London Film Festival 2011 – Day 13

Damsels in Distress (Whit Stillman, 2011)

Sandra Hebron’s last choice as LFF surprise film proved hilariously divisive. As the cast, shot in gauzy cheap-looking HD video, deadpanned the first lines of Stillman’s arch, absurdist dialogue over Mark Suozzo and Adam Schlesinger’s preposterously kitsch underscore, I could feel the hostility in the room boiling over almost instantly. And, to be fair, Stillman’s film is deliberately alienating – challenging you to be on its decidedly obscure wavelength with an unpredictable mix of ultra-precious whimsy, deliberately unconvincing characters (most of whom, irony piling upon irony, are ineptly playing false roles within the film’s narrative), hilariously cheap gags and gimpy musical numbers (just to give you a flavour: Adam Brody and Greta Gerwig appear to dance on water in a fountain, to Gershwin’s Things Are Looking Up (from the P.G. Wodehouse-penned Fred Astaire movie, A Damsel in Distress)  but the cheap-looking platform they are actually dancing on is right there in plain view).  Although Stillman’s previous films were somewhat mannered and artificial, they also had one foot in reality, a concept which Damsels in Distress has no particular time for.

So, fair warning: Your Mileage May Vary. But I had a great time.

There isn’t really a plot so much as a loose collection of situations that resolve to lesser or greater degrees, based around a small clique of college girls – who are like the bizarro world Heathers or Mean Girls – and their respective male love interests. To exhaustively catalogue their quirks and tics would spoil the fun and be beside the point. Gerwig, who Stillman seems almost to have just swapped in for Chloe Sevigny in The Last Days of Disco, has a lot of fun with her impenetrably weird queen bee character Violet, who wants nothing more in life than to start an international dance craze, but the biggest laughs go to Megalyn Echikunwoke as the elegant Rose, who disdains any romantic overtures by any men in her strange, strangulated British accent as “a playboy or operatOR move.”

Well… you probably had to be there; in mind as well as body. If you think you could have been, you might just love this film. — Indy Datta

A Dangerous Method (David Cronenberg, 2011)

In A Dangerous Method, David Cronenberg essays the relationship between the young man of psychology Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) and the elder statesman Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen), whose burgeoning friendship is threatened by Jung’s involvement with a patient, played by Keira Knightley.

It’s a cast, subject and director that should have made for a fascinating film, but none of the separate parts work, and the whole is unbalanced by Knightley’s nearly unwatchable performance. In the early stages of the film, she’s a stammering, gurning mess. There’s not a shred of subtlety or personality in her work. The character never becomes more than a series of symptoms – Christopher Hampton’s script is equally to blame for this.

Fassbender and Mortensen are more relaxed, and seem to be having more fun, but the film never gets out of second gear. It’s an oddly pedestrian film for Cronenberg. Even the notorious spanking scenes are tame, and there’s no sense of excitement in the film, outside Vincent Cassel’s brief cameo. I’m no fan of Cronenberg’s recent work, but even in that context, this is a severe disappointment. — “Ron Swanson

Martha Marcy May Marlene (Sean Durkin, 2011)

With any luck, Martha Marcy May Marlene will one day be looked back upon as the film that introduced the world to two major talents in independent cinema. Sean Durkin and Elizabeth Olsen both smash it out of the park, her as the girl who escapes a cult not knowing who she is anymore, and him as the director who captures her splintering mind on film with breathtaking virtuosity.

The film open with the titular Martha fleeing to her sister and brother-in-law’s country home after spending two years living in a cult led by a man called Patrick (the terrifically creepy John Hawkes), who has renamed her Marcy May. She doesn’t tell them where she’s been and seems to assume she’s going to be fine, but it soon becomes clear that she isn’t. What begins as fairly generic cutting between the past and the present quickly devolves into a cacophony of images as Martha falls apart, time and experience fracturing and folding in on itself until it’s unclear what’s real and what isn’t, what’s happening now and what happened then.

I only wish Martha’s family weren’t so generic. Durkin wants to show us how Martha’s left one oppressive, overbearing family for another, but her sister and brother-in-law’s reactions are too rote and predictable for a film with such an unusual premise and approach. It’s a small quibble though, when the focus is so squarely on Olsen as Martha. And in her we have a truly startling talent, her desperate, vacant eyes providing a window into the maelstrom of her mind just as much as Durkin’s camera. Just don’t mention her more famous siblings. — Adam Howard

Junkhearts (Tinge Krishnan, 2011)

I’ve been waiting 10 years since Tinge Krishnan’s vivid, hallucinatory BAFTA winning short film Shadowscan for her to make a feature. Somehow, Honey and Razorblades (2007), passed me by. Luckily, Junkhearts  is getting a higher profile, with its LFF premiere and a general release coming soon, and it’s been worth the wait. It’s the story of ex-army man Frank (Eddie Marsan) – emotionally crippled by PTSD, estranged from his daughter (Romola Garai), self-medicating with cornershop miniatures of cheap spirits in his dowdy council flat – and Lynette, the rough-sleeping teenage runaway he encounters and takes under his wing (newcomer Candese Reid, utterly holding her own in this distinguished thespian company).

To start with, looking after Lynette seems to be good for Frank, bringing him out of the deep funk he’s fallen into. Lynette, too, seems to blossom when shown kindness by someone who doesn’t want something in return – at least not the kind of something she’s used to people demanding from her. Sadly, though, Lynette isn’t quite what she seems, and soon her abusive gangster boyfriend Danny (Tom Sturridge) has taken over Frank’s flat, and is using it as a base to deal drugs and guns.

What follows – taking Frank and Lynette to the end of their respective emotional tethers – is often rather contrived and sketchily plotted (the eventual reconciliation between Frank and his daughter has no weight, which calls into question why Garai’s plotline is even in the film), but the heart of the film isn’t really the plot, but the bond of something like love that Frank and Lynette will into being between them, which eventually proves stronger than the grimness of the circumstances that have put them on a collision course. Marsan and Reid make their characters utterly, believably heartbreaking, and Krishnan’s direction adeptly creates the kind of emotionally heightened visual and narrative world where their story makes sense. — Indy Datta

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