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The Cloud of Unknowing: The Best of the BFI Film Festival

Ghosts in the aisles, people reclaiming their pasts or searching for resurrection; here is the phantom presence of cinema itself.

This year’s BFI London Film Festival finally got me back into the cinema. It has been eighteen months since I was in there and as I made my way through the two weeks, film after film, I started to go a little crazy, to connect all these seemingly disparate films together. I started to see the ghosts in the aisles of the cinema, people reclaiming their pasts or searching for resurrection; cinema itself trickling down the walls like the blood or sweat of the building was seeping out. In a seizure of synchronicity, I was forced into a trance, maybe never to return.

“Whatever you do, just try to make it sound like you intended to write it that way.”

There is one thing for certain, for better or for worse: there is nothing unintentional in Wes Anderson’s films. No life-changing epiphanies will be had during The French Dispatch, a restless labyrinth of an anthology film set behind the scenes of the final issue of a fictional literary magazine. But here he is in an unapologetic stream of Andersonisms and Andersonschisms, a palette of flavours you know, the fuzzy recipe of ennui and melancholia that is burned into Bill Murray’s dead stare, Frances McDormand’s wrinkles, and Owen Wilson’s nasal husk. It's like comfort food. Fuck it, soul food. And I'm a glutton for it. The French Dispatch is an overstuffed, overwhelming avalanche of detail and description – an omnibus framed between the pages of The New Yorker or The Paris Review (culture, politics, food) blown out into a living, breathing pantomime: a tribute to journalists and writers everywhere.

Anderson has always felt (to me) to be a literary filmmaker (not in the novelistic, Tarantino way), but in the Sontagian sense – where his winding essayistic stories follow themselves down rabbit holes of discovery, creativity, and imagination in ways that make the word “linear” lose its definition; where mechanistic interiors spill out into a macaroon-dyed material synecdoche of lavish, intricate sets, costumes, characters, and neat-o little stories culminating here in a big, breakneck expression of humans connecting with other humans. There is maybe a meaningful center to this film, about creating and making and connecting through those creations, but it doesn't matter. Trying to recommend this film to someone comes down to just asking, “do you like Wes Anderson’s films?” It’s as simple as that.

Seeing this film at LFF was sort of a beautiful experience. At my first film festival as press, queuing for hours in the cold, with relentless early morning starts, far away from the red-carpet glitz and glamour, this film reminded me why I was doing it: for the love. For the art. For the magic of it. And no one captures that mystery, that magic, quite like Wes. May God bless this man and his silly little movies.

'The French Dispatch' directed by Wes Anderson

And fuck it if I haven't fallen in love with the cinema all over again. As The Souvenir Part II finished playing, I almost forgot how transcendent of an experience good cinema could be. Playing in the dollhouse of your own past can’t be an easy thing, especially when it’s this dark. But Hogg cuts through this darkness with the light of a projector onto a bright wall in a dark room, rolling through a delirious synthesis of memory and imagination, where feverish film grain pervades 16mm images like a nervous schoolgirl trying to feel her way through a presentation in front of her class. Where the first film explored the lopsided power dynamics of Julie (Hogg's cinematic stand-in) and Anthony’s relationship, part two is Hogg taking back control. She is in the director’s chair, and her shaky, self-serving memorial becomes a monument to moving on beyond the point where you finally grow up. And shows what it means to actually follow through on that.

As a coda to a coming-of-age story – filling in the ellipses more than fleshing out an “etc.” – this is a tighter but less restrictive film, more focused and suitably more accomplished (as Julie grows as a filmmaker, so does Hogg). It’s funny that a lot of the criticisms of the first film were about denying the way Julie incredulously loved Anthony – because here most of the characters voice that same disbelief. Hogg is exploring the irrational (what cinema is about) through an infinity mirror, a kaleidoscope of memory and reality – a film based on a true story about a character making a film, which is itself a reimagining of the director’s own student film. There is a raw power in this fusion of fact and fiction. And though neither resolves that loss or grief, her reality is redeemed through the frame, her story is finally reclaimed.

Just as Pablo Larraín does the same in his ‘fable from a true story’, Spencer, conjuring a world where past, present, and future flow into one another during a gathering of the Royal Family over the Christmas weekend following a private scandal. Roaming the manor halls is the phantom-like Princess Diana (played by a pitch-perfect, pale-faced Kristen Stewart, skin stained with camera flashes, and dissolving behind glassy eyes and shaky speech), fluctuating between her world before this weekend, and what her world will soon become. She is torn between torment and resilience, life and legacy, reality and performance; stuck somewhere between a sort of death and rebirth. Much like the film's soundtrack itself, composer Johnny Greenwood melts and tangles together erratic, discordant jazz with a sensuous orchestral arrangement, see-sawing between the classic and the new. Tradition begins to disintegrate, the score simmering underneath swooning cinematography, creating a volcanic tension ready to erupt. Diana is at once an ornament on a shelf, but also a sculpture that refuses to be molded, to surrender. Instead, there is a temptation to explode.

There is poetry in pain, and Larraín is a master of extracting it. This could be seen as the second half of a cinematic diptych: the heads to Larraín's Jackie’s tails (remember, currency is key here). If Jackie is a story of grief, then this is one of acceptance. Both are stories of women being reborn out of ashen relationships with their powerful husbands; moments in time burned into national identity, of what happens when those personalities start crumbling down. When that façade is shattered, when we see that the royals are more than just faces on currency… why do we react so harshly? This is myth scaled down to a manageable level, yet still, even three days in Diana’s life, or a week in Jackie’s, seems unbearable.

'Spencer' directed by Pablo Larraín

Adapted from a short story by Haruki Murakami, Ryusuke Hamaguchi's Drive My Car is a tale of loneliness. Yusuke, a theatre actor and director whose wife has recently died, takes a job in a new city where a mosaic of different people’s private lives and their inner landscapes are revealed like overlapping and superimposing channels or a choreographed archipelago of secrets and lies. So aware, yet so oblivious, to the world around him, Yusuke becomes receptive to his constantly changing perceptions and the need for creating fictions to be able to process the world and people around him; to this fluidity of reality, and the worlds he creates on stage, "about essence, rather than truth." Where acting, and becoming somebody different, is a chance to reinvent past lives as lampreys or teenage burglars or whatever you want to be. There is something erotic about this plasticity, something so charged about slowly peeling back the layers of your own past – as if undressing – as Yusuke recounts how his wife would come up with ideas for screenplays during sex, remembering how "she’d grasp a thread of a story from the edge of orgasm and spin it."

Murakami’s stories are always plagued with things that are missing… in Burning (the other great Murakami adaptation) there is a literal missing person. In other stories, it can be more vague: the dead missed and grieved for, people searching for missing puzzle pieces to a mystery, or even the missing pieces of themselves. Here, Yusuke is haunted by the ghost of his dead wife. Her recorded voice recites lines on a tape played in the car while he is driven by a young driver. These car rides are where confessions are drawn out of the characters, slowly, painfully (yet somewhat cathartically), in some sort of complex surgery of the soul. Confessions that reveal how much was missing from his knowledge about his wife and projected onto the purely non-physical space she now occupies. He has manifested an idea of her, even when she was there, rather than seeing her for what she was. And that thinking devours itself, in an act of complete self-cannibalism…

When confronted with the subconscious, when it’s banging from the inside of your head trying to get out, suddenly fantasy and nightmare become indistinguishable, as it does in Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s uncompromising Memoria, an elusive film rescued – or pried – from the fog of a half-remembered cocktail of Xanax and spirits (a sort of insomniac vision crystallised from Borge’s hopelessly unlimited impossibilities). As if tuning into an ancient radio broadcast, Tilda Swinton’s ex-pat Jessica is awoken by a thunderous sonic boom that only she can hear. In a world where meaning drowns in a stream of becoming, amidst that senseless exhaustion of possibilities, the noise seems like a purposefully impossible thing to decode.

The film itself will only be released in cinemas, touring in one cinema at a time in a “never-ending release”. Which makes sense for the film. Sitting in total darkness, in a very large room, listening to the almost silent opening shot, where you can just about hear the blood coursing through the character's veins, I became aware of my own blood in my veins, and I could hear myself blink when – BOOM. Maybe that’s just how ghosts speak. Ghosts and memories and vibrations are the very corporeal essence of slow cinema. Feel your heartbeat slowing and forget your desire for understanding. Where history, memory, and dream all coalesce, where the living and the dead, past and the present meet in a constantly flowing, ceaselessly echoing stream both ambient and sensory is where the unspoken mysteries of existence lie. Weerasekathul gently gazes into this impossible place with a stoic stare, imprinting the answers onto Swinton’s sleepless, skeletal eyes (there’s a reason she features in three films on this list) and in her ghostly movements and alien expression. To try to translate the impossible, or at least to come to terms with the transcendent, to accept the thing beyond mere description, is like grasping at thin air, a thought that is both haunting and moving.

I'm bathing in my own somatic presence, purged by silence, swimming in the moment of the film, the film as a moment, film as event, film as a flash of light in the dark; a movie which is now just a memory. “What is there to understand?”

'Memoria' directed by Apichatpong Weerasethakul

“There is no darkness but ignorance,” writes Shakespeare in Twelfth Night, “ignorance” being something that, to Shakespeare, is something not static, coming to everyone in different vibrations. And that darkness is never more present than in The Tragedy of Macbeth. Painted in black and white and stained with red, Joel Coen’s first outing without his brother trembles with roaring anguish, as sound echoes around the tight 4:3 frame, where water drops sound like mountains falling and swords crash together with the force of the fires from which they were forged. Frances McDormand’s Lady Macbeth’s siren screams reverberate through the murky purgatory she finds herself in. Throughout the history of the story itself.

What could anyone bring to Macbeth that dozens haven’t before? Coen treats the Scottish setting like some ash-and-snow heaven-and-hell; Dante’s limbo as Brutalist structures casting luminous shadows over molten expressions. The crown weighs heavy on Denzel Washington’s Macbeth. The man here is a rugged brute. Hulking, heavy, stumbling through his de Chirico kingdom, only half lucid and blind with ambition, treading water in swathes of darkness. This is a film of contrasts: light and dark, good and evil, fate and choice. But The Bard casts fate as a burden, and wandering through this barren landscape, shot entirely on a Los Angeles soundstage, you begin to see that all the world's a stage, and wonder what the fuck it’s even worth fighting for anyway?

Here is Shakespeare stripped naked, bare, and reclothed in concrete and steel. Coen takes the play and sifts it, renders it out. He doesn’t blow up Shakespeare for the big screen but minimizes it. It’s an epic on the smallest scale, simply getting the fuck out of the way of the text. To not "overcolour the language" as cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel put it, saying, "what is a wall...? It's not stone or nothing, it's just a wall... the idea of a castle." The whole film is like a hallucination, a mirage conjured from Edward Gordon Craig’s sketches, from its lustful twisted expressionism to employing Lady Macbeth as 40’s noir femme fatale; it is a film C-sectioned from cinematic and theatrical history. Its optical poetry, its architecture of light, and Macbeth as the original idiot hero are not foreign territory for this particular filmmaker. Yet this feels like a dare. Like Coen is flexing his skills by taking on this rite. Like a minimalist mid-life crisis. Because how else would you fill your brother's boots than with the greatest writer of tragedies to ever live?

Nothing ventured, nothing gained.


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