Thursday, October 08, 2015

London Film Festival 2015 Report -- Three Divisive Auteurs

Sometimes a film festival recommendation comes with a qualification attached. I often want to push people towards movies that I've seen and loved, but the distinctive style of the filmmakers behind them gives me pause, as a person's enjoyment of the film will probably depend on their fondness/tolerance for that filmmaker's particular idiosyncrasies. In the case of The Forbidden Room, anyone who has yet to experience the singular vision of Guy Maddin may find this a particularly challenging place to start. In some ways it feels like the most Guy Maddin-ish film that Maddin has ever made, with every wild idea in the Canadian auteur's head finding its way into a very antic and eventful two hours. It's the longest and most densely packed feature film of his career, and watching it is an exhausting experience, but if you are on Maddin's wavelength then it's also a truly exhilarating one.

The Forbidden Room has grown out of Maddin's Séances project, in which he reimagines a number of lost silent films using only their titles as inspiration. As a result, the film is an eclectic compendium of ideas, subplots and incidents with actors reappearing in multiple roles and one tale rapidly blurring into another as Maddin sets up an intricate structure of stories within stories and dreams within dreams. From an instructional video detailing the correct method of taking a bath we quickly find ourselves trapped in a submarine (with characters gaining sustenance from the air pockets in flapjacks), before the action movies to a forest, a volcano, a nightclub and other locations that involve poisonous skeleton leotards, Geraldine Chaplin wielding a whip and Udo Kier getting a lobotomy to cure his obsession with female derrieres.

All of this is depicted in Maddin's trademark frenzied silent-film style with some hilariously daft intertitles (“FEMALE SKELETONS! ASWANG BANANA!”) and personalised introduction cards for every cast member, and you're never more than a few minutes from something hilarious, beautiful or mind-boggling. As well as being an extraordinarily sustained feat of invention and wit, the film is a visual feast, with Maddin utilising digital techniques to bring the aesthetic of aged celluloid to the fore like never before – the textures and colours of every shot are seared onto the eyeballs. Is it all too much? For some people it surely will be, but I found it to be consistently hilarious, stimulating and beautiful, and a film I was more than happy to be overwhelmed by.
The Forbidden Room's London Film Festival screening takes place in the BFI IMAX and the very idea of Maddin's delirious images filling that vast screen is a tantalising one. Another filmmaker whose work might reach a wider audience than ever before in this festival is Yorgos Lanthimos, who is working with a bigger budget and a much higher-profile cast than ever before in The Lobster, but who hasn't allowed this elevated status to blunt his edge or change his style. This film is certainly recognisable as being the same work of the man who directed Dogtooth and Alps, with the actors' performances adhering to his favoured deadpan, affectless delivery and expressive body language, and with the blend of arch comedy and outbursts of violence being as potent as ever. It's also another film set in a world defined by its rules and codes of behaviour, where the drama arises from the consequences faced by those who dare to step outside the lines.

In this case, the Logan's Run-style twist is that nobody is allowed to be single, and any person who finds themselves alone and fails to find a date within 45 days will be transformed into the animal of their choice. “A wolf and a penguin can't be together, or a camel and a hippo. That would be absurd,” Colin Farrell's David is told near the start of the film, but ruling things out on the basis of absurdity seems incongruous in the context of this picture. The first half of The Lobster finds Lanthimos and his regular co-writer Efthymis Filippou devising a series of very funny interactions in the hotel that hosts these lonely hearts, as desperation pushes some of them to drastic measures – one bashes his face against a wall to attract a girl who suffers from nosebleeds, while Farrell's attempt to feign heartlessness to win over an apparently emotionless woman (a tremendous Angeliki Papoulia) is a brilliant comic interlude with a tragic punchline.

The Lobster is a film of two halves and when Lanthimos moves into that second half the film almost loses its way. Escaping this world of rigid rules only leads David into another community controlled by a very different – but equally strange and restrictive – set of rules, and there's a worrying sag right in the middle of the film as we have to sit through even more exposition and get used to a whole new environment and group of characters. However, what emerges from this portion of the film is a surprisingly sincere and poignant love story, and even if the allegorical intention gradually gets a little fuzzier over the course of the film, it still feels like a film with a lot of intriguing and perceptive ideas about contemporary relationships and society, and like everything this director has made, it stays with you.
Your appreciation for Entertainment might rest not only on your reaction to the films of Rick Alverson – whose 2012 film The Comedy seemed to be admired and loathed in equal measure – but also on how you react to the comedy style of Neil Hamburger. He's the alter-ego of Gregg Turkington and he takes centre stage in Alverson's new film; a movie about a comedian that is described in the LFF programme as an “anti-comedy” – you have been warned. We follow Turkington as he performs in a series of miserable bars and clubs through the Mojave Desert, with jokes like “Why does E.T. The Extra Terrestrial like Reese's Pieces so much? Because they have the same taste that cum has on his home planet” delivered in his rasping, strained voice and prompting a mixture of embarrassed chuckles, uncomfortable silences and outright hostility. As his audiences dwindle the comedian starts to lose his grip, leaving a series of unreturned phone messages for his daughter and wandering around his desolate surroundings, where he has a number of strange and unsettling encounters.

Alverson is clearly a filmmaking who wants to provoke any kind of reaction from his viewers, and Entertainment is rife with moments of discomfort and awkwardness, but I also found it to be an involving and unexpectedly moving film, which boasts some brilliant images. Alverson and cinematographer Lorenzo Hagerman use the 2:35 frame superbly, frequently isolating Turkington in the centre of the shot against an unusual backdrop, and they begin the film working with a very washed-out palette, so when they do introduce colour later on the images pop in a very effective way. Cameos from John C. Reilly, Michael Cera and Amy Seimetz slip right into Alverson’s bleak world while Tye Sheridan is superb as Hamburger's support act, but it's Turkington who commands our attention. As Entertainment peels back the layers of its protagonist’s lonely existence, Turkington brings a tangible sense of despair to his performance, making this not only a more formally accomplished piece of work than The Comedy, but also a more powerful and resonant one.