Gilbey on film: What can we expect from this year's London Film Festival?

Incoming Festival Director Clare Stewart shows signs of having created a properly dynamic programme.

Another year, another London Film Festival — though this one distinguishes itself from its immediate predecessors by starting earlier than usual (October 10), running for 12 days rather than the usual 16, spreading out across more of the capital than ever before (reaching Hackney, Islington and Shoreditch), sharing some of its gala screenings with audiences across the country (the opening night attraction, Tim Burton’s stop-motion animated horror Frankenweenie, adapted from his own 1984 live-action short, will be screened simultaneously at other UK cinemas) and incorporating a competitive element that brings it more in line with other major film festivals. This new broom is wielded by the incoming Festival Director, Clare Stewart, former head of the Sydney Film Festival. Stewart will have quite a job filling the shoes of Sandra Hebron, but early signs are that she has concentrated on making the shape and content of the programme properly dynamic.

Now the tricky part: speculation. Looking back at the sorts of festival titles I’ve suggested in past years has thrown up the occasional embarrassment (I was as disappointed as you probably were by Rampart and This Must Be the Place). But not for nothing is the LFF known as a best-of-the-fests affair, rounding up the cream of Berlin, Cannes, Venice and Toronto. Sure enough, the 2012 programme includes this year’s Palme d’Or winner, Michael Haneke’s celebrated Amour; Thomas Vinterberg’s The Hunt, about the downfall of a kindergarten teacher, for which Mads Mikkelsen won the Best Actor prize at Cannes; and the same festival’s Best Director recipient, Carlos Reygadas, for his audacious drama Post Tenebras Lux. The Taviani brothers also return with their Berlin Golden Bear-winning Caesar Must Die, in which a group of prisoners stage Julius Caesar.

If it’s a surprise that neither Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master nor Terrence Malick’s To the Wonder have made the journey to London from their recent Venice premieres, perhaps that means they are in the running for a different kind of surprise—the LFF’s Surprise Film.

Here are ten other selections from the LFF programme, along with the reasons why I think they could be worth your time and mine:

 

In the House (Dans la maison)

Because François Ozon, great at camp (Potiche, 8 Women), is even better at psychological thrillers (Regarde la Mer, Under the Sand, Swimming Pool), and this study of the relationship between a teacher (the always excellent Fabrice Luchini) and his talented pupil looks full of promise. Kristen Scott-Thomas and Emmanuelle Seigner co-star.

 

Seven Psychopaths 

Because no one writes like Martin McDonagh. He also directs here for the first time since In Bruges, with a cast including Christopher Walken, Sam Rockwell and Colin Farrell.

 

Everyday 

Because the premise of Michael Winterbottom’s drama about a family coping with the long-term imprisonment of one of its number is elevated by its execution: it was shot on-and-off over five years, the better to capture the authentic changes in its cast members.

 

Hyde Park on Hudson 

Because Bill Murray plays FDR. What more reason do you need?

 

For No Good Reason

Because it’s a documentary about the great, savage illustrator and cartoonist (not to mention NS contributor) Ralph Steadman.

 

The Central Park Five

Because it promises to be a powerful analysis of a miscarriage-of-justice case in New York City in the late 1980s.

 

Reality

Because Matteo Garrone’s new film, about a fishmonger who yearns to be on Big Brother, is his first since the extraordinary Gomorrah.

 

Paradise: Love 

Because Ulrich Seidl (Import/Export, Dog Days) is a continually daring and abrasive director, and this film about sex tourism, the first in a trilogy, would suggest he hasn’t yet defected to the romcom.

 

Obsessive and Compulsive 

Because this programme of shorts on the theme of obsession includes Up the Valley and Beyond, about Russ Meyer, and Picture Paris, directed by Brad Hall and starring his wife, Seinfeld/Veep star Julia Louis-Dreyfus, as a woman hooked on Paris.

 

Mekong Hotel  

Because while it may be only an hour in length, it’s also by Apichatpong Weerasethakul (who made Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives), a filmmaker who crams more treasure, pleasure and meaning into a few frames than most directors do into an entire career.

 

Booking opens to BFI members on 13 September, and to the public from 24 September.

Photograph: Getty Images

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

Getty
Show Hide image

Ned Beauman's Madness Is Better Than Defeat brings jungle fever to a story of cinema

The author's lustrous and smart fourth novel never quite coalesces into purposeful significance.

“We were in the jungle… There were too many of us. We had access to too much money, too much equipment. And little by little, we went insane.” That’s Francis Ford Coppola describing the filming of Apocalypse Now, but it’s also a fair summary – give or take a few hundred pages of CIA machinations, mega-corp skulduggery and hallucinogenic-fungus consumption – of the plot of Ned Beauman’s fourth novel, a teeming shaggy-dog comedy of megalomania and obsession in which nothing and everything seems to be going on at once.

The setting is the Honduran jungle in the late 1930s. Under the command of a visionary director, a Hollywood company sets out to make a film (called Hearts in Darkness, ho, ho) on location at a freshly discovered Mayan temple. When they arrive, they find the temple already half-dismantled by a team of New Yorkers in the service of a reclusive billionaire. The Angelenos scuttle up the steps of the hemi-ziggurat; the New Yorkers pitch camp at the bottom. Decades pass and the two sides, lost to the outside world, evolve a demented micro-civilisation.

Or is that the setting? The setting is also 1930s California, where a studio magnate creeps silently through a mansion. The setting is prewar New York, where a playboy is kidnapped by goons at an octopus-wrestling match. The setting is Virginia in 1959, where a CIA operative called Zonulet sifts through a warehouse packed with innumerable spools of film. The setting is a hospital in Maryland, in which Zonulet may be imagining the events of the book after inhaling a deliriant hallucinogen. The setting is Borges’s Aleph, or Leibniz’s monad: that mystical point in the universe “from which all other points are visible”.

As the narrative moves forward and Beauman gleefully particle-collides his various fascinations – postmodern paranoia, Hollywood screwball comedy, occult mysteries, spy fiction and the real-life on-set horrors of Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo and the 1930s film serial The New Adventures of Tarzan – such interpretations flicker in and out of probability like quantum states.

Beauman is a sparkling writer, and his book bustles with diverting micro-narratives. There’s a murderous fugitive Nazi who persuades the camp that he’s part of the “German-American Alliance” that won the war, a mousy anthropologist who becomes a leader of men, a newspaperman who gets a Murdoch-style stranglehold on the temple’s occupants, and many more.

But the underlying order is symbolic. The director of Hearts in Darkness, the sprawling meta-movie at the centre of the novel, argues that all good cinema follows a simple rule: its narrative intensifies in five or six escalating steps before “giving way to a thrilling interval of weightlessness or flight, then returning to the status quo”. Represented as a diagram, this trajectory resembles a side view of half a ziggurat, which can also be seen as a diagram of a succession of people following in each other’s footsteps. For example, a novelist writing about someone making a film of a doomed expedition into the jungle. Madness begets madness in this novel, almost as if some conspiracy or occult order were being worked out.

Is any of this familiar? Narrative as geometry, with diagrams. Chipper 1930s banter. Funny but significant names (Poyais O’Donnell, which references a 19th-century con trick; Zonulet, which means “little zone”). Nazis. Contagious insanity. An octopus. An airship. A nightmare conspiracy that may just be a druggy hallucination. A few years ago, Beauman told an interviewer that the work of Thomas Pynchon has had “no impact on British fiction, really, apart from perhaps on me and Tom McCarthy”, but this book isn’t so much influenced by Pynchon as colonised by his work. In chapter after chapter, one can feel the shadow of Gravity’s Rainbow sweeping across the text like the spaceship in Independence Day.

Perhaps there’s a point here. Beauman recapitulates Pynchon as Hearts in Darkness recapitulates Heart of Darkness, and so the shape of the half-ziggurat is redrawn. But when a writer steers this close to his models, comparisons are inevitable, and Beauman’s writing, lustrous and smart as it invariably is, lacks much of the moral and emotional seriousness – the fear, the loss, the sorrow, the threat – that acts as a counterweight to Pynchon’s comic and intellectual games. The result is a novel of great intelligence and humour, cleverly structured and brimming with tricks, that never quite coalesces into purposeful significance. It’s a tremendous rainbow, but I’d have welcomed a bit more gravity. 

Madness Is Better Than Defeat
Ned Beauman
Sceptre, 416pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear