London Film Festival 2015 Dispatch #2 - Visions of Hell

Moving onwards, more eclectic fare in a festival that caters widely. A seasoned auteur’s expansive, divisive vision of the state of affairs in his homeland (Arabian Nights, from Miguel Gomes) and a similarly confrontational, though decidedly smaller scale look at the tired state of the cinematic form from a relatively new one (Entertainment, Rick Alverson), as well as two oppositional takes upon the ‘horror’ form from two directors, one new (Robert Eggers) and one who has been away for a long time (Lucile Hadzihalilovic).

One of the more bewitching, singular films on display at LFF, and possibly also the most indulgent, Arabian Nights, from Portuguese director Miguel Gomes - split tripartitely but screened consecutively - ran six enchanting hours and captivated for at least four. Something of a sprawling state of the nation address from a director evidently entering the brazen, magnum opus seeking period of his career, Arabian Nights sees Gomes spin a number of ever unravelling yarns about Portuguese society as he sees it. Drifting wilfully between fact and fiction, modernity and “antiquity”, fantasy and reality, Gomes takes the devastating effect of a debilitating programme of economic austerity circa 2013/14 as the unifying factor.

These tales - some absurd (a rooster on trial for crowing turned town mayor, Portugal’s governors stuck with insatiable magic potion induced erections), some affecting (interviews with the recently unemployed, a beloved dog who transfers from one owner to another, offering relief amidst an otherwise miserable tower block complex), some fantastical (battles with wind genies, exploding whales and masked bandits confessing sins in high pitched squarks), and one bizarrely prolonged and inert (the perversely descriptive, ultimately touching, depiction of a community of competition chaffinch breeders) - are presented as tales from the tongue of Scheherazade (Crista Alfaiate.) A master raconteur storytelling to save her life, she appears frequently in some of the films most beautiful sequences. Each tale is entirely different to the last, and though variable in quality all have something to offer - some kind of recondite wisdom, oddball humour or emotional value - and as a whole they show Gomes at his most narratively disruptive, cinematically playful and, inevitably, also his most erratic and inconsistent. A film of bold colours and even bolder ambition, Gomes’ soundtrack selection in particular is phenomenal, transforming a tale from the ordinary into the distinctly extraordinary through some ingenious sonic-visual combinations.

Unlike Arabian Nights, it may be fair to say that Entertainment is exactly the film you would expect Rick Alverson to make following his debut The Comedy, but this is not necessarily a criticism. His style of endlessly protracted discomfort shows a gradually evolving nuance. Less directly confrontational but no less provocative than his first film, Entertainment sees Alverson again veer, often imperceptibly, between irony and seriousness, constantly and aggressively demanding the viewer to interrogate both his intent and their response. Gregg Turkington plays his alter-ego Neil Hamburger, an acerbic, mock-misanthropic road comedian whose entirely self aware act has him vomiting out venomous one-liners at consistently unappreciative crowds before berating them repugnantly for their indifference.

Off stage, Hamburger is found mostly moping around landscape tourist spots, captured by Alverson in painstakingly composed, wide angled frames presumably intended to send up a different, more classical type of art cinema than the modern american indie form that he deconstructed in The Comedy. (For instance, the most brazen piece of pointed mock-symbolism in Entertainment, has Hamburger wandering forlornly around a graveyard for crashed aeroplanes, and the most overtly mock-horror-surrealist moment has him deliver a baby, thick rimmed glasses splattered with blood.) Alverson has got to a point with his craft that its almost uncritiqueable, any seemingly flawed moment an expression of his condemnation of hack art cinema or an attempt to push it to its (un)natural limits, but it remains to be seen whether he can work in any other style or tone. Entertainment lacks the charged, highly targeted meanness that made The Comedy so special and timely - assassinating a generation obsessed with irony by imitating that mode - but is still effective when Alverson’s sights and Turkington’s performance align.

Certain to be a breakout horror success upon release, Robert Egger’s The Witch has the unfortunate problem of having generated so much hype that it is impossible to enter without the burden of preconception. After a rocky start - Egger’s tremendous mood building hampered by some unfortunately clumsy British accent work from his young American cast - The Witch moves into increasingly unpredictable, pleasingly volatile territory. Forging his own twist on the Salem trials, New England native Eggers’ film centers on a family situated there in isolation (recent UK émigrés, hence the accents) that find themselves plagued by a number of difficulties, starting with a ruined crop yield, the disappearance of a child, and only increasing in strangeness from then on. Inter-family squabbling shifts the culprit of their misfortune around, the family’s stringent Catholicism forcing them to be in constant doubt of their own sanctity and the guilt of one another. Eggers keeps his audience constantly guessing as to what form the witchcraft of the title may come in, what is explicable by natural laws or what might be the result of “unnatural providence.” Ultimately, evangelism, whether in devotion to god or the devil, proves the enemy, splitting the family apart and welcoming chaos into their life.

Eggers’ handling of tone is superlative, slow building through gradual, foreboding zooms against a wiry droning soundtrack that switches towards chaotic strings as the film breaks out into some genuinely horrific moments. The Witch, whilst maybe not entirely deserving of the many proclamations of ‘greatest horror film in years’ it has been receiving, is distinctly more inventive and surprising, as well as more atmospheric and well composed, than a lot of the films that get described in this fashion.

A much more slippery, complex affair, and as good an indication of the uselessness of genre classification as any, Evolution is Lucile Hadzihalilovic’s first film in ten years, and carries that sense of time-earnt gestation with it. Meshing a Cronenbergian predilection for exploring queasiness of the body with the calculated ambiguity of Jonathan Glazer’s Under The Skin, Evolution is an enigma that entrusts the viewer to decode, or at least accept, a series of inexplicable, increasingly disturbing and abstract images. Opening with some of the most gorgeous underwater photography ever captured, it’s a consistently stunningly shot film. Lit mostly by dim, natural types of light sources that are associated most with genre work, each sequence is composed obsessively, striking image layered one after another - unnerving, sickly imagery that is dually alluring and repulsive, sequenced as to instigate a sense of continual dread.

A world of liquid symbolism, oceanic, bodily and environmental, Hadzihalilovic paints an initially ascetic coastside scene of steadily decomposing disquiet that swells with barely sublimated sexuality. The anxieties prevalent at the onset of male adolescence are channelled through a boarding school for young boys ruled with a calm totalitarianism by a convent of red headed, pale skinned mother figures, unseen horrors hidden in the shadows of its dank, crumbling walls. By the end, what looks like a slow-reveal proves to be a no-reveal, as Hadzihalilovic refuses any obvious solutions to character origins, motivations or most other questions viewers may be expecting answers for. Directors with this type of arthouse sensibility can sometimes rely on a kind of lazy ambiguity - a refusal to provide meaning to match their visual imagination - but Hadzihalilovic’s film somehow evades this. The surface meaning is evident, yet an endless array of interpretative possibility is present, encouraged but not exactly necessarily in order to enjoy a sensualist’s treat of queasily sensorial sounds and images.

Striking, often assaultive imagery connects the four films in this batch. Four slightly indulgent, decidedly cinematic visions of differing kinds of horror - political, social, religious and bodily - from four image makers of varying styles and capacities. None of these films are easy orders, nor is any one entirely satisfying in its accomplishment, but all are well devoting some time to.

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