The tagline for this year’s BFI London Film Festival, “Feel it”, promised visitors either emotion or sensation, and judging from the festival trailer – which shows a viewer gasping one moment, crying the next – both. Some people might have been more attracted by a formula that recognises the role of participation in spectatorship, such as “Engage with it” or “Interrogate the social and political assumptions of it”, but as things turned out, passivity was mostly the order of the day. Feel the indignity of queuing round the block to gain admission! Feel the irritation of paying £19 for a film coming to a cinema near you next weekend!
The problem with public film festivals such as London and Edinburgh is that they are judged by the outside world on criteria – size, glitz, star power – that have little to do with the experience of most paying customers. Cannes and Venice are about the film industry, the LFF is supposed to be about Londoners (and tourists who happen to be in London during mid-October). But in order to keep pace with international film festivals, the LFF has to offer a bulky brochure of offerings, including premieres and gala events that make a lot of noise. And while paying customers may be equally valuable, this is unlikely to be true of the 200 films on offer.
You discover fairly quickly whether the organisers have been looking out for filmgoers’ interests. My experience testified to a mixture of cynicism and sincerity, compromise and audacity. The decision to stage the world premiere of the unexceptional British thriller Blood, starring Paul Bettany, smacked of the former – as did the decision to show Sally Potter’s frozen-stiff portrait of rebellion Ginger & Rosa in the Official Competition strand. Given that it stood no chance of winning Best Film and went on general release before the festival was over, the only possible justification was that it provided an excuse for staging a premiere at which the director, Sally Potter, and the stars, Elle Fanning, Timothy Spall and Alice Englert, were present for photo calls.
I was altogether happier with the early opportunity to see another of the films in the Official Competition, François Ozon’s giddy, elaborate, swift-moving In the House, which doesn’t come out in the UK until March, and which, given that Ozon is no paparazzi magnet, appears to have been selected on its merits as an ethical-comical-philosophical thriller likely to please a wide range of filmgoers. (It stood a fighting chance of winning Best Film, though the prize was given to Rust and Bone, the latest from A Prophet director Jacques Audiard, reviewed at Cannes by Nigel Andrews.)
In the House stars Fabrice Luchini, who continues to prove that there is life after Rohmer (he was in Claire’s Knee, Perceval le Gallois and Full Moon in Paris). Here he gives an amusing, if slightly mugging, performance as a high-school English teacher who encourages his most promising student to continue an insincere friendship with a classmate for the sake of his writing. The film’s middle section, in which teacher and pupil bicker about how life should be presented on the page (as realism or melodrama, played straight or for laughs), displays virtuoso confidence in its balancing of questions about personal morality and artistic integrity. The standard line on Ozon in recent years has been that his latest film suggests a return to the unbuttoned mischief of his early work, so it is with reluctance that I must report that his latest film suggests a return to the unbuttoned mischief of his early work.
Generally, sticking to the Official Competition proved a dependable way of finding good work. The Saudi Arabian drama Wajdja, for instance, about a girl itching against her designated place in society, is not a film I would otherwise have sought out. Another of the competitions, for Best Documentary, dug up some good films, though the jury, chaired by Roger Graef, awarded the prize to Alex Gibney’s Mea Maxima Culpa, an exposé of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church. Gibney foregoes the opportunity to ask challenging questions about the institution or the media or corruption in favour of relentlessly prosecuting a case whose details are bound to excite the viewer’s sense of righteous-indignation and moral-revulsion.
If a single theme or concern emerged from the festival, it related to the modes and means of representation. Strapped to our seats in Leicester Square or on the South Bank, we were prompted to consider what we were getting away with, or what might be going over our heads. In the House unpacks the creative process, piece by squirm-inducing piece. The cop drama End of Watch, starring Jake Gyllenhaal, looks as if it is going to mount a critique of previous cop dramas, but settles into something more conventional. The implicit promise made in the opening moments – that this will be a portrayal of law men and law-breakers told at street level through grainy POV footage – is revived intermittently but never quite fulfilled.
More committed to asking questions about the lies and half-truths told by visual representation was Pablo Larrain’s No, perhaps the best film I saw at the festival, a black comedy about an advertising director (Gael García Bernal) at work on a 1988 campaign to oust Pinochet. And then there was the berserk Seven Psychopaths, Martin McDonagh’s follow-up to, and in some ways apology for, In Bruges, a kind of morality satire, with Colin Farrell at his narrow-eyed, brow-furrowed, incredulous best playing McDonagh as he struggles to write a screenplay that neither resorts to thriller clichés nor betrays his pacifist principles. What made In the House, No, and Seven Psychopaths (all in the Official Competition) especially pleasurable wasn’t just their high level of ingenuity and craftsmanship but the sense they imparted of gaining something important from the festival setting – and of being films that the LFF was right to be promoting and justified in charging a premium for.