Where does a film festival take place? Is it on the biggest screen? Is it in the programme catalogue, or in the conversation you have in the cinema foyer, or in the nearby pub where weary festival-goers retire after a hard day’s viewing? Is it even in the city which bears the festival name? In the case of The BFI London Film Festival, if you want to find the answer you simply have to follow the money.
I follow it all the way along the 176 bus route to Southbank, where the UK’s film hub The BFI sits next to The Royal Festival Hall. The latter venue, usually the domain of Royal Philharmonic Orchestras and Nigella Lawson book readings, has become LFF’s de facto red carpet area. It is grand, and its name is regal, but it’s tucked away enough not to cause city planners a nightmare. At the Friday matinee, I cross the red carpet for an unexpected third part of the Julie Hart saga, The Eternal Daughter.
In The Souvenir 1+2—Joanna Hogg’s retelling of personal history as a film student, and the fallout from her relationship with a manipulative older man—Honour Swinton-Byrne played the Hogg stand-in Julie. Her Thatcher-like mother was played by mainstream-independent perennial and real-life parent to Honour, Tilda Swinton. In The Eternal Daughter, Swinton the Elder reprises the mother role, but also takes over Julie in this ghost story about a trip to a creepy manor house in North Wales. Attempting to write a film about her mother by bringing her to a once-family home, Julie doesn’t realise that she will retraumatise her mother by doing so. In very overt ways, this is a ghost story.
As daughter, Swinton gives Googie Withers in her posh traipsing. Never in the frame with her mother, aside from one pointed moment, there is a simplicity to Hogg’s use of shot/reverse shot that hides the sheer skill with which the whole affair is pulled off. The repetitious framing and shuffling characters around this empty hotel would be trademark of a filmmaker without ideas (see Lanthimos). But in sustaining the Julie Project, Hogg has turned this character into something of a little tramp or a Lee Kang-Sheng. In fact, this is a largely wordless film, sustaining on creaks and sighs. Hogg’s brevity, and Swinton’s light touch, give it new life.
Two instances of incredible zooms: one, slowly approaching Julie as the sound of her mother doing a bedtime routine of pills, stroking the dog, putting instruments back in a bag, gives her a soundtrack that crosses memory, time, and space. The other, a frantic search for the lost dog culminating in a shot of the pupper that can only be compared to John Wayne’s intro in Stagecoach (John Ford, 1939). Hogg evokes the masters in a birthday dinner scene, showing off her knowledge of Powell and Pressburger with some red/green lighting that bounces off of Swinton’s oh so pale face. With its A24 backing and effortless sweep, this is a doubtless case of Elevated Julie.
The Eternal Daughter’s hermetic scope takes on a beautiful feeling of alienation at a location like Festival Hall, where the sound is too echoey, and the audience laughter performed (with tickets at £30 for a public screening, you’d better be enjoying yourself). It soon emerged that the festival was going through its own psycho-drama. Tricia Tuttle, the festival head, resigned her post in the days before the grand opening: Roald Dahl’s Matilda the Musical. She had overseen the festival’s expansion across platforms and helped it through Covid. Whatever she did next, this edition was an excuse for a blow-out, said the Twitter blue-ticks.
The next morning, the capital-centric excitement was shattered by news from the northern border. Scotland’s cinema hub was broken. Centre for the Moving Image (CMI), the charity behind Edinburgh Film Festival, Edinburgh Filmhouse, and Belmont Filmhouse, was filing for bankruptcy. The 100+ staff unceremoniously lost their jobs at 10am, roughly the same time that critics were emerging from their screening of Netflix’s White Noise, a film that won’t need to worry about a fewer share of cinema screens.
The response to this from The BFI was an odd period of radio silence. By Friday, CEO Ben Roberts tweeted by way of a statement, ‘I’ve been thinking about the EIFF, the Filmhouse and Belmont in Aberdeen. A big loss to the cultural landscape – for Scotland and the UK. Culture is precarious. Sorry for those who’ve lost their jobs. I hope that a form of cultural cinema can continue for their audiences…’ – a ‘thoughts and prayers tweet’ that careless senators push send on after a national tragedy. Make no mistake, this is a tragedy for Britain. For Scotland’s biggest festival, let alone two of its major arthouse cinemas, to vanish in a day with seemingly no plans to fill their space, should be seen as a cultural emergency. Almost a month on from the news, The BFI are yet to make a formal announcement of any intervention or renewal of these lost cinema spaces. The Filmhouse is quite literally boarded up.
Where then, will the films of LFF even take their distribution deals? I watch several films on the digital viewing library. This feels significant to mention. The festival is coming into your home. It is ported across the British Isles, for art-house cinemas to showcase their own selection of LFF. This contributes to the size and scale of the London Film Festival brand—could you watch Blonde in Naples at the same time it played on the Venice lido? I think not—but also to the sense of a festival without a unique identity. As ever, this ‘festival of festivals’ is a preview of the next year’s cinema attractions. Big names Curzon, Picturehouse, and BFI are present as distributors as well as venues, and one needs to scour the programme for sight of a title without distribution.
Sick of Myself works better than other, worthier titles, in this online context. It is 97 minutes long, a broad comedy. It premiered at the Cannes Film Festival, and will be distributed by Modern Films. As Kristoffer Borgli’s film originates from Norway and is shot on crisp, gold-hued digital, it superficially resembles the ghastly Worst Person in the World, which attempted to resolve its lead’s narcissism through personal tragedy. Anders Danielson Lie, the director-surrogate victim of that film, makes a cameo here as a doctor who, in a dream, informs the self-obsessed Signe (Kristine Kujath Thorp) that she is herself a terrible person. “You have a bad personality… you perform racist caricatures in the mirror for your own amusement… a CT scan hasn’t shown that for some time.”
A flailing millennial barista, Signe’s fire is lit when she sees a woman mauled by a dog, and, returning home covered in blood, her artist boyfriend’s (Eirik Sæther) relative disinterest fuels a rivalry for attention which reaches grotesque proportions. Signe purposely overdoses on the painkiller Lixidol, which causes a number of (un)wanted side effects. While disfigured, she begins to document her abject state on social media: inevitably, mild virality ensues.
Borgoli makes funny-ish films with an awkward psychological realism to them. Former Cult Member Hears Music For the First Time is a minor classic. He has a talent for extending an excruciating, obviously doomed situation of personal pride, until the audience is exhausted into the mental state of his selfish characters. From jokes about Scandi furniture, to lurid inversions of beauty standards among friendship groups, this sits in the lineage of recent literary works about women seizing control of their own bodies through self-destruction: My Year of Rest and Relaxation; Come Join Our Disease. The treatment of chronic illness as some kind of status hierarchy is cynical, but no more so than dumping a well-made film on a festival’s digital library as a plea for eyeballs. You’re eating into your ICA box-office numbers here people.
The spirit of The Filmmaker’s Co-operative, of Anthology Film Archives, is absent from the festival, as it is largely absent from London’s cinema scene outside of a few dingy pub backroom screenings. That’s why I had to catch a screening of Jonas Mekas biography Fragments of Paradise at the plush Curzon Soho, where a bottle of Punk IPA is £6.50 and you will be shushed for laughing at the funny bits. Fear not, there is little chance of a smirk at K.D. Davison’s film, a rote Mekas best-of that will less have you reaching for the Re:Voir boxset than it will bring to mind Brett Morgan’s biographical hackwork (most recently seen using Imax to abuse Bowie’s image in Moonage Daydream).
The usual talking heads—Peter Bogdanovich, John Waters, Amy Taubin—line up to praise Mekas, using rather interchangeable language as in last year’s The Velvet Underground. But K.D. Davison isn’t half the director that Todd Haynes is. He is utterly afraid to let the footage speak for itself. Piano music accompanies footage of Mekas swinging his camera around in the park while a talking head says “he was like Hendrix with the camera, man”, which rather speaks to the wanton sentimentality with which Fragments of Paradise treats the story.
What then, is the utility of programming this film, other than to confirm the festival’s self-image as one that is committed to cinephilia. But if cinephilia extends no further than films that could comfortably be programmed at your local independent (read: subsidiary of a multiplex) cinema, then it performs little more than a branding exercise.
The most outré programming can be found in the Experimenta strand, which consists of five features and two shorts programmes, each of which are offered a single screening pm the last day of the festival. By contrast, Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery screens at least four times in the capital, and across Britain (sans Scotland), as part of its death march towards the Netflix wasteland. As I leave James Benning’s latest, The United States of America, and promenade along the Southbank, at least I am able to grab a sighting and quick picture of Rian Johnson, auteur, before a member of security yells at me to “get the fuck back”. Doesn’t he know I have press accreditation?