Monday, September 21, 2015

LFF diary day one: Bang Gang, The Club and The Forbidden Room

At the BFI London Film Festival, press and industry screenings traditionally begin very early. This gives delegates the chance to work their way through a portion of the mammoth-programme (238 films from 72 countries) before the official opening night on October 7. As a result, I get to spend the majority the next couple of weeks in one of my favourite cinemas watching movies. Yay! During this time, I will (attempt to) keep a daily diary and write a few words about every film I see. It appears that this plan has at least worked for the first day, so here we go.

Everyone was still cheerfully discussing David Cameron's porcine adventures, when the screenings kicked off with a bang - a Bang Gang to be precise. Eva Husson's debut feature about a group of high-school students who start organizing orgies shows that the French remain very good at making (and modernising) French movies. The film is much sweeter and conservative than the subject matter suggests. At its best, it captures and understands a generation of young people who stalk each other's facebook profiles and send naked selfies. The teenagers in Bang Gang may take things a step further than most of their peers, but their behaviour, angst, and pleasure is always authentic. The performances and the electronic soundtrack also deserve a positive mention. At its worst, the film turns into a moralistic PSA for sex education with heavy-handed metaphors and unnecessary voice-over narration. The final twenty minutes are determined to wrap everything up nice and neatly, which robs an interesting film of its complexity. Bang Gang may not be the next The Graduate or Y Tu Mamá También, but it remains a solid debut. I'm interested to see what Husson does next.

After a hastily swallowed lunch, a cinematic treat awaited. Chilean filmmaker Pablo Larraín recently celebrated an international success with his political satire No, which went on to pick up an Oscar nomination. Now he is back with The Club, a bleak examination of the Catholic Church and its copious problems, which has already picked up the Grand Jury Prize at the Berlinale. Where do delinquent priests go after they have been disgraced and excommunicated? They don't go to jail, but they are sent to a seaside "retirement home," where they are to repent by living in isolation according to strict rules. The Club delves into the infinite grey areas of Catholic morality, sin, and the lack of forgiveness. The Church's attempts to modernise itself are embodied by a new arrival at the home: Father García (Marcelo Alonso). His efforts are however not free of moral corruption either. We also get the victim's perspective in the form of the unstable Sandokan (Roberto Farías). The film begins with a violent suicide and doesn't get much more cheerful thereafter. Larraín's softly-lit images are almost completely devoid of colour, but he manages to find beauty in the bleakness. The Club will not convince everyone, but it is a film that will make you think and want to discuss it with others. It is the work of the filmmaker who is not afraid of being openly political or tackling difficult subjects, which has to be applauded. If you enjoyed Calvary (with which the film shares a morbid sense of himour) or Far From Men, this is a blessing for your film taste.  

During the festival, The Forbidden Room will be shown on the giant IMAX screen as a special gala for the experimental strand. When it comes to avant-garde cinema (or indeed writing about it), I am admittedly not an expert and I often have my problems with feature-lenght experimental films. Jean-Luc Godard's celebrated Goodbye to Language for instance was an ordeal. The Forbidden Room on the other hand was an extraordinary pleasure. Unlike Godard, Guy Maddin and his co-director Evan Johnson demonstrate a sense of humour and playfulness. Maddin's work is a blind spot in my cinematic knowledge, so I came to The Forbidden Room without expectations. The film is a colourful feast for the eyes which makes just about enough sense to retain the audience's attention for 130 minutes. According to the festival programme, the directors assembled the film from footage shot at live happenings at Montreal's Phi Center. The goal was to channel the spirits of silent films lost to the archives. Don't worry, the result is not as pretentious as it sounds. Structured like a Babushka doll, one absurd storyline flows into a second, which randomly prompts a third and so forth. Strange does not begin to describe it: Louis Negin teaches us how to bathe, there is an awards-worthy, Python-esque song about bottoms, and one lengthy sequence shows us the dream of Udo Kier's moustache. Meanwhile Maddin constantly plays with the cinematic form, colour, sound, and intertitles. The Forbidden Room is an endlessly creative and fascinating journey of epic proportions - for those who have the patience to embark on it. If the quality of the films remains this high, I will have a great few weeks.

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