Callie Petch at BFI London Film Festival 2019: Day 1

Opening uncertainties, By the Grace of God, and Little Joe.

I’m not really supposed to be here, this year.

As noted in my conclusion round-up for 2018’s series from this place, I was at a mental crossroads as to whether I would return to the London Film Festival for a fourth year.  Last year’s instalment was such a blast that a part of me wanted to leave my recurring adventures concluded on a true high, the rare trilogy which actually delivered on its final chapter, whilst more neuroses-addled parts of me knew that I needed to cut down on writing and get a proper job, so it wouldn’t be worth doing all this again unless I was either getting paid for it (*Kevin Butler laugh*) or if I was managing to advance my career (*multiple Kevin Butler laughs*) by doing so.  So, I hinged a lot of my hopes on leveraging my extremely tenuous Local BBC connections to at least have “BBC content producer” on my resume, even if it lead to nothing afterwards and even if I still had to front all of the bills.  Unsurprisingly, this avenue fell apart as soon as somebody at the corporation who wasn’t a friend of mine started asking questions like “how is this particularly relevant to our remit?” since “I WILL MAKE FREE CONTENT FOR YOU NO QUESTIONS” isn’t the sales pitch it used to be.

Once that fell apart, I was all set to sit the year out.  Then my friend Lucy turned me onto the BFI Critics Mentorship Programme, a scheme she had also stumbled upon last year but informed me of about six hours before applications closed so there wasn’t much I could do about then.  After giving me a talk in the manner which seems scientifically designed to get me to try something I know I’ll otherwise fail at out of a desire to be worthy of my friends’ time, I shrugged off my omnipresent imposter syndrome and self-loathing for a few hours and whipped something together even as I hated almost every single word I typed and knew that nothing would come of it.  About 12 hours before deadline, I sent something in and then proceeded to not think about it for the next two weeks because I had other day-job-based concerns to deal with.  At the end of those two weeks, however, I got a call from the BFI mentioning that I had been shortlisted and scheduling a video interview for early in the following week.  Finally, things were improbably coming up Milhouse!  All I had to do now was not blow an interview, something which has literally never happened in my entire life to date, and I had the advantage of it being over Skype so maybe the emotional distance afforded by a screen would mitigate my crippling anxiety at least a tad!

Yes, come to think of it, it does indeed look like I just whipped up a fake ID in five minutes in Photoshop and this is all an elaborate ruse to disguise my not actually being at the Festival this year.

Unsurprisingly, the emotional distance afforded by a screen did not mitigate my crippling anxiety any tads and I blew the interview.  I am not coming to you as one of the Programme’s lucky winners – I’m pencilled into receive feedback on Thursday so I probably shouldn’t even be discussing this yet or at all, but, sod it, I’m all about emotionally oversharing on this site.  At that time, with 48 hours left to turn in a standard Press application, I was pretty adamant that that was it for this year.  I wasn’t going.  My heart wasn’t in it, so it would be a waste of time and money (especially money) for nothing but tradition which enables my brain to push back getting my shit together for another indeterminate amount of time, and the whole experience had already been tainted by the absolute chaotic faff of finding an in to come back down so what was the point?

Yet, I am here regardless.  Blame literally everybody I know hectoring me into going despite my perfectly adequate reasons for not wanting to.  A lot of what I was thinking in the run-up is still true: my heart’s not as in it this year as in previous excursions, the line-up does not excite me aside from some big names – many of which were screened in the weeks pre-Festival because anyone not from London or not financially stable enough to sack off all other commitments and hermit down in notoriously expensive London for a month can get fucked, right; love this country and industry – and I do think my consolation prize status has hung enough red lights over the proceedings that certain logistical changes for the year are already irritating me.  (More on that later in the Fest, but please pray for all the critics trudging to Leicester Square at 7:45 on Day 12 of a film festival where basically every day starts at 7:45 and doesn’t finish until real late in order to watch a 200+ minute Scorsese movie.)

Still, we cannot hold any of that against the films themselves, obviously, and I rocked up bright and early one day before festivities were officially scheduled to start for a pair of pre-Fest press screenings.  The best film I saw that day may have been a theatrically-released film from three weeks ago which I hadn’t been able to see yet and wasn’t a part of the Festival in any capacity (The Farewell which was sensational and I wept like a child), but that’s not meant as the grade-A burn against François Ozon’s By the Grace of God (Grade: B-) it seems like on the surface.  Ozon’s directorial career over the decades has been as acclaimed as it has been varied, flitting between trashy provocative explorations of society and sexuality (as in last year’s L’amont Double and 2010’s Potiche) and statelier surface-respectable dramas which nonetheless are still designed to stir the pot (as in 2016’s Frantz).  Which is what makes God somewhat atypical for the filmmaker, being so stately and dry and respectable that it borderline qualifies as his equivalent of Oscar Bait (in a world where foreign and foreign-language films get consistent attention and respect from the Academy).

As the opening title card explains, the story at the centre of God is true – concerning the paedophilic abuse perpetuated by French Catholic priest Bernard Preynat (Bernard Verley) over at least 30 years of service and the wilful complicity and gross negligence perpetuated by the Church as a whole, and particularly Cardinal Barbarin (François Marthouret), to not only shield the priest from the consequences of his actions but keep putting him back into contact with children – but the events are otherwise dramatized.  Concerning a series of different men who were abused by Preynat when they were children trying decades later to not only bring him to account, but bring the local Catholic church to account for their role, and raise the statute of limitations for crimes of sexual abuse due to many of the men in their makeshift support and later-activist group coming forward after the 25 years statute had been passed.  Some are still devout in their faith (Melvil Poupaud’s committed family man banker) but see their faith shaken by the Church’s constant stonewalling and offering of prayers in place of action, others had their faith so shattered that they became boisterous atheists with emotions often getting in the way of pragmatism (Denis Ménochet who becomes the activist group’s leader), and others still are barely eeking out a living and so psychologically damaged by the abuse that they have abusive tendencies themselves (Swann Arlaud’s working-class savant).

Ozon, who also wrote the script, handles this story in a very dry, straightforward procedural manner which is most obviously going to invoke comparisons to Spotlight given the similar topics and both movies also carrying a minor neo-noir tinge – particularly in God’s first third when Poupaud is so frequently stonewalled and set back in his quest to bring down Preynat I half expected someone to pull him aside and say “forget it, Alexandre, it’s Catholic-town.”  The results are pacey and no-nonsense, all designed to avoid clouding what was in-production an ongoing case with libellous emotions and interjections, but they do end up feeling rather repetitive when all is said and done.  The movie clocks in at 128 minutes and whilst the initial stretch involving Alexandre is frustratingly captivating and the procedural nature of credible case-building against Preynat is engaging, the film’s circular narrative structure (effectively having to restart each time the case stumbles upon a new victim to take over as our point-of-view) and inability to build to a climax causes things to sputter out.

The repetitiveness is of course the point, demonstrating how Preynat was able to get away with his behaviour for decades and how the tales of the abuse he meted out were not depressingly unique but rather depressingly common.  And Preynat himself is a strangely electrifying figure, only physically in the film for a short time but his present day scenes are charged with a sort of fascinating off-kilter-ness due to his complete unrepentance – not proudly boasting, but instead freely admitting of his transgressions whenever asked yet constantly attempting to manoeuvre himself into being the victim in the eyes of everyone else (most especially his former victims) by shifting the blame entirely onto the Church and society.  But whilst it’s a noble point, Ozon hasn’t managed to transfer that into dramatically compelling storytelling and his second half gets bogged down in cliched personal dramas for his main cast which largely peter out.  By the Grace of God does have moments of genuine power and it’s strongly acted by all of its cast, but there’s a lack of vitality coursing through the film’s veins which eventually makes it a mite tiring to sit through.

That said, it was an absolute breeze to experience compared to Little Joe (Grade: D+), Jessica Hausner’s new sci-fi horror dramedy, especially on the ears.  It has been a long while since I’ve sat through a film as painful to listen to as this one.  Hausner makes liberal use of avant-garde Japanese composer Teiji Ito’s various works and combines them with Erik Mischijew and Matz Müller’s frequently piercing high-pitched scraping sound design to meld together an absolute assault on the ears that prompted multiple complaints from both my fellow critics and members of the Festival staff as we excited the screening after 105 excruciating minutes.  Melding untuned violin strings that eventually sound like dogs barking, tinnitus-reminiscent high-pitched whines, arrhythmic taiko drum blasts and utilising Japanese musical touchstones in general as short-hand for unsettling creepiness, the sound design of Little Joe ends up rather accurately reflecting the film it’s a part of as a whole: atonal, deliberately abrasive, extremely try-hard, yet ultimately entirely too predictable and empty to be at all worth slogging through.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers by way of The Happening – incidentally both way more interesting and less painful films to watch – Hausner’s first English-language film follows a team of plant scientists, headed up by a Cannes-winning yet abstractly-irritating one-note performance by Emily Beecham (playing Alice), who have created a genetically modified plant which, once showered with enough love and affection and talked to like a normal human being, is supposed to release pheromones that make the person taking care of the plant happier.  Should it work, and should it work in time for the grand public unveiling at the big flower fair, the scientists’ pharmaceutical company stands to make billions.  In order to do so, though, the scientists have taken some ethical shortcuts by utilising untested virus modifications and their decision to sterilise the species dubbed “Little Joe,” named after Alice’s somewhat-neglected and emotionally distant teenaged son (Kit Connor), may have lead the living, thinking, feeling plants to engage in alternative thematically-befitting methods of securing their continued procreation and it’s all one big blindingly obvious and largely-demonising metaphor for anti-depressants and our dependence thereof, plus a little old-fashioned “WE MUST NOT TAMPER IN GOD’S DOMAIN” for good measure.

Look, I know that it is bad criticism to dock a film points for possessing a worldview which runs counter to that held by the person doing the critiquing – works of art should be allowed, hell, actively encouraged to push against the viewer’s preconceived notions and beliefs, and strong craft should not be docked points merely because it expresses personally disagreeable messages.  But there’s a smug simplicity to Hausner and Géraldine Bajard’s views on the topics of both mental health and antidepressants in their screenplay which I, as someone who has been trying extremely hard over the last several years to right their fragile mental state and who may have had less than positive results with antidepressants but knows that is not reflective of the drugs as a whole, cannot help but find dangerously reductive.  The pair attempt to thread the needle by gesturing every now and then to Big Pharma being uninterested in ethics and side effects so long as it brings them strong profits, or how society as a whole ostracises anyone which might kick up the dreaded fuss about something which is otherwise key to its ongoing contentment, or how mothers have a hard time letting go of their growing children, but none of this is developed enough to pull focus away from the rather rotten reductive central metaphor that doesn’t mix well with the other stuff anyway.

Such one-note simplicity is also reflective of the rest of Little Joe which is an utter boring chore to watch.  The tone and delivery are that of a discount Yorgos Lanthimos, which is to say Stanley Kubrick with none of the deft handling and an alien borderline-contemptuous understanding of how human beings behave that is all surface and negates any emotional stimulus.  The existential horror lands with a total thud because nobody in this movie behaves or speaks like an understandable or three-dimensional human being even before the mutant plant spores start mulching away a person’s cognitive behavioural functions, so the growing oppressive weirdness doesn’t land due to not perverting any normalcy – this was what sank Killing of a Sacred Deer for me, whilst we’re on the Lanthimos-ian tip.  The bursts of comedy have no rhythm to them, all bluntly and flatly delivered and cynically expecting intentional laughter in the same way crap B-movies genuinely elicit unintentional laughter.  The character drama is simplistic, uninteresting and at odds with the presented satires and metaphors, as alluded to with Alice’s mothering anxieties.  Whilst the sci-fi has a total of two overlapping buttons – ANTI-DEPRESSANTS ARE BAD, GOD’S DOMAIN – which are evident from frame one and left to stagnate until its very last.

And Hausner has the unmitigated gall to play her premise as a slow-burn arthouse piece despite having a payoff so obvious, underwhelming and insubstantial – and based around absolutely every single person acting like a total moron, which is a critique I loathe to lobby at any film thanks to the Internet perverting such a road but is impossible to stem in such a self-important portentous slog like this – that the only people who won’t have figured out where it’s going before walking into the theatre will be the ones who skipped reading the synopsis, and even they’ll have gotten it within fifteen minutes.  The only reason why I haven’t rated this any lower is, despite Little Joe being almost completely devoid of merit and that sound design making the movie at times resemble one of those sensory-deprivation torture devices, that the movie is so relentlessly boring there’s a good chance one may manage to mentally check out long before it’s over.  Also, it begrudgingly looks nice.

Tomorrow: the Festival proper kicks off as Armando Iannucci does Dickens, Trey Edward Shults follows up It Comes at Night, and I hopefully get to finally be let in on all the fuss about Monos.

Callie Petch is swimming in circles, in circles.

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