Sunday, October 18, 2015

London Film Festival 2015 Report -- Love Hurts

Therese (Rooney Mara) and Carol (Cate Blanchett) first lock eyes across the floor of a busy department store, and something intangible passes between them. The climax of the film again rests on these two characters gazing silently across a room at each other, with our knowledge of what has occurred in the intervening two hours filling the space between them with emotion and significance. Carol is a film built on looks, glances, gestures and touches, and the choices made by director Todd Haynes, his actors and his crew contribute to a film in which barely a frame seems out of place. This is the second time that Haynes has made a film about a forbidden love set in the 1950s, but while Far From Heaven was made as an overt homage to the films of Douglas Sirk, this time he has moved beyond pastiche to make a film that feels grounded in reality and is distinguished by a muted palette and quietly powerful underplaying.

The film is an adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s The Price of Salt, which might be seen as a rare non-crime novel from the author but in fact the two women falling in love here are made to feel like criminals. Both have ‘normal’ lives that they are expected to obediently follow: Carol is married with a daughter, but that marriage is a sham and a divorce is looming, with her preference for women being an open secret. The younger woman Therese has plenty of boys always hovering around her, including one who has made plans for them to travel to Europe together, but she hasn’t figured out what she wants or who she wants to be yet, and Carol opens her eyes to new possibilities. The pair take a road trip together in an attempt to find some peace and freedom elsewhere, but the suffocating realities of mid-twentieth century American society aren’t so easy to escape.

Haynes is, of course, so acute in his depiction of the way his characters feel hemmed in by the constraints of the time and place they live in. He doesn’t cast any characters as villains, and Kyle Chandler’s performance as Carol’s husband Harge foregrounds the sense of humiliation that he feels in front of his family and peers as the key motivator behind his treatment of his wife. Haynes’ direction is so sensitive to the emotions of his characters and every detail seems to be imbued with a weight and meaning that gradually accumulates force over the course of the film, and the performances – as usual in a Haynes film – are perfectly judged. Blanchett is as commanding as you would expect but it’s Rooney Mara who really impresses here, bringing a painful authenticity to her quiet emotional breakdowns and skilfully charting Therese’s progress as this insecure girl emerges into a woman ready to make some bold choices about her future.
Arnaud Desplechin, is need of a boost after the frustratingly underpowered Jimmy P: Psychotherapy of a Plains Indian, is another director reaching into the past for inspiration. His new film My Golden Days mostly takes place in the 1980s and it revisits territory that the director has successfully mined before, being a loose prequel to his 1996 film My Sex Life… or How I Got Into an Argument. Desplechin’s go-to actor Mathieu Amalric reprises the role of Paul Dedalus, now a well-travelled diplomat who is stopped at the airport upon his return to France and questioned about the existence of another Paul Dedalus who shares the same date and place of birth. What follows is a long, discursive series of flashbacks that take in Paul’s troubled childhood with a mentally ill mother and mostly absent father, his teenage adventure assisting in an undercover operation in the Soviet Union, and finally his meeting with Esther, his great love, who was embodied in My Sex Life… by Emmanuelle Devos.

Here she is played by Lou Roy-Lecollinet, a first-time actress whose work alongside Quentin Dolmaire (as the young Paul) is wonderfully confident and alive, and they share a chemistry that holds the centre while Desplechin’s storytelling whirls around them. This is a very oddly structured and paced film, consisting of three uneven chapters and bookended by modern-day sequences, and the disparate elements never quite coalesce into a satisfying whole in the way that films like Kings and Queen or A Christmas Tale did. Still, on a moment-by-moment basis the film is gloriously enjoyable, boasting a number of intimate encounters that cut to the heart – notably in Paul’s relationship with his university mentor (Eve Doe-Bruce) and a lovely scene in which his insecure sister Delphine (Lily Taieb) is comforted by their father – and this director still has an uncanny ability to derive an emotional burst from a simple zoom or close-up. My Golden Days might not be peak Desplechin, but it is a film that feels uniquely Desplechin – a film following its own restless spirit and littering the path with split-screens, irises and characters reading letters directly to the camera. That last trope is a particular pleasure when the actor in question is Lou Roy-Lecollinet. She's a natural movie star.
Another star is born in Sunset Song, Terence Davies’ long-gestating adaptation of Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s iconic Scottish novel. Agyness Deyn has appeared in a handful of films in her young career but this role marks the sternest test of her abilities, as she has to carry an epic romantic tragedy in a role that puts her through the emotional ringer. She is Chris Guthrie, a bookish young woman from a farming family in the fictional estate of Kinraddie, Scotland. Over the course of the film she survives living with a tyrannical father (Peter Mullan, recalling the Pete Postlethwaite of Distant Voices, Still Lives in his unpredictable explosions of violent rage), she takes control of the estate when he is hit by a stroke, she falls in love and starts a family and then  just when she can see happiness on the horizon  the advent of the First World War tears her life apart once more. It’s a demanding role but Deyn handles everything that Davies throws at her with grace, subtlety and emotional dexterity, her character gradually growing in tenacity and resilience as life takes its toll on her. In fact, from the moment she appears in a golden field of wheat in the film’s opening shot I felt like we were in good hands.

That opening shot is something of a surprise, though. When I think of Terence Davies’ films I always think of interiors, and yet much of Sunset Song takes place outdoors, a move that seems to have breathed new life into Davies’ already magnificent filmmaking. There’s a sweep and vibrancy to Sunset Song that I’ve never seen in his work before, with Michael McDonough’s lush cinematography making the most of the surroundings, particularly when shooting in 65mm. Davies’ films always seem to exist out in their own time, being defiantly out of step with contemporary fashions, and this film is no exception. At times it has the look and feel of a Hollywood studio production from the 1940s – Scotland’s answer to Gone With the Wind – but there’s a real darkness and anger present here too. Sunset Song is not only the story of a young woman making her way in an unforgiving world, it’s a lament for the entire communities that were torn apart by the First World War and an attack against the idea that fighting and dying for one’s country is a noble act. One shot in which the camera floats across the mud, barbed wire and pieces of clothing in No Man’s Land speaks a thousand words.

Of course, Terence Davies’ eloquence with a camera has never been in question, but even so his command of visual storytelling here is frequently breathtaking. The way a simple camera movement can denote the passage of time; the way light fills a church, suggesting the presence of God; the way a man must face his end at the hands of boys barely old enough to hold a gun. He also draws performances of great intimacy and emotional complexity from every member of his cast – notably Kevin Guthrie and Ian Pirie as Chris’s husband and his best friend respectively, who share a late scene together that I found unbearably moving. Sunset Song is a masterpiece in which one of the greatest filmmakers this country has ever produced brings his already astonishing artistry to new heights, and delivers a story that simultaneously moves the viewer to tears while making one’s spirit soar. “He could fair play, that piper. He tore at our hearts.”