SPECIAL FEATURE: Festival Review: Glasgow Film Festival

Confessions had a profound impact at the festival

Thursday, 17th – Sunday, 27th February 2011

Billed as ‘The return of Cinema City,” the seventh annual Glasgow Film Festival was a fitting celebration of a love affair with cinema which once saw Glasgow house more cinemas per capita than any other city in the world. Although many of these cinemas have been demolished or redeveloped, there is still a great cinema-going culture within the city, and the festival acknowledged this with a wide variety of films and events which had something for all ages and tastes. From the Youth Festival which preceded the main event through to a Ginger Rogers strand, an appearance from Glasgow born comic book artist Mark Millar and a Meryl Streep retrospective, the festival lived up to its billing as ‘the people’s festival’, or as festival co-director Allison Gardner branded it on the opening night: “the punters’ festival.”

In terms of new films, the festival’s major coups included the world premiere of Kevin MacDonald’s swords and sandals epic The Eagle, as well as David Mackenzie’s You Instead, a romantic comedy shot on location at last year’s T In The Park. In addition to the wealth of UK based talent on display at the festival there remained, as always, a strong focus on independent and foreign-language cinema, with a huge range of films either premiered or screened prior to their UK release date. The following is a small selection of some of those titles screened over the course of the event…

Things got under way on the 17th with a screening of Francois Ozon’s latest film Potiche, a comedy starring Catherine Deneuve and Gérard Depardieu. Unusually for the festival, there was no appearance from the director or either of his stars, but this did not distract from the occasion as the audience joined in with the spirit of the proceedings, and sat back to enjoy the film, which isn’t released in cinemas on these shores until June.

Potiche is a light-hearted comedy about a middle aged trophy housewife named Suzanne (Deneuve) who takes over her husband’s umbrella company when he is taken ill following industrial action amongst the workers. With the help of local MP Maurice Babin (Depardieu) and her children, Joelle and Laurent, she turns the fortunes of the factory around and creates a happy working environment for the workers, as well as a profitable business. When her husband returns to re-take the reins of his business, Suzanne is determined that she should maintain her position, and a power struggle begins between the couple.

Saturated in colour and alive with bright characters and breezy humour, Potiche is a world away from the Ozon of La Refuge, his previous effort which charted the pregnancy of a drug addict. The film touches on issues such as divorce, fidelity and female empowerment, but never labours too long on such seriousness, preferring a frivolous approach which charms but does drag on after a while. The set design and costumes, as well as the over the top performances are the stuff of pure sit-com, and as a result, the film occasionally feels like an overly long episode of a French version of Frasier. Nevertheless, the humour is effective and the characters engaging, and the sight of Deneuve and Depardieu disco dancing in awkward middle-aged harmony is, in its own right, enough to render Potiche a suitably light festival opener. Something sweet and frothy to cleanse the pallet before delving into the array of more challenging, thought provoking material that the festival would provide in droves.

Each year the Glasgow Film Festival has a strand of films dedicated to showcasing films from a particular country. Last year, the focus was on Japan, and the festival’s connection with Japanese cinema continued into 2011, with a screening of Tetsuya Nakashima’s Confessions, a thriller about a schoolteacher avenging the murder of her daughter, and based on the novel by Kanae Minato. The film has already received recognition both at home and abroad, winning multiple awards at the Japan Academy Prize and being put forward as Japan’s entry for Best Foreign Language Film at the Oscars.

Confessions tells the story of Yuko (Takako Matsu) who, having discovered that two pupils in her class were responsible for the death of her young daughter, sets up an elaborate and sinister plot to exact her revenge. Believing that she is teaching the perpetrators, and the other pupils in her class a lesson about how precious and fragile life is, she unknowingly sets off a chain of events that will affect the lives of several of her pupils and their families.

The premise may sound like the stuff of Japanese revenge horror, a genre which has taken off in the last few years, but Nakashima avoids any moral standpoint and instead creates a web of interlinked characters and scenarios which examines the impact of revenge, and questions its justice. This does lead to some confusion about where the viewer’s sympathy should lie, but this in itself, like much of the film, is left open to debate.

Questions like this, along with the film’s stunning visuals, ensure that the film has a profound impact - the stunned silence in the Glasgow Film Theatre following the screening bearing testament to this. Nakashima’s use of slow motion, grey skies and rain mean that each frame is a work of art, carefully crafted and presented, but never lingered on, allowing the film to flow at a steady and exciting pace while drawing every ounce of emotion from the story. Although screened early in the festival, Confessions was unquestionably one of its highlights.

Point Blank
Film festivals are renowned for their preference of art house or independent cinema, and so it was something of a welcomed change of pace to see Fred Cavayé’s Point Blank receive its UK premiere at the GFF. Cavayé’s previous film, Pour Elle, was adapted by Hollywood to make The Next Three Days, and with its strong characters and intense action sequences, it is difficult to imagine Point Blank will not receive the same treatment.

The film is a taut action-thriller about Samuel (Gilles Lellouche), a lowly hospital worker who, when his wife is kidnapped, is forced to ensure the release of wanted criminal Hugo Sartet from his hospital, avoiding the police protection surrounding the injured man. Things take a complicated turn after Hugo is freed, when corrupt policeman Patrick Werner begins his own pursuit of the pair; suddenly neither side of the law is safe for Samuel as he is thrust into a web of lies and cover-ups.

Cavayé’s script may be formulaic and somewhat predictable, but it is carried off with such style that each turn in the story still seems somehow fresh, even if it could have been spotted a mile off. Much of the drama is drawn from Lellouche’s performance, as Samuel he perfectly encapsulates the ordinary bloke in an extraordinary situation that characterises Cavayé’s approach to the genre. He also provides such a likeable character that it is impossible not to root for him as he flees through Underground stations and over rooftops in a series of increasingly frantic and exciting set pieces which, though providing the kind of thrills to be expected of such a film, never stray away from the emotional hook of a man fighting to get his wife back.

It is indeed rare for a festival to include a Hollywood style popcorn thriller, and it is a testament to Cavayé’s style that his film is deemed worthy, as well as an indication of the less formal, celebratory tone of the Glasgow Film Festival. If a Hollywood remake is indeed inevitable then it is well worth catching this heart racing film before the yanks inevitably ruin it by plastering Ryan Reynolds or someone equally airbrush friendly all over it.

Lowering the pace considerably after Point Blank was Apnea, the debut feature from former Greek swimming champion Aris Bifaloukas. Apnea is a breathing technique used to enhance lung capacity in swimmers, which allows them to hold their breath under water for more than five minutes at a time. Apnea is known to cause hallucinations, and it is the distinction between reality and fantasy that forms the dreamlike tone of the film, which follows competitive swimmer Dimitris (Sotiris Pastras) as he reflects on his relationship with environmental activist Elsa (Youlika Skafida), who has mysteriously disappeared.

The narrative of Apnea is formed by a series of flashbacks from Dimitris’ point of view, as he practices the technique and relives the time he spent with Elsa. The film is subdued to the point of being almost joyless, and it is difficult to become too emotionally involved in the relationship between the characters, as Dimitris shows barely any emotion himself.

The calm serenity of time spent underwater may act as a hindrance to narrative development, but it presents many visual and aural possibilities which Bifaloukas expertly embraces. The film’s most memorable moments involve shots of Dimitris underwater, his body perfectly still and surrounded by the haunting placidity of the water. Very little music is used on the soundtrack, with lapping waves and swimming pool depths always highlighting the stranglehold that water has over Dimitris, and over the film itself.

The result is a film which, though slight in terms of story, is unsettling and often moving, as the director’s experience of the life aquatic is brought viscerally to life on the screen. More time could have been spent examining the mystery surrounding Elsa’s disappearance, which would have added to the sense of the unknown that the water sequences perfectly capture. Apnea may not have been the most memorable story told at the festival, but the feeling that comes from it is unique and interesting enough to render it worthy of attention.

Love Like Poison
The cancellation of an appearance from director Katell Quillévéré due to pregnancy was undoubtedly the reason for the poor turnout at the screening of her debut feature Love Like Poison. The film has already achieved recognition, winning Quillévéré the Jean Vigo Prize for first features. The film is a coming of age drama about a 14-year-old girl returning from boarding school to make her Confirmation but questioning the very faith she is supposed to be confirming.

Anna (Clara Augarde) returns to her scenic village in Brittany at a difficult time for her family. Her parents are going through a divorce, her mother is left to care for her dying paternal grandfather and her feelings for choir boy Pierre are causing her a great deal of confusion. Her support network lets her down, as the stresses of divorce cause her mother to become alienated, and her charismatic local priest is questioning his own calling as he struggles with the attentions of Anna’s mother.

Coming of age dramas are ten a penny and Love Like Poison does not rewrite the genre, or contribute very much to it at all. Quillévéré has favoured subtlety in dealing with the film’s issues of life, death love and religion and the result is a film which does not say enough about any of them to be worthwhile. Sterling performances from most of the cast, particularly newcomer Clara Augarde, are wasted on a script which lacks the courage of its convictions.

While it is in some ways refreshing to see a film which examines the Catholic faith without condemning it, to suggest the possibility of a priest harbouring sexual desire without exploring it in more detail makes the film seem light and insignificant. Michel Galabru supposedly provides comic relief as Anna’s grandfather, but most of his scenes are uncomfortable and vulgar, exhibiting a sharper edge to the film that could have been better used in other areas.

On the whole, there is not much to recommend about Love Like Poison; it is tiresome, underwritten and instantly forgettable, an unfortunate blip on an otherwise strong festival line-up.

The Christening
Marcin Wrona follows up his well received debut feature My Flesh My Blood with Polish gangster thriller The Christening. Set in Warsaw, the film deals with family, honour and redemption in a detached and understated style as the film is shot mostly on hand-held cameras in naturally lit locations.

Michal (Wojciech Zielinski) has turned his life around from his days as a gangster and eventual arrest, and is now a successful businessman living in a swanky city apartment with his beautiful wife and infant son. In the week leading up to the child’s christening, he invites his childhood friend Janek (Tomasz Schuchardt) to stay with him, and asks him to be the child’s godfather. However, Janek is unaware that Michal’s comfortable home life is teetering on the brink of collapse, and the deal he made with his former gang members will soon cost him everything.

Although dealing with the world of organised crime, The Christening is a far more sensitive and emotional film than it would initially seem; preferring a character driven approach which explores the relationship between Michal and Janek and the choices both men have to make. This exploration is aided by intense, brooding and powerful performances from the two male leads. Schuchardt, in particular, is excellent, presenting Janek as unhinged and dangerous, as well as conflicted and fragile. The film’s subtlety in dealing with its deep themes, as well as its realistic and closely shot style, means that when violence does erupt it does so without warning, its graphic nature coming as a shock to the system and maintaining the unbearable tension in the lead up to the film’s inevitable yet shocking conclusion.

So many films which deal with organised crime create a world so far removed from reality it is difficult to relate to, yet the blissful ignorance of the supporting players to Michal’s situation make the story not only strikingly believable but tragic and affecting. As one of the lesser hyped films of the festival, The Christening is a fine example of the recently rejuvenated eastern European market and a superb thriller by anyone’s standards.

All of these films will either be on general release this year in the UK or already are, and it is important in the current climate of uncertainty that surrounds film festivals that Glasgow is seen to remain current, as well as recognising the cinema of the past. The mix between old and new at the festival was well balanced, as was the selection of British, Hollywood and foreign films on offer.

On the whole, the festival was a success, selling more tickets than any previous year. Considering the financial situation many people find themselves in these days, it is encouraging to note that Glaswegians will still go out of their way to go to the cinema, not only to see the latest Hollywood offerings, but to experience more challenging, original offerings from all over the world. PK

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