Today’s screenings were all about provocation: a fascinating screen talk with European director Paul Verhoeven, followed by two features preoccupied with all things macabre.
It had to happen. My selection for Day Four started well but culminated in a disjointed and ultimately unpalatable double-bill of forcibly morose horrors. This isn’t contempt towards BFI’s programming, but rather displeasure at the selections that aligned with my availability.
Settling into the BFI Southbank for the first time this festival, I arrived for a screen talk with the brilliant Paul Verhoeven – director of films that you’ve all seen (or should have) e.g. Total Recall, Robocop, Basic Instinct etc. – whose attendance at the festival is surrounded by high praise for his latest feature, Elle. Starting with a particularly vulgar and vicious clip from his 197 film Turkish Delight, the Dutch director regaled with stories about his time on set in Europe, versus his experiences with his ‘half-step’ to making his first American film – the medieval drama Flesh+Blood – and the continuation of this career that has so far spanned sixty decades. No stranger to controversey, Verhoeven spoke candidly about his attitudes to sex, violence, and profanity with a particularly European appreciation: touching on the dawn of the cosmos, his relationship with women, and his delightful anecdotes of the riotous table-reads for his most satirical films, Starship Troopers and Showgirls. It was a brisk, 90-minute talk with the subversive director, and I could have easily listened to him talk for double that.
Following this insightful screen-talk, the bubble of brilliance finally burst. Psychonauts, The Forgotten Children (C) is an animated fable featuring a cast of cutesy characters getting themselves into very unpleasant and increasingly mature situations. A short, punchy prologue depicts a catastrophic nuclear accident wiping out an entire population of anthropomorphic animal life on a small island, a grisly, melancholic opening if ever there was one. Following a trio of friends as they attempt to escape from this horrifying hellscape of death and ruin, this feature adaptation of the graphic novel on which it is based becomes punishingly bleak far too quickly, and never lets up. Birdboy self-medicates with hallucinogens in order to abbreviate the pain of losing his father; PigBoy delivers money to a bedbound mother whose addiction is manifested as a giant arachnid; and a father and son scavenging team (whose horrific finality is the film’s finest flicker of a sovereign story in the vein of The Road) whose main source of a life is violently hunting for copper amongst the wasteland. There’s so much going on in the short run time and it’s not once pleasurable to see these young character’s lives collapse in such cruel and fatal ways. There are moments of pure ingenuity that come with the illustrated storytelling, but even these moments are too pitiless to be distinguishable enough from the rest. Psychonauts, The Forgotten Children primarily falters in the fact that it’s so much more content with depicting truly grim, nightmarish visuals than giving a satisfying narrative for the dainty characters. It’s shrewd yet obtuse, and always discouraging.
Similarly dispiriting and bleak was The Eyes of My Mother (C) a monochrome horrorshow that consistently fails to transgress its basic premise of a lonely woman who will go to any lengths to stave off solitude. Nicolas Pesce sets the stage with a brilliantly framed and tantalising aerial shot, but much like Psychonauts, The Forgotten Children, his film is much more interested in giving you stark imagery than a narrative to grasp onto. There are brief moments where it seems like it would break the shackles of its obvious influences and become something progressive, but they fall away to multiple, overused long shots and a staggeringly dumb script that holds no surprises whatsoever. There is merit here in the choice to film in black and white, which highlights the ugliness and the unadorned beauty in the grisly, but again, this harks back to the point that it’s sole concern is visual provocation. It could have been better, but instead it’s a rather comatose attempt at shock.
The dip in quality was such a shame, but it had to happen eventually. These two films aren’t without merit, but they’re perpetually concerned with the visuals rather than anything else that they outlast their necessity, even when both last just over 70 minutes. Still, Paul Verhoeven’s astute observations on European and American cinema, as well as his personal decisions for cartoonish carnage and explicit sexuality more than made up for the evening’s disappointments.
Total Recall illustration header by cal.con.
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