London’s eye on world cinema

Colin MacCabe
18 October 2005

The London Film Festival (LFF) is an annual treat. Happy days when you can not only spend most of your spare time seeing films but the rest can be devoted to talking about them. There is a brief moment when enthusing about the latest Chinese or Korean cinema doesn’t seem like a weird abnormality. Approaching its 50th birthday, London is one of those major festivals dotted around the world where one can see the whole range of cinema from Hollywood glitz to experimental edge, from Liu Jiayin’s Oxhide to Michelangelo Antonioni’s The Passenger.

The London Film Festival opens today, 19 October, with a gala screening of The Constant Gardener, Fernando Meirelles’s adaptation of John Le Carré’s novel.

It closes on 3 November with Good Night, and Good Luck, George Clooney’s film about the real-life conflict between Joseph McCarthy and Edward Murrow.

To find out about these films and all the ones in between, check out: www.lff.org.uk.

But aren’t there too many films, too many sections? Shouldn’t the festival be braver and say – here are the twenty films that you should see this year. That, after all is how it started in 1956 when Dilys Powell, the Sunday Times film critic, persuaded Leslie Hardcastle, head honcho at the National Film Theatre that it was time to set up a festival in London. It was Mussolini, the most cultural of Fascists, who had started the idea with Venice in the 1930s. The French had organised a counter-attraction at Cannes in 1940 but war stopped that, and the first French festival didn’t begin until 1945. Berlin was a child of the cold war; the first festival was in 1950 just after the airlift that had saved the city.

So, Britain was late to this particular party. Making a virtue of necessity, Powell’s idea was for a festival of festivals, not another competition but the best that could be gathered from the competitions in Berlin, Cannes and Venice. The second year the Sunday Times said that it would withdraw its sponsorship unless the LFF became a competition. The British Film Institute said that the festival’s cultural value was the range of great films that it allowed film-goers to see, and that competition would reduce this range.

It's difficult to imagine an arts body refusing sponsorship for cultural reasons under New Labour, but it was that decision which determined the character of the LFF to this day. The model has subsequently been borrowed most effectively by Toronto. If there are many more films than fifty years ago that is largely a reflection of an increasing range of global production.

The festival started in the golden age of European art cinema when Italy and France poured forth masterpiece after masterpiece. Those days are long gone, and the three best European films in the festival – L’Enfant, Cache and Manderlay – all come from directors from small countries. It would seem that the major European countries have lost their cinematic way, weighed down by bureaucratic state funding for which our own Film Council provides the most flagrantly wasteful and uncreative model.

L'Enfant, Cache

Left to right: Still from Cache and L'Enfant

The Dardenne brothers from Belgium had already won a Cannes Palme d’Or for Rosetta but they garnered a second such award this year with L’Enfant, a heartbreaking story of a young drug dealer who finds himself a father at 20. The film, which is derived from the neo-realist tradition takes one into the heart of a contemporary Europe far removed from the bureaucrats of Brussels.

The Austrian director Michael Haneke’s Cache, his fourth French film, is even more disturbing as the awful jealousies and rivalries of childhood come back to haunt the comfortable middle class world of Daniel Auteuil. If the film seems a little forced both the opening sequence and the climactic scene stay in one’s mind much longer than one would wish.

One of the most original and talented films that you will see in the festival is Lars Von Trier’s Manderlay. Unfortunately the formal brilliance and outstanding performances of the Danish director’s second minimal look at America is marred by the same simplistic anti-Americanism which informed Dogville. Von Triers ability with actors and camera and the intelligence of the script which fantasises about a plantation on which slavery had not been abolished finally adds up to no more than a standard denunciation of American mendacity and violence.

It’s probably my age but the two films that I am determined to see are in the “Treasures from the Archive” section. Sam Peckinpah’s Major Dundee has, at its centre, one of Charlton Heston’s most striking performances as the eponymous hero. Every version of this post-civil war Western so far shown has been a pale reflection, more a butchered corpse of the film that Peckinpah failed to complete in 1964. Sony have now produced a new cut with a new score and there seems a good chance that a masterpiece awaits. Equally tempting is a director’s cut of Antonioni’s The Passenger. The third of Antonioni’s English language films, this story of swapped identities stars Jack Nicholson just before he made Chinatown and Maria Schneider fresh from her debut in Last Tango in Paris.

archive collage

Left to right : still from Major Dundee and The Passenger

Back in 1956 the two breaking stars were Akira Kurosawa and Satyajit Ray. It is now twenty years since the focus of world cinema moved from west to east and the last decade has seen the astonishing emergence of Korean cinema. The LFF has always kept one abreast of developments in Asian cinema and this year is no exception. If you could take the astonishing ultra-violence of Old Boy then Park Chan Wook’s Sympathy for Lady Vengeance may well be the most desired ticket of the festival. The cycle of revenge opened by Old Boy comes to a spectacularly unpleasant conclusion in the final film of the trilogy.

A good idea of the range of Korean cinema and probably an easier ticket to acquire is the compilation film If You Were Me 2. A selection of shorts on the theme of human rights, all the leading directors worked for free and managed to turn in pieces so sharp, acute and funny that the film had a commercial life in Korea.

To really enjoy the festival you need time, time to take in two or three films a day. It is a curiosity of watching films that the more you see, the more interesting they become. A film which you would dismiss as boring and clichéd if it was your Saturday night entertainment reveals, if it’s your third film of the day, a shot here, a performance there, which is illuminating. Above all if you take in the full range of the festival, sample all its sections and as many countries as possible you are offered a picture of the world more compelling and more accurate than that available on CNN.

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