Blogging the London Film Festival: the highlights

Ten to watch, as recommended by us

The 53rd London Film Festival begins on 14 October. Among the hundred-plus films drawn from around the world are the latest Coen brothers comedy, a biopic of the poet John Keats and not one, but two, films starring George Clooney. Over the coming weeks, the NS culture team will bravely attend as many screenings as possible and blog about it here. In the meantime, here is our pick of ten highlights to whet your appetite:

Fantastic Mr Fox (dir: Wes Anderson)

Anderson, director of quirky comedies such as The Royal Tenenbaums, makes his first foray into animation with this adaptation of Roald Dahl's classic children's story.

The White Ribbon (dir: Michael Haneke)

The Austrian-born Haneke has long been known for his punishing films, but his last, Funny Games, proved a little too much for our own Ryan Gilbey. Will this tale of malice and spite in early-20th-century Germany fare any better?

Bluebeard (dir: Catherine Breillat)

Famously retold by Angela Carter in her story collection The Bloody Chamber, this fairy tale gets a low-budget treatment from the provocative Breillat.

Tales from the Golden Age (dir: Cristian Mungiu)

The 20th anniversary of the fall of communism is being marked by various arts projects. Here, the acclaimed Romanian director Mungiu presents a series of vignettes of life under Ceausescu. You can read the NS review of his previous film, 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, here.

Oil City Confidental (dir: Julien Temple)

After giving us documentaries on the Sex Pistols and the Glastonbury Festival, Temple turns his attention to Britain's much-maligned pub rock scene.

She, a Chinese (dir: Xiaolu Guo)

Guo is better known for her novels (the most recent of which we reviewed here), but she is also an accomplished film-maker. She, a Chinese tells the story of a young immigrant in Britain and features a score by John Parish, the PJ Harvey collaborator.

Hadewijch (dir: Bruno Dumont)

With a visual style that has more in common with the painters of his native Flanders than any of his contemporaries, Dumont cuts something of an outsider figure in French cinema. Hadewijch is tipped to be his best work yet -- while you wait for it, read this 2007 NS interview with the director.

Journey to the Moon (dir: Kutluğ Ataman)

Ataman, who was nominated for the Turner Prize in 2004, may be better known to NS readers as a video artist -- Fisun Güner wrote about him in April. Journey to the Moon reconstructs an incident from 1950s Turkey.

Perestroika (dir: Sarah Turner)

Structured around a journey on the Trans-Siberian Express, this exploration of amnesia is a promising highlight of the festival's experimental film strand.

Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans (dir: Werner Herzog)

Herzog, the visionary German director who has been making films since the 1960s, is enjoying a late surge in popularity. This remake of a 1992 Abel Ferrara crime drama, starring Nicholas Cage, is a departure from his recent run of documentaries. You can read our Q+A with the director here.

Daniel Trilling is the Editor of New Humanist magazine. He was formerly an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

SAMUEL COURTAULD TRUST
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The monochrome set

In Pieter Bruegel’s hands, even black and white paintings can be full of colour.

Grisailles – monochrome images usually painted in shades of grey and white – have a long tradition. Early examples appeared in the 14th century as miniatures or manuscript illuminations and then later on the outside of the folding panels of altarpieces, where they imitated sepulchre statues and offered a stark contrast to the bright colour of the paintings inside. With their minimal palette, grisailles also offered painters a chance both to show off their skill and to add their bit to the age-old artistic debate about paragone: which was superior – sculpture, with its ability to show a figure in three dimensions, or painting, with its powers of illusion? By pretending to be sculpture, grisailles could better it.

The first artist to paint grisailles as independent works for private enjoyment and contemplation was the Netherlander Pieter Bruegel the Elder (circa 1525-69), whose folk scenes of peasants carousing or of hunters in a snowy landscape have long been staples of art’s quotidian, earthy strand. Only about 40 works by him are now known and of those, just three are grisailles (not a term he would have recognised; he referred to the pictures simply as “painted in black and white”). This trio of survivors has been reunited for the first time, at the Courtauld Gallery, with an accompanying selection of copies and engravings – a mere ten pictures in all – for a fascinating one-room exhibition.

The grisailles show a deeper and more intellectual artist than the sometimes slapstick figure who would dress as a peasant in order to gatecrash weddings in the Brabant countryside and record the drunken and playful goings-on in his pictures. They reflect the position of the Low Countries in Bruegel’s time, caught between the Catholicism of their Spanish overlords and the emerging Protestantism that had been sparked by Martin Luther only eight years before Bruegel’s birth. These tensions soon erupted in the Eighty Years War.

Of the three paintings, two show religious subjects – The Death of the Virgin (1562-65) and Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery (1565) – and one is a scene that would have been familiar in the streets around him, Three Soldiers (1568). This last, lent by the Frick Collection in New York, shows a drummer, a piper and a standard-bearer in the elaborately slashed uniforms of German Landsknechte mercenaries. Such groupings featured often in German prints and Bruegel’s small picture is a clever visual game: painting could imitate not only sculpture, but prints, too. What’s more, the gorgeously coloured uniforms (mercenaries were exempt from the sumptuary laws that restricted clothing to sedate colours) could be shown to be just as arresting even in black and white.

If this is a painting about painting, the ­religious works have, it seems, added layers of meaning – although it is always difficult with Bruegel to work out what that meaning is and how personal it might be. The Courtauld’s Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery shows Jesus stooping in front of the Pharisees and saving the accused woman from stoning by writing in the dust, “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.” That he spells out the words in Dutch rather than Hebrew, which was more usual in other images of the scene (and which he uses on the tunic of one of the learned men observing the mute play), suggests that this picture – a plea for clemency – was intended to serve as a call for religious tolerance amid mounting sectarian antagonism. While the gaping faces of the onlookers recall those of Hieronymus Bosch, the flickering calligraphic touches and passages of great delicacy are all his own.

The picture stayed with Bruegel until his death, so it had a personal meaning for him; more than 20 copies were subsequently made. Included in the exhibition are the copies painted by his sons, Jan and Pieter the Younger (a coloured version), as well as the earliest known print after it, from 1579, by Pieter Perret, which shows some of the detail in the crowd around the central figures that has been lost in the discoloured panel.

If the sombre tones of grisaille are suited to the pared-down faith advocated by Luther, the death of the Virgin was a familiar topic in Catholic and Orthodox iconography. Bruegel’s picture, from Upton House in Warwickshire, depicts an episode that doesn’t actually appear in the Bible. A group of Apostles and mourners has gathered around the Virgin’s bed, the scene lit by the heavenly light emanating from the dying woman and the five flames from the candles and the hearth that correspond to the five wounds suffered by her son on the cross. Domestic items litter the room – a slice of orange, slippers, a dozing cat – and there is a sleeping attendant, unaware of the miracle of Assumption that will shortly unfold. Here is a moving nocturne in which the mysteries of religion emerge from and disappear back into the shadows.

While Bruegel’s peasant works display a delight in physical pleasure, these three bravura works, painted for humanist connoisseurs and for himself, portray the sober, spiritual concerns that come to the fore once the last drop has been drunk. 

The exhibition runs until 8 May. For more details, go to: courtauld.ac.uk

Michael Prodger is an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman. He is an art historian, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Buckingham, and a former literary editor.

This article first appeared in the 11 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle