30 recommendations at the 2012 London Film Festival

As you might expect with a festival in the hands of a new creative director, Clare Stewart, this year’s BFI London Film Festival is so full of surprises that there are several promising-looking films we haven’t yet seen. That only makes us all the keener to experience what’s on offer. What follows, then, is our list of the films we can recommend from experience. It’s a rich enough list on its own.


Web exclusive

The Sight & Sound Gala

Beyond the Hills

Screening Friday 12, Sunday 14 October

Like his 2007 Palme d’Or winner 4 Months, 3 Weeks & 2 Days (a previous S&S LFF gala), Mungiu’s superstition and myth-haunted film focuses on two young women in a dilemma with authority, only this time the authority is the Romanian orthodox church and, by extension, the Creator himself.

Voichita (Cosmina Stratan) has become a nun serving a hilltop church community. Her former orphanage friend Alina (Cristina Flutur) turns up from Germany to declare her love for Voichita and get her to come back. Voichita strives instead to turn Alina’s love towards God, but the community becomes convinced that Alina is possessed, and so a process of exorcism begins.

This is a powerfully acted piece that fully enters and makes plausible the closed-world consciousness of the nuns until the spell is broken. The increments with which the screws of tragedy turn are finely calibrated. In fact Mungiu’s film would have been practically perfect if not for one too many scenes in which a nun runs in because Alina’s flipped again! The two leads – one all knowing looks and disquiet, the other electric with emotion – thoroughly deserved their shared Best Actress prize at Cannes.

— Nick James, reviewing from Cannes in our July 2012 issue. See also Geoff Andrew’s festival blog post Nuns on the verge of a nervous breakdown.


Other galas


Screening Thursday 11, Saturday 13

Haneke’s Palme d’Or winner is a characteristically honest and unsentimental depiction of an otherwise comfortably-off octogenarian couple (Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuele Riva) trying to cope when the wife suffers strokes that leave her first partly paralysed, then virtually speechless and inactive. The treatment is simplicity itself: save for an early scene in which Georges and Anne – retired music teachers – go to a piano recital, the entire film takes place at their Paris apartment and follows a linear chronology interrupted only by two brief dream sequences reflecting Georges’s anxieties.

Haneke never underplays the difficulty of maintaining a mutually supportive relationship when everything’s turned for the worse and even one’s beloved Schubert offers no solace; nor is his film remotely sensationalist – as ever, he’s acutely alert to what needs to be shown, and what can be left to the imagination. The result is an admirably forthright, unsentimental yet sensitive examination of the challenges posed by the sudden, painful and inexorable erosion of an individual who’s been central to one’s experience of life; the film’s unassertive tenderness and two brave, quite brilliant performances make it extraordinarily moving.

— Nick James, reviewing from Cannes in our July 2012 issue. See also his festival blog post Love by Michael Haneke.


Screening Saturday 20, Sunday 21

This black comedy by rising British director Wheatley (Down Terrace, Kill List) is a wry and lovingly constructed tale about Tina (Lowe) and Chris (Oram), a nerdish couple from the Midlands. Chris wants to rescue Tina from her fake-bedridden mother and take her on a romantic caravan holiday.

Anyone familiar with Mike Leigh’s 1975 TV play Nuts in May need only imagine Leigh’s two characters allowing their inner rage to get out of control. But the painfully acute Tina and Chris characters were actually created and developed by Lowe and Oram in their stand-up act over several years.

The tone for the rest of the film is set when the infuriated Chris witnesses a slob deliberately litter a theme park dedicated to trams – and reverses the caravan over him. You could say Wheatley’s film is all about what Bob Dylan called “a pettiness that plays so rough”, but it’s much funnier and more acute than that makes it sound.

— Nick James, reviewing from Cannes in our July 2012 issue.

  • Wheatley, Lowe and Oram talk to Ben Walters in our November 2012 issue.


Official Competition


Screening Monday 15, Tuesday 16

Following Tony Manero and Post Mortem, Pablo Larraín’s look at the unexpected demise of the Chilean dictatorship is the closest he’s come to a crowd-pleasing, mainstream movie.

In 1988, General Pinochet was forced to concede a referendum on whether or not he should remain in power for a further eight years – but no-one believed it would make a difference, because of the “learnt hopelessness” of the people.

Larraín and writer Pedro Peirano tell the tale of how the No campaign defied those predictions. Their terrific central character is René Saavedra (Gael García Bernal), a skateboarding ad man whose genius is to apply the frivolous and superficial tropes of advertising to the referendum. And where the comedy in Larraín’s earlier films was pitch black, here it’s as if the director is applying René’s maxim, “a little lighter, a little nicer”, to himself. Much of the feel good vibe is due to our witnessing a country coming out of the shadows.

— Read all of Demetrios Matheou’s Cannes blog post ‘No’ for a lighter, nicer Chile.

Seven Psychopaths

Screening Friday 19, Saturday 20, Sunday 21

This immensely witty film has several layers going for it: a collection of tall tales about human monsters, an auto-critique of Hollywood’s cynicism that has its cake and eats it, the best line-up of male actors notorious for playing whack-jobs, and the most inventive and entertaining screenplay about screenplay writers since Charlie Kaufman got lost in his own labyrinth.

It’s about Marty (Farrell), an alcoholic screenplay writer whose best friend Billy (Rockwell) – an inveterate truth-teller and dog kidnapper – wants to push him along in the next project he’s working on, a screenplay called, you guessed it, Seven Psychopaths. So far he’s only got one, a Buddhist. Billy gives him two more, a Quaker revenge killer (Dean Stanton) and a masked figure called ‘jack of Diamonds’. Soon he’s knee-deep in them after Billy and his dog-thief boss Hans (Walken) kidnap the Shih Tzu of gangster Charlie (Harrelson), and an ad in the paper brings a visit from Zachariah (Waits). It gets a bit silly towards the end but there’s so much cynical comedy fun to be had getting there you forgive it everything.

— Nick James


First Feature Competition

Beasts of the Southern Wild

Screening Friday 12, Saturday 13, Sunday 14

A genuinely inventive debut from the Southern US, Benh Zeitlin’s Cannes Camera d’Or-winner is a vivid, impressionistic film about Hushpuppy, a self-determined eight-year-old black girl growing up cheek by jowl with wildlife among the hard-drinking, half-deranged inhabitants of an (imaginary?) island off the coast of New Orleans. When the infamous hurricane comes, the island is inundated with salt water, and the authorities insist that all the inhabitants must be evacuated. The only thing that can save the community is the destruction of a levee protecting an industrial plant.

At root this is a simple piratical parable about survival, depicted with a child’s eye for wonder. It has a superb sense of imagery and rhythm – and in Quvenzhané Wallis, a formidable child actress.

— Nick James, reviewing from Cannes in our July 2012 issue.

My Brother the Devil

Screening Tuesday 16, Friday 19, Sunday 21

El Hosaini’s feature debut is a rather different take on the urban genre. The familiar milieu of the council estate, the gang culture, the streets of multi-ethnic London are all in place, as is the essential sympathy for a close pair of Arab-British brothers trying to survive in tough financial circumstances.

Elder brother Rashid (Floyd) is a charismatic member of a local drug dealing gang, Mo (Elsayed) is his intelligent hero-worshipping sibling. But Rashid is a troubled figure, desperate to get Mo the education that will get him “out of the ends”. When Mo’s belief in Rashid is shaken to the core by certain revelations, their progress is put in serious danger. Sensitive portraiture and an affectionate approach to the social milieu make this a standout.

— Nick James

Neighbouring Sounds

Screening Wednesday 17, Sunday 21

Already much lauded at film festivals internationally, Kleber Mendoca Filho’s impressive debut feature takes place almost entirely in one street in a middle-class neighbourhood of Recife, in north-eastern Brazil, overrun by soulless high-rises. Gradually we’re introduced to some of the characters who live there – a hard-nosed patriarch who owns much of the area and various members of his family; a sexually frustrated housewife tormented by a dog’s constant barking.

Nothing is spelt out, but there’s a sense of underlying unease, even menace. Characters seem trapped, estranged from each other, prone to paranoia. A group of men turn up out of the blue offering security services to protect the street. Imaginative sound work subtly notches up the tension, much of which seems underwritten by class and racial differences. Hard to believe this is a first feature, it’s so confident and coolly controlled.

— Kieron Corless. (See also Álvaro Arroba’s commendation from IndieLisboa and Edward Lawrenson’s from the New Horizons festival.)


Screening Thursday 11, Sunday 14

Put together in a manner reminiscent of the neorealism of early Kiarostami and Makhmalbaf, Wadjda is the directorial debut of Al-Mansour, the first woman ever to make a feature film in Saudi Arabia.

In Riyadh, Wadjda, the precocious but poor pre-teen daughter of a mother on the brink of being abandoned by her husband, wants to buy a bicycle so she can race her friend Abdullah, the boy next door – even though females in Saudi Arabia are not supposed to ride bikes (or, indeed, drive cars). The only way the girl can raise the money is to win her school religious group’s top prize in the Koran recital competition. A shining debut this, not only from Al-Mansour but also from her terrific cast, especially the two children Waad Mohammed and Abdullrahman Algohani.

— Nick James



In the Fog

Screening Wednesday 17, Thursday 18

In the Fog doesn’t bear much resemblance to My Joy, the work that established Loznitsa on the festival circuit.

The setting is the Belarus forest in 1942, well behind the German lines. Three men are marched to be hanged by pro-Nazi interior Kommando troops for sabotaging a train, but a fourth, Sushenya (Vladimir Svirski), is released. Clearly he must be the informer – or is that how the local Nazi commander (Vlad Ivanov) wants him to be perceived? When the partisans send a two-man revenge execution squad to collect him, Sushenya is stoical. He’s been expecting them, but he insists he is innocent.

When they take him out into the vast forest at night, what unfolds very slowly is a rigorous drama of fateful small decisions, each one having consequences that reduce the horizon of possibility. The forest scenes, shot by Oleg Mutu with an exquisite eye for atmosphere, are magnificently evocative, and there’s a strong feeling of authenticity to this defined world that’s rare in World War II films. I loved every one of its 73 shots.

— Nick James, reviewing from Cannes in our July 2012 issue. See also Jonathan Romney’s festival blog post Slow war cinema and Bollysploitation.

Kelly + Victor

Screening Sunday 14, Tuesday 16, Saturday 20

Adapting and updating Niall Griffiths’ haunting novel of doomed love for the screen was never going to be an easy task, but first-time feature director Evans doesn’t put a foot wrong.

Young Liverpudlians Kelly and Victor are instantly attracted when they meet in a nightclub. Both seem lost, adrift, struggling to negotiate the few options in life available to them. Their sex is intense, urgent, but darker impulses surface, causing Victor to retreat in confusion.

Location work is spot-on – has Liverpool ever been more accurately captured onscreen? – and mercifully Evans never judges his characters, sentimentalises their predicament or resorts to narrative clichés. Morris as Victor finds just the right level of naive sweetness, but the film really belongs to Campbell-Hughes, shaping up to be the best actor of her generation. Her Kelly is vivid, wiry, opaque; it’s a fearless portrayal, completely credible.

— Kieron Corless

Paradise: Love (2012)

Paradise: Love (2012)

Paradise: Love

Screening Saturday 20, Sunday 21

The sensitive portraiture of Haneke’s Amour (see above) finds its exact opposite in fellow Austrian Ulrich Seidl’s excoriating depiction of sex tourism in Nigeria, a film that’s marked by a relentlessness designed to pound the squeamish.

It would be hard to imagine a more lucid vision of a pushy 50-year-old Austrian woman’s exploration of sex with local ‘beach boys’ in and around a rich hotel complex. Her gradual accommodation of economic and moral compromises is matched by ever more garish interiors that shriek plastic ‘happiness’ but also whisper their authenticity.

Each scene is gruelling in its insistence that you watch despite your desire to make it stop. But the cruel humour with which the film mocks and humiliates these desperately unlovely people and their impoverished entertainers (all brilliantly incarnated by a game cast) is matched by an analytical rigour that’s very impressive.

— Nick James, reviewing from Cannes in our July 2012 issue. See also Pamela Jahn’s festival blog post Sex on tap.

Post Tenebras Lux

Screening Thursday 18, Saturday 20

The opening scene of Carlos Reygadas’s Post Tenebras Lux is alarming for a city dweller like myself. A tiny girl toddler (played by Reygadas’s daughter Rut) pads about in a huge muddy soccer pitch with long-horn cattle and a pack of powerful dogs. You feel her vulnerability deeply. She’s the daughter of Juan (Adolfo Jimenez Castro), who has moved with his wife Natalia (Nathalia Acevedo) from the city to the deep countryside.

From this point on I’m much less certain what I’m describing, because this is truly an avant-garde film rather than a plausible ‘feature film’. The next scene shows a devil-shaped red glow that seems akin to Apichatpong’s monkey ghosts in Uncle Boonmee. Indeed, much of the invention in this scatter-structured film seems to derive from small tributes to Reygadas’s contemporaries: Lisandro Alonso’s meditative quotidian gaze seems to inspire several scenes; the use of a special image-distorting lens is reminiscent of Sokurov; while a scene where the couple attend a club orgy room could have come out of a Catherine Breillat film.

The visceral moments include Juan’s savage beating of dog, and a murder perpetrated by ‘Seven’, the house servant (Willebaldo Torres). But for a better – indeed any – understanding of how it all fits together, I need to see it again.

— Nick James, reviewing from Cannes in our July 2012 issue.



The Hunt

Screening Thursday 11, Saturday 13, Monday 15

Solid rather than spectacular, Vinterberg’s The Hunt (Jagten) is just the coherent, well-structured drama many have longed to see from this director since his 1998 breakthrough Festen. Mikkelsen won Cannes’ Best Actor prize for his portrayal of Lucas, a kindergarten teacher accused of sexual abuse by his best friend’s daughter. She’s making it up, but is immediately believed by everyone in the small community. Soon all the other kids are pressed into confessions of their own.

The film is a sharp portrait of the slippery ambiguity with which myth takes hold, and in that sense bears a superficial resemblance to Arthur Miller’s The Crucible. Its queasy intimacy keeps the tension high as Lucas, already in the midst of a painful divorce, finds everyone turning against him except for the local hunt master – a figure whom Vinterberg frames suspiciously, as if we should suspect he’s a real paedophile. An effectively creepy exposé of a very modern problem.

— Nick James, reviewing from Cannes in our July 2012 issue.

The Pirogue

Screening Sunday 14, Tuesday 16

Fans of ocean-going fiction from Defoe to Stevenson to Melville to Jack London to Patrick O’Brian will find many of the events in this Senegalese immigration melodrama familiar, but the context and approach is so clear that each one feels refreshed.

Director Touré has been a politician and is a commentator on Senegalese affairs. His film follows Baye Laye (Seye Ndiaye), the reluctant captain of La Pirogue, a fishing vessel full of about 30 men hoping to sail the Atlantic to illegally find work in Europe. Plot twists include the discovery of a female stowaway and an encounter with another stranded boat full of desperate men.

Filmed straightforwardly in a style somewhere between a TV movie and an educational film, the film has a textural emotional power that keeps it compelling to the last.

— Nick James



A Fish

Screening Thursday 11, Friday 12, Saturday 13

Park Hongmin’s striking debut feature is something like a disorientatingly strange journey into the hidden, older, less rational Korea – a suppressed place of shamans and talking fish, of psychic and physical possession and of odd and vaguely sinister restaurant owners in faded, sleepy towns that seem far from the neon brightness of Seoul. It follows the preppy-looking Professor Lee after he’s walked out on his students mid-class and hooked up with a mercurial private detective he’s hired to track down his wife – who, he learns, has been inducted in to a shaman group. Things get gradually stranger as the pair travel south to Jindo island off the south-western tip of the country, where they finally track her down.

Despite its small budget, the film has a strongly original visual sense, full of compelling and unusual compositions, which are apparently strengthened by a resourceful and creative use of 3D (unavailable on the 2D preview screener). There’s also a sure sense of pacing and mood – enhanced by a reverb-heavy, guitar-led score – which marks Park Hongmin out as a director of real promise.

—James Bell

Here and There

Screening Friday 12, Saturday 13

The constant flow of immigrants crossing the border from Latin America to the US in search of a better life is hardly a new subject for a film. But Spanish-born US resident Esparza (himself an immigrant of sorts) gives this subject a fresh spin by reversing the passage and turning a small village in Mexico into a kind of dreamland for thirtysomething Pedro, the protagonist of his superbly confident debut feature. After two long periods in the US working, saving and sending money home, Pedro has decided to return to his native village in Guerrero, Mexico, to his wife and two daughters, and to pursue his true passion, music.

Based largely on improvisations and re-enactments of the real experiences of those involved, the film occupies a similar territory between documentary and fiction to Pedro Costa’s celebrated Fontainas trilogy, although it’s perhaps closer in pace and tone to fellow Spaniard José Luis Guerín’s groundbreaking En Construcción (2001). The film’s impact rests heavily on the protagonists’ unassuming naturalism and contagious sense of humour; while Méndez Esparza adapts to the close-knit community’s own gentle rhythms, allowing carefully observed, minute details to reveal themselves naturally, we rediscover Pedro’s old milieu through his own eyes.

— Mar Diestro-Dópido

Journal de France

Screening Thursday 18, Sunday 20

This semi self-portrait of the legendary photographer and filmmaker Depardon is quite dissimilar to his own elegiac, patient studies of ageing rural folk such as Profile paysans: le quotidian (2005) and La vie modern (2008), where he seems like a nature photographer waiting for the cautious, reluctantly expressive old men to reveal themselves. Perhaps the real director here is co-director Nougaret, Depardon’s longtime sound recordist, whose job here seems to be organising how to film Depardon as he travels France taking large-format still photographs for a project on the state of the country.

Every moment leads ultimately towards the always acute composition of the still image and its outer framing for the movie, but there are also nicely developed, seemingly natural encounters with people that offset the mild feeling that the travelogue itinerary creates a format better suited to television than the big screen.

— Nick James

Museum Hours

Screening Monday 15, Tuesday 16, Wednesday 17

How art and life interrelate is both subject-matter and formal challenge in Cohen’s often sublime Museum Hours.

A middle-aged woman, played by cult singer O’Hara, heads to Vienna to minister to a comatose cousin. There she befriends another lonely soul, a museum guard (non-actor Sommer, a wonderful, gentle screen presence) who becomes the film’s narrator and her guide to the city. Their awkward rapport is intercut with evocative 16mm footage of a wintry Vienna – this is a great city cine-poem – and a tour of the paintings in the Kunsthistorisches Art museum, particularly the Breughels.

Slowly but surely, the walls of the museum appear to fall away. It’s a film about getting old, getting by, mortality, isolation – and the consolations of art, and the pleasures to be found in small everyday things. It’s also a film of considerable conceptual sophistication and emotional and moral intelligence, and shouldn’t be missed.

— Kieron Corless, reviewing from Locarno in our October 2012 issue.



In Another Country

Screening Monday 15, Wednesday 17

Charm comes easily also to Korean director Hong Sangsoo – perhaps too easily. Since he’s discovered the joys of improvisation he’s been turning out films at high speed: Like You Know It All (2009), Hahaha (2010), Oki’s Movie (2010), The Day He Arrives (2011) and now In Another Country (Da-reun na-ra-e-suh). Each has a semi-autobiographical slant, and usually the stories revolve around adultery.

What Korean men are like and how dangerous it is for women to be around them provide the humorous themes for Sangsoo’s latest, a series of three scenarios that – in a narrative gambit typical of this director – have supposedly been written by a woman film student (to help her calm down). Each is about a different foreign woman called Anne who visits the seaside town of Mohang, where she encounters filmmaker lovers, a bodyguard on the beach and the helpful female hotel manager.

Huppert plays all the women and each discrete story has its moments of well-observed, gentle politesse. I can’t help feeling, however, that Sangsoo is not as focused as he might be on the underlying moral questions he plays with. His films are now almost negligibly light.

— Nick James, reviewing from Cannes in our July 2012 issue.



Like Someone in Love

Screening Sunday 14, Tuesday 16

Kiarostami’s reputation is so strong that a seemingly light project, such as this for French producer Marin Karmitz, has to bear intense focus. The title comes from Jimmy Van Heusen and Johnny Burke’s standard song about simulation turning into the real thing, sung on the soundtrack here by Ella Fitzgerald.

In an unnamed Japanese city, Akiko (Rin Takanashi), a young student moonlighting as a call girl, is pressed into visiting Mr Takashi (Tadashi Okuno), an old sociology professor. Ever the gent, he insists on sharing a romantic dinner with her, while she wants to get to bed so as to finish the transaction. Later we encounter Akiko’s jealous and infuriated boyfriend Noriaki (Ryo Kase).

The slender plot unfolds gently and slowly in images of reflections and doubling that question the meaning of identity and role playing. The somewhat abrupt in media res ending elicited boos in Cannes, but I for one want to see it again.

— Nick James


Screening Friday 12, Tuesday 16

Dysfunctional and disintegrating families are the speciality of French/Swiss director Meier. Her debut feature Home observed a family splintering apart after an incomplete motorway next to their house suddenly roared into life. Her second film, again shot by cinematographer Agnès Godard, keeps grim modern architecture in her sights and plunges us into the lives of two orphans struggling to survive in some nameless urban nowhere at the bottom of a Swiss mountain valley – a transit town for wealthy tourists to the luxury ski resorts far above.

The sister of the title is Seydoux’s Louise, a wandering, neglectful young thing, happy to send her younger brother Simon (Klein) up the ski-lift to steal equipment from unsuspecting skiers, while she disappears off with her latest boyfriend. Meier draws excellent performances from both of her leads – in particular Klein, one moment vulnerable or silly, the next mature far beyond his 12 years.

This sad, bittersweet tale of familial breakdown is not without its eruptions of drama, but they’re expertly handled. Its cinematography is another highlight. Despite the serene mountain setting, Meier and Godard are always faithful to Simon’s point of view, never letting anything near picturesque into the film.

— Isabel Stevens


Screening Friday 12, Sunday 14, Tuesday 16

Capturing perfectly the dream-like haze of its San Fernando Valley setting, American indie Baker’s third feature – following the critically acclaimed Prince of Broadway – sets up a series of expectations about the sought-after but rarely attained Hollywood dream, only to bring them crashing down to earth. Jane, played beautifully by Mariel Hemingway’s daughter Dree, is a warm-hearted twentysomething who seems to be drifting unhurriedly through life in her skimpy shorts accompanied by her delightfully dozy puppy Starlet. But what exactly do she and her stoner housemates do to earn money?

At a jumble sale Jane meets Sadie, an elderly lady whose thermos – which Jane buys to use as a vase – contains a secret hidden inside which will initiate a complex bond between these two lonely souls. After a rocky start, the unlikely friendship between Jane and Sadie unfolds casually to reveal more than one skeleton in each of their cupboards, and puts into perspective their mutual alienation and need for each other. Even if the tone appears light and nonchalant, to match its protagonist’s apparent take on life, Starlet unremittingly peels back the layers to expose the seediness of the Hollywood underbelly and the poignant solitude of those who languish there.

— Mar Diestro-Dópido



Kinshasa Kids

Screening Sunday 14, Thursday 18, Saturday 20

A somewhat shambolic but fascinating redemptive tale made with some of the thousands of outcast street kids who’ve been branded ‘witches’ in the Congo. Clearly made on the fly, the film restages the odd-jobs, scams, thievery and musical opportunities they need to survive in the jerry-built slums of the city.

Some of the images astonish as much as the lifestyle and a scene where they wander into an orchestral performance of Mozart’s Sanctus has a strange power. The eight kids in focus include one talented singer/rapper, a girl played by Rachel Mwanza (who won the Silver Bear in Berlin for her part in War Witch, shot after this) and a cheeky minute Michael Jackson impersonator.

— Nick James, reviewing from Venice in our forthcoming November 2012 issue, out 9 October.



Caesar Must Die

Screening Thursday 18, Friday 19

Paolo and Vittorio Taviani’s monochrome drama-documentary about prisoners staging Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar (which won the Golden Bear award at this year’s Berlinale) intermingles play rehearsal with slippage into real squabbles, and absorbs the psychological and visual confines of prison into a mise-en-scène of telling economy.

Some of the hard men can’t resist being hammy, but most have such trip-wire emotional directness that they’re never less than convincing – and Giovanni Arcuri, as Julius Caesar, is a very fine actor indeed. Given the double filter of actors speaking Italian, and English subtitles that don’t always seem to have been taken directly from Shakespeare, it’s all the more impressive how vividly the play comes across when performed by these granite-faced, built-body street thugs.

— Nick James, reviewing from Berlin in our April 2012 issue. (See also his festival blog post Greek to me: mafia Shakespeareans win the Golden Bear.)



Mekong Hotel

Screening Friday 12, Sunday 14, Tuesday 16

Rather too oblique for Cannes’s scramble, Weerasethakul’s Mekong Hotel is the first manifestation of a much larger project. A terrace that overlooks the swollen Mekong river where it divides north-eastern Thailand from Laos is the film’s central location. But before we see it, the director interviews on camera the classical-guitar teacher who plays live throughout.

Then, in a room and on the terrace (there may be more than one terrace), rehearsals for an unrealised film called Ecstasy Garden take place. It’s about a mother-and-daughter pair of vampiric ghosts (specifically ‘Pob’ ghosts, a particular north-east Thai variety) who feed on human flesh, and about the daughter’s haunting of her lover through eternity.

These scenes are intermingled with actress Jenjira Pongpas’s real-life recollections, talk of the floods, and political matters. The film ends with a lengthy twilight long shot of minuscule jet-ski riders looking like insects skimming the surface of the water.

— Nick James, reviewing from Cannes in our July 2012 issue.



Peter Kubelka: The Essence of Cinema

Screening Thursday 11

Fragments of Kubelka

Screening Saturday 13

Peter Kubelka presents Monument Film

Screening Sunday 21

For this year’s festival coup, look no further than these programmes dedicated to Austrian filmmaker and Structuralist pioneer Peter Kubelka. From a 78-year-old artist who’s been making cinema since the 1950s and whose complete seven-film oeuvre totals 62 minutes, a new project is a much-anticipated event.

The new film, Antiphon (meaning: a verse or song sung in response), is something of a cinematic mirror. In it he reverses every aspect of his 1960 film Arnulf Rainer, a schizophrenic, ground-breaking abstract musing on the bare elements of cinema, light and darkness, sound and silence. In Antiphon, Arnulf Rainer’s transparent and black frames are reversed as are the instances of white noise and silence.

Both films will be showing (alongside screenings of all of Kubelka’s other works) but in an interesting twist, both Antiphon and Arnulf Rainer will also be on display in the BFI’s Atrium, albeit in a rather different format. Here, the film strips from both works will hang side by side in an act of protest about the disappearance of film and the rise of digital (the second such protest the South Bank has witnessed after Tacita Dean’s ode to celluloid in the Tate Modern’s turbine hall earlier this year).

According to Kubelka, with the increasing prevalence of digital technology, 2012 has been “film history’s darkest year”. Kubelka deems his installation, entitled Monument Film, a “patient call for defiance”. Of course most of the films screening at the London Film Festival this year will eventually find their way on to DVD.  As a staunch adherent to 35mm, the art of hand-crafting films and to the act of cinema-going (Kubelka has in the past even designed his own theatre), his films won’t be available for home viewing anytime soon, so catch them here while you can.

— Isabel Stevens

  • Michael Brooke talks to Peter Kubelka in our October 2012 issue.


Treasures from the Archive

In the Year of the Pig

Screening Sunday 14

One of the highlights of last year’s Treasures from the Archives programme was the UCLA restoration of De Antonio’s 1964 debut Point of Order, about the 1954 Army-McCarthy hearings. So it’s especially welcome that this year’s programme includes his searing condemnation of US involvement in the Vietnam war, again in a UCLA restoration.

As with Point of Order, In the Year of the Pig is constructed entirely through a vast amount of newsreel and archive footage, without any leading ‘voice of God’ narration (but with a wry use of music that Coppola later admitted was an influence on his use of Wagner in Apocalypse Now). Nonetheless, the intelligence and persuasiveness of his argument is unquestionable throughout. There’s an edge-of-your-seat urgency to the film as the events and decisions it covers were then so raw and recent, but this is as much an essay film about the wickedness of war and imperialism as it is a documentary about the escalation of the Vietnam War in particular.

De Antonio was surely an influence on the likes of Michael Moore and Adam Curtis, and feels more relevant than ever in our YouTube age of almost unrestricted access to such a mass of news footage both old and new – a model example of how we might filter the incessant flood of news and media and get to the fundamental and uncomfortable truths that are sometimes obscured behind newsroom agendas.

— James Bell

The Loves of Pharaoh

Screening Tuesday 16

By the early 1920s, Lubitsch had already achieved great popular success in his native Germany with a run of inventive, fluid and witty comedies that had great fun slyly mocking sexual and social mores. But though his Hollywood work of the 1930s and 40s would ultimately be celebrated for just those characteristics – the famed ‘Lubitsch Touch’ – it was his historical epics of the 1920s which first brought him international acclaim, and paved the way for his move to Hollywood.

The most influential of them all was The Loves of Pharaoh (aka The Wife of the Pharaoh), a sumptuous epic with a scale to rival DW Griffith’s mega-productions of the 1910s, with a cast of thousands, lavish sets, and the great Emil Jannings in the lead role. However, where Griffith’s films seemed by the 1920s to be stuck in an outdated Victorian morality, Lubitsch’s epics humanised their historical tales and characters, spicing them up with sex and humour. This film was surely a key influence on Cecil B DeMille.

The Loves of Pharaoh would be the last major film Lubitsch would make in Germany, and his ticket to Hollywood, but despite the film’s great importance, it has been all but lost for over 80 years, only viewable in party reconstructed versions. All of which makes the UK unveiling of this new restoration – constructed using surviving portions found in Russia and Italy, and stills and captions to cover missing scenes – one of the standout prospects of this year’s Treasures from the Archive strand.

— James Bell


Screening Wednesday 10

‘Wild Bill’ Wellman used to claim he flew with the Lafayette Flying Corps during World War I, and his first prestige picture for Paramount still soars on its scintillating aeronautical sequences; they’re what Howard Hughes was so desperate to top with Hell’s Angels.

The film shared the first Best Picture Oscar with Sunrise, perhaps both for its aforementioned virtues and for its earnestly scrubbed all-American love-triangle drama, from which you’d guess Randall Wallace took a leaf or two for his screenplay for Pearl Harbor; Howard Hawks would surely have injected some wit and snark into affairs on the ground. Still, the actors give it some A-list class (Gary Cooper stamps his mark in a four-minute cameo), and it’s a dogfighting classic.

— Nick Bradshaw

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