London Film Festival 2016 Dispatch #2 - The Way of Nature and The Way of Grace

Eglantine, the first feature from artist and filmmaker Margaret Salmon, is full of love - love for nature, love for the family, love of earth and love of the land. A warm and sensuous film, Eglantine could best be described as "a healing film" - one that, as it radiates with calmness and purity, restores the senses and the soul through the viewing of it.

Bookended with readings from Robert Louis Stevenson texts that talk of the wonderment of exploration, Eglantine begins in strict documentary fashion. Salmon sets up the confines of her experiment - a camping trip in the Scottish wilds with her children - with the kind of transparency about the methods of production that artist filmmakers seem to favour: shots where the camera is dropped, clapper board is in view, or the orangey texture of light passing through film eclipses the frame. Quickly though, the perspectives shifts from Salmon's own to that of her daughter Eglantine, and the film drifts into more interesting, entrancing magical realist territory.

Using the camera to appropriate the wonderment of childhood, Eglantine drifts through a journey that mixes tropes of the childhood film with a semi-ethnographic approach, Eglantine wandering away from her basecamp and into the wilderness. As the child explores her imagination, the landscape and the creatures and people she encounters, Salmon creates a wash of natural images, textures and sounds around her, a kind of sensory tapestry of wildlife that reflects the splendour of naivety. Here, instead of the undergrowth feeling perilous as it can in many children's adventures, the mystery Eglantine encounters is less a source of fear as promise, her innocence lending a tranquility to how she experiences the world around her, and how Salmon relates that in her colourful, romantic photography and fluid, dreamlike approach to editing and sequencing.

Eglantine's closest cousins are perhaps the films of Jessica Sarah Rinland, another UK based artist-filmmaker whose practise often involves close engagement with nature and harks back to simpler times, or, looking further back, even someone like Mary Field, a forerunner of wildlife television whose work humanised nature for younger audiences. Indeed, the film's main actors are the creatures that come inbetween Eglantine's wanderings. Credited alongside the human actors at the end, the list of animals featured is long and varied, and footage of wildlife fills out Salmon's feature in a manner that, depending on your affinity for animals, may feel like padding to reach feature length or an affirmation of the filmmaker's belief in a kind of oneness of mankind and the natural world.

Shot entirely on 35mm film across a variety of serene, enchanting Scottish locations, Eglantine is a beautiful film to look at. It's arguable that it isn't too much more than that, and that even at 70 minutes it's a little stretched. Then again, it's humble and beguiling, and creates a world that is a delight to be absorbed into for the duration. What more is needed?

The new film from Terrence Malick, Voyage of Time: Life's Journey - a 90 minute version of a 45 minute IMAX project, itself an extrapolation of the 'creation of life' sequence in Tree of Life - too concerns itself with the natural world. An expansive, non-linear exploration of the myriad delights of our universe, here Malick eschews any interest in narrative specificities, and instead builds a kind of Malickian Planet Earth, substituting Sir Attenborough's precise, informative narration for the more speculative, searching whispered form that have overlain his last few films. Read here by Cate Blanchett, the voiceover, sporadic as it is, is arguably Malick's most reaching - lines like "you devour yourself, only to give birth to yourself again" are hard to extract meaning from, and easy to mock.

The images though are conversely difficult to resist, as is the sense of wonder and joy with which the director imposes upon each and every object, place, person and moment he depicts. Whether CGI dinosaur, neon-lit jellyfish, volcanic eruption, subatomic structure or galactic particle, each and every fragment in Voyage of Time is treated as sublime spectacle, depicted with a richness and splendour that few image-makers can match. Jumping around in space and time, from landscape to creature, out of the microscopic and into a celestial level, Malick (and his team of multiple cinematographers, edit assistants and visual effects specialists) sequence everything with a remarkable fluidity and congruence, switching from high-definition recorded footage to constructed CGI images through almost indiscernible transitions.

It's dizzying, heady stuff - a cosmological, ontological journey that, if often more than a little silly feeling, is consistently beautiful and occasionally entirely breathtaking. It isn't however, much of a novelty and certainly not a film that does anything to subvert any expectations anyone might have of the filmmaker. The problem is not that Malick is making anything anywhere near bad, though those who accuse him of veering into self-parody will find much to reaffirm this belief here. It's more that a once singular, truly exciting filmmaker who could be expected to bring something new with each project has become entirely predictable. So much so that you could more or less describe the precise shape and content of Voyage of Time from reading a basic outline of the project. The reality of the film may induce wonder, but it likely won't surprise.

This was originally posted on the Shooting People blog.

Show Comments