Glasgow Film Festival 2020 round-up

Another packed Glasgow Film Festival came to a close last week, recording its largest audience yet with over 43,000 attendees. Films about a female astronaut preparing to leave earth and a care nurse communing with God were among the highlights

Article by Jame Dunn | 10 Mar 2020
  • Saint Maud

Queues were longer than ever at this year’s Glasgow Film Festival, and we can’t just attribute this to the event’s record attendance of 43,147. Getting into the gents' toilets at the GFT was particularly tricky, thanks mostly to men adopting more rigorous handwashing practices – every pandemic has a silver lining, we suppose. There were lines around the block too for GFF’s daily morning screenings for retrospective Are We There Yet?, which invited audiences to take in dystopian classics like Children of Men, Soylent Green and Logan’s Run, which imagine rather grim futures for humanity – we don’t have to guess what drew huge crowds to these films in 2020.

Particularly popular was Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker – 260 people made that 10.30am screening on a Tuesday. This 1979 masterpiece follows three men as they trudge through a wasteland to experience something transcendent. At GFF, you didn’t have to look quite so hard to find gold in the programme. The festival kicked off in fine style with Proxima (★★★★), in which a female astronaut (Eva Green) has to deal with the ingrained sexism of her profession (Matt Dillion plays a chauvinist colleague from the States) and the added trauma of having to leave her eight-year-old daughter behind on her year-long mission to the International Space Station.

French director Alice Winocour is proving a dab hand at delivering genre cinema centred on the psychological turmoil of its protagonists. Her 2016 thriller Disorder took us inside the troubled head-space of a bodyguard (Matthias Schoenaerts) tasked with keeping the family of a Lebanese businessman safe, although he seems more dangerous than any home invader, and Proxima is a similarly idiosyncratic approach to the space movie. There’s little suspense as to whether the mission will be a success – Green’s character, Sarah, is an excellent astronaut and engineer.

Almost all the tension is generated from the separation of mother and daughter, and the guilt Sarah has been ingrained to feel by a society that asks women to abandon their dreams when they have children. Green, who’s never less than magnetic on screen, gives one of her most nuanced and touching performances here, quietly emoting her pain at being cleaved from her child while also expressing her anger that society makes a dream like travelling into space so much harder for her than her cocky male colleagues.

Saint Maud: 'Travis Bickle with a Welsh accent'

Less subtle was the wildly unsettling psychological horror Saint Maud (★★★★★), the first feature from Rose Glass. Following an opening image of bloody carnage, we’re transported to the Spartan digs of Morfydd Clark’s Maud, a tightly-wound palliative care nurse in some unnamed seaside town. She’s a deeply religious young woman, but her sarky narration suggests she’s not as pious as she might appear. “I hope you will reveal your plan for me soon,” she says rather impatiently to her Lord.

When she meets her new patient Amanda (Jennifer Ehle), a former avant-garde dancer clinging on to her hedonistic ways despite her terminal illness, Maud’s callous message to the man upstairs is “I dare say you’ll be seeing this one soon.” She soon warms to Amanda, however, when she gets it into her head that her mission from on high is to save this sinner’s soul.

Maud is essentially Taxi Driver’s Travis Bickle with a Welsh accent. As in Scorsese’s film, Maud’s saviour complex emanates from feelings of intense self-loathing. There are shades of Polanski's Rosemary's Baby too in the subjective filmmaking style and in the claustrophobic atmosphere Glass creates in Amanda’s grand home.

It’s often hard to tell if what’s going on onscreen is real or all in Maud’s head. When Amanda gifts her nurse a glossy book of William Blake art, the baroque imagery of his paintings seem to seep into the scream. Soon Maud is seeing signs from God everywhere, from the whirling of the clouds on an overcast day to the swirling of dissolving paracetamol in a glass of water (another nod to Taxi Driver). This subjective nightmare will surely end up being among the great debuts of the year.

Perfect 10, Roses

Perfect 10 (★★★), the first feature from Scottish director Eva Riley, is another subjective film from an isolated young woman’s perspective. The focus is 15-year-old Leigh (newcomer Frankie Box), a talented gymnast from Brighton going through a crisis in confidence thanks to a combination of grief (her mother, who got Leigh into the sport, recently passed away) and merciless bullying from the other girls on the squad. Leigh finds a champion in Joe (Alfie Deegan), her roguish half-brother she didn’t even know existed, who comes to stay with Leigh and their hands-off father (William Ash).

Riley’s style is clearly indebted to the work of Andrea Arnold – not just in the handheld intimacy of Steven Cameron Ferguson's cinematography, but in Riley's eye for capturing bodies in motion and a lyrical blend of urban and rural imagery – and Perfect 10 doesn’t wear its influences lightly. Despite the unoriginality in style and a plot that offers few surprises, Riley’s roughhewn poetics and the expressive performances from the cast, Box in particular, make Perfect 10 worth your time.

A fresher take on female coming of age was Rocks (★★★★), from Sarah Gavron. A social-realist film with energy and wit, it concerns the East London British Nigerian teenager of the title, who finds herself in increasingly desperate straits after her mother disappears one day. This leaves Rocks (Bukky Bakray) and her chatterbox younger brother to fend for themselves. She has a tight-knit friendship group, but as the film goes on Rocks becomes more isolated as she tries to avoid neighbours and social services finding out she’s been abandoned. The film is at its most electric, however, when Rocks is surrounded by her pack of pals, with Gavron’s documentary background surely helping her capture the girls with such authenticity.

Promising Young Woman, How to Build a Girl, Strange Days

We’ll say one thing for GFF: their choice of Surprise Film is rarely bland. Previously they’ve shown films like Inland Empire, Spring Breakers and Takashi Miike’s 13 Assassins to unsuspecting audiences and this year’s choice is similarly prickly: comic rape-revenge thriller Promising Young Woman (★★). The film is bracing and funny, and has a ferocious turn from Carey Mulligan in its favour. 

Mulliganplays a med school dropout who spends her evenings pretending to get hammered in local bars, where, inevitably, a white knight will offer to get her home safely while hoping to take advantage of her near-comatose state in the process. Writer-director Emerald Fennell is never quite brave enough to reveal what Mulligan’s character does to her victims but the biggest cop-out comes with the ending, which manages to be both so bitter it curdles the whole picture but also cowardly in its crowd-pleasing wish fulfilment.

There was disappointment too with closing film How to Build a Girl (★★). Based on the semi-autobiographical novel by Caitlin Moran (who also wrote the screenplay), the film fails to find a cinematic form as bolshy and funny as Moran’s prose. Director Coky Giedroyc instead goes for a more cutesy route, relying on celebrity cameos and a breakneck pace to paper over the screenplay’s lack of depth. The film also suffers by casting American star Beanie Feldstein as the Moran surrogate. Feldstein has charm and energy to burn, but no amount of Hollywood-charisma can overcome her hopeless attempt at a Wolverhampton accent.

Our final day at GFF could not be dampened, however, as we were still hyperventilating from the screening of Strange Days (★★★★★) that morning. Kathryn Bigelow’s much-misunderstood sci-fi neo-noir drops us, from its opening seconds, into the chaos of LA during the last few days of the millennium.

Ralph Fiennes has never been better than as Lenny Nero, the sleazy peddler of black market virtual-reality fantasies, which Angelenos are lapping up to escape the reality of race riots and police brutality on their trash-strewn streets and boulevards. Even better than Fiennes is Angela Bassett as his kickass friend and sometimes driver, who gets all the best action scenes while Fiennes’ Lenny takes a beating. On the surface, Strange Days is a trashy 90s action movie, but make no mistake, Bigelow has as much to say here about American politics as she does in her more prestigious efforts like Detroit and Zero Dark Thirty.

Glasgow Film Festival 2020 took place 26 Feb to 8 Mar; GFF will return 24 Feb to 7 Mar 2021