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BFI London Film Festival 2022, Dispatch #8: Godland, The Wonder, Aftersun

Godland, Elliott Crosset Hove, Hlynur Palmason
Elliott Crosset Hove in Godland

There's clear intent to every shot, every sound, every creative choice made in Hlynur Palmason's patient, intriguing Godland, but precisely what intent it is remains a mystery. More problematic is precisely what the impact of that intent is - this is a project where great care has been taken to engender some specific response in the viewer yet, in this particular viewer, such response was to throw back at its myriad coy little questions another question: "Why?" The doomed arrogance of the colonizer, the needless strictures of organized religion, the subtle, unspoken power struggles between persons of different origins, classes, genders - all explored here with little apparent new insight, in the kind of deliberate style that implies clear subtextual communication at work. But Godland communicated so little to me that I wonder if this style is not to communicate anything at all but plainly, cynically to imply it, and nothing more. It feels like the kind of European arthouse title that craves the attention of European arthouse audiences by mimicking the moods and motions of their most successful movies without developing any of its own. In short, it feels like a fake.

Palmason keeps his own style fairly simple, yes mimicking the style of other, similar filmmakers, but not with egregious abandon. His flourishes are kept in check, and some are more compelling than others: I'll long remember the camera dragged up a muddy hill alongside the movie's protagonist after one especially injurious tumble, as if tethered equally to him and to the earth. The movie is certainly stronger at establishing a sense of environmental specificity, from clammy, marshy expanses amid barren, stony mountains, to drizzle-soaked seas and coasts in the same shade of slate grey as far as the eye can see. It's a cold movie, quite literally, and undeniably expressive in depicting this unyielding, soul-sapping frostiness. But I can't figure out what else it's trying to express, if anything else at all, and the visage it displays of at least appearing to do so makes for a frustratingly obstinate experience.

Florence Pugh, Kila Lord Cassidy, The Wonder, Sebastian Lelio
Florence Pugh and Kila Lord Cassidy in The Wonder

Colonial arrogance and religious dogma are exposed and explored with considerably more potency in Sebastian Lelio's The Wonder, which feels like a fine meeting of minds: Lelio co-adapted the screenplay from Emma Donoghue's book alongside Donoghue herself and Alice Birch, here re-teaming with her Lady Macbeth collaborator Florence Pugh. Little is said explicitly of the details nor the nature of the colonialism underlying every interaction in this movie, which ultimately doesn't find the right balance between its narrative-driven directness and the strangeness that Lelio seems to want to push further, only to be pulled back to reality and forced to finish what his story has started. But little needs said, for the discerning viewer can detect it, and Donoghue is an intelligent writer - nothing has been established here without a clear, complete sense of what begat it, from the suspicions of the Irish natives toward their English visitors, to the extreme sensitivity of people in matters regarding food, faith, and death in a freshly decimated post-famine nation. The wounds are raw enough that the only way to reconcile the collective pain of so many may be, alas, to add yet one more - to stem the blood flow by stopping the heart.

Lelio tries a thing or two here and there, and continues to convince me he's not at all sure of what kind of filmmaker he wants to be. There's a shallow experimentalism in fits and spurts, which, in principle, I'm somewhat opposed to, though, in practice, I'm really just glad he hasn't invested any more in it. If nothing else, it adds another mildly unusual edge to The Wonder, even if it consistently contributes to an air of unreality that this story emphatically does not need. The actors rescue things - Pugh is a most charismatic performer, and newcomer Kila Lord Cassidy is incredibly vivid in an extremely demanding part. Without the breadth of an entire novel, this story's necessary condensing makes it a little heavy and broad at times - there's only so many incident-packed encounters and important philosophical conversations to be had on the same stretch of road before it starts to feel like they were all shot on the same day. But this is an arresting movie with an excellent cast and a genuine understanding of what it wants to say, even if it doesn't always say it perfectly.

Francesca Corio, Paul Mescal, Aftersun, Charlotte Wells
Francesca Corio and Paul Mescal in Aftersun

I'm not wholly convinced that, were it not for the internet's insatiable crush on Paul Mescal, Charlotte Wells' Aftersun wouldn't be meeting with less effusive adulation, but then I'm not wholly convinced otherwise. Mescal's pretty good in Aftersun, in the kind of low-key, easygoing way that everything about it's pretty good, but in the end it's just another personal tale from another filmmaker unduly insistent that their tale is worth telling. Maybe it is, and for sure it's not not worth telling, but this feels like the kind of introspective, compassionate emotional reflection that one might put together at the end of applied therapy treatment, albeit much more professional and substantial than such a work would surely be. Little things are afforded large emphasis, and seemingly meaningless moments are afforded retroactive meaning with hindsight; Wells has put the pieces of this tale together with hindsight at the head of things, so you never forget you're witnessing something vividly meaningful... to her. For me at least, it's not very vivid, and it's not very meaningful.

Which is all a bit cruel - I don't mind this movie really, and it's never less than involving. Wells has an excellent touch when she lets it stay subtle and enigmatic, allowing simple sights and sounds to acquire evocativeness quite casually. There are some intriguing, attractive shots fragmenting perspective through multiple planes of action, and the soundtrack is utterly pitch-perfect for the time and place. And Mescal, of course, proves the worth of the aforementioned crush everyone seems mandated to have on him - he's magnetic, distinctly physical and present in a manner that recalls Franz Rogowski, though without his simmering vitality. Altogether, it's a fine movie, but it never becomes more than fine, never less, just always pretty good. And that's pretty much it.

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