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Saturday, 21 October 2017

London Film Festival Despatch #3: The Shape Of Water, Downsizing, and Happy End

Chain reaction: The Shape Of Water is an unusual love story

Ratings guide:  WWWW - Wonderful  WWW - Worthwhile  WW - Watchable  W - Woeful

Watching Michael Shannon in The Shape Of Water WWWW makes you realise just how rare truly great screen villains have become. Shannon (Midnight Special) plays Strickland, the sadistic, candy-crunching, Bible-quoting head of a top-secret military research facility, who has captured an amphibious creature (Doug Jones) not entirely dissimilar to Hellboy's Abe Sapien or The Creature From The Black Lagoon. He tortures the poor beast with an electrified cattleprod, not because it holds information he requires or poses any particular threat, but rather because he enjoys inflicting pain upon something he considers an abomination. Strickland is a bastard's bastard, an unpleasant douchebag of epic proportions, and a real contrast to the parade of insipid CG-enhanced super-baddies we see trundled out in ever-greater numbers in blockbusters of all stripes. Finally, a villain you can love to hate again. The fact he'd be a shoo-in for a seat in Trump's cabinet is just a bonus.

Impressively, Shannon isn't the best thing about Guillermo Del Toro's early-'60s-set follow-up to the pretty but vacuous Crimson Peak. That honour belongs to Sally Hawkins, an actress who is truly at the height of her powers, as evidenced this year both here and in the underrated Maudie. Her character Elisa is a lonely mute, who works as a cleaner at the military facility where Strickland is holding what he refers to as "The Asset". Hawkins never speaks a word but the expressiveness of her face and body tells you everything you need to know. Sneaking into the room where the creature is kept, she makes contact, and they bond over hard-boiled eggs and big-band music, communicating via sign language. When Strickland announces the beast is to be vivisected, Elisa, plus neighbour Giles (Richard Jenkins), work colleague Zelda (Octavia Spencer), and Robert (Michael Stuhlbarg), a Russian spy posing as a US scientist, resolve to help him escape. 

In many ways, The Shape Of Water is peak Del Toro, covering ground we've seen him tackle before, both stylistically and in terms of its subject matter. The usual eye-popping visuals and fairytale tone are both present and accounted for, as is a powerful sense of time and place, and the way he uses the fantastical as a metaphor to talk about real people and the imperfect world they inhabit. Like Pan's Labyrinth (2006) before it, this is a creature feature for grown-ups. The difference this time, though, is that Shape feels more urgently contemporary than his previous work. It might be set in the 1960s but this is a plea for tolerance and kindness in the here and now. It would be easy to view Elisa as a saintly figure but she isn't really - she's only doing what anyone with an ounce of decency should do: stand up to bullies, push back against hatred and intolerance, defend the rights of those unable to defend themselves. I really don't need to draw you a diagram of who and what the director is taking aim at here.

Is it perfect? No. There are plot holes (security at the facility is lax to the point of total implausibility), while Spencer is lumbered with the same "sassy big sister" role she seems to play in everything (will someone hurry up and cast her as a serial killer?). And there's one sequence when the director takes the fairytale whimsy just a little too far. These are tiny niggles, though, when set alongside everything Del Toro's spectacular, emotional film gets perfectly right. Not just his most impressive work since Pan's but perhaps second only to it on a list of his best films to date.

Making a splash: Del Toro is finally back to his best

Half an hour into sci-fi comedy Downsizing WWW, you're confident of where its heading. Norwegian scientists have found a way to shrink people to only a few inches in height and, in a bid to lessen the impact of overpopulation and increasingly scarce resources, the procedure has been rolled out to anyone who can afford it. Enter Matt Damon and Kristin Wiig, a typical middle-class couple, who decide to go through the process so they can enjoy the lifestyle they've always wanted. They plan to move to a miniaturised community, where their savings and assets mean they have enough to live on for the rest of their tiny lives. But then, around a quarter of the way in, Alexander Payne's film spins off at a tangent, turning, in just a few scenes, from a lighthearted comedy, built on smartly-delivered sight gags and impressive CGI, to an altogether darker satire. All is far from well in this tiny would-be panacea, with Payne (Nebraska) taking aim at consumerism, exploitation, the misuse of technology, and the seeming inevitability of climate-based disaster. Some of the points the film strives to make are a little ham-fisted and there are times it is easy to forget Damon and Co aren't all just living in a regular-sized world. But, for the most part, it's engaging, entertaining and nicely told, with the great Christoph Waltz and Inherent Vice's Hon Chau stealing the show in meaty supporting roles.

Small wonder: Alexander Payne returns with Downsizing

If the humour in Michael Haneke's Happy End WWW were any blacker, they'd send miners underground to dig it up to burn as fuel. Set in Calais, it focuses on various members of the Laurent family, a wealthy but fractious bunch, which includes suicidal patriarch Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant), businesswoman Anne (Isabelle Huppert), her philandering brother Thomas (Mathieu Kassovitz), and disturbed son, Pierre (Franz Rogowski). When her mother is hospitalised, the group is joined by young Eve (Fantine Harduin), Thomas's daughter from a previous marriage, who may well be the most screwed up of the lot of them. Haneke lays out their trials and tribulations in a rather soapy way, but seems to have little empathy with these people, their bourgeois indulgences or self-inflicted woes. The fact the Amour director sets his film in Calais is very deliberate, as its port is the gathering place for many hundreds of asylum seekers desperate to make the crossing from France into the UK. What Haneke is keen to focus on is the obliviousness of France's moneyed classes to anyone's plight but their own. As a result, immigrants are practically invisible and silent in this film - but that speaks volumes about what he's trying to say. We glimpse them just twice - the second time towards the end as a sublime bit of farce unfolds at a glitzy wedding reception. Haneke's films are often quite chilly, alienating affairs (I'm thinking specifically of The Piano Teacher and Cache). However, the bleak but quite broad humour he brings to bear here makes Happy End one of his most accessible pieces of work. Critics have been sniffy, saying the director is going over ground he has covered before, but that's entirely forgivable when the results are this rewarding. 

F is for family: The Laurents battle their demons in Happy End

Finally, I want to mention a few movies I've reviewed for Film Inquiry (here and here) but that are simply too good not to devote some space to on this blog as well. Chief among them is You Were Never Really Here WWWW, Lynne Ramsay's punishing adaptation of Jonathan Ames's short story of the same name. mother! director Darren Aronofsky recently spoke about an idea he'd had for a Batman film and how he'd wanted Joaquin Phoenix to play the Dark Knight. That movie never happened but if Phoenix's beyond-intense performance here is anything to go by, he'd have been perfect for the role. The Inherent Vice actor is Joe, a Gulf War veteran turned hired muscle, who specialises in rescuing underage girls from sex traffickers. Armed only with a hardware-store hammer, he brutalises anyone who gets in his way, while wrestling with the mental and emotional consequences of a past and present steeped in such violence. Plot and action aren't what's important here, though, as director Ramsay (We Need To Talk About Kevin) focuses more on Joe's damaged psyche than anything else. It reminded me of Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver and I'm not sure there's any higher recommendation than that.

Hammer time: Joaquin Phoenix impresses as a disturbed Gulf War vet

Almost as essential is Norwegian director Joachim Trier's Thelma WWWW, a supernatural coming-of-age story with shades of Carrie. It sees the titular character, played by Eili Harboe, leaving her devoutly religious parents for university in Oslo, where she meets and falls in love with Anja (Kaya Wilkins). But the onset of a series of debilitating seizures threatens to end Thelma's new life of freedom, especially when they lead her to manifest strange and terrifying psychic powers. This is no mere super-powered CG fest, as Trier (Louder Than Bombs) focuses as much on Thelma's angst and awkwardness at growing up and coming out as he does on her burgeoning - and possibly malign - abilities. Last but certainly not least is Claire Denis's bleak romantic comedy, Let The Sun Shine In WWW, which features a sterling return to form from Juliette Binoche as a lovelorn Parisian artist. She has a string of suitors - including an awful banker and pretentious actor - and cries herself to sleep every night in frustration and torment at her inability to land someone truly special. Denis seems to take issue with the whole notion of romantic love and the idea of "finding the one", but such gratifying cynicism never undermines the empathy you feel for Binoche and her seemingly naïve, not to mention endless, quest.

What a Carrie on: Thelma develops terrifying psychic powers

My Top 10 new films of the festival...
1. 120 BPM (Beats Per Minute)
2. The Shape Of Water
3. You Were Never Really Here
4. Mudbound
5. Thelma
6. Brigsby Bear
7. Happy End
8. Redoubtable
9. Let The Sun Shine In
10. Good Time

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