Saturday, 8 October 2016

LFF 2016 | #1

As it always does, my London Film Festival started at home. Sixty miles from London, watching movies on low-res streams to get a jump on an unmanageably crowded programme. This is a necessary inconvenience. Festivals are, in my limited experience, designed as a way of consuming cinema rather than appreciating it, and it’s easy to get swept away in the tide of it all. Missing something is the end of the world, so you have to see everything. But that leaves no time to reflect. Only time to grab a coffee, to stand in a queue, to wait for the next thing. No wonder Twitter is unbearable during festivals. So a head start off the clock, while far from ideal, certainly has its upsides. There’s no rush. No schedule. Just a few movies and the time to digest them. Perfect.

And time benefits most things, but particularly things that lack, by design, the dazzling immediacy that rapid consumption demands. A film like A Woman’s Life, for example, the newest work from writer/director Stéphane Brizé. A change of scenery, at least, from his previous film, the brooding The Measure of a Man, A Woman’s Life sees Brizé in similarly restrained form, minimising the dramatics of Guy de Maupassant’s era-spanning source novel to instead focus on how its tumultuous events slowly destroy the life of Jeanne, the young woman at its heart. Abused, manipulated and exploited by the men in her life, the once unshakably vibrant Jeanne, who’d find beauty in the world wherever she looked for it, is slowly crushed into bitterness and loneliness, leaving her with nothing but broken promises and tainted memories. Tainted because they used not to be. She was loved. There was happiness in her life for a while. But now, as she looks back, that happiness is nowhere to be found. The bright, beautiful gardens in which she spent her youth are now unkempt and unloved, distantly observed through the rain-flecked windows of cold, stone-walled rooms. There’s no life there anymore — but gardens can grow again. Like The Measure of a Man, A Woman’s Life sees Brizé preoccupied with a world that delivers nothing but pain and disappoint while continually offering glimmers of hope. Letters promising the world in exchange for more money, an “eloquent” apology soon and inevitably proven to be insincere. “Everybody lies,” Jeanne says, finally. “I expected something else.” She’s still looking for beauty in the world. It’s just becoming harder and harder to find it.

Tomasz Wasilewski’s United States of Love pulls at a similar thread, as four women search fruitlessly for individual freedom in the wake of Poland’s shift from communist rule to democratic government in the early 1990s. Set within the confines of a panopticonic concrete town and almost totally devoid of colour, this is a repressive vision of Poland, still coping with and transitioning away from the seismic political turmoil of the previous decades. The people of this gloomy town have aged with these politics. Communism is all they know, and it isn’t something easily shed. This passive unwillingness creates frustration, desperation, pain. Things should be better now but they’re not. A housewife is trapped in an emotionless marriage and attracted to a young priest; a headmistress engages in an unbalanced affair with a married doctor; a retired teacher is unrequitedly in love with her young neighbour, a dancer who feels destined for something bigger. These are not fulfilling lives. Each of these women long for a love that’s forever out of reach, doomed by false promises, emotional distance, and acts of violence, chewed up and spat out by a country struggling to free itself from its nightmarish past. They want something more. They want to live. Everyone else just wants to exist.

In Brillante Mendoza’s Ma’ Rosa, existence is everything. Struggling to make ends meet in an overcrowded neighbourhood of Manila, matriarch Rosa and her addict husband sell drugs from their small convenience store to feed their four children. Nobody seems to have any money in this part of town, or, at least, people aren’t willing to part with it — even the supermarket doesn’t have enough coins to give customers the right change. But transactions are essential. We need to pay for things: food, clothing, shelter; everything. It’s a catch-22: nobody wants to spend money, so nobody can make any money. No wonder people are lured into taking shortcuts, justifiable as a single-minded means for survival, but wholly destructive in every other sense. But it’s the only way to sustain life in this place. It’s the only way Rosa can feed her children. And when that option is removed by a corrupt and opportunistic police force, whose livelihoods are based on exploiting the desperate for money and information that will lead to more money, a police force which describes the severity of Rosa’s crime as “a no-bailer”, then what? There's nowhere to go. Ma’Rosa is an ugly, desperate picture of the Philippines as it exists today. There’s no life here. Just a dead town filled with dying people, pit against each other to stay alive.

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