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BFI London Film Festival 2020 Part Nine: In Person

Having spent the last half a decade as a regular (1–2 times a week) cinema-goer, on Monday 12th I made my first in person visit to a cinema screen since March 15th, in order to attend the BFI London Film Festival in person. I selected a screening of a film by a trusted director with whose work I was familiar, booked well in advance, and after watching the first two of the daily virtual press screenings at home, made the hour and a half train journey in an empty carriage up to London for an evening showing of Undine. The event, though not oversubscribed, was tolerably well managed and comfortably socially distanced, with hygiene taken as a priority in all respects.

Photo taken by author of the socially distanced screening of Undine at the BFI Southbank
Photo by Hal Kitchen

Undine

When I describe a mermaid drama as bizarre, perhaps it should be qualified somewhat, as what is so strange about Christian Petzold’s Undine is just how straight and realistic it is played. That is to be expected with Petzold, whose films have a naturalistic style that often borders on the uncanny. With his adaptation of Anna Segher’s 1944 novel Transit, concerning the attempts by a young couple to escape from occupied France, Petzold updated the setting to a fictionalised modern day, dragging the novel’s themes of problematised borders and mute self-preservation in the face of authoritarianism and injustice directly into our contemporary Europe.

Petzold very nearly pulls of a similar slight of hand with his treatment of familiar folk myth Undine. Reuniting him with stars of Transit Paula Beer and Franz Rogowzki, and with his regular editor Bettina Bohler, the application of his academic reflectively surrealist style to the myth results in a mysteriously slippery end product. Beer plays the title character, first introduced being broken up with by her user boyfriend, to which she seriously informs him that if he carries out his proposal to leave her, then she will have to kill him, a dry allusion to the myth that we are unsure how sincerely meant her threat is.

Nonetheless, leave her he does, in the hands of Christoph (Rogowski), an endearing Industrial diver with whom sparks soon fly. Transit kept them apart for much of their screen time, both physically and emotionally, so its pleasing to see the two actors playing such a sickeningly cute couple as they have a densely enjoyable chemistry. However, as the film goes on, tragedy strikes and it becomes clear that they shall each have to make their eerie sacrifices in order to be together. It’s a sad, reflective and even befuddling romance that may require multiple viewings to fully unlock.

In his introduction to the film, recorded after his own recovery from COVID-19, Petzold stated that the film is the first part in a planned trilogy of elementally based films, comprising the water segment, to which the next shall be fire-based. He also advanced the opinion that Berlin is a city without an identity, and needs an identity bestowed upon it by those who have come into it throughout history. In this, Undine continues the architectural preoccupation of Transit, casting the title character as a historian specialising in urban development, giving foreign visitors tours of city planning models. Her extended lectures on the architectural idiosyncrasies of Berlin take up a surprising amount of the film’s brief running time.

Perhaps the secret to this strange combination of architectural seminar and waterlogged fairytale romance lies in the etymology of the city’s name, Berlin, for: “dry place in the marsh”. At present, the explorations of Berlin’s history reads almost as a sideshow to the main event, and thankfully not the other way around. Undine remains a curious puzzle, a dense and resolutely high-brow reworking of the mythology, though a charmingly quirky one more than either a frustration or a triumph.

One Night in Miami…

With Academy Award winning actor Regina King making her feature directing debut, screenwriter Kemp Powers adapting his own debut play, and four young actors giving what are potentially their breakthrough performances, the youthful energy of a career entering an exciting new phase pervades the screen adaptation of One Night in Miami… The film fictionalises a night in 1964 when four icons—singer-songwriter Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.), civil rights leader Malcolm X (Kinsley Ben-Adir), heavyweight boxed Cassius Clay (Eli Goree) and football star Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge)—all find themselves at pivotal turning points in their lives.

Following Clay’s championship victory over Sonny Liston (Aaron D. Alexander), Malcolm invites his friends to get together at his hotel room to celebrate, however, it soon becomes apparent that he has a covert agenda: persuading Sam to use his public profile to aid in the developing civil rights struggle. As the evening devolves from affectionate reunion and celebration into a heated debate, revelations and recriminations are dredged up, with the four men arguing over their methods, outlooks and their responsibilities to their community.

To suggest a flaw with the film, Jim Brown is somewhat cast as ‘the fourth one’, as he has the least of an arc or presence of his own. Both he and Clay are playing supportive roles to the clashing central figures of Sam and Malcolm, each of whom is doing the right thing by their community as they see it, but in differing ways. Sam and Malcolm both see themselves to be the ones looking at the bigger picture, with Sam advocating financial independence within the white capitalist system and Malcolm grassroots activism and urgent reform from without.

The film and its characters represent the perspectives each character is arguing from exceptionally well. Neither party comes off as a straw man and both are given persuasive voices, although the film does not lack a voice of its own, seemingly aligning itself more with Malcolm’s more urgent perspective, although his own insecurities and ulterior motives are placed under the microscope no less than any other character’s. However, the brilliance of One Night in Miami… comes in its avoidance of a didactic tone. No matter how politicised their debates become, each of the four men is seen at first and last as a person. The themes are political and timely as a statement of black power and solidarity, but the presentation is loose, familiar, and as intimate as it is glamorous.

Each of the four leads give excellent performances, with Aldis Hodge (Clemency) projecting a rugged sense of assurance and Odom Jr a wounded sort of hunger and wit. However, particular laurels ought to go to Goree’s naïve, sensitive and peppy portrayal of Clay and to Ben-Adair’s vulnerable incarnation of Malcolm, presenting a reflective and melancholy side to the icon, while slipping into authoritative, worried statesman mode without the slightest perceptible change in gear. Even if he does look more like a young Drake than Malcolm X.

The film will have a limited release in December before going wide release on Amazon streaming in January, presumably to qualify for awards consideration. Contrary to the received wisdom, I hope that the wider playing field will lead to an especially strong and diverse set of nominees this coming awards season and I should like to see Goree and Ben-Adair recognised in the supporting and leading male categories. I would also say that Kemp Powers is a shoo-in for a nomination for his superb adaptation of his own refreshingly unverbose screenplay.

The Intruder

Sadly, I’m afraid we must follow this high praise with a discussion of the festival’s weakest film so far, the scattered, sketchy, unfocused and overambitious Argentine thriller The Intruder. Despite sharing so much DNA with a variety of other psycho-thrillers by the numbers, The Intruder hardly seems to know its own steps. It hurries over its own scenes and arrives at the next one as if startled to find it there. It lacks any degree of atmosphere or pacing, seemingly existing in a permanent first act, or perhaps a short film that never decides to let its audience go free. It’s sadly muddled and depressingly unscary.

The film stars Érica Rivas as Inés, a singer and voice actor troubled by disturbing dreams of intrusion and bodily invasion. She no sooner describes one of these dreams to her unloved boyfriend than it seems to come true and something snatches him from their hotel balcony. When she returns to her job, she finds that the microphones seem to be picking up some background noise emanating from her own body. From this perhaps intriguing setup, the film presents viewers with a series of distractions, never allowing itself to develop any sense of atmosphere or tone. Director Natalia Meta seems unsure how to achieve any effect at all, with the filmmaking far too conservative and restrained for either the horror her film spends most of its time poorly masquerading as, nor for the camp it finally seems to be aiming at.

Ines in the recording booth in The Intruder

From its ending, the film seems almost to be aiming for what’s come to be known in meme culture as the ‘“good for her” cinematic universe’: subversive, feminist takes on the horror genre where the heroine embraces the violence and mania around her, absorbing them into her and drawing strength from them, weaponizing them for her own liberation. Midsommar, The Witch and Ready or Not are some notable examples. However, The Intruder fails to join their ranks as it never satisfyingly establishes any coherent stakes or conflict, so the film’s climax reads more as confusing and hollow than defiant and empowering. There’s no catharsis if there’s no pressure to be relieved and The Intruder never gives us a reason to care. Ironically, there’s no route into our central character.

Cicada

“If he truly thinks in his heart that you’re wrong, then it’s moments like this that’ll make him rethink what is right.”

The cyclical narrative of Cicada begins and ends with the oppressive chirruping of the titular swarm. The sense memory that connects two summers, almost two decades apart, in the mind of protagonist Ben (the film’s debutant writer-co-director Matthew Fifer), is the catalyst for his slow journey to unboxing the trauma he has kept within himself throughout his emotional development. The themes of Cicada may recall Gregg Araki’s adaptation of Mysterious Skin, but its stylistic approach is more akin to the slice of life drama of Short Term 12 (in this writer’s opinion, a still peerless masterpiece), naturalistic, indie, sweetly comic and tender. Benjamin’s exploration of his trauma is interleaved with his budding relationship with Samuel (producer Sheldon Brown), a closeted young man her first meets at an outdoor book stand reading The Hungry Caterpillar (more imagery of insects, childhood and transformation, however coy).

Ben has recently emerged from a prolonged period of apparently monogamous, heterosexuality, but is now, as his sister puts it: “back on the dick” (which is such a singularly regrettable phrase the film treats us to it twice), immersing himself in the New York cruising scene, until he meets Samuel. In forming an emotional intimacy with someone, in allowing somebody else to get to know him, he is forced to get to know himself, and that trauma from that summer seventeen years prior is dragged up.

Ben (Matthew Fifer) talks to his therapist Sophie (Cobie Smulders) in Cicada

The film seems to be more or less the debut feature for everyone involved, with the exception of Cobie Smulders as Ben’s flaky therapist, who is one of the film’s one or two overly quirky supporting characters. The film is also knocked somewhat off balance by a generic summer R&B soundtrack. Little the less, Cicada‘s poignant and sympathetic message about the importance of sharing and discussing your emotional pain still comes through. The sad truth is, everyone knows someone who has been abused, harassed or assaulted at some point in their lives, so if you have, chances are someone you know and who cares about you has as well.

Ultraviolence

Documentarian Ken Fero has spent the last two decades of his life actively involved with the campaign to bring to an end the disturbing number of deaths, particularly of black and other minority individuals, in police custody in the UK. Fero informs us, there have been two thousand such cases in the last fifty years, only one of which resulted in the successful prosecution of a police officer, in 1985. Fifteen years after his last documentary on the subject, he returns with Ultraviolence, a documentary composed out of footage shot, some of it covertly, by Fero in the mid-2000s, and surveillance footage. Some of this surveillance footage, though not graphic, is undoubtedly distressing, and many have raised concerns, not without merit, about the ethics of sharing footage of this kind publicly.

Protest images in Ken Fero's documentary Ultraviolence

The film is divided up into multiple chapters, titled “memories”, or perhaps more appropriately memorials, each one singling out particular cases where, through either neglect of duty or outright police brutality, a suspect died in police custody. These cases range from suspects denied potentially lifesaving medical care and left to die on the floor of a police station, suspects who sustained fatal skull fractures and other serious injuries during arrest, to an infamous case that even I remember, though I was only nine years old at the time, of a man shot dead after being misidentified as a potential terrorist. Such cases were often ruled “deaths by misadventure”—which as the film states, implies error on the part of the deceased and not the attending officers—or are ruled “unlawful killings” only for the ruling to be overturned later.

These cases are reconstructed through testimonials from family members, the aforementioned surveillance camera footage, and rudimentary animated re-enactments, and are framed by the film within the context of a letter written by Fero to his son. Images are often tagged with bold overlaid blue text, one repeated phrase being “The Endless Campaign”, further attempting to add to the film’s already considerable gravitas with a score of doom-laded horns, all of which combine to create an unapologetically inflammatory tone. Considering the vitality and righteousness of the film’s subject matter, it’s deeply disappointing how often I found my eyes rolling at its uncalled for and misjudged ruminations on cinema. We’re watching a real man’s death on camera, why are you dragging Pasolini into it?

These flaws and unseemly pretensions are further compounded by a bizarre attempt to tie these issues in with the Stop the War campaign. No doubt one could make the link between these two data points, the incidents of death in police custody, to the invasion of Iraq. Iconographically the two are similar, with widespread protest falling on the indifferent ears of the establishment. One could connect the two, however Fero fails to do so convincingly. Every time the focus shifts it feels facile and jarring, as if the film itself were changing the subject, jumping onto a lot of unrelated, or only indirectly related issues, and trying unsuccessfully to make it all look like part of one great tapestry. Instead, all he ends up doing is distracting from and diluting the issues themselves.

Despite the film’s tone of urgency and outrage, it seems totally unwilling to focus on the issues and allow them to speak for themselves. When truth is on your side, what use speculation? As it stands, Ultraviolence is an urgent and much needed testament against injustice, violence and negligence, albeit one needlessly embellished by Fero’s own artistic sensibilities.

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Written by Hal Kitchen

A reviewer of music and films, I am a graduate of the University of Kent Canterbury where I have a 1st class BA in Liberal Arts and will soon have an MA in Film, specializing in film and gender theory. Whilst at Kent I was the Film & TV sub-editor and later Culture Editor of the campus newspaper InQuire and run a Letterboxd account. I joined 25YearsLaterSite as a volunteer writer in May 2020.

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