Notes From the 56th London Film Festival

The London Film Festival has reached the end of it’s first weekend for 2012 and I thought I would collect a few notes on the films I have seen so far.

Beasts of the Southern Wild

While many smaller and independent films rely upon film festivals to build buzz and find an audience I think this can sometimes hurt the films eventual reception. Often those first festival viewers have low or no expectations for the film and come out feeling very passionately about it. They then set hugely high expectations for subsequent viewers. I feel this sort of situation effected my viewing of Beasts of the Southern Wild.  Having already heard many positive views I was excited and then the lobby posters proclaimed quotes like “a game changer that gets you excited about movies again” (Peter Travers, Rolling Stone) and “beautiful, funny, timely, and tender, this is the American arthouse movie of the year” (Damon Wise, Empire). Unfortunately I didn’t find a film that lived up to this level of praise, at least in my eyes.

Certainly the film has some striking imagery and a loveable lead in six year old Quvenzhané Wallis. Early in the film I could not help but be caught up in a montage of celebration. Fireworks and fun made for a music video like experience.  The music is uplifting and the photography is stunning. As the film progressed however I found myself questioning the politics of the situation presented. The film follows a young girl named Hushpuppy who lives in a poor area of Louisiana called the Bathtub. The residents of the Bathtub live a subsistence existence. They appear to view any type of government or wider society as unwanted and unneeded and actively oppose intervention of any kind. Hushpuppy and her father Wink live in squalor and the risk of flooding casts a constant shadow. When a storm (Katrina?) hits the devastation is immense and is made worse by levees which protect neighbouring cities while leaving the Bathtub residents submerged. Attempts to rescue or help Hushpuppy and the other Bathtub residents are presented as invasions.

Quvenzhané Wallis and Benh Zeitlin

Quvenzhané Wallis and Benh Zeitlin

One episode sees Hushpuppy’s father Wink and some accomplices destroy a levee to help clear water from the Bathtub. I couldn’t help but wonder about the impact this would have on other towns and cities. Was this a justifiable act? The film avoids having to expand on these sorts of issues by adhering to the perspective of Hushpuppy. I feel however that there are opportunities in the story for director Benh Zeitlin and writer Lucy Alibar to allow us more insight into the situation which they ignore in favour of stylised photography and platitudinal voice over.

Amour

The latest from Michael Haneke whose earlier Funny Games and The White Ribbon have provided highlights of festivals past. Amour was a gala screening in the “Love” section of the festival as it looked at a couple dealing with illness in their old age. Haneke’s films often confront the viewer in shocking ways and while Amour can be upsetting I did not find it as confrontational. Instead I found this a more reflective experience though I would not want to down play how devastating the film can be.

The film opens with the discovery of a body which hangs over the rest of the film. Haneke has said “with this story you can expect that there won’t be a happy ending. Why should I play with the uncertainty of the conclusion?” Of course how exactly we reach this point is uncertain and so their continues to be tension and shock at the final moments of life. 

An aspect of Haneke’s films that I love is that they often touch on multiple themes. When I left both Funny Games and The White Ribbon I was reeling with thoughts on how each element within could be interpreted. While working on a viscereal level they also invite speculation about alternative readings. Amour continues this experience. As the film progresses the couple become more isolated and the film is contained to a single location. Repeated scenes involving a hallway window see it becoming a symbol of containment and possible freedom. The intrusions of a pigeon into the apartment also serve to break the tension while seeming to evoke the fragility of life and love as well as its transience. 

Antiviral

Brandon Cronenberg’s first feature feels like a continuation of the body horror stylings of his father David’s early work as it imagines a future in which celebrity obsession has grown to such an extent that fans subject themselves to the illnesses of their idols via injection. Because who wouldn’t want the flu taken directly from Angelie Jolie’s arm to yours? It’s the ultimate way to feel connected to your idol, be physically injected with some of their cells and share a virus. 

The film follows Syd March, a man working for one company that provides this exclusive access, as he becomes embroiled in the machinations of this new industry and it’s more unsavoury elements. For anyone squeamish about needles and the sight of blood the chills come quick as the illnesses are collected and dispensed.  

I found the premise a little difficult to accept and little detail is given to suggest how society has reached this state of affairs. Would there really be enough people wanting the illnesses of celebrities to support it as an industry? However should you choose to ignore such questions you will find yourself caught up in a stylish film (frequent hospital whites clash with blood reds) that recalls classic noir as well as horror.

As Syd actor Caleb Landry Jones does well with the physicality required, at times he stalks the screen like a classic vampire villain. Unfortunately his character feels underdeveloped. This keeps the audience guessing as to his motives but may leave some feeling less engaged in his struggle. Ultimately a stylish and scary film then, a very good first feature, but not without minor issues.

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