London Film Festival 2015 Dispatch #4 - Of Lobsters and Horses

Two fractured coming of age tales, wide in scope and rich in feeling, that are both recognisable as traces of the nations that produced them; and two Greek films with British connections. One, a Film4 Co-Production that has a UK general release parallel to its LFF screening; and the other the recipient of the Official Competition prize at the festival, beating out Cary Fukanaga, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Terence Davies amongst others.

First the traditional. My Golden Days has Arnaud Desplechin in full Olivier Assayas mode, so much so that it is entirely possible to mistake it for one of Assayas' films. Showing the tempestuousness of youth through an expansive episodic structure that unravels Paul's (Quentin Dolmaire) disparate memories around a central affair with Esther (Lou Roy-Lecollinet), Desplechin catalogues a dramatic, tempestuous saga that stretched across only five years of Paul's life but has proved inescapable since. Early hip-hop and late disco soundtrack cues, along with elaborately composed mise-en-scene and set dressing establish the 1980s setting. Desplechin shows a time when distance relationships occurred over snail mail as much as train visitations, meaning the pair's fleeting romance lingers not only in their memory but also has the permanence of the handwritten word.

Paul - a character whose cool indifference to social and romantic mores is expressed directly through his two standard responses to all of the challenges life throws at him: "i felt nothing" or "life is strange," - is difficult to relate to, a smugly intellectual dillitant that admittedly matches well with Esther, a cocksure, initially distanced romantic who proves suffocatingly co-dependent once won over. As such, watching their ill-fated romance can prove as frustrating as much as it is invigorating. My Golden Days is a fluidly constructed melodrama with commendable scope and significant visual flourish, sweepingly entertaining in the moment, but after the fact, nothing that feels too fresh or, fittingly considering the theme of ephemerality, all that memorable.

Equally wide in scope, Sunset Song, a film that Terence Davies has spent 15 years battling to develop is an irresistible large screen experience, conservatively made but no less captivating for it. Shot in a mix of 65mm and 4K digital, cinematographer Michael McDonough captures the landscape - a beautiful melange of rolling fields, crops lulling in the wind, and sweeping highland vistas - with a breadth and scale that makes a fitting counterpoint to the intimacy of the story. Adapting what he describes as the "greatest work of Scottish literature," the titular novel by Lewis Grassic Gibbons, Davies works off the principle that the turmoils, battles and maturation of lead Chris (Agyness Deyn), are an internalised metaphor for Scotland as a whole. In Davies' Sunset Song, evidently a passion project of the highest personal significance, land and self are very much intertwined, and Davies' evocation of both wavers between the sweepingly broad and the touchingly close.

Davies' adaptation is made of three distinct acts - Chris's relationship with abusive father (Peter Mullen in monstrous form), her meeting, courtship and marriage with Ewan (Kevin Guthrie), and their separation by way of the First World War - and he glides through them with commendable fluidity, covering a crucial five years of the girl's life and the significant changes that occur in her through this time. Small expressions - such as the way she bravely confronts her husband compared to the way she couldn't challenge her father earlier - show her development from frightened patriarchal subject to strong, independent woman in a film that is anchored by an exceptional, evocative performance from Deyn.

It might have been interesting to see Davies spin a more unconventional take on the source material, as this is a much straighter affair than Distant Voices, Still Lives or The Long Day Closes for instance. That said, the film holds significant emotional power. In lesser hands several very well measured moments at either end of the dramatic scale would not have anywhere near the impact or subtlety that Davies successfully imbues upon them. In the same way that Terence Malick's late films can divide audiences, some may find Davies style here of very earnest, very traditional almost-melodrama difficult to stomach, but those who find themselves taken in early will, by the end, be utterly devastated by this elegant, expansive film.

Onto the modern. Chevalier, Greek director Athina Rachel Tsangari's second film after Attenberg doesn't deviate too far from what has come, for better or for worse, to be expected of her and her contemporaries. A group of individuals with rebellious instincts (here 6 men, isolated from their spouses on a boat trip agree to follow a set of arbitrary, increasing illogical rules (the game of 'The Best At Everything In General' wherein everything they do - be it cook, talk, sleep, swim etc. - can be judged, ending with a rank order of them as friends, husbands and crucially, men.) Perhaps where this one differs is that these 'greek new weird wave' films have had a tendency to lean towards the anthropological, showing a perturbing lack of humanity in the treatment of their characters, but Chevalier is much warmer, Tsangari conveying care for her characters despite effectively ridiculing them. Curiously observational certainly, Tsangari's position as a woman embedded in a society of men allows her to extract and exacerbate, often very humorously, the most ridiculous aspects of the male competitive urge, exposing masculinity for the fragile shambles it absolutely is.

Tsangari's dialogues are sharp and often very funny, pitting the men's egos and anxieties against each other; and the format is tight and clever, effectively isolating the situation but having it near enough to reality to not feel entirely absurdist, like say Dogtooth, which Tsangari had a hand in producing. The trajectory of Chevalier seems to be building towards total insanity, but it never quite breaks in this way. The most outlandish of all the contests is an erection contest, the loser obsessing over his loss for the following days before hilariously brandishing his "gigantic erection" to his competitors. It is probably stronger for this "realism," emphasising that which Tsangari ridicules without stretching the metaphor out too far. Chevalier works as allegory, with Tsangari very careful to avoid encouraging any single reading of her film, but it also works as a straight comedy, even if the descent into madness the audience desires doesn't quite arrive.

More disappointing was The Lobster, fellow Greek expatriot Yorgos Lanthimos latest smugly distanced film. A jet-black comedy about the codification of romance, Lanthimos's film runs two hours but disappointingly makes the extent of its primary point - that relationships and matchmaking through shared interests and attributes is a ridiculous, limiting concept - within thirty minutes, and does little to elaborate or expand upon it after that.

Lanthimos' mirrors the societal stigmatisation of solitude by depicting a alternative reality where singletons are dispatched to a hotel/prison camp and forced to find a partner within 45 days, facing penalty of transfiguration into an animal should they fail to meet a person they share an arbitrary physical or personality attribute with. The funniest parts come in this first situation, a rogues gallery of desperate suitors feigning a match worthy trait in order to escape solitude. (Ben Whishaw slamming his face on a table to simulate a recurring nosebleed or Colin Farrell letting a potential partner nearly choke to death in a act of mock-detachment.) From here, Lanthimos then inverts his alt-universe, the film's latter half exploring a society of escapees from the society of forced companionship. Expectedly this supposedly free community follows as stringent a set of rules as the prisoners of love.

Another film about the deconstruction of communicative codes, both physical and verbal, The Lobster is probably the weakest of Lanthimos' films, if also the most ambitious. His first english language effort, Lanthimos cleverly dodges the dialogue problem many directors turning to a second language face by having the characters talk in a deliberately stilted, phrasally awkward version of English. (Secondarily, this creates the amusing irony of filling a film whereby non-acting, or at least acting in the least performative sense, is a requirement, with a huge, star studded ensemble cast, Colin Farrell as the centre.)

Dogtooth worked because the material required distance, with Alps and now The Lobster, Lanthimos faces the problem of applying icy detachment to material that requires some level of humanism, first with grief and now romantic companionship. The trace element of tenderness comes from Farrell, his eyebrow-heavy expressions and clumsy gut imposing a softness on the film, a gesture from a director perhaps becoming aware of his status as icy observer. Visually precise and fatiguingly droll, made with a continually smirking deadpan, The Lobster is initially quite comic, but by the end barely at all, more of a extended piece of misanthropic conceptualism than a film.

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