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London Film Festival 2023 - provocation, celebration and film-buzzing community | reviews, news & interviews

London Film Festival 2023 - provocation, celebration and film-buzzing community

London Film Festival 2023 - provocation, celebration and film-buzzing community

Fennel, Kaurismäki and Kore-eda among those kicking off this year's festival

'Saltburn' - the festival’s opening film, and a big blast of Britishness

When Kristy Matheson won the job of BFI London Film Festival director, she spoke of the chance afforded by festivals for filmmakers, artists and audiences “to commune on a grand scale – to experience ideas, ask big questions and celebrate together.”

Just three days into her first LFF, it’s clear that Matheson and her team are delivering on that vision. There is definitely a sense of provocation, celebration and film-buzzing community in the air. 

As ever, themes seem to have been percolated through the programming process, which reflect both current societal concerns and that unconscious collective interest in a topic that we see sometimes amongst filmmakers. There is more than one film about the British class system, for example, about mental health, about Nazi atrocities and the global economic crisis. And, alongside such serious topics, we can find a string of films with musical subjects – Paul Simon, Ryuichi Sakamoto, Leonard Bernstein and others; a few involving sci-fi romance; a couple at least about hitmen. theartsdesk will be hoping to jump onto some of these intriguing, enlightening, entertaining trains of discovery. 

It's a pity that Saltburn (main picture), the festival’s opening film and a big blast of Britishness, is something of a disappointment. Like Emerald Fennell’s fabulous debut feature Promising Young Female, this is again driven by social critique, and a bold desire to shock, but it lacks the earlier film’s acuity and freshness; ultimately, it feels rather trite. 

Before it was toxic masculinity, now the English aristocracy. The central figure is Oliver Quick (Barry Keoghan), a working-class student from Merseyside who arrives at Oxford in 1996 as an outsider among the predominantly rich and entitled. The friendless Oliver sets his sights (with love, lust or covetousness, even he doesn’t know) on the decidedly alpha Felix Catton (Jacob Elordi), who is beautiful, desired by all, and with a convenient fondness for strays. Oliver’s puppy dog fawning and sad sack story about drug-addled parents are all it takes. 

The pair become bosom buddies, to the horror of Felix’s clan (“He’s a scholarship boy who buys his clothes from Oxfam”) and for their first summer Felix invites Oliver to his family pile, Saltburn. It is amongst his frightfully self-absorbed family – dad Sir James (Richard E Grant), mum Elspeth (Rosamund Pike, pictured above, a scene-stealing hoot), sis Venetia (Alison Oliver), their friends and hangers-on – that the film goes up a gear, becoming both funnier and darker. But it never really develops any substance: the satire is surprisingly thin, and the film has been idling long before the heavily signalled, and laboured sting in the tail.

While Felix cutely claims his family inspired Waugh, the line is as close to Waugh as Fennell is going to get. Her film does remind me a little of Pasolini’s Theorem, but again as a height it fails to reach. There’s a more intelligent reflection on class in Baltimore, the latest by the excellent writer-director team Christine Molloy and Joe Lawlor (Rose Plays JulieHelen). It’s based on an extraordinary true crime – the art theft in 1979 by members of the IRA, led by an English heiress, Rose Dugdale, whose activism was in large part a reaction against her upbringing. 

Dugdale (Imogen Poots, pictured above) narrates her own story, flipping between her childhood, student days and early activism, the armed raid on a baronet’s home in County Wicklow, where they walk away with 19 Old Masters, and the group’s hideaway in a secluded country cottage. 

Molloy and Lawlor employ their customary cool detachment to proceedings, while adding a wry humour that is fuelled by Poots’ charismatic and persuasive turn as the well-educated, plummy Englishwoman with undoubted commitment and a steely command over the men in her group. But while fascinating, the film is also a little airless. I couldn’t help feeling that a story as wild as Dugdale’s (including training camp in Cuba and a helicopter bombing raid, both mentioned only in passing) merits a bigger, dare one say it brasher canvas. Aki Kaurismäki was making films about people struggling through hard times long before the current economic crisis. And there are similarities between his Drifting Clouds (1996) and his new, Cannes prize winter Fallen Leaves. The Finn is a master at depicting the rolling nightmare of penury, while his absurdist humour sweetens the pill – for his audience, if not his characters. 

This one is, primarily, a tentative romance, involving two single, lonely figures whose already precarious existence is made worse when they lose their jobs. Ansa (Alma Pöysti) is a shelf stacker in a supermarket, who compassionately allows the poor to help themselves to expired food, before a security guard shops her and she’s sacked. Holappa (Jussi Vatanen, pictured above, left, with Pöysti ) is a metal worker and alcoholic whose drinking on the job eventually catches up with him. It’s not entirely his fault. “That’s the fourth time you’ve been late this week,” warns his boss, to which he sourly replies: “It’s Monday.”

The milieu is familiar: characters drinking and smoking themselves to early graves; corrupt bosses; real-life events feeding into the misery, in this case endless radio reports from the war in Ukraine. Music, from pop to Finnish romantic ballads, either feeds the depression or offers some incongruous glee. 

Monsterthe latest from director Hirokazu Kore-eda is, structurally, a throwback to another great Japanese director, Kurosawa’s Rashomon. What opens as a seemingly straightforward drama about the effects of a teacher’s brutality on a young pupil, and the institutional indifference the boy’s mother (Sakura Ando) experiences when she confronts the school, becomes something far more complex, when Kore-eda begins to retell his narrative from different perspectives. 

And so, we flip from the indominable single mum to the teacher himself (Eita Nagayama), to the boy and his sometime best friend, each strand revealing new things about the characters and their actual interactions. 

While Yûji Sakamoto won the screenwriting prize in Cannes, his piece is unnecessarily knotty, almost stymieing the director’s usual elegance. That said, the themes are important (school bullying, homophobia, cancel culture), the performances are uniformly strong  (including those of the boys) and it’s a deeply affecting reminder of how a lie can spiral out of control, an accident be tragically misunderstood. It’s also notable for a final score by the late Ryuichi Sakamoto. Jessica Chastain and Peter Sarsgaard (pictured above) star in Memory, the latest, typically intense and thought-provoking offering from Mexican director Michel Franco (Chronic, New Order). They play New Yorkers, each with grave personal problems, who may offer each other an unlikely lifeline. 

Sylvia is a recovering alcoholic and single mother, who works in a day care centre for people with mental health problems. She is stern, defensive, keeping both herself and her teenage daughter on a very tight social leash. Saul has dementia, often losing all sense of who, or where he is, with his brother acting as a live-in guardian in their well-appointed Brooklyn brownstone.

They meet under the creepiest circumstances imaginable (on one of Saul’s bad days), and their relationship gets even worse, until it settles into a sort of pattern, and surprising attraction, between a woman who has difficulty trusting men and a chap who can’t trust his memories. 

This is slow-paced, sombre, subtle, and utterly engrossing; for a film with many dark turns, it’s ‘light’ for Franco’s standards, with a modicum of hope. The leads are fantastic. Chilean director Maite Alberdi’s The Eternal Memory, which won the world cinema documentary prize at Sundance this year, is another film with dementia as a subject, specifically Alzheimer’s. Alberdi (The Grown-Ups, The Mole Agent) is a fine, fly-on-the-wall documentary maker, and her skills are very much in evidence in this portrait of Paulina Urrutia and Augusto Góngara (pictured above), as the wife cares for her stricken partner of more than 20 years. 

This is no ordinary couple. She is an actress and former Chilean minister of culture, he a former left-wing journalist who bravely reported on the ills of the Pinochet dictatorship, before documenting – in some way shaping – his country’s rebirth. There is tremendous pathos in the fact that Augusto’s personal mission was to ensure that Chileans retained their memory and identity, two things Pauli, himself, is losing. 

The film charts the couple’s laughing, lighter moments, when Augusto is most present, and the dark days and nights when he is lost, helpless, hopeless, and Pauli’s own pain rises to the surface. Overall, though, the couple are like his inscription, to her, in one of his books about the dictatorship: “Memory is still forbidden, but this book is stubborn.” While he died in May this year, the film stands as a moving testament to an enduring love.

Kaurismäki is a master at depicting the rolling nightmare of penury, while his absurdist humour sweetens the pill - for his audience, if not his characters

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