London Film Festival 2011 Diary: Day 3

Tuesday… that was rough, but Wednesday brought some much more interesting seeming fare to the table, and provided a nice mix of films for us to have a look at, including my first documentary of the festival.

TAKE SHELTER (Jeff Nichols)

There aren’t many horror films at LFF, and I’m sure that Take Shelter won’t be promoted as one, but it played, for me, like an internalised existential horror movie; the terror of not knowing what your own mind is doing.

Michael Shannon plays Curtis, a 35 year old man with a beautiful wife (Jessica Chastain), a deaf daughter and a pretty decent job. All in all, things are good. Then Curtis begins having nightmares about a storm, a storm so bad it sends those around him crazy. Terrified, and losing his marbles somewhat, Curtis begins extending the storm shelter in his yard.

Jeff Nichols never quite answers the question of whether Curtis is some sort of prophet or he’s simply going crazy (schizophrenia, we discover, runs in the family), but Michael Shannon plays both sides as true. Curtis certainly seems dangerously unhinged at times; to the point that there is an ever present grinding tension about him hurting his wife and child, but he also plays him as a man who believes sincerely and thoughtfully that his fear is not abstract. It’s an exceptional piece of work from Shannon. Chastain, playing a very much more down to Earth woman here than in Tree of Life, also excels, and the scene in which Shannon confesses his fears to her is perhaps most compelling when played on her reaction shot.

Take Shelter can be overblown, and it’s a little slow at times, but the real problem is the last ten minutes. This film ends, definitively for me, with a shot just before Curtis opens a door, sadly Nichols then spends another ten minutes fruitlessly hitting a metaphorical nail on the head. It’s a shame, but only detracts a little from what is a compellingly written and brilliantly acted film.

BLACK POWER MIXTAPE 1967 – 1975 (Göran Olsson)

Black Power Mixtape (which, slightly undermining its title, unfolds in strictly chronological order) is a selection of footage shot in the titular time period by several Swedish crews, all covering the black power movement in the US. To provide context, new interviews with the likes of Talib Kweli, Melvin Van Peebles, Angela Davis, Questlove, Erykah Badu and many more; poets, musicians and cultural figure, play over the footage, commenting on it and what it says about that time and this.

Much of the footage is riveting (and it’s helped along by a funky Questlove score). Highlights include interviews with Stokely Carmichael; a more radical contemporary of Martin Luther King, of whom I had never previously heard, and who was an incredibly charismatic speaker in any context, Angela Davis (whose politics I’m not fond of, but who is an incredibly intelligent and forthright speaker) and the owner of Harlem’s black bookstore, who answers every question with a poem.

That said there are a couple of issues. Covering eight years in 94 minutes means that the film feels rushed, any one of the stories it touches on could be it’s own 90 minutes, and the film feels like a mere scratch at the surface. More pressing a problem for me is that the film never really questions, even in the commentary, any of the tactics or politics of the Black Power movement which, to be fair, weren’t always unambiguously positive (one Black Panther’s testimony about making sure his people are armed still chills). With a slightly more searching approach this could have been a great film, as it is it is a fascinating primer on a period we should probably all know more about.

POUPOUPIDOU [Nobody Else But You] (Gérald Hustache-Mathieu)

I do wish that this film hadn’t been given an English language title, because the original French one sums up the film so well; it gives a clue to both subject matter and to the light, but irresistible, manner in which the film plays out.

Poupoupidou is a brightly coloured, comedy inflected noir which sees mystery writer David (Jean-Paul Rouve) start digging into the suspicious death of a local, Marilyn Monroe like, celebrity (Sophie Quinton) while visiting the town where his Aunt used to live, making her the subject of his new book. The story of her death unfolds in flashback alongside the investigation.

I like films that play with tone, and Poupoupidou does it beautifully. The mystery is very solidly constructed and even if, assuming you know a little bit about Marilyn Monroe, it’s not hugely surprising, the ending is built to in a way that feels organic. But that’s only part of the story here, and director Gérald Hustache-Mathieu does a brilliant job of balancing what is, after all, a rather dark and sad tale with some very sharply written comedy. There are some particularly nice gags about David’s fiction being very implausible, and one hilarious moment when a suspect attempts to run away from him. Comedy also comes from character, and all the characters here feel very full and developed from leads Rouve and Quinton (both excellent) right down to bit players like Clara Ponsot as the young receptionist at David’s hotel.

Poupoupidou is a beautifully acted, attractively lensed and highly entertaining film, it will be most rewarding for film buffs, who will appreciate the Monroe references and noir shadings most, but this deserves to be a breakout hit. A great surprise, and one you should really try and catch at LFF.

Tomorrow: Sean Penn as a former rock star in This Must be the Place, Norwegian sports comedy King Curling and Argentinian road movie Las Acacias.

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