Dispatches From The LFF: The Morning After

Ron Swanson rounds up his highlights from the LFF.

Fury
Fury

Last night the 58th BFI London Film Festival roared to a close with the magnificent Fury, setting the seal on what has been a terrific week and a half. Fury was a suitable Closing Night Gala, with its starry cast, weighty subject matter and tightly delivered thrills. It’s not that the story of Fury does anything new or innovative; it’s the tale of a small tank crew, caught behind enemy lines in the dying days of WWII. The newest recruit in the group is not yet inured to the harshness and hostilities of war, and the other members bully and cajole him into the callousness and fuck-you attitude they deem to be necessary.

Director David Ayer is capable of both the sublime (End of Watch) and the ridiculous (Sabotage), but he’s done his best work here. The film is thoroughly captivating between the numerous battle sequences, with terrific performances from the cast, amongst whom Shia LeBoeuf is the stand-out as the god-fearing member of the crew. Brad Pitt, Logan Lerman and Anamaria Marinca are also superb.

There’s enough to admire in the quieter scenes that it wouldn’t matter if the key action set-pieces were little more than average. They are, however, extraordinary. They are shot through with the same intensity and urgency that characterised the action scenes in End of Watch (the films share a cinematographer in Roman Vasyanov) though shorn of the handheld camerawork. The final action sequence, which takes place in a glowing, fire-lit and terrifying dusk, is simply stunning.

In Cannes earlier this year, Ned Benson’s (three) directorial debut(s), The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Him, Her and Them played to a mixed, but mostly positive response. In London, we saw only Them; a film telling the two sides of a marriage break-up (Him and Her tell each spouse’s side, exclusively), and I found it a haunting, upsetting and quite exhausting experience.

The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby
The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby

The film starts with Elle (a sensational Jessica Chastain) attempting suicide by jumping off a New York bridge. She survives, and we quickly piece together that she’s left her husband, Connor, (James McAvoy, almost equally superb) without the couple having any kind of closure. What follows is a look at the past of the couple together, and their unhappy present, apart. We soon realise that something terrible has happened in their lives, and their different grieving processes have driven a wedge between them that they’re unable/unwilling to remove.

Benson’s camera certainly loves both of his leads, neither of whom has ever been much better than they are here; Chastain vulnerable beneath a steely exterior, and McAvoy barely able to suppress his rage and desperation at what life has done to him, and his marriage.

The film spends more time with Elle, and her family (William Hurt, Isabelle Huppert, Jess Weixler) and her new friend/professor (Viola Davis). Davis, in particular, offers tremendous support taking what could have been little more than a cliché, and finding something real and raw in her character. There are good supporting turns too from Bill Hader and Ciaran Hinds as Connor’s best friend and distant father, respectively.

While it would have been great to get a chance to see both of the individual stories at the festival, I trust that they’ll be available if and when the film gets a full release, either theatrically or on home video, and seeing the version that screened here is almost certainly the right way to start, allowing the two individual perspectives to fill gaps, rather than object to what’s been left out. There would be no way to tell that this wasn’t the intended and final cut; Benson and his editors have done a superb job in making an empathetic and desperately sad film.

Often, you begin to notice a theme or trend across several films, especially when you’re binge-watching several each day. The trend from this year’s LFF has been superb use of music, such as Rihanna’s Diamonds in the Sky in Girlhood, Xavier Dolan’s inspired use of Wonderwall in Mommy. Each of the musical performances in Whiplash are great, but the final one is breathtaking. Nina Hoss floored me in the final moments of Phoenix with her rendition of Speak Low, while I was more than a little taken aback to hear Adam Driver sing in Hungry Hearts (in Italian, no less). Maybe best of all is a scene in Catch Me Daddy, a bleak and relentless British western, where the two young and star-crossed lovers dance to Patti Smith’s Horses in their caravan while danger approaches from all sides.

Sticking with the musical theme…

Based on her two previous films, I’m a huge fan of Mia Hansen-Løve. The Father of My Children and Goodbye First Love are small, intimate masterpieces; films that delve into human emotions that we can all relate to buoyed by a sense of hyper-realism. Eden, her new film, is something very different. For the first time, she’s engaged a co-writer, her brother Sven, whose life as a DJ in France in the early 90s is the inspiration for an epic, rambling drama spanning three decades of French house music. Gone is the focus on small units, either family or lovers, to be replaced by hundreds of ravers all seeking the same connections and highs, both aural and chemical.

Eden
Eden

I can see why the change of focus might have alarmed some of Hansen-Løve’s fans; Eden is a radical departure, structurally, stylistically and tonally. The woozy structure and thin characterisation aren’t mistakes, though, but a determined effort on the part of the filmmaker to try and explain what the musical movement was about for these characters. In fact, the film’s extended, languorous running time and interest in only the highs and lows of its characters’ lives is reminiscent of the kind of club remixes that fill the film’s thrilling, euphoric soundtrack.

I don’t think Eden will be the end of the Mia Hansen-Løve that we’ve come to know and love, but it’s a thrilling and often beautiful departure from her norm; an ambitious project and a frequently blissful experience.

Best Performances: Karidja Toure (Girlhood), Miles Teller and JK Simmons (Whiplash), Alicia Vikander (Testament of Youth), Jessica Chastain (The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby), Sally Hawkins (X+Y), Anne Dorval (Mommy) and Zhao Wei (Dearest).

My Top Ten Films of the Festival:

  1. Mommy
  2. Whiplash
  3. Winter Sleep
  4. Leviathan
  5. Girlhood
  6. Eden
  7. The Tribe
  8. The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby
  9. It Follows
  10. Fury

Also loved: Still the Water, X+Y, Wild Tales, The Duke of Burgundy and White God.

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