The White Girl (2017)

I had a meeting at relatively short notice in London last week and, knowing it would mean an overnight stay, headed straight to the London Film Festival website to see what options were still available for the evening in question.

Well, The White Girl had me at Christopher Doyle.

The master of cinematography has co-directed this film alongside Jenny Suen, a first-time feature director from Hong Kong.

The eponymous white girl is played by Angela Yuen, and is a lonesome young woman isolated from most of her fishing village due to a sun allergy which means she has to keep away from bright daylight and keep her skin covered. She’s bullied at school, shouted at by her fisherman father (with whom she lives), and misses her mother who she was told died when she was a baby. She’s an outsider in her own village.

Into this world comes a young man, an artist who moves into an old derelict property nearby. He’s alone and mysterious, and (although it took me a while to realise) doesn’t speak the local language.  The young man and woman find some kind of bond through their broken English.

Another strand is the appearance in the economically unstable village of wealthy developers from mainland China, who have some nefarious plans to buy what remains of the village to develop a huge tourist spot.

I did enjoy watching The White Girl, but I must admit that had it not been introduced by director Jenny Suen herself, I would not have grasped the significance of most of the references. I’m sure that to people from, or who have a connection with, Hong Kong this would not have been a problem. I hadn’t realised that in 2047, just 30 years from now, Hong Kong is set to lose its own government and laws, and revert to being just another part of China. With this knowledge, then all the visitors to the tiny village take on greater significance, as does the father’s over-protectiveness of his daughter. It also wasn’t obvious to me (as I have little knowledge of Asian languages) that the artist is actually Japanese – I figured it out part way through.

It seems as though, in her enthusiasm and passion for her project, the young director simply tried to put too much onto the screen at once, certainly for someone like me to fully appreciate.

However, unsurprisingly, the cinematography is the star of the show. The framing, the light, the observations – they all have Christopher Doyle’s fingerprints on them and it is beautiful.

If you haven’t heard this BBC World Service interview with Doyle, made while he was shooting The White Girl, then I urge you do so. The section where he talks about potentially losing his sight is quite extraordinary.

 

Columbus (2017)

I was wondering how to start writing about this film, so I turned to the IMDb blurb for inspiration. It says:

A Korean-born man finds himself stuck in Columbus, Indiana, where his architect father is in a coma. The man meets a young woman who wants to stay in Columbus with her mother, a recovering addict, instead of pursuing her own dreams.

And this is indeed the basis for the film. However, it’s also a film which is so much more than that premise.

Despite the range of strong emotions being experienced by the characters (guilt, grief, anger, despair), it’s an incredibly still and calm film, full of a sense of longing and hope which reminded me of some of Wong-Kar Wai’s work. The stillness also emanates from the impressive selection of architecture on display. Who knew that looking at beautiful mid-20th century buildings would be so soothing? The young female character not only has an interest in the local architecture, but seems to become grounded when she’s in its presence. Scenes are shot straight on, or through door frames, windows, mirrors, and have an oriental feel in their stillness, reminiscent of Yasujirô Ozu. And as first-time feature director Kogonada was writing a PhD dissertation on Ozu prior to becoming a filmmaker, this is not really a surprise.

In amongst the buildings, the beating heart is the exquisite pairing of Haley Lu Richardson and John Cho. There is such warmth between them and the relationship always remains genuine, never sleazy despite the age difference. Cho should really do more different stuff like this. He’s an excellent presence on screen and I enjoyed watching him a lot.

 

Le Fidèle – Racer and the Jailbird (2017)

This is a strange one. I thought it had finished twice before it finally got there and found it a little all over the place in clarifying which strand of the narrative was important for plot and which was supposed to be exposition. And yet it was still very enjoyable.

I could hear some perplexed sighs as the end credits began, as it leaves the audience to work out for itself what might have happened at the end. But I don’t mind that.

Le Fidèle is directed by Michaël R. Roskam, who also directed Bullhead and The Drop, (both also featuring Matthias Schoenaerts), which will give you an idea of the general mood of the film. It’s therefore no surprise to discover that Schoenaerts’  character is very much ‘him’ – part Jacky from Bullhead, part Eric from The Drop – it’s right in his wheelhouse in other words, but he does it well.

This is the first time I’ve seen Adèle Exarchopoulos in anything since Blue is the Warmest Colour and I felt she was a little one dimensional. There is something about her face, attractive though it is, that seems to lack expression. Maybe it was the character that didn’t afford her the opportunity, so I will give her the benefit of the doubt (just).

There’s one scene, however, which was a real stand out and I’m dying to know if it was one shot. It certainly feels like it when you’re watching, as the camera circles vehicles and criminals, backwards and forwards, as they hijack a security van. If it isn’t one shot, then bravo to the editor. If it is, then wow.

Overall, an interesting idea which gets a little mixed up in the middle trying to sort itself out, ending intriguingly. But, Matthias Schoenaerts so all is well.

 

Stronger (2017)

Cards on the table – I was anticipating this was going to be a ‘trauma victim overcomes the odds to become a hero’ story, and the only reason I chose to see it was because Jake Gyllenhaal, whose films I don’t avoid.

The fact that this is a very different survivor story is not only refreshing, but it makes for really interesting viewing. Having sustained life-changing injuries in the crowd when bombs were detonated at the finish line of the Boston marathon, Jeff Bauman (Gyllenhaal) struggles with physical recovery, not dealing with PTSD symptoms, pressures from family, friends and the city to be a role model – and he simply isn’t ready. Apart from the trauma that he suffered, Jeff is one of those men who still has a lot of emotional growing up to do. He’s not obvious hero material, and this is what makes his situation, and his coming to terms with it, all the more interesting.

The performances are also crucial in truly elevating Stronger to something different. Tatiana Maslany as Jeff’s girlfriend and Miranda Richardson as his mother are completely believable as two very different characters clashing over how Jeff should be recovering.

But it is Jake Gyllenhaal himself who deserves huge rewards for his portrayal of Bauman. He should have not only been nominated but should have won for his role as Lou Bloom in Nightcrawler, and this would be some consolation for that.

But Jake with brown eyes is very odd.

 

Mudbound (2017)

Absolutely no denying that this film, once it reached its climax, was emotional, brutal, devastating.

It did take a while to get there though. So many strands, lots of characters, all introduced to us at the very start, so that it felt like it took a long while to get going.

I’m not the biggest fan of voice-overs (film noir aside), and this film has made the choice to have multiple, from several different characters, which (for me) made it tricky to keep up with for the first hour.

And there’s a lot going on – so much, in fact, there are probably two films-worth of events, each of which would have been equally thought-provoking – whether it was the return of the young black character from the ‘freedoms’ of war to the land of the KKK, or the post-war camaraderie between two men from very different backgrounds, sharing a brotherhood in the horror of their overseas experiences.

Garrett Hedlund and Jason Mitchell are very good in their roles, Carey Mulligan has a thankless task as long-suffering wife, and Jason Clarke looks more like Miles O’Brien every minute.

A lot to unpick.

Neruda

Director Pablo Larraín gives Chilean poet Pablo Neruda a taste of his own magical reality by mixing elements of Neruda’s real life with a fictional police officer who is on his trail.

As can be expected, Gael García Bernal beautifully inhabits the self-aware, self-aggrandising fictional sleuth, hot on the trail of Neruda, a fugitive in his own country as a member of the Communist Party.

It’s a clever mix which worked really well for so many LFF audiences and which I appreciated a lot. I generally find it difficult to go along with this kind of magical realism though, and I struggled to actively enjoy the film, despite good central performances. There were some glaringly obvious and ropey false backgrounds in the vehicle scenes too – perhaps this was to enhance the strange reality of the film, but I’m not so sure I can give them the benefit of the doubt.

Saved from total disappointment by Bernal’s performance.

El hombre de las mil caras – Smoke and Mirrors

I detest when people in the cinema talk during the film. But when it happend this time, it had an interesting effect on my perception of the film, another ‘based on a true story’ tale of a man who fooled the entire Spanish government over a period of years with fraud, lies and stories.

Inevitably a story like this, with so many twists, turns and lies, presents challenges. There’s a voice-over throughout, calmly explaining what happened. But how far can this be believed? And with so many lies and deceptions, even what’s on the screen can’t be taken for granted.

And so I’ll admit, I got a little confused on a couple of occasions. There was enough to keep me wanting to understand, but I’m not totally sure I got everything I needed to.

But to return to the chattering audience – the unveiling of the deception was clearly hitting home with the older Spanish people around me. There was a lot of ‘si’ type commentary, from which I assume that the criticisms of corruption were well-received, and so although I was lost, it did hit home with a certain part of the audience.

Réparer les vivants – Heal the Living

A  fabulous, almost dialogue-free, opening section with some stunning visuals sets up one side of the story, and we only meet the protagonists of the other side much later, when their story is told separately. Obviously, the two threads are intertwined by the end, but I don’t wish to give too much away so I’ll say no more.

There is much to admire in the handling of the story which could have been melodramatic and hand-wringing but which I felt dealt delicately and realistically with the situation in the first part. The second part was slightly less successful in avoiding the syrup, but it was manageable, largely due to the tiny glimpses of ordinariness in such an extraordinary situation.

Stand-out performance for me was definitely Tahar Rahim, whose character we see in a most difficult situation, and which Rahim executes to perfection.

It has a feel of a short story extended by an excess of medical exposition and practise (I did have to look away at one point; it all got a bit Holby City) but it worked for me on both an artistic and philosophical level.

[Don’t watch the trailer if you don’t want to know more about the set up than I’ve mentioned!]

Juste la fin du monde – It’s Only the End of the World

This was the film I had built my entire (if short) London Film Festival experience around. As soon as I knew I was going to be in town on the evening of the UK premiere, I booked my ticket.

Director Xavier Dolan is currently one of my favourite directors. His films aren’t always easy to watch, but they are often daring, always intense, and highly emotional.

I’m also fascinated by him when he’s interviewed – he speaks so eloquently, passionately and confidently about his own film-making, rarely referencing other directors or films. It genuinely doesn’t appear to matter to him what others are doing. He’s also quick to speak out if he feels he or his work is being attacked, which has provoked some backlash and personal criticism as a result. I have always forgiven him thus far, yet his latest, Juste la fin du monde, was extremely divisive at Cannes this year – winning the Grand Prix (second jury choice), yes, but the announcement of this was booed by journalists – and Dolan had much to say about this. Several reviews effectively trashed it, yet others were full of praise. I wasn’t sure what to expect.

dolan-cropped
Léa Seydoux and Xavier Dolan at the BFI London Film Festival screening

Turns out, it was superb!

Dolan has assembled a stellar cast who are all on top form, even if not in roles you would imagine for them. Returning home after a 12 year absence, Louis (Gaspard Ulliel) is waiting for the right time to share his news with his mother, brother and sister. Also there is his brother’s wife, whom he has never met but who seems to instantly understand him. They are both quiet outsiders among the quarrelsome family members.

Nathalie Baye’s mother, in her exaggerated make-up, cheerily tries to maintain a façade of familial togetherness, while Antoine (a magnificent Vincent Cassel) belligerently provokes both his wife and his brother across the dining table. He’s so obnoxious, and it’s only later that we get an inkling as to what’s been eating him for the last 12 years. Only an inkling though; it’s never totally spelled out. Léa Seydoux as the baby sister is eagerly awaiting the chance to have a mature relationship with the brother she’s missed for so long. And Marion Cotillard is the dowdiest you will ever see her – bullied and humiliated by her husband Antoine, her nervous speech patterns are excruciating, yet she shares a couple of extended moments with Louis where so much is conveyed between them without a word being spoken. For a film which is verbose, to say the least, these moments are the most powerful.

And this for me is the centre of the film. Louis is a playwright, he makes his living in words for thousands to hear, but for the duration of his visit he says very little. When the moments come to express himself, he backs down, chooses to say nothing, apologises. The rest of the family is also unable to express their true feelings, and so hide behind aggressive, defensive language which is the exact opposite of what they want to say. They are flawed human beings, difficult to spend time with, yet very real.

When it is fully released in the UK next year, I’ll be first in the queue for a re-watch, no doubt about it.

After the screening, Dolan was interviewed on stage by BFI’s Clare Stewart and it was such a treat to hear him speak about his film in person. He talked about transforming the script from stage to screen play, how this affected his decision to make use of the close up, and the lighting choices he made for the final scene. I wanted to sit for another hour and listen to him. Dolan is human, and he is not perfect. Neither are his films. But they are remarkable nevertheless, and I am an unapologetic admirer of both the man and his work.