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BFI London Film Festival 2022, Dispatch #1: EO / Joyland / Enys Men


Jerzy Skolimowski, EO
EO

Consider this my official petition to cease labelling any and all movies about donkeys as adjacent to or reminiscent of Au Hasard Balthazar. Jerzy Skolimowski's EO is, emphatically, nothing like Robert Bresson's classic, not least for its perceptiveness - only the dimmest could mistake Bresson's mule dutifully plopping down in the film's final scene for its death. Skolimowski's depiction of a donkey's life is far more believable - want to know how a donkey looks when approached with love, or confronted with violence, or plunged into despair? It looks pretty much as it does here: blank. So, how to elicit compassion and concern in an audience when your protagonist is almost devoid of all visual emotion?


That's no trouble for Skolimowski, who's always willing to fill his films with all manner of expressive techniques, and who's never in danger of seeming too subtle. The overload of technical dazzle succeeds due to both this seasoned filmmaker's skill and to the sincerity with which it is deployed - all Skolimowski's efforts mean this is really never the titular donkey's story, but his own, yet it's always a story told with empathy and earnestness, and the dazzle is genuinely dazzling. It's also startlingly capricious, with each of the many new chapters in little EO's life possessing a distinct tenor and style; it feels less episodic than it does serialized, so it's unmistakably all the one piece and not some quasi-anthology. An Italian chapter near the end submits notions of identification on personal and spiritual plains that I didn't favour, but they're only unnecessary additions, not necessary subtractions from what is otherwise a film of great beauty and accomplishment.


Alina Khan, Saim Sadiq, Joyland
Joyland

All the good intentions in the world can't save a project predestined for doom, but all the good filmmaking might! Saim Sadiq's feature-length debut Joyland is compelling, convincing, and crafted with a level of artistic acuity one would expect of a director decades into their career; would that it could deliver on the progressive promise it trafficks through all that artistry. The promise is evident from the film's first few seconds - sound first, followed by touch, the quick clip of a hand against another's arm, opening up sight. A cut later in the film operates similarly, the image flipping 180º, again at the instant cue of brief physical contact. Throughout, sensorial and physical expression communicates deep reserves of closeted, constrained emotion in Joyland's characters, and Sadiq's mise-en-scene is rich with detail, his perspective fragmented in its focus yet never lacking in interest nor insight. Every character has their own agency and, thus, their own dignity - when they appear in frame, they seem to matter so integrally to the film as to become the protagonist. There is, indeed, one clear central character here, but his absence is never felt when the focus shifts; Sadiq has woven his web of characters so supplely and sympathetically that each and all seem somehow present at all times.


I just wish Sadiq hadn't let that substitute for actual attention. To be uncharacteristically unobtuse for a moment: Alina Khan's character, Biba, is a trans woman, and her trans identity is crucial to both her development and that of surrounding characters. It's a detail depicted with a realism that's sometimes punishing - Joyland doesn't shy away from showing prejudice with clarity and brutal honesty, and Sadiq has a strong handle on how it manifests and the effects it takes. He doesn't resort to preachiness to compensate, which is noble, but once the discomfort reaches its painful peak, instead of resolving it, he lets it stagnate and plots a path away from Biba. There's nothing specifically wrong with what ensues - it's what doesn't ensue that's wrong, as Biba becomes an afterthought, her story (which had genuinely been quite riveting) tied up simplistically and abandoned. There's a meaningful difference between how the film regards Biba and how some of its more ignorant characters regard her, but given the neglect with which it eventually treats her, that regard is inherently problematic. There's so much excellence in how Sadiq has crafted this film, but what he's crafted is fundamentally flawed, and so that excellence has been put to a less-than-excellent purpose.


Mary Woodvine, Enys Men, Mark Jenkin
Mary Woodvine in Enys Men

Idiosyncratic Cornish auteur Mark Jenkin yields to the temptation of greater mainstream acceptance with Enys Men, his most accessible and, perhaps, his least distinctive work to date. It's a mild disappointment in those terms, but Jenkin's still a fantastic filmmaker, and Enys Men is a excellent vehicle for his prodigious talents. He aligns himself here with such fellow contemporary British directors as Peter Strickland, Jonathan Glazer and Thomas Clay, delving into horror with impressive aptitude. His style makes for a fine fit with the demands of the genre, though there's the rub: I wish his style had made a few more demands of its own and bent the genre to his will. Ultimately, there's something a tad too derivative about this film, but it's never less than satisfying, and certainly, consistently, a distinctly Mark Jenkin film.


And if that reads like I think he's regressing as an artist, then I suppose I'm regressing as a writer, since that's not the case at all. The precision with which Jenkin fashions his images and his soundscapes, the brilliance and intensity of his designs, the seductive strangeness of how he distorts time and depth of field - that grain, shimmering like heatwaves - this is stuff out of his head and his head only, and newly refined. It's also the deliberate creation of art through the materials of the medium, rather than the exposing of the art through those materials - the style is the substance, basically, and it's really substantial! As this slippery film begins to coyly coalesce its signs and wonders toward the end, though never with anything so blunt as confirmation of whatever theories you've formed of it, Jenkin's naked artifice starts to seem less artificial; it acquires a certain solidity of purpose, which I'm not sure is quite what it needs, but then I'm not sure it's quite what it needs not either. It does seem appropriate to be left with a sense of uncertainty after reflecting on such a decidedly opaque object.

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