Saturday, 22 October 2011

LFF Day 6: Norwegian chills, French intrigues and Argentinian thrills

A great deal of variety at the London Film Festival yesterday, with a Norwegian then an Argentinian thrillers as well as an experimental French film. And one of them turned out to be a real gem.

The day started off with Headhunters, which came preceded with some positive buzz. Scandinavian genre films have come out of nowhere to occupy an emerging place in cinema lately, with such recent successes as Let the right one in, Dead snow and Trollhunters. Yet this Norwegian thriller, while technically accomplished and a well oiled machine, left me as cold as a plate of near frozen shrimps I had at a hotel's restaurant on a rainy day in Gothenburg a few years ago.

In it, a headhunter, who lives a life well above his means to satisfy a wife he perceives to be completely out of his league, complements his income through the traffic of stolen paintings. But this is still not enough and just as he faces bankruptcy, an opportunity to win big presents itself in front of him. Of course, nothing ever goes to plan!

The main problem I had with this film is the very unlikeable lead protagonist. Suffering from a small man syndrome, he seems to see life as a serie of scores to settle, with money and attractive women seemingly the only goals to aim for. With production values well above your usual European films, this is as efficiently put together as any American thriller and entertaining throughout, with some nice twists but nothing too OTT. And there is a welcome dose of Scandinavian black humour. A slight whiff of misogny, with a particularly problematic supporting female character, is nearly redeemed with a satisfying ending that shows a bit more heart than expected.

Nonetheless, there is nothing particularly groundbreaking about this,  and I do wonder if the hype is due to what I call the Festen effect. Let me explain. I saw Festen at his his world premiere at the Cannes Film Festival back in 1998 and felt that, had this unoriginal tale of a dysfunctional family been American, it would not have received an ounce of the praise it gained at the time (and given director Thomas Vinterberg's subsequent career, a big "told you so" is in order). So I feel the same could be said about Headhunters. Good on the Norwegians to show that they can make this sort of films but I would expect more originality and a more personal touch.

The second film of the day was The Screen Illusion by Mathieu Amalric, yet another modern adaptation of a classic play, a mere couple of days after Coriolanus. I have written a full review for Cinemart so I will not say too much. It is an interesting experiment but I can hardly see this getting the same reception as his previous effort, On tour, as this is a lot more niche.

And finally, the Argentinian Ostende, a film which I saw late in the evening at the ICA, AKA the most uncomfortable cinema in the world (why must we suffer so much for art?) With repressed memories of the worst two films of last year's festival seen in this same venue emerging, I feared the worst. Yet what a wonderful surprise this turned out to be!

The film, an understated and pacey thriller that demands the full attention of its audience while never being boring, follows a young Argentinian woman who finds herself in a near empty seaside hotel off season, having won a stay there at some quiz show. While waiting for her boy friend, who is to join her a few days later, and with very little to do, she begins to pay more attention to the other occupants, and begins to suspect that something is going on. Is her imagination playing tricks on her? Or is there something sinister at play?

Having watched this very late at the end of a long day, it is all to its credit that it got me hooked from the start, despite taking its time to unravel. Unlike what I had seen earlier with Headhunters, and despite some obvious influences which I will mention later, Ostende is a unique and truly original proposition, a thriller like nothing I have seen before. Do not expect countless head scratching twists or any big action pieces but a subtle film that knows exactly where it is going, until a quietly devastating final scene.

As I was saying before, there is an obvious influence from several films and directors, the most obvious being Rear window and Hitchcock, but also Antonioni, and, more surprisingly, Eric Rohmer, for its depiction of a sleepy seaside town and some lengthy and seemingly mundane scenes of dialogues, in between long silent takes. I could not help think about I Still Know What You Did Last Summer but I doubt this was intentional and no there is no Argentinian Jack Black getting stoned then harpooned.

First time director Laura Citarella was in attendance for a post-screening Q&A and she was charming, very enthusiastic and a self-confessed film lover, confirming all the references we had all spotted. An uncharitable member of the public asked her if she was going to consider developing her own style after so obviously copying others for her first film, which I thought was incredibly rude and unjustified. Most great film directors are influenced by others in their career, and I do not recall anybody asking Brian de Palma and Claude Chabrol if they would consider not copying Hitchcock at some stage. After skilfully dodging that question, she gave some great insights into the various subjects of the film, including a suggestion that this was also meant as a portrayal of a woman with an hyper-active mind and libido, and who must channel all that energy into all that sleuthing and curiosity.

A multi-talented person, who started off as a producer and also has a career as a recording artist, I do hope we get to hear more from her, and that Ostende (which she made for $30,000 only!) will get a UK release.

And that was it for the day. The following day, I saw both the best then worst film of the festival! Watch this space...

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