The sixth day of the LFF gave evidence to the idea that provocative filmmaking primarily succeeds with talented filmmakers, a video-game chat with the founder of Quantic Dream, and a subversive sociopathic horror.
Where Day Five started with the best of the LFF so far, Day Six started with the worst.
Until I saw The Birth of a Nation (D+) I was surprised to find that I didn’t loathe anything at the festival so far, and considering this was the fourteenth feature, that’s pretty impressive. As a child, Nat Turner (actor and director Nate Parker) is taught how to read the Bible so that he may eventually become a preacher for his fellow slaves. The first 10 minutes of this unbearably saccharine script (which acts as an ‘origin-story’ of sorts) set the tone and focus for the entire film: no one is of any importance in this story apart from Turner. Running at such a break-neck speed, Parker devotes almost no time to character building or narrative advancement unless it is specific to Turner’s endgame. It’s simply a series of austere image after austere image: the only time it breaks from a shocking act of violence (which are always done with stiff composition) is to gauge Turner’s reaction, meaning that not a moment of this brutality or hatred carried out by these embittered plantation owners carries any weight. That’s a strikingly odd thing to say about a film concerned with the antebellum South. Offering no teachable moments or nuanced awareness of slavery past this cursory Wikipedia understanding, The Birth Of A Nation just wastes time with a hackneyed arrogance that’s interminably hard to swallow. It’s a commercial grab at a story that should’ve been told by someone more committed to the history rather than themselves.
On the other hand, Paul Verhoeven’s Elle (A-) is exactly how you make a challenging topic into something contemplative and thrilling. Isabelle Huppert is completely magnetic as Michèle, a dedicated businesswoman with a no-nonsense sensibility towards bullshit. Commanding the entire film with a warped cynicism for those around her, Huppert displays total skill in delivering sharp-tongued humour to credible fear (and back again). Everything she is about can be discovered through a sly glance or a wave of her hand: she’s a woman in total control of her life that not even the reality of a brutal sexual assault can alter her fatigued disposition. It’s down to David Birke’s screenplay (based on the novel by Philippe Djian) that the venomous barbs she throws at those around her are spoken with an underlining kindness, even in the face of such world-crumbling realities. Elle walks a very fine line between exploitative rape revenge and etiquette-driven black comedy, and Verhoeven does so with absolute aplomb. It’s shocking, but never gratuitous, and is certainly one that will keep you on your toes until the final, giddy frame.
My second screen-talk of the festival week was with David Cage: musician, video game designer and founder of development studio Quantic Dream. With an interesting perspective on the industry, Cage explained how his company created games such as Heavy Rain and Beyond: Two Souls, both of which have a narrative drive closer to that of TV and film. He also briefly touched on the way that game studios are implementing more and more technology taken from these other mediums in order to render the most realistic worlds possible. It was interesting to hear how this increase in technology rendered consoles and games obsolete as the generations of video gaming progressed, even if it was partly stating the obvious. Thankfully, there was less sarcasm and punctuated jokes on Jonathan Ross’s part (who served as host for this screen-talk), and the talk was comfortably intriguing but it wasn’t persuasive enough to change my idea of Quantic Dream. They certainly make great video games with comprehensive storytelling (supposedly his scripts are 2,000+ pages to a films’ 100), but they’re not for me.
After yesterday’s carnivorously progressive feminist horror Raw, I thought that the LFF had filled its quota with sneaky, subversive horror, but I was wrong. I Am Not A Serial Killer (B) – based on the YA novel of the same name – is a sardonic look into the nature of monsters both real and imagined. Max Records – who is almost unrecognisable from his turn as Where The Wild Things Are – transmits a laconic wit with a fascination for the morbid, forestalling sociopathic tendencies with a three-step plan. Where the film really shines is the way it smartly – and repeatedly – disarms the viewer: each turn of the screw is unexpected, leading to a far more restrained conclusion than it could have been. Christopher Lloyd, too, is fantastic, and both the lighting and effects (and the 16mm film) hark back to the old, chilly horrors of days gone by, The less said, the better: it’s primary joys are in unravelling the story that at once seems straightforward but develops into a story about alienation, love, and contrived compliments in lieu of murder.
After a shockingly bad start, I was glad to have the day jump back to gear with Paul Verhoeven’s near-masterpiece, followed by a genuinely fresh Midwestern genre-mashup with laughs and gore galore. Let’s hope that tomorrow brings more surprises!
Heavy Rain illustration header by cal.con.
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