Oct 24, 2016

The Picture Show: LFF 2016 Wrap Up

Toni Erdmann
Here is the last of the Picture Show's special episodes from this year's London Film Festival.  Once again, I'm joined by Mike to discuss the best (and a little of the worst) of this year's LFF, as we hand out our personal festival awards and run down our Top 5 lists from this year's early, extended, Christmas for movie nerds. 

Oct 16, 2016

24FPS @ LFF 2016: Heal the Living

Dir: Katell Quillevere
As a film viewer, and especially as a critic, I am aware that when I approach a film I take things from it, but I also bring things to it. In the case of Heal the Living this was especially acute, because as I sat down to watch it I carried with me (as I do all the time) the weight of my medical history. Obviously this is hugely important in my life, but generally speaking it's not something that comes into play when I watch films. I have to be clear that Heal the Living was an exception, and that the impact it had on me has to be seen through the lens of that medical history.

Katell Quillevere's third feature, adapted from a novel by Maylis de Kerangal, takes organ transplants as its subject, following a single procedure (a heart transplant) from both sides; that of the family of the donor and of the the recipient and her family. This is where my history comes into play: I have received two liver transplants (25 years ago, within 10 days of each other after the first failed), so I have experienced this journey from one side and have often imagined what it must have been like from the other. For other viewers these events may be more abstract, but for me Heal the Living was deeply and devastatingly personal.

The donor is Simon (Gabin Verdet), brain dead after a car accident, and we are privy to the whole process as a young doctor (Tahar Rahim) sensitively introduces the prospect of donation to the devastated parents (Emmanuelle Seigner and Kool Shen). From the other side we see Claire (Anne Dorval) slowing down her life as she is placed on the transplant list and also trying to moderate the impact on her late teenage children (Finnegan Oldfield, Theo Cholbi). Quillevere divides the two parts quite decisively, only introducing Claire after about an hour, but also allowing time for each side of the story to develop independently before drawing them together.

The two parts of the film have similar form, but slightly different styles. In each section Quillevere allows for a few digressions, for instance following Monia Chokri's nurse for a little while and showing Claire reconnecting with a former lover (Alice Tagliolini), but the first hour has a more dreamlike feel, while the second half largely abandons those touches for something much closer to documentary style. For me, this seems to suggest the sense of dislocation that the extreme grief of Simon's parents must be causing for them spilling over into the film. This is acutely felt in a brief flashback to the first time Simon and his girlfriend kiss, a sweet scene which trades on Quillevere's mastery of coming of age cinema (her first film, Love Like Poison, is one of the 21st century's great entries in that genre). After sweeping you up briefly in this romantic moment, Quillevere immediately cuts to an ashen Seigner and Kool Shen, driving back from the hospital. The flashback is not a memory but either a parent's imagining of a moment in their son's life, now brutally cut short, or a memory of how he told that story. We never know which, but the question alone is affecting.

There are more beautiful directorial flourishes in the film's first part; the road becoming the sea as Simon's friend falls asleep at the wheel, causing the crash; images of Simon surfing, as if being sucked under into another world. These are not only striking in themselves, but in the contrast with the second half. Once Claire is introduced everything is matter of fact. Quillevere becomes more an observer, first of the relationship between Claire and her sons, then of the transplant procedure itself. Both operations, the harvesting and the transplant, are handled sensitively and with a matter of fact eye for procedure, but with enough restraint that the film always feels honestly sad, rather than sentimental.

This is delicate material, but Quillevere and her outstanding cast handle it beautifully. Tahar Rahim strikes a perfect balance between playing his character's desire to get consent for Simon's organs to be used and his determination to handle it with maximum sensitivity, while Seigner and Kool Shen, with relatively limited screentime, sketch believable studies of grief. In the second half, Anne Dorval finds a lot of moments that struck home for me, especially in the sequences after she gets the call to hospital; the nerves, the preparation, the goodbyes, all these things ring true and brought back raw images from 25 years ago. Even the small parts are expertly cast and played, with especially fine work from Bouli Lanners and Dominique Blanc.

Quillevere's balance between realism and poetic touches is exceptional throughout, but the moment that Rahim pauses the harvesting operation to say a few last words to Simon from his family is where it hits hardest. Devastatingly touching without ever feeling sugary or false, it's a moment that shows the film in miniature. 

After the blip I felt Suzanne represented after Love Like Poison, this is a dazzling piece of work from Quillevere. Heal the Living is beautifully cast and acted, expertly directed and well made in every technical respect, but for me it was so much more than that. Transplant isn't a subject often addressed in cinema, the last time I remember seeing it covered was in a very different context in Never Let Me Go, but Heal the Living has none of the abstraction and distance that Mark Romanek's film did. Instead this film lives in some of the most emotionally fraught moments of people's lives and rings true at every turn. I can't say whether other audiences will feel this film as viscerally as I did, but even if they don't, it remains essential viewing.

Oct 15, 2016

24FPS@ LFF 2016: Wild

Dir: Nicolette Krebitz
Over the eight years since I saw her last film, The Heart is a Dark Forest, I have wondered why it has taken such a long time for writer/director Nicolette Krebitz to follow it up. I believe I now have my answer. Wild can not have been an easy film to set up; a challenging, provocative film that seems destined to upset quite a lot of people, it's both a fitting follow up to The Heart is a Dark Forest and one that confirms that film's promise.

Ania (Lilith Stangenburg) is in her early 20's and living something of a lonely life, stuck in an anonymous high rise, working a decent but soul sucking office job and watching her Grandfather slowly waste away in hospital. One day, as she walks to the bus for work, she sees a wolf emerge from the woods near her home and immediately becomes obsessed. Ania begins desperately looking for the wolf, eventually managing to capture the animal, taking it into her home and beginning a relationship of sorts with it.

Krebitz clearly realises her story may strain credulity, she plays with this idea in two distinct but equally effective ways. Firstly, she builds a credible environment for Ania. Her town, her flat, her job, the hospital, the annoying boss who may have a crush on her, all of these things have a drab, grey reality about them. This credibility grounds the story, but it also provides something that we buy in to Ania being desperate to leave behind; a reason why her encounter with the wolf excites her. 

At the same time, Krebitz implies for a while that this encounter with the wolf may be Ania's break with reality in another way. As she embarks on an initially fruitless quest to see the animal again, it's a distinct possibility that Ania has imagined or dreamed the initial encounter. This would be an interesting alternative route for the film to take, but it's all the more shocking when it becomes clear that this is not what's happening, that both Ania's obsession and the object of it are totally real.

The film's grounding is also aided by an exceptional performance from Lilith Stangenburg. Stangenburg carries the film, with it falling ever more on her shoulders as time runs on and she is more frequently the only person on screen. This would have been an easy role to play badly; just pushing the boat out a bit too far could make the scenes between Ania and the wolf risible. Instead, the inheld but detail rich performance Stangenburg gives makes Ania's loneliness and her pain feel raw and visceral and her gradual withdrawl into this clearly dysfunctional way of coping something we can feel for. Beyond the quality of her work, Stangenburg also gives one of the most daring performances I've seen in a long time, often as physically naked as she seems emotionally and frequently interacting uncomfortably closely with what always appears to be a real wolf. This is one of those performances that makes you sit up and take notice of an actor.

Krebitz gives the film's visuals a washed out colour scheme for the most part, but pulls out some truly striking imagery. A funny shot of Ania, dressed in a homemade protective suit, going in to feed the wolf for the first time since bringing it home sticks in the mind, as does a beautiful and meaningful moment at the film's end when Ania and the wolf take different routes down a hill, their separation speaking volumes. There are plenty more images that I'll struggle to shake, but to talk about them would be to spoil some of the film's most divisive content.

Wild is a bold film and Krebitz clearly as bold a filmmaker, but for all the discussion there will be about the film's content in its more troubling moments, this is ultimately a character study. In this respect Wild is a great film, it does it with an unusual character and through an unusual prism, to say the least, but the feelings it explores - grief, loneliness, a desire to escape - are all but universal. I hope it won't take Nicolette Krebitz another nine years to make her next film, she's too interesting for us to have to wait that long.