Callie Petch at BFI London Film Festival 2018: Day 2

They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead, aKasha, and The Queen of Fear.

Note: elements of this article also ran on Set the Tape (link).

One gets quite the workload when they sign up to cover a film festival.  There are so many films to see, many of which are on the same day with minimal break time, and all of which require reviews of enough of a length that it doesn’t look like you’ve half-assed the job.  Unless you’re one of those weird people who can just throw out 750 perfectly-composed words with minimal prompting within 30 minutes, that’s quite the time commitment and you also need to throw travel and lunch times onto that schedule because what good’s committing to writing those words if you can’t make it there on time or collapse from starvation before turning in your work?  It’s just bad form to die before submitting one’s article for review.  I am exaggerating for comic effect, of course.  But it doesn’t change the fact that sometimes I get under a time crunch and have to sacrifice the usual context-providing intros, such as these, to ensure I get to bed at a decent hour.  Yesterday was one of those days, mainly because I also had to cobble together a Box Office Report that I’d promised and not yet delivered on, so I couldn’t get started on this particular entry until I got back to my HomeStay and finished up that prior commitment.  So, context tomorrow, movies today!  Let’s get into it!

Kicking off my proper fortnight-long Festival coverage was They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead (Grade: B).  You may have heard a while back that, after four decades, Orson Welles’ infamously unfinished “masterpiece,” The Other Side of the Wind, had at long last been completed after the kind of troubled production that leaves those of us who enjoy hearing about the often-secretive stories behind the filmmaking process salivating at the bit for some kind of accompanying tell-all.  Well, since Netflix picked up the worldwide distribution rights to this momentous piece of film history – Welles was often struck by the kind of bad luck that makes Terry Gilliam look like Domino from the Deadpool universe, so it’s really not every day that one of his litany of unfinished or unreleased films gets done and sent out into the world – there’s also now an accompanying documentary to go along with it, directed by Morgan Neville whose Won’t You Be My Neighbor? is also playing the Festival this year.  (The Other Side of the Wind itself, however, is not.)

And, oh boy, does Other Side have an improbable, likely-cursed, and juicy-as-hell story to tell.  The seeds being planted in 1970 when Orson got a cold-call from fresh-faced cinematographer Gary Graver, then spanning out across 15 more years until Welles’ death in 1985.  There are huge chunks filmed without a lead actor, the entire film being reshot out of spite once one of the key actors (impressionist Rich Little) was forced to bail due to production overrunning into contractual stand-up dates, mysterious financiers leaving midway through (potentially embezzling hundreds of thousands of dollars in the process), and all of the film’s footage being seized by the Iranian government of all people.  The film, meanwhile and despite Welles’ vehement insistences to the contrary, is totally supposed to be autobiographical dealing as it does with a once-beloved director in exile from Hollywood trying to make his masterpiece, a younger protégé who betrays him – the parallels in the dynamic between Welles stand-in and Peter Bogdanovich (who takes over from Rich Little in the film) eventually turn bitterly cruel – and a prominent part for Welles’ mistress and muse Oja Kodar who plays the bewitching ingenue in the Ingmar Bergman-parodying film-within-a-film.

If it sounds to you like Welles was perhaps making the vast bulk of Other Side up as he went along, then that’s a sentiment shared by many of the various members of the cast, crew, and relations of deceased members who populate the documentary’s interviews – filmed in black-and-white at various off-kilter angles and unconventional camera placements intended to invoke Welles’ work on films like Touch of Evil and The Lady from Shanghai.  Neville’s documentary forgoes examining any facet of Welles’ life and career that doesn’t add necessary context to the creation of Other Side, instead focussing on the toll the film took on everybody involved.  Contrasting the initial thrill of a skeleton crew of six coming together without pay because it’s Orson Welles and the man’s a genius, with their eventual bafflement at what Other Side is even supposed to be as Welles proceeded to take full advantage of those held under his sway.  The story of his relationship with Graver, which ends with Graver having to spend his career lensing cruddy B-movies and porno features to make ends meet, is an especially troubling look at the damaging kinds of co-dependency men like Welles inflict upon their collaborators, whilst the gradual breakdown of his friendship with Bogdanovich is just plain cruel.

For as difficult as the production of Other Side gets, Neville’s They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead remains a playful and frequently fun watch throughout.  He’ll have his editors (usual collaborators Aaron Wickenden and Jason Zeldes) cut clips of Welles to play in concerto with the interviews or Alan Cummings’ narration, interjecting befitting asides from unintended sources.  The interviewees sometimes hold conflicting views on the topic at hand which provides a frequent reminder that Welles was a distant and often-contradictory figure whose equal desire to be recognised for his genius and hide behind various masks – in fact, he even describes his directorial work on Other Side as him playing characters that Orson Welles would otherwise never play – mean that even those who knew him could never truly know him.  And the film also parallels the development of Other Side with the rise and fall of the early-70s counterculture inside the studio system, brought on by a whole new crop of talent that adored the films of Orson Welles.

They’ll Love Me’s main fault, the one that holds it back from greatness, is that it too adores Welles a bit too much for my liking.  Although it does show us many dark nights of the soul pertaining to Welles, it never quite manages to denounce his worst behaviour or the sacrifices that he asked of friends and strangers alike for a vision that by his own admission was forever evolving.  But it’s a really entertaining documentary, all the same, and it’s actually made me less interested in watching the real movie it’s intended to promote.  After all, as Welles states at the close in a group interview to a gaggle of journalists, “the film might even just be a whole bunch of us talking about the film.  It could be anything!”

A common problem I have had during my time at the Festival over the years is the fact that I can inadvertently find myself having a very brief snooze during early times of each day whilst a film is playing.  It’s not always the fault of the films featured – although the Festival’s habit of putting quieter and more minor-key films in the middle slot of their daily schedules, when many of us have been up since at least 6am, does not help – and more the result of my being a constantly tired sack of crap who nonetheless never seems to sleep decently at night.  As an unfortunate consequence, that means films like aKasha (Grade: C+) are unfairly slapped with the caveat/disadvantage that my mind may, despite my best efforts, check out for a few minutes around the middle if I’m not fully engaged/locked in a “well, this is pleasant” response to the events on-screen and underrate them as a result.  But in this instance, “minor” and “pleasant” seem very much to be the modes that writer-director hajooj kuka was going for in his debut narrative feature.

See, aKasha is a genial comedy about the Sudanese civil war.  Really.  Rather than focussing on the wider scope of the conflict, socio-economic effects, the instability of the country or anything like that, kuka instead tells a very off-beat love-triangle story between glory-chasing revolutionary soldier Adnan (Kamal Ramadan), his long-suffering girlfriend Lina (Ekram Marcus), and the AK-47 he used to shoot down an enemy drone that he has named Nancy.  A combined series of misunderstandings and Adnan himself being kind of a boob lead to him accidentally being labelled a deserter from his regiment and separated from his beloved Nancy, both violently punishable offenses.  So, Adnan ends up teaming with the army-dodger that’s partly responsible for getting him into this mess in the first place, Absi (Ganja Chakado), to try and straighten things out

In the Sudan of aKasha, the civil war is more of an annoying fact of life than a battle for the soul of the country.  The war even stops every Summer once the rains come because government tanks can’t push forward in the sodden plains, so everyone just takes time off until the weather clears up and the war’s back on.  Rather than any anger or fury or heartbreak, what kuka instead displays whenever the fact of war rears its head is more of a resigned exasperation about the whole thing.  How the lives of the villagers we follow are mostly unconcerned and unaffected by the goings on every time that a government fighter jet isn’t flying overhead – their ducking down when one does appear rarely carrying any urgency or concern since they’ve lived this arrangement too long to be deeply bothered by it anymore.  These are ultimately minor elements of the film, too, the vast bulk of the narrative and briskly-paced events honestly not too far removed from staples of British comedies.  Cross-dressing disguises, cases of mistaken identity, animation-enhanced drug trips, nut shots, jeeps getting bogged down due to overcrowding, etc.

There’s something strange about seeing that kind of generic language being transferred to a culture and subject that is theoretically the polar opposite, but it does work.  aKasha is an amiable, agreeable watch, sometimes being genuinely funny and occasionally possessing a sweetness in its additional explorations of fragile masculinity in the midst of war.  But aKasha is also a very minor work that fails to crescendo, ultimately just sort of stopping in a way that guarantees it won’t linger in my memory for very long.  It feels like a noble idea more than a fully-fledged film, in many respects, albeit one with some lovely cinematography by kooka & Giovanni Autran and likeable performances from the cast.  Also, this isn’t a problem with the film itself but more the localisation: much of the film’s dialogue goes unsubtitled or has been heavily simplified in the subtitling and I can’t help but feel like I’ve missed a certain chunk of the film due to that, especially since it ends with a character performing a song they wrote about another character and the refusal to translate means the tone or message of that song is lost to non-Arabic speakers.

A similar issue regarding the film overall not amounting to much of anything afflicts The Queen of Fear (Grade: C+), an Argentinian dramedy that marks the directorial debuts of actress Valeria Bertuccelli and second-unit director Fabiana Tiscornia.  In many respects, it works as a complimentary piece to They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead, following as it does a famous artist trying to cobble together their masterpiece on the fly whilst their mind is elsewhere and probably has no fixed roadmap to begin with.  Fortunately for Argentina, their story and star are fictional.  Robertina (Bertuccelli who also wrote the film) is mere days away from the premiere of the titular one-woman play, famous enough to demand and get complete unquestioning creative control but not quite famous enough to have ordinary people be able to place her from specific works.  She also very clearly has no plan in mind for her sold-out, highly-anticipated and heavily-publicised show, despite her manager’s best attempts to cover for her, flaking her commitments at every opportunity – whether it be one of her childish live-in maids bursting into tears over the slightest thing, her home’s frequent power cuts constantly leaving her under the (convoluted) impression that she’s being burgled at all hours, or that her former best friend (Dario Grandietti), whom she hasn’t spoken to in years and now resides in Demark, has gotten fatally sick.

Rober, as she is referred to by her friends, is plainly suffering from crippling anxiety, exemplified by the film’s opening scene which documents the first time her power unexpectedly goes out and she puts in a panicked call to her alarm company that ends with her uncontrollably sobbing over her mental state once they’ve gone.  Hers is not the kind of anxiety that you typically see in fiction stories, where the character spends all of their time in a constant state of fear and panic, although that does manifest from time to time.  Instead, hers is the anxiety that leads to one passively drifting through life, forever putting off their commitments until the last possible second, letting conflicts just wash over them without a resolution, and refusing to take responsibility for their own actions and choices by never making a concrete decision unless absolutely forced.  Rober’s admitted constant fear of everything has her stuck in a rut, unable or perhaps straight-up incapable of change, pursued at every turn by her litany of regrets and fear of death.  She’s directionless, unfocussed, a mess, and so is the film around her.

The Queen of Fear is never a bad or unpleasant movie to watch – although those with low tolerances for the kinds of characters that aren’t great people and who, regardless of the effect that their neuroses may have upon them, won’t get better unless forcefully pushed will have their patience tested – but it’s too much like its lead character.  And that’s an issue given that the film runs for almost two hours yet never builds to a seismic event or much in the way of an overall thematic point.  What keeps the movie from feeling like a waste of time despite that fact is a tremendous central performance by Bertuccelli, whose turn as Rober worryingly reminded me of myself and my own experiences with this kind of anxiety throughout.  She’s able to make Rober frustrating and difficult but still compelling and strangely rootable, a character you want to see grow and take responsibility in spite of all evidence telling you otherwise.

It’s strange that Bertuccelli is both the reason I really enjoyed watching The Queen of Fear whilst also being the reason that it’s hard to fully recommend.  She’s a great actress whose performance does wonders with the part, and as a writer she clearly understands her subject because Rober is very well defined and understandable as a character.  But her film also hopscotches in focus and tones across its near-two-hours, never managing to cohere on both a screenplay and directorial level – every blackout sequence feels like a trial run for a potential horror movie directed by her and Tiscornia in the future, each seeming to build to a jump that never arrives.  Films being too much like their protagonists rarely leads to great things, especially when they’re centred on ones going through an arrested-development midlife crisis like Rober, and it’s just a shame that such a strong central performance is left to prop up a film rather than acting as a foundation for the film to build upon.

Tomorrow: Jim Cummings expands Thunder Road to feature-length and Jia Zhangke returns with another crime epic, Ash is Purest White.

Callie Petch wants to be heard on your Hot 97 every day, that’s their word.

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