Phil on Film Index

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

LFF 2016 - Strange Journeys

Staying Vertical (directed by Alain Guiraudie)
Given the prominent erections that featured in Alain Guiraudie's The Stranger by the Lake, the title of his new film Staying Vertical might suggest more of the same, an impression that is strengthened when Léo (Damien Bonnard) stops his car in the opening scene and attempts to pick up a sullen youth. But Léo is in fact cruising in another direction, wandering aimlessly through the French countryside until he meets a shepherd (India Hair) with whom he abruptly decides to settle down and start a family, despite repeatedly calling on the teen on whom he apparently still harbours a crush. Guiraudie doesn't give us much context for his characters' behaviour and Staying Vertical unfolds as an elliptical series of incidents that grow increasingly strange as Léo finds himself trapped in a nightmarish and apparently inexorable downward spiral. Léo is a screenwriter trying and failing to make progress on a script that was apparently due months ago, but his every attempt to run away from his responsibilities only leads him further into trouble. There is no escape.

In fact, Staying Vertical feels like Guiraudie's own spin on a Charlie Kaufman-esque creative crisis film. No matter where he turns, Léo remains trapped by the same handful of characters – people he seemed determined to milk for inspiration, who subsequently appear to be conspiring against him – and he is incapable of working himself out of whatever tight spot he writes himself into. The curious tone that Guiraudie strikes throughout makes it impossible to pin down the exact meaning or purpose of Staying Vertical, but as strange and discombobulating as it all is, there is a sense that the film is working to its own consistent internal logic, and even if it's hard to grasp what Guiraudie is trying to say here, his film is so peculiar and mordantly funny on a scene-by-scene basis it remains entirely absorbing. Damien Bonnard makes for a terrific protagonist, his deadpan expression registering a Keaton-like bemusement and dismay as a series of misfortunes befall him, and the film boasts some of the most startling moments you'll find in any film this year – from a very close look at a baby being born to an extraordinary assisted suicide scene that is largely baffling to comprehend but, in the context of this film, makes a weird kind of sense.

Further Beyond (directed by Christine Molloy and Joe Lawlor)
Ambrose O’Higgins was born in 1720 in County Sligo. When he died 81 years later, he was known as Ambrosio O'Higgins, having made his way to Chile, risen through the military ranks to become the Captain General of Chile and subsequently the Viceroy of Peru. There's surely ripe material in this eventful life for a biopic, you might think, and filmmakers Christine Molloy and Joe Lawlor thought so too. But Further Beyond is not their screen depiction of O’Higgins' life and times; in fact, by the end the film they have barely made a start on telling that story. Instead, Further Beyond is all prologue, with the filmmakers exploring all of the questions that must be tackled before telling somebody's life story on screen; questions of historical accuracy versus storytelling necessity, history versus memory, and the questions of what must be included and what can be left out. The filmmakers take an oblique approach to all of this, hiring two voiceover artists to read their scripted thoughts and muse on the pluses and minuses of any particular approach without settling on one.

As I watched Further Beyond, I was reminded of Laurence Sterne's The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, in which the narrator's attempts to tell his own life story are continually stalled by tangents and digressions. The most fascinating and unexpected sidetrack Molloy and Lawlor take here is a diversion into the life of Helen Dowling, Joe Lawlor's mother, who appeared in a theatre piece they made 18 years ago and – more pertinently to the film's theme – had the course of her life altered by journeys between America and Ireland. As an essay film on the nature of cinematic storytelling and the history of Irish emigration, Further Beyond is stimulating, playful and propelled by a genuine sense of curiosity. I don't know if Christine Molloy and Joe Lawlor will ever get to make their Ambrose O’Higgins film, but this meandering and compelling investigation is a decent start.

Nocturama (directed by Bertrand Bonello)
There's a disconnect between how I felt as I watched Nocturama and how I feel about it afterwards. As a cinema experience, Bertrand Bonello's film is something to behold. The long opening section of the film gives us little context or characterisation to grip onto, but we are swept along by the film's rhythm as a group of French youths criss-cross Paris in a way that reminded me a little of Out 1, but also had echoes of Elephant. Bonello plays tricks with time and perspective as he teases out the this set-piece, and it takes some time for us to realise that this is a coordinated terror campaign, with bombs being planted across the city and timed to detonate simultaneously. The opening hour of Nocturama is exhilarating in its fluid, kinetic thrust, but the second half of the film is more deliberately paced and composed, with the young insurgents taking refuge in a department store overnight, waiting for the panic on the streets and the city-wide manhunt to subside before returning to their homes.

Aside from brief forays outside by the antsy David (Finnegan Oldfield), the film remains locked inside this multi-level building for the rest of its duration, a potentially inert scenario rendered hypnotic by Bonello’s astounding formal precision and the brilliant production design. There’s something eerily dreamlike about this location, with the characters cut off from the chaos outside and with little sense of time passing, playing loud music to avoid being left alone with only their own thoughts and consciences to contend with. They eat and drink, they play in the toy aisle, they raid the clothing ranges, and they do what they can to allay their fears. (What happened to the one member of the group of failed to arrive at the rendezvous point? Was he captured? Is he dead?) At some point, however, I started to wonder what it is that these freedom fighters were fighting for. Bonello begins to give us flashbacks showing them plotting the attack but stops short of going back to the point where their ideological identities were formed, and all we get are statements like “We did what we had to do.” The director has said that he conceived this film over five years ago and was in production before the attacks in Paris, but the film’s attempt to depict these acts as the inevitable reaction of a disenfranchised youth feels off. Perhaps recent events have simply created a context that we can’t help but apply to this film, a weight that it cannot bear, but Bonello doesn’t help himself by having one of his darker-skinned characters talking about going to heaven when they die. These are the questions that troubled me after I’d finished watching Nocturama and left me wanting more, although none of these queries crossed my mind as I watched it. As a piece of pure filmmaking I’ve seen little to match this in 2016, and the climactic twenty minutes had me holding my breath, but the plaintive cry of one character just before the end credits strikes me as an expression of a glib vagueness that undermines Bonello’s undeniable artistry.

Mascots (directed by Christopher Guest)
A decade has passed since Christopher Guest's last film as a director, but very little has changed about the filmmaking itself. You might wonder why anyone would advocate tinkering with a winning formula, but the Guest house style was starting to look a little creaky in 2006's For Your Consideration and there's a definite sense that the formula needs shaking up in Mascots. Guest's latest film sticks to the template established by Best in Show, following a disparate group of oddballs and obsessives as they prepare to compete at a major tournament, in this case the 8th World Mascot Association Championships (or The Fluffies), and finding comedy in their delusions and insecurities. Some of these characters are nicely drawn and played; for example, Tom Bennett's Owen Golly, Jr., proudly continuing the family tradition of being the mascot for their local football team, and there's a touching sense of broken dreams being partially fulfilled in the relationship between Parker Posey and Susan Yeagley as cheerleading sisters.

Bennett and Yeagley are newcomers who impress here, but others – such as Chris O'Dowd and Zach Woods – fail to make an impression, and the bigger disappointment is how uninspired the returning members of Guest's regular ensemble feel. Bob Balaban, Jennifer Coolidge and Fred Willard play characters barely distinguishable from those they have appeared as before, while Guest himself underlines the lack of freshness with his inexplicable decision to reappear as Corky St. Clair, last seen twenty years ago in Waiting for Guffman. Of the Guest regulars who don't figure here, I wonder if Eugene Levy is the most notable absentee, as he has had a screenplay credits on their previous collaborations and might have helped to give this film a greater sense of shape and identity, or helped establish a stronger narrative through-line. It's not like Mascots is completely devoid of laughs – there are too many funny people involved for that to be the case – but everything here feels secondhand. Even the faux-documentary conceit, always shakily applied in Guest's work, feels completely half-assed here. More often than not, Mascots just comes across as another badly shot comedy, with the uniqueness and element of surprise that we anticipate from Christopher Guest sorely lacking.