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LFF Review: Martin Eden / Guest of Honour / Ema

Luca Marinelli in Pietro Marcello's Martin Eden
Luca Marinelli in Martin Eden

A patchwork of impressions make up Pietro Marcello's infuriatingly vague and imprecise Martin Eden, though a patchy brilliance beams through in fits and spurts. With only ever sporadic attention to any single artistic or philosophical impulse, Marcello casts a diffuse eye across a wide range of topics over a large space of time, settling only on his protagonist for a sense of continuity. Yet even there Marcello wavers, almost as a matter of artistic principle, with Luca Marinelli's Eden an impetuous, unpredictable, often unfathomable centre to a whirlwind of ideas upon ideas. A more learned viewer than myself might observe meaning and purpose within these ideas, though as flimsily unintegrated as they are into the movie's textual and stylistic material, most of them flew way over my head. Being caught up in Marcello's whirlwind might be rewarding, but watching it from a distance swiftly becomes boring. To stave off that boredom, latch onto whatever takes your fancy: Marinelli is a compelling, convincing presence, never less than wholly committed to his role; there's a certain, not entirely successful aesthetic invention at play here, though it's not entirely unsuccessful either - the period detail is marvellous, though the anachronisms are just naff. Alas, when a movie this rich in detail reduces its audience to commenting on the quality of the acting and the prettiness of the sets, it's perhaps failed in its mission - maybe it's just too clever for its own good, or maybe I'm just too stupid. How much these people know! How little I care!

David Thewlis in Atom Egoyan's Guest of Honour
David Thewlis in Guest of Honour

The riskiest safe hands in the business belong to one Atom Egoyan, Canada's most determined purveyor of the depravities of the human soul. Guest of Honour is the latest in his recent string of objectively commercial projects shot through with liberal doses of his trademark perversity, and the diverse manners through which it continues to reassert itself are enormously interesting from a scholarly perspective. From the immediate perspective of a viewer, however, they're starting to look seriously lacking in substance. A woman refuses early release from prison for a crime she knows she didn't commit; her father, a food inspector, searches through her troubled history for the reasons why. Very little that he finds will shock you as much as it may shock these characters, and it's neither salacious enough to create the desired sickening effect nor odd enough to evoke the desired shock effect. The oddities that both enliven Guest of Honour and damn it, then, are in such basic plot points as I describe above - a food inspector? Bizarrely obsessed with rabbits? Played by David Thewlis? Egoyan has every right and every capability to make all of this oddness add up, yet here he seems so in thrall to meaningless quirk, he doesn't attend to filling them out with the kind of rich connective tissue that once made his movies so gratifying to watch, even as they too indulged in outright implausibility and unapologetic taboo-baiting. Egoyan actually takes too few real risks in Guest of Honour, and the result is one of his safest, and thus most disappointing works to date.

Mariana di Girolamo in Pablo Larrain's Ema
Mariana di Girolamo in Ema

No-one knows Pablo Larrain can direct better than Pablo Larrain himself, and why shouldn't he?! Ema is his latest virtuoso showcase, all vivid imagery feverishly edited together into a grand montage of sound, image and overall artistic vision. Its core is rather shallow, alas, and its apparently singular purpose of demonstrating the full breadth of Larrain's technical capabilities is equally shallow, but damn it if it doesn't make an impression! Paradoxically, all this jagged fragmentation is more tolerable when it's not causing an obstruction to a solid story, and Ema's more nebulous portrait of a character - a particularly volatile character - is thus the ideal vehicle for Larrain's intentional stylistic waywardness. It's precisely just a portrait, not an examination - rather than probing ever deeper inward, Larrain moves outward from his movie's centre, displacing it until it exists no longer and any and every which way from here seems viable. That yields some rewards, and is certainly fitting for that character, a polyamorous dancer played by Mariana di Girolamo with persistent vigour, but it's also an approach that produces a frustratingly vague, insecure picture. By the end, you feel Larrain is using his overbearing style to impose some kind of significant objective upon his movie, rather than drawing the former from the latter, since the latter barely exists. If it's a movie admirably unconcerned with whether or not its audience likes it (and thus a marvellous artistic mirror for its main character), it at least seems to crave our respect. If you find your capacity to bestow such respect dwindling ever further as Ema drags on, focus on the good stuff: it's handsomely performed, boasts a brilliant soundtrack, and Larrain's melding of mood, emotion and physical/psychological space is magnificent.

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