57th London Film Festival – it has begun

Forget the Galas! They are expensive and really only fun if you happen to be on a fringe, but not worth paying the extra for since they will near certainly come to a cinema near you – not that going to the cinema is cheap either, but still. Unless you are longing to see Tom Hanks, George Clooney and the others close up don’t bother, and there is no guarantee that you will see them because there will be crowds of other people pushing ahead of you…unless you just happen to see the star getting out of the courtesy car, as I did when the sublime George Clooney was attending the LFF showing of Fantastic Mr Fox, and I just happened to be leaving by a side door having just been at a film showing on another screen. Yes, I freely admit that made my day!!

First a word about the opening sequences. [It has a proper title but I don’t know what it is] These are often good, but this year it has become superlative. For at least the last four years, in two different sequences, the opening roll has been of scenes of London to a background of familiar film music. This year they [whoever ‘they’ are] have gone for a very different start. The first screen is an exact copy of the LFF Programme, then we zoom into the lettering and get a tiny bite-size flick of various films in this year’s programme. Are they all Galas? I am not sure yet, but certainly Tom Hanks and George Clooney are there, Emma Thompson flashes briefly across our vision, Chiwetel Ejiofor and lots of others. I will not know until the very end whether or not other films, not chosen as Gala showings get a look in…but for the present I am loving it. Then just before the film starts we go to the chapter page – Love, Dare etc.

I have been going to the LFF consistently for about 20 years and in the last 10 have taken it really seriously, taking two weeks off work to go. My choices each year have covered the world, documentaries, experimenta, fiction and shorts. I generally choose world cinema from countries like India, Taiwan, Japan, China, South Korea; you get the drift – films that are most unlikely ever to get UK distribution any time soon or at all. I have seen some magnificent films and every now and then one or two will come to The Renoir or another of the Curzon Group.

Last year the categories were changed to moods, rather than World Cinema, Europa, New British etc., the new categories are Galas, Competitions, Love, Dare, Debate, Laugh, Thrill etc., so choosing by country has become slightly more difficult. It does have the advantage though of making me look more broadly at the other offerings and I am sure that I benefit from that. To my surprise this year, I find that I have been excessively drawn to archive films, films from the Weimar Republic, Germany 1929, Italy in 1965, and early British films like Gaslight 1940 and Victim 1961. Of course, I have to make choices and hope that some of the films I really want to see but cannot because there are the inevitable clashes, will come on to DVDs at some point.

So far then, La Belle et la Bête Jean Cocteau’s wartime masterpiece. How strange that the acting seems so unnatural now, and the special effects so hammed up and yet at the same time it remains a wonderful film. But, although I have seen it many times before I had never previously noticed that the moneylender was a caricature of a Shylock-like Jew! I only really took this in this time, and wondered why? Both why Jean Cocteau (a Jew himself) did this and also why I had never noticed before – changed sensibilities I assume. Made in 1946 in Paris, (I think) this is a new restoration made with reference to notes Cocteau made himself and to archive material used in the previous restoration, it has all the brilliance of black and white film of the time and the remastered sound track which has taken out the gritty sound of old films played at high definition. An old favourite of mine, nothing has changed that.

As I lay Dying, a new film based on a William Faulkner novel (a near un-filmable writer) by actor/director James Franco. Does this film really work? It is certainly visceral, I was gripped by the story but not by the presentation. The film owes a lot to Terrence Mallick, the slow, lingering development, the panning shots and much else; but then there is the split screen. This is an aggressive half division of the screen, bang down the middle; showing, often, the same character but from a slightly different angle – it was distracting rather than helpful and faded away during the central scenes of the drama which was a relief. There were two rather oddly unfortunate errors. The old man Anse, his wife has died and her burial journey takes up the whole film, has simply terrible teeth, this is very much part of the story, so bear with me, absolutely EVERYONE else has American dentistry teeth: pearly, straight and white so every smile – and there are many close up shots – jars the viewer out of the action into the present day; the costumes: dirty, mended, torn and faded are all perfectly in keeping with Depression America but the teeth belong in the present day. The other odd mistake was that there was a constant mention of the unbearable heat, in fact during the journey the stink from the coffin is causing offence in every town, yet the surrounding countryside is lush and green, there is no sense of heat anywhere. This is an American film, there is plenty of dusty, dry territory to choose from so why make such a glaring mistake? I went with a friend and we both thought this was a really good film, we both needed to calm down afterwards and de-brief and both of us, independently, commented on the teeth and the lack of heat. Neither of us expect this film to go on general release which is a pity because in many ways it is an excellent film. Go read the book if you want to know what happened.

Fandry. It is next to impossible for us to imagine what it must be like to belong to a caste system so rigid that one person’s shadow can defile the space of someone of a higher caste. Still, in spite of legislation to change it, the system continues in India and Pakistan, unabated. Dalits (the old name was Untouchable) do the most menial, most disgusting jobs. They clean the public toilets, sweep the streets and live for the most part in grinding poverty. In this film, Jabya belongs to a Dalit family, and against the wishes of his clan and other villagers he attends school, struggling all the time with a deep sense of inferiority about his looks, his dark skin and his caste. He loves a fellow pupil, Shalu, of a higher caste, a lighter skin and an unmistakeable beauty, but Jabya cannot express his feelings. His family’s duty is to herd the wild pigs, a menial task that is beneath contempt, pig’s are in every way thought to be deeply unclean. Then one day the pigs break into the school yard and Jabya’s struggle to balance both sides of his nature breaks out. Nagraj Manjule has made a brave, scathing and violent protest against the caste system in this film, the young people are perfectly balanced against each other, and the nuanced performances are superb. Sadly, I do not think this will reach a UK audience outside the Film Festival itself. If you want to see it, write to the Curzon and ask for it to be considered and look out for the DVD it might be your only chance.

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Filed under Film Review, Modern History, Select Cinema, Uncategorized

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