impressionistic in its purpose. Sarajevo looks amazing, both tragic and inspiring, and the style is somehow enriching and flat at the same time.
Profound, intriguing, often annoying, this film is a quantum leap away from contemporary Hollywood. I’m not sure I agree with Godard in many of the concepts he propounds but the dynamism and the number of challenging ideas he sets formally and intellectually have to be admired. The final section, ‘Heaven’ is set on an island guarded by sailors and somewhat idealised. The music has become lush, almost sickly by this point, and there is no real sense of progression or movement. The tripartite structure echoes Christian pilgrim narratives yet there is no existential becoming or conclusion, just a new series of questions, a blackness, an unknowing. Its is tough but beautiful, in its way.
Interestingly enough the most obvious comparative work I could think of whilst watching was that of contemporary video artists (Mark Wharfinger for instance). Godard’s experimentation with form, music and presentation still feels like it is at the cutting edge, decades after the jumpcuts of ‘A Bout de Souffle’ illustrated that he was at the vanguard of film as art. Maybe contemporary film is less interested in such postmodern investigation and the mantle has been handed to artists; maybe Godard is willfully difficult. An event, certainly; a film, perhaps not.
Vanity Fair (Mira Nair, 2004)
Vanity Fair signals Reece Witherspoon’s attempt to widen her portfolio of likeable airhead bitches to encompass the nineteenth-century heroine of Thackeray’s satirical novel. It is kind of ‘Clueless’ in bonnets, but less charming or funny. The film charts the rise and then fall of Becky Sharp, daughter of an opera singer and artist, during the early years of the nineteenth-century. Witherspoon is in many ways a clever piece of casting, as Sharp is something of an ingénue amongst a highly ordered and hierarchical social structure that is reminiscent of the high school structures in which Witherspoon made her name. The move to more credible heritage film is something various actresses have done in order to sustain their careers (Paltrow’s ‘Emma’ springs to mind). The film invests heavily in Witherspoon, with mixed results. Certainly her hokey charm can support the piece, but she seems at times far too flat, too little of a coquette. Her Becky Sharp could have walked straight off the set of ‘Legally Blonde’, so seemingly idealistic and airhead happy she seems. The literary Sharp is at least arch and self-aware, whereas Witherspoon plays her as relatively meek and quite nice. There is no light and shade to her characterization (or, indeed, to that of the cast as a whole) and the film suffers for this. The character should be less idealistic, a little more cunning, or her final descent into pseudo-prostitution and her attraction to various men in her life makes no sense.
Nair also brings a sprinkling of indie to the project and a certain exoticness of approach to the film as a whole which should have set the piece up well enough. An Indian director whose last film was ‘Monsoon Wedding’, she brings a refreshing approach to the heritage film, emphasizing the grime of nineteenth-century England and suggesting a world outside of London (Napoleonic wars and colonial encounters). The earlier scenes in London and surrounds are by far the best, and Nair invests her London with dirt and disgust which is generally lacking in anodyne film presentations of this time. The piece is let down by a poor script, which gives us a Thackeray which is neither sentimental or thoughtful. The strong supporting cast (Jim Broadbent, Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Rhys Ifans) aren’t given enough to do and their characters are either marginalized or poorly rendered. The narrative is at times incoherent and runs out of steam; the film is similarly too long–rather than being a tart little piece with a nasty heart it veers between sentimental drama and epic, and ends up being neither.
Much was expected from this, and it delivers insofar as Witherspoon is watchable and it is nowhere near as grim as most literary adaptations. Nair avoids cliche and makes the genre somewhat her own. Yet the film meanders and the narrative runs out of point, leaving us with some nice ideas, a few good performances, and little else.

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