Blake Backlash on the unexpected delights and delightfully unexpected at the Glasgow Film Festival.
One of the sweetest things about film festivals is how often you sit there, before the film starts, totally free of the burden of your own expectations. Any other time you see a film, you’ve got images from several trailers, your pals’ tweets, and gobbets of reviews with you there in the dark.
At a festival you know the name of the film and maybe something about who made or who’s in it. Maybe you’ve read a bit about it in the programme. But in making your choice to be there and see it, you’ve had less to go on, been more led by your instincts, taken more of a gamble – so when the credits roll, there’s a delicious uncertainty about what film might do to you or where it might take you.
Sometimes you even doubt what you do know. When Thomas Bidegain’s The Cowboys started I was sure that I had read it was a kind of modern retelling of The Searchers. But as I watched Alain (François Damiens) singing ‘Tennessee Waltz’, I started to question how carefully I had read the programme. This looked liked a kind of gently observational comedy about French country folk who liked to ride horses, wear cowboy hats and boots.
Well, it wasn’t. Alain shares a dance with his daughter after his song and that may be the last thing he shares with her. She disappears and Alain assumes she has been kidnapped, probably by her Muslim boyfriend, and starts looking for her when he believes the police aren’t helping. I don’t want to say too much about where the search leads him, but we learn quickly that his assumption she’s been kidnapped is false: she sends a letter that makes it clear she wants to leave and doesn’t want to found. This is one of many ways the film departs from the Searchers template and also one of many times Alain’s assumptions about his daughter, and about the world, are tested. Perhaps Alain’s problem is he thinks he’s in a straight-up remake of The Searchers, with him as John Wayne, when really he is in a film, maybe a world, which is much more messy.
So, for all that there is a nod to Westerns in the hayseed schtick of that fair we’re at as the film opens, it’sreally a sense of vast scale that this film shares with the John Ford film. The vast scale of landscapes wide enough to disappear in – but also the vast scale of many, many passing years. People grow older and change in The Cowboys, obsessions cool into habits, and by the time the closing credits roll, we are seeing how the actions of one generation play out among next. And not just on a personal level: the film also takes place against the background of a generation of wars and conflicts in the Middle East – so we’re reminded that Western isn’t just a genre, it can be an attitude too, a way of seeing the world fraught with biases and blind-spots that can be fatal.
If I questioned what I thought I knew when The Cowboys started, I was in the fortunate position of knowing nothing before the Festival’s Surprise Film. With this, you just have to sit there, wait for it to get dark and put yourself in the hands of professionals who might make you feel better or might make you feel worse. In these respects, it’s not unlike undergoing surgery.
Even when the film starts, you still don’t know what you’re watching. A title card told us that the film was made ‘In Association with the Irish Film Board’ and nearly everyone went ‘ooooooooh!’ What could that mean? We learned that Kate Beckinsale and Chloë Sevigny were in it. And then finally, we found out we were watching Love and Friendship, which was Whit Stillman directing and adapting Jane Austen. Just as this was sinking in, and we were wondering how we felt about it, a thoroughly pissed-off Glaswegian voice in the darkness said ‘Aw whit?!’ with the kind of determination you would expect might carry a person off their seat and out the door soon.
My confession: I wasn’t quite ‘aw whit’, but I was worried. Partly because I’ve read heehaw Jane Austen (apart from ‘Pride and Prejudice’ which didn’t go well) and partly because the only Whit Stillman film I’ve seen is Bareclona. Indeed, my most meaningful engagement with the director up to now was an anecdote a friend of mine told, which ended with Whit rebuking her for excessive use of profanity in her joke about Dude, Where’s My Car (ask me if you see me).
I needn’t have worried. The film was a cracker and there were good parts for women. Stillman’s direction reminded me of the way Truffaut handled Jules et Jim, in that he gives us a presentation of the source material, happy to embrace stylistic artifice if it captures the tone of the text, rather than a representation of the events of story that embraces an idea of historical verisimilitude – as if the most important thing was convincing us all that this actually happened (side-eye at Joe Wright’s Pride and Prejudice).
The film, by the way, features on outstanding comic performance by Tom Bennett. It’s full of male British actors playing posh, clueless men, but Bennett is something else. The audience’s joy at his performances was palpable, it was people not only laughing at how funny he was, but laughing at themselves for finding it so funny, swept up in the enjoyment of it all. Exactly the kind of treat punters who bought a ticket for a film without knowing what it was deserve.
Before I go, I should also tell you I loved Green Room. Before I saw it, when people asked what it was about, I told them it was ‘punk band vs neo-nazis, led by Patrick Stewart’. And that’s what I got . That doesn’t mean I didn’t get any surprises. I got plenty bone-breaking, blood-gushing ones. And sometimes even familiarity can surprise you. Stewart has an American accent, and a beard and is playing a bad bastard. This ain’t your father’s Patrick Stewart! But there’s a moment when he is doing a spot of negotiation, and he says something like: ‘Now then! The point is’ and the sly way he parses out the sentence, the pedantic emphasis on some words will be surprisingly familiar to you if you grew up watching Star Trek in the 80s and 90s. Jean-luc! C’est toi!