12.30pm: The Cat's Meow
The first full day of the LFF starts at 12.30 today: within seconds it's already twenty minutes behind schedule, thanks to the traditional First Day Ticket Computer Cock-Up. Still, once it's all sorted out and everyone's safely seated, we're treated to the happy bonus of an appearance by director Peter Bogdanovich - it's not very often that afternoon screenings have a Q&A attached, let alone one with someone of Bogdanovich's standing. He's in fine form, answering questions in good humour with a couple of impersonations of John Ford and Orson Welles thrown in. The latter is significant, as The Cat's Meow is based on a long-standing rumour involving William Randolph Hearst, the primary model for Welles' Citizen Kane. As Welles once remarked to Bogdanovich, he was aware of the rumour at the time of the making of Kane, and even considered using it for a subplot. If he had, he probably wouldn't have got into so much trouble with Hearst, who would have been much more reluctant to associate himself with the fictional Kane.
It's 1924, and Hearst (Edward Herrmann) is throwing a party on his yacht for Thomas Ince (Cary Elwes), a film producer who's keen to do a deal with him. The guests are a motley collection of writers, artists and socialites: most notable among them is Charlie Chaplin (Eddie Izzard), who has been having an affair for some time with Hearst's mistress Marion Davies (Kirsten Dunst). With everyone cooped up on the yacht with nothing but booze and jazz Woodbines to keep them company, it's inevitable that tensions will start to rise.
The Cat's Meow is slickly shot entertainment, and a fine all-star cast keeps things buzzing along nicely. The main problem is that once the carefree mood of the first half has been established, Bogdanovich finds it difficult to change it, and the descent into tragedy towards the end is lacking in the emotional impact it really deserves. It's adapted by Steven Peros from his own stage play, and some of the dialogue and narration has a particularly stagey feel to it: a flaw that Bogdanovich tries to cover up with lots of overlapping lines, which ends up making them sound even more self-conscious.
But the cast give it all they've got, and Eddie Izzard and Kirsten Dunst both stand out in particular. Izzard gives his best acting performance since he played Lenny Bruce in the West End: in both cases, he's combined the personality of a well-known comedian with his own to produce something that's not quite either of them, but is wholly convincing in its own right. And Dunst is a revelation, playing beyond her years in a fine portrayal of Marion Davies. Good support from the rest of the cast too, including Joanna Lumley's terrifically bitchy turn as writer Elinor Glyn. Slightly hollow, but a good film to start the day on.
3.00pm: Gosford Park
So I missed out on yesterday's Opening Gala screening of this one, but no biggie. This matinee repeat screening is less than one-third of the price (if you buy into one of the LFF's rather fine matinee voucher deals): admittedly the number of celebrities in attendance is precisely nil, but the film is presumably still just as enjoyable.
Surprise has been expressed in some quarters over the idea of director Robert Altman choosing to make an English country house mystery. But that's kind of missing the point. This is Altman doing what he's always done in his best films like M*A*S*H, Nashville and Short Cuts: finding a rich social milieu and examining it with the most powerful microscope he can find. And the intense snobbery of upper-class England in the 30s is certainly rich enough to stand the examination. Aside from the family feuds within the dynasty of Sir William McCordle (Michael Gambon), there are the various factions within the below stairs staff to contend with, not to mention the occasional bit of cross-pollenation between the two. All Altman needs to do is set up the social occasion (a hunting weekend), throw in a visiting American to give his co-scenarist Bob Balaban a role to play (a film producer researching an English-set Charlie Chan picture), stand back, and watch. You don't actually need the murder that gives this film some sort of dramatic structure two thirds of the way through.
Julian Fellowes' script (from Altman and Balaban's story) is a lushly textured affair: I'm not sure I completely buy all this hype about it having 25 subplots, but there's certainly a lot going on. As always, Altman relies on the recognition factor of a all-star cast to help us keep track of everything that's going on (though it is a bit of a shock to see talent of the calibre of Derek Jacobi, Helen Mirren and Alan Bates playing servants). It's incredibly pleasing to see Kelly Macdonald here, best known for her debut in Trainspotting: her serving girl Mary is basically at the centre of the entire picture, and she pulls off the challenge wonderfully. Of the more showy roles, Maggie Smith does the traditional Maggie Smith thing: Ryan Phillippe has fun with a terrible Scottish accent: Jeremy Northam camps it up as Ivor Novello: and Stephen Fry is a splendidly ineffectual example of what Ken Campbell calls The Third Act Policeman.
As the Lagster points out below, this was an interesting choice to see back to back with The Cat's Meow: both films concern upper class social gatherings that end in death, and the strict social codes that govern how the tragedy is handled. (Plus Claudie Blakley appears in both - if you haven't heard of her before, it's because they're the only two films she's made to date.) But for my money, Gosford Park does it better: it's got the cinematic sweep you'd expect from Altman, and manages to get you emotionally involved with a huge number of characters (something Bogdanovich fails to pull off). Although I was a little worried that in the pub afterwards, working through this debate with Jon, I said that one of the main characters in The Cat's Meow was Charlie Chan. Great. I've only seen two films so far this Festival, and they're already starting to bleed into each other.
6.00pm: The Piano Teacher
To tell the truth, Erika (Isabelle Huppert) doesn't appear to be a particularly good piano teacher. Certainly she's incredibly unsympathetic to her young pupils, continually insulting and criticising them, never deigning to offer encouragement or praise. So when she encounters new student Walter (Benoît Magimel), and he starts making advances to her, she really isn't sure how to respond. After all, she's got her aggressively suffocating mother (Annie Girardot) to look after. And besides, she's got her own sexual needs to take care of, which is why she occasionally cuts her vagina with razor blades or sniffs used tissues in a porno booth.
The only other film of writer/director Michael Haneke's that I've seen is Funny Games, an attempt to look at how people respond to violence in the cinema. Time Out refers to this earlier film as 'needlessly demonised', a ludicrously overblown claim which manages to sum up my problem with Haneke in a nutshell: why do people take him seriously? Funny Games is basically a violent thriller which is continually interrupted by Haneke's insistence that he isn't, you know, enjoying any of this violence. But he's so obsessed with putting ironic disclaimers in your way that it takes a while to realise that underneath them all, you've basically got an exploitation film made by someone who doesn't know how to do them very well.
The S&M porn chic in The Piano Teacher seems to be operating in the same ballpark. The scenes of Erika's self-abasement are so ludicrously at odds with the domestic and work dramas that surround them, it's impossible to take them seriously - to the extent that at one point, one of her pupils complains of a pre-performance attack of diarrhoea, and you wonder if Haneke's going to throw coprophilia into the mix as well. (You know, if John Waters had made this film, it would have at least had a few intentional laughs in it.)
For all its special pleading, in the end The Piano Teacher is just a badly made grumble flick rather than some sort of comment on the genre, or on the nature of female desire. Yes, it's astonishing the stuff that Isabelle Huppert puts herself through to achieve this performance, but for what? I like transgressive cinema as much as the next sick bastard, but when the only transgressive power a film has comes solely from the degradation of its leading actress, you do have to wonder what sort of agenda's being followed here.
Notes From Spank's Pals
The Cineaste - This film starts with a woman giving her husband a bath. Despite his protests about how she should scrub him down, she dismisses them completely, and extinguishes his cigarette in the process. Perhaps a microcosm of the moral of the film, that in some cultures the woman of the family carries all the influence. The film is leisurely-paced, the plot uncomplicated; there are moments of gentle humour and amusement. Despite perhaps one or two sequences when the pace is a bit too leisurely, this is an enjoyable and rather clever film. Star-rating (as per the Guardian's out-of-five scale): three.
The Cat's Meow
Old Lag - The Cat's Meow means (in American of the twenties) the best, as in Bee's Knees or (as attributed to Joanna Lumley) the Dog's Bollocks. I thought it might be interesting to compare this film by Peter Bogdanovich with Gosford Park. The former is about a twenties high society boating trip, the latter an English high society shooting weekend in the thirties. However apart from revolving around a powerful man and a murder, they are very different vehicles. The Alpha male in The Cat's Meow is William Randolph Hearst, the American newspaper baron who was the model for Citizen Kane. The story and characters are a whole lot more fun in comparison to the stuffy contents of the English country house. Partly because they are American, partly because most were habitués of Hollywood. The characters are also fewer and more comprehensively drawn. You care about some of them and the outcomes, feel more involved and there is a degree of suspense not existent in Gosford Park. In a way though it was a lot simpler, who is sleeping with who and who wants money from who and all the machinations involved. Eddie Izzard does a great job as Charlie Chaplin. I have only seen him act before in a David Mamet stage play and this is totally different. The common view and that offered by himself was that he had cracked the acting in this film in a way that he had not done in his previous roles. It helped to have a stand up comedian answering the questions at the end! Joanna Lumley was excellent as the narrator and Kirsten Dunst as the young and vivacious mistress of Hearst. And the actor for Hearst himself. In both films the murder was covered up at the end - in The Cat's Meow by Hearst buying everyone off, and in Gosford Park by the diplomacy of silence. It is interesting that the more enjoyable Cat's Meow was a fictionalised account of a real scandal.
The Cineaste - There are some strong moral issues in this film (a couple know that their soon-to-be-born baby will die within a week or two of birth, but their strong Catholic beliefs prevent an abortion), which need to be handled strongly and fully. Unfortunately the film doesn't quite manage this. It's a brave attempt, and there are some good overall performances, but the storyline is a bit disjointed in the middle and this main moral issue doesn't get the airing required. An unlikely and unsatisfactory denouement leaves a slight sense of empty anti-climax. The effort is not without interest though, and the general thrifty use of dialogue creates good atmosphere. Star rating: two-and-a-half.
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