QCinema reviews: Screen International films

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“Loving Vincent” is the world’s first fully hand-painted animated feature film and is composed of frames made up of 65,000 paintings, reimagining 94 of Vincent van Gogh’s works. Screenshot from LOVING VINCENT/OFFICIAL WEBSITE

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — Now on its 5th year, QCinema International Film Festival proves to be one of the more exciting events in local cinema in terms of offering, as its sidebars are packed with festival favorites from around the world. Though its competition slate is always something to look forward to given the unpredictability of the films and the talent involved, its Screen International sidebar offers local cinephiles a chance to catch new and exciting works by acclaimed and emerging filmmakers on the big screen.

This year, QCinema brought in Cannes Film Festival winners: Palme d’Or winner “The Square” by Swedish director Ruben Östlund, Grand Prix winner “BPM (Beats Per Minute)” by French director Robin Campillo, Jury Prize winner “Loveless” by Russian director Andrey Zvyagintsev, and Best Screenplay co-winner “The Killing of a Sacred Deer” by Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos (which shared the award with “You Were Never Really Here” by Scottish director Lynne Ramsay).

Below, a few notes on the Screen International films as well as the festival’s opening film, “Loving Vincent.”

“The Square”

“Do you want to save a human life?” asks a woman on the street, handing out flyers, presumably for a humanitarian cause. But we can never fully know as “The Square” tackles canny marketing conceit in one of its many, uncomfortable side trips. Pressured to create buzz (i.e., go viral) for their next exhibit, the communications team for a Swedish contemporary art museum resorts to shock and grisly content — a tiny, homeless girl blowing up to pieces — to get them into the cultural conversation. It works, but not in a good way.

Ruben Östlund’s Palme d’Or winner troubles the water by examining the breakdown of our societal contract with each other. The titular artwork — an installation that promises a small zone of equal rights and responsibility for all who inhabits its confines — is thrust into the real-world as the museum curator Christian (Claes Bang) descends into madness while he struggles to get his phone and wallet back, stolen after making an act of kindness.

“The Square” satirizes the lofty privileges of the snooty art world and intersects it with the struggles of those outside it, particularly people from lower rungs of society, which the museum’s public relations team chooses to exploit (with glee, as they were pitching the horrific video clip). Along the way, Östlund targets, among other things, the incomprehensibility of art speak, sexual power play (involving a loony Elizabeth Moss as a journalist with a pet chimpanzee), liberal hypocrisy, and upper class guilt. Östlund executes this with varying degrees of success but the lampooning gets tired at one point, considering the film runs for two hours and 20 minutes. As Christian gets embroiled in one mess to the next, you’d have to ask, “What else can go wrong for this guy?” and yet Östlund still has several things in mind to lengthen this experiment on societal mishaps and privilege.

 

 

“BPM (Beats Per Minute)”

In one of the many moving moments in Robin Campillo's “BPM,” the film’s central couple, Sean (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart) and Nathan (Arnaud Valois) talk about their fellow activists’ day jobs while at a weekly meeting. At the back of the lecture hall, they point out some of the members — a hospital porter, a pollster, or a government worker — as if to give a sense of their interior lives; that they, too, have struggles of their own outside this room and on the streets.

The film is mostly set on the streets where their activist group, ACT UP-Paris, is raising awareness about AIDS. The members are a ragtag bunch brought together by a single cause. Among them are AIDS patients who are struggling to combat the disease while also fighting the state and medical community’s failure to respond to their needs. They demand accountability and transparency from state agencies, pharmaceutical companies, and even among themselves.

Campillo is content on letting his audience observe and marvel at the boundless energy and passion of the protests (and dance scenes that follow after) staged by the film’s heroes. Death might tail each successful protest they make; a force that haunts every gesture to a lover or every argument at a debate — but “BPM” is devoted to the fight for rights and celebrates the emotional cost that it takes to keep our hearts pounding every minute.

 

 

“Loving Vincent”

“Loving Vincent” is bookended by starry, starry nights — first, the iconic painting, and then the Don McLean song (covered by Lianne La Havas for the film), which might be the most obvious choice as a parting wave for a monumental achievement. A little too on the nose, but quite fitting in some ways since both the song and the film explore the long, dark night of Vincent van Gogh’s tortured soul. The song, however, in just a matter of four minutes, is more successful in doing so than “Loving Vincent” and its laborious 65,000 hand-painted frame-by-frame animation.

Indeed, “Loving Vincent” is beautiful to behold. It takes to heart the Dutch painter’s quote, “We cannot speak other than by our paintings,” which he wrote in a letter addressed to his brother Theo. Personalities, real-life characters, and even the landscapes from Vincent’s paintings are given life — from the yellow-jacketed Armand Roulin (played by Douglas Booth) to the twisty portrait of Dr. Gachet (portrayed by “Game of Thrones’” Jerome Flynn). It takes a more speculative route in tackling the final days of the painter, who died — in still unexplained circumstances — after he shot himself with a revolver. Characters recall their own stories of Vincent and his myth shaped by their varying perceptions of him: a threat to peace, a bright-eyed artist, or an enviable man of immense talent.

Unfortunately, the splendor of “Loving Vincent” only rests on its ability to bring Vincent’s paintings into moving pictures. Displayed on a 40-foot screen, his works still hold a formidable spell, and even more mesmerizing, given the skill that was employed to complete the film. The directors, Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman, had a team of over 80 painters, working on the production in almost seven years, with two years devoted to transforming the paintings into film.

But the story that all 65,000 frames of paintings are supposed to tell seems withered, too scattershot to even hold weight. Though the film had an opportunity to connect Vincent’s melancholia with its body of work, it is too indulged in its detective mystery, one that isn’t worth pursuing given the film’s scale.

 

 

“The Killing of a Sacred Deer”

It is interesting that, after a screening, someone described “The Killing of a Sacred Deer” as ‘fascist,’ not in the utmost sense of Leni Riefenstahl’s cinema, but the kind of authoritative manipulating that traps you in an inescapable annihilation. Yorgos Lanthimos’ latest film offers a bloody end and he makes it clear as the main conceit is revealed. For the next two hours, he straps his viewers in their seats, taking them through one uncomfortable set piece to another, until he decides he’s done playing and it’s time to stop.

Similar to his previous offerings, “Dogtooth” and “The Lobster,” the atmosphere in “Sacred Deer” is of dullness and calculated politeness: small talk is limited to mundane tasks, precious watches, and idle chit-chat. The surroundings are, at best, idyllic, like some futuristic utopian city scrubbed clean of blemish because the true horror lies underneath, gradually appearing on screen as the facade of the characters break under pressure. Every activity carries an insidious undertone: preparing dinner, eating fries, or twirling a fork in a plate of spaghetti. An innocuous plea, “I won’t let you leave until you’ve had my tart!” is rife with innocent menace (uttered by a lamb-like Alicia Silverstone). Even a pop song like Ellie Goulding’s “Burn,” sung in a wispy voice, glints like a knife’s edge, ready to slit someone’s throat.   

“Sacred Deer” is relentless and operates like a horror story would, the macabre only amplified by Lanthimos’ choice of musical accompaniment, from the opening “Jesus Christus” from Schubert’s “Stabat Mater” to the thundering percussion that heralds the doom that is about to set in.

The film retreads the Greek tale of King Agamemnon and his daughter Iphigenia (who the film references), only this time, the stakes are real and magnified. Lanthimos, a Greek, bestows an unhurried sense of fatalism to his leads (played by Colin Farrell and Nicole Kidman, their second film this year after the equally morbid “The Beguiled”) and lets them navigate their sorry lives like how the Greek gods would — distant and amused by their helplessness.

 

 

“Loveless”

In “Loveless,” unhappiness almost seems like a birthright, handed down from one generation to another. It haunts the homes — though filled with pieces that signify warmth and comfort — of its central family, a couple whose failed marriage seemed to stem from their son, Alexey (Matvey Novikov), who we barely get to see at all until a marital fight sends him running away from their desolate abode. The closest that we see of him is his weeping face, hidden in the dark, as he overhears his parents argue about who gets to keep him after they divorce — and neither want the responsibility.

The film isn’t afraid of portraying Boris (Alexei Rozin) and Zhenya (Maryana Spivak) as monsters, incapable of loving despite the blooming affairs they are involved in. Boris is distant and unfeeling. When Zhenya tells him that their son is missing, he chooses to go through the rest of his day at work, fearing he might get sacked by his Catholic boss. Zhenya tells his boyfriend outright that she doesn’t love her son and that she hated him right from the moment she gave birth to him. She’s more interested in taking selfies and posting photos of a lovely dinner than paying attention to her despondent son who remains invisible in her and her husband’s lives.

Like the decaying landscape of his previous film, “Leviathan,” Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Russia is of bitter cold and misery. Everyone exists in a fog of hatred — even the mother of Boris’ girlfriend, perhaps the only cheerful character, lives under the shame of her daughter — and return each other’s loathing with heightened disgust. On the background, we hear of Putin annexing Ukraine — perhaps, to some extent, drawing parallels to a game of conquest that the characters bitterly play on each other — all while the search for Alexey remains fruitless. It is apparent early on that these people don’t deserve someone like Alexey, but Zvyagintsev manages to make his audiences care about terrible human beings. Because maybe, they’re not so bad after all.

With images of abandoned buildings, chilly streets, and even icier humans, “Loveless” is a brutal examination of the ends of human emotion, of what else is left when all hope has left hearts and only malice remains.