London Film Festival 2015 – Day 3

What will tonight’s gladrags-toting gala audiences make of High-Rise and The Forbidden Room? Also, a review of pointlessly dour Swedo-Polish arthouser The Here After.

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High-Rise (d. Ben Wheatley scr. Amy Jump)

“It looks like the unconscious diagram of a mysterious psychic event”, says Dr Robert Laing (Tom Hiddleston) to the architect Anthony Royal (Jeremy Irons) early on in Wheatley and Jump’s adaptation of J.G.  Ballard’s classic 1975 novel when he sees Royal’s  architectural blueprints for the tower block of which they currently occupy the roof garden and its four siblings; clustered around a lake, Royal has designed them to look like the fingers of a hand grasping for the sky. “Very good “, responds Royal, “I’ll use that”. That this quintessentially Ballardian aphorism is lifted verbatim from the drily omniscient third-person narration in the book and transplanted into Laing’s mouth is, while a fun moment if you spot it, an almost too-perfect encapsulation of the perennial problems with adapting J.G. Ballard’s work for the screen (producer Jeremy Thomas has finally succeeded in getting High-Rise there, having first acquired the rights shortly after the book was first published). In another early scene Laing, like any good movie teacher, takes a break from his medical school teaching to lead a small class in a demonstration of Thematically Appropriate Metaphor 101, peeling back the skin, fascia and musculature from the disembodied head of a human cadaver to reveal the grinning death’s head that was, if you care to decipher this double meaning, there all along (he then proceeds to saw into the skull, but in coronal rather than sagittal section, which is All Wrong).

Ballard’s original outline for his novel, which he once said he considered to be the best version of the work, was in the form of a social worker’s report on the trouble that erupts inside an upmarket tower block, and the finished novel retains a clinical distance in its telling. As in a great deal of Ballard’s work, a key feature of High-Rise is that the extreme behaviour of the characters in it appears to seem, to the author, quite normal and natural – and he observes his characters as he would a pack of hyenas, or the constituent bacteria of a culture spreading on an agar plate, having little apparent patience with the psychological or emotional interiority that most fiction writers consider essential to their depiction of characters. Wheatley and Jump, while appreciating, as shown by that post-mortem unmasking, that Ballard’s characters aren’t driven to derangement by the stresses he places on them (so the specific characteristics of the building that cause the trouble here, and the class-war curlicues of Ballard’s telling are, at least in part, red herrings) so much as their inherent derangement is thereby revealed, don’t follow his lead in keeping a distance from their characters. After a brief introductory voice-over lifted straight from the book’s opening (balcony, Alsatian), their characters speak (and think, and feel) and act for themselves, given psychologically cogent goals and emotional voids within themselves that they seek to fill.

This causes specific problems, such as the fact that, where Ballard can afford to be cavalier about the precise trajectory of the building’s descent into anarchy, the film makers’ resort to a montage to paper over this narrative crack is uncomfortably obvious. And in general, the more people in a Ballard story resemble real people, the harder it is to ignore that the specific behaviours of people in Ballard’s stories rarely comport with the behaviour of recognisably real people, even while many who are unconvinced by those depictions would accept the general proposition embodied by the skull unmasked. Which is to say: when you concretise the propositions in a lot of Ballard to the extent necessary to film them, their verisimilitude dissolves before your eyes. People don’t get sexually aroused by car crashes, people with options don’t treat the badly designed building they live in as a closed system staging a zero-sum territorial game.

Ballard’s specific voice, then, is inherent to the power of his science-fictional imagination, in contrast with his near contemporary in his genre, Philip K Dick, whose work is seeded through with ideas and conceits that have survived being grafted into many films that often have little else in common with their source texts. Reproducing that voice (Thomas’s director on his previous Ballard adapation, Crash’s David Cronenberg, was probably as good a choice as he could have made) is probably key to any successful adaptation of his fiction work. High-Rise, however, scarcely feels Ballardian at all – in addition to the film makers’ very different approach to character, they have no truck with Ballard’s minimalism – working for the first time with a big budget they have opted for a scheme where everything is bigger and more outrageous than everything else (if they’re ventriloquising anybody, it’s not Ballard or Cronenberg, but maybe Tommy era Ken Russell). Is this fearlessness, or a failure of nerve when faced with a source work that has defeated  so many for so long? Paradoxically, it feels like both. The upside of Wheatley and Jump’s maximalism is that, given their talent and ambition, their film is full of vivid images, sequences and performances, and a rewatch and reassessment would seem mandatory. – Indy Datta

The Forbidden Room (d. Guy Maddin, Evan Johnson scr. Guy Maddin, Evan Johnson, Robert Kotyk)

Canadian avant-gardist Maddin’s feature-length follow-up to Keyhole was shot in parallel with his Séances project over several months at the Pompidou  Centre in Paris and the Centre PHI in Montreal, using many of the same cast (including names such as Udo Kier and Mathieu Amalric, and the pop group Sparks) and crew, and the same method, in which elements from the screenplays or summaries of lost early films were recreated live, in front of audiences who were free to drop in and observe. While the ultimate fate of the Séances footage is to be incorporated into an online hyperlinked freeform cloud of footage that viewers will be able to recombine and view in any conceivable order, the footage for The Forbidden Room has been organised into a linear equivalent – an anthology feature of short films nested one within the other like Russian dolls, linked by a series of ever more tenuous and outrageous digressions, somewhat in the manner of The Saragossa Manuscript.

Each of these vignettes is funny in its own right. The opening segment which doubles as a framing narrative for the whole film is an instructional film, delivered straight to camera by a louche elderly gent dressed only in a robe, on how to have a bath, and what follows has some characteristics in common with a series of dreams one might have while intermittently snoozing in a hot tub. In addition to the comedy, often apparently derived from the incredulity of the film makers and actors at the raw material they have to work with (as in the second segment, in which a submarine crew barricade themselves into a segment of their sub to protect their stores of blasting jelly, “whatever that is”, “for some reason”). Maddin and his collaborators have also worked in excruciating detail to make the surface of their film aesthetically rich, both in reproducing the look of early cinema and in undermining it with tactics like trippy digital effects and some beautifully sardonic captions and intertitles.

I will confess that I was defeated by my first viewing of The Forbidden Room much as I was by my first viewing of Keyhole, and that while you’re never more than a few minutes away from a wildly entertaining or eye-poppingly beautiful bit, it also appeared to me that any given 5 minutes of the film can substitute for any other without making any difference. While I am open to any argument that this is a feature rather than a bug, such an argument is not currently apparent to me. – Indy Datta

The Here After (d. scr. Magnus von Horn)

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Two years after killing his ex-girlfriend in cold blood, teenager John (Ulrik Munther, the Swedish Ed Sheeran but not ginger) is released to return to the farmhouse he shares with his father and kid  brother, and to re-enrol in his old school. Von Horn’s film follows John’s struggle to be accepted back into the life of his old community and by his old friends (including the former best friend whose sexual relationship with the ex prompted her murder). In its underlying structure The Here After (dyswtdt?) is a bit like a western, in which the blackest sheep of a bad family from the outskirts of town returns to stir up trouble some time after the unsavoury incident that meant they had to leave town, but with the lawless frontier replaced  by a modern Nordic state with a sophisticated and forgiving justice system. On one level, von Horn might be proposing that everything that separates 2010s Sweden from the wild west is superficial – what ultimately comes to the fore is always blood, sex, anger, and revenge.

Such possible insights founder on two rocks. The first is the portrayal (both in von Horn’s writing and Munther’s waxy performance) of John as utterly hollowed out of affect and permanently blank-faced (an off-the-shelf arthouse-ism in the portrayal of young people that I am SO FUCKING BORED of) and unable to rouse himself even  to tell his new love interest (who is, for the sake of narrative convenience, indifferent to his history of murderous sexual violence until she isn’t) anything of what he was feeling when he strangled his previous lover with his bare hands. The film gestures vaguely at the idea of John inheriting a distorted model of masculinity from his father’s relationship with his overbearing father, but without an actual central character rather than an evacuated cipher to coalesce around, these gestures remain vague handwaves.

In any event, regardless of von Horns failure to put in the work that would make it a specific dilemma rather than a general, abstraction, many viewers might consider the question of whether a murderer can be reintegrated into a small community after only two years away to not be a particularly hard call. This is the second problem – that the film neither cogently addresses the idea that John’s return might be too soon, nor gives any thought to how long two years can be, how much teenagers can change in that time, even in the most mundane of circumstances.

In the end, as competently technically crafted as von Horn’s film is (most reviews will rightly single out Lukasz Zal’s anamorphic 35mm lensing [just lost my “lensing” virginity how u doing?]), it is also self-important, empty and ridiculous . – Indy Datta

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