Thursday 13 October 2022

Herbaria (Leandro Listorti, 2022)

Amsterdam director Leandro Listorti's new film stands as the lengthiest work in his oeuvre; while he's previously made a couple of longer form movies, including 2018's The Endless Film—which, despite its title, did actually conclude after less than an hour—Herbaria tops them all in terms of duration, even if it does clock in at a scant 83 minutes.  Given that we've long since been in the age of the bloated running time, there's something refreshing about Listorti's approach of forgoing the filler in favour of simply saying what needs to be said.  That said, at no point does Herbaria feel rushed or overly pragmatic; rather, it's a contemplative, somewhat ethereal essay film, one that makes its important points with grace and subtlety.  Herbaria screens at the London Film Festival on Sunday—which marks the close of this year's edition—when it plays alongside Seaweed, an engaging short documentary on farming the marine vegetable of the title.

Both Seaweed and Herbaria are part of the festival's Experimenta strand, and as such rub shoulders with the likes of comic-fuelled collage The Blue Rose of Forgetfulness and James Benning's much-anticipated The United States of America.  Over the years, I've found that Experimenta has thrown up some real discoveries—often at a point when festival fatigue is threatening to kick in—and it forms a fascinating part of the LFF programme.  Moreover, some of the titles shown in Experimenta are quite rare; much to my chagrin, I still haven't tracked down a copy of a terrific film I saw in the section all the way back in 2013.  Experimenta presents something very different from the narrative cinema that forms the bulk of the festival's offerings, which may well explain its appeal, and it's a strand that makes you feel compelled to take a chance on what it serves up; such practice is actively encouraged by the sale of the Experimenta pass, which entitles you to three screenings for a very reasonable £21. 

Herbaria is wholly concerned with preservation, both filmic and botanical.  While these two endeavours may seem disparate, Listorti is able to pull them together in a way that is as cohesive as it is surprising, with the overarching theme being the large-scale extinction of both plant species and movies.  The film looks at ways in which such declines can be arrested, and early on an explicit connection is made between Herbaria's two areas of interest: film is susceptible to fungus attacks on account of the coating of gelatine it bears on its surface.  It may surprise many to learn both that film contains gelatine (so yes, there is no such thing as vegan film), and that it—just like plant life—can be ruined by fungal problems; forget the threat that is vinegar syndrome for just a moment: in Herbaria, we witness alarming footage of fungi destroying an old reel of film, the unpreserved contents lost forever.

While it's far more likely that a film festival will attract many more cinephiles than botanists—and chances are that this majority will be more taken with the side of Herbaria that's explicitly concerned with cinema—the film's message regarding plant life is one that everyone would do well to listen to; since 1750, more than 500 species of plant have become extinct, and Listorti's film highlights the measures in place to ensure that yet more flora doesn't suffer the same fate.  The efforts taken to preserve and catalogue all manner of vegetation, as evidenced here, are quite remarkable, with the dedication on show recalling another LFF 2022 title, the excellent Geographies of Solitude, in which naturalist and environmentalist Zoe Lucas logs virtually everything that grows (or is washed up) on a remote Canadian island.  Like Geographies, Herbaria was shot on film, which lends an organic, tactile quality to this quietly impressive work.     

Darren Arnold

Images: BFI

Tuesday 11 October 2022

Peter von Kant (François Ozon, 2022)

François Ozon is nothing if not prolific, and Peter von Kant, which screens today at the London Film Festival, marks his 21st feature film; an impressive tally, given that his first full-length effort, the singularly unpleasant Sitcom, was released a mere 24 years ago.  Ozon's next feature but one after Sitcom, Water Drops on Burning Rocks, was an adaptation of a work by Rainer Werner Fassbinder—a filmmaker who cranked out films at a rate that makes even Ozon look like a slouch.  For his latest feature, Ozon again looks to Fassbinder, whose 1972 film The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant is given a makeover in which the title character, as evidenced by the slight tweak to their name, is now male.  Fassbinder's film was an all-female affair, and although Ozon doesn't go as far as to completely invert this setup, his take on the story primarily focuses on male characters.  

It appears that much of the reasoning behind this bold decision is so that Petra can be conflated with Fassbinder, with the resulting Peter played by the superb Denis Ménochet.  Ménochet has given many fine performances in recent years, including his turns in both Custody and Ozon's outstanding By the Grace of God.  He appears to be having a great deal of fun as the main character in Peter von Kant, who is a monstrous, cruel and self-centred filmmaker ostensibly intent on turning Amir (Khalil Gharbia) into a movie star—although it is quite clear that his interest in this young man is more personal than professional.  A mainly silent witness to the drama that unfolds between Peter and Amir is present in the form of the director's factotum, Karl (Stefan Crepon), who observes the histrionics in a calm, detached manner while attending to the whims of his waspish boss.

Peter, Karl and Amir are counterbalanced by three female characters, all of whom are related to Peter: his cousin Sidonie (Isabelle Adjani), his daughter Gabrielle (Aminthe Audiard), and his mother Rosemarie (Hanna Schygulla).  All three have an impact on the increasingly drink-addled filmmaker, who appears to have no line of demarcation between his work and home lives.  That said, virtually the entire film sees Peter camped out in his apartment, which is perhaps to be expected when you consider that the film(s), like Water Drops on Burning Rocks, started out life as a Fassbinder stage play.  But Ozon is too savvy a filmmaker to allow Peter von Kant to carry the air of a filmed theatrical performance; rather, in what might appear to be a counter-intuitive move, he leans into the artifice, in the process creating a compelling, claustrophobic work, one that replaces both the staginess and iciness of Fassbinder's film with the keen sense of mischief prevalent in many (but not all) of Ozon's previous works.

In a film which is about, inter alia, blurred boundaries, Ozon gets considerable mileage from the slippery relationship that exists between his film and Fassbinder's, even going so far as to cast one of the original film's stars—Fass regular Schygulla—in a supporting role.  It is difficult to work out if Peter von Kant is a remake, companion piece, reboot, homage, or palimpsest, and in some ways its unusual connection to its source material puts it in the same sphere as both Luca Guadagnino's Suspiria—a film that also cast a Fassbinder favourite (Ingrid Caven) in a small part—and Jerzy Skolimowski's EO, the latter of which also plays at this year's LFF; in a move that parallels Peter von Kant's use of Adjani, Skolimowski's film also features a member of French acting royalty, Isabelle Huppert, in an extended cameo.  Regardless of your level of familiarity with Rainer Werner Fassbinder and/or The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, there is a great deal to enjoy in the taut, spiky Peter von Kant, which runs to a crisp 85 minutes.  François Ozon's ability to change style from one film to the next is really quite remarkable; fortunately, given his track record, we shouldn't have to wait too long to see what he does next.

Darren Arnold

Images: BFI

Sunday 9 October 2022

Shabu (Shamira Raphaëla, 2021)

Shamira Raphaëla's Shabu feels very much like a companion piece to Mondig Zuid: both documentaries—which were selected for this year's International Film Festival Rotterdam, where they played in the RTM strand—examine the daily lives of teens from Rotterdam's south side.  Following post-IFFR outings at the Copenhagen International Documentary Film Festival (CPH:DOX) and the Berlinale, Shabu continues to make its way round the festival circuit with screenings at the London Film Festival, where it is showing today and tomorrow; a measure of anticipated interest in the film is indicated by the fact that today sees it playing on two screens, with 15 minutes separating the start times.  Mondig Zuid's three main subjects could quite seamlessly wander into Shabu, while the title character of Raphaëla's film would not look out of place alongside the teenagers of Mondig Zuid.    

Much of Shabu takes place in and around De Peperklip, one of a number of striking residential complexes designed by Dutch-Curaçaoan architect Carel Weeber; now 40 years old, the controversial apartment block stands as the largest social housing project in Rotterdam-Zuid, and in Shabu this vast, sprawling building serves as a character in its own right.  The Shabu of the title is a 14-year-old boy of Surinamese extraction, and shortly into the film he's seen being admonished by his grandmother for wrecking her car, which he borrowed without permission.  With a long hot summer in the doghouse stretching out ahead of him, Shabu is tasked with scratching together the money needed to pay the substantial repair bill.  Naturally, the teen is none too pleased with the penalty he's been handed, but he reluctantly agrees to do what he can to raise the required four-figure sum. 

When several days of hawking ice lollies fails to bring in much revenue, Shabu—who appears to know virtually everyone in the vicinity of De Peperklip—turns his attentions to staging a block party, which will carry an admission fee of 2€.  Shabu proceeds to go on a charm offensive, calling various friends and acquaintances in hope of finding a DJ for the event, and he ropes a number of friends into learning a dance routine that's planned as a backdrop to Shabu's showcasing of his talents—or otherwise—as a rapper.  It must be said that Shabu shows no lack of initiative as he sets about organising the party, and his resourcefulness is quite impressive.  While it is clear that Shabu—who often passes for someone five years his senior—knows how to schmooze those who can help him out, there are also moments when he demonstrates a lack of tact, with both his girlfriend and loyal best friend falling victim to Shabu's thoughtlessness.

Yet it is Shamira Raphaëla's willingness to document the various sides of Shabu that makes her film so compelling; Shabu may be flawed and immature, but he's also capable of real warmth and generosity, and in a holistic sense his personality is one in which the good clearly outweighs the bad.  Which again brings us back to Shabu's near neighbours from Mondig Zuid who, like the boy from De Peperklip and countless other teens, are simply trying to figure out what is a very confusing period in their lives, and in doing so they don't always make the correct decisions.  While Shabu's immediate situation may be rather more pressing as he scrabbles to earn the money to pay back his grandmother, he's treading what is recognisably the same path as Mondig Zuid's Selena, Darlin and Tamia, each of whom could easily have anchored a film all on their own.  Over time, I suspect I will conflate the engaging, uplifting Shabu with Mondig Zuid, but both films are equally terrific snapshots of the real Rotterdam.

Darren Arnold

Images: BFI

Friday 7 October 2022

Nayola (José Miguel Ribeiro, 2022)

Utrecht-based production company il Luster are one of the backers of animated feature Nayola, which screens at the London Film Festival today and on Sunday.  In addition to il Luster's involvement, Nayola is co-produced by two Belgian companies, S.O.I.L Productions and Luna Blue Films, both of whom are based in Brussels.  Yet despite its financing, Nayola's story takes place far from the Low Countries, in Angola—a country that, upon independence from Portugal in 1975, was ravaged by a decades-long civil war.  While Nayola is an animated film, it is by no means suitable for young children, as it includes some hard-hitting scenes as it delves into the source of the trauma still felt by many Angolans today, 20 years on from the end of the conflict. 

José Miguel Ribeiro's film, which adapts José Eduardo Agualusa and Mia Couto's play A caixa preta ("The Black Box"), focuses on three generations of women: grandmother Lelena, her daughter Nayola, and Nayola's daughter Yara.  The action flits between 1995—when Nayola abandons the infant Yara in order to search for her husband, who's gone missing in combat—and 2011, when the teenaged Yara attempts to propagate her rap music, which proves quite tricky, given that she's now living in a fraught post-war Angola where the authorities crack down on anyone they view as subversive.  The arrival of a mysterious visitor, whose face is obscured behind a menacing jackal mask, only serves to increase the tension.  That said, Lelena doesn't appear to be too fazed by this uninvited guest—despite the fact that he's armed with a large machete—and sets about providing him with some much-needed sustenance while police prowl the streets outside.     

Throughout the film, a variety of animation styles are employed, depending on when and where we are in the story.  Given the attention to detail here, it is not difficult to see why Nayola ended up being a five-year project for José Miguel Ribeiro.  It is clear that a huge amount of care and effort has gone into the movie, which attempts to get its message across via a method we wouldn't normally associate with films centring on national trauma; in this sense, it recalls Ari Folman's recent Where Is Anne Frank, an elegant, heartbreaking picture which used animation to explore the life and horrible fate of its title character.  As with Nayola, Folman's film wasn't scared to switch between reality and fantasy as it brought Kitty, Anne's imaginary friend, to life in order to retrace the story of the girl who had created her.  But unlike Where Is Anne Frank, Nayola can't keep all the balls in the air, and the result is a work that suffers from a lack of clarity.

While the standard of animation can't be faulted, the film becomes progressively less interesting, and although the appearance of the jackal character briefly livens things up, the muddled developments in the story fail to build on the arresting opening stretch.  Nayola frequently feels both confused and confusing, and one can't help but wonder if Ribeiro and his screenwriter Virgílio Almeida might have done better to focus on just one of the timelines featured here.  There are many stories to be told regarding Angola's troubled history during both the colonial and post-colonial eras, but with Nayola José Miguel Ribeiro has made some baffling choices which translate to a muddled, unsatisfying experience, albeit one that is always very easy on the eye.

Darren Arnold

Images: BFI

Wednesday 5 October 2022

Coma (Bertrand Bonello, 2022)

Three years on from his excellent Zombi Child, Bertrand Bonello returns with his latest feature, Coma, which screens today and tomorrow as part of the London Film Festival.  The film serves as the final instalment of the director's loose trilogy on youth which began with 2016's Nocturama, and it's a strangely moving affair; there's an added poignancy from the fact that it features the late Gaspard Ulliel's last performance.  Compared with its two predecessors, Coma is something of a scaled-down work, which isn't too surprising when you learn that it was made during lockdown.  As with a number of other filmmakers, Bonello has used the constraints imposed by COVID-19 to his advantage, with the necessarily smaller canvas leading the director to some fine creative choices.  Perhaps unsurprisingly, screen technology—which, during lockdown, gave so many of us a much-needed window to the world—is at the centre of Coma, as its bedroom-bound main character looks to connect with others.

That protagonist, impressively played by Bonello's Zombi Child star Louise Labèque, is a nameless teenage girl grappling with one of the early lockdowns enforced by France as COVID spread around the world.  We observe her as she spends her days glued to various screens, in the process catching up with her friends via Zoom calls and taking in various YouTube clips.  Her attention is drawn to one influencer in particular, Patricia Coma (Julia Faure), a rather disconcerting presence whose videos cover a range of topics, although she's frequently seen peddling the Revelator, an electronic toy that will be instantly familiar to everyone who has ever played memory skill game Simon.  The girl is soon in possession of one of these devices, although it's not clear how she obtained it; as the long days allow our protagonist to master the game's lengthy, complex sequences, it appears that the Revelator may have a purpose beyond simply testing short-term memory.    

Among this sea of gadgets, however, there is a refreshingly analogue activity in the form of an ongoing stop-motion melodrama performed by the girl's Barbie dolls (voiced by the likes of Bonello alumni Ulliel and Louis Garrel), whose story is punctuated by eerie, inappropriate canned laughter that brings to mind the anthropomorphic rabbits of David Lynch's Inland Empire.  Yet Coma's strangest passages emerge when the girl goes to sleep, as during the night she is transported to an unsettling twilight world, one largely populated by the dead.  Patricia Coma, who as far as we know is still alive, can also be spotted in this realm; moreover, the YouTuber tells the girl that this is the only location where it's possible to exercise free will.  With this in mind, it really does appear that, as Brian Molko of Placebo once sang, "the only place you're truly free is cosy in your dreams".

Clocking in at just 80 minutes, Coma is as modest temporally as it is spatially.  It is, however, a deceptively slight affair in which Bonello manages to cover a great deal of ground, with subjects ranging from climate change and COVID to the roles both technology and Gen Z will play in the planet's future.  With its multiple ways of facilitating its protagonist's escape from the restrictions brought about by the pandemic, Bonello's endearingly hopeful film skilfully captures the essence of what it was like to be a zoomer in lockdown.  For many of us during that time, the world got so much smaller—yet it can be argued that teenagers were among the most tech-savvy, and as such were well-equipped to rapidly identify ways in which to get a sense of the world beyond the proverbial four walls.  Sincerely presented as a letter to Bonello's teenaged daughter, Coma is a haunting, memorable conclusion to a fine trilogy.

Darren Arnold

Images: BFI