London Film Festival 2018 Part 1 – Highlights

LFF 2018 kicked off in grand style with Steve McQueen’s Widows, a powerful riff on Lynda La Plante’s 1980s television series. Meanwhile quieter, more disconcerting films joined in on opening night.

Jean-Paul Civeyrac’s A Paris Education is a desultory vignette of a particular kind of Parisian student life, and ostensibly bears its badge of intellectual aspiration.  The spirit of May ’68 lives on, amid inconclusive love affairs and political discussions about cinema that suddenly become a matter of life and death. It’s a wistful film steeped in the past, beautifully made and fundamentally at odds with the present. Its cinematic and musical references are moving. In a wonderful and unexpected treat, an extract from Marlen Khutsiev’s film Iliych’s Gate, one of the great works of Soviet cinema, later recut and issued as I am Twenty, becomes part of the story.

Asako I & II, screening at London Film Festival 2018
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The theme of complicated love continues in Asako I & II, a film by Ryusuke Hamaguchi that features a qui pro quo situation that is less unusual than one might imagine. Should one take on a new lover who looks uncannily like one’s previous amour fou? What happens if the past is unresolved and suddenly bursts into the present? Here too, a sentimental education bears fruit in unexpected ways.

In Valeria Bertucelli’s The Queen of Fear, again love is uncertain, unresolved, ambiguous – and so is life. Comedy, the absurd, and death are constant companions for an anxious woman whose only true ally in life is a dying friend a continent away. It’s a strong, evocative and atmospheric debut for Argentinian comedienne Bertucelli, who wrote and co-directed this film with Fabiana Tiscornia, a close collaborator to Lucrecia Martel.

Day Two of the Festival continued from strength to strength, with They’ll Love Me When I am Dead, a documentary homage to Orson Welles that partly recounts the making of his The Other Side of the Wind, the film that became once more notorious when Netflix and Cannes Film Fest had their little disagreement last May. Seeing Welles on screen is a treat one never tires of, with or without his fake noses made of putty.  Incidentally, Talking Pictures TV is screening this week Lewis Gilbert’s Ferry to Hong Kong, which stars Orson Welles as a captain whose every moral flaw can be guessed at by scrutinising his fake nose – another Wellesian tour de force.

Styx, directed by Wolfgang Fischer, presents a moral dilemma hinted at in Ferry to Hong Kong. What is your moral duty when you encounter a ship in distress, laden with desperate refugees, and you are not quite equipped to help? It’s a gripping drama that addresses head on nuanced questions and refuses to provide easy answers.  It also kicks off in an unexpected way. Susanne Wolff leads in a brilliantly crafted story.

Moral dilemmas and human fallibility continue in The Guilty, Gustav Möller’s uncompromising and absorbing thriller about a flawed policeman on emergency despatch duty. It’s a tense drama where nothing is as it seems, and every possible cognitive error makes its mark in disturbing ways. Light relief is provided by the officer’s blunt reactions to vexatious emergency calls from drunk cyclists.

A sunnier note comes with Akasha, an amused and loving look at life on the frontline in Sudan. Director and writer hajooj kuka has created a wonderfully, rewardingly counter-intuitive film. Where one expects a harrowing drama, a sweet tale of daily life emerges. It’s a romantic comedy with sassy women and boyish men muddling their way through as they are watched by their elders. There are unexpected flights of fancy and despite all the dangers surrounding them, all goes well in both love and war.

There is more to look forward to over this first festival weekend.  Among the films to look out for, there’s in In the Aisles, a bittersweet and sexy romantic drama directed by Thomas Stuber. It plays on both Saturday and Sunday, and again on Tuesday.  There’s also Ash is Purest White, showing on Friday and Saturday. It’s a stunning yet low key realist drama by Jia Zhang-ke which chronicles a woman’s life through hard choices and harsh love.  Also showing on Friday and Saturday, Ognjen Glavonić’s The Load is a deeply compelling and memorable film, again in a realist style, and based on real events. It is an intelligent and humane look at how moral choices come to be formed.

London Film Fest always features great shorts.  Jayisha Patel’s Circle, part of the Keep it in the Family shorts collection, screens on Sunday and then again on Thursday 18th. It’s a profoundly affecting story by a talented filmmaker who is unafraid to look at the disturbing nuances of family relationships.

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