Faces & Fear: The Best of the BFI London Film Festival 2023
Repression's shadow dances in the frame, while complicity unveils the hidden truths of empathy. Cinema's back, baby.
Apt for a city famous for its temples of stolen bounty, London Film Festival's programme has swam - sheepishly between genre inflection - from Scorsese's sincere mea culpa, to Red Rooms' atrocity exhibition, and onto Steve McQueen's enquiry of testimonial disconnect, a spectatorial complicity that The Zone of Interest windlessly cements. As the human toll of Auschwitz is pitched into the mechanics of genocide (screaming wheels and people), its meticulous sound-design is kept howling beyond the windowpane, and observed - as if through glass - by inconspicuous cameras around a harrowing idyll. Glazer's film is, most prominently, this diegetic expression of the banality of evil, revising Arendt's theory of disengagement only with the guiltier one of abject repression. Arguably, like an eye (or house) bordered by four impenetrable walls, the camera's only mode is to repress truth, or, as described by Michael Haneke, to project "24 lies per second in [...] an attempt to find truth." What in one instance can be weaponised for fetish (the act of focussing so close on a subject that it alters) can, in another, double as a distancing device, armoured in the aegis of negation. Glazer eventually perforates this armour, roping in the viewers in a final act that remorselessly increases the camera's distance from the abhorrence that, as its title readopts, plays on our innate desire for horror: a slow turn prophesied by the screen burning totally white and silent illuminating only the audience. Like the sickness of living beside a mass crematorium slowly infects its occupants - revealing that it does, actually, and has always, reeked - these techniques double as both a prostration of shame and an accusatory glare. The transcendental gambit, in which one must hold (believe) one truth in the mind's eye, either fed or combatted by another on film, then effectively redirects the question "Why make this film?" into "Why watch it?" I have never wanted to leave a room quicker than once the credits rolled, as Mica Levi's postlude taunts a wailing Shepard Scale with the denied consummation of possible harmony, and young critics shuffled out toting rote banalities like "towering filmmaking." I too will claim pacifism to keep my hands dry, describe the smell of the flowers to ignore the colour of compost and transcribe theory like the smoke of fire.
And although nature, generally, is always in flux, there is a sense of the people who live by its stoic laws that they have achieved a stasis, a plateau, some kind of zen in the habitual mandala of life found in abiding by its cycles. Modern slow cinema, especially that chasing the same spiritual asceticism that Paul Schrader outlined in his Transcendental Style in Film, writing that "movies should be about symptoms rather than about causes," an idea which Sontag was simultaneously mulling in its extreme, writing, "art is not about something, it is something." If there is such a way for a film to earn its pace, especially one as starving as Ryusuke Hamaguchi's Evil Does Not Exist, then framing modern boredom as a crisis of meaning leaves us only to read this film as a test of our willingness to go beyond what we are given. Seeking to maximise the mystery of existence, eschewing all conventional interpretations of rationalism in lew of gradually replacing empathy with awareness, Hamaguchi finds little separation between Zen’s calm attentiveness and a state of undisturbed insularity, that once disrupted finds "an oasis of horror in a desert of boredom."
People observe, caught in mirrors and two-shots, observed by Todd Hayne's own camera in May December, a film that is about only ever being able to dig inches below the surface of another person and yet revels in the comedy that all we do is try. Julianne Moore's Gracie finds in the attentive face of Natlie Portman's Elizabeth her own identical smile communicating back to her with enigmatic gestures, instantly responding without her needing to make any movements first. Pre-empted or predetermined, the two become entwined in psychoanalytically rich ways. Though the characters are not going to have the answers, with a confliction of stories and pretence that leaves any narrative threads untied and frayed. It’s a genius marring of the form, using the artifice and language of camp, melodrama, and daytime soap opera as a vehicle for some sort of “truth”, the characters using acts of self-creation as acts of self-protection; finding freedom in their ability to narrow and frame themselves one way or another.
In William Oldroyd's Eileen, a film that wallows in the idea that you never really know people like you think you do, a blurred gaze that once focused, sharpens into a disappointing mirror and the realisation that the present is always also only a consequence. Thawing under the titular Eileen’s hot, naïve desire, one both as restrictive and liberating as the want that sets the estate on the northern moors to ruin in his debut Lady Macbeth, Oldroyd’s narrative is revealed, slowly, creakily, like the billowing choke of smoke or mist clearing away with a blue dawn. In the full ripeness of these intrusions—flush pink visions of not just what you want but being wanted—a hunger for passion that can only, eventually, erupt, either bodily or bloodily, logically seeking sin as salvation.
There is another candy-coated treatise of want, but one much less compelled by the glitzy possibilities of seduction but magnetised towards, as narrated in The Virgin Suicides, “Oddly shaped emptiness mapped by what surrounded them, like countries we couldn’t name.” My relationship with Lurhman’s Elvis starts and ends with the Doja Cat song from the soundtrack, and though the inevitable discourse of how Coppola has filled in the gaps with the more private moments of Sofia Coppola's Priscilla, the vulnerable side, of Elvis should serve to actually take away the importance of who this film is about, Coppola has always defined her lead characters by the space around them. Desire, no matter how infantilised, is hard enough to reckon with. Misplaced desire can rewrite your entire relationship with who you thought you were. It seems like Lurhman needed to keep this side of Elvis at a distance, to keep these question marks, in order for Elvis to remain sacred. By shading these parts in, Coppola finds beneath the lace and gingham something maybe even more interesting. Something human, and even more question marks.
“I am a phoenix rising from the ashes,” teases Georgie in May December, Gracie’s now-fully-grown son to her first husband, whom she left for a thirteen-year-old childhood friend of Georgie, Joe, two decades prior. It was a tabloid sensation, and in that, Gracie had to balance telling her story and having her story told on a knife’s edge. Along comes Elizabeth wanting to study Gracie in order to play her in a film; but Joe, uxorious and tranquil, is awakened to the cuckoo in the song of spring, heralding the spectre of cuckoldry in the season’s erotic frenzy, and learning about the Janus-faced nature of self-curation: are we connecting or am I creating a bad memory for you? Cut. Reset. Clean the slate. Get ready to go again.
Transformative shimmers beckon us to nightly bask in their glow. In Red Rooms, Pascal Plante's zeitgeisty fable of access and obsession/watched and watching - a smorgasbord of gleefully topical offerings from Johnny Depp thirst-trapping to Web3's lying licenses - its Luciferian illuminations are the hypnosis of false homecoming. Giallo pomp revels in an eerily familiar descent of the irrevocably transgressed: one YouTube video too deep, one porn page too far, one identity overworn; torch scorching retinal data - found also in the glitch tracing of The Beast, Bertrand Bornello's net gain portraiture of a new objectivity, manifesting in the digital mosh of incels, doll factories, and a film that "follows a small group of elderly 'Peeping Toms' through the shadows and margins of an unfamiliar world."
What Harmony Korine’s Trash Humpers has to do with a film whose Geiger counter measures the pulse of two lovers’ heartbeats stretched thin across three lifetimes, is likely little more than a meta-joke rather than the key to unlocking its fairy-tale logic, but it does feel more valuable when you understand the synchronicity of Korine’s idea that his EDGLRD experiments are “just a very kind of also based cinema” and Bornello’s osmosis of a “red-pilled” audience (signposted by a beautifully timed Dasha Nekrasova cameo). Working through the stratum of the past, at the ragged edge of its existence, Bornello discovers what is material will disintegrate. It’s a novel cannibalisation of new constructs, but paradigms that are so pervasive it feels like they've always been here. Angela Carter once wrote “Ours is an orgiastic, not an ecstatic culture”, one that is siloed within itself and always in perpetual motion (birthlovedeathbirthlovedeathbirthlovedeath; shoot a gun and feel the wet seed of your own mortality in your pants). Desire breeds an anxiety of rejection, and one that isn’t desensitised by technology, but amplified. In the film’s opening shot, Léa Seydoux wanders through a seemingly infinite greenscreen, stalked by a beast in the form of a shadow. Her scream gets lodged in a crunch of pixels, as the screen compresses and the shot sucks itself into the glitch, into its own digital corruption. Korine's relationship with the digital has become a new playground for an artist who has always seen cinema as we know it to be in its infancy. I'm not suggesting Bornello has predicted a 'new type of cinema' in what is ultimately a fable about presence and emotion, but in its vertiginous and exultant circularity which twists into a corrosive narrative, there is some psychic beauty to how its spiral echoes what is yet to come.
There’s something about dealing with bodies at their end for a living that is inherently clinical, surgical, where making a science of extremity actually breeds an excessive normality. There is a point when it is explained that for the action that sets off David FIncher's The Killer—Fassbender’s titular killer missing his target—the consequences are “automatic”. That’s all there is to this film, a complete stripping away of any malevolence, of any sense of justice, or morality (even in a relative sense), into something automatic, and giving us not the barebones of a revenge film in the sense that John Wick or even Oldboy builds something muscular from the most rudimentary skeleton, instead Fincher finding more tension in watching vultures tweezer out the marrow from its bones. Matched in the strictness of Fincher’s own OCD-coded directing style, The Killer is almost rote in its Sisyphean skit of a man who is neither as mechanical nor as detached as he thinks he is, and whose journey is ultimately unrewarding. Automatic. His voiceover repeats, mantra-like, “Stick to the plan. Anticipate, don’t improvise. Fight only the battle you’re paid to fight. Trust no one,” even as he proves that trying to follow your own advice is like going to the devil for answers. These hushed, private rules are a glimpse inside a mind you’d rather not be inside, but once you’re in the darkness, your eyes adjust.
But while Fincher’s vision of a professional contract killer is a deliberate, incisive fantasy built on the mechanical oscillations of a man whose self-awareness lies only in the lacuna of his physical body, Richard Linklater’s vision in Hit Man is of one who creates the fantasy to fill that painful cavity. “I’m pretty sure movies invented hitmen, they aren’t real,” says Linklater, more interested in the cinema’s obsession with hitmen than a fine-grained realism, landing on some endpoint of culture’s Chinese whispers about the men who kill people for money and spinning it into a comedy of the anxiety of conscious mortality. Linklater and Powell’s commedia dell'arte of cops and criminals (the ego and the id) is likely only vaguely interested in the individual’s faint influence as a minuscule actor in a boundless stage, but it’s a testament to Linklater that he may have unknowingly done exactly that.
Its embarrassed violence is smeared across time, echoing the orphaned technicolour child of The Archer’s Michael Powell (an aberrative miss after an uncompromising string of bullseyes), Peeping Tom lenses fear as an object of and reason for obsession; abstractly, it might make sense why a proto-slasher-satire would unnerve a 1960 British council of critics, but in reality, this perversion of artistic creation (and destruction) killing Powell’s career feels like a mean joke; martyring himself in a gothic mew to your own creature, Frankensteinian in both form and content, manifesting Shelley’s perennial, Oedipal prophecy: “what you make will haunt you”. As a function of storytelling, satire forces you to sit with something reprehensible that is constantly shifting between entertainment and confrontation, and is defanged by the idea that depiction of something constitutes tacit glorification (perhaps why both Powell’s widow, the great Thelma Schoonmaker and Martin Scorsese, who oversaw the recent mass restoration of Powell and Pressburger’s films, find themselves reflected in this, having been scarred by this polemical misunderstanding, from Goodfellas all the way to The Wolf of Wall Street); satire is cruel, and in one where film’s own violent cutting, splicing, bleeding celluloid razor-wire, and blinding projector lights turn on their wielder, feels especially worthless yet potent, to unintentionally film a self-portrait of your own career suicide. Art imitates life imitates art. We watch the watcher. We create the creator. We resurrect the dead.
Unlike the wonder-beasts of Hayao Miyazaki's earlier works, The Boy and the Heron's Heron quickly loses its majesty. In Spirited Away, No-Face maintains a wolfish terror despite the truth of its rabid robe. The Gray Heron simply derobes, climbing out of its beak an impotent wizard without the stoicism of our tortured protagonist, Mahito, or the crackling elegance of the sorcerers that sail his pelagic fantasy, as if those that straddle the countries of dreams and reality are, after all, the most ugly of us - unable to keep homestead in the latter, unable to dissolve utterly into the first. Alongside a structure that abruptly unravels from Miyazaki's heretofore most granular film his heretofore most translucent, the heron's reveal is appropriately conflicted for the artist who seems to resent his own dutiful carving of imagination, and for a man who looks on the earth mournfully: wistfully awe-struck by an effervescence he knows he is complicit in slaughtering. Like a trap-door, reviewing The Boy and the Heron's haunted tower, taunts one to derive a craftsman's epitaph, and then there's the film's original title, How Do You Live? Through a world intuiting tempo beyond sense, how do we? Miyazaki's repeat retirements ('Mononoke was once declared his final film, 26 years and 6 features ago) don't seem to be an attempt at mystique: Ghibli documentary The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness reveals someone plagued by melancholy and indecision, who makes films for children but thinks it is cruel to bring children into the world. Who chain smokes but loves trees. Who hates filmmaking but handdraws every frame. It's that, then, if I had to guess: reverence despite doubt, for even the cruel and the small. In my favourite scene, Mahito equips himself with a bow-and-arrow to confront a dreamworld he knows is a lure for his grief. Patiently, curiously. The scene goes like this for five, maybe ten minutes, brimming with Miyazaki's respect for the ephemera of good work: sparks beneath the hammer, ripples on water, shavings of wood. Whilst a camera creating fiction must excavate a reality already before it, the animator faces the most daunting proposition of a blank page. Anything dreamt can be exhumed from its surface, yet Miyazaki has never wielded this responsibility wildly. He has worked diligently, across thousands of frames, to refine a dream, and revering the dream's ephemera of doubt like the dust of a pencil's granite.
What you believe runs beneath the hills also flows through your veins. The soul of Osage, as Lily Gladstone narrates early in Martin Scorsese's Killers of the Flower Moon, is as plain as day: the land, fire, the moon, and the flowers it scatters "like candy" on the steppe. But the turning of the soil happens only in the dark; extinction: that is done in secret, conspired beyond focus in wool suits, turning family to strangers and painting them white. Settler colonialism fingers out the wound of violence, bloating the word, and now there are many different ways to kill someone. With slow devotion, for example, in marriage like a bounty, with sickness disguised as medicine and curse disguised as child. With a corpse in the river source creek. As a malady so ailing the hills that murdered women can be traded for "white law", liturgy and courthouses and formaldehyde. Their grief comes on the wind first as a whistle but it is enough. More than enough to fill the silence of men who cannot cry, who cannot be taken by a storm in silence to God because in absence of a human din they believe the drums have dropped out. The rhythms of Martin Scorsese and Thelma Schoonmaker's montage is illusion, the beat of forgetting a dream. Earlier in their collaboration, it was because of this editing's cardiac high that Goodfellas could arrest, its blood cooling into the realisation of dawn. Now, Scorsese is interested in bloods of a slower ilk, slitting the skin of his scenes to haemorrhage across the run time - one into the next - as crimson paints devils on sheets: the you in their prayer, the price of forgiveness, the ire of the land. A cruel timekeeping that announces itself - like the FBI arriving to a blood-soaked crime scene impossible to placate - as a funeral procession, too late. The truth was as plain as day: the film's first scene sees the Osage burying their language in the augured soil.