London Film Festival 2016: ZOOLOGY

The tagline for this Russian-set film is 'It's never too late to grow a tail'. I think 'The tale of tails' would also work (and tip the hat to a great Russian film, The Tale of Tales), as would this homage to Sam Cooke: 'Don't know much about zoology' (well if Theresa May can quote him, hollowly, why can't I?)

Here's the synopsis for Zoology (Russia, France, Germany, 2016, dir. Ivan I. Tverdovskiy) from the London Film Festival site:

Middle-aged Natasha, who shares her life with her mother and an aged cat, works as a procurement officer in a zoo, where she is the butt of her colleagues’ jokes. However, there is something mysterious about her and we soon discover that, unknown to them, Natasha has grown a tail. She goes to the doctor and has X-rays taken at the hospital, but her condition is considered inoperable. She then begins a romance with Peter, a young radiologist and, at the age of 55, new life experiences begin to open up.

Like Wild (which seems to have accidentally set the tone for all the films I've been watching) this is another film about a woman's proximity to a wild animal (or animals). Poor, dowdy, put-upon Natasha is actually executive procurement manager at a small zoo by the sea (or by a lake: I'm not sure where the film was shot), a job which involves buying mice for the pythons to eat and assorted other vitals for the caged creatures.

She is continually mocked and tormented by her lazy, less prepossessing colleagues, whose office pranks (yes, another nightmare office setting, as in Wild) go as far as filling Natasha's desk with hundreds of live mice. There is a stunning lack of respect for animals at this zoo, which is disturbing and faintly comical.

In the evenings, Natasha eats plain meals with her elderly mother in a drab apartment. Her mother is much agitated by a newspaper story she's read about a European woman who's been having sex with an ape. Natasha has her own worries, principally the long, hairless, pink, bony tail she has growing from her coccyx. She undergoes a series of tedious, inconclusive X-rays, while rumours of a devil-woman with a tail spread around her fearful, superstitious, community. 

Natasha is in quite a predicament, poised at the beginning of some kind of potential 'body horror' plot or about to pay the price for daring to be different. But something else happens. Natasha is rather revitalized by her uncanny new appendage and embarks on a passionate affair with the kind young radiologist who is helping to treat her. She gets a new haircut, which takes decades off her, dresses fashionably, goes out dancing, plays childish outdoor games with young Peter and generally lets her tail down.

Sat in the cinema, I was wondering how I might delicately describe Natasha's physical transformation without sounding unkind or inappropriately judgemental. The best thing is to keep it within cinematic frames of reference, I think: in one scene at the hairdresser's, she goes from having 'Mrs Bates hair' to having a flashy new bob that might suit Anna Karina. It's a rather joyous transition, especially given the hairdresser's initial sense of hopelessness.

The whole, ahem, tale is handled with a certain matter-of-factness that's reminiscent of Gogol and there is one breathtaking scene early on where Natasha communes with the various sad-sack animals in the zoo. She clearly adores them, complimenting each of them on their individual beauty, and there is a strong feeling of empathy for their spirit and their otherness. The scene reminded me strongly of Jacques Tourneur's timeless Cat People (1942) and Natasha is a distant cinematic cousin of the intoxicating Serb, Irena. 

The look and feel of Zoology recalls the first Dogme films and also Lynne Ramsay's Morvern Callar: everyone is a little too close to the camera, the framing is disorderly or cramped, the sound is much too intimate. This style pays huge dividends during a crucial sex scene which takes a startling, disappointing, rather crest-falling turn. I haven't witnessed such an uncomfortable and courageous sex scene since Charlie Kaufman's Anomalisa earlier this year. 

Talking of discomfort, during the last few minutes of the film, peering through my fingers, I saw most of the audience cringing along with me as the superbly shot and timed conclusion seemed to be approaching. Quite masterful, the control here. 

I thought the film was a gem and I wonder if it will get decent distribution; it's certainly been picking up prizes at various festivals. Natalya Pavlenkova is quite brilliant as Natasha and brings many dimensions to a role that might otherwise have remained an unbreathing metaphor. Searching for the film on, I noticed that typing 'Zool' into the search box brings up only Zoolander, Zoolander 2, and Zoolander: Super Model for companions. The strange company that words, films, people, and animals keep.

There's a sterner view of the film over at Variety.

Next up: Dearest Sister.

London Film Festival 2016: SOUVENIR

I can't recall what triggered it, but I've been having an Isabelle Huppert season at home and in the cinema (she seems to be busier than ever). In quick succession I've recently watched Merci Pour Le Chocolat, Things to Come, Ma Mère , La Cérémonie, Rien Ne Va Plus (wow, that's three Chabrols; I love Chabrol also) and, at the London Film Festival the other night, Souvenir (Belgium-Luxembourg-France, 2016, dir. Bavo Defurne). 

Huppert has long been in that special club of contemporary actors I will go out of my way to watch in anything they do but I'm trying to remember when I first saw her. The most likely candidate is Godard's Sauve qui peut (1980) when I was going through a postgraduate Godard binge on VHS films in the early 90s. Since then I've been fascinated by her presence, her range, her straw-thin paleness, supercar-gull-wing-door eyebrows, disturbing roles, and general all-round fearlessness.

So I always search the London Film Festival for her name and up came Souvenir with the following synopsis:

Liliane (Isabelle Huppert) works in the Porluxe pâté factory. Once a rising star, a chanteuse and finalist in the Eurovison song contest, she has wilfully drifted into the shadows. So it’s unsurprising that she is horrified when talented young boxer Jean (Kévin Azaïs), who has a day job at the factory, recognises her. Jean is ‘ooh la la’, a sweet young thing – all manners and muscles, totally besotted with Liliane and utterly convinced of her musical genius. He persuades her to come out of retirement and the two begin a passionate affair . . . . 

First up: I don't think Liliane (stage name, 'Laura') 'wilfully' drifted into obscurity (she's here through the fickleness of fame and a bad relationship with her former partner and manager) and it must be said that Jean is not an especially talented boxer: he's not awfully effective and he decides to retire after the first fight we see him lose. So much for synopses. The rest is about right.

Souvenir reminded me a little of Fassbinder's Fear Eats the Soul recast as a light French sitcom pilot. It's a bright, stylish and amusing [don't say soufflé, don't say soufflé, don't say soufflé] soufflé of a film that flits by engagingly and gives Huppert the opportunity to charm and seduce as the rather naff Euro-singer with hilariously stilted gestures and saccharine songs. [The songs are pretty good, as it happens, supplied by Pink Martini. With La La Land doing so well at the moment and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend standing out on Netflix, it seems that we're ready for another musical revival. I swear that Scorsese's brilliant New York New York will finally have its day!]

In Wild, Ania meets a wolf that radically changes her life and in Souvenir, Liliane is (gently) pursued by the naive young boxer whose name happens to be Jean Leloup (the wolf). He turns up as a temp in the drab pâté factory where Liliane (trying to hide her luminous Isabelle-Huppertness under a hygienic hair net and white overalls) is tasked with arranging bay leaves, peppercorns and berries on the top of a never-ending supply of large, just-cooked pâtés.

Jean recognises the enigmatic star 'Laura' because his dad is a huge fan (the script is peppered with poignant reflections on ageing and the pain of lost fame) and he eventually lures her into a one-off secret performance at his boxing club, which results in Liliane being 'outed' at work by a local TV crew, much to her rather-hard-drinking despair.

Eventually, Liliane and Jean become lovers (she is, I would guess 60, while Jean is in his early 20s). Interestingly, the 'scandal' of this (if scandal it be – and it really doesn't register as such, perhaps because both leads are so likable and Huppert is so magnetic) is of little interest to the filmmakers, the characters, and the story.

Jean's youth and naivete certainly play a role in the development of the plot and the eventual fate of the romance but, beyond the nature of their personalities, the relationship is allowed to run its course without societal intervention. Okay, Leloup's mother is not best pleased but that's perhaps more to do with her husbands vicarious delight in her son sleeping with the Euro-star of his past and current dreams.

Bavo Duferne was on hand to introduce the film and he said something I liked very much: 'The story is about what happens when an optimist falls in love with a pessimist'. That's a theme I'd like to see explored further. One of the BFI selectors also described Souvenir as 'A charm-bomb' and I sort of agree; a charm-firework perhaps. You'll have to see it to find out whether pessimism or optimism prevails. 

Next up: Zoology

Sunspots: Bournemouth Arts by the Sea Festival, October 13th

From the north to the south and an intriguing new venue: Bournemouth's Natural Science Society. This beautiful Italianate Victorian building is crammed with cabinets full of shells, skulls, skeletons and all manner of natural wonders: the kind of things my Sun likes to take credit for: "I made the cats./I make the snow."

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Sunspots: Manchester Martin Harris Centre for Music & Drama, October 9th

Room 101 was my hotel room in Manchester, nothing to do with the wonderful Martin Harris Centre with its back-screen projection, remote controlled lighting rig and helpful technical staff. And we were in the John Thaw Studio Theatre! I've loved John Thaw since the 70s when my parents would let me stay up late to watch The Sweeney on school nights. But the next day, I couldn't get Inspector Morse's voice out of my head: "There's been a performance of Sunspots, Lewis..."

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Sunspots: Reading South Street Arts Centre, October 8th 2015

After London, Reading was another 'home fixture'. I lived here from 1989 to 1997, having side-stepped academia to work at Our Price Records for a couple of years. The second 'Summer of Love', which I'd spent in Brighton and which did its best to distract me from my MA, was soon clouded o'er by Britpop and the seeping mist of shoegazing.

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