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BFI London Film Festival 2022, Dispatch #2: All That Breathes / Holy Spider / One Fine Morning

All That Breathes, Shaunak Sen
All That Breathes

So I know the cutting room floor isn't really a thing anymore with digital editing software de rigeur, and that's probably for the best for the makers of All That Breathes - they'd be up to their eyes! For a documentary like this, that's a good thing - this is just the good stuff, in fact it's the really good stuff, the stuff that makes you marvel how stuff like this even comes into being without extensive staging... For real though, this is a marvellous doc, designed beautifully and mounted sensitively, evidently conceived and created with compassion. The way Sen combines patience and calm bordering on stateliness with spontaneous jolts of wit is very beguiling, and his subjects are terrific - I could listen to them bicker and kid and philosophize and pontificate for hours more, and watch them go about their noble work for weeks more.

I'm just not totally certain the film's own nobility is wholly earnt. Portraits of people doing good for the world, whether on a large scale or just little by little, themselves have the power and the potential to do good of their own, and All That Breathes doesn't acknowledge this potential. It remains only a portrait, and a very handsome one too; and nor do I crave some American-style preachy inspirational bent. But there's a dire crisis being depicted here, and Sen doesn't even attempt to contextualize it beyond capturing an occasional remark from his subjects. I try not to critique movies based on what they're not, but it's clear that what this movie is is a missed opportunity, especially when it reaches an abrupt end before reaching anything resembling resolution. It's still a lovely film, though, and very well made otherwise.

Zar Amir-Ebrahimi, Holy Spider, Ali Abbasi
Zar Amir-Ebrahimi in Holy Spider

Less lovely is Ali Abbasi's Holy Spider, which unfortunately confirms a few of the reservations I had about the Iranian-Swedish filmmaker following his last film, 2018's Border, which overall I did enjoy. This is a film of grinding tension and graphic imagery, and it has real, honest bite, but it seems to exist only as a chronicle of the events it depicts, and neither to provide nor to enable any reflection upon them nor what they signify. It's deliberate provocation for provocation's sake, which doesn't feel like a great approach to telling the story of a society all too happy to turn a blind eye to a serial killer of prostitutes because it values them as lowly as he does. There's much to dig into there, but what much Abbasi makes of it is trite and obvious, though it's all still worth stating.

Abbasi proves himself a stronger director than writer here, constructing sequences of simmering intensity in glaring strip lighting, and sending his lens deep into the dirt, zeroing in on face after face - always the faces, expressing intention and reaction, hopes and fears, the work of a uniformly excellent ensemble cast. It's thus that Holy Spider makes what impact it does, rendering its violence all the gnarlier, its drama all the more potent. But Abbasi doesn't know when enough is enough, and undermines the film's most potent point - the irony in its outcomes - by over-emphasis. Whether it's a true story or not, there's a certain inevitability to how this story is surely going to work itself out, and Abbasi seems to want to play it coy in this regard, signalling too hard to make it amply shocking in the end, but not hard enough to properly unpick that irony. Another missed opportunity then!

Lea Seydoux, One Fine Morning, Mia Hansen-Love
Lea Seydoux in One Fine Morning

Not even the excellent reviews Bergman Island received could convince me to give Mia Hansen-Love another go. It's not that I think she's a bad filmmaker, it's that I've grown pretty fucking tired of French films about average bougie people doing average bougie things for a while. But One Fine Morning is in the London Film Festival this year, and I had the time, and honestly I'm not mad I gave Hansen-Love another go after all. I still don't buy into the notion that she, nor any of her stylistic kin in the French film industry, is destined to go down as one of the great cinematic artists in her country's history, nor that One Fine Morning is destined to go down as one of her great works, but it's a nice little journey through the little highs and lows of a year in the life of an average bougie woman doing average bougie things. There's an extra-marital affair, there are shelves heaving with books, there are social gatherings with wine and discussion of social movements in terms that indicate none of these people really understand what they're about, and the only surprising thing is there's also me, kind of enjoying all of this.

And Hansen-Love isn't without her gifts as a filmmaker, even if she seems happier deploying those gifts sporadically five somewhat anemic character dramas than coalescing them into one grand cinematic achievement. One Fine Morning adds yet more layers to her excavations of modern families, specifically the position of paternal figures within them, and with real insight. It's also wondrously lived-in - these don't look nor feel like movie sets at all, they don't even feel dressed to resemble real life, they just feel like real life, bestowing upon a story that might else have been scuppered by its middle-of-the-road middle-class ennui a quality of verisimilitude that makes every scene seem essential. And she's astute, and not ostentatious with her astuteness - I particularly appreciated her use of openings and closings, apertures, entries and exits, beginnings and endings here. It's all very finely done, but is it gonna convince me to give the next Mia Hansen-Love a go? Alas, I'm doubtful, but I've no doubt that I'd enjoy it too!


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