Some creature this is... Asif Kapadia appeared in person prior to my public screening of his latest work, a collaboration with choreographer Akram Khan that evolved out of a more traditional stage production he had planned. Kapadia, flanked by Khan and a bountiful lineup of cast and crew, promised the audience something they'd never seen before, something none of the team had ever even attempted before. Now, Kapadia's no great innovator - we know this from his previous films which, for all that several may have entertained and inspired, have never exactly been cutting edge. And this did all seem, from the earnest expressions of the filmmakers, the demographics of the audience, and what little I'd gleaned from the LFF blurb on the movie, like a real Southbank proposition, the kind of middlebrow, middle-of-the-road, middling cinematic objet d'art that's just ever so slightly spiky, just enough to make a middle-class, middle-aged audience feel quite profoundly moved. When you're used to moving for no-one and nothing, a gentle nudge can feel like an almighty shove. So I approached Creature with some scepticism, and so you'd be entirely justified in dismissing my evaluation of the movie altogether, because you could say that every single scepticism I held prior to seeing it was not only upheld after seeing it but, in fact, amplified.
Billed as some kind of fusion of live performance and cinematic creation, Creature is really just a filmed performance of a show that no-one's gonna get to see live anyway, so it's not even half the show it might've been, but less than half. For such brilliant artists as these dancers, each and every one a performer at the very top of their field on an international level, to have to give so much of their artistry to creatives intent on nothing more than just watching, just pointing the camera in their direction, is borderline offensive. Creature is no artistic fusion - it's artistic negation. There's no attention paid to how dance can and should be captured in recorded media, no appreciation of physical form and motion, nothing even nearly as sophisticated as the camera work on a standard episode of Strictly Come Dancing or Dancing with the Stars. And there's not even any need for the cameras at all, since Kapadia's use of off-set location filming is reserved for, I think, three or four exterior shots, and the stage remains the same ordinary three-wall black box space throughout. So the dancing is great, sure, but it's literally all that's great - the costumes are banal, the lighting is perfunctory, the set is dull, the sound and editing effects are corny, the story is grindingly derivative, and the gender dynamics are so retrograde you wonder if we all got so hot and bothered about Game of Thrones' sexism for nothing. I had a VHS of Andrew Lloyd Webber's Cats as a kid, and it was better than this, because at least I could sing along to it. This is actively unartistic, the needless adorning of actual artistic and technical excellence with tepid, vacuous trumphery, an assertion that fusing multiple media together is, by definition, an improvement, when in fact Kapadia has only done Khan's dancers a horrible disservice.
No surprise for me to learn that Our Lady of the Chinese Shop director Ery Claver also wrote and shot 2020's Air Conditioner; no surprise either that this movie, his feature-length directorial debut, should be excellent. Indeed, it's better than Air Conditioner - it takes itself somewhat more seriously, perhaps a tad too seriously at times, but it's more poetic, emotionally richer, and its ambitiousness pays off thanks to Claver's smart use of his prodigious narrative and aesthetic gifts. It shares with Air Conditioner a preoccupation with climate, from depictions of characters cooking and boiling water, to shots of buckets full of rain leakage, and the significance of both fire and water come the story's end. Claver and DP Eduardo Kropotkine's palette merges electric blues and burnished oranges at night, and basks in blinding white in the day; every image seems to have a distinct temperature, an atmosphere evident in the sights, sounds and performances captured herein. Artistically, this is an immensely rewarding movie indeed.
Claver takes his enigmatic, contemplative drama to an unexpected place some halfway through with an extended flashback that's heavy on the symbolism, but ditches the poetic abstraction of the narration overlaid on much of the rest of his movie. It's an audacious gambit, and it has its merits, but it's not as successful as it needs to be. The anxiety that has built up to this point dissipates a bit during this didactic sequence, whose portentous revelations clarify less than they underline, though their grim implications do hold some power. And if Claver's experimenting, he's most entitled to do so - he's a major talent, and what he achieves with his experiments isn't without value. Our Lady of the Chinese Shop is a beautifully expressive work of subtly powerful political art, and an extremely impressive debut feature.
The decaying commercial accoutrements of unfulfillable aspirations adorn Ulrich Seidl's Rimini, a typically tongue-in-cheek comedy for the Austrian auteur, but perhaps one of his lightest, most tender movies too. He doesn't exactly traverse much new territory here - the setting may be Italy, but most of the dialogue is German - just condenses certain elements of his usual artistic and thematic preoccupations and amplifies them, and adds an extra layer of compassion that exalts the movie. It doesn't soften its hard edges, it just makes them easier to bear; this is still a most caustic of cinematic comedians seeking to fry your every nerve out of sheer discomfort. He's in full control of the chaos spinning in place, the sad-sacks who've long disavowed the hope for real satisfaction finding whatever solace they can in some semblance of it, cold and broke in a dank off-season resort city. What reckless fumblings through time here constitute a narrative just pull it wherever they drunkenly stagger next - extramarital blackmail, chatting up your own offspring, getting your pussy eaten while your elderly mother lies in bed next door. All par for the crooked course Seidl's misers must travel, a commitment to verisimilitude in the moment only undercut by his comic instincts - black as tar and grim as death, and were his skill as writer and director any less, or that of his cast, it'd all be too contrived, too self-consciously ugly to make you laugh, cry or care.
Seidl's not one for dwelling excessively on the past; rather, he dwells ever in the present, constantly astute to the fact that the two are indistinguishable. It's no wonder his characters never seem to get anywhere, when the binds of their individual histories tug only harder, dig only deeper the more they struggle to free themselves. Their cycles of behaviour end up running themselves into the ground, and if Seidl has more directly chastized Europe for its arrogant obsession with its heritage in other films, he's never made his point quite as well as he does in Rimini. To be sure, the racial dynamics of his movie still end up contributing somewhat to the problems they aim to expose, but this is the nature of the Seidl beast, and one probably can't expect this leopard to change his spots now. You start out sniggering at the outrageousness and the tawdriness, then find yourself cringing less and reflecting more. One's discomfort at what's on screen becomes discomfort at what's in one's head, and what Seidl has to say about every white European who found this silly little comedy about a washed-up lounge singer so fucking funny. A great director at the top of his game, and I can't wait to see Sparta!