If I’m overloaded on caffeine and discussing the virtues of Keira Knightley with a random Italian woman, it must be that time of year again. Yes, I’m at my fourth London Film Festival, having now established myself as a long-term resident of the U.K. capital. The festival is already well underway, as characterized this (and every) year by the sight of critics slumped asleep in the aisles, the ever-present smell of coffee, and the extreme range of wi-fi quality at the cafes of Covent Garden. This year kicked off with British treasure Benedict Cumberbatch’s new film The Imitation Game, which I didn’t see, but I do bring news from Denmark, France, Greece, and India! Without further ado…
While Drake Doremus’s 2011 film Like Crazy documented the struggles of well-off students whose only problem was loving each other too much to be apart, the characters in A Blast are burdened with issues far beyond solitude. Using the long-distance relationship between mother Maria (Aggeliki Papoulia) and sailor Yannis (Vasillis Doganis) as a window into the social and economic problems facing Greeks today, director Syllas Tzoumerkas highlights the ever-present reality of families whose main breadwinner works away for months at a time, confronting the difficulty of social struggle without the day-to-day interdependence of a partner. Spanning several years, the film’s lurching narrative structure checks in on Maria at various traumatic stages of her life, in which she deals with the frustration of her mother’s disability and carries the burden of raising her three small children. As a technique, the lengthy breaks in time do not serve the film well, as the audience is required to fill in the blanks a bit too much on what has happened in these absences. As recompense, much of the film’s unfolding drama — itself sorely in need of variety and nuance— is amped up by the director and the actors, to the extent where Papoulia’s intense turn, in particular, becomes an irksome chore to witness. The overall lives of Maria and Yannis deteriorate, but there is no real evolution or arc for either of them, as Tzoumerkas spends more time demonstrating their connection through copious amounts of sex scenes, all of which serve as little more than a demonstration of the lustful passion inevitably brought about by periods of abstinence. Those with experience of long-distance relationships may find the film’s visceral paranoia an accurate extension of enforced estrangement, but too often A Blast settles for striking momentarily harsh chords instead of creating a more eloquently tragic love story.
Already a contender for Film of the Festival, Chaitanya Tamhane’s Court — having already won the Best Film prize in the Horizons category at this year’s Venice Film Festival — is one of the most assured debut features of recent years. Charting the case of a folk singer accused of inciting a sewage worker into committing suicide through his music, Court does not unfold in the traditional manner of a tumultuous courtroom battle with a fixed resolution, nor does it discuss the issues of free speech and undue influence in any great detail. Instead, it’s an observant and wryly amusing commentary on the elongation of the legal process itself, about how a seemingly open-and-shut case can drag on for the better part of a year. Tamhane’s understated fly-on-the-wall style settles us into the role of courtroom spectators — like jury members, almost — observing exchanges of disagreement between the two sides. By emphasizing the mundane customs of an Indian trial, Tamhane reveals the trial to be a cavalcade of absurdity. The actions in Court often typify the process in every courtroom; Tamhane’s not interested in only satirizing India’s legal system, but taking on universal protocol of justice systems everywhere. Nevertheless, he makes some acute cultural observations away from the courtroom, as when the defense lawyer is goaded by his parents for being 30-something and single, and when the prosecution lawyer engages in a needlessly long discussion about the virtues of olive oil with a stranger on her bus journey home. Though trivial on the surface, such conversations epitomize the overriding feeling in Court that societal customs are not helping those at the mercy of them, the prisoners caught within the chaos of bureaucracy, their guilt as yet unproven.
Relatively off-the-radar in festival terms, Margarita, With a Straw, the debut collaboration between directors Shonali Bose and Nilesh Maniyar, is proof that the lesser-known filmmakers on the circuit can produce valuable work, too. The film tells the unexpected tale of Laila (Kalki Koechlin), a young Indian woman with cerebral palsy who ends up going on a journey of sexual discovery with a blind woman she meets while on a course in New York City, and in a sense it’s formulaic coming-of-age story — but the idiosyncrasies of the central romance offer a fresh angle on adolescence. Bose and Maniyar provide a well-rounded representation of the conservative nature of Indian culture, the traditionalist values of Laila’s family emerging as more protective than restrictive, and the film’s discussion of sexuality in this context also feels surprisingly authentic. Most impressively, Margarita, With a Straw provides a worthwhile discussion of the difficulties of committing to a long-term relationship when one’s emotional maturity is still in the early stages of development. Still, the real success story of the film is Koechlin’s performance, which transcends the base transformation of an able-bodied actor taking on a physically challenged character. Koechlin doesn’t play the disability as if it’s the crux of the character—Laila herself tries as hard as she can to shirk outsiders’ impressions of her as disadvantaged or sympathetic—and she alludes to an inherent sense of entitlement that makes her far from a victim of circumstance. It’s a terrific feat that Koechlin is able to fully immerse herself into the role in a way that doesn’t feel at all like a mere showy stunt.
François Ozon tries to channel his inner Pedro Almodóvar in his grief-stricken gender puzzle The New Girlfriend, starring Romain Duris as David, a widower whose cross-dressing habits are discovered by his late wife’s best friend, Claire (Anais Demoustier). I haven’t read the Ruth Rendell novel on which this film is based, but considering the kind of obsessive themes Rendell tends to explore, I imagine Ozon has considerably softened the original text, given how long he takes to get to the edgy stuff. The director’s trademark frothy style of humor — a joy to behold in 2002’s 8 Women and 2010’s Potiche — is evident as he charts the burgeoning relationship between Claire and David through amusing shopping trips and make-up sessions. As a treatise on male gender confusion, though, The New Girlfriend can’t help but pale next to Xavier Dolan’s Laurence Anyways, which fearlessly addressed the serious implications of a character undergoing a sex change. Ozon’s film has less ambition and is too wary of alienating its audience to dive as boldly as Dolan does; instead, its amiable charm and cheap-seats humor make for the sort of queer comedy that’s likely to win over foreign audiences, a la 1978’s La Cage aux folles. However the film’s broad comedy does not sit well when Ozon introduces Almodóvar-style psychosexual themes in the final act, as the logic behind the characters’ actions is stretched to a breaking point. There are still some touching observations about how relationships can be manipulated by grief, but Duris and Demoustier are saddled with selling too much daffily drawn psychology regarding emasculation. As well-meaning as it may be in its early going, after a while The New Girlfriend seems severely misguided in its attempts to detail dysphoria.
If the Western itself has become an underrepresented genre in cinema in recent decades, Scandinavian-made Westerns are an even more difficult to come by, making Kristian Levring’s The Salvation somewhat of a rare beast. Primarily a showcase for Danish-treasure-turned-global-favorite Mads Mikkelsen, and featuring a whole host of European actors (Mikael Persbrandt, Eva Green, former French soccer player Eric Cantona, among others), the film is a familiarly drawn revenge tale about a man forced to enact revenge for the murder of his family, only to inadvertently anger the brutal outlaw of a small town. Moody and atmospheric, Levring’s style of filmmaking recalls the understated grace of Michael Winterbottom’s The Claim in the deliberate pace with which he tells this traditional story. In addition, Levring offers just enough stylistic flair to maintain interest, especially in a thrilling chase sequence involving a horse-drawn carriage that offers a starkly Gothic depiction of rural American life. The director gives many subjects in his film a grisly flourish, from Green’s abused mute Madelaine and villain Delarue’s (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) bloodthirsty behavior to Jonathan Pryce’s Keane, the sniveling turncoat Mayor undone by his own cowardice. Sadly, none of these archetypal Western characters are brought to life in as compelling a fashion as one would hope, each clearly serving a functional purpose in the revenge story without encouraging us to understand their predicaments or motivations. Despite its accomplished technique and tight plotline, The Salvation lacks a distinct personality overall, more focused on showcasing the strains of a rural community than drawing us into the lives of the individuals within it. Still, the film is made with such finesse that this hardly matters much, its meager near-$13 million budget offering a sterling example of an effective genre film made with limited resources.