Wednesday, October 17, 2018

London Film Festival 2018 - Styx / Sunset / Vox Lux

Styx (Wolfgang Fischer)
A woman sets out alone on a sailing trip in Styx, and for much of the movie you might be thinking that you’ve seen this story too many times recently. Rieke (Susanne Wolff) is sailing from Gibraltar, where she works as a paramedic, to Ascension Island, and Wolfgang Fischer’s film calmly observes her as she dutifully prepares for her trip, and enjoys the solitude and freedom of the open sea once she has reached open water. Soon she gets hit by a violent storm, but this is no mere survival thriller in the vein of All is Lost or Adrift. When the storm clouds have cleared, Rieke spots a nearby vessel in some distress. She calls it in to the coastguard, but as the people on board the sinking ship are refugees nobody wants to touch it, and Rieke is warned to keep her distance. Fischer and his co-writer Ika Künzel place their protagonist in an impossible quandary, one that’s only exacerbated when a teenage boy named Kingsley (Gedion Oduor Wekesa) swims to her boat. She can’t save all of the refugees with her small boat, but how can she sail away and leave them to their grim fate, particularly when Kingsley is imploring her to go back for his family? Styx pits one woman’s compassion against a society’s widespread indifference to migrant deaths at sea, with the coldly bureaucratic voices Rieke encounters on the other end of her emergency calls having a chilling effect. Susanne Wolff brilliantly charts her character’s thought process with almost no dialogue, going about her business with efficiency and attempting to keep her emotions in check as she considers her options, and The film gives us plenty of time and space to consider this situation while offering no easy answers. It's a taut and riveting piece of filmmaking, brilliantly shot by Benedict Neuenfels, with night scenes often being lit by Rieke's small torches and breathtaking aerial photography reminding us just how alone these lost souls really are.

Styx currently has no UK distribution

Sunset (László Nemes)
László Nemes has found his directorial signature and he's sticking to it. Sunset is the director's second film and it follows the template of his attention-grabbing debut Son of Saul. Once again, we have a character on an ambiguous quest, and the film sticks closely to their point-of-view, placing the protagonist in the centre of the frame and allowing us to see little of their surroundings as they venture into the unknown. As a central character, Írisz Leiter (Juli Jakab) is just as haunted as driven as the lead in Son of Saul, and we are propelled along as she in investigates a mystery surrounding the famed hat store that her late parents used to run in fin-de-siècle Budapest. Details of what happened to her parents and the brother she didn't know existed are dropped sporadically and often in hushed, frantic conversations, and for much of the film's opening half-hour I was a little confounded by its opaque storytelling. Still, the film exerts a powerful grip. Nemes has an uncanny gift for creating an immersive environment through his dynamic camerawork and richly layered sound design, and I was completely drawn into the nightmarish, twist-laden, often perplexing narrative that he has crafted. He stages a number of exhilarating and terrifying set-pieces that are executed in a single, propulsive take, and Mátyás Erdély's lighting throughout is breathtakingly beautiful and atmospheric. Nemes has certainly delivered a worthy follow-up to Son of Saul, which must have been an intimidating act to follow, but I wonder how much further he can take this aesthetic? He has proven his ability to create compelling, subjective narratives defined by disorientation and obfuscation, and I'd love to see what he could do with a more expansive view of his characters and their world.

Sunset will be released in the UK by Curzon Artificial Eye

Vox Lux (Brady Corbet)
A star is born in the aftermath of a school shooting in Brady Corbet's Vox Lux. As Corbet traces the rise to pop stardom of Celeste (Raffey Cassidy), a 13 year-old injured when a classmate massacred her fellow students in 1999, he attempts to tie her loss of innocence and life marked with tragedy with that of the United States (even implying the loss of her virginity coincides with 9/11) – after all, as the film's subtitle states, this is “a 21st-century portrait.” This director certainly doesn't lack ambition or ideas, and he has the technique and confidence required to pull most of them off, but bringing them all together into a single film that doesn't feel overreaching, pompous and half-baked seems to be beyond him. Vox Lux's considerations of celebrity, violence and The Way We Live Now feel facile, with Willem Dafoe's wry and detached narration filling in the gaps in Corbet's sketchy screenplay. Lol Crawley's 35mm cinematography is less dynamic and expressive here than it was in Corbet's similarly audacious and flawed debut The Childhood of a Leader, and the director's creative flourishes generally fall flat; a speeded-up tour of Europe is less effective than the one staged in The Rules of Attraction, while the climactic musical performance is a dud. Having said that, Vox Lux is unusual enough and bold enough to command the attention, and Natalie Portman has a lot to do with that. Playing the adult Celeste (with Cassidy now playing her daughter), Portman arrives in the second half of the movie as a diva worn down by life and viewing the circus that surrounds her, through jaded, cynical eyes, having long passed the stage when she gave a fuck about what people think of her. “I’ve got more hits than an AK-47,” she unwisely says at a press conference when a terrorist attack is linked to her music, and the sight of Portman throwing everything she has at the role – almost carrying the film to the finish line through sheer force of will – is one of the more galvanising experiences I've had at this year's festival.

Vox Lux currently has no UK distribution