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LFF 2018: Long Day's Journey Into Night, If Beale Street Could Talk, Five Men and a Caravaggio

Kiki Layne and Stephan James in If Beale Street Could Talk

"Please join our protagonist," reads the opening cue to Bi Gan's Long Day's Journey Into Night, referring to the specific point, roughly 60% of the way into this extraordinary feature, where said protagonist dons a pair of 3D glasses in a movie theatre, and we are thus instructed to follow his lead and do the same. A long day of wistful recollections, fruitless searches, and aimless wanderings culminates in a single shot of fantasy rooted firmly in reality, night as experienced through a dream that is yet more palpable, more fulfilling than any genuine reality. It's literally in 3D - and what sumptuous, richly-rendered 3D it is! Bi's journey into the parameters of what this medium can produce has filtered out all the fluff, all that is inessential to what he intends to express; Long Day's Journey is an immensely expressive, immersive experience in nostalgia as articulated via a perfectly calibrated selection of techniques whose potential has been honed to the ultimate level.

Nostalgia is a yucky thing in the wrong hands, precisely because those hands exploit it for purposes that betray its definition: '-algia' from the Greek 'algos', meaning 'pain'. Bi Gan's hands are nothing but right, however, and the premises under which he employs nostalgia are ideal - the characters in Long Day's Journey are haunted and defined by their respective pasts, whether casting them in crushing stasis or adrift in a state of meandering listlessness. We follow these characters along roads, through tunnels, over trees, down a lens that shadows them in their journeys toward... something, anything, nothing? Like all lives lived in their past, the present is a place too uncomfortable to frequent for too long - memories and the vain hope that those memories might be retrieved and once again made real provide the only escapes. With monumental technical accomplishment on an intimate scale, Bi Gan mounts a remarkable movie, every one of its long shots (and, particularly, the longest of all) impossibly riveting, every detail captured therein possessing of vitality to the experience overall, that experience one of utter, unrelenting beauty and magnetism.

The pursuit of beauty is explored not only in Bi Gan's Kaili, but in Barry Jenkins' Harlem; the writer-director's third feature to date, If Beale Street Could Talk confirms Jenkins as one of America's foremost living cinema stylists, and surely its most lyrical and empathetic. A series of vignette-like scenarios chronicling life in a small community within the sprawl of NYC, focused on the spaces its characters consider as home, and on the faces of those characters, this is a tangibly personal work of beautiful dramatic filmmaking and exquisitely compassionate storytelling. Its artistic merits are only ever in direct service of that storytelling, its cast's deeply-felt performances similarly respectful of the nature of the material and what it conveys. In all, Beale Street is a perfectly-formed chamber piece, in that it communicates perfectly what it intends to communicate - no more, no less.

This is not to say that the movie is literally perfect (not even Long Day's Journey Into Night is that!) - such is the grand, overwhelming humanity pouring forth from its enormous heart that Jenkins occasionally loses perspective. The actors' faces, so bounteous with love, are themselves captured with so much unflinching love that Beale Street fails a little in contextualizing all this emotion. So the movie doesn't always find the most compelling way to connect with its audience in conveying its messages, and it gets a little corny at times. But only the stoniest of hearts could refuse it clemency in this aspect - if it's too earnest in general, it's also too earnestly warm and openly embracing to be dismissed. Through a wondrous synergy of tone and technique, Jenkins, cast and crew collaboratively execute a splendid, 2-hour-long swoon, and a love story that's also a tribute to love itself.

Simon de Reyer in Five Men and a Caravaggio

I close out my 2018 LFF experience with a somewhat dispiriting disappointment in the form of Guo Xiao Lu's Five Men and a Caravaggio. This most inimitable Chinese filmmaker has been working in documentary for the past decade, and has transposed her artistic skills honed in feature filmmaking in the years prior to this medium, and to mixed result in this latest effort. It's essentially a rumination on pretention, only actively engaging with and supporting the white male British wankery of its three principal characters; relief offered by a couple of alternative perspectives doesn't provide quite the counterpoint one might desire, though there's a distinct and welcome hint of ethnography to every observation Guo makes here. Every discussion seems to be on art, and every decision on Guo's part bears the mark of an artist conducting casual experiments, albeit on a lowly, mundane scale - this is an ugly film aesthetically, and a rather shallow one thematically.

It's difficult to decipher whether Guo's observations in Five Men are banal and insubstantial, or if there's a subtextual purpose to them that affords them a level of profundity; the latter would make sense, given the character of her protagonists, but the inescapable insufferability of their exchanges negates the profundity for which they appear to strive, and the rub-off effect on Guo is unflattering. They find flaws even in the work of Caravaggio, as Guo's flaws are laid bare in her micro-budget approach, though merely commenting on one's deficiencies as an artist and weaving such commentary into the fabric of one's work doesn't quite change their nature as deficiencies, and Guo never even seems to try to find a plausible excuse for them, nor adequate distraction from them. Odd to witness a regression on this scale from such a talent - financing issues or not, Five Men and a Caravaggio feels like the work of a student filmmaker, someone who's definitely onto something, but that something just is not yet enough.

And that concludes my 2018 London Film Festival coverage! I saw more films than ever before, in this my sixth year at the festival - finally acquiring a press pass obviously made a difference - though wouldn't consider my selections from this year's crop a vintage one, certain blatant exceptions aside. I only missed one title that I'd planned to catch - Diamantino, which I'd actually paid to see in a public screening, having unavoidably missed the press screening, and which was one of my most-anticipated of the fest, thus remaining as such until I eventually get the chance to see it - though, in fact, this is the first scheduled screening I've missed in six years at LFF, which is pretty good going (it goes without saying that I've actually missed hundreds of titles every year, given that there are hundreds at the festival every year). The press' Digital Viewing Library is still up, however, and there's a few more titles I plan on seeing via that platform, so keep an eye out for reviews - they'll be posted as plain reviews, and not as part of my LFF coverage.

To wrap up, here's how I'd rank certain achievements from this year's fest:

Best Film

1. Roma (Alfonso Cuaron)

2. Long Day's Journey Into Night (Bi Gan)

3. Widows (Steve McQueen)

Best Performance

1. Kacey Mottet Klein (Diary of My Mind)

2. Regina Hall (Support the Girls)

3. Fanny Ardant (Diary of My Mind)

Best Short Film

1. Monelle (Diego Marcon)

2. Accidence (Evan Johnson, Galen Johnson and Guy Maddin)

3. Solar Walk (Reka Bucsi)

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