Callie Petch at BFI London Film Festival 2019: Day 4

The Lighthouse, Monsoon, and Our Ladies.

One of the most tiresome debates I’ve seen constantly crop up on Film Twitter and Hot Take dispensaries in recent years has concerned otherwise largely-beloved Indie darlings A24 and, specifically, whether their entries into the realm of horror movies even deserve to be called as such.  Some of that is due to the natural differences and aims of mainstream horror – your studio titles like IT, Annabelle, or Blumhouse’s Truth or Dare which aim to act more like a funhouse ride of big jolts and fun times the viewer can easily shake off in the aftermath – and so-called arthouse horror – your Shinings, your Kill Lists, your It Comes at Nights which go for a slow-burn approach aimed more around atmosphere and supposition in service of abstract philosophical terror which when done well can stick for days afterwards.  My personal theory that self-professed horror junkies want to be scared, not frightened.

But A24’s spate of horrors (It Comes at Night, Hereditary, Midsommar amongst others) keep having charges levelled at them accusing their various directors of thinking they are somehow above the horror genre because… I honestly couldn’t tell you, since all these films worked wonders on me, and I’ve never truly understood the crux of this argument anyway.  (I think there’s a belief that the openly horror elements of each film feel superfluous and disconnected to the narrative and its themes, which I definitely don’t agree with.)  One of the bigger instigators of this whole debate was Robert Eggers’ 2016 debut feature The VVitch, a folk tale horror drama with a truly intimidating atmosphere and several bone-chilling horror setpieces mined from a meticulously researched and composed period setting that nonetheless codified the idea of A24 Horror (as both a positive and a pejorative) which would soon follow. Something tells me that this tiresome debate has gotten under the skin of Eggers too because, although it may wear the skin of what we may use as short-hand for A24 Horror, his follow-up is almost nothing of the sort. In fact, The Lighthouse (Grade: B+) is one of the funniest movies of the year.

I’ll put it to you like this. You ever see Darren Aronofsky’s mother!?  Yes, I know that the box office numbers statistically indicate that you probably did not see mother!, humour me.  You know how that grotesquely pretentious provocation thought that it was some grand, profound and clever arthouse horror about organised religion, an allegory for The Bible, and climate change but in reality was just a ridiculous and raucous comedy about how annoying it is to be stuck in a place with people you really hate and who just won’t leave?  The Lighthouse is basically the version of mother! that’s honest about itself.  Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe star in what is effectively a dark psychosexual comedy about two lighthouse keepers, haggard drunken master Wake (Defoe) and his fresh-faced new assistant Winslow (Pattinson), as they both drive each other absolutely mad.

Oh, sure, the isolation, the stormy weather conditions, and mysterious goings on based on superstitious sailor tales certainly don’t help.  And it’s all presented in stark, confrontational 4:3 Academy Ratio in black-and-white with a gorgeous replication of both 1920s human condition epics like Battleship Potemkin and the early German expressionist horror pictures, plus a roaring punishing mechanical score.  It’s a film dripping in atmosphere, all designed to look at a glance like a slow-burn psychological horror.  But, in reality, this is a riotous comedy about how much being around somebody you hate and who hates you is an absolute intolerable ballache.  Wake is a belligerent, hammy, confrontational gaslighting ass when he’s sober who farts like a pig in shit whilst refusing to ever let Winslow into the lamp room itself, and when drunk in the evening… is pretty much exactly still all of those things but much more willing to belt out sea shanties and put up the veneer of being your friend in between cursing you like Poseidon.

Winslow isn’t exactly much better, an impotent performatively macho snake prone to bursts of violence when sufficiently pushed.  Neither man is being entirely honest about themselves with the other and both are under the sway of a sexual siren’s song they can do nothing about – a latent homoerotic subtext which, if we’re being honest, is what the film is really about.  One gets the impression that they wouldn’t need to be trapped alone on an island in order to go mad and turn on each other.  If anything, the island just expedites the issue, that and the seemingly bottomless ration of alcohol they both knock back every eve.  Pattinson and Dafoe are, naturally, sublime in their performances; Dafoe getting perhaps the showier of the two roles, whilst Pattinson turns his shaky accent into a net positive as its constant slips into something else really sells Winslow’s descent into madness, and they both go to town on some glorious scenery-chewing.

So, an effective horror this really ain’t.  In fact, one can reasonably question if the film, even as a deliberate comedy, is a touch too comedic given that the infrequent moments where more explicit horror elements intrude on proceedings end up having their effectiveness hobbled due to that prior comedic remove.  And whilst the film is a tight-as-hell 110 minutes, one can’t help but wish, as one of my fellow critics did, that Eggers and his editor Louise Ford had taken the narrative’s descent into madness as a go-ahead to also ape the free-association arrhythmic editing of those earlier silent horrors in addition to the authentic aesthetic replication everywhere else – the film’s most thrilling sequence by far comes from a midpoint montage which compresses multiple days of alcohol, visions, shanties, disturbing discoveries, and stormy weather into a near-looping cacophony of monotonous noise as both men make a massive dive well off the deep-end.

Still, I had an absolute blast with The Lighthouse, a fantastic feel-bad time of belligerent drunkards and asshole seagulls.  I’m just definitely not going to have an absolute blast at the inevitable general audience revolts and next wave of “A24 HORRORS THINK HORROR IS BENEATH THEM” think-pieces it will generate.

The massive tonal fluctuations of a festival schedule struck once again as the raucous madness of The Lighthouse was chased down by the elegiac and soothing Monsoon (Grade: C+), writer-director Hong Khaou’s follow-up to his 2014 debut Lilting.  Inspired somewhat by the Cambodian-born British filmmaker’s own history, it follows the Vietnamese-born British man Kit (Henry Golding who is having a hell of a run with performances so far) as he returns to the country of his birth to scatter his mother’s ashes.  She, him, and his brother had all fled Vietnam after the War – his father, who died a few years prior to the film, was not so lucky and spent time in a re-education camp – and this is the first time he has set foot in the country in the 30-plus years since.  His fluency in the language has largely gone, the memories of his time have mostly faded, and many of his old haunts have been torn down or replaced by the growing urbanisation and rebuilding processes that the country at large has undergone.

Kit, therefore, is a stranger in what should feel like his home country, a place he doesn’t feel connected to despite it ostensibly being a core part of his identity.  He often has to take guided tours like any number of tourists in order to get a sense of Saigon (his hometown) and Hanoi (his parents’) now that they’ve become barely recognisable.  And Khaou certainly makes these cityscapes look absolutely stunning, a bustling vibrant country of incandescent beauty which is lovingly shot by Benjamin Kračun and acts as both a gorgeous demonstration of the development and rebuilding that the country has gone through in the past several decades plus a necessary rejoinder to exoticized or typical poverty-ridden depictions of the region in film history.  In a way, casting Golding is quite the meta masterstroke, seeing as his pre-Crazy Rich Asians breakthrough had him best known as a host of BBC’s The Travel Show and Monsoon often most resembles a highly-enticing advert for the Vietnamese Tourism Board.

I kinda just wish that there was more movie in this movie.  Khaou’s film is quiet and restrained to a fault, so much so that its eventual cut to black forced me to confusedly check my watch since the film surely couldn’t already be over, right?  Not a whole lot happens, to be frank.  Lots of scenes, gorgeously composed scenes mind you, of Kit walking slowly and pensively around Vietnam, and others still of him staring around mentally lost and quietly lonely for a very long time.  None of this is the fault of Golding, who carries a weariness and palpable sense of disconnection, but he’s just not given much to work with.  Honestly, Monsoon could have used more subplots like Kit’s tender growing romance with American ex-pat Louis (Parker Sawyers), a man whose father had fought and killed in the Vietnam War in a fact which Louis has been wracked with generational guilt over his whole life.  There’s a sweetness, a softly-handled emotional undercurrent, and a genuine pulse to their scenes together the rest of the film largely shirks.  By design, admittedly, but it leaves Khaou’s film lacking for me regardless.

Yesterday, I mentioned that, since I missed out on Rose Plays Julie thanks to Tube drama, I was then-under embargo about what I had seen in its place but teased I had found it utterly delightful.  Well, the film had its world premiere last night, meaning it’s finally out in the wild, so I can now inform you that Michael Caton-Jones’ Our Ladies (Grade: B+) is a true triumph!  I wasn’t entirely in the most winning of moods when I sat down, and my blinkers were immediately set off once the initial narration placed our story as taking place in 1996 Scotland by calling it “a purer time before social media and mobile phones made us all toxic.”  But by the time this story of six teenaged Catholic choir schoolgirls from a nowhere port town having one wild day trip in Edinburgh had hit its (honestly also eyeroll-worthy, this film doesn’t exactly start or end smoothly) end credits, I was completely won over.  Caton-Jones and co-writer Alan Sharp adapt Alan Warner’s 1998 coming-of-age novel – originally titled The Sopranos, likely changed to partly evoke the name of the school our girls attend for obvious major-television-milestone reasons – with joy de vivre and a winning frankness and honesty which roots specifically in the mid-90s without losing resonance for today’s youth.

It is indeed doing absolutely nothing new in the genre; hell, the fellowship of hard-partying sex-crazed inseparable teenaged besties having one last big night together before they’re effectively forced to go their separate ways varient just saw its crown jewel dropped from the heavens five months ago with Olivia Wilde’s sensational Booksmart.  And Our Ladies is definitely hampered by a very basic Channel 4 direction, with the extremely infrequent breaks into more stylised filmmaking to fill in the backstories of each protagonist resultantly coming off as self-consciously showy.  But this is a movie which absolutely delivers in the three areas where it counts.  The first is that the script is extremely witty, profane without ever becoming crass, and fit to bursting with zingers and comic setpieces that had my screening in stitches, most especially an ill-fated trip for three of the girls to the home of an up-for-it try-hard douche and his even less emotionally developed friends.  And it’s pleasingly honest about teen sex and sexuality, recognising and validating healthy carnal desire whilst also being upfront about the risks and unplanned complications that can result from indulgence in a manner that is refreshingly non-judgemental.

The second key area is that our central sextet of girls (five officially in the crew and one rich outsider who really wants to join but is constantly mocked and shut out for coming from money whilst the rest are working-class) feel like real teenaged girls rather than some aging (often-male) screenwriter’s flailing guess-timation of such.  Almost every scene features at least two of them paired up with each other, but it’s when all five – eventually six when Eve Austin’s rich girl is truly brought into the fold through a sweet romantic awakening; before then, her dynamic with them is unbearably awkward in the best way – share the scene together that things truly come alive.  The way that everyone plays off of each other, building on things another one said, bringing up inside gags and the occasional contentious stepping-on-toes which act as a reminder that these are six individuals all with their own shit to deal with rather than an interchangeable homunculus.  They’re a true joy to be around for the movie’s wonderfully brisk 100 minutes.

And the third key area comes from the performances by all of the young actresses involved.  Each brings a different energy to the film – Tallulah Grieve gets much of the designated heaviest material due to her character dying of leukaemia but she also gets the film’s most wild comic setpiece, Eve Austin proves herself to be a natural at communicating deeply internalised shame and thusly, along with Abigail Lawrie, makes a key burgeoning relationship the hopeful lynchpin of the movie, whilst Marli Siu is basically a lively Aubrey Plaza – but all are equally excellent stars in the making, and that’s without also mentioning Rona Morison and Sally Mesham.  Y’all know me probably likely not shut up you’re ruining the bit, so y’all know that I am a massive homer for teen girl coming-of-age dramedies due to my queerness and youth spent more comfortable around women, and we’re in a boom time for such content: Booksmart, Derry Girls, Edge of Seventeen, Blockers, to name but a few.  Even in that field, Our Ladies more than earns the right to call such works its peers, a witty, charming, sweet and fun-as-hell entry into the genre that I enjoyed to pieces.

I mean, it’s a film with jokes about Mazzy Star.  Of course I was gonna get heavily attached to it!

Tomorrow: I need to find the time to tell you about the absolutely fantastic Saint Maud, which screened a few hours prior to my writing this, and I hopefully manage to get into Taika Waititi’s anti-hate satire Jojo Rabbit.

Callie Petch makes plans for good times, gets bogged down, distracted.

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