LFF 2014: The Old Guard
A roundup of the established auteurs who were flogging their wares at this year's London Film Festival
Goodbye to Language (Jean-Luc Godard)
“I hate characters,” a woman states in Goodbye to Language, and it’s clear she is speaking on behalf of her director. Jean-Luc Godard has little use for characters, narrative or drama these days – at least, in our conventional understanding of those terms – and instead his films exists as a multi-layered fusion of words, images, sound and ideas. Goodbye to Language is a challenging experience, but it’s also Godard’s most playful and endearing picture for years. This has something to do with the disarming presence of his dog Roxy Miéville, but primarily it's down to the fun the director has with his new toy: 3D.
Godard’s first 3D feature is, as you’d expect, unlike any other use of the technique that we’ve seen, with one confounding (and eyeball-straining) effect sure to be a major talking-point among audience members afterwards. Even at a brisk 70 minutes, Goodbye to Language is dense with too many ideas and innovations to unpick on one viewing. One thing’s for sure: this old dog still has plenty of new tricks. [PC]
Timbuktu (Abderrahmane Sissako)
One of the many memorable sequences in Abderrahmane Sissako's Timbuktu depicts a group of teenage boys playing football without a ball, as ball games have been outlawed by the jihadist regime, some of whom were earlier seen debating the merits of Zidane and Messi. In such moments, Sissako brilliantly highlights the absurdities and contradictions of these zealous attitudes for comic effect, but he also depicts with lucid anger the suffering faced by ordinary people whose lives are destroyed by the sharia law imposed upon them. A beautiful interlude showing a group of friends playing music in their home is followed by a harsh punishment being administered to them; a woman who declines a marriage proposal is taken into wedlock by force; a child is left alone to face a future we cannot imagine. Shot with a brilliant eye for composition by Sofian El Fani, Timbuktu is an essential work; it's a vital plea for understanding, compassion and peace that is marked by a deep wisdom and humanity. [PC]
The New Girlfriend (Francois Ozon)
Francois Ozon favourite subject is the fluidity of sexual identity and desire. He’s been playing with this theme since early short The Summer Dress right up to last year's Young & Beautiful. It’s at the heart of The New Girlfriend too, which centres on the relationship between Claire (Anaïs Demoustier) and David (Romain Duris), the husband of her recently deceased best friend, which takes a turn for the intimate when Claire discovers David dressing up in his dead wife’s clothes.
Loosely based on a Ruth Rendell story, Ozon’s film quivers between psychological thriller and playful farce. Initially it appears David cross-dressing is a coping mechanism, a way of keeping his wife alive. But from his deft matching of accessories and graceful way in which he moves on heels, we guess this isn’t his first time in garters. Claire’s motivation for encouraging David’s female alter-ego are hazy too: is she after a new BFF or new lover? When Claire’s husband (Raphael Personnaz) gets in on the action, it becomes difficult to keep up. But then that’s Ozon’s point: human sexuality is alway in flux – go with it. [JD]
Tokyo Tribe (Sion Sono)
Bringing “slammin’ beats from the ass-end of hell”, Sion Sono’s manga adaptation Tokyo Tribe is a hysterical hybrid of The Warriors, Yakuza movies, and Escape from New York, spliced with video games Jet Set Radio and Streets of Rage, and a dash of Scott Pilgrim. Also, it’s a candy-coloured rap-battle musical where maybe 15% of the dialogue isn’t sung or grunted to some kind of beat. So in that sense it’s like The Umbrellas of Cherbourg but with added beatboxing, tanks, Clockwork Orange-riffing human furniture, and virgin sacrifices to Satan.
For those willing to fully embrace the two hours of constant extreme but tight formalism, which can admittedly be exhausting on occasion, Sono’s delirious oddity of gang warfare and renewed hope offers a phantasmagoria world unlike anything else visualised in live-action cinema. There’s one real bugbear, though: there are a little too many references, depicted or uttered, to sexual violence aimed at women, which sits uncomfortably alongside the film’s more cartoonish brutality elsewhere. [JS-W]
White Bird in a Blizzard (Gregg Araki)
Closer in spirit to his Mysterious Skin than The Doom Generation, White Bird in a Blizzard sees director Gregg Araki adapting a Laura Kasischke novel and applying his trademark gifts for depicting both the sweet and the sour of adolescence. Beginning in the late 80s, it sees 17-year-old Kat (Shailene Woodley) going through a big sexual awakening while reckoning with her mother’s sudden vanishing, which follows years of increasingly strange behaviour towards both her daughter and the husband (Christopher Meloni) she seems to despise.
Mother Eve is played, predominantly in flashback and dream sequences, by Eva Green on an acting register suggesting Faye Dunaway dropped into a Douglas Sirk melodrama, but not always as compelling as that sounds. Woodley leaves a better impression, but, like Kat describes her stoner boyfriend, what’s behind the surface of Araki’s film is just more surface. Little of its psychological explorations hold great weight and its mystery elements are fumbled by Araki's louder directorial instincts. [JS-W]
HARD TO BE A GOD (ALEKSEI GERMAN)
Aleksei German spent 15 years directing this adaptation of the classic Russian sci-fi novel only to die before its release. Few filmmakers could imagine creating a more detailed, distinctive and expansive swan song; it can fittingly be called the work of a lifetime. Taking place on the planet Arkanar, a fetid Medieval hellscape vision of what our own planet would be like if there had been no Renaissance, it follows a scientist from Earth who has installed himself as a ruling lord with the intention of leading and guiding but in practice is simply struggling to stay afloat in the squalid swamp.
Touching on themes including primal wretchedness, anti-intellectualism, corruption and brutality, the film is a three-hour wasteland of violence, faeces, vomit, spit, non-sequitur and fourth wall breaking. It’s bewildering, darkly hilarious, something of an endurance test, and made with such epic scale and precision that it’s also breathtaking. [IM]