Before his debut film screened, director Philip Koch introduced Picco by telling the audience that it had been inspired by both real-life events and Alan Clark's Scum, and the comparison to that 1979 film is apt. This study of a young prisoner's experience in a German borstal is a brutal affair, and one that eventually steps over the mark. At first, I appreciated a lot in Koch's depiction of life inside, particularly the way he detailed the pecking order among prisoners, with every man finding someone weaker than them on which to prey, and in the early stages at least, the director smartly focuses as much on psychological and emotional abuse as he does on physical abuse. One of the most powerful scenes in the film involves a prisoner being held down while his letters from home are burned in front of him. The film primarily focuses on four youths sharing a single cell, and the performance from Constantin von Jascheroff, as the newcomer who has to learn the tricks for survival and find the right allies, is impressive. However, Koch eventually loses control of his film when three of the inmates decide to finish off the weakest of the group, and this long final section is dragged out to an unendurable length. It is sickening and cruel, and Koch ultimately fails to justify this unedifying spectacle, which leaves the film feeling like a purposeless wallow in sadism. Koch's formalism is impressive and Picco really is a well-made film, but to what end?
Young Girls in Black (Des filles en noir)
The subject of teenage suicide is handled with skill and sensitivity in Jean-Paul Civeyrac's Young Girls in Black. It opens with Noémie's (Elise Lhomeau) first suicide attempt, which she survives, but one year later she is still feeling unhappy and isolated. Her only friend is Priscilla (Léa Tissier) who shares her bleak outlook on life – particularly when she finds her boyfriend has been cheating on her – and together the pair skulk around gloomily together, clad ominously in black. When Noémie impetuously announces during a class project that they intend to make a suicide pact, the girls initially shrug it off as a joke, but the seed has been planted, and the rest of the film details their tentative and uncertain movement towards this grand final gesture. Civeyrac's intimate style draws us into the world of these characters, intensifying the emotions they feel and making us empathise with them. Lhomeau and Tissier are compelling performers, and the director makes great use of their sullen screen presence, with both actors bringing complexity and authenticity to their parts. Throughout the film, Civeyrac treats his thorny subject matter with frankness and intelligence, and he builds to a genuinely shocking moment halfway through, before closing in a fashion that is both ambiguous and affecting.
Aside from one outlandish sex scene involving bags of flour, which feels like it was intended as the movie's signature set-piece and thus feels rather forced, Happy Few is a fairly low-key affair – perhaps a little too low-key for its own good. Antony Cordier's film focuses on two happy, middle-class couples (Marina Foïs and Roschdy Zem/ Élodie Bouchez and Nicolas Duvauchelle)who begin the film as friends, but whose relationships with one another becomes complicated when the idea of wife-swapping is raised. At first, everything is rosy, with the couples happily laying down ground rules and enjoying sex with another while remaining committed to their spouse, and Cordier handles these scenes in a fashion that is both witty and erotic. It's all too easy to see where this is going, though. The emotional entanglements and petty jealousies that eventually puncture the hedonistic fun are predictable, even though the actors (particularly Foïs and the ever-excellent Bouchez) try to give them as much weight as possible. The life slowly drains out of the picture, and we get the sense that there simply isn't enough dramatic meat here for a satisfying feature, which leads to some awkward and unconvincing filler sequences, like the silly business of the characters relaying ambient sounds to each other down the telephone. It's a shame, because Happy Few began as if it was going to develop into a significantly more interesting film than it eventually became.
West is West
West is West is hardly a sequel that the British public was clamouring for, but here it is nonetheless. In 1999, culture-clash comedy East is East became a surprise hit, and it was a moderately charming and amusing feature, but West is West has little charm or wit, and few ideas. The focus in the early stages of the film is on teenager Sajid (Aqib Khan) who, as the product of a mixed-race marriage, is catnip for the school bullies. He spends his time playing truant and shoplifting, and in a bid to straighten him out, his stern father George (Om Puri) decides to take the reluctant youth to Pakistan for the first time so he can learn about his roots. After some early tension, Sajid makes friends with a local boy (Raj Bhansali) and is educated by a wise elder (Nadim Sawalha), so while his issues are being simplistically resolved, the film switches its attention to George's travails, as he has to deal with both his first wife (Ila Arun) and his English wife (Linda Bassett). West is West unfolds in a tiresomely monotonous funny/sad/funny/sad fashion, with the ceaseless and often unbearable score attempting to prod the required emotions from us throughout. Puri, Arum and Bassett try to derive some feeling from their triangular conflict, but it's generally pretty broad, unconvincing and uninteresting, and director Andy DeEmmony's TV background is evident in the film's bland visual sense. This is the stuff of sitcom, not cinema.
The Princess of Montpensier (La princesse de Montpensier)
The Princess of Montpensier is a resolutely old-fashioned piece of filmmaking, but there's nothing wrong with that. Bertrand Tavernier's new film is set in 16th century France and features a group of male characters who are all besotted by the titular princess (Mélanie Thierry). As religious war rages in the background, her husband (Grégoire Leprince-Ringuet), his confidante (Lambert Wilson) and the passionate rogue she truly loves (Gaspard Ulliel) all fall under this beauty's spell and eye each other suspiciously, with Tavernier keeping the plot ticking over and developing the tension nicely. The film is handsomely shot by Bruno de Keyzer, who is responsible for some wonderful lighting, and Tavernier's direction is lively, with some effective battle scenes and a couple of enjoyably swashbuckling swordfights. The performances are strong too, with Lambert Wilson's subtle performance being particularly impressive, but perhaps only the female lead falls short. She has a striking look, but she lacks presence and never really brings the sense of vitality to her character that the film is really looking for. The Princess of Montpensier could also be accused of lacking the passionate thrust one might expect, but while it admittedly never really got my pulse racing, I though it was a very enjoyable affair, and one that made light work of its lengthy running time.
This is the purest form of documentary filmmaking imaginable. Boxing Gym has no narration, no music, no interviews, no voiceover and no onscreen captions. Frederick Wiseman just sets up his camera in Lord's boxing Gym and watches life happen in front of it. We see people hammering away at punching bags, sparring for a couple of rounds in the ring, and standing around discussing training techniques or chatting about their lives. Proprietor Richard Lord ensures the atmosphere is convivial and welcoming, with one regular telling another that anyone showing up with an ego or an attitude would be quickly shown the door, and his gym has serious fighters training alongside children, middle-aged men and new mothers looking to lose a few post-pregnancy pounds. As well as capturing the gym's sense of community, Wiseman also spends a lot of time observing the repetitive work that goes into honing a fighter's speed and strength, and these sequences give Boxing Gym a strangely compelling sense of rhythm. The film is over an hour shorter than Wiseman's previous work La Danse, and it feels exactly right in terms of length and scale, with Wiseman taking us outside the gym towards the end to follow Lord and a group of trainers on a run around a parking lot, before closing his film with some lovely final shots.
Our Life (La nostra vita)
In Our Life's early scenes, director Daniele Luchetti allows us to spend a lot of time with Claudio (Elio Germano), his wife Elena (Isabella Ragonese) and their two children, so when tragedy strikes this family, it hits like a hammer blow. The film then follows Claudio, a very likable, working-class character, as he tries to make a better life for his children but gets himself in all sorts of trouble as a result. Similarly, it sometimes feels like Luchetti is taking on too much as he tries to blend multiple narrative layers with stabs at social commentary and melodramatic sequences, but in the end, he just about gets away with it. Much of the film's success is down to Germano, whose performance as a decent guy in over his head is charismatic, witty and emotionally charged, and he keeps us riveted as the sometimes rickety plotting creaks around him. Luchetti is guilty of some rather obvious contrivances as he places obstacles in Claudio's path and then strains to clear up the mess – with a climax that feels too easy – but it's hard to argue with the effectiveness of Our Life when it keeps you interested and invested in the lead character's fate for its entire running time. It's a pretty standard family drama, but it works.
What can I tell you about Catfish? To get the most from this very weird documentary (if that is indeed what it is) I'd advise you to read as little as possible about it beforehand, so its surprising revelations and bizarre twists retain their full dramatic effect. That's how I approached Catfish, and during the course of the film I was gripped, amused, frustrated, confounded and ultimately moved, before being left with plenty of nagging questions as the final credits rolled. The film has been directed by Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman, who began filming their Ariel's brother Nev when he struck up an internet correspondence with 8 year-old Abby and her family. Abby is an extremely talented artist who started making money from painting Nev's photographs, and Catfish initially seems like it is about to enter into My Kid Could Paint That territory, but it quickly gets much weirder than that. After Nev has become friends (over the phone and via Facebook) with Abby's mum Angela and her beautiful older sister Megan (with whom he strikes up a flirtatious relationship) the three friends start to smell a rat and investigate this family a little further, finally revealing an astonishing truth. That's about all I can say without spoiling Catfish's gobsmacking climax, and there's a lot of entertainment to be had in watching Nev, Henry and Ariel pull apart the story they've been sold as they try to discover who exactly Abby, Angela and Megan are. There's something too neat about the way some of these events occur, which led me to believe that Catfish was something of a hoax, but by the end of the film I didn't really know what to think. If Catfish is a hoax then it's a truly remarkable one, and if it's all true then it becomes an even more amazing and troubling piece of work. Either way, it deserves to be seen and discussed.
I'm massively behind on my LFF updates as we move into the final week, but hopefully I'll have everything covered by the coming weekend. My next review round-up will include films both good (Neds, Poetry), bad (Miral, Film socialisme) and truly bloody awful (Brighton Rock – the indescribably disappointing surprise film choice), while my final few days at the festival should include screenings of Essential Killing, Attenberg, 127 Hours and Cold Fish.