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BFI London Film Festival 2022, Dispatch #12: The Damned Don't Cry, Living, Herbaria

Aicha Tebbae, Abdellah el Hajjouji, The Damned Don't Cry, Fyzal Boulifa
Aicha Tebbae and Abdellah el Hajjouji in The Damned Don't Cry

The caustic glamour of noir, already beginning to fray by the time Vincent Sherman made The Damned Don't Cry in 1950, passed through filter upon filter until it emerges as this: Fyzal Boulifa's The Damned Don't Cry, whose hazy little recollections of that bygone genre come and go as if to taunt its characters. For them, success isn't even appearing to thrive, it's simple survival itself; the fashions are shabbier, the gangsters and players sadder, the dream yet further away with every step closer. In the opening sequence of still lifes, it's hard to determine what's the more wrong: is it the dank concrete sullying the beauty of the objects before it, or the objects themselves, less beautiful with every lingering second? There's love, honesty and intimacy, occasionally even a wretched flash of hope, in this scabrous, unsanitized movie's heaving, throbbing heart, but by the end it's all so tainted it can only express itself as spite and cruelty.

It's not a difficult watch, though. Boulifa wields the noirish qualities of his narrative to craft a work of welcoming familiarity, and walks his characters down realistic, simplistic paths to their inglourious fates. He infuses every encounter with compassion, aided by two excellent lead performers, and doesn't ever permit things to descend into overly grim, kitchen-sink grittiness, nor permit them to slide into abrasive experimentalism. It makes the abruptness that he employs at testier moments all the more startling - this is a subtly, quietly confrontational movie, and it keeps finding new ways to challenge your expectations, not despite its schematic narrative progression but due to it, since that's the last thing you'd expect from a movie possessed of such brash curiosities, and since they're the last thing you'd expect from a movie possessed of such a schematic narrative. An artful, sympathetic movie that rewards interest and consideration.

Bill Nighy, Living, Oliver Hermanus
Bill Nighy in Living

But if you find The Damned Don't Cry altogether too challenging, boy do I have the movie for you! Oliver Hermanus and Kazuo Ishiguro's adaptation of the Kurosawa classic Yojimbo, Living, is a gentle, careful movie of simple nature and simple pleasures. From first to last, you know where you stand with this movie - it's as curt as a chilly British wind, as direct as cutting British humour, and as warm as a humble British fire, slowly drawing a room to life and settling one's heart, mind, body and soul. It has a sharpness that offsets its sentimentality, something not only distinctly British but also distinctly Japanese; it figures that this English take on a Japanese story has been undertaken by an English man of Japanese heritage. Ishiguro lays on the British-isms a little thick, and South African director Hermanus belabours the formality and formalism a little hard, but their endeavour is well-intentioned and fundamentally generous, both to its audience and to its characters.

I'm torn between dismissing this movie for its occasional deviations from expectation and lauding it for them. On one hand, they're needless and largely ineffectual, and there's a certain sense of comfort that's lost in the application of these quirks, like the old-fashioned opening credits, which struck me a little cringeworthy in their overt retroism. On the other hand, they do help prevent Living from becoming mundane, just another sweet, simple little weepy that takes no chances and offers nothing new. However it's been designed, though, it's consistently clear that this movie's primary purposes are best communicated by its cast, and they're uniformly terrific, from the delicate, expressive Bill Nighy to the alert, astute Alex Sharp. Best of all, though, is Aimee Lou Wood, enormously charismatic in a crucial supporting part. She's the spark that lights this movie's humble fire and draws the whole thing to life.

Leandro Listorti, Herbaria

Film is an organic material in Herbaria, a movie that's equal parts incisive inquiry into archival practices, their processes and purposes, and the surprisingly profound association between a natural world in disturbing decline and the maintenance and storage of historical film reels, and lulling mood piece on the physical and sensorial attributes of objects, and the quasi-meditative act of observing dedicated workers engage in simple manual labour. Leandro Listorti doesn't just dwell on the physical, the actual, though - he delves deeper into the topics that propel his movie, querying how and why things have become as they are, and how and why they might become what they may be in future. "Value is always relational," a voice states at one point, and we discern the link between value and the person making the valuation, and then ask who is qualified to carry out such a task, and what influences bear upon their conclusions. Pointedly, Herbaria depicts mostly white people carrying out work on land stolen from indigenous peoples of colour, and records things in measurements of time constructed around white conceptualization of time; film, too, in 2022, remains an elite artist's pursuit, a material generally reserved for the white artist.

There's a great deal to appreciate in this movie, even if it doesn't have quite the assertive strength it'd require to coalesce its various musings into a single, compelling statement (this rather feels like the point, though, that it remains a roaming, fundamentally indecisive work to the last). Technically, it's quite sumptuous, especially in its marvellous sound design; Listorti recognizes the pure aesthetic value in witnessing materials in their truest form, and his movie is full of the most fabulous textures and tones. He also recognizes the worth in good work well done, and so not only commends himself to follow suit but focuses therein on depictions of good work being done well - hands at work, objects at work, images on screens as the film passes in front of it. And it lives! It lives so vividly that purely to digitize it means to destroy it, which here ignited a most edifying personal debate for me regarding Damien Hirst's recent project in digitizing and subsequently destroying his art. An excellent, intellectually provocative movie.


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