Phil on Film Index

Thursday, October 06, 2016

LFF 2016 - Duets

Barakah Meets Barakah (directed by Mahmoud Sabbagh)
Barakah Meets Barakah is an entirely conventional romantic comedy, but the film's setting makes it feel very unconventional. Mahmoud Sabbagh's film is set in Saudi Arabia, where the usual 'boy meets girl' ritual is complicated by the fact that boys and girls can't meet alone without risk of causing a scandal and receiving a harsh reprimand. As such, a young man like Barakah (Hisham Fageeh), a meek civil servant, is drastically uninformed when it comes to the dating game, having never even held a girl's hand before. He's particularly flummoxed when he meets Bibi (a particularly good Fatima Al-Banawi), a model and budding Instagram star, whose much more worldly perspective feels illat ease in these oppressive surroundings. Fageeh and Al-Banawi are certainly an endearing pair, but what draws us into their relationship is the necessarily covert manner of it. A montage shows them considering a variety of potential first dates – an art gallery, a restaurant, etc. - each of them is quickly interrupted by the ever-vigilant religious police.

Barakah Meets Barakah opens with a disclaimer: “Note: The pixelization you will experience during this film is totally normal. It is not a commentary on censorship. We repeat, it is not a commentary on censorship.” That repetition seems a little pointed, particularly as the way in which the the pixels are deployed underlines the absurdity of such censorship – for example, we are allowed to see a man pouring alcohol into a glass but not see him holding the full glass – and they allow Sabbagh to make a neat visual gag involving an advertising billboard. Even as it follows Barakah's confused pursuit of Bibi, the film frequently finds space for moments that highlight the hypocrisies and inconsistencies of Saudi Arabia's moral strictures, often giving them voice through Da'ash (Sami Hifny), Barakah's heavy-drinking neighbour, who rails against the enforcers with lines like “I taught these little shits how to wear diapers. Now they're preaching to me about morality?” Later, a montage of photos from before 1979 reminds us that it wasn't always this way – men and women once socialised, they visited cinemas – with Barakah accusing his father's generation of giving up their freedoms and condemning those that followed to a life of religious intolerance. The political jabs make Barakah Meets Barakah a much more fascinating and potent proposition than its familiar template might make it seem, and the very existence of a film like this – plus its nomination as the country's official Oscar entry – suggests that things might be slowly changing in Saudi Arabia.

A Dark Song (directed by Liam Gavin)
Much of A Dark Song is spent in the company of just two people. A few other hands appear at the start of the film to help set the story in motion, but for the bulk of its running time Liam Gavin's debut feature is a two-hander, which is when it the film is at its most compelling. It opens with a woman buying an isolated country house, in cash, under very specific conditions. This is Sophia (Catherine Walker), still mourning for the loss of her child and very determined to do something about it, which is where Joseph (Steve Oram) comes in. He is an occultist whom she has enlisted to help her perform an invocation that will open a portal to another world, through which...well, who knows how this will turn out. Whatever lies in store for Sophia and Steve, they are both in it for the long haul, holing up inside the house and prepared to spend many months abstaining from alcohol, sex and drugs and following the rituals laid out in ancient texts to the letter. This is where A Dark Song grips, with the arduous, repetitive and frustrating process of invoking dark magic being depicted in a way that quickly convinces us of both the characters' and the filmmakers' dedication to making this feel as real as possible.

But how seriously should we take them? The most fascinating aspect of A Dark Song is the ambiguity of Steve Oram's Joseph, who certainly seems knowledgeable and fastidious in his pursuit of dark magic, but whose behaviour raises questions about his veracity. The relationship between Joseph and Sofia often feels abusive, with Joseph increasingly finding new lines to cross and angrily accusing her of lacking faith is she dares to question his methods, and this angle of the film is best exemplified by a queasily effective scene in which he insists they need to have ritualistic sex, before taking control of the situation in a horribly exploitative way. This ambiguity is sustained both by Gavin's clever orchestration of the situation and the strength of the two actors, who both convincingly portray the physical and mental strain their characters are under as they both start to inevitably go stir crazy, but unfortunately Gavin can't sustain it all the way to the finish line. When he needs to bring his film to a conclusion, he goes big, and while I applaud his ambition and desire to push beyond the chamber piece that he has skilfully executed, this final segment of the film just fell flat for me. The climactic sequence feels like it has come from a different movie and the final lesson that is learned from all of this is dismayingly trite. Still, for about an hour A Dark Song is a singularly unusual, compelling and unsettling film featuring two perfectly matched performances, and a special mention is due to production designer Conor Dennison, whose exceptional work is more evocative and impressive that anything coming through that portal.

Lost in Paris (directed by Dominique Abel and Fiona Gordon)
Who could have guessed that the next time we saw Emmanuelle Riva after her shattering performance in Michael Haneke's Amour she would be swigging from a bottle of champagne, climbing the Eiffel Tower and making love inside a tent? I guess getting that Oscar nomination must have had some kind of rejuvenating effect. She's the unexpected bonus in Lost in Paris, the new film from Dominique Abel and Fiona Gordon, which is otherwise largely what you'd expect it to be. Abel and Gordon's distinctive comic style is couched in old-school traditions of slapstick and visual comedy, with their films being less a flowing narrative than a series of scenarios in which the pair can perform deadpan and often very graceful gags. Their films are colourful, whimsical, largely inconsequential and – depending on your mood – likely to leave you charmed and entertained or baffled and stony-faced.

As a fan of their previous features Iceberg, Rumba and The Fairy, I was already predisposed to enjoying Lost in Paris, which hardly attempts to break new ground but does have a few subtle differences to distinguish it from their prior films. First of all, their usual co-director Bruno Romy is nowhere to be seen here, although his absence doesn't make much appreciable difference to the filmmaking style, and there is much more dialogue in this film than we might expect. Otherwise, this is standard Abel and Gordon fare, with Gordon playing the hopelessly clumsy Canadian tourist who visits Paris to find her lost aunt and keeps falling into the Seine, while Abel is a homeless chancer who ends up following her from one disaster to another. Lost in Paris is rarely hysterical but it did provoke a constant stream of giggles from me, from small gags like the way a desktop globe reacts to a door being opened in the first scene, to a terrific set-piece in a restaurant involving giant speakers, a lovely graveyard dance, and a scattering of the ashes mishap at the film's climax. Emmanuelle Riva's appearance is brief but fun, which is a decent summary of the film as a whole, which gets its business done in a shade over 80 minutes and possesses an eager charm that's pretty hard to resist.