Friday 25 March 2022

The World to Come (Mona Fastvold, 2020)

The entirety of BFI Flare's Best of Year strand will be screened on Sunday, which marks the close of this year's edition of the festival.  The strand's title is quite self-explanatory, and this roundup of highlights from the last 12 months features the likes of animated docudrama Flee and Pedro Almodóvar's Parallel Mothers—two high-profile films that have enjoyed considerable success over the past year or so.  While anything in Best of Year is likely to be worth seeing—the section also includes acclaimed prison drama Great Freedom—the real gem in the strand takes the form of Mona Fastvold's outstanding second feature The World to Come, a film that was granted the most modest of theatrical releases before landing on VOD.  In placing The World to Come in Best of Year, Flare's programmers have both recognised its greatness and provided a rare opportunity to see Fastvold's film on the big screen.  As with every film in this strand, tickets for The World to Come have sold out, but it is always worth checking for any returns that may become available—or you can rent (or buy) the film from iTunes.

Set in the mid-19th century, The World to Come focuses on the hard, isolated and cheerless lives of those working the American frontier, with Abigail (Katherine Waterston) and Dyer (Casey Affleck) eking out a living on their remote New York homestead.  When their young daughter Nellie (Karina Gherasim) dies of diphtheria, Dyer and Abigail are quietly devastated; he was always a man of few words, and although it feels as if Abigail is much more talkative, much of what she has to say is presented in her diary-fuelled voiceover.  It is through this means that the grief-stricken mother offers a number of stark revelations: for one, Nellie's death has disabused Abigail of any notion of a better world to come, hence the film's title.  Abigail lives her life both in her head and through her private journal, and she places great emphasis on what is written down; more than once, she wonders if she makes any sort of appearance in the ledger in which Dyer tallies up the farm's income and expenditure.  And speaking of tallies, it isn't long before another enters the film: Tallie (Vanessa Kirby) and her husband Finney (Christopher Abbott) move into a neighbouring farm, and it isn't long before the couples become acquainted over dinner at the new tenants' place.

The confident, spirited and chatty Tallie is markedly different from Abigail, whose life of drudgery is now punctuated by brighter episodes as Tallie makes frequent visits to Dyer and Abigail's farm.  As with their wives, the two men are very different characters: the taciturn Dyer, while vaguely resentful of the time his wife spends with her new friend, always remains a polite, respectful presence, whereas Finney is a spiteful, controlling man hiding behind a veneer of respectability.  Dyer's main flaw is that he doesn't really understand his wife (or himself, for that matter), and while he hopes for another child with Abigail, he gives her time and space as she mourns Nellie; Finney, on the other hand, views his own childless home as an aberration for which Tallie must shoulder the blame.  Furthermore, while Dyer keeps careful records of his crops and animals, Finney puts similar effort into logging his wife's whereabouts, and his suspicions increase as Tallie and Abigail spend more and more time together.  It should be said that Finney's concerns aren't unfounded, as by this stage the two wives have become much more than friends, and while both women appear to have found happiness in this relationship, Tallie's husband has no intention of accommodating a fairytale ending.   

The performances are uniformly excellent, with Waterston particularly impressive as the deep-thinking Abigail, a sensitive woman largely at odds with her unforgiving surroundings; Oscar winner Affleck, who also produced the film, is careful not to distract from the two players at the heart of this story, yet his subtle supporting turn remains a low-key delight.  It is a great pity that The World to Come has slipped between the cracks opened by the various COVID-induced lockdowns; additionally, several other, recent period lesbian dramas, most of which were inferior to Fastvold's film, all received wider publicity and distribution.  It is by no means inapt to claim that The World to Come is a significantly stronger work than both The Favourite and Ammonite, and it fully deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as Céline Sciamma's sublime Portrait of a Lady on FireThe World to Come's inclusion in this year's edition of Flare will hopefully reignite interest in what is a moving, lyrical and haunting work.         

Darren Arnold

Wednesday 23 March 2022

The Divide (Catherine Corsini, 2021)

The Divide, which screens as part of this year's BFI Flare from March 25–27, is director Catherine Corsini's 14th feature film.  Incidentally, each of Corsini's two most recent efforts starred a prominent Belgian actress: Cécile de France headed the cast of 2015's Summertime, while Virginie Efira played the lead in 2018's An Impossible Love.  For her latest film, Corsini has opted for Franco-Italian actress Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi, a performer who might best be described as an acquired taste; over the course of her not inconsiderable career, Bruni-Tedeschi's performances have ranged from reasonably affecting (5x2) to downright insufferable (The Color of Lies), and you're never quite sure what she's going to deliver.  The same cannot be said for Bruni-Tedeschi's co-star in The Divide, the terrific Marina Foïs, who manages to light up pretty much anything she appears in.  Although these two actresses boast radically different styles, their pairing here proves to be a highly effective one.

Foïs' Julie and Bruni-Tedeschi's Raf are a couple at the terminus of their relationship, and the former has already made plans to move out when Raf falls, fracturing her elbow.  Julie arrives promptly at the hospital where Raf is being treated, whereupon it becomes clear that the clingy patient plans on using this injury as leverage—yet it's equally apparent that the accident has done little to change the state of the relationship, which itself could be said to be in need of emergency treatment.  Of course, and as anyone who's had to get in line for urgent care will tell you, the wait in ER can be both long and fraught, and it's going to be a while before Raf's wound is tended to; there's a glimpse of a display board indicating a current waiting time of eight to ten hours.  Among the other patients waiting to be seen is Yann (Pio Marmaï), a truck driver and apparent hothead who has sustained some nasty looking leg injuries; yet as his initial aggression subsides, Yann enjoys several conversations with the talkative Raf.  

As you'd expect, there are many members of staff circulating among the patients, and one of the most prominent is Kim (Aïssatou Diallo Sagna), a diligent nurse who attends to seemingly countless patients over the duration of her shift.  Although the situation in the hospital is suitably stressful in its own right, Corsini cranks up the tension by having the night in the ER unfold against the backdrop of France's "yellow vests" protests—which by this stage have turned very ugly, with violent clashes between police and demonstrators occurring in the streets close to the hospital.  While we're waiting for these two pressure cookers to collide, a link between them is already present in the form of Yann, who is in fact a gilet jaune whose leg was injured by shrapnel as he scuffled with police officers.  Those inside the hospital follow the running battles via smartphones and TVs, yet we're painfully aware that it won't be too long before the ER's staff and patients will be able to view the mayhem without the need of technology.  Many characters come and go, but the film always keeps its main focus on the quartet consisting of Julie, Raf, Kim and Yann.

With The Divide's portrayal of both the emergency room and the gilets jaunes, Catherine Corsini has in effect doubled down: either of these stories, as depicted here, could easily make for a breathlessly fascinating film without the other.  While both of the film's two distinct sides make for compelling viewing, it's the stretches in the ER that prove to be stronger; perhaps this is to be expected, given that the film was made during lockdown, a period in which the filming of already-taxing crowd scenes would have involved yet more logistical challenges.  But the sequences inside the hospital are little short of electrifying, with an endlessly busy camera capturing the frantic essence of both emergency medicine and those who administer it.  The performances are strong, with the non-professional actress Aïssatou Diallo Sagna—a  real-life nurse who deservedly won best supporting actress at last month's Césars—warranting a special mention for her portrayal of the seemingly omnipresent Kim, a character who is at the very centre of the film's most intense moment.  Expertly made, urgent and taut, The Divide is a draining tour-de-force.  

Darren Arnold

Monday 21 March 2022

The Novice (Lauren Hadaway, 2021)

Lauren Hadaway's compelling debut feature The Novice, which plays at this year's BFI Flare on March 21 and 23, is a highly assured psychological drama, one that examines the sporting obsession of a young student.  In a way, the film is the antithesis of current cinema release The Phantom of the Open, a crowd-pleasing comedy based on the true story of likeable chancer Maurice Flitcroft, a man who'd never played golf yet somehow managed to blag his way into the prestigious British Open.  Before the tournament, Phantom's protagonist made a few half-hearted attempts to get to grips with the sport, with his weak and minimal efforts standing in stark contrast to the blood and sweat spilled by The Novice's Alex Dall (Isabelle Fuhrman), who is focused on the relatively low-stakes prize of a place on the university rowing team.  On the basis of Dall's gruelling routine as evidenced here, one shudders to think of the lengths she might go to if she had rowing's equivalent of the Open in her sights.    

Dall is an unsmiling freshman who works incredibly hard in class; on more than one occasion, we see her toiling away in an empty lecture theatre long after her fellow students and TA have called it a day.  Yet these academic endeavours pale in comparison with Alex's monomaniacal focus once she signs up for the rowing team, seemingly on a whim—as with The Phantom of the Open's hapless Flitcroft, Dall has no experience of the sport she's signed up for.  As the novice of the title, Alex is treated with disdain by the established members of the varsity team, although this does nothing to discourage the new girl, who barely seems to notice the stream of barbs and digs sent in her direction.  Rising at an ungodly hour to take to the rowing machine and/or water, Dall pushes herself so hard that her two coaches (Kate Drummond, Jonathan Cherry), who are so used to squeezing every last drop of effort from their charges, implore her to take it down a notch or three.

As Alex's efforts intensify, so does the viewer's feeling of unease; The Novice may begin like so many American college movies, but a real sense of foreboding gradually creeps in, and we begin to dread the ritual of Alex unlocking the gloomy boathouse, which occurs in an eerie early morning half-light in which a Lynchian jump scare seems not only feasible, but probable.  Although by no means an example of body horror, the film only grows more visceral as Dall's once merely sweat-drenched skin acquires raw, painful-looking blisters; there's also a fairly graphic scene in which Alex engages in self-harm.  Given that Dall tackles rowing with an almost religious fervour, it's hard to shake the idea that she's a flagellant, not unlike the one seen in another recent psychological thriller—which was also a debut feature—Rose Glass' outstanding Saint Maud.  Furthermore, Alex's seemingly arbitrary decision to take up rowing could be viewed as her answering a calling, of sorts.

While her raison d'être is to reach the pinnacle of the sport, Dall appears to gain no pleasure from her punishing training regime, and she seems to exist in a vacuum where the act of rowing is performed purely for its own sake; the other members of the team may as well not exist, and the real world, for the most part, melts away.  The Novice would make a good, if rather intense, double bill with The Perfect David—another title on offer at this year's Flare—in which a teenage bodybuilder goes to inordinate lengths in order to achieve what he deems to be the ideal physique.  Both films recall Gerard Johnson's excellent, unnerving Muscle, which also begins in a very real and recognisable world, only for the quotidian to take a back seat as a full-bore nightmare swirls around its protagonist.  Fuhrman, previously best known for playing the title character in the 2009 horror Orphan, gives a truly committed performance as the obsessed Alex, and director Hadaway ensures that the rest of the film complements this troubling, riveting turn.   

Darren Arnold

Images: BFI

Saturday 19 March 2022

I Want to Talk About Duras (Claire Simon, 2021)

The renowned writer Marguerite Duras enjoyed both a successful career and a highly eventful personal life, and it is the latter that forms the focus of Claire Simon's I Want to Talk About Duras.  Simon's new film is not concerned with the author's teenage escapades in Indochina—that much-publicised period was covered in Jean-Jacques Annaud's eponymous screen adaptation of Duras' The Lover—but rather examines the relationship between the writer and youthful Breton Yann Andréa, a Duras überfan who, after many years of correspondence, found himself in the rather surreal position of sharing a home and bed with his idol.  There was an age gap of nearly half a century between Andréa and Duras, both of whom are now deceased, and their unlikely union could be compared to the one experienced by the title characters in Hal Ashby's Harold and Maude.  Simon's film, which screens as part of this year's BFI Flare on March 20 and 22, concentrates on Andréa's 1982 interviews with Marie Claire journalist Michèle Manceaux, during which the subject spoke candidly about his then-ongoing relationship with Duras.  

I Want to Talk About Duras isn't the first film on this subject: 2001's Cet amour-là, which starred the legendary Jeanne Moreau as Duras, also set about telling this most atypical of stories; coincidentally, Moreau served as the narrator for The Lover.  I Want to Talk About Duras differs from Cet amour-là in a key sense: Duras herself is largely absent from Simon's film, although the author does appear via archive footage that underlines some of the points being made in the interviews.  Instead of focusing directly on the author, I Want to Talk About Duras places Swann Arlaud's Andréa and Emmanuelle Devos' Manceaux front and centre, although Duras' presence is still keenly felt; not only is the writer the main topic of discussion, but we can hear her clumping around on another floor of the home she shares with Andréa.  What's more, she frequently resorts to a disruptive tactic in the form of calling the telephone which sits just next to her partner.  As such, Duras is a ghostly, unnerving presence, one who always seems to be hovering around the edges of the action.

For a film centring on Marguerite Duras to relegate the title character to the periphery seems rather perverse—doubly so when it stars the incomparable Emmanuelle Devos, whose casting here tantalisingly hints at what she could have done if handed the role of Duras (anyone who doubts Devos' suitability for such a part need look no further than her terrific turn as Violette Leduc—another author who was no stranger to scandal—in Martin Provost's excellent biopic Violette).  It is to Simon's great credit that I Want to Talk About Duras survives both this daring move and the equally bold stroke of splicing in a sequence from Duras' 1975 film India Song, which practically invites the viewer to think about which film they'd rather be watching.  Devos' Michèle Manceaux doesn't have to say a great deal while her tape recorder absorbs Andréa's thoughts on Duras, but there are numerous occasions when the camera remains fixed on her face as she listens intently; Simon clearly understands how best to use Devos' wonderfully expressive features.  

Much of what Andréa has to say conjures up a most unflattering picture of Duras, who is painted as a domineering control freak, one who dictates virtually everything in the relationship, ranging from Yann's diet to his sexuality.  It's a disturbing arrangement, yet one in which Andréa seems to have found some sort of contentment—even if he fails to truly comprehend the setup's unwholesome nature.  With this film, Simon has set herself several stiff challenges—in this sense, it recalls Lars von Trier and Jørgen Leth's The Five Obstructions—but what is perhaps the biggest potential pitfall of all comes in the form of the film being a two-hander, a format which may be fine for the stage yet often founders in the far less forgiving medium of cinema.  Simon sidesteps this by opening the film up whenever a flicker of staginess threatens to creep in; in addition to the aforementioned extract from India Song, there's a mesmerising crepuscular scene detailing Mancieux's walk home after a long day of interviewing.  Of course, much can be overlooked in a film starring these two fine actors, and Swann Arlaud exudes the same sort of sensitive fragility he channelled so effectively in François Ozon's outstanding By the Grace of God.  Despite the myriad obstacles Claire Simon places in her own path, I Want to Talk About Duras is an engaging, invigorating work.

Darren Arnold

Images: BFI

Thursday 17 March 2022

Fanny: The Right to Rock (Bobbi Jo Hart, 2021)

This hugely enjoyable documentary—which screens as part of this year's BFI Flare on March 18 and 19—charts the rise, demise and resurrection of Filipina-American rock band Fanny.  It is probably quite accurate to take the view that Fanny were, and are, something of a band's band, and this conclusion is borne out by the parade of talking heads that populate Bobbi Jo Hart's absorbing film; among those interviewed here are producer Todd Rundgren, Kate Pierson of the B-52s, Bonnie Raitt, Def Leppard's Joe Elliott, Earl Slick, and Gail Ann Dorsey.  Of course, the band themselves do much in the way of talking here, although original member Nickey Barclay is conspicuous by her absence; word has it that Barclay is quite happy for her time with the band to stay firmly in the past.  Although Fanny are a very different act from Canadian heavy metallers Anvil, whose career was given a tremendous boost by the release of Sacha Gervasi's excellent Anvil! The Story of Anvil, it is easy to imagine Hart's film similarly renewing interest in its subject. 

Fanny were formed in California in 1969, with the initial lineup consisting of Barclay, Alice de Buhr, Brie Brandt, and sisters June and Jean Millington.  Shortly before the recording of Fanny's debut album—they were the first all-female rock band to release an LP through a major record label—producer Richard Perry, firmly of the opinion that the group would fare better as a four piece, dismissed lead vocalist Brandt (who would return a few years later to take de Buhr's place on drums).  Five years and as many albums on, Fanny called it a day, and the final incarnation of the band featured Suzi Quatro's sister Patti, who had replaced June Millington.  Ironically, Fanny's biggest hit arrived in the wake of their split, with "Butter Boy"—penned by Jean Millington about her ex-boyfriend David Bowie—climbing into the Billboard top 30.  Although Fanny were the envy of many musicians—after all, they had a multi-album record deal and got to tour the world—it's clear that they never made the impact they, and many others, felt they deserved.  

The band actually enjoyed more success in the UK than in their native US, with the glam rock stomp of their later recordings proving popular with British audiences of the time, and Fanny recorded their third album in London's Apple Studios, with longtime Beatles engineer Geoff Emerick lending his hand to the production; fittingly, a Beatles cover ("Hey Bulldog") was included on the record.  If these recording sessions formed a link between the group and the UK's greatest-ever band, Fanny had an even stronger connection to Britain's greatest-ever male solo artist: for decades after his relationship with Jean had ended, David Bowie championed Fanny's music, and it's obvious that he genuinely considered them to be criminally underrated.  Jean would go on to marry and have children with Bowie's guitarist Earl Slick, who is good value in Hart's film, as is the Thin White Duke's bass player Gail Ann Dorsey. 

On the evidence presented in Fanny: The Right to Rock, it is not difficult to understand what Bowie saw in this band; Fanny were incredible musicians and songwriters, and it is highly unfortunate that they first appeared during a period when it was hard for an all-female rock band to be taken seriously.  While Fanny may have been ahead of their time, they paved the way for other bands such as the Runaways and the Go-Go's, whose respective frontwomen Cherie Currie and Kathy Valentine are featured here; they and all the other interviewees offer useful insights, yet the film's standout presence comes in the form of the witty, engaging and charismatic Brandt.  Happily, Fanny: The Right to Rock proves that the band weren't content for their story to end in the mid-70s, and Hart follows the efforts leading up to the formation of Fanny Walked the Earth, a new iteration of the band which saw Jean, June and Brie record together for the first time in nearly half a century; the resulting self-titled album—like the film that documents its making—is a very strong work, one that should see Fanny receive the recognition that unjustly eluded them first time around.

Darren Arnold

Images: BFI