The London Film Festival begins with two and a half weeks of press screenings, where hundreds of press delegates have the chance to preview the films everyone else will be watching over the fortnight of the festival proper. Barring the glow of smartphones and laptops in the auditorium, it’s not unlike an ordinary trip to the cinema. But for the less well-known films there is much at stake: the reception they get from this audience will help determine whether or not they find a distributor.
Some new films from Britain and Ireland are on show, and one of the first week’s best dramas was Sensation, an impressively ambitious story of a sexually inept young Irishman who is the sole heir to a sheep farm near Limerick. Tiring of internet porn, he sees the chance for financial and emotional investment in a local escort girl, setting up a brothel with her in the sticks. This well-handled comedy treats its characters and their somewhat specialised morality quite seriously—a clever courtroom scene gives a forensic review of their actions—and the main character, played by an excellent Domhnall Gleeson, develops throughout the course of the film. By contrast, one to avoid is In Our Name, a somewhat earnest look at a female Iraq veteran’s experiences after coming home to her husband and daughter. It’s a well-intentioned film, but ultimately fails to shake off its made-for-TV feel.
There were plenty of documentaries last week. Pink Saris told the story of an Indian women’s rights activist, Sampat Pal, a luminous character who travels the countryside giving abusive menfolk what for. Benda Bilili! found arresting and occasionally surreal scenes on the streets of Kinshasa as it followed the (very fine) eponymous band on their rise from poverty to worldwide acclaim. On the down side, however, the hand of the French directors is clearly visible in the plot development and some of the set pieces. Given France’s colonial history with Congo, this made some viewers rather uncomfortable.
Last week’s big documentary was the latest from Patrick Keiller, director of the seminal fixed-camera film London. Robinson in Ruins extends Keiller’s scope to outlying towns, particularly Oxford and Newbury. Over static shots of ruins and enclosed field, Vanessa Redgrave gives a monologue thick with detail on the early history of English anti-capitalism, juxtaposed with stories of the banking crisis. Amazingly, it’s not naff. Nevertheless, Robinson in Ruins makes demanding viewing—contemplative shots of flowers and insects provide the only break from Redgrave’s torrent of facts.
The visual treat of the festival so far, though, has been Xavier Dolan’s Heartbeats. It’s about two friends, Marie and Francis, who both meet and fall in love with a charismatic young man named Nico. At first he’s eager, co-operating in their growing infatuation. But as each person’s crush deepens, and he remains non-committal, their friendship turns into a squabble for his affection. On paper this all sounds rather indie and boring. Two things, however, support this film on mighty pillars.
First is Monia Chokri, who makes a superb female lead. She never plays the narcissistic, disconsolate Marie quite straight. Flickers of other personas, a calculated squeal of delight or a flashed, vicious smile, are always bobbing up through her polished dejection.
The other ace up this film’s sleeve is the director, Xavier Dolan, himself. Films so far at the press screenings have shunned tricks like coloured lighting, slow-mo, and even, for the most part, straight-up symbolism. Not for Dolan, this restraint. Colours glow from shot to shot, the camera dwells on the artificially relaxed movement of a hairbrush through Chokri’s hair as hi-def music pours from the speakers. Dolan also shines in the role of the miserable Francis. Particularly in a scene where he finds himself alone in Nico’s room, the atmosphere of wilful self-delusion that goes with infatuation is so confidently created it can raise a smile of recognition, and even a squirm of embarrassment too. Recommended.
The next few days promise more delights—former Young British Artist Gillian Wearing’s directorial debut amongst others. Also, there’s the new George Clooney film, The American, to look forward to. In spite of the panning it received stateside, the first press screening was so packed they’ve arranged another one.
Prospect will be covering the London Film Festival on this blog throughout the event