Callie Petch at BFI London Film Festival 2017, Day 6

Dealing with anxiety during an interview, Three PeaksThe Party, and Custody.

I have clinical anxiety, crippling amounts of it.  When most people or works of art think of people with anxiety, it’s typically in the sense of the awkward guy at the party who can’t talk to girls, or other people but mostly specifically girls, without stammering incessantly and maybe vomiting up some ridiculous and invasive fact out of panic.  And whilst I do have major problems starting conversations with people I don’t know, my anxiety – for clinical anxiety is paradoxically a universal yet hyper-personal mental illness, much like depression, so it’s not the same for everyone – goes further than that, manifesting in almost every decision I make, however big or small.  Coming to the Festival last year was a major source of anxiety for me.  Like, sure, it went fine and I relaxed (as much as I can relax anyway) and had a great time, but in the lead up to it I was panicking over every single thing.  Was I doing this thing right, would they accept my application, do I deserve to be here at all being such an unknowledgeable fraud as I am, and so on?

That’s probably a large reason why I am yet to do anything with my life, although that’s a different discussion for another time.  How it relates to today’s diary entry is that I decided, with the support of Editor Owen giving me a little nudge, to put myself down for an interview slot at one of the Filmmaker’s Afternoon Teas the BFI organise throughout the Festival.  See, I’m not sure if I have impressed this upon you enough times just yet, but The Breadwinner is an astounding work of art, still the best thing I’ve seen at the Festival at time of writing, and its director, Nora Twomey, was going to be available for interviews at one of today’s (at time of writing) sessions.  So, I RSVP-d and, after the second of my three press screenings for the day, caught the Tube down to Green Park and The Mayfair Hotel, where these events were being held.

There really is no quicker way to make a poor-ish Northern boy from a town most famous for the swear hidden in its name with major anxiety fall into the throes of Imposter Syndrome than having them walk through a fancy London hotel.  The levels of opulence and class on display, the money that one can see was just burnt away on the marble columns, the canapes and fancy bite-sized cake slices, and all of the staff being dressed and positioned like a military squad, whilst my poor ass strolls on through with his shaggy non-descript hair, day-old band-logo-baring t-shirt, looking frazzled, like he hasn’t showered in weeks – I have, though, every day, for the record, not that I’m defensive about that – and hasn’t shaved properly in years; bringing down the property value by his mere presence.

Then you get to the room in which these interviews are held and it’s chaos.  You have to specify the filmmakers you’re most interested in seeing whilst they and their assistants run around in all directions satisfying other appointments, explain the type of interview you’re wanting to conduct and what the nature of your publication is, and then simply mill about with people you almost definitely don’t know waiting for an unspecified break in the person you wish to speak to’s schedule, where upon you are called over, plonked down, and given your strict 15 minutes.  And, hey, if you’re confident enough, you could try blagging your way through an interview with somebody whose film you haven’t watched via a cheeky glance through their listing in the Festival programme.  Meanwhile, enjoy the free food (unless you’re diabetic and already injected and eaten beforehand) and just, y’know, chat!

I recognise that this sounds utterly inconsequential and moany to anybody without crippling anxiety, and maybe even to many of those with it, but this was basically my idea of Hell.  Stood, lost, dreadfully unsure of my place in the room, feeling like a fraud as I overhear these years-old veterans of the Press and Industry talk about assignments and plans and hierarchies at their publications, constantly fretting that I’m in somebody’s way or stood too close to somebody or have glanced/stared curiously at somebody too many times, and unable to take advantage of these gorgeous-looking mini-cakes due to my goddamn diabetes.  I was basically on the verge of having a panic attack, and that’s without the additional stress over the interview itself and how that would go and if my questions weren’t shit and if the recording app on my phone would work and and…

Then, eventually, I was led over to Nora Twomey’s table, bumbled around a bit in putting my stuff down, setting up the recording, and introducing myself… and it went well.  Maybe even really well, in fact.  I haven’t had a chance to properly listen back to it yet, due to having to squeeze so much other stuff into this limited amount of time, but I feel like it went well, despite the mass anxiety involved in the lead-up to it.  You’ll get to read a condensed-ish transcript of it next week when I get back home and can devote the time to such a thing, and maybe even listen to it yourself should the recording quality be podcast-worthy (though don’t hold your breath on that front), but for now I just wanted to talk a bit about the experience of it all.  Since, after all, these articles are all about Me and only Me, obviously(!)

As for the films I saw at the halfway mark of the Fest this year, we’ve got a real mixed bag.  Kicking off the day was the German-Italian drama Three Peaks (B-), in which a family goes on holiday to the Italian mountains.  Aaron (Alexander Fehling) has been dating divorcee Lea (Bérénice Bejo) for about two years, and has been trying his best to forge a connection with her 8-year-old son Tristan (Arian Montgomery) in that time.  Some days, he appears to be making a breakthrough, with Tristan even calling Aaron “father” of his own volition at one point, and other days he is deliberately trying to antagonise him into leaving Lea.  For his part, Aaron does have a temper and an infrequent wish that Tristan just wasn’t around so that he could spend more alone time with Lea.  Lea, meanwhile, seems somewhat unwelcoming to the idea of Tristan seeing Aaron as a father, has been coddling and smothering Tristan so much that he still cannot sleep in his own bed alone, and has always been deliberately evasive and non-specific as to why she left Tristan’s father in the first place.

For much of Three Peaks, the film seems to chart a course directly for the central issues brought up in that logline: slowly jostling the fault lines of our central family, preparing us for their fundamental emotional dishonesty with each other to collide in spectacular and tragic fashion, and writer-director Jan Zabeil mounts an ever-escalating sense of dread.  This is a drama, but it’s a very tightly wound one, that seems ready to explode in some unexpected way at any second, aided by Axel Schneppat’s quietly oppressive cinematography, stretching the empty and indistinct mountain ranges that our cast are staying on for miles at a time, emphasising their isolation and the ominous rolling fog that draws ever closer.  It’s a slowly-unnerving watch, that seems ready to kick itself up into the big leagues at a moment’s notice.

But then Three Peaks instead decides that the avenue it’s going to go down is not family-wide, but rather male-focussed.  Despite looking like it’s willing to also interrogate how Lea feeds into this fundamentally fragile dynamic that everyone’s barely holding together, the film instead drops her from proceedings in favour of Aaron and Tristan’s battle of easily bruise-able masculinity.  Not only does this mean that Bejo is ultimately wasted, it also means that the last third of Three Peaks unfolds in disappointingly predictable fashion, unless you’re the kind shocked that an 8-year-old kid is the one doing these things.  Unlike many of my fellow disappointed press members as we all chatted about it afterwards – nobody was a fan of the ending, for the record; some thinking it didn’t pay off the magical-realism the film had set up, others objected to it turning into The Omen, and one even just full-on did not understand it – I don’t think it’s a bad ending or that it ruins the film.  It’s just far less exciting of a payoff than I had been led to believe there would be.  Like we’ve been watching a car and a train hurtle towards each other on a collision course for 60 minutes, before the car is instead sideswiped by a random van just before the expected crash.

Still, Three Peaks was a decent enough start to the day, and infinitely preferable to Sally Potter’s The Party (D), which comes out this Friday but is being previewed at the Fest.  About two years back, my best friend Lucy, in a conversation I was having with her about that year’s pair of Noah Baumbach releases that I just did not like, coined a term that I have found immensely helpful in describing certain kinds of comedies over the years, and therefore nicked for myself.  She calls them “Smart Person Comedies,” which are comedies created for the express purpose of appealing solely to self-proclaimed “smart” people.  They sell themselves as comedies, but they’re not.  Not really, anyway.  They don’t have real jokes, many times they won’t even have attempts at jokes at all, and they’re not trying to be funny in the way that other comedies do.  Rather, they aim to be intellectual yet have no trace of wit or intelligence about them, and, instead of laughter, they instead receive chortles at irregular intervals where one assumes a joke is supposed to be, in a very self-conscious way that allows the viewer to announce to the world, “I am smart and have sophisticated taste.”

That’s The Party, to a tee.  When the sole “joke” that you’ve got involves a character playing ill-fitting jazz or bossa nova on the stereo at an inopportune time, and you repeat it over and over again even though it was never funny to begin with, you have failed as a comedy.  And I know that comedy, more than any other genre of film, is subjective, I accept that, but The Party is so concerned with impressing “smart” people that it has completely forgotten to be funny.  Jokes are supposed to feature punchlines, set-ups, precise comic timing, some form of wit.  The Party displays competence in none of those areas, and barely features any of them to begin with.  Does Patricia Clarkson delivering grossly-overwritten contemptuous putdowns to everyone in her vicinity, regardless of whether she is involved in that specific joke or not, in her worst Meryl Streep in August: Osage County impression sound like a gut-busting riot?  Is Cillian Murphy drowning in flop-sweat and stammering through every line of dialogue – not even doing anything funny whilst flustering in copious amounts of sweat, just the flustering specifically – all that it takes to make you laugh?  Congratulations, The Party is for you.  Also, learn how jokes work.

What’s most infuriating is that the premise of The Party is rather solid.  Kristin Scott Thomas has just been announced as the Shadow Health Minister for the opposition party, and is having a party with her husband Timothy Spall and all of her fellow liberal friends (also including Cherry Jones and Emily Mortimer as married lesbians trying for children) to celebrate.  I mean, making fun of hypocritical self-interested White Liberalism is piss-easy!  Leftist/Progressive Twitter does it on a daily basis and it’s hilarious!  And it’s not like anybody at this party is a paragon of virtue or not, in some way, absolutely insufferably wedged deep up their own arse.  Yet Potter’s script is atrocious.  Instead of jokes, quips, or anything slightly natural and capable of eliciting legitimate laughter, she instead opts to have these people – I hesitate to class them as characters, they have that little meat on their bones – vomit their ideologies and backstory all over the place in as blunt and clumsy a manner as possible.  This, somehow, constitutes joke writing to Potter and the sporadic bursts of satisfied chortles that arose from various pockets during my screening, despite the complete lack of any of the tenants of a joke.

Is the bluntness supposed to be the joke?  Like what Yorgos Lanthimos did in The Lobster but lacking the idiosyncratic timing and complete absence of smug self-satisfaction of that other movie?  If so, then it’s not a joke capable of sustaining 70 minutes, and despite only running 70 minutes – which one would think to mean “a tight, compact, impeccably-paced rollercoaster of belly-laughs and guffaws” – Potter still paces the thing like a goddamn funeral march, probably because there’s no variation here.  Horrible, unlikeable, hypocritical people espouse their different liberal ideologies, as written by a first-year Psychology major trying really hard to artificially inflate his first essay to the minimum-accepted word count, and then we are supposed to laugh because we know that what they just said is the exact opposite of what they supposedly believe?  All without any skill or craft whatsoever?  The Party is the kind of movie that could only be enjoyed by people who are insufferable at real parties.

Fortunately, the day ended on a much higher note post-interview, when I made it back to the Picturehouse Central in time to catch Custody (B+), the Silver Lion-winning French drama about a family caught in the midst of a bitter divorce case.  Miriam (Léa Drucker) is fighting to keep full custody of her son Julien (Thomas Gloria) from her abusive former husband Antoine (Denis Ménochet), who wants shared custody and is moving to Miriam’s new neighbourhood to try and be closer to Julien once the verdict comes in.  But the verdict of the courts won’t come through until the end of the month and it’s not looking good for Miriam.  She escaped with her children, Julien and about-to-turn-eighteen daughter Joséphine (Mathilde Auneveux), without warning as soon as the full extent of Antoine’s abuse became clear to her, constantly changing her number, deleting his messages, and refusing to let Antoine see them.  Neither of the children want to see Antoine either, knowing the abuse he is capable of, but that allows Antoine’s lawyers to claim that Miriam is twisting the children against him, and all the steps that the three are taking to try and protect themselves from him are instead making her look like an unfit parent in the court’s eyes.

All Antoine needs to do is keep his cool, and he’ll get the court-mandated custody agreement he so desperately wants, and, in the meantime, he gets to spend time with Julien, unless Miriam withholds him from Antoine, whereupon he would file the complaint that will guarantee she loses Julien forever.  However, Antoine is an abuser – a fact that, despite the intentional relative-ambiguity of the opening scenes, the film refuses to play as a surprise, since writer-director Xavier Legrand (who also took home this year’s Silver Lion for Best Director) constantly draws attention to the size and combustible demeanour of Antoine – and he slowly starts to re-exert his dominion over the rest of the family.  He can’t help it, you see, because he cares about everyone just so much, and it’s breaking him apart to be separated like this(!)

Don’t worry if alarm bells started going off as you read that last sentence, for Legrand, as mentioned, is always aware of exactly what kind of person Antoine is, and not just in a giant Lifetime Movie of the Week way.  His manner of coiling the tension involves working very slowly upwards from the kinds of microaggressions that subtly put people on edge.  Antoine interrogates Julien constantly about his ex-wife’s whereabouts under the pretence of trying to establish a dialogue about arrangements, and refuses to allow the boy to ever relax in any way, completely ignoring Julien’s requests in favour of his own.  He deliberately looms over people and invades their personal space, crowding them out or gently caressing their necks in a domineering display of power.  He shows up uninvited to parties and tries to act like he’s the one suffering.  And then when he does explode in rage, it’s an absolutely terrifying sight to behold, made worse by the bare minimum of restraint he puts on himself, like there’s a voice in the back of his head reminding him of what he has to “lose” should he go too far.  Ménochet is a tour-de-force in this thing, reminiscent of John Goodman in 10 Cloverfield Lane and similarly difficult to tell what might set him off.

Custody has plenty of issues, chief among them being a go-nowhere subplot for Joséphine and her boyfriend that feels like it was supposed to have some kind of resolution that ended up being cut for time.  And if anybody wants to complain about the finale’s turn towards cliché and something far more generic and outsized than the largely microaggression-focussed nature of the rest of the film, I will not dispute those complaints one bit.  But I also cannot deny that I sat through that entire finale on the edge of my seat, fingernails digging into my palms, with my heart in my mouth; the tension was that unbearably thick.  Even when the film ends up going big for its ending, the underlying critique of the custody system that started this whole thing off is still there.  Had everybody just believed Miriam’s claims of abuse – backed up by collections of evidence, the statements of her children, and the palpable trauma every single one of them expresses whenever they are forced into the same vicinity as this monster – at the outset, this could have been avoided.  Instead, this family is forced to suffer through hell due to indecisiveness and an instinctive systematic bias in favour of the abuser, that puts the onus on the abused to come forward with airtight arguments and act perfectly in order to be heard.

Given certain recent news stories, that makes Custody fiercely relevant.

Tomorrow: Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water.

Callie Petch needs the crack of a whip, needs some blood in the cut.

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