London Film Festival 2011 Diary: Days 22 and 23

Note: I’m sorry, but I skipped Thursday (Day 21), because after more than a fortnight of movies non stop at a rate of 3-4 a day, I HAD to have a break. So, here are reviews from Friday and Saturday to make up for my absence.

HORS SATAN (Bruno Dumont)

Bruno Dumont is a filmmaker I have been hearing about for some time now, but, without consciously avoiding them, I’ve never managed to see one of his films until Hors Satan. I’m told that this – despite the fact it felt, to me, very austere – is actually his most stylised film, in that he moves the camera more frequently than usual and the film seems treated to wash out the colours.

For its first half Hors Satan seems quite aimless. It follows two people; a middle aged man who appears to be a homeless drifter (David Dewaele) and a younger woman (Alexandra Lemarte) who seem to be friends (there’s also a romantic interest from the woman). In the film’s first scene, without speaking, they walk to the young woman’s house and shoot her Father dead. The rest of the film’s first half largely consists of the walking around a near deserted village in the North of France, generally not talking, and occasionally encountering another man, who makes overt passes at the young woman.

The film does pick up in the second half, developing into a pretty disturbing portrait of the pathology of a psychopath – Think Henry: Portrait of A Serial Killer, if Henry barley spoke – for me, the tension isn’t really there though, because we don’t really learn enough about the characters. Though his film is beautiful and I appreciate that he wants us to have our own impressions of what it means, I did end up feeling, at a certain point, that Bruno Dumont really wanted me to write his film for him as I watched it, so little real clue do we get to who these characters are, how they came together, or why they behave as they do. If he had sacrificed ten minutes of characters sitting / walking in the starkly lovely scenery and spent some time developing them, I think I could have been much more on board with the film as a whole.

The performances are strong, with Dewaele (who looks like a strung out Vincent Cassell) becoming truly chilling as the film goes on and his character’s pathology becomes clearer, and I liked Dumont’s disturbingly realist approach to the film. That’s also why I completely parted company with Hors Satan in it’s last five minutes, when – out of the blue – something completely impossible happens, and in the very real and literal world that Dumont has set up, it makes less than no sense.

I’d like to see more of Dumont’s films, even if I didn’t love Hors Satan there is clearly a great eye and a filmmaker with something to say behind it, and that’s becoming all too rare.

2.5 / 5

INTO THE ABYSS: A TALE OF DEATH, A TALE OF LIFE (Werner Herzog)

“It seems to me that you have been dealt a bad hand, which doesn’t exonerate you, and doesn’t mean I have to like you”. Werner Herzog clearly, given that he says this to a death row inmate eight days from his execution, doesn’t specialise in making his subjects comfortable. In fact, Into the Abyss, which explores the many tragedies surrounding a triple murder in which one defendant got life, the other death, is at it’s best and it’s most provocative when Herzog prods his subjects in strange and discomforting ways – asking the wife of the defendant serving life (who met and married him while he was in prison) about death row groupies, asking the death house chaplain to ‘describe an encounter with a squirrel’ or asking a man eight days from death how he experiences time, for example. Herzog’s methods sometimes seem eccentric, but there is insight here from all quarters, even if they don’t recognise it.

Unlike many documentaries about the death penalty, this is not a campaigning film, Herzog declares his opposition early in his interview with condemned Michael Perry, but otherwise leaves the issues to be something that the interviewees address, rather than imposing himself on the film. Despite the title and the fact that it has been talked about as Herzog’s Death Row film, Into the Abyss is really as much a film about the crime and the victims families as it is about the penalty and the killers (each of whom pins the blame on the others). Herzog spends a long time detailing three hideous and senseless murders, committed for the sake of stealing a car, and he talks to the families of the victims, exposing stories of deep and long running tragedy even leaving aside the crime. In these moments it’s almost uncomfortable to watch the film, as you feel like you are intruding. Most eloquent, though, is former Death House captain Fred Allen, who had a breakdown after unstrapping his 125th body from the gurney, and is now against the death penalty.

This being Herzog there is also dry wit – the film’s fourth chapter is called ‘Time and Emptiness’, which is so typically Herzog it’s almost parodic and the interviews with the wife of killer Jason Burkett are also tinged with humour in their sadness (particularly the one about her pregnancy), but on the whole Into the Abyss strikes me as a very human film about a series of inhuman acts.

4.5 / 5

UNCLE KENT / SILVER BULLETS (Joe Swanberg)

Director Joe Swanberg is the incredibly prolific pioneer of the so called ‘mumblecore’ scene. He makes films fast, working with friends, improvising and shaping his work in a week or two and releasing it quickly, and I’m a bit ashamed to say that I hadn’t seen any of his films before the double bill playing at this year’s LFF (only half of his 2011 work, by the way).

From what I know of Swanberg’s work, Uncle Kent is the more typical of the films showing here, being that it is a very small scale, semi-improvised, drama about the trials, tribulations and oddities of modern sexual relationships (depicted with the director’s typical frankness). Swanberg’s friend and collaborator Kent Osborne plays Kent Osborne, a 40 year old pothead cartoonist, and we follow him over a weekend during which Kate, a younger woman (Jennifer Prediger) he met on ChatRoulette, comes to stay. She’s flirty, but won’t sleep with Kent, but he thinks his luck is in when she agrees to hook up with another woman they find on Craigslist (Josephine Decker).

Uncle Kent looks pretty awful. It was shot on a retail flipcam and projected the images lack clarity and the lighting often looks dreadful, but this actually adds something to the film. This is an intimate piece of work, it’s about trying to convey the awkwardness of Kent’s weekend as closely to the way he’s experiencing it (which is, more often than not, through a camera) as possible. The manoeuvrability of the camera and the low tech feel conveys that intimacy with great immediacy. Of course, that’s also down to the performances. I don’t know to what degree anyone here is playing a character (though the film’s end credits, showing the storyboards, make clear that it is a planned construct), but there is an incredible naturalism to the performances, and I find it hard to believe that there will be a single audience member who doesn’t, at some point, cringe in recognition at a moment from their own life, be it when Kent is cajoled into doing his party trick or the incredibly awkward threesome.

Ultimately Uncle Kent is a sketch, unpolished, perhaps even somewhat unfinished (it’s just 72 minutes long, and I could certainly have spent more time with these characters), but it’s funny, extremely well played, and reasonably insightful, and if this is typical Swanberg then consider me signed up for more.


In his video introduction, Joe Swanberg said that in the two and a half year process of making Silver Bullets he became disenchanted with filmmaking itself, and that that bled through into the film more and more as he and the cast came back, over and over, to make more scenes until he finally had the film he wanted to make.

Both aesthetically and in subject matter this is a very different film to Uncle Kent. It’s a behind the scenes tale of the making of two films, a relationship drama directed by Ethan (Swanberg) and a Weerewolf film directed by Ben (House of the Devil director Ti West). Ethan’s girlfriend Claire (Kate Lyn Sheil) is the lead in Ben’s film, so, out of seeming jealousy, Ethan casts Claire’s best friend (Amy Seimetz) as his girlfriend in his new film. At the same time, during test shoots, Ben and Claire get close.

As you can tell from that synopsis, filmmaking is largely a device in Silver Bullets, but it is an important one, Swanberg seems interested here in how the camera sees, and particularly how it sees women and couples, and how that affects the people making these films. It’s really another film about relationships and jealousy though and, in its quietness, in the things unsaid, it’s a very articulate one. Again the performances seem totally natural, and Sheil and West are particularly effective, the sexual tension between them brewing very convincingly right from the start, and coming to fruition in the film’s best (and funniest) scene.

There is more filmic construction here than in Uncle Kent; Swanberg has given much more thought to the way the shots are framed, and there are several really striking images here, ranging from Claire practising holding a gun in the mirror to the brilliant final shot. Swanberg also deploys a strong, string and drum heavy, score to great effect, particularly in a great montage sequence toward the end of the film, intercutting various betrayals. I’m really looking forward to seeing Silver Bullets again, it’s a smart and engaging film with much to say about movies, about jealousy and about people in general, and it’s one of the better surprises I’ve had at LFF this year.

Uncle Kent: 3.5 / 5
Silver Bullets: 4 / 5

About The Author

3 Responses

  1. Prediger

    Just wanted to let you know you confused the names of the actresses in Uncle Kent. The character, Kate, who Kent meets on chatroulette is played by Jennifer Prediger.

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.