Short reviews of selected films from this year’s festival
By Sascha Krieger
The Favourite (UK, Ireland, United States / Director: Yorgos Lanthimos) – Venice Film Festival
Yorgos Lanthimos, the creator of bitter, biting, often very cold allegories on the perversion of (post)modern humanity, has made a costume drama. Two hours later, the most conservative, rule-ridden, comfort-zone-seeking genre will never be the same. The celebrated and much hated Greek film maker tackles it with the force of a hurricane, leaving no stone unturned. On the surface, everything is fine: the sets are as elaborate and injected with a great love of detail as are the costume, the atmosphere of the claustrophobic powder and wig-heavy indoor society that is Baroque England so expertly covered one can almost smell the sweet stench of decay. The story is fictional, some of the characters are not. It takes place in the court of Queen Anne, the forgotten queen between the first Elizabeth and the only Victoria. In the film, she builds around herself a circle of female friends and confidantes: first the resolute, tactically relentless uber-politician Lady Sarah (with biting force: Rachel Weisz), later the fallen former Aristocrate and now servant (though not for long) Abigail (quickly turning from innocent to witty to coldly scheming: Emma Stone). Together they fight the patriarchy by mirroring it: they’re tougher, more ruthless, less scrupulous and a lot more radical than their male counterparts. So much so that ultimately they turn against each other in one of the more epic and brutal battle of wits, minds and bodies you’ve ever seen in film.
Olivia Coleman, on the other hand, rightly awarded the Coppa Volpi as the best actress at this year’s Venice film festival (where The Favourite also won the Grand Jury Prize), is a week, feeble, constantly sulking, quickly irritable and at times also rather witty Queen, a goddess of bad mood and even worse behaviour. This film is an acting feast as Coleman, Weisz and Stone all deliver Oscar-worthy performances. Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara’s screenplay is full of the sharpest dialogue one can imagine, holding back nothing, pulling no punches and rich with expletives. The veneer of politeness is paper-thin and often absent, the directness mind-blowing. That here is an existential power struggle is never veiled. Which goes for the acting: when someone is punched or whipped, the viewer feels the pain, when one is thrown down the audience hurts. When a captain in the court approaches Abigail, she asks whether he wants to seduce or rape her to which he replies that he’s a gentlemen. Her response: „Rape then.“ Behind the perfect period setting, Lanthimos brings the story uncomfortably close, transports the ambivalent gender battles straight into the #MeToo age. Unapologetically and with an acidic humour quickly dissolving all moral posture. This is no game but deadly serious, the gender interactions a matter of life and death. Always.
The music is relentless, too. Classical music from the baroque to the romantic paints a background that makes clear at every instance how big the stakes are. Minimalist loops accentuate critical turning points, making the claustrophobia unbearable. Robbie Ryan’s cinematography does away with all conventions: he uses fish-eye effects to distort the scenery, makes fast indoor moves usually found in video games, films the court’s debauchery in almost pornographic slow-motion and often gets uncomfortably close. There is a hint of Barry Lyndon in the often reduced lighting, the stifling darkness inside of this madness. Contrasting to this, the film exudes a strong liveliness, a virile physicality to go along with the brutal mind games. There is nothing stale here, nothing mitigated, nothing weakened. Instead, the female trio is fighting with all they have for all they shouldn’t be allowed to have. Their’s is a triumph of emancipation and a crashing defeat. The out-male the males to beat them and submit in order to dominate. Which leaves them winners and losers in the end. The Favourite is a nauseating roller coaster ride of a film, one that reaffirms a tired genre, pumps it full with new life while destroying it in the process – just as its protagonists do with their order. Formally daring, the film might be the most radical of Yorgos Lanthimos films. No hiding behind metaphor, no allegorical distance. Everything is in the viewer’s face, everything is a challenge to them. This battle of the genders is real and far from over. Fasten your seatbelts, folks, these ladies mean business.
Le livre d’image / The Image Book (Switzerland, France / Director: Jean-Luc Godard) – Cannes Film Festival
At 87, Jean-Luc Godard could long have retired. Almost 60 years ago, he revolutionised film with his debut À bout de souffle (Breathless). Since then he’s made over 40 films. His „Nouvelle Vague“ co-pioneer Claude Chabrol turned out film after film until his death in 2010 and it seems that Godard has a similar passion to just continue although his output has become a little less frequent in recent years. However, unlike Chabrol, Godard has no interest in settling for more or less safe though shillful genre ware – even in his mid-80s he has the same innovative spirit and the same urge to test the boundaries and rules of film making he possessed as a young man. His 2014 film Adieu au langage (Goodbye to Language) was shot in 3D, in his latest effort Le livre d’image (The Image Book) he experiments with the state-of the art 8-track Dolby 7.1 sound system. Ever the disruptor, this 85-minute piece is a tour de force sometimes wrongly called an essay film. It is rather a filmic poem, although on of the beat tradition postmodernist kind.
In several (five? it gets blurry after a while) chapters he explores some of the great and hard questions of humanity: our fear of and fascination for death, the violence we do to each other, the pain we make others and ourselves suffer, the obsession with war and violence, good intentions leading to horror, the two-edged sword that is the law, the transformative power of art and that (as well as the destructive one) of revolution. He combines mostly archival footage: film scenes, news and documentary footage, completed by just a handful of newly shot images, brightly coloured coastal scenes, drenched in an almost unnatural light full of a life hard to grasp. But he does much more than a collage. He constantly disrupts his footage, separates image and sound, juxtaposes different and increasingly various soundtrack, echoing or contradicting each other. He adds his own voice, sometimes multiplied, reciting texts from various literary sources and does the same with music.
The film is a constant exercise in disruption as well as a disjointed mosaic of humankind’s attempts to make sense of existence and the world. Though art: books abound, paintings, too, as Godard takes a painterly approach to create his filmic book of images. Colours disappear, images often became torn, dissolve, are distorted, drowned in light or colour. Images constantly disappear or mutate as does the word, does language. All the time, new attempts are made to picture the world, to find a language for it. Failing, failing again, failing better, as Beckett would have said. And trying again. Suddenly there’s most beautiful sunset ever. Or is it a sunrise? The circle of life is shattered into pieces, art reduced to tiny and smashed quotes devoid of any context. The film is impossible to watch and hard not to. It tells of a film maker near the end of his life who appears to be close to the beginning of his journey. A journey which always stops at zero, which always tries to find out afresh what art can do with and in this strange world of ours. In Cannes, Godard received a „Special Golden Palm“ because the jury felt that his film was not in any way comparable to any of the others in the competition, that it played – and invented – its own game. This much cannot be denied.