Callie Petch at BFI London Film Festival 2017, Day 5

Happy EndThoroughbredsLoving Vincent, and Gemini.

Since arriving in London on Tuesday, I have had my one of the lenses in my glasses banged slightly out of place at a Wolf Alice gig, had my throat feel like it was doused in acid thanks to being sent with some accidentally well-past-use toothpaste, gained a painful yet hard-to-find ulcer on the inside of my lips, been incapable of getting an uninterrupted night’s sleep for whatever reason, and (as of yesterday) stricken down with a cold that I have no doubt inadvertently infected many other fine members of the Press Corp with by now.  Yet, I strive on to bring you coverage, because I care like that.  All joking aside, I’m not telling you this to try and garner “woe is me” pity sympathy, but rather because it inadvertently puts me in the right mood to watch a new Michael Haneke movie.  For Michael Haneke, as anyone who has made even the most cursory glance at his filmography will be able to tell you, makes bummers.  Often confrontational bummers about really horrible self-absorbed people, but always with something to say, even if it requires a fair bit of work on the part of the viewer to figure that out.

If I came out of Happy End (D+) not in some way bummed, I would have felt like Haneke hadn’t done his job properly.  Except that I didn’t come out bummed in the way that Haneke most likely intended.  I mean, unless his point was to make an incredibly boring and largely-pointless rehash of his greatest hits that’s like a self-demonstration of what his biggest critics like to claim a Haneke film to be.  Which it could always be, this is the same guy who made both the original Funny Games and its deliberate shot-for-shot American remake, but that’s still no excuse for a film this relentlessly dull to watch.  It starts brilliantly, though, with a pre-title sequence involving a mother being voyeuristically watched by somebody on a camera-phone, commenting quite sociopathically on her actions before eventually coldly drugging the woman into a coma with her own antidepressants.  The person responsible for this is her 12-year-old daughter Eve Laurent (Fantine Harduin), who gets sent to live with her father Thomas (Mathieu Kassovitz).  Then stuff happens for almost two hours, before the film abruptly (although admittedly humorously) ends.

Calling Happy End unfocussed would be like calling a Marillion song self-indulgent wankery.  In a way, it’s yet another chance for Haneke to skewer the self-involved, self-interested sociopathy of the Upper-Middle Class – since the Laurents are a super-wealthy, multitudinous clan of duplicitous idiots who never address their feelings and don’t care about others except for the use they can provide – a topic he has never wanted for mileage out of in the past, but Haneke finds shockingly finds himself with no new insights or perspective to bring to the subject.  The film is set with the European refugee crisis as its backdrop, but Haneke’s occasional shots at the Laurents in relation to that fact can’t help but feel token and disinterested, even if the imagery of black bodies briefly walking into and out of a blindingly White story should be loaded with symbolism.

Instead, what we get are a miasma of disconnected subplots performed by largely uninteresting and underdeveloped characters that attempt to blow through subjects better covered in full in previous Haneke movies.  The technological sociopathy of films like Funny Games and Caché, the youthful desensitisation of The White Ribbon… Haneke even uses an entire subplot to semi-do-over Amour, complete with Jean-Louis Trintignant playing an elderly widower named Georges who keeps trying to kill himself or get others to do it for him (he’d already done in his paralysed wife a few years earlier).  There are infidelities, shameful excuses for sons, legal settlements, Toby Jones and Isabelle Huppert are both here for some reason and wasted in ways that should be considered a crime enforceable by some kind of law, and it’s all so very, very boring.  Going almost nowhere, saying next-to-nothing, lacking any of the provocation or dark humour or relentlessly coiled tension of his better work.  One could potentially read this an acclaimed director’s farewell tour – Haneke is in his mid-70s and this level of self-reference, lacking in any other graspable point, makes this explanation more logical than I’d like – but, if so… did he have to make a farewell this boring?  This empty?  This pointless and almost sleep-inducing (I count at least 4 instances where I almost drifted off)?

In fact, I’m tempted to be even harsher towards Happy End than I already am, since the film I saw almost immediately afterwards was a far better examination of upper-class sociopathy than Haneke’s latest could ever hope to be.  Playing in competition, which is seemingly where all the excellent films are hiding this year, writer-director Cory Finley’s debut feature, Thoroughbreds (A-), is a pure riot from start to finish.  In it we follow Lily (Anya Taylor-Joy) and Amanda (Olivia Cooke), daughters of two different incredibly wealthy families and, as we quickly find out, unabashed sociopaths, something Amanda has now fully accepted and which Lily is struggling to repress.  The two were old friends who eventually drifted apart, brought back together once Amanda brutally euthanises her family’s horse and her mother decides to pay Lily, who’s already completed a fancy boarding school, to tutor her whilst the legal mess sorts itself out.

Believe it or not, there are further scars and false-truths laying underneath even those, and all reflect upon the entitlement, emotional abuse, and hypocrisies of their Connecticut environment and upbringing.  There’s an underlying instinctive desire in the pair to impress one another through the drollest quips they can muster or the eventual willing embrace of their total disregard for others’ feelings – in Amanda due to her not having any other friends, instead passing her evenings by making wild bets on Online Poker, and in Lily because of her finding everybody else to be a vapid bore.  They’re both terrible people, which is something the film’s willing to admit as it drives further down the road, but they’re terrible people in a community filled with terrible people, and they largely seem to find a genuine bond hanging out with each other again.  This forms the weird heart of the film that’s able to elevate it into excellence, that pulls off the seemingly contradictory goal of being sweet but also sour as all hell.

Sourness largely arriving through Thoroughbreds’ utterly wicked sense of humour.  I’ve yet to see the word “comedy” be used anywhere around it, and that’s incredibly weird to me since I found the film to be absolutely hilarious throughout.  Not unintentionally, either.  There is a deliberate, off-kilter, detached streak of incredibly deadpan humour running through this film, in the way that both Lily and Amanda view and interact with their limited, disdainful world.  Lily’s gradual embrace of her repressed fury and psychopathy, Amanda’s utter unwillingness to play down her detachment issues and ability to manipulate other people around her finger with ease.  Olivia Cooke effortlessly removes herself from my personal Me and Earl and the Dying Girl shitlist by essentially playing Liv Hewson’s character from Santa Clarita Diet but without any of the moral indecisiveness – Amanda even views indecisiveness as the worst thing that any person could do.  Meanwhile, Anya Taylor-Joy proves that her work in The VVitch was no fluke and that she really is the real deal; Lily could easily have been the worst out of her and Amanda, given where the film ends up, but she refuses to allow the audience to stop seeing Lily as a person, maybe even one worthy of some kind of sympathy, however fucked up it may be.

The unadulterated thrill of watching Thoroughbreds can probably best be surmised via Erik Friedlander’s score: an awkward, wrong, atonal mess of a thing where nothing ever feels quite right, like somebody’s trying to approximate the idea of a score and failing miserably.  And it’s in that failure that the fun can be found.  Lily and Amanda are deeply-messed up products of their environments and their own entitlements, wandering around gaudy mansions propped up by Roman pillars, and playing with large-scale chess pieces in a garden so large it requires two motorised lawnmowing vehicles ploughing ahead at full speed to keep precisely cut.

Early on, Amanda teaches Lily how to fake crying, a trick she has mastered over the years due to her inability to feel emotions herself and even used during Lily’s Dad’s funeral.  But for two teenagers incapable of feeling or thinking about anyone other than themselves, merely approximating the signifiers required to remain above the consequences that their families can’t just throw money and high-powered lawyers at, there is still something genuine there.  It’s weird, and it’s inarguably unhealthy, but there is some kind of real connection, in some strange way, and watching them follow it further and further down is perversely fun to witness.  That’s Thoroughbreds, and it’s bloody brilliant.

Sunday’s other films, meanwhile, were a pair of enjoyable viewing experiences with great individual aspects ultimately undone by one giant glaring flaw.  The bigger name of the two, Loving Vincent (C-), is a staggering technical achievement undone by a deeply-problematic if refreshingly-ambitious narrative conceit.  You may have heard of Loving Vincent by its nature as the world’s first fully-painted animated feature film, and it’s worth seeing on those grounds alone, for the spectacle at least.  Even ignoring the opening title cards that proudly boast of the 115 painters it took to bring the film to life, Vincent is a film that deliberately plays into its artificiality at every turn.  Present-set sequences are rendered in oils designed to recall the art of Vincent van Gogh, whilst the film’s multitudinous flashbacks are a mixture of black-and-white and grayscale that evoke sketches, but both are depicted via the art of rotoscoping, an animation technique that it is almost-impossible to make feel seamless and natural.  The artificiality does work, though, in a weird way that’s hard to describe, and I had a giant appreciation for the craft displayed on-screen, particularly since the painting restrictions don’t limit fancy scene transitions.

Loving Vincent is also quite narratively ambitious, as well, following Armand Roulin (Douglas Booth) as he is tasked with delivering the deceased van Gogh’s (Robert Gulaczyk) final letter, and in the process of finding its recipient, starts to question whether van Gogh really did commit suicide or if something more sinister was afoot.  After all, he’s in a town that’s filled with people telling half-truths and carrying deep suspicions about one another, and, as he repeatedly asks, “how can a man go from ‘cured’ to shooting himself in six weeks?!”  It’s suicide as noir, where those left to deal with the aftermath of somebody’s suicide try to find meaning within an act they find unfathomable, since the act of suicide (and the depression van Gogh was hopelessly enthralled to) is such a deeply personal one.  So of course people would talk, paint villains, suspicions, doubts, have accounts that don’t sync up, and that somebody trying to make 5 from adding this particular 2 and 2 together would start barking up the wrong tree in a desperate attempt to make themselves feel better.

Points, I feel, should always be awarded for ambition, but those points, I also feel, should be taken away when the execution of those ambitions are bodged as horribly as they are in Loving Vincent.  The simple fact is that tying an attempt to rationalise suicide to the structure and style of a noir mystery just plain does not work, and is at worst thoroughly insensitive.  It’s putting the emotional strain on an unaffiliated party, supplementing that with the kind of “people talk” gossip that makes everybody a suspect and therefore a reason why someone might want to consider suicide due to their constant cruelty and insensitivity, and then utilising the eventual non-reveal to provide the kind of emotional closure that can only romanticise the myth of the tortured artist too beautiful for this world who successfully escaped his demons and is in a better place now.  It’s dangerous and irresponsible, and also spelled out exactly as I did in that last sentence in the blindingly tone-deaf Oscar Bait song that plays over the end credits, and Loving Vincent’s bungled handling of this difficult thematic subject is what kills its undeniable artistic achievement single-handedly.

And as for film #4, Gemini (C+) by Aaron Katz, it’s all brought down by the ending.  Gemini, you see, is also a mystery noir, although this time set in Present Day Los Angeles.  Lola Kirke plays Jill, the long-suffering assistant to Zoë Kravitz’s big-shot Hollywood celebrity, Heather.  The two, despite Heather’s whims changing on a day-to-day basis, are incredibly close, and perhaps even former lovers owing to Heather’s closeted bisexuality.  Then, one day, Jill turns up to Heather’s house in the Hills to discover her dead, murdered by five bullets from a gun that Jill owns, accidentally fired by her earlier that morning, and loaned to Heather in an attempt to make her feel less unsafe.  The police investigation, led by Detective Ahn (John Cho), knows the evidence points squarely to Jill, forcing her to go on the run and find the real killer.  And she’s not exactly wanting for a list of suspects, from the fuming director (Nelson Franklin) whose passion project Heather just ditched, to the skeevy paparazzo (James Ransone) willing to go to great lengths to out Heather’s bisexuality, to the manager (Michelle Forbes) constantly aggrieved by Heather’s behaviour, to the ex-boyfriend (Reeve Carney) with a known temper who was not taking the break-up well…

Yeah, Gemini is deeply in love with old-fashioned noir, spiced with a tinge of gumshoe detective stories, and whilst it is not doing anything original nor performing them in original ways, it is an exquisite example of the form.  Despite a deliberate lack of forward momentum, this is a film that still oozes menace from almost every single frame, Andrew Reed’s cinematography rendering the wide-open spaces of L.A. and the various buildings and apartments we visit as lifelessly empty yet also stiflingly thick with atmosphere.  His interplay of colours drawing attention to that weird malaise of perpetual brink that becomes numbing after a while, aided by Keegan DeWitt’s fantastic score.  This is a film you lose yourself in, luxuriate in, albeit not one without something real poking out from all of that artificiality, courtesy of strong charismatic performances from Kirke and Kravitz that make the hole in the film that appears once Kravitz exits all the more apparent.

…then the ending happens, and the film just craters in the most pathetic way possible.  Avoiding spoilers: the problem is not the reveal itself, one that a lot of people have seemingly had a problem with if comments from Katz during his post-film Q&A were anything to go by, that’s fine.  In fact, it’s actually quite brilliant, tying into the damning critique of the artificiality of Los Angeles and celebrity lifestyle, where seemingly nothing is sacred and everything can be torched without a second thought as to the consequences for others.  Where it craters is in the follow-through or, rather, the total lack of.  Gemini makes the reveal and then just seems to panic and throw in a glib joke of a consequence instead of an ending, like Katz (who wrote as well as directed) was just completely at a loss as to how to conclude the film after that reveal.  What he ends up going for… I’d use the term “wet fart,” but wet farts actually leave something on your pants when they’re finished.  This ending… this is nothing, and it almost completely shatters everything the film had worked for up to then.  It’s a total heartbreaker to witness, because YOU WERE THIS CLOSE, GEMINI!

Tomorrow: A couple lose their son in the fog whilst hiking Three Peaks, and Sally Potter’s political comedy The Party screens early at the Festival.

Callie Petch goes from sadness to exhilaration like a robot at your command.

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