The recent London Film Festival offered its regular plethora of new releases to navigate. Having done his research, and his fair share of time in screening rooms, Francis Lamb zooms in on three films that caught his eye during this year’s cine – fest.
Directed by Michael Winterbottom from a script by Paul Viragh, The Face of an Angel is a fictionalisation of the furore surrounding the recent Meredith Kercher case – a docudrama that knowingly toys with genre conventions. Daniel Bruhl plays Thomas Lang, a director of slick thrillers whose last one bombed, preparing a project about the brutal death of an exchange student in Siena. Emotionally raw after a recent separation from his family, he’s cast adrift in a world of foreign correspondents for whom “sex and murder is the subject”.
At first, Thomas feels superior to the hacks covering the trial, yet is actually more fragile; increasingly rattled, he unravels like the patsy in some overcooked neo-noir. His producers expect a movie-of-the-week about good-looking teenagers who kill, so his brainwave of basing the script on The Divine Comedy doesn’t go down well at all. Fortunately, he hooks up with a student, Melanie (Cara Delevingne), a kind of muse who points the way out from his personal Inferno to La Vita Nuova, and a lighter side of Dante.
Delevingne’s performance will probably be the most pored over, but Kate Beckinsale is quietly impressive as the journalist who teaches Thomas lessons in pragmatism. Valerio Mastandrea has the best lines as malevolent blogger Eduardo; quizzed on how he saw the body, he deadpans “I visit the morgue often… I have a cousin.” Introduced in a scene shot in the reflection of a bar-length mirror, this doubling becomes his character’s motif; later on a crucial incident at the scene of the crime unfolds first as dream, then in waking life.
There’s more than a touch of Euro-pudding in all this preposterous intrigue, and the film lacks the humour or panache to pull off the requisite balancing act with the more solemn ignored somehow falls between the fault lines of the forensic court scenes and an emotive eulogy for the dead girl, which is delivered by rote.
If The Face of an Angel is considerably less than the sum of its parts, Peter Strickland’s The Duke of Burgundy wears its influences lightly. Like his previous outing, Berberian Sound System, the new film sidesteps potential accusations of exploitation through a nuanced position on genre. Following in a lineage that might include Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant or Walerian Borowcyk’s Blanche, curate’s eggs of art-house cinema, it also acknowledges Jesus Franco, Jean Rollin and their conveyor-belt of sleaze.
The period setting, an elegant Mittel-European chateau, verges on parody, as does the languid pacing. Cynthia and Evelyn are lovers in a dominant-submissive relationship that hinges on a set of formal scenarios played out anew each day. Their enervated, hermetic world finds an analogue in the butterfly collection that grounds Cynthia’s entomological research. Ripples are caused by the smallest incidents, to which the accretion of silence lends explosive charge. It becomes increasingly clear that the master is the one who is in thrall; at one point images of lovemaking are intercut with Evelyn peering into a microscope, as if scrutinising their relationship. It’s a beguiling work.
L For Leisure is a low-key delight, a meander through the episodic adventures of graduate students on vacation. Composed almost exclusively of longueurs, it’s like something from the pen of a benign Bret Easton Ellis, set to the rhythms of Eric Rohmer. The early ’90s milieu brings with it a plethora of impeccable reference points (Whit Stillman is somewhere in the ether), although it’s also clear that directors Lev Kalman & Whitney Horn have absorbed the lessons of bad film. Shaky 16mm camera work and reused musical cues become assets in their hands, while the non-actors’ flat, affectless delivery rubs up against the declamatory performances of the theatrically trained.
Dry comedy is wrung from smart people doing or saying moderately dumb things, while chugging Snapple in Laguna Beach or smoking nutmeg in Beaumont, Texas. Occasional non-sequiturs are lobbed out from amidst the stilted dialogue: “Let’s go fuck around with jeans” heralds an impromptu denim fashion show. Near the end one holidaying researcher takes a break from boogie-boarding to lay out the guiding principles of ‘psychedelic sports’ as the exhilaration of moving through space coupled with navigating a disorientating environment; he could equally be speaking of the pleasures of this film.