Callie Petch at BFI London Film Festival 2019: Day 5

Jojo Rabbit, Rare Beasts, and Saint Maud.

Ah, shit.

I don’t like being That Guy.  You know, That Guy who isn’t particularly into something that everyone else is, whose valid critiques can’t inadvertently help but come off as raining on the collective parade.  A bunch of us in this little recurring circle of critics I appear to have fallen into even spent a good fifteen minutes on Friday morning clowning our own Hemanth Kissoon (who writes great stuff over at Filmaluation you should go check out) over his only-somewhat-enjoying The Lighthouse.  And this one especially hurts because I had been really excited for it even after the somewhat divisive first notices out of Toronto had readjusted my expectations somewhat.  But a disappointment is a disappointment and I can only express how I personally feel in these things so here goes: Taika Waititi’s Jojo Rabbit (Grade: C+) is kind of a mess.

When I invoke the concept of a “mess” in this instance, I don’t mean in terms of the filmmaking or craft on display.  Because, in terms of pure craft and attempting to fulfil the aims it sets out with, Jojo is great.  This is a very funny, very warm-hearted, very well-made film.  Waititi absolutely knows how to put together pleasing and arresting visual imagery, which Jojo displays in abundance through a bright naïve colour palette that slowly washes out as the narrative progresses further on and Jojo & Germany as a whole’s fanatical worldview comes crumbling down.  There are multiple excellent performances anchoring the story, most obviously the vital two-hander of Leave No Trace‘s Thomasin McKenzie as the Jewish girl Elsa who has been hidden by Jojo’s mother (Scarlett Johansson, exuding moralistic maternal warmth) in the walls of his house, and newcomer Roman Griffin Davis as the titular Jojo.  (Where Waititi manages to routinely find outstanding child actors, and how he directs them so magnificently, is a mystery but one I am happy to not look into so long as it keeps sending us delightful discoveries like Davis.)  And it is often very funny, most especially whenever Waititi is on-screen as Jojo’s imaginary and mythically-idealised version of Adolf Hitler who manifests pretty much exactly like a precocious yet ineffectual 10-year-old would idolise their personal heroes.

Another thing that’s important to note is how, despite the loaded premise and positioning of the film as an “anti-hate satire” in the marketing, Jojo Rabbit is not actually a satire.  Well, not directly.  Honestly, the furore that’s been kicked up on both sides about this Führer comedy, including reportedly from Disney execs post-Fox acquisition, turns out to have been pre-emptive and unfounded because Jojo is so soft and soft-hearted that it likely couldn’t even offend the hearts of the sort of people who don’t take kindly to having their white supremacy hatred called out.  Waititi’s script, adapted from a novel by Christine Leunens, is about meeting these people on their level, trying to challenge their worldviews through basic compassion and a continued mere existence which hopefully might break through their myopic toxic assimilation of hateful propaganda and cause them to question their assumptions.

It’s a nice idea, decently communicated, but it leaves the movie feeling rather toothless.  Waititi is so concerned with placating his viewers, making a crowdpleaser through and through, that his film lacks any real bite or sting or something to make it linger long after viewing – although the payoff to Imaginary Hitler is absolutely killer and the kind of thing I wish this movie had done more of.  That would be fine, Maker knows I’m not above fuzzy feel-good escapist entertainment and we sure as shit need more of that in this miserable climate, if it didn’t also end up compromising Waititi himself.  I’m one of those heartless bastards who liked but didn’t love Hunt for the Wilderpeople, but I appreciated just how much that swung for the fences at every step.  Troublingly, Jojo Rabbit sees one of our most gonzo, fearless and proudly off-beat filmmakers reigning himself in.  The giant tentpole Marvel movie he just came off of was more daringly off-beat than Jojo ever ends up being.  In fact, strip out the jokes and what you end up with is a prime-cut safe-as-hell slice of Oscar Bait.

The last third is what makes this abundantly clear, as the jokes largely get lost and we barrel towards a climax that could have been taken from any number of feel-good Germany-set WWII dramas over the years, right down to giving one recurring Nazi general a redemption arc (naturally the one played by Sam Rockwell in what is now a trend he probably needs to start asking questions about).  That eventual shift causes the tone to become much less assured, uncertain how to take this hard-left turn into a conventional tearjerking war drama without, y’know, becoming too tearjerking lest the audience risk leaving the theatre in anything other than high spirits.  The drama, in particular a major dramatic beat which should rip Jojo’s world asunder, mostly fails to evince much of anything as a result, as interchangeably genial as much of the comedy which gets most of its laughs from slapstick or bursting the usual enchanting “lonely child comes of age” piece with reminders that this is Nazi Germany and many of the principal players are unquestioning members of its regime in a trick that ultimately proves repetitious over 105 minutes.

I don’t know, maybe I’m just being a killjoy.  Fact is, Jojo Rabbit is indeed a breezy and highly agreeable watch which goes down smooth and does provide a good case of the fuzzies.  But I just expected more from Waititi, a man who normally injects such zest, weirdness and proudly off-kilter energy into otherwise bog-standard or tired premises.  With Jojo, we have an off-kilter premise injected with a bog-standard tired energy.  At least it doesn’t go full Life is Beautiful.  Never go full Life is Beautiful.

One strangely recurring trend at the London Film Festival is how it manages each year to find space for the directorial debut of an often-undervalued character actress making her play for a possible new outlet of artistic expression.  2016 brought Alice Lowe’s excellent dark comedy Prevenge, 2017 had the secret film slot reserved for Greta Gerwig (in her solo directorial debut) and her astonishing Lady Bird, and 2018 saw Jessica Hynes finally get her showcase moment in the criminally underseen The Fight.  This year’s hopeful contender, the one that’s not Mati Diop’s Atlantics because I didn’t manage to see that one due to clashes, is Billie Piper, a woman who has come a heck of a long way in the twenty-one years since Honey to the B to become one of Britain’s most fascinating and undervalued character actresses.  With Rare Beasts (Grade: C), she’s not only hoping to make the transition to directing but screenwriting too and her debut turn behind both the camera and the typewriter demonstrates overflowing potential and evident talent in one of those areas.

I say this as more of a compliment than the burn it may read as, although a mild burning is also intended: I would love to see Piper go off into directing music videos.  Her anti-rom-com – which sees her nihilistic and directionless Mandy fall into a contentious courtship(?) with raging flighty misogynist Pete (Leo Bill) – is visually electric and moves along to a noticeable musical pulse.  Whether that be the original score by Johnny Lloyd and Nathan Coen, or, in the film’s standout sequence, inspired needle-drops as a spare piano ballad take on The Chemical Brothers’ “Swoon” at a wedding reception transitions into the euphoric electronic original with the whole congregation cultishly repeating the song’s mantra “just remember to fall in love, there’s nothing else” wins over our two reticent love(?)-birds to engage in possession-esque dancing.  Piper throws together many fantastical flights of fancy like that, always pulling out unexpected and unreal methods of depicting many a scene, much of it confrontational and off-kilter in a manner which constantly varies its wavelength, and in the often expressionist format of a music video her chasing of imagery over all else would mark her a real talent.

Because, quite frankly, I have absolutely no idea what the fuck this movie is supposed to be about on a narrative, character or thematic level.  Her script is akin to a screwball comedy on some alternate earth where all the men are open misogynists and all the women are open self-loathing misandrists, with at least half the connecting bita between the most bilious lines of dialogue taken out.  It’s all suitably off-putting and rat-a-tat and occasionally finds its own strange rhythm that leads to some genuine off-guard laughs, but if any of it is in service of anything at all I could not tell you and neither could many of the people in my screening.  Characters shift completely on a dime, major narrative beats just kind of happen without any decent foreshadowing, the basic reality of the film’s world is never decently established, and I could not tell you what the central thematic point of the movie was supposed to be if you put a gun to my head even after the film stopped dead in the finale for Piper to try stating it to the audience.  There’s raw talent evident behind the camera, make no mistake, and properly harnessed either behind somebody else’s script or a different visual medium I think it could work gangbusters.  But Rare Beasts is a wild misfire; Piper is not yet ready to join that aforementioned LFF lineage.

On Friday morning, I was up bright and early and somewhat-alert in order to throw my overzealous anxiety-based survival instincts to the wind and take in a horror movie.  Robert Eggers’ The Lighthouse, as you will likely know because you read all of these pieces that I prostrate myself for two weeks over, turned out to be way more of a dark comedy than a horror.  But fear not, thrill junkies and fans of seeing me forced to swallow every instinct during tense theatrical situations to bolt for the exit until the moment in question has passed, for I did in fact end up seeing a horror movie on that day!  Rose Glass’s Saint Maud (Grade: A-), which is playing in Official Competition, has been described on the official LFF website as a “psychological drama” and I am here to tell you right now that is a filthy lie.  Saint Maud is a horror movie, through and through.  Psychological, yes.  Dramatic, certainly.  But Glass’s directorial debut drapes a gothic horror menace from the opening dingy, cockroach-featuring frame and spends its concise and relentlessly exhilarating runtime building to a bold-as-hell last third in which chaos reigns down with fire and fury.  A24 may have picked it up for the US, but this is far more Hereditary than It Comes at Night.

Operating rather like the dream pairing of Paul Schraeder writing a 60s Roman Polanski film (specifically a pious combination of Repulsion and Rosemary’s Baby), we meet the titular Maud (a revelatory Morfydd Clark) on the way to her latest charge.  She’s a deeply-lonely private care nurse living in a dingy apartment in Scarborough who has just recently converted to the Catholic faith after some unspecified incident from her time working at a hospital and is very much in the midst of a psychotic break.  What exactly has caused her to snap is hard to say and not said out loud, although her growing disconnection from a tangible reality gives a crunching idea, but it is immediately evident that she is not well and her piety and fixation on the suffering of saints and a desire to find a grander purpose in God’s plan – with whom she has orgasmic one-way conversations on a semi-regular basis – is masking some deep trauma.  Salvation or damnation may be at hand when she’s assigned to care for Amanda (a quietly fantastic Jennifer Ehle), a former dancer and performance artist in the final terminal stages of spinal-based lymphoma both embittered and raging against her impending death yet also coldly accepting of its inevitability and open to finding other ways in which to process it.

In Maud, Amanda finds a friend and carer who seems to be completely honest with her (rather than calling her a “cunt” behind her back like the last one) and pushes her worldview a touch.  In Amanda, Maud finds a soul in need of saving, a genuine friend for the first time in a long while, and a testing of her own faith and commitment to God not helped by the almost nightly house calls Carol (Lily Frazer) keeps making to bathe Maud’s lost soul in sin.  If you think this all sounds like a blindingly unsubtle metaphor for the care profession, then let me inform you right now that’s more of a by-product – in fact, the one bum note Glass’s otherwise tightly-composed and relentlessly unsettling film hits comes from a scene where Maud converses with another care nurse for a “#NotAllNurses” disclaimer, since the film isn’t really about or saying that – and that Glass does not consider herself at all above blurring the lines between metaphor and reality.

This is a descent into madness, madness brought upon by a lethal combination of religious fervour, hardline self-flagellation, and fundamentalist superiority that also might not be as purely psychological as one may be expecting.  Glass drowns the film in so much gothic atmosphere and subtly manipulates her visuals with such expert control that the question becomes far less whether the events unfolding are indeed real and more what story are these events leading us towards?  Whose soul are we witnessing a battle for?  Is this the tale of a misguided sanctification or a gleefully willing demonization?  Does Maud herself even know?  Glass’s control of tension and release in her debut feature, just like with Ari Aster in last year’s Hereditary, demonstrates a virtuosity so many other directors take decades to work up to, her jolts of unexpected morbid comedy only making their eventual substitution for bone-chilling jolt scares even more potent.  Polanski, John Carpenter, William Friedkin; these are the reference points her work on this is going to be compared to and she earns every last one of them.

But at the same time, Saint Maud would be nothing without the performance she gets out of Clark who, I will say again, is an absolute out-of-nowhere revelation just like the film itself.  At times pitiable and sympathetically troubled, at others repellent and self-righteous, she communicates the warring contradictions powering Maud, a mess of trauma and uncertainty in search of a connection and open to anything no matter how abstract it may be or ill-intentioned its desires, with commanding intensity.  Hers is a horror performance for the ages in what may be one of the best horror movies of whichever decade it ends up releasing in, and she is quietly supported by Ehle’s prickly turn as Amanda which may not be as all-consumingly explosive as Clark’s but possesses a ripple-effect of its own.  Glass’s direction, her incredible screenplay, and Clark’s performance all work in symbiosis with one another to create an absolutely chilling work of religious horror, one whose hypnotically devilish spell remains cast over the viewer, unbroken, right up until a startling and vicious pair of cuts leave them shaken.

Congratulations must be given to Rose Glass.  Saint Maud came out of absolutely fucking nowhere – and I mean that almost literally, I knew nothing about this one heading in – to become my joint-favourite film of the Festival so far.  Now wish her good luck in following it up because you better believe her name is firmly on my radar going forward.

Tomorrow: Rashaad Ernesto Green breaks hearts and wins plaudits with the excellent romance drama Premature, and I aim to be one of the lucky 150 who manage to make it into the woefully undersized screening of Haifaa al-Mansour’s The Perfect Candidate.

Callie Petch, will you walk on these fields of mine?

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