Notes on the BFI London Film Festival

Of the 248 feature films at the festival, 114 were directed by women—perhaps the biggest year for female directors in the festival’s history!


Toward the end of last year, the Directors Guild of America released a report depicting the results of a two-year study on the gender and ethnicity representation amongst film directors. The breakdown is as follows: Caucasian males make up 82.4% of directors, 11.2% are minority males, Caucasian females account for 5.1%, and minority females are a mere 1.3% of directors. I didn’t exactly need to be told that women make up less than 7% of directors, but that doesn’t make the news any easier to take. But it’s with these stats in mind that I found myself delighted to see the London Film Festival’s selection of films this year. Of the 248 feature films at the festival, 114 were directed by women—perhaps the biggest year for female directors in the festival’s history!

I’m a graduate student studying film about two hours away from London, which really hampered my ability to properly cover the festival (which is on its 60th iteration), the way I would have liked to. I did manage to see 11 films and, of that small number, five were directed by women. The highest-profile of these films was the newest Andrea Arnold film American Honey, which picked up the Jury Prize at this year’s Cannes. I’m a fan of Arnold’s Fish Tank and was very much looking forward to seeing her first American production. (Funny enough, Arnold is from Kent, which is where I’m doing my postgraduate studies, and her film is set in the American Midwest which is where I’m from.) It’s something like a road movie mixed with Larry Clark’s Kids.

The film has a lot of the same american_honey_coffeeproblems as Fish Tank, including overt symbolism that’s almost too
embarrassing to witness at points. These scenes are few and far between, but when it’s bad, it’s horrid. That being said, I’m really forgiving of those moments. For every bad on-the-nose music choice there’s a really fantastic one that more than makes up for it. Also working in American Honey’s favor are three standout performances from a magnetic newcomer Sasha Lane, plus Shia LaBeouf in great form, and Riley Keough. I could understand someone complaining that this film has no narrative center; Fish Tank has a far more satisfying arch for its characters. Perhaps American Honey could have done the same if it focused more on the love triangle between those three.

In American Honey Riley Keough is downright callous, but it’s her performance in So Yong Kim’s Lovesong that really won me over. Keough is almost unrecognizable, playing a fragile and codependent young woman who is in an abusive relationship with her best friend played by Jena Malone. Going for resonations over resolutions, it might not offer much in the way of closure, but it’s a very sensitive and startlingly honest portrait of female friendships. Lovesong is another solid film from So Yong Kim, which dabbles in queer themes, making it no surprise that Strand Releasing picked it up for U.S. distribution at this past Sundance.
innocentsAnne Fontaine’s The Innocents is a tough one for me to weigh in on. I didn’t catch it during its theatrical run in the States, and I don’t really regret that decision in the slightest. Perhaps my expectations were too high, but Lou de Laâge turns in a lukewarm performance. I just adored her in Breathe, but here she’s completely upstaged by Agata Buzek who carries the whole film for me. It’s a period drama on paper, but much like Raise the Red Lantern (except that The Innocents is based on a true story), certain scenes feel more like you’re watching a horror film. That’s when the film is best, but unfortunately, the third act totally changes tone and with it a major drop in quality. In fact, I found myself offended by the resolution whereas someone else in the crowd broke out in laughter. It’s unfortunate how silly and weirdly sweet it becomes because the first two-thirds are very strong.

On to the bad films! I’m a big fan of the novel Jesus’ Son, and we’re lucky enough to have a very good film adaption of a book that might seem to not be suited to a film adaption. When I saw that Alison Maclean, director of Jesus’ Son, had a film playing at the festival I made a last minute decision to catch her feature The Rehearsal. It’s about an aspiring actor, Stanley, who finds himself dating a girl whose family is involved with a sex scandal that has made national news. The naïve Stanley is tempted to use their trauma to create for a theater project in art school, but he’s too scared to ask his girlfriend for her permission. Hoping to impress his professors, Stanley goes ahead with the project without asking permission, and it unfolds in the most banal way possible. Featuring wooden acting, completely illogical behavior, and scenes that exist solely to move the plot along, The Rehearsal is so terrible that it’s baffling, and it had me wondering if I even liked Jesus’ Son like I think I do.

Even worse than The Rehearsal was Women Who Kill, a feature about two ex-lovers, Morgan (Ingrid Jungermann) and Jean (Ann Carr), who host a podcast together on female serial killers. Morgan starts dating a new girl, and Jean becomes convinced that the new girlfriend is a serial killer. Jungermann wrote, directed, and starred in a film that is both full of itself and doesn’t have much to say. It’s an obnoxious feature that seems rather judgmental of other lifestyles, and really into its own, very obvious, sense of humor. I have little patience for its shortcomings, as it both mocks its own culture while reinforcing said culture’s values. (This film totally reinforces the gender binary in a way that I find offensive.) Although it’s a bit more competently produced, I’d rather rewatch The Rehearsal, as at least that film had good intentions and something to say—it was just terribly misguided in its attempts.

watch-new-international-trailer-for-the-chaser-director-hong-jin-nas-cannes-ready-thriller-the-strangers-7-1000x520As for the male-directed features, Na Hong-jin’s third feature, The Wailing—a Korean horror epic with elements of a crime drama—had a lot of seemingly positive buzz around it, but I can’t say I liked it. Both the story and the characters are thinly written, resulting in a film that isn’t sure what it wants to be and feels over-inflated considering it has a nearly three-hour runtime. On the other hand, the cinematography deserves much praise, and it’s occasionally quite funny. I find this one tough to recommend as it’s hardly memorable, but it did leave me curious about Na Hong-jin’s other films. Another horror film, The Eyes of My Mother from first-time director Nicolas Pesce, had me writhing in my seat. It is very graphic at times, but most of the horror comes from the way Pesce uses sound. He’s very talented in that area, and some of his scenes are stunning to look at. I found myself wishing the film had no dialogue, as that would have made the bad parts of the film less glaring. The acting was poor, the psychology left much to be desired, and it includes some rather trite dialogue. Here’s hoping Pesce gets paired with a good scriptwriter. The Eyes of My Mother makes a good case for him in those regards.

Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World, Werner Herzog’s documentary on the internet, is just as much about human beings as it is technology. It’s meandering at points and it’s not exactly going to teach you much about the internet, but it’s Herzog doing fabulous interviews with clever staging like he always does. I expected more references to Snowden and a more cynical look at the digital era, but Herzog is really balanced in his approach. At points, he gets so excited about what he’s talking about he does lose some credibility, but this is perhaps the greatest filmmaker alive we’re listening to, so there’s really nothing lost in those moments.

your-name-680Elsewhere we have Makoto Shinkai’s Your Name, which has made a huge splash in Japan. It’s a science fiction romance film about a young boy in Tokyo and a young girl living in a rural town who switch bodies in their dreams. At times, this is played for laughs, and it’s good fun when it does, but overall, it’s a big-hearted film grounded in how seriously it takes the lead character’s emotional realities. There are some achingly sad moments. I’ve been a big fan of Shinkai’s 5 Centimeters Per Second for most my movie-loving life but have always cringed when people dubbed him the next Miyazaki. That’s like saying someone is the next Walt Disney. Impossible! Shinkai is smart enough to often correct people in interviews saying that it’s an “overestimation.” Well, perhaps Shinkai and I are wrong because it’s the first non-Ghibli film to make over ¥10 billion yen, and it truly is an impressive work. Shinkai’s films have always been stunning to look at, but none of them have been half as good as 5 Centimeters Per Second until now. It’s clearly going to be a new anime classic, but I’m not certain if it’ll have the ability to transcend the typical anime fan base the same way Miyazaki’s and Satoshi Kon’s films have. There are about three too many montage sequences scored by a Japanese rock song (Radwimps, for you J-Rock fans out there) for that kind of appeal. Each sequence is very well done and appropriate when they happen, but it’ll alienate a non-anime crowd despite how objectively gorgeous every frame is.

lifeafterlifeMy first impression was that Zhang Hanyi’s Life After Life is an impossibly good and very tender picture, and it became even more special when I realized it was Hanyi’s first feature. You don’t have to take it from me though, this one’s produced by Jia Zhangke, and it was translated by Tony Rayns. That’s two names I’d follow anywhere. Hanyi seems to draw from Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s style; reincarnation is a heavy theme here, there are unexpected moments of deadpan humor, and it’s a ghost story. Hanyi might not have totally found his style yet, but that’s not at all a slight on Life After Life. It’s not one to miss when it makes its way to the States. It’s lingered with me longer than everything else I saw at the festival besides the new Jim Jarmusch film, Paterson, which stars the unstoppable Adam Driver. It’s about a bus driver with a deep passion for poetry, but who is too scared to share it with the rest of the world. In a way, he’s beyond needing to because he writes poems for himself. Paterson is an ode to a city and sends the message that art is for everyone. What a dream it is to have Driver in a Jarmusch film, and even better that it’s my favorite film of the year. I must have seemed like a weirdo to the person next to me because I caught myself more than once moaning with pleasure—like I was eating a tasty treat or something. It may only be October, and we still have Oscar season coming, but it’ll be real tough for something to top the experience I had with it. | Cait Lore

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