The Times BFI 51st London Film Festival

Photo by M.J. Kim/Getty Images. Robert Redford and Tom Cruise attend The Times BFI 51st London Film Festival gala screening and world premiere of Lions for Lambs at the Odeon Leicester Square on Oct. 22.

The Times BFI 51st London Film Festival, the best-selling one in its history, presented a comprehensive, if American-centric, overview of next year’s movies. Traditionally, opening and closing galas have been British films, but this year we were treated to Eastern Promises (set in London, but with a Russian theme, Canadian director and American star), and The Darjeeling Limited (as American as apple pie, despite the Indian setting).

The surprise film No Country for Old Men was not only widely predicted, for all its craft was one of the least pleasant films I have seen. (Why couldn’t it have been Cashback, which played other UK festivals but, shamingly, has never been released here?) I very seriously missed the leavening humor that made Fargo, first among the many Coen brothers’ films, so human. And Woody Harrelson’s character should have been called Basil Exposition.

What the festival consistently excels at is the “Treasures from the Archive”, where almost-lost and newly-restored older films are dusted off. I was, with a friend, the youngest person in a screening of Rita Hayworth vehicle Tonight and Every Night, which features tap-dancing to an Adolf Hitler radio broadcast (top that, Harmony Korine!). I also enjoyed The Bitter Tea of General Yen, another Barbara Stanwyck stunner – last year’s Forbidden didn’t have idealistic missionaries lost in a Chinese warzone or howlingly ridiculous “yellow peril” dream sequences.

In the main sections of the festival, themes of alienation, surveillance and personal identity hung heavy, no more so than in The Champagne Spy, a jaw-dropping Israeli documentary about a spy whose cover identity turned into his real life. Blurring of these boundaries was explored from a more feminine angle in Jetsam and Icíar Bollaín’s Mataharis, a Spanish film about three female private detectives who reconcile their work and private lives with difficulty.

Céline Sciamma’s Water Lilies, a French exploration of teen awkwardness and synchronized swimming, achieved a painfully realistic portrait of the struggle to find your identity, making the most of its obvious tight budget. But the many, many shots of teenage actresses in little or no clothing, while appropriate to the setting, is a disturbing reminder that one culture’s normality is another’s perversion. Hou Hsiao-hsien’s Flight of the Red Balloon explored a similar culture clash, as a Chinese student became part of a messy French family. To a lesser extent, so did Shivajee Chandrabhushan’s Frozen, where the installation of an army base outside their home permanently alters the lives of a family in northern India. It was so fascinating, I could almost forgive its cheap meta-commentary on the state of Indian filmmaking – that is, until the reactionary, misogynistic ending.

Fortunately Four Women showed a more hopeful perspective for women in India. Its most powerful shot was mirrored in We Want Roses Too, which explored women’s lives in Italy through a collage/montage format. Both offer unimaginably different explorations of female identities, but neither had the dramatic punch of Persepolis, which won the Sutherland Trophy for best first feature. Seeing girls in headscarves headbanging to “Eye of the Tiger” was so unexpectedly fresh, rebellious, and universal that it propels director Marjane Satrapi’s life story into one of the all-time great biographical films.

Into the Wild was the film everyone was talking about, but I regretted missing Juno and The Edge of Heaven. As both will soon be released in the United Kingdom, more regretted was the pulling of Gone Baby Gone from the festival and a UK release altogether. I understand the desire for sensitivity, but by all reports this film is no Collateral Damage; Ben Affleck’s new career direction should not be derailed by unfortunate coincidence to an even more unfortunate real-life incident. More to the point, after being entranced by him in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, I can’t wait to see more Casey Affleck films (and even sat through Ocean’s Twelve on television last week as a direct result). The Assassination of Jesse James is just a fantastic film, and like pretty much every other critic, I implore you to be absorbed in the beautiful, dangerous world Andrew Dominik created despite its length and pace.

British films were not very well served this year; Sarah Gavron’s Brick Lane, which has been a UK art-house smash, was only a last-minute addition to the schedule. However, Boy A (loosely based a notorious murder by two 10-year-olds) has already screened on primetime television to huge acclaim, showing alternative routes to traditional distributions channels. The international premiere of Lions for Lambs and a now-clichéd Leicester Square walkabout by Tom Cruise might have been a festival coup, but word-of-mouth is so essential for these smaller films that it seems a shame to take up the main space with traditional blockbusters.

As the only major film festival worldwide not to have a competition (Sutherland Trophy films are nominated after the schedule has been confirmed), of course London must rely on the bigger films to pull in the audiences. But why push into pole position only films which are guaranteed mainstream UK distribution, which sometimes begins before the festival has even ended? It would be such a treat if gems such as The Trap were given the chance to find the biggest possible audience.

© 2007 Sarah Manvel. All rights reserved.

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1 Comment

  1. just to let you know

    Cashback the feature film starring Sean Biggerstaff and directed by up and coming director Sean Ellis has just signed a UK distribution deal..

    admittedly after receiving rave reviews in France last January, and being one of the DVD bestsellers following its US release in July

    don’t fret UK.. its coming home to roost!

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