The second week of the London Film Festival opened with the winner of the Sutherland Trophy for the most original and imaginative first feature film, Tarnation. Jonathan Caouette’s highly personal experimental film is an edited archive of two decades of home videos, family photos, answerphone messages and telephone conversations.
The sexual violence, drug abuse and horrifying psychiatric treatment that have been part of director’s family life are all explained to the audience in short text summaries. The footage that follows each summary shows us the aftermath, the struggle to cope and Caouette’s desire to try to understand how all these small recordings trace the build up to his mother’s Lithium overdose in 2003.
In many ways Tarnation is not a very experimental film. Structurally it is edited chronologically rather than thematically and its narrative is driven almost entirely by onscreen text. The experimental quality comes from the way in which the footage is manipulated. Caouette’s memoires have strong echoes of Nan Goldin’s photography, of troubled faces with painful stories hidden behind them. The poignant soundtrack, which includes songs from Low’s ‘Things We Lost In The Fire’, provides further emotional force, making what is a brutally honest documentation of growing up without a mother into an entertaining narrative journey, using film to provoke a different understanding of a troubled existence.
Another exciting cinematic debut came from documentary filmmaker Saul Dibb. His first feature, Bullet Boy, is the story of a young convict’s attempt to stay out of trouble after his prison release. The dialogue, attitudes and North-London setting are all dramatised with a confidence that makes Bullet Boy much more than a simple tale about gun crime in the city.
Dibb’s documentary background comes through in his ability to get a sound grasp of the culture of London’s young black and unemployed. The language, values and aspirations unique to Hackney’s youth are captured with an accuracy that shows the filmmakers spent a lot of time with the people who inspired their characters. Not unlike Shane Meadow’s Dead Man’s Shoes, Bullet Boy is a great British film, capable of combining a well-written script with keenly observed social realism.
Foreign-language cinema headlined at the festival with Francois Ozon’s understated 5 x 2 as the French Gala. Ozon’s film takes four important points in the relationship between a married couple and presents them in reverse chronological order, making the impact of each episode gain more and more force as the film goes on.
Beginning with the signing of the divorce papers and ending with the first meeting, every episode starts off charting a comically bland event before taking a disturbing turn. Questioning marriage, routine and the value of fidelity, 5 x 2 takes the view that humans are ultimately different from one another, making a marriage’s commitment to fidelity compromised at the first opportunity to betray. Much closer to the pace and style of Under the Sand (2001) than 8 Women (2002), Ozon’s consistently bleak outlook in his films show an obsession with the emotional traumas that humans bring one another.
Easily the highlight of this year’s festival was Head On. Raw, rebellious and uncompromised, Head On is an intense journey into the lives of two suicidal outsiders linked by their Turkish ethnicity. After a chance encounter at a hospital they play along with the dogmatic cultural values of their fellow Turks in order to escape the pressures of tradition. With copious amounts of drink, drugs, sex and blood, this could not be more different from director Fatih Akin’s earlier feature Solino (2002).
Akin’s sharp perception of conflicts in cultural identity amongst migrant communities come through more clearly than ever in Head On. He questions the values of his own people, the Turks in Germany, fearlessly and provacatively. The two leads, played by Birol Unel and Sibel Kekilli, give fantastic performances as Cahit and Birol, the tragically rebellious characters which drive the narrative with immense force.
Perhaps the most tranquil film in the festival was novelist-poet Yun De Nanfang’s South of the Clouds. Xu, a retired factory worker who lives with his fitness instructor daughter in China, dreams of what could have been if he had moved to the coastal city of Yunnan as he had planned as a young man. With his daughter wanting to move on and set up her own business, his life has become painfully dull. In some ways a political satire, as well as a poem mulling on the lives of the China’s retired, Yun De Nanfang’s second feature is full of subtle humour. Slow paced, but charming.
With so many features films shown in two weeks it was a relief to see the Encounters shorts programme. Sadly, it was almost entirely made up of twist-in-the-tale comic dramas, most of which were not memorable. However, Marianela Maldomado’s British short ‘Breaking Out’ showed promise. It’s a tense and gloomy story portraying a day in the life of a lithium addict. Coloured in murky greens and blues, the filmmakers keep the uncomfortable tension up with scraping noises and delusional nightmares before the glorious rush of the ‘break out’ at the end.
Measured, beautifully shot, and using sparse dialogue, Sean Mewshaw’s Last Night also stood out. Adapted from a short story by James Salter, this high budget film about a woman with a terminal illness ending her life has a P T Anderson-esque quality to it. Worth seeing alone for a ghost-like Frances McDormand playing the woman living out her last night.
Closing the festival was the much hyped I Heart Huckabees, a farcical ‘existential’ comedy. A bizarre film in many ways, Huckabees great cast do their best to make humour based on applying existential philosophy to every aspect of life a success. The pairing of Mark Wahlberg and Jason Schwartzman (amazing as Max Fischer in Rushmore, 1998) as men grappling with their existence is particularly successful. Their unhinged characters really rally against corporate middle-American, giving voice to some strong political views on globalisation and suburban development.
The philosophy itself is fed to the characters by existential detectives played by Dustin Hoffman and Lily Tomlin, who make another great pairing. Chaotically, the characters begin their personal philosophical journeys just at the point where a conflict has emerged between the Huckabees corporation and the local community regarding building on protected marsh land. Essentially Huckabees is the classic Hollywood tale of the small group of outsiders being tricked by the big bulley into giving up something important. Director David O Russell makes the story more interesting by making a resolution to the conflict impossible without the main characters understanding the philosophical issues of their own existence first. Memorable, funny and fast-paced, I Heart Huckabees is certain to be a success.