As the festival begins to wind down, coming to the end of its second week, with only two days-worth of critics screenings ahead, we can start looking back and appraising the works on display as a catalogue. The 2020 London Film Festival has indisputably provided a strong array of films, with more great ones than bad and many more good ones besides. However, those who have been keeping up with this series, and who have our thanks for doing so, will have noticed some waning enthusiasm of late. The second week has not been devoid of highlights such as Christian Petzold’s Undine and David Byrne’s American Utopia, but it has hardly compared to the heights of the first week, which delivered a similar number of highly daily. Hopefully the closing days of the festival will revive things with a second entry in Steve McQueen’s Small Axe series and starry Jurassic coast romance Ammonite, but for now, we have an assortment of films that left little impression despite their outward variety and in many cases, quality.
As discussed in the previous entry for this series, this year’s festival has been thick with films on the subjects of borders and migration, and this documentary from Gianfranco Rosi fits snugly into that tradition. The film was shot around the middle-east in the regions surrounding Lebanon, Syria and Jordan, in an effort to paint a portrait of those living in a region so frequently wracked by war and war crimes. The film begins following a grieving mother into an abandoned prison to show the cameras the cell where her son died, and Rosi’s film continues in a similarly bereft fashion from there, adopting a glassy eyed and mute tone.
Music is abjured until the final stanza and many scenes unfold without dialogue, as his subjects go about their daily lives. Less stories and more scenarios arise as we return to the same individuals throughout the film: a platoon of Tajikistani female soldiers manning an isolated guard post, a mother awaiting news of her daughter, held captive by Islamic State, and her son who goes out hunting and fishing to feed his family. None of which scenarios receive any kind of closure, they merely provide a morsel of context, existing purely as a protracted instant before fading, lost in the vast canvas. It’s these moments that linger longest in the memory: a white horse standing motionless at an intersection, the sound of a bubbling hookah mingling with distant gunfire or a woodsman hunting at night by the light of oilfields burning over the horizon.
In the film’s most devastating sequence, a child therapist speaks asks her patients to draw what they can recall from their childhood’s, resulting in a horrifying catalogue of Islamic State’s genocide against Yazidis in the area. While Islamic State is portrayed as this mythic, unimaginable evil, the US military is glimpsed only briefly, as an inhuman hulk of militarised armour waiting impassively at a roadside crossing.
The closest to a narrative that arises throughout the film’s one hundred minute runtime, takes place in a psychiatric ward where the doctors encourage the patients to stage a play about their national history. These moments contain the only direct comments from the subjects about the national crises, as they read from the scripts handed to them by their doctor. Perhaps this is intended to form an ironic dig at the way news and film media commodify and condense the stories of Middle Eastern peoples into concise little perspectives, something Notturno firmly rejects. As a result, its slices of life coalesce into only a fragmentary and somewhat despairing tapestry, leaving the viewer feeling more hopeless than inspired to action.
The Human Voice
One of the notable absences from the festival’s recent showings has been a lack of big industry names, but two of the biggest on the circuit, Pedro Almodovar and Tilda Swinton team up for this next release, The Human Voice. One might reasonably have supposed that a new Almodovar film starring Swinton ought to have been one of the most buzzed about of the festival, however it is only a short film, running just thirty minutes. Based on the one act play by Jean Cocteau, itself already adapted once before by Roberto Rossellini as the first half of his 1948 anthology film L’Amore, starring Anna Magnani, The Human Voice follows a glamorous woman, herself an actor, steadily unravelling in her apartment, alone with her blue merle collie, awaiting a call from the lover who has just left her.
However, the title card describes Almodovar’s version as “freely based” on Cocteau’s play. It did urgently need updating it must be said, and Almodovar gives it his usual twists. Given only a couple of locations to work with, Almodovar goes more vivid than ever with his sets and costumes, popping almost distractingly out of the screen. In this incarnation of the story, the fiction plays out on what is revealed to be a vacant studio set, with the empty backlot contrasting starkly against the plush, pop-art interiors.
The film is still dense with the play’s overwritten monologue, or rather one-sided dialogue. The style is one hundred percent Almodovar, complete with an Alberto Iglesias score, but the script is too raw for his plastic, comic style and Swinton is rather caught between registers. Her speech has the character of a dramatic monologue rather than a conversation. While Rossellini’s version was unguarded and despondent, Almodovar is ironic and witty, and only occasionally feels as if it’s hitting the intended notes.
Striding Into the Wind
Within this film, there is a filmmaker character who is obsessed with emulating his filmmaking idols, constantly comparing the work of those on his set to the stylistic expressions of Hou Hsiao Hsien or Wong Kar Wai. However, despite this wry comment, the director of Striding Into the Wind seems able to do little better himself, with an exceptionally dry comic drama that bears the tone of a drama and the substance of a comedy, able to do justice to neither potential appeal.
The film follows Kun (Zhou You), a student first introduced as he runs off in a rage from his driving test. Sporting the worst haircut in human history, he travels around Bejing in his second-hand four-by-four, finding various odd jobs as a sound engineer on the set of an ambitious student film and assisting the vanity publication of an aspiring pop singer, always tailed by his dim-witted best friend Tong (Tong Lin Kai). As the film goes on, his aged Jeep becomes emblematic of both his freedom, independence and aspirations and his limitations and irresponsibility, leading him equally to his greatest and most fleeting joys, and merely into trouble.
His struggles to embody the stresses of a generation of graduates left at sea by a flailing job market fail to resonate in any way and become rather tedious, as despite the suggestion of an uphill climb in the title, Kun never seems to be trying very hard to achieve his meagre, vaguely defined goals. Instead he comes across as a shallow, lazy and selfish figure who fights his way out of situations he’s unable to lie through. When out of touch individuals declaim the lazy and entitled attitude of the younger generation, it’s people like Kun that they’re thinking of.
His misadventures are never funny or poignant and at well over two hours, the film is a slog to get through at such a needlessly and numbingly stately pace. This is a comprehensively boring film, with pretensions of poignancy and poetry, and the twin sins of being both substanceless and deathly slow-paced, emerging as only a senseless portrait of an arrogant, shallow and not very bright student.
Delia Derbyshire: The Myths and Legendary Tapes
Although you may not have heard of Delia Derbyshire, you almost certainly have heard her work, as her contributions as an arranger to one of the most iconic television themes of all time, the Doctor Who theme, went uncredited until years after her death. A pioneer of electronic music in the UK in the 1960s, her work with the BBC Radiophonic workshop and as an independent composer earned her cult status as one of the experimental music scenes most essential players, setting out to “create sounds that have never existed in the world before”. This film forms a tribute to her life and work, written and directed by Caroline Catz, expanding on her 2018 short film about Derbyshire, and who also stars as Derbyshire in the film’s fictionalised re-enactments.
By usage of these re-enactments, the film combines the registers of an experimental documentary and a conventional biopic, flashing back to her formative adolescence during the blitz and her efforts to find work in the industry, encountering prejudice against herself as a woman and her genre of music. Throughout her career she struggled to achieve recognition in the first place as a woman in a male dominated environment and in the second as a composer in what was often seen as a mere technical role. Few at the time understood her work and many connected it to madness and malevolence, the custom was never to work at the Radiophonic Workshop for more than three months at a go, to avoid the risk of running mad at all the unwholesome noises they generated, readily tied into the burgeoning atmosphere of free love and psychedelia.
These scenes are framed within musician and disciple of Derbyshire’s Cosey Fanni Tutti, and her efforts to compose a score for the film out of samples from the titular lost tapes, discovered in Derbyshire’s attic after she died. The whole film is structured as both a tribute and attempt to understand Derbyshire by two other women, Tutti and Catz. Derbyshire was by all accounts a character, a snuff addict and staunch “individualist”, who considered herself “a post-feminist before feminism was ever invented”.
These flashback re-enactments are also intercut with interviews with those who knew her when she was alive, her co-workers, artistic collaborators and lovers. In my opinion we hear a little too much of this last group, with the film focusing heavily in its second half on her personal and romantic life and little on her ground-breaking work. The film often seems more preoccupied in her depression and romantic intrigues than in her professional achievements, in a manner that feels almost tabloid. The film gets so bogged down in this material via the re-enactments, that it’s almost to the detriment of the subject and certainly the pacing, with the final thirty years of Derbyshire’s life, during which time she was still active, condensed down into a little over ten minutes.
This latter half of the film is concerned with her retreat from work with a few specific individuals but there’s a lot here that feels unexplored. Despite any reservations I may have, Delia Derbyshire is an idiosyncratic, unique and appropriately strange and ambitious film with an aura of melancholy wit, and one that perhaps says more about the people who made it than its subject.