Callie Petch at BFI London Film Festival 2017, Day 11

The Rider; Nico, 1988; and Jane.

You’re not going to read about any big films, today.  Sorry to disappoint you right off the bat, but that ain’t how the penultimate day of this Festival goes.  Allow me to peel back the curtain and explain, for a moment.  Most of the screenings during the Festival that reporters like myself attend are special Press & Industry screenings, held largely at the Picturehouse Central from the first proper day of the Festival through to the Friday before it finishes – there are also two weeks beforehand of other P&I screenings, primarily of lower-key films that won’t grab as many headlines, but I can’t comment on them because, due to my living situation being up North and largely broke, I’ve yet to go to those.  They come in three blocks a day, and access to them only requires a valid Pass and to be close enough to the front of the line that you won’t get shut out due to over-capacity.

If you want to watch a film but its P&I screening clashes with another one or you couldn’t make it for any reason, then you can always attend a public screening through one of three ways.  Option 1) you buy a ticket ahead of time like everyone else.  This guarantees entry should the event not sell out and lets you pick your own seat, but tickets are rather expensive and you may not exactly be rolling in disposable income since there’s also lodgings and food to pay for during your time down here.  Option 2) you put in for a comp ticket through the Delegate Microsite.  This involves following the provided form link – which this year was not properly announced and buried in a mountain of sub-menus – filling in your details, and then picking up to four non-Gala screenings that you may want to attend, in order of preference, before submitting.  These entries are then put into a lottery where you may potentially get one of the screenings you asked for, and, if so, a ticket gets set aside for you to collect on the day.  Positives: success guarantees you a ticket, no hassle.  Negatives: you need to know exactly what you want to see and submit your choices two whole days in advance, screenings may sell out in that time, and you’ll almost never get your first choice, if any successful bids at all.

That leaves Option 3) the Rush Queues.  How they work is that you turn up to a screening with tickets still available about 15 minutes beforehand, flash your pass and, if tickets aren’t flying out the booth fast enough, they’ll give you a seat at no charge.  Now, it works – it’s almost always how I get my public screening tickets – but it relies on a lot of luck, staffers unwilling to wait-and-see, and, much like with Option 2, you can’t pick your seat.  Also, far more of a problem, this year, the company running the Festival chose to gate off Rush Ticket privileges for different groups of people, with Press getting almost none of them.  Or, at least, that’s what the Delegate Microsite said.  In reality, I’ve gotten a rush ticket for every screening I’ve turned up to, regardless of whether that privilege was only meant for Gold Delegates (whatever the hell that means) or not.  I’ve spoken to several other members of the Press, and they’ve all had the same experiences as I, so it’s all been really confusing and poorly-explained – disappointingly in line with the slight air of last-minute chaos that’s permeated around the Festival’s organisation this year.

Still, that’s why today’s films are decidedly lower-bill affairs.  Other than the Three Billboards screening first thing tomorrow (technically today but you know what I mean) morning, Press Screenings have wrapped for the Festival and it’s now entirely down to Rush Queue chancing.  Hence today’s batch, cobbled together based on both ticket availability and schedules.  That said, doesn’t mean that these aren’t worth talking about, so let’s dive in.

Even though I didn’t see it until lunchtime, as all of the day’s screenings did not start until then, and I had been up and awake for several hours beforehand, it still turned out to be way too goddamn early for one to be watching The Rider (B), a bleak, gutting mediation on the difficulty and nobility of giving up on one’s own dreams.  Semi-autobiographical – in that everyone is playing semi-fictionalised versions of themselves, almost all of them sharing the exact same names as their characters, and largely non-actors, even if writer-director Chloé Zhao does not appear to be related in any way to anyone featured – The Rider follows Brady (Brady Jandreau), a local rodeo celebrity and talented horse breaker who suffered a horrific head injury just prior to the start of the film.  Pressed by the constant “I told you so”s and stealth insults from his alcoholic gambling father (Tim Jandreau), plus several of his rodeo friends, he’s planning on defying doctor’s orders in order to ride again, despite the massive unavoidable risks inherent in such a thing.

His desire to ride again is also somewhat motivated by the need to bring proper income into the household – his father blows most of his money on drinking and video slot machines, whilst his younger sister (Lilly Jandreau) is mentally-disabled, and the rent on the trailer they all live in is four months past due – and his lack of education (he dropped out of High School for rodeoing and horse breaking) and non-riding work experience have limited his job prospects to a temp position at the local supermarket.  Adding to the indignity, though, is that this puts him in constant contact with his fans, none of whom understand the severity of his injuries and constantly ask him when he’ll ride again and if this is really where he’s working.  Even more than the crushing mundanity of the menial life he’s stuck in, are the constant bruises to his masculine ego; a cowboy rendered incapable of being a cowboy and questioning why he should continue going on.

Like I said, this is a bleak goddamn film, and Zhao drapes the entire film in this heavy, crushing malaise that slowly wears down even the stoniest of hearts.  Particularly since the entire film is strictly naturalistic, which forces the viewer to have to be right there with Brady, with no distance or reprieve from his inner frustrated torment.  As somebody struggling to come to terms with his own admission that his dreams are very unlikely to come true, it really pierced right through to the centre of my heart, all the more shocking since I thought I was just watching another modern-cowboy movie.  That’s also why I am very unlikely to ever watch The Rider again, though.  It hits too close to home – in a way, sort of, not exactly, shut up, I’m making a point here – and stuck with me for the rest of the day, but more on a deep personal level than a raw filmmaking level, and I honestly don’t know when I’ll be quite ready to go back to it.  We can’t all be like Lane Scott (as himself), still able to watch his old rodeos and subsist on the hope of his dreams despite being almost completely incapable of unassisted movement.

That said, The Rider does have a pair of aces in the hole that practically demand giving it a watch.  The first is the soulful central performance of Brady Jandreau, who reminded me of a younger Joel Edgerton.  Brady the character almost never lashes out and never raises his voice beyond that of a minor shout throughout the entire film, yet Brady the actor is able to communicate the entirety of the bitter frustration and self-anger of his character largely through his eyes, and it is utterly heartbreaking to watch the light slowly dim from them as the film progresses.  The other is the gorgeous cinematography by Joshua James Richards.  Richards also photographed God’s Own Country earlier this year, and it turns out that he is just as good at communicating the lonely, windswept plains of heartland America as he was at approximating them in the West Country of England.  He and Zhao make a phenomenal pair in crafting the elegiac, quietly crushing atmosphere that makes the film such a difficult yet undeniably strong watch.  I just hope that I can someday be in a better-enough place to watch it again.

Almost the exact opposite of The Rider, although also a movie made by a female writer-director (Susanna Nicchiarelli), was Nico, 1988 (C), a biopic about the last three years in the life of model-turned-musician Nico, a.k.a. Christa Päffgen (Trine Dyrholm).  It’s the late-80s and she’s growing increasingly tired of making music, instead obsessed with rediscovering a certain sound from her childhood and becoming so dependent on heroin that she is almost never on-stage sober.  Not helping matters is the fact that, although she claims to not care about being accepted by the mainstream, she is constantly having to field questions from disinterested journalists about her very brief association with The Velvet Underground 20 years ago.  So she’s often difficult, flippant, prone to mood swings and abuse, and bundled up into a tiny van with her manager (John Gordon Sinclair), to whom she is clueless over his obvious infatuation with her, and band to tour up and down Europe, whilst she slowly reassesses her life.

Despite the talent behind (Nicchiarelli previously directed the 2009 coming-of-age film Cosmonaut) and in front of the camera, and the subject matter that the film is dealing with, however, Nico, 1988 sadly turns out to just be a middle-of-the-road music biopic.  In fact, for large stretches of it, I would even go so far as to call it flat-out dull.  There’s very little engaging about the film, much of it just drifting lifelessly from one scene to the next.  Nico is a fascinating, complex woman, but her portrayal on the filmmaking end is undercut by the languid nature of the film and its complete lack of faith in the audience; everything is spelt out in-dialogue, often rather clunkily, and well after the audience has already figured out what this particular scene or thread is trying to say for themselves.  Whilst everyone else in her life, from her mentally-unstable son (Sandor Funtek) to her manager to her bandmates – two of which hook up with each other, until one’s addiction to heroin inevitably drive them apart – are largely bland archetypes who all fill the exact roles you would expect them to in a story like this.

What makes this all such a shame is that there is a fantastic central performance by Trine Dyrholm crying out for a much better and more interesting film to support it.  She throws herself completely into the role, refusing to allow an easy read on Nico, unafraid of the notions of shame or unlikeability for they get in the way of the emotional truth of Nico.  And when she’s on-stage – and that’s her singing in the film, for the record, the cast re-interpreted the songs themselves – even when strung-out and contemptuous of those she’s playing to, it’s like she was born to be there.  In the film’s best sequence, she’s forced to go on-stage in Prague in withdrawal (due to the border guards confiscating her heroin and their promotor being unable to obtain any in the country), and proceeds to tear through “My Heart is Empty” like a woman possessed.  Nicchiarelli even manages to get caught up in the moment, shooting the performance with an intensity that hits like a bolt gun to the feet compared to the rest of the film, intercutting the band playing like their lives depend on it, and the 80-or-so Prague students who are losing their minds, with her manager’s attempts to secure them a quick exit from the incoming military police.  It’s almost like the scene comes from an entirely different universe where Nico, 1988 is a far better movie.  Alas.

Closing out the day was Jane (B), the latest documentary from Brett Morgen of Cobain: Montage of Heck and The Kid Stays in the Picture, focussing on the life and work of primatologist Jane Goodall.  Plucked from her receptionist position by Louis Leakey, despite no prior scientific or academic experience, in 1960 and sent to Gombe in Tanzania to study the behaviours and anthropology of chimpanzees, she ended up becoming the world’s leading expert on the species, getting closer to them than any other human had been able to at that point, and discovering their ability to craft and use rudimentary tools.  It’s research that continues to this day, and the film covers that as well as her early life, her professional and later personal relationship with acclaimed nature photographer Hugo van Lawick, how she parlayed her fame into continuing to fund her research, and her later efforts in conservation, whilst also following the chimps as they age and reveal further unexpected sides about themselves.

Jane is largely told from the hundreds of hours of footage shot by various people that accompanied Jane to Gombe, deliberately augmented with sound and colour (both things the raw footage lacked) in order to allow us to see Gombe in the same way that Jane herself did.  From an early age, she had always wanted to go to Africa and live among the animals, to study them and their habitats, and her time in Gombe turns out to be everything she ever wanted and more.  Hence why the largely male-dominated press back home – which alternately tries to discredit her outright because she’s a woman, or constantly plays up her beauty regardless of its relevance to her work – largely just brushes off her.  The footage of Gombe that Morgen includes in the work is enrapturing all on its own where, even after decades of available footage from other sources, there’s still an eye-opening beauty and lyrical manner in the way that it’s presented.  Morgen honestly didn’t need the other, more-obvious stylistic flourishes that he occasionally indulges in; the footage and Jane’s ever-present narration, equally balanced between excerpts from audiobooks written by her and interviews recorded especially for this film, are enough on their own.

But there was one major problem with my screening of Jane, and it’s the reason for the grade you’ve seen me attach to it.  I can’t tell if it was a problem with the cinema or the film itself – I didn’t get a chance to ask in the post-film Q&A – but there is a consistent problem with the sound mixing wherein Jane’s narration ends up being drowned out by Philip Glass’s sweeping score.  This is not a knock on the score, it’s a fantastic score because Philip Glass writes fantastic scores, and it may just have been an issue with the sound set-up at the Empire Haymarket for the screening, but it really detracted from the film, especially since Jane is quite the wordsmith and her words go a vital way to completing the picture of the film.  Instead, too often she is inadvertently being erased from her own story, lost in the miasma and hard to pick out.  Hence the grade.  Should it only be a problem with the cinema, you can knock that grade up two more steps, because Jane is a phenomenal experience otherwise.  But if it is a problem endemic to the film, then it’s heartbreaking to see it undermined by such a tiny yet ever-prevalent mistake.

Tomorrow: the Festival closes out with Martin McDonagh’s Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri; and John Woo returns to the heroic bloodshed genre that made him famous in Manhunt.

Callie Petch is looking for the strangler to help them with their crime.

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