Saturday, October 05, 2013

LFF 2013 – Adore; Becoming Traviata; The Congress; Durban Poison; Hello Carter; Jeune et jolie

Some highs and lows from the LFF's early press screenings.


This week I saw four words that were enough to make my blood run cold – "Directed by Anne Fontaine." As soon as I saw this credit appear on screen my mind flashed back to Nathalie..., Fontaine's excruciating 2003 picture, which was enough to ensure that I would never consciously sit through another of her films. I assumed I'd be safe with this Australian-set drama, but no, The Fontaine Touch is in full effect here, bringing her familiar po-faced pretentiousness to this extraordinarily dim-witted tale of sexual shenanigans. Adore stars Naomi Watts and Robin Wright as Lil and Roz, two mothers who have been friends since childhood and still see each other every day. They share a close bond with their 18 year-old sons Ian and Tom (Xavier Samuel and James Frecheville), which is tested to the limit when Ian has sex with Roz, and Tom reciprocates with Lil. After briefly paying lip service to the fact that they have "crossed a line," all four participants quickly agree to carry on with this situation, a decision that never rings true and grows more implausible with every passing minute; but while this premise might suggest farce, everyone involved in Adore is taking it so seriously. Adapted by Christopher Hampton from a Doris Lessing story, Adore is never more than a surface-level look at the emotions that an arrangement like this might throw up, with Fontaine being curiously reluctant to deal with any potentially explosive dramatic moments. A prime example of this dramatic reticence involves Roz's husband (played by the far-too-good-for-this Ben Mendelsohn), who is glibly written out of the movie, with his reaction to his wife's infidelity with her best friend's son occurring off screen. The thing that really kills Adore, however, is the fact that it features four of the most boring people you could ever imagine meeting. Aside from a few trite scenes at their place of work and some laughably unconvincing romantic interests, these characters seem to have no life outside of this foursome, and by the end of the film most audiences will have arrived at the opinion that these four dullards deserve each other.

Becoming Traviata

How much you get out of Philippe Béziat's Becoming Traviata may depend on how interested you are in what goes on behind the scenes of a large-scale theatrical production. The film opens with shots of theatregoers taking their seats and final preparations being made for the show, but we never see anything from the performance itself. Instead, Béziat documents the endless rounds of rehearsals and fine-tuning that take place in the build-up to the big show – the fact that he chooses to include shots of tools, buckets and paintbrushes rather than any of the glamour of opening night quickly clues you in to the director's main area of interest. He's keen to explore the nuts and bolts of theatrical performance, and so Becoming Traviata mostly consists of long sequences in a bare rehearsal room, with the large ensemble turning up every day in casual clothes to work on their physical and vocal performances. Every aspect of the production is carefully attended to by director Jean-François Sivadier and conductor Louis Langrée, but the most fascinating scenes in Becoming Traviata focus on one relationship in particular. In this 2011 production, the lead role was taken by the acclaimed French actress Natalie Dessay, and Béziat's films shows her working closely with Sivadier to develop her performance; taking his advice on board, sometimes questioning or disagreeing with his methods, and gradually getting to the place she wants to be by opening night. It is a compelling and insightful portrait of a director/performer relationship, and it gives the film a narrative arc that prevents it from feeling formless. Béziat's style is detached and unintrusive, and comparable to Frederick Wiseman (who has also made a number of films on the subject of performance) in the way he allows us to simply watch as events unfold in front of us, without any interviews, commentary, captions or music to come between us and the subject. Some viewers will find it to be repetitive and boring, but there are intriguing nuances and details to be found throughout the film and the picture is fluidly - even musically - edited. It is a shame, however, that we don't see anything of the performances itself. I understand why Béziat made that choice, but having spent so much time watching this show come together, we might feel justified in hoping to see the fruits of their labour.

The Congress

The Congress is certainly not the film I would have anticipated from Ari Folman to follow his harrowing and deeply personal animated documentary Waltz With Bashir. Folman has chosen to adapt Stanislav Lem's novel The Futurological Congress into a Hollywood satire that bears more than a passing resemblance to Andrew Niccol's S1m0ne. Thankfully, The Congress is a more accomplished proposition than that 2003 misfire – at least early on  largely thanks to the unexpected but inspired casting of Robin Wright as herself in the lead role. The film opens with the actress being berated by her agent (Harvey Keitel) for ruining her career with "lousy choices, lousy movies and lousy men." Now deep into her 40's, and with a son (Kodi Smit-McPhee) suffering from degenerative sight and hearing loss, Wright's prospects in Hollywood are looking bleak. She is offered a lifeline by sleazy Miramount head honcho Danny Huston, who wants to create a computer-generated version of her that the studio can use at their will while she enjoys an early retirement, and despite initially fighting against it, she eventually acquiesces. This is quite broad stuff but it's sharply acted and Folman makes his points about the shallowness of Hollywood and the dilemmas facing female stars in a pointed, humorous fashion. He also does a pretty good job of mapping out this futuristic filmmaking territory, building to a show-stopping scene in which Wright actually goes through the motion capture process, but this is where The Congress falls apart. Twenty years later, Wright returns to Miramount to renew her contract, but the studio is now situated within an animated zone, for some reason, and so Wright becomes an animated avatar of herself and enters an environment that appears to have been cooked up by Ralph Bakshi on an acid trip. This is where we spend the second half of the picture, and after the novelty of the film's new aesthetic wears off its flaws become too glaring to ignore. Folman is telling a story about the cult of celebrity and Hollywood as an opiate of the masses, distracting us from the reality of our lives, but the messages get increasingly muddled as we strain to work out what is happened to Wright in this world, the rules of which are never satisfyingly explained. She has a brief affair with a doctor (Jon Hamm, although he's a dead ringer for Adrien Brody) which is played as a grand romantic tragedy, but it's impossible to feel anything for their relationship, and Folman similarly fudges the supposed emotional weight of a climactic scene with Paul Giamatti. The world Folman has created is just too vague and disconnected, and while it is filled with surreal and vivid sights, it seems to slip further and further out of his grasp the longer the film progresses. I can't really explain much of what occurs in the second half of The Congress and I found the experience of watching it extremely tiresome, which is a terrible shame because Folman's ambition and surfeit of ideas makes this exactly the kind of film I'd love to embrace.

Durban Poison

Andrew Worsdale's debut film as a director was Shot Down, which was made in 1988 and banned by the South African authorities, and it has taken him a quarter of a century to return to the director's chair. His second film is Durban Poison, which immediately feels disappointingly over-familiar. Inspired by true events, it's the story of two lovers on the fringes of society who hit the road and leave a trail of corpses in their wake. When we first meet Piet (Brandon Auret) and Joline (Cara Roberts) they are in custody and in the process of retracing their steps under police supervision to detail exactly who they killed, and where and why. These scenes unfold in flashback as the pair make their confessions, with Joline's recollections marked by an unswerving dedication to the man she is still deeply in love with, but it's hard to know how reliable a narrator she is. Aside from that slight storytelling wrinkle, Durban Poison is a thoroughly unremarkable Bonnie and Clyde-style endeavour, which makes one wonder why it was this story in particular that coaxed Worsdale back. The film just plods along from one incident to another with Worsdale failing to show much evidence of directorial flair or invention, and the only scene that does stand out is a direct homage to Godard's Le mépris. Auret – who slightly resembles Michael Shannon – is a solid performer but one who isn't tested beyond some simplistic emotional cues, whereas Cara Roberts is a much more interesting screen presence, and she brings some shades to her character that intrigue. But the characters are desperately underdeveloped (Joline gets one quick flashback to a troubled childhood, and that's it), the performances that surround the two leads are often amateurish, and some of the dialogue is confounding. "You can take a horse to water but you can't knock your head around a lot." Come again?

Hello Carter

Nobody sets out to make a bad film, but sometimes I do watch a terrible movie and wonder how on earth it was allowed to reach this stage. If I was a producer who received Anthony Wilcox's screenplay for Hello Carter – which is based on his 2011 short of the same name – I'd surely reject it as a first draft, with every aspect of the material being in serious need of development. But Wilcox's debut feature has made it to the LFF with its thin characterisation, underpowered plot and lame gags all intact, and the film dies an ugly death onscreen. Carter is played by Charlie Cox – a memorable performer on Boardwalk Empire, who utterly fails to make the grade here – and he is a character stuck in a rut. Unemployed, single and lacking any sense of direction in his life, Carter attempts to turn things around by going for a job interview and trying to make amends with his ex-girlfriend, but through a serious of dopey misunderstandings he ends up on the run from the police. Wilcox appears to be aiming for an After Hours vibe, with his milquetoast being pulled into one absurd situation after another during the course of a single long night, but something that should be played with a manic, anything-can-happen energy feels extraordinarily lethargic. Hello Carter is a film in which each of the characters consistently do inexplicable things purely to move the plot forward, and every encounter between the various characters depends on individuals bumping into each other at opportune moments (perhaps not surprising, given how sparsely populated every location is). The complete absence of wit or invention evident in the writing is dispiriting, and Wilcox relies too heavily on a grating musical score from Andrew Raiher to indicate every supposed emotional beat.  Aside from the always-professional Jodie Whittaker, none of the actors can give their one-dimensional characters any sense of an inner life, and being in this company appears to have had an adverse effect on the normally infallible Paul Schneider, who gives a horribly misjudged performance as an unhinged American actor.

Jeune et jolie

You never can be sure what you're going to get from the prolific and always interesting François Ozon, and his new film Jeune et jolie is a change of direction from last year's sly and tightly constructed In the House. This is something much more ephemeral and mysterious, and its opacity proves to be both a strength and a weakness. Structured across four seasons (recalling Rohmer), Jeune et jolie begins in summer where Isabelle (Marine Vacth) celebrates her 17th birthday and loses her virginity. As she and her family drive back home, Isabelle wears an inscrutable expression on her face, and the next time we meet her, in Autumn, we find that she is moonlighting as high-value prostitute called Lea. It's hard to reconcile this Isabelle with the one who we have just seen anxiously having sex for the first time, but we wait in vain for any kind of explanation for her actions. Isabelle remains an enticingly enigmatic figure throughout the film, never giving any reasons for doing the things she does (she doesn't even seem to spend the money that she accumulates), and it often seems that she is acting out of nothing more than a mild sense of teenage curiosity and rebellion. With nothing in the way of motivation to guide us, a lot rests on Marine Vacth's slender shoulders and she carries the burden with astonishing poise and grace, her beguiling screen presence and heart-stopping beauty commanding our attention. This feels like a weirdly half-formed effort from Ozon, who picks up and discards plot threads – such as the burgeoning sexual curiosity of Isabelle's brother, or her mother's possible affair – with carefree abandon. What matters here is really the mood and style of the piece more than the content, and Ozon's direction is at its most elegant here, ensuring the film flows beautifully from season to season, and he finds some striking, potent compositions throughout (the use of mirrors to underline Isabelle/Lea's duality may be obvious, but it works here). It's hard to know what exactly Ozon is trying to say here – and some scenes, like a late Charlotte Rampling cameo, just feel like bad decisions – but I found Jeune et jolie to be intriguing and occasionally entrancing, even if the film feels so slight it almost dissolves as you watch it.