LFF 2015 | #1
The best and worst thing about the London Film Festival is its depth. 240 films playing over twelve days across sixteen venues places the LFF among the biggest festivals in the world, its programme covering everything from grand-scale Oscar hopefuls to self-produced documentaries, prestigious arthouse fare to emerging talents from all corners of the globe. It's impossible to see everything, so what do you prioritise? There are many approaches, some of which make more sense than others, but the one I've had most success with is the same as that of friend and fellow writer Sam Inglis, who put me onto this school of thought at the festival two years ago: if it has UK distribution, it can wait. Seems simple enough, and it makes sense for the LFF, in particular, considering its status as essentially a "best-of" festival, with many of its bigger films having some kind of release plan already in place.
That being said, there are a lot of interesting films this year that would otherwise be excluded under the terms of this rule, the first of which being Jia Zhangke's Mountains May Depart. Split into three sections, the film spans different eras in the life of Tao, a woman in Fengyang forced to choose between two men in 1999: Liangzi, a reserved, sweet-natured and old-fashioned coal miner, and Zhang, a brash, modern and excessively wealthy businessman. When she makes her decision, Jia jumps ahead to 2014 to see how it has impacted upon her life, before Jia jumps ahead once more to 2025, where the story of Tao's son, Dollar, becomes the focus, as he struggles with his identity in Australia. A simple allegory for China's embrace of capitalism at the cost of its traditional values, opening with a group of young people performing a choreographed dance routine to The Pet Shop Boys' Go West, Mountains May Depart may be Jia's most critical film about his native country. In the first part, Zhang gets the attention of Tao by literally speaking louder than Liangzi. He buys sports cars without insurance because he can afford to pay for repairs, then he waits for the price of coal to drop low enough to buy the mine Liangzi works at - his first act as owner is firing Liangzi when he refuses to give up on Tao. Then there's Dollar, or Daole, his traditional name. Named as such by his capitalist father for obvious reasons, he grows up in Shanghai, where he learns fluent English but forgets his Chinese heritage. He doesn't know how to perform rites at a traditional funeral, for example, and, by the film's third section, he can barely even speak his native language, only able to communicate with his father through Google translated emails. Mountains May Depart shows Jia on furious form. A film aching with regret over catastrophic decisions and the pain of not just losing, but willingly giving up one's own cultural identity and having nothing to show for it, as well as the ramifications such a decision has on the next generation of Chinese people. It's apt, then, that the film ends as it starts, only this time the optimism of 1999 is, 26 years later, represented as something far bleaker than those idealistic characters could possibly have imagined.
Still without distribution, but presumably not for long, is James White. The long-awaited feature debut of Josh Mond from Borderline Films, the production company behind Martha Marcy May Marlene and Simon Killer, follows the titular James, a short-tempered, twenty-something New Yorker, as he comes to terms with the death of his estranged father while caring for his cancer-stricken mother, the only constant figure in his life. As the extent of her suffering becomes apparent, his behaviour grows more erratic. He drinks heavily, fucks around, and starts fights with strangers in bars, alienating his dedicated friend Nick and his too-young girlfriend Jayne, whose presence in James' life gradually dwindles until she disappears completely. Even Nick comes and goes, clubbing all night with James at his best, standing him down in his darkest moments, but entirely absent for long periods in between. But these fading presences are what makes James White so impressive. A widescreen film shot with a shallow depth of field, Mond gives a broad sense of the surrounding hustle and bustle of New York City only to blur it from view, instead focusing on the broken figure of James as he moves through its streets: his black hoodie, white iPod earbuds, unkempt black hair, and despairing, bleary eyed expression. His single-minded determination to care for his mother blocks out the world, but his life feels increasingly lonely. James White is more about feeling pain than dealing with it, and is, at least in part, drawn from Mond's experiences caring for his own mother. This sober authenticity, neither reverential or sentimental, nor overly grave, suggests a level of control unusual for a debut filmmaker, and Christopher Abbot's tempestuous performance as James is surely one of the most affecting of the year.
Similarly affecting but in a different way is Vincent Lindon's performance in Stéphane Brizé's The Measure of a Man, winner of the best actor prize at this year's Cannes Film Festival. A straight-forward redundancy drama, The Measure of a Man follows Lindon's schlubby, moustachioed family man as he hunts for a new job a year after being made redundant. He needs to pay off his mortgage, as well as his disabled son's education, and he is slowly worn down by unsympathetic recruitment consultants, potential bosses, and their cyclical bureaucratic processes. "I feel like I'm going round and round in circles" he says resignedly at one point, and Brizé's film does the same, observing the dehumanising repetitions of his life in seemingly never-ending scenes. One sequence sees him locked in stalemate negotiations with a potential buyer for his mobile home, while in another he is forced to listen to fellow jobseekers, all significantly younger than him, critique every aspect of his performance in a taped job-interview. The film has drawn comparisons to Two Days, One Night, the superb (and superior) film by Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, but where that film had life or death consequences for its characters, The Measure of a Man discards its pursuit of financial security to ponder how far into moral dubiousness this man should go to feed his family. It's an interesting shift, yet it ends prematurely, giving Lindon a just moment of defiance, without waiting to consider what this life-changing moment would mean to his family. Still, The Measure of a Man asks interesting, dramatic questions, even if its answers are ultimately frustrating.
Frustration doesn't even begin to cover Radu Muntean's One Floor Below. Ostensibly a murder mystery, but also absolutely not that, Muntean uses the barest elements of this genre framework to obliquely explore the guilt felt by Patrascu, a middle-aged man who one day overhears an argument between his young downstairs neighbour, Laura, and a mysterious man, Vali, whom he sees leave her apartment. The following day, he hears more arguing and a loud thud, and later he finds out the woman has died. But Patrascu doesn't tell the police what he heard. After all, it may just be a coincidence. But Vali doesn't leave him alone, forcing his way into his life and ensuring Patrascu's conscience is never allowed to clear - and maybe that's what he deserves. Like his previous film, Tuesday, After Christmas, Muntean's approach to emotional turbulence is contained entirely within his characters, only betrayed externally by small moments of behaviour that are not part of a normal routine. The dieting Patrescu smokes a cigarette after he finds out about the murder, much to the shock of his wife, for example, and later he almost snaps at his son for not feeding the dog, his tone of voice shifting for a second before returning to his usual mumble. This is the level of subtlety at play here, and, at times, One Floor Below verges on total mystification. But that only makes the tension more unbearable. It's impossible after one viewing to know why the characters do what they do, and it's only minutes before the end that Vali's intentions become even vaguely clear. Yet it all seems so deliberate. Late on, the bubbling tension between the two men finally boils over, and somebody in the surrounding crowd says: "let's mind our own business." The closest thing in One Floor Below to a central thesis is mentioned in passing by a background character. I think this one's going to need time to sink in.