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By Justin Jaeckle

 

Synchronous with the art world's manic traipsing of draconian bright tents and white cubes across the capital, London’s other annual October cultural offering sees a hundred thousand or so punters spend hours in the darkness of upholstered black boxes. The London Film Festival, now in its 56th edition, is a bit like a festival of festivals, hoovering what it can from Cannes, Berlin, Venice and beyond to comprise it’s 200-plus titles, and sprinkling a few premieres on top. As a result, many of the festival’s biggest films (Michael Haneke’s Amour for instance, all films 2012) have already received ample column inches, and proximal UK release dates. The festival presents itself as eagerly everyman rather than connoisseurially revelatory, with limited sales taking place (as opposed to Frieze a little further north from the festival’s hubs in Leicester Square and the South Bank…). The 2012 edition lacked any titles to be truly excited by (including disappointing no-shows for Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers, Noah Baumbach’s Francis Ha or Terrence Malick’s To The Wonder; three films included in festivals elsewhere this past September). Under a new director, Clare Stewart, it appears the LFF has tried to tackle such issues and make the festival more seductive for industry and audience alike by zhushing-up its presentation with new competition categories, and thematic sections that read like twitter hashtags – ‘love,’ ‘journey,’ ‘debate,’ ‘thrill’ and ‘laugh’ – clearly laying on a menu for the pop-cultural grazer in search of an emotional quick fix.

 

Brandon Cronenberg, Antiviral, 2012

 

Speaking of fixes, one of the festival’s most newsworthy titles, Antiviral, saw David Cronenberg’s son Brandon take a strong hit of his father’s medicine and enact his bloodline. More interesting for its provenance than its quality, the film depicts a near future where celebrity infatuation has reached such an apotheosis that clinics have emerged for punters to be injected with diseases harvested straight from their favourite (complicit) idols – to get up-close and bio-personal with the stars. Visceral and saturated with vintage Cronenbergian body horror (bloody hypodermic close-ups, human cell-steaks, and a final scene in which the protagonist is seen giving head to a gaping wound from a limb attached to an iron lung) the film tries hard (its uber bleached-out aesthetic and zombie-like mumbling protagonist are both particularly forced) but fails to present its acerbic cultural satire – “Celebrity is not an accomplishment, it’s a collaboration that we agree to take part in” states the clinic’s maestro Dr Lukas – in a convincing package.

 

Satire and a great premise could also be found in Reality, Matteo ‘Gomorrah’ Garrone’s latest feature and Cannes Grand Prix winner, featuring a warm-hearted Neapolitan fishmonger, family-man and sometime victimless scammer as its protagonist. Like Gomorrah, the film is set in a dense southern Italian neighborhood, but the realist grit has here been replaced by pantomimic characterisation, presenting its working class inhabitants as well-meaning naïf’s struggling good-humouredly against the odds. In Reality, the ticket out of the hood is a place on reality show Big Brother, which our protagonist is cajoled into auditioning for by his adoring extended family. He doesn’t get on, but anticipates the call at any moment, which slowly renders him increasingly paranoid that BB’s spies are keeping tabs on him; leading him to see crickets as concealed CCTV cameras and give away the family’s furniture to the homeless in the hope that his sanctity will win him a place on TV.

 

Cultural criticism was also good and present in Wadjda – the first ever Saudi Arabian film made by a female director, Haifaa Al-Mansour; a feat that has generated much interest in the movie as a result. The film reads like a message in a bottle out of the country, as it follows a tomboyish schoolgirl (which it’s hard not to read as a stand-in for the plucky director herself) and her attempts to save for a bike – in a culture where it is seen as immoral for a girl to ride one. Conflicts and hypocrisies of morals and gender ensue, culminating in a (tragic) happy ending to a simple film with whiffs of Albert Lamorisse’s The Red Balloon (1956) – a balloon that this time happens to be a Chopper.

 

Benh Zeitlin's first feature Beasts of the Southern Wild (on general release now) has been getting plaudits and hype left, right and centre (winning Sundance and Canne’s Camera d’Or), despite its laborious selfconscious stacking of hipster-memes and Zeitlin's slightly trite obvious afflictions for Terrence Malick and the band Beirut. A magic realist tale which repurposes Hurricane Katrina as an end of the world myth through the eyes of a young poor girl in the Bayou, the film is drenched in ambition, lens flair, and touches of the cosmic, but its fantastical romanticism makes its already simple treatment of poor folk hit by a natural disaster all rather patronising.

 

Benh Zeitlin, Beasts of the Southern Wild, 2012

 

More poverty could be found in Tomorrow, a shaky-cam documentary by Andrey Gryazev on dissident anarcho-actionist Russian art-group Voina, associate curators of the 2012 Berlin Biennale. With Voina (which translates as ‘War’) numbering two of Pussy Riot as former members, the film couldn’t be more topical, and it proceeds to document Voina’s shoplifting, squabbles over photo documentation and their overturning of police cars in the name of ‘actions, not lousy creativity’ with a welcome lack of hero-worship or endorsement of the group’s usual moral proclamations; in fact, it occasionally verges on slapstick, though the film could not be described as derisory. It’s a warts and all film that’s definitely worth a look, offering an insight into the secretive group’s ongoing agitprop-as-art.

 

Andrey Gryazev, Tomorrow, 2012

 

Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s 50-minute Mekong Hotel offered a fascinating, and typically structurally progressive, glimpse into the director’s latest project. Opening with a scene between a rehearsing guitarist and Weeresthakul (the lilting jazz-flamenco soundtrack to which then brilliantly unfolds to accompany the remainder of the film) it offers portraits of his actors both in character performing sketches for a forthcoming feature, and out of role reminiscing and relaxing, to create a dreamlike reverie in the director’s singular style.

 

Other worthy mentions include the Frederick Wiseman-esque vertite-style documentary Normal School by Argentine Celina Murga, a portrait of one of country's public schools; and Thursday Till Sunday (Chilean Dominga Sotomayor Castillo), a film depicting with equal respect and maturity a couple and their children as the parents’ relationship fractures over the course of a roadtrip. The excellent Here and There (Antonio Méndez Esparza) offers a tale of oscillating immigration and return to and from the small Mexican village of Guerrero, dealing in incredibly intimate performances by a cast of non-actors, gracefully encompassing complex economic and familial realities, working and living. Similarly intimate was the Jia Zhangke produced Memories Look at Me, a kind of inverted Tokyo Story that sees a young woman return from Beijing to spend time with her elderly parents. The film is beautiful and serene, a quasi-autobiographic inter-generational reflection upon an intimate family and the passage of time.

 

Antonio Méndez Esparza, Here and There, 2012

 

The festival’s true highlights however came (unsurprisingly) from two of European cinema’s biggest stars – and this year’s Cannes Palme d’Or and Best Screenplay winners – Michael Haneke's Amour and Cristian Mungiu's Beyond The Hills respectively. Directorial tour-de-forces, both films create incredible and foreboding onscreen hermetic worlds, subjecting the audience to choreographed claustrophobia in demonstration of the power of cinema. Much has been written on each film elsewhere but both are not to be missed. Amour (released in the UK on 16 November) offers a two-hour memento mori; a study of human entropy, ceremony and pride through the portrait of an elderly husband and his physically deteriorating wife. Beyond the Hills (the British release date of which is yet to be confirmed) takes the promise of the director’s 2007 work 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days, and catapults it into a sophisticated study of morality, faith and escape. Set in an out-of-time convent on a hill, the film opens with the reunification of two former orphanage girlfriends (one a nun, the other an incursive free spirit), and ends in tragedy and a dramatic collision with the modern world. At a (unrelated) talk at the Goethe Institute on the film festival’s final weekend, the artist Tino Sehgal described the medium of film as being comprised of ‘authoritarian time’, in contrast to art’s relativity of engagement. Haneke and Mungiu inhabit the role of the directorial dictator with iron-fisted authority, packing powerful emotional punches and reigning over their audiences with complete control.

 

 

 

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