Reviewed today: 9 Fingers, Faithfull, Five Fingers For Marseilles, Jabberwocky.
12.30pm: Faithfull [official site]
I remember the first time that I really noticed Marianne Faithfull. It was in the early 90s, when BBC2 broadcast a documentary based on Kenneth Anger's book Hollywood Babylon, a lurid retelling of some of Tinseltown's greatest scandals. It ended, brilliantly, with Faithfull on screen singing Boulevard Of Broken Dreams. It surprised the hell out of me: back then I was only aware of the squeaky posh girl who'd been out with Jagger in the sixties, not this husky-voiced mature woman who'd obviously Seen Some Shit in her time.
Sandrine Bonnaire's documentary, made for French TV and just over an hour long, does a good job in joining the dots between those two versions of Marianne. It's half made up of archive footage, and half of material shot by Bonnaire herself - a series of uncomfortable interviews where the director keeps the camera running way after Faithfull's said all she wants to say, and some recent performances celebrating her 50 years in the business.
Marianne's always been a good interview, it seems: even in the sixties, when astonishingly rude interviewers were asking her how she had the nerve to move into theatre acting, she always gave as good as she got, and showed no inclination to filter her feelings out of the conversation. Her music, meanwhile, has evolved in leaps and bounds once she started taking control of it. At one point, discussing the musicians she's currently working with, she can't decide if she's just lucky or has good taste. Well, when your band contains Ed Bleedin' Harcourt and The Warren Ellis That Doesn't Block You On Twitter, it could be either, both or neither, and it would still suit me just fine.
Bonnaire's film isn't a straightforward retelling of the story, or an impressionistic portrait of the woman: it's an unusual hybrid of the two. Faithfull's occasional reluctance to open up on camera gives it a more truthful feel, and stops it from becoming the simple puff piece that her record company apparently wanted it to be. It isn't until the Q&A afterwards that I realise Bonnaire doesn't interview anyone other than Faithfull in the film: her reasoning is that the presence of others (especially Jagger) would stop Faithfull from being at the centre of her own film, especially for a French audience that only knows her for her boyfriend and not her music. It's the right decision, I feel, and one which gives this chamber piece a flavour all of its own. Its made-for-TV length might make it a bit awkward to screen in a non-festival theatrical context, so it's a joyous ending to the Q&A when the BFI's Stuart Brown casually makes an offer to acquire the streaming rights on the BFI Player. Is that how easy it is to get around distribution problems nowadays? Bloody hell.
3.30pm: 9 Fingers [official site]
So this year, I've got a couple of free afternoon slots when The Belated Birthday Girl is going to be at work, which means I don't have to consider her tastes when I pick films to fill them. This slot was a tricky one, with multiple pros and cons to consider. Pro: I have an extended mid-afternoon gap after the relatively short Faithfull, and 9 Fingers fits into it nicely. Con: advance word on Twitter from the press screenings has been atrocious. Pro: it doesn't have a UK distributor, and it's always good to catch a film at the LFF that you're likely to not see anywhere else. Con: it's a film that comes with a programme recommendation by Jonathan Romney, the LFF's most reliable curator of pretentious artwank. Pro: the title gives me the setup for a weak bit of wordplay I can use in six hours or so. Yeah, that'll swing it for me.
Initially, 9 Fingers starts off in classic film noir style, artfully shot in black and white: a man on the run, a dying criminal's last words, a chase through the streets ending up with our hero Magloire (Paul Hamy) being bundled into the back of a car by a gang of crooks. Even at this early stage, everything's a little bit off, but obviously deliberately so: affectless acting, unclear relationships between characters, missing bits of narrative. We quickly get to the meat of the story: a robbery (planned by a mysterious man known only as 9 Fingers) that goes badly, though the gang still manages to get the dangerous loot they were looking for. They board a cargo ship bound for South America and their payday. But is it? Why does everyone keep talking about a temporary island called Nowhereland? Are they going there? Have they been there already? Why do people keep appearing and disappearing? How much of this is being dreamed, and by whom?
Fair play to writer/director F.J. Ossang, who patiently waits until the clearly delineated Act 3 before definitively revealing that we've been in pretentious artwank territory all along. The slow transition from the conventional genre-based opening is nicely modulated, to the extent that you can't pinpoint exactly where you realise there's no point in caring about the story or any of the characters - it's all just an intellectual exercise. Still, there's no denying that you do stop caring, and even the surreal somersaults taken by the story towards the end can't regain your interest. It's a bit of a mess, but I'm pretty sure in narrative terms that it's a deliberate mess, so I think that means it works. Or something.
6.00pm: Jabberwocky [trailer]
Thanks to other stuff that was going on in my life at the time, I can tell you with some degree of certainty that I've only ever seen Terry Gilliam's Jabberwocky once - on VHS, in 1987. The film was ten years old at the time: now it's 40, and the BFI has decided to celebrate this anniversary by giving the film a good digital wash and brush up. In a short introduction to this screening, we're taken through the restoration process, which seems to have been a lot less painful than usual: for a change, many of the original film elements were still readily available, as well as the original director, who's been closely involved in the restoration himself.
It's the story of Dennis Cooper (Michael Palin), a youngish medieval chap whose interest in trading and business practices is looked down on by his craftsman father. When his father dies, Dennis is forced to move to the big city to seek his fortune. He's picked a bad time to do that: the city is being tormented by a gigantic man-eating beast, and its citizens are looking for a hero to help them.
Jabberwocky (directed by Gilliam in 1977) is often conflated in the public imagination with Monty Python And The Holy Grail (part directed by Gilliam in 1975, alongside Terry Jones). They certainly have several things in common - the historical period it's set in, the misty photography of Terry Bedford, the gratuitous use of library music. You get the impression that on Grail, Jones was acting as a restraining influence on Gilliam, who crafted some ravishing-looking sequences which inspired John Cleese's bitchy comment "beautiful, yes, but you don't laugh at beauty." Jabberwocky is Gilliam giving his visual imagination full reign - he mentions in the delightful post-screening Q&A that he drew heavily on Breughel and Bosch for inspiration, hence the heavy emphasis on filth, blood and severed limbs. Every shot is a treat to look at in this restored version: even the most disgusting things in the movie are gorgeously lit.
But, to go back to Cleese, do you laugh? Well, frequently, yes. Although it has to be noted that all the things that annoy people about Gilliam movies have been there from the very beginning: his wobbly approach to storytelling, and his tendency to confuse chaos, noise and an overcrowded frame with comedy. All too often, there's too much going on to work out what you're supposed to be laughing at. Thankfully, he's packed his supporting cast with a rock-solid collection of 1970s comedy legends - Max Wall, Harry H Corbett and John le Mesurier are particular standouts. When they're on screen, you know exactly what you're meant to be focussing on, and the best bits of the film come from their performances. Gilliam's never really been a less-is-more sort of director, though, and I guess we have to accept that as part of the package.
9.10pm: Five Fingers For Marseilles [official Facebook]
And so we come to the climax of a fourteen finger day. (I warned you it was weak.)
The Marseilles in question is a South African town, one of many with European names that sprung up when the railroad was first constructed. Obviously these are white towns: the original black inhabitants were usually moved out to their own townships, in this case a hillside settlement called Railway. Over time, the towns floundered while the townships carried on as they were, leading to inevitable racial tensions.
In Railway, a gang of five kids called the Five Fingers decide that enough is enough, and start fighting back in a small way with catapults and rocks. But when a couple of cops end up being killed, one of the gang - Tau - has to take the first train out of town and go into hiding. A couple of decades later, after a criminal career and some time in jail, Tau comes back to Railway to find everything's changed. He assumes - as do we - that he'll be able to get the old gang back together again. But it's not going to be that simple.
The wide open landscape, the railway opening up a new frontier, even the hats - writer Sean Drummond and director Michael Matthews make it clear that this is nothing less than a South African Western, taking the old Hollywood tales of settlers and invaders and putting a uniquely local spin on them. It's a strong idea, and the themes and imagery stand up to the translation. It's bold in both its structure, notably the extended pre-titles sequence with the younger versions of the gang, and its moral complexity - nobody here is wearing a pure black or white hat, there are shades of grey everywhere. My one qualm about the film is that despite its compelling story, it feels a little overlong, although I'm prepared to accept that might just be Four Film Fatigue kicking in for me personally.
Again, we get a Q&A after the screening, with writer Sean Drummond in attendance along with a couple of the crew. Because it's a polite audience, nobody asks the awkward question of why this story is being told by what appears to be a predominantly white crew. Although towards the end of the session, there's an equally awkward question asked by an Asian woman: "I didn't understand the film, can you tell me what it's about?" Drummond suggests they can talk about it later, and as we leave the cinema we can see her approaching the stage. It'd be rude to hang around to find out what she didn't understand, but you can't help but speculate. Could she not follow the accents? Was she unaware of the history of apartheid? Or did she not realise that the kids in the first part grow up to become the adults in the second part? I guess we'll never know. But I like The BBG's suggestion that someone should ask that question towards the end of every Q&A session just to shake things up a bit.