London Film Fest Reviews 2016

The BFI London International Film Festival is always a valuable opportunity for Londoners to discover little-seen gems from around the world and to get an early look at some of the films most likely to be essential viewing in cinemas early next year. The number of films I'm able to see at this year's fest represents only a tiny portion of the programme of 248 titles offered in the festival's 60th edition and I've found it hard to resist the impulse to mostly programme myself around the highlights from this year's Cannes and Venice lineups. Next week I will be recording a special episode of the Films Of Every Colour podcast, in which we will be joined by some new voices and discuss the highlights of LFF. For now, here are reviews of the seven titles that I managed to catch in the first few days of the festival, ranked in order of preference.

Toni Erdmann   ★★★★★   (2016, Austria/Germany – dir. Maren Ade)

Maren Ade's third feature, Toni Erdmann, was the critical favourite by a country mile at the 69th Cannes Film Festival but received no awards in the official competition. Whether or not you value thumbs-up from critics or laurels from a festival jury, it is difficult to argue against Toni Erdmann as a particularly stimulating and fascinating film, that never sacrifices entertainment value for depth or vice versa.

Sandra Hüller plays a stern, driven career woman, working in Bucharest as a consultant to an international oil company. When her estranged father, played by Peter Simonischek, pays a visit to Bucharest, her cold rebuffing of his attempts to reconnect with her have unexpected consequences. Rather than scurry back to Germany with his tail between his legs, the prank-loving father creates the persona of Toni Erdmann, a classless but gregarious image consultant with a goofy overbite and a brown wig. Through sheer moxie Toni is accepted by the white-collar expats of the consultancy firm as a quirky lifestyle guru with desirable clients, whose names he has pulled from the list of the local corporate figure-heads. As the Toni persona invades the high-pressure corporate environment, both father and daughter begin to articulate a shared emotional vocabulary, which both had previously ignored.

It is easy to picture the crass, mainstream Hollywood remake of Toni Erdmann. On paper, the synopsis reads like a high-concept family comedy, similar to the likes of Mrs Doubtfire. But Maren Ade doesn't set out to make a heart-warming comedy, she sets out to tell a story that analyses and criticises her characters' actions. The film's hilarity is a symptom of the tension inherent in its characters using humour to confront the subjects most likely to harm their self-esteem, such as deficient self-image, the cruelties of ambition, abandonment by their families, and sexual discrimination at work. Hüller's character is desperate for control in all aspects of her life and the presence of her father's bizarre alter-ego in the background of her daily life challenges that desperation to great comedic and emotional effect. Like its eponymous character, Toni Erdmann can be many things to many people, and changes its disguise throughout, from a cheeky but abrasive critique of corporate exploitation and expat lifestyles in developing countries, to a sensitive domestic drama, to a door-slamming farce, to an observational comedy of manners. So far it is the film that has lingered most in my mind from this year's fest, and I can only hope that its selection as Germany's contender for the Oscar race for Best Foreign Language Film will draw wider attention to it as an outstanding example of what is happening at the forefront of contemporary European cinema.

The Red Turtle   ★★★★★   (La Tortue Rouge, 2016, Belgium/France/Japan – dir. Michaël Dudok de Wit)

This year I anticipated no other film at LFF more highly than The Red Turtle. Something about the simple story, the total absence of any dialogue and the collaboration between European animators and Isao Takahata of Studio Ghibli got me giddy inside. I went into The Red Turtle expecting a full-spectrum of emotions, delivered in a way that only animation can achieve, and I came out with my expectations surpassed by the pleasant surprise that The Red Turtle was not merely the story of one man's survival on a deserted island, but also a fairytale.

The film opens with a breath-taking sequence of a man fighting through giant waves to reach a capsized dinghy in a mighty storm at sea. He is washed up on a small tropical island and sets about planning his escape on a raft. But escape eludes our hero as each raft that he makes is destroyed at sea by pommeling from a giant red turtle. Flummoxed, the castaway despairs at his situation: condemned to live the rest of his life alone on this island, a prisoner of the red turtle. When the turtle comes onto the beach to lay her eggs, the castaway sees his opportunity to escape. What happens next lies in the realm of fairytales – a realm with the same governing principles and opportunities as animation. One of the reasons that I have always loved animation is its ability to deliver any combination of emotions, be they complex or elemental, with such economy and impact. To watch an animated character struggle and fail or succeed is to be immediately hooked by an empathy, which is divorced from any of the prejudices or emotional caution that can sometimes prevent viewers from connecting with flesh-and-blood actors on screen. The same can be said of simple objects in animation, and Michaël Dudok de Wit (making his feature debut after a long career of successful animated shorts) has clearly learned a great deal from the meticulous real-world detail that Japanese animators bring to their films. But this director is not in the habit of aping the Japanese style, and The Red Turtle distinguishes itself as an especially unique, universal story of life, love and death. Aesthetically the film benefits in particular from the use of tangible textures in the land and sky to evoke the grain of celluloid or the roughness of cartridge paper. The simple but consistently exciting story, the silent interactions of the characters and the richly detailed but not over-complicated animation has a cumulative emotional effect that is on-par with the best work of animation's heaviest hitters, Studio Ghibli and Pixar. For animation fans it is absolutely essential viewing. For everyone else, it stands to be a revelatory experience of the power of animation and fairytales to portray the essential elements of mankind's existence.

The Handmaiden 2016

The Handmaiden   ★★★★   (아가씨, 2016, South Korea – dir. Park Chan-wook)

Luscious, surreal, romantic and grotesque, The Handmaiden delivers, delivers and delivers again on expectations as another high-calorie banquet of sensual delights from Park Chan-wook. As always, Park blends Western genre sensibilities with East Asian narrative conventions, and a glutinous helping of his own kinks and aesthetic hang ups to deliver a tactile pulp storybook for grownups with a taste for the finer things in life – finer things both respectable and tawdry.

Wrapped as tightly, elegantly and with as many folds and patterns as a silk kimono, Park's adaptation of Sarah Waters' novel 'Fingersmith' transposes the action from Victorian Britain to Korea under the Japanese occupation. Two con-artists commence a plan to insinuate themselves into a wealthy Japanese household, marry the lady of the house and then jam her in a mental institution, leaving her fortune free for the taking. That all does not go to plan is hardly worth mentioning, unless things going to plan can be inclusive of the way that plans have a habit of changing under pressure from sexual desire. Told in an appropriately intricate three-part structure, that jumps back and forth in time and replays prior events with new light cast upon them, The Handmaiden will infuriate fans of thrillers in which the viewer is invited to speculate and partake in solving the mystery. For anyone willing to sit back and let themselves be swept along by the coyness and cheekiness of Park's storytelling, the experience is beguiling, and yields the same satisfaction as watching the mechanism of a pocket watch click into place.

I have always been a huge fan of Park's penchant for heightened drama at every moment in the story, be it a turning point in the narrative, or a character caressing a piece of fabric. His use of violence and eroticism to augment the melodrama and sadism of his characters' lives is perversely enticing for its visceral power and its sheer cartoonishness. In this respect, and with respect to the erotic particulars of the plot, this is a film that only an East Asian director could make. Made in the UK or the US, this film would be laughed out of cinemas as steamy, melodramatic pap. In the hands of a provocative master with an understanding Korean and Japanese storytelling traditions and those countries' traditions of high-brow erotic art, The Handmaiden is a smutty luxury item of the most enjoyable kind.

Souvenir   ★★★★   (2016, Belgium/France/Luxembourg – dir. Bavo Defurne)

The second feature from Belgian director Bavo Defurne is, in the director's own words, a movie for a rainy Sunday afternoon. Gentle, sweet and straightforward, Souvenir is an ideal example of a film that knows what it wants to be and how to deliver the goods without a shred of pretence. Opening with the drab daily routine of a single woman in her sixties, who works at a pâté factory, Souvenir teases its central romance with the arrival of a handsome young boxer to the factory. Sporting a decidedly old-fashioned moustache and haircut and a pair of sparkling baby blues, Kévin Azaïs' boxer, is immediately taken with our leading lady, played by Isabelle Huppert, whom he recognises as a former Eurovision contestant from the 1970s. As a tentative romance blossoms between them, the boxer coaxes the forgotten pop starlet into reviving her career and, eventually, to compete in the selection of Belgium's next submission to the Eurovision Song Contest.

Defurne has said that he wrote the screenplay for Souvenir with Isabelle Huppert in mind. To cast Huppert as an ageing alcoholic chanteuse seems completely counterintuitive in such a camp story as a romance between an ageing Eurovision contestant and a boxer, who meet in a pâté factory, but the results prove this casting coup to be a wonderful piece of outside-the-box thinking. Huppert sings all of her numbers and her voice is as smoky and seductive as one might expect. As one of the single greatest actors working today, Huppert is quite comfortable in the role of a character capable of slipping from a private persona into a mysterious pop alter-ego as soon as the stage lights come on, and Defurne and Huppert create a nuanced personality for both sides of her character. The determination of the jaded singer to keep other people at arm's length is sold effortlessly by Huppert's signature iciness, which melts so convincingly under the warmth of Kévin Azaïs' earnest enthusiasm and naïveté as a young man, who is convinced that the affection he feels for his lover will translate to public adoration.

A great deal of the film's aesthetic is owed to the evident influence of Pedro Almodóvar, and one can hardly blame Defurne for referencing the cinematic grandmaster of tactile, intimate camp romance – especially as the Almodóvarian influence never overshadows the film's own unassuming identity. The unavoidable cheesiness of the retro Europop songs (composed with great conviction by Pink Martini) may prove off-putting to fans of Isabelle Huppert's more abrasive films but, to its credit, Souvenir is not nearly as nugatory and inoffensive as any association with the Eurovision Song Contest would suggest.

Voyage of Time – feature version   ★★★★   (2016, USA – dir. Terrence Malick)

Frequently spellbinding, occasionally hurried and clunky, inspiring and a little infuriating, often transportative but never quite achieving a transcendental grace, Terrence Malick's long-gestating opus on the creation of the universe is a mixed bag for the better. Reportedly in development since the late seventies and shot over a period of several years, Voyage of Time takes the creation of the universe segment from Tree of Life and blows it up to feature-length, taking the viewer on a journey from the Big Bang to the destruction of the universe. Even without the poetic narration (delivered in the feature-length cut by Cate Blanchett) the film would be unmistakably Malickian in its impressionistic construction. Malick mixes spectacular footage of the natural world with galactic landscapes created in tanks of water, CGI imagery of microscopic organisms, and media-res mini-DV footage of the contemporary world and the chaotic human creatures, who struggle and writhe upon the Earth's surface.

Malick's intuitive editing style can result in a few jarring cuts between different formats, which is more of a criticism of the quality of the CGI images than it is of the editing. Still, Voyage of Time is a testament to the power of editing of images and music. The movements and angles captured by cinematographer Paul Atkins provide the ideal palette from which Malick and his editors Rehman Ali and Keith Fraase can assemble a thrilling rhythmic progression through the creation of the natural world. Atkins' underwater photography yields the most impressive imagery in the film, not least because it manages to capture extraordinary aquatic animal behaviour of a level that one would only ever expect to see in the very best of the BBC's documentaries on the natural world. Malick's sequences on land are almost as striking and recall the similar cinematic triumphs of Ron Fricke's Baraka and Godfrey Reggio's Koyaanisqatsi, but falter slightly with the introduction of early man. A sequence of early humans exploring their brave new world is marred by the obviously American landscapes, which act as unconvincing stand-ins for Africa, the seat of mankind. Overall, the sequence fails to grasp the sublime qualities of Malick's elemental depictions of human life and interaction in The Thin Red Line and Days of Heaven. Similarly, the sparse, plaintive voiceover, in which the narrator converses with Mother Earth, never achieves the same impact as Malick's previous voiceovers. This is due largely to the impact that these voiceovers created in the context of human stories. Voyage of Time goes far beyond any human story and, as such, renders the voiceover largely redundant.

Despite its smattering of shortcomings, Voyage of Time does exactly what it says on the tin. It follows the life of the universe from start to finish, discovering astonishing, moving images along the way. As always, Malick's use of classic music, ranging from Gustav Mahler to Arvo Pärt, is effective in steering the audience towards a transcendental experience but the film as a whole lacks the overall finesse needed to achieve such a result. It is very difficult not to compare Voyage of Time to Baraka, as it covers a great deal of similar ground, but at no point does Malick's film lose its own identity or sense of purpose and it is absolutely worth experiencing this journey on the big screen, be it in the feature-length cut or the truncated IMAX cut.

Wolf & Sheep   ★★★   (2016, Afghanistan/Denmark – dir. Shahrbanoo Sadat)

Using non-professional actors from the mountainous Afghan region in which it is set, the debut film from Iranian director Shahrbanoo Sadat tells the story of a small, remote shepherding community and the children, who are coming age within it. The boys obsess over making slings to hurl rocks across the gorge in which they drive their sheep. The girls are in the process of crossing over from playing at being grown-ups to simply being exactly the same as the mothers and grandmothers, whom their games impersonate. Only Sediqa shuns the trivial interests of the other girls in favour of a more responsible and pragmatic approach to tending her flock, and she seems content to be a loner. Behind the day-time world of the shepherds lurk the local myths of the Kashmir Wolf and the Green Fairy, both of whom haunt the landscape while the villagers are sleeping.

On the one hand, this is a promising debut, in which Sadat shows a talent for composition, pacing and, crucially, an ability to elucidate themes and ideas in the words and behaviour of her child cast. The arresting, eerie mythical imagery also gives the nebulous narrative a shot in the arm – but only to a certain extent. Sadly, the film (and the viewer) suffer greatly for want of a story. Wolf & Sheep unfolds like a morality play about young people on the cusp of adulthood, each of whom is unwittingly choosing which kind of person they are going to be in this brusque, unforgiving society. But, unlike a conventional morality play, conflict and conundrum are conspicuous by their absence. Indeed, any and all events in the narrative happen off-screen, leaving us with one interminable day after another in the life of an adolescent shepherd. When night falls and folkloric creatures walk the ghostly mountain landscape, one's imagination cannot help but respond to the stimulating, dreamlike imagery with a growing sense of anticipation that something surely must now happen! That is until sunlight floods the screen and we awake to another day of herding goats and sheep from one side of the gorge to the other.

In spite of the frustrating experience of watching Wolf & Sheep eschew dramatic tension, I will be first in line to see Shahraboo Sadat's next feature. Her talents for narrative storytelling and striking imagery are apparent, and she clearly has an interest in telling old stories in new ways. I only hope that next time, she will apply her talents to a narrative story, rather than an opaque thematic exploration that seems determined to keep the mechanisms of storytelling at arm's length.

Elle   ★★   (2016, Belgium/France/Germany – dir. Paul Verhoeven)

For the first time in a long while I am completely stumped by the critical reaction to a film – in this case, the wide-spread approval of Paul Verhoeven's Elle. It has been hailed as an outstanding and empowering depiction of a woman's reaction to rape, and the plaudits for Isabelle Huppert's strong central performance are well deserved, as anyone familiar with Huppert's formidable performances might expect. But the film is so muddled and poorly shaped that I can't help but wonder how anyone can interpret what the filmmakers are actually trying to say about their subject matter.

Elle opens halfway through a brutal rape scene. A masked man has broken into the home of our heroine, the CEO of a video game design company. He is there for the sole purpose of beating and raping her and he makes a swift exit, once his objective is accomplished. Rather than report the assault to the police, the victim covers up any evidence of what happened to her and calmly returns to her daily life. The reasons behind this can be guessed at, as it is revealed that she is the daughter of a famous mass murderer. Media coverage of his killing spree in the late 60s heavily implied that she was somehow involved in those crimes, aged only twelve. An affair with her best friend's husband, jealousy over her ex-husband's new squeeze, the exploitation of her son by his unhinged girlfriend, and sexist office politics all underscore our heroine's secret investigation to uncover the identity of her rapist. So far, so fascinating, yet Verhoeven's apparent apathy towards exploring the psychology of his characters is disturbing and frustrating. When the identity of the rapist is uncovered and Huppert enters into a tense courtship with her attacker, it seems that Elle is finally getting to the meat of its central premise: what if a rape victim actively pursued a relationship with her attacker? But even at this point Elle does not cohere because it does not have the insight or the guts to delve deeper into the motivation of either character in the equation. No stimulating comment is offered on the nature of control in any part of our heroine's life, nor is the psychological fall-out from her father's crimes explored. Instead we are forced to endure the infuriating and downright stupid behaviour of one horrible person after another, be they the string of useless male characters or the callous and manipulative female characters. Though the abject worthlessness of the men around Huppert is clearly a deliberate and effective choice on the part of the filmmakers, none of this ugliness progresses towards a deeper understanding of what is going on in anyone's head, let alone any actual exploration of the empowerment of victims against men obsessed with dominating women.

Despite my affection for Starship Troopers and recognition of that film's basic cerebral qualities, I have never subscribed to the view that Paul Verhoeven is a particularly gifted satirist or a filmmaker with much insight into his characters' motivations. Though Verhoeven crafts Elle into an engaging piece of blunt entertainment, his lack of interest in psychology and realism simultaneously ruins the film's entertainment value and thwarts any loftier ambitions inherent in its premise. The fact that Huppert plays the CEO of a games company preparing to launch a sexually violent game (complete with gruesome tentacle porn sequences) is a mere coincidence. Gaming culture is just an area of interest for Verhoeven and screenwriter David Birke, not territory they feel they should explore. Several critics have hailed this as a timely comment on the 2014 Gamergate controversy but any film so unwilling to engage with the issues that it depicts is undeserving of the argument that it has something to say about the issues of misogyny in the gaming community or is making any deliberate reference to Gamergate, in which several women in the video game industry were repeatedly harassed by gamers through social media with threats of rape and murder. The visceral impact of the rape scenes (of which there are several) is severely undercut by the lack of realism in the results of the beatings that Huppert endures. Struck repeatedly with the considerable force depicted in the film, any person's face would be so damaged that it would be impossible for them to avoid a trip to the hospital emergency room, yet Huppert's face emerges from each assault with little more than a single bruise, which swiftly disappears. This is not nit-picking, not in the context of a film that sets-out to turn the tables on male domination of women. Part of the dominance that any attacker exerts upon their victim is the leaving of scars and bruises that cannot be covered up. The physical effects of assault expose the victim to the world and humiliate them. This is the disturbing central objective of the increasing practice of acid attacks on women, a subject conspicuous by its absence in cinema. Mainstream filmmakers across the world have consistently shied away from honestly portraying the physical effects of abuse on women, and Elle does not buck this trend. How, then, can the film claim any sort of integrity in its attempts to confront and upend depictions of violent abuse in mainstream entertainment? The end result is little more than slick sensationalism, just barely pulled through its over-long run time by a compelling performance from a world-class actor – one who has trodden similar ground in the past to far greater effect.