BFI London Film Festival 2021: Inexorable

A competent thriller, heavily indebted to 90s erotic thrillers and in need of a few more personal touches.

Synopsis: The lives of a wealthy publisher and her novelist husband are changed by the arrival of a mysterious young woman at their country mansion.

As far as first features go, it is hard to imagine anything more impactful than Fabrice du Welz’s Calvaire, a film that purposefully adopted the trappings of European ‘ordeal’ cinema, right down to the name. Inexorable manages to include some moments of Welz’s flair for oddness and discomfort, but otherwise, we are experiencing something far more tame and even throwback here in his take on an erotic thriller.

Marcel (Benoît Poelvoorde) is an author, living with his wealthy wife Jeanne (Mélanie Doutey) and daughter Lucie (Janaina Halloy) in a mansion left to her by Jeanne’s father. When Lucie’s new dog Ulysses runs off, the family fear the worst, but the dog is brought back in strangely commanding manner by Gloria (Alba Gaïa Bellugi). Agreeing to take on training duties, Gloria later finds herself in need of a place to stay and is invited by Jeanne to occupy a room in the mansion, bringing the competing wants and desires of them all into sharp focus.

This is a perfectly serviceable cuckoo thriller with leanings towards the erotic thriller, although with the discomfort turned up considerably. Although the plot beats here are incredibly familiar, there are a few Welz touches that threaten to shake up the format. Those moments are arguably too few and far between, but when they do arrive, they are genuinely interesting, stirring intrusions that stick in the mind. Otherwise, you can likely tell exactly where this film is headed before it sets itself in motion.

There is also some introspection in terms of Marcel’s position, particularly in his growing discomfort in trying to fill the space of the mansion, a space in need of reconstruction. The house dwarfs the family, but the spirit of wife Jeanne’s father also dwarfs Marcel – offers to move into his office trigger intense feelings of inadequacy for him that extend into other areas of his life. The setting of the house puts all the relationships under a microscope with the vast rooms offering no comfort or communal space, further fracturing the way the characters interact.

Bellugi is excellent as Gloria, able to embody the quiet, vulnerable sections as well as the more dynamic scenes required later on. Special recommendation must be made of the film’s youngest cast member Janaina Halloy who centres one of the film’s most challenging moments. Elsewhere, Mélanie Doutey makes a spectacle out of silence, expertly drawing meaning and emotion with facial expressions. In contrast, but no less effective, Benoît Poelvoorde is tasked with various near-monologues, blurting his thoughts and anger into the open.

Inexorable toys with getting a little stranger at certain points and feels like it lacks that gear change it would have if that oddness was allowed to fully flourished. Still, there is enough atmosphere and thrilling moments to soak up that you won’t come away feeling unfulfilled.

3.5 out of 5 stars

3.5 out of 5 stars

Inexorable screened as part of the BFI London Film Festival 2021.

BFI London Film Festival 2020: Rose: A Love Story

Insecurity and co-dependency are explored, with a side of leeches in this minimalistic, slow-burn horror.

Synopsis: Gripped by a violent, terrifying illness, Rose lives in seclusion with her husband, but the arrival of a stranger shatters the fragile refuge they have built.

The strengths of Rose are all based on the intimate, contained nature of it. Jennifer Sheridan’s feature directorial debut in which she also takes on editing duties uses limited, minimalistic locations, shifting all the tension into the relationship between Sam (Matt Stokoe) and Rose (Sophie Rundle). Stokoe wrote the film, but also credits Rundle with developing Rose’s character. The impact of a real couple devising and portraying the characters is that the chemistry is immediate and the comfort between the pair allows for the ebb and flow of Sam and Rose’s relationship to unfurl more elegantly.

Rose has a condition. The condition is never vocalised and instead is shown through Sam keeping the house in darkness, ordering a steady stream of leeches and being the only one to leave their isolated home for supplies. Rose, confined to the cabin, writes and shares her work with Sam, who is endlessly enthusiastic. Despite their relatively cosy existence, cracks begin to show. Is Sam’s isolation of Rose justified, or is it tipping into control? Sam’s need to protect begins to manifest as anger and even violence against those who may threaten it. Rose, however, maintains a sense of strength and at times a chirpy nature that seeks to soften Sam’s paranoid energy. The tension is never used at the expense of how much they clearly care about one another. Rundle’s Rose switches from calm, civilised and friendly, to fragile and tensed to strike. Stokoe keeps the momentum going with a script that seeks to cover a lot of ground in a short amount of time.

For the bulk of the film, the focus is upon Rose and Sam. Those looking for an action-packed vampire film will not find what they are looking for here. This is an altogether slower, more delicate vision of a condition lying under the surface for most of the time. That said, the connection with the characters and their plight makes the bursts of horror all the more impactful. It is achingly sad to see Sam and Rose deal with Amber (Olive Gray), taking on almost surrogate parenting roles and the film invites you to imagine what could have been for them. The kitchen-sink-style drama and horror ambiance make this a haunting metaphor for the struggles of caring for someone with an incurable condition. Other films would be tempted to make the relationship too one-sided, but there is a great balance here where you feel like you know and understand both. Olive Gray’s performance perfectly compliments the central duo. Troubled Amber’s circumstances lead her to view the situation with a sense of fear, coupled with curiosity and Gray, as a late arrival to the film is given a great deal to do in a short time, gains a huge amount of sympathy and feeling for Amber.

Beautifully shot on location in Powys, the wintery landscape adds a great deal to the sense of isolation and remoteness. The house itself is shot wonderfully, with the darkness adding considerably to the atmosphere and sense of walls closing in. Sheridan’s direction is all about faces and allowing moments to breathe. The film’s pace may be frustrating to some, but the more gentle exploration of a couple forced into a life they would never have chosen more than ramps up the more horrific elements.

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

You can watch Rose: A Love Story as part of the BFI London Film Festival until 8.30pm on October 16th.

The Antenna (2019) Review

The Antenna is an impressive debut feature from Orcun Behram that manages some exceptionally creepy moments and excellent imagery, but lacks the pacing to be entirely successful.

Synopsis: After new satellites are installed in an old apartment building, a mysterious substance begins to leak into the apartments, but this is only the beginning as the Midnight broadcasts bring forward something even more sinister.

The Antenna, as perhaps befitting of a debut feature wears its influences openly, including some imagery worthy of and clearly inspired by creatives like Cronenberg or Lynch. A late sequence riffs on the corridor scene Repulsion in a way that is incredibly effective, emotive and adds to the central themes. However, these influences can be seen to overwhelm Behram’s own story and direction, feeling at times like someone trying to recreate their favourite moments. That isn’t to say that there is no originality to be found – far from it – but you can certainly feel the influences more than the director’s voice. There are pacing issues here too, with the film taking a while to warm up and a few false starts.

Despite my own issues with the pacing, the slowness does to some point work in the film’s favour. The cold setting and crumbling apartment building where nothing changes provides a static and unsettling environment for the action to take place. The grey and near-identical spaces do much to isolate the characters from one another. Only Mehmet (Ihsan Onal) the building’s attendant and Yasemin (Gul Arici) have any designs on striking up friendships or even leaving the complex for something else. This creates a bond between them and while much of the film works to keep them apart as much as possible, this bond does provide a great deal of feeling.

There are times when the lack of budget and perhaps technical experience shows, although there are still attempts to provide a sense of scale for the apartment building that add to the feeling of isolation. There is a clear criticism of the ways that apartment living contribute to people living as individuals rather than in community. This is illustrated particularly by one of the residents who only takes a moment after hearing of someone’s death to start complaining about the state of her bathroom. The seeping of black goo into the private spaces within the building is well-realised and offers the opportunity to cut between spaces without having to have much interaction between characters. There are also smaller slices of satire (other than the overriding theme of state media control) which work very well, including footage of a far too gleeful home-injection beauty kit’s accompanying DIY video.

The Antenna has issues (likely due to inexperience and timing problems) but provides a keen sense of dread, the uncanny and a final shot that shows a real talent for creating disturbing imagery. If you like a slow-burn and aren’t adverse to a bit of goo, you’ll find something to like here.

3.5 out of 5 stars.

Ghost Stories (2017)

The film adaptation of the hugely successful stage play arrives, bringing new scares in a hugely compelling anthology tale.

I should preface this review with the fact that I am one of the people who saw the stage play a total of three times and therefore my experience of the film is clearly marked by that.  I’ve always considered that being a fan of Ghost Stories is a bit like being in an exclusive club of sorts.  This has its advantages (being in on the secrets and having a really fun shared experience) and also disadvantages (an inability to talk at great length on it without spoiling for others).  At the close of the play and also at the end of a Q&A featuring directors and writers Jeremy Dyson and Andy Nyman, following the screening everyone is asked to keep the secrets of Ghost Stories.  This review intends to do just that by remaining spoiler-free.

Professor Philip Goodman (Andy Nyman) is more than a sceptic.  He actively chases those he deems to be con artists through his show Psychic Cheats, inspired by an academic who has mysteriously disappeared.  The academic enlists Goodman’s assistance in the investigation of three cases he has been unable to fully debunk.  What follows is a dark exploration of ghostly encounters and the marks they leave on those affected.

The three cases are comprised of a night watchman (Paul Whitehouse), a student (Alex Lawther) and finally, a businessman (Martin Freeman).  With such a small ensemble and the format of the anthology film limiting screen time, it becomes more important that each character is dynamic and instantly fully-formed.  Whitehouse is a real triumph and follows successfully in a long line of comedians lending their talents to darker, more dramatic material.  Lawther too, excels as a student undeniably impacted by his experience, but manages to add comedy among the pathos.  Freeman is the perfect choice for the self-involved businessman and it is a role he performs well.  Lastly, Nyman’s performance maintains the intensity of the stage role, but offers even further insight to his background and mentality.

The original aim of Ghost Stories as a play was to put familiar horror tropes onto the stage in a way which felt like something new.  This is reflected within the film adaptation and certainly has retained the stage play’s reliance on Nyman’s stage magic background in creating set pieces that feel profoundly unnerving and different to other scares.  There are a few moments where it feels like the medium of film has forced Dyson and Nyman’s hands in revealing more than is comfortable under budget restrictions and would possibly be better left as suggestion.  However, I also think there is a possibly thematic reasoning for the choices, which I clearly can’t divulge, but hopefully others see it this way too.

I am normally the first to complain about films which use excessive volume to emphasise scares and there are certainly more bombastic moments in which this is the case.  However, this is balanced by emotionally-led stories in which the quieter moments are the ones which stay with you long after the jump scares.  A booming score from Frank Ilfman, known for the impactful soundtrack for the fantastic Big Bad Wolves (2013) adds real atmosphere and sets the tone, particularly in earlier scenes.

The film is clearly aware that people who have and have not seen the stage play are watching.  As such, there are a number of elements which nod toward the stage version without alienating viewers who are new to the story.  This provides nice moments of recognition and encourages a second viewing.  For those who have seen the stage play however, there are enough differences which make the experience worthwhile.

In summary, Ghost Stories is thrilling, taught but also thoughtful, particularly surrounding the social and cultural need for the sharing of stories of the supernatural.  Brief moments of comedy allow for the occasional deep breath and sense of relief without dismantling the tension.  At the time of writing this review, very little publicity exists for the film, aside from the photograph used here.  Until the film is on general release (possibly in April 2018), I would recommend people avoid too much in the way of trailers and posters to embrace the full impact of the final film.

Ghost Stories screens at the BFI London Film Festival at Hackney Picturehouse on Saturday October 14th.  Tickets are currently sold out but check here for updates.