Thursday 21 March 2024

BFI Flare 2024: I Don’t Know Who You Are

M. H. Murray's remarkably strong debut feature—which, having premiered at last year's Toronto IFF, screens tomorrow and Saturday as part of BFI Flare—is notable for the way in which it balances social issues with compelling drama, a combination Murray has some previous experience of, given that he wrote and directed all three seasons of Canadian web series Teenagers.  Murray's film is anchored by a brave, sympathetic performance from Mark Clennon, who here reunites with the director following the pair's earlier collaboration on the short Ghost, which first introduced Clennon's character Benjamin.  Benjamin's story is picked up in I Don't Know Who You Are, but whereas Ghost dealt with a man who—as per the title—was being ghosted after just one date, Murray's new film has a much weightier topic in its sights as its main character deals with both physical and emotional trauma.

Benjamin is a Toronto-based saxophonist who ekes out a living by teaching a handful of students and playing occasional gigs; this talented musician is recovering from a breakup with his partner in work and life, the slimy Oscar (Kevin A. Courtney), although the green shoots of a new relationship are beginning to emerge as Benjamin is now dating the caring, sensitive Malcolm (Anthony Diaz).  When one particular evening with Malcolm doesn't go quite as planned, Benjamin heads alone to a party where he proceeds to get very drunk, and as he staggers home he is sexually assaulted by a stranger (Michael Hogan).  Although he's reluctant to inform the police, Benjamin promptly seeks medical advice and takes an HIV test, which proves negative.  Benjamin is understandably relieved at the result, but as there's still a chance he might yet contract the virus, he is given both a starter pack and a full prescription for PEP (post-exposure prophylaxis) medication.

There's a need to move fast with this course of HIV-preventative treatment, as the first 72 hours are when the tablets are at their most effective.  While Benjamin ingests the starter pack—which he soon vomits up—serious problems arise when he takes his script to a pharmacy.  As Benjamin hands over the ℞ and his health card, the pharmacist informs him that these drugs can be dispensed if they are charged to an insurance plan, which the musician doesn't have.  Alternatively, the tablets can be paid for, but as the chemist sets about filling the prescription, Benjamin is horrified to learn that the medication will cost him in excess of $900, a sum his hand-to-mouth existence simply doesn't allow for; thus, Benjamin is up against the clock as he frantically attempts to scratch together the funds to pay for the medicine.  To compound matters, it's the fin de semaine (as they say in Canada), so the government office that may have been able to offer some assistance is closed.

Just as the action in Ghost took place (and was filmed) in a single day, it seems fitting that exponential growth sees I Don't Know Who You Are unfold over the course of a weekend.  Murray proves especially adept at working with these temporal structures, and his latest effort instils a rising anxiety in the viewer as Benjamin struggles to raise the necessary cash.  Crucially, the film feels like an authentic Toronto story, with both T-Dot's streetcars and legendary music venue the Horseshoe Tavern featuring prominently; all too often, Ontario's magnificent capital has rather apologetically stood in for other cities—almost invariably New York—but here M. H. Murray expertly captures the essence of Canada's most populous city.  Such an unadorned presentation may well be down to budgetary constraints, but it all contributes to making Benjamin's urgent plight that bit more believable.  I Don't Know Who You Are is as impressive as it is sincere, and it ranks as one of Flare 2024's highlights.

Darren Arnold

Images: Festival Scope / BFI

Tuesday 19 March 2024

BFI Flare 2024: Life is Not a Competition, but I’m Winning

Julia Fuhr Mann's feature debut Life Is Not a Competition, But I’m Winning—which premiered at Venice and screens on Friday as part of BFI Flare—focuses on athletes who have found both themselves and their achievements sidelined by those who write history.  This is a work which takes a novel approach to its subject; while there is nothing new in a documentary that makes use of both contemporary and archival footage—which indeed is the case in this film—there are moments in Life Is Not a Competition, But I’m Winning when Mann takes each of these elements to create cleverly mounted hybrid scenes in which present-day athletes mingle with sportspeople from the distant past.  

Yet these technical accomplishments—all the more impressive for being achieved on a slender budget—never threaten to distract from the moving true stories that underpin the film's narrative; Mann's film is less a formal stunt than a genre-bending celebration of the marginalised.  Life Is Not a Competition, But I’m Winning sees a group of contemporary athletes gather in the Olympic Stadiums of Athens and Munich, where they and Mann look to the past as they remember those who were largely robbed of their triumphs on the track.  One of the earliest cases examined here is that of the German runner Lina Radke, who at Amsterdam 1928 won the very first women's 800m Olympic final—only for most of the attention to fall on one of Radke's competitors, who had collapsed at the finish line.  

This incident not only obscured Radke's moment of victory, but appeared to vindicate father of the modern Olympics Pierre de Coubertin's view that running was too strenuous for females; worse, the women's 800m event was subsequently removed from the Games, and would only be reinstated in 1960, which was also when the remarkable black American sprinter Wilma Rudolph—who contracted polio as a child—would win three gold medals in Rome.  Despite her superb showing at the Olympics, Rudolph's success was tempered by the situation in then-segregated Tennessee, her home state.  While both Radke and Rudolph's identities were never anything other than female, Mann also takes time to consider those athletes whose femininity has been questioned, such as the South African middle-distance runner Caster Semenya.

In recent years, double Olympic champion Semenya has faced much scrutiny regarding her gender, and while she's mentioned here, Mann opts to give more space to sprinter Stella Walsh, who won Olympic medals for Poland in 1932 and 1936; following her tragic death—she was killed by armed robbers while on a shopping trip—the autopsy highlighted Walsh's intersex status, and her exceptional performances on the running track became a mere footnote in the Games' history.  Then there's the terrible case of Ugandan 800m runner Annet Negesa, whose career was effectively wrecked by an operation to reduce her testosterone levels.  Life Is Not a Competition, But I’m Winning may be slightly uneven at times, but it serves an important function in spotlighting a group of athletes who have spent far too long in the shadows.

Darren Arnold

Sunday 17 March 2024

BFI Flare 2024: Sex is Comedy

Edith Chapin's terrific documentary—which screens tomorrow as part of this year's BFI Flare—focuses on the highly specialised work of the intimacy coordinator (IC).  The film's subtitle The Revolution of Intimacy Coordinators (French: La révolution des coordinatrices d'intimité) serves to differentiate it from Catherine Breillat's 2002 feature Sex is Comedy, although the fact that the films carry the same main title—which in both instances is in English—is no coincidence: the ever-edgy Breillat's meta-movie, which drew on her experiences making Fat Girl, revolved around a filmmaker attempting to shoot an intimate scene involving two actors who dislike each other.  Immediately prior to Fat Girl, Breillat had directed Romance, whose release was littered with controversial incidents—not least the accusations of the film's star, Caroline Ducey, who claimed the writer-director had exploited her during the filming of explicit sex scenes.

Romance was made at the tail end of the last century, in a pre-#MeToo world where the role of IC didn't exist; post-Weinstein, however, the need to employ a specialist to oversee such scenes has become much more urgent.  Sex is Comedy: The Revolution of Intimacy Coordinators features Brussels-based IC Paloma García Martens, who worked primarily as a costume designer on films as diverse as Thomas Vinterberg's Kursk, Claude François biopic Cloclo and the Cannes-winning Blue is the Warmest Colour before branching out into her current profession.  Chapin's film documents Martens' work on another Flare 2024 selection, Split—a series that debuted on France Télévisions' all-digital channel Slash—but also takes in a useful conversation with French actress-director Ovidie and a trip to London, where Martens meets with the intimacy coordinator of Netflix's hit show Sex Education

While fans of Split will no doubt find Sex is Comedy: The Revolution of Intimacy Coordinators to be an illuminating behind-the-scenes look at the TV show, it should be said that the film works extremely well as a standalone documentary.  As the person at the front and centre of the film, Martens is an erudite and likeable presence—as is Sex Education's IC, David Thackeray—and this nominal subject is good value as she outlines the day-to-day activities of an IC on set.  The longer we spend with Martens, the clearer it becomes that very few people are cut out for a successful tilt at this profession; you suspect that Martens' prior film industry experience stood her in good stead for this exacting role (and it's possible that the much-publicised fallout from Blue is the Warmest Colour—a film which, like Romance, could have sorely used an IC—informed her present career choice).    

Running at just under one hour, Edith Chapin's taut, deftly edited film is never anything less than fascinating, and it's particularly engrossing when Martens details how she works with Split's actors as one particular scene is filmed, on a closed set, before some squelching Foley sounds are added in postproduction; this last stage brings some levity to proceedings, and it should be said that, despite the serious nature of the job undertaken by Martens, humour plays an important—possibly essential—part in putting all concerned at ease.  On a less positive note, we get to witness the great stress involved when the same scene subsequently runs into nightmarish censorship issues.  Yet Sex is Comedy: The Revolution of Intimacy Coordinators is an overwhelmingly uplifting experience, and it provides real insight into both the rise and methods of the IC.

Darren Arnold

Images: France Télévisions / Cinétévé

Friday 15 March 2024

BFI Flare 2024: Days of Happiness

It has now been more than ten years since Chloé Robichaud's debut feature, the well-received Sarah Prefers to Run (Sarah préfère la course), which played in competition for the Sutherland Award at the 2013 London Film Festival.  While Sarah Prefers to Run fell just short of the LFF's award for best first feature—Anthony Chen's Ilo Ilo took that particular honour—it did pick up a prize in Robichaud's native Canada at the same year's Vancouver International Film Festival.  In the gap between Sarah Prefers to Run and Robichaud's latest film Days of Happiness (Les jours heureux)—which screens tomorrow and Monday as part of BFI Flare—the director made the 2016 feature Boundaries (Pays), which cast Marvel star Emily VanCamp as a mediator in negotiations between the Canadian government and a fictional island nation.  Yet Boundaries is not the sum total of Robichaud's efforts from Sarah Prefers to Run through Days of Happiness: the past decade has also seen her undertake some TV work (more on that in a moment) and direct the Venice-premiering short Delphine.

Parallels can be made between Days of Happiness and another Flare 2024 selection, I Don't Know Who You Are: beyond both titles being Canadian films which focus on talented musicians navigating complex relationships in, respectively, Montréal and Toronto, the movies share a trait in that each is made by a filmmaker who previously wrote and directed every episode in a web series.  Just as three seasons of M. H. Murray's Teenagers preceded his I Don't Know Who You Are, Days of Happiness follows Robichaud's Féminin/Féminin, a show that aired on Canada's Ici ARTV from 2014 to 2018.  Days of Happiness sees Robichaud reunite with Sophie Desmarais, who played the title character in Sarah Prefers to Run; here, Desmarais stars as Emma, a young Montréal-based conductor whose career is on the up.  While her exacting work comes with its fair share of complications, it is Emma's life away from the podium that presents the most difficulties, but there are a couple of reasons why she has little chance of keeping things compartmentalised. 

Firstly, her father and agent, Patrick (Sylvain Marcel), is a domineering figure in both Emma's professional and private lives; furthermore, Emma is in an incipient relationship with one of her cellists, Naëlle (Nour Belkhiria), who is also mother to the young Jad (Rayan Benmoussa)—a detail which causes some friction, particularly on Naëlle's end.  Although Emma has achieved some success as a conductor, she is always having to impress her superiors in order to edge up the career ladder; against advice, she chooses a difficult Arnold Schönberg piece for an upcoming concert, and sets about preparing for this taxing performance.  As Emma tries to focus on her work, her relationships with the volatile Patrick and the hot-and-cold Naëlle deteriorate further, and this chaos is folded into the delivery of Schönberg's Pelleas und Melisande—a sequence which forms the emotional centrepiece of the film (although a late montage featuring flashbacks to Emma's childhood also proves very moving).  

In her workplace, Emma commands a huge group of musicians, yet her personal life sees everyone else calling the shots (note how, away from the concert hall, it is Naëlle who dictates the parameters of the relationship).  Comparisons can be made between Days of Happiness and Todd Field's Tár—which also centred on a gay female conductor who was attracted to a cellist—although the latter film established Cate Blanchett's title character as one in control of both her life and work, at least up to a point.  But whereas Lydia Tár is largely the author of her own misfortune, Emma is seemingly completely at the mercy of others when it comes to her own happiness.  Robichaud's film feels like both an authentic Montréal tale and a convincing portrayal of the world of classical music (Yannick Nézet-Séguin, the artistic director and principal conductor of the city's Orchéstre Metropolitain, served as the film's music consultant).  Days of Happiness may not be as ambitious in scope as Tár, but it is nonetheless an absorbing work in which Desmarais excels as the tormented maestra.

Darren Arnold

Images: Maison4tiers / BFI

Wednesday 13 March 2024

BFI Flare 2024: The Blue Shelter

Today marks the start of this year's BFI Flare, which gets underway with two screenings of Amrou Al-Kadhi's debut feature Layla—a film that serves as the festival's opening night gala.  But tomorrow is when the event gets properly up and running, with Flare 2024's first full day offering up films such as the eagerly anticipated Dutch-British co-production Silver Haze, Sav Rodgers' uplifting documentary Chasing Chasing Amy, Orthodox feature Unspoken, and Elliot Page-starrer Close to You.  While feature films are very much the festival's bread and butter, shorts are by no means neglected by Flare; indeed, short films have their own dedicated strand—where, typically, several thematically linked works are combined to form a programme which lasts roughly the equivalent length of a standard feature. 

One such programme—and there are 11 in total at this year's festival—is Cosmic Dreams: Through the Looking Glass, which screens tomorrow evening in BFI Southbank's NFT3; this particular collection is one of three shorts programmes playing on Thursday, the others being A Taste of Spain and Methods for Facing a Hostile WorldCosmic Dreams plays home to Jérémy Piette's dreamy, elegiac The Blue Shelter (Le Garçon qui la nuit), which takes its place alongside Joana de Sousa's Between Light and Nowhere (Entre a Luz e o Nada), Alden Peters' Friends of Sophia (see trailer below), Jeanette Buck's Safety State, Antonia Luxem's On Falling, and Frankie Fox's Goodbye Python.  With a running time of 26 minutes, The Blue Shelter is fractionally the longest of the half-dozen films included in Cosmic Dreams: Through the Looking Glass, and certainly the most memorable.

Piette's film centres on Arthur, a young man quietly dreading the end of summer.  Arthur and his friends are enjoying a languid day at a sun-kissed Breton beach, where they spend their time reading, drinking and taking occasional dips in the sea.  Not far from the group, a lone sunbather proves somewhat distracting for the pensive Arthur, who attempts to take a beer over to the man until he's talked out of it.  As the day wears on, the friends join in a mass singalong to Robi's "On ne meurt plus d'amour", a rendition as joyous as it is wistful.  The Blue Shelter subsequently takes a left turn into magical realism as Arthur is separated from his friends and enters a vaguely unsettling crepuscular world; this surreal closing sequence is soundtracked by a haunting interpretation of another well-known song: Brigitte Fontaine and Areski's "J'ai 26 ans".  

Given the two very different halves of this film, Jérémy Piette proves most adept at stitching them into a cohesive whole, and his skill in doing so should not be underestimated (cf. Boléro, another short from this year's Flare, which founders in its attempt to change tack midway through).  Parallels have been drawn between The Blue Shelter and the sweaty, leery films of Abdellatif Kechiche, but such comparisons seem both wide of the mark and lazy.  Rather, Piette's film appears to be more influenced by the work of François Ozon and Jacques Rivette, with a splash of Steven Arnold's Luminous Procuress thrown in for good measure.  The Blue Shelter—whose warm, tactile Super 16mm cinematography recalls that of Christian Avilés' similarly lengthed La herida luminosa—is a fine, ambitious debut, one which captures the essence of a summer that is anything but endless.     

Darren Arnold

Images: BFI