Blogging from a festival is a daunting task.The London Film Festival is a massive deal, at least from a raw numbers point of view. With the late additions to the bill, it comes to over 200 films, in just over 2 weeks of screenings.
Making sense of it all is made easier by spotting threads - be it thematic, national or topical - and these columns are spinning out of that thinking. I was surprised by how immediately the connections presented themselves - it’s silly really, as this is a pretty well-curated amalgam of cinema.
Within the first week of previews, I was blindsided by a selection of films that, you could say, strayed a little close to home. They featured young adults, that key demographic that sits in between maturity and middle age - the twentysomethings that are fending for themselves in a modern world that, thanks to economic recession, doesn’t look all that promising. In such a context, is it possible to retain a sense of idealism when it comes to love and work?
Take festival opener Never Let Me Go (****), Mark Romanek’s sumptuous adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel. In an alternate Britain, major diseases were rendered obsolete in the 1950s, thanks to revolutionary research into human cloning. This creates an underclass of ‘donors’, a population of children who attend special schools, like the film’s central location, a picturesque boarding school called Hailsham. When they mature, these young adults are taken through a rigorous programme of donation, where their vital organs are removed and given over to members of the general populace. The inevitable conclusion of these operations is for the donor in question to ‘complete’, or, in less euphemistic terms, die.
Ishiguro’s gentle science fiction concept is rendered with melancholy subtlety by Romanek, and despite Alex Garland’s sometimes too-literal screenplay, it retains a sense of mystery and profound ambiguity, channelling Orwell in its British sense of arch social structures in conflict with personal ideals. Its three protagonists, Kathy (Carey Mulligan), Ruth (Keira Knightley) and Tommy (Andrew Garfield, all awards-worthy), live life in miniature, experiencing ageing in acceleration. They form a tender love triangle, which develops a mournful sense of regret as they move towards their inevitable fate. On one level, it is hard not to see this as a society eating its young, digesting their mortality while eroding their youthful innocence. Rumours abound, that they could dodge destiny by proving themselves through artistic or romantic expression. But even this is a distraction, and Romanek never dares give the audience false hope, consistently (and almost, in terms of mainstream enjoyment, to a fault) pursuing the droll march towards decay.
Such inevitability also permeates Blue Valentine (****), a powerful two-hander drama from Derek Cianfrance, centering on the disintegrating marriage of leads Michelle Williams and Ryan Gosling. The film hinges on two musical cues (‘You Always Hurt The One You Love’, performed by Gosling and Penny & The Quarters’ ‘You and Me’), and tonally feels like a glum working class ballad from Tom Waits, or Nebraska-era Bruce Springsteen, with young love doomed almost from the start.
Cutting between present complications, where nurse Cindy (Williams) and interior decorator Dean (Gosling) are attempting to fix things, and the oh-so-simple past, of blossoming romance, Blue Valentine gently invites the viewer into their lives. The film meticulously builds the pair’s relationship, and lays the roots of the emotional trauma and incompatible values that will eventually overwhelm them. The hope of yesterday gives way to the broken dreams of today, as Dean’s care-free approach to life seems irresponsible when he’s a young father, and Cindy’s shift from bright-eyed student to a hard-working, exhausted woman brings little patience for his alcoholism and flippancy.
Both leads are outstanding, hopping the boundary between youth and jaded adulthood with ease, and neither cheapen their characters with overt melodrama. Cianfrance’s script manages to mould this elegy for romance while never languishing in cynicism, achieving a sincerity that chimes with the wistful soundtrack, provided by Brooklyn group Grizzly Bear. Blue Valentine’s flashbacks paint an endearing love that knows no bounds, and challenges the encroachment of tragedy, but it is fleeting - another victim to an American tradition.
Cross the border to French Canada, and love is no more permanent in Heartbeats (****), although the French title Les amours imaginaires more accurately describes this wry look at obsession and short-lived affairs. Two oddball hipsters, Marie (Monia Chokri) and Francis (writer and director Xavier Dolan), joined at the hip and united by an aloof sort of misanthropy, fall for the boyish Nicolas (Niels Schneider), and engage in passive-aggressive power games for his love.
Dolan mines much humour and high aesthetics from this ménage à trois, cheekily playing off the two friends against each other, with the gaze lingering on frustrated glances and aghast expressions of unfulfilled lust. He cuts between rather mundane, sometimes awkwardly comic scenes of the lovers together, and emphatically artistic sequences of gorgeously photographed slow-motion shots, often featuring one of the stunning members of the central cast, backed by high romantic music such as Italian singer Dalida’s melodramatic take on ‘Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down)’, or excerpts from Bach’s stately-yet-passionate cello suites. Yet even these moments are undercut, knowingly distancing the audience from this use of music as a psychological device, as their interior daydreams are punctured at one point by the harsh hip-pop of House of Pain’s ‘Jump Around’, blurting from a stereo at a house party.
They’re kooks, anachronistic outsiders: one a literature snob clothed in immaculate retro-chic dresses and pearls, the other a lusty chap given to James Dean haircuts and thick-rimmed glasses. Of course, Nicolas isn’t at all interested, and soon leaves them hanging. But that doesn’t matter, as while Dolan’s film posits that emotional anguish is endemic to romance (as a number of documentary-like interview sequences, with characters relating their traumatic relationship experiences, suggest), it also gives the viewer a powerful image of its central pair, twisted and hopelessly attached to each other, finishing the film ready to embark on another self-destructive, obsessive fling.
Similarly warped, but much more depraved, is Leap Year (Año bisiesto, **), the debut from Australian director Michael Rowe, which features a freelance journalist (Monica del Carmen), living in the big city alone. Initially about the monotony of working and living in the same space - with the camera barely leaving the dingy, cockroach-ridden flat - the film becomes more about the alienating effects of modern urban life. She sleeps, she types, she has sex with random men. She picks her nose and watches daytime television. It’s morbidly mundane, until the halfway point kicks in, and one sexual partner slaps her during the act. She doesn’t stop him. In fact, she moves his hand over her throat, and invites him to squeeze.
From there, Leap Year becomes something of an exercise, reveling in the squirmy nature of explicit sex and violence, attempting to capture the simultaneous anarchy and audience-baiting of Haneke’s Funny Games. It doesn’t reach such giddy heights, as the veil of naturalism remains, drawing dark, absurd humour out of straightforwardly grim situations, reaching a particular NSFW peak as the protagonist is forced to lie, face up, on the living room floor, masturbating, as her partner urinates on her face. Afterwards, she mops up as he catches up on his soaps.
Isabelle Czajka’s Living On Love Alone (D’amour et d’eau fraîche, ****), is less abrasive, and wholly more impressive. It is a romantic, cheeky sort of novella drama focusing on Natalie (Anaïs Demoustier), a young worker trying to make a go at employment in Paris. She starts the film attempting to cope with a high-stress job at a pretentious PR company, working for an ‘eclectic’ sort of genius, and fulfilling suitably diverse duties, including cabbing it across town for dozens of boxed lunches for a big meeting, and taking her boss’ children to Disneyland. She plugs the gaps with nights on the town, and sex with older, richer men, who seem to be overflowing with gratitude and financial handouts.
This isn’t the life she expected to lead; ‘all these efforts, for something I’m not interested in,’ she laments. Soon, she’s fired, and is left applying for a job as a door-to-door sales representative for a publisher. At the interview, she meets bearded fraudster Ben (Pio Marmaï), a charming gent who eventually offers her a way out of the city, to a cottage in the balmy south. There they live a spartan dream, away from the grime of the capital. And when Natalie finds a gun in the kitchen drawer, it’s no worry, as Ben lets her in on his plan to earn thousands of Euros for a morning’s work.
There’s an endearing conflict at the heart of Living On Love Alone, between heart-led idealism and brain-led pragmatism, and Czajka does not condemn the two leads for striving for the former, abandoning the responsibility and reality of adulthood for sunshine, sex and escapism. It revels in their relationship - inviting the viewer to fall in love with their beauty, vibrancy and jeunesse over a series of intimate close-ups. Both Demoustier and Marmaï are compelling, and help to nudge the film away from the complications of middle-class rebellion, and towards something subversively genuine. That it is straightforward, naturalistic, in its representation of this, is quite audacious - it’s really a downbeat, slightly poetic spin on the careening youth-gone-wild violence of True Romance, Natural Born Killers and Wild At Heart, or a hopeless homage to the new wave cool of À Bout de Souffle.
A final frame stand-off crystallises this underlying anger, as the battered, arrested protagonist stares straight into the camera as she answers the interrogation officer’s questions: ‘Julie Bataille, 23, unemployed.’ This stark conclusion fades out to the lust-bump blues of The Kills’ anthem ‘Fuck The People’, suggesting that, in the face of unlikely love, maturity, and a society that preaches conformity, there are some willing to fight.