London Film Festival report
When describing a series of events, a writer is always looking for links, common themes and ways to show social trends through prose; however, the three films I saw over the first weekend of the LFF are, for many reasons, unique pieces of work. In reverse chronological order, they were:
The Temptation of Tony
The Temptation of Tony by Estonian director Veiko Õunpuu promised instant ‘cult classic’ in the pre-festival booklet. It tells not so much a story as a collection of set-pieces, blurrily edging towards to a conclusion of sorts. A middle-class man journeys through a surreal set of circumstances; he leads a funeral march along a beachside only for a car to crash into the rocks behind him without anyone stopping to help; he runs over a dog in his car and drags the body into a wood where dozens of disembodied hands lay on the ground; a police interrogation involves an officer disrobing while the investigation is taking place; and so on. The protagonist is a character of the type used in ancient Greek drama, less a rounded individual we can relate to ourselves than a stereotype, an unreal man in a world of horrors. The Kafkaesque situations, which recur with increasing frequency and ferocity, are offset by his mundane home life. A dinner party gets violently out of control and his wife flirts with another man and ultimately leaves him, in a spiritual sense at least. The object of her affections, an attractive actor – liberator and artist – is poles apart from the downtrodden factory manager her husband is. The parallels with ‘K’ in Kafka’s in The Trial are hard to ignore, as is the protagonist’s descent into circumstances beyond his control, but, unlike ‘K’, his journey doesn’t have an end. The film is a beautiful patchwork of hints and musings and, although I ultimately didn’t care what happens to our hero, I didn’t wish him badly at the end of it. The credits thank Pasolini and Buñuel; if they were around, they would surely applaud the visual dexterity, as well as some truly bonkers moments. The image of a short man climbing a ladder to answer a telephone is sublime.
On a different but hardly less surreal note came Tabloid by veteran documentary filmmaker Errol Morris. Morris came to prominence in the late 1970s and early 1980s by making politically charged documentaries which massively influenced the proliferation and production of documentary film at that time. With Tabloid, he chooses an altogether less political idea as his subject: that of the woman behind the infamous ‘manacled Mormon’ case of 1977. It was alleged that Joyce McKinney, a former Miss Wyoming, abducted a man called Kirk Anderson, tied him up and had sex with him over a weekend in Devon. She claims he went with her of his own free will but that the guilt over his religion made him deny her claims. The story made Joyce a star. In the film we hear the opinions of a Daily Express and Daily Mirror reporter who worked on the story and from Joyce herself who, although constantly sounding a bit close to the edge mentally, is never less than charming throughout. Unlike the protagonist in The Temptation of Tony, I cared about Joyce completely and by the time her second ‘big story’ comes out years later, came to the conclusion she is definitely as mad as a bag of hammers, but didn’t want her story to end. The film is interspersed with a palimpsest of images and sound to emphasise certain ideas or words just like a newspaper article’s headline, pull-quotes or pictures. Think Graham Taylor with a turnip on his head and you’re getting close to the visual flourishes of a filmmaker who seems to be taking a bit of a break between more serious projects.
A filmmaker who is definitely not taking his foot off the pedal of serious filmmaking is Olivier Assayas, who brings his film Carlos to the LFF. A five-and-a-half hour cinematic event made to be shown in three parts on French television closed the Cannes Film Festival earlier this year and appeared here in its entirety. In recent years, the representation of left-wing politics has been the subject of a number of films. Stephen Soderbergh’s Che dealt with the maturing Che Guevara, taking off from where Walter Salles’ earlier Motorcycle Diaries had left Guevara, and his emergence as a leader of the Cuban resistance. The German film Goodbye Lenin from 2003 is a relatively light-hearted story of an East German family at the end of the Cold War struggling to adjust to a post-communist and unified Germany. In The Baader-Meinhoff Complex, a violent terrorist gang carries out murders in the name of anti-fascism and communism.
Carlos mixes elements from all the above by focusing on the charismatic terrorist Ilich Ramirez Sanchez, known as ‘Carlos the Jackal’, as he travels round the world over a twenty year period from 1974. We first see Carlos as he is to remain during the film: an idealist, a disciple of Che Guevara and a killer. He aligns himself with the causes of the PFLP (Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine) and is soon asked to head up European operations for the organisation. The PFLP is seen as operating in a cell structure similar to those of the Algerian revolutionaries portrayed in Pontecurvo’s The Battle of Algiers, in which each person operates with only the knowledge they need to carry out their particular part of a mission. One of the film’s strengths is showing how various left-wing countries and groups worked together for a common goal; the German faction of the network begins to echo its Nazi forebears when its anti-Zionist attacks become perceived as anti-Semitic; even the German Stasi had such groups on its payroll. Carlos soon realises he too is part of that cell network and resents not being party to all the facts.
This is the central tenet of the film and Carlos as a man. He covets the soldier’s rules but is also torn between autocracy and democracy – his head is full of contradictions, such as whether to shoot his way out of a situation when he feels it is right or to negotiate to get more money for the cause. His quote that ‘behind every bullet there must be a thought’ echoes the quote on the Dennis Bergkamp PF shirt that ‘behind every kick there must be a thought’ and encourages us to believe in Carlos’s subservience to an ideology above personal motive. His misogyny and mistrust of women mixed with his need for them feature throughout the film. After a particularly electric scene showing the OPEC raid in 1975, Carlos becomes more powerful and various countries begin to approach him to carry out their own agendas. Syria, Russia and Iraq all ply for his trade and he is able to seek refuge in other Middle Eastern countries in return for action.
The central performance by Edgar Ramirez is excellent throughout and, considering the length and scope of the picture, it is an amazing achievement. For one newspaper to claim his performance is not exemplary because he is ‘no Vincent Cassell’ (the star of Mesrine, a similarly epic portrayal from 2009 of the French gangster of that name) is missing the point. Assayas has stated that parts of the film are pure fabrication but only in order to link the truths together. He casts a shadow of doubt as to how valid any ‘truths’ are: any utterance from Carlos himself has historically been taken with a pinch of salt and the actual number of crimes he committed has always been in dispute. Whatever its flaws – its constant shifting between territories introducing us to an ever-growing array of characters is one of them – it is an exhilarating film which deserves to be seen in its original format wherever possible.