65th BFI London Film Festival Diary: The French Dispatch, Mona Lisa and the Blood Moon, and Passing

On day two of LFF its Wes Anderson’s latest bit of fluff The French Dispatch, Ana-Lily Amirpour’s anarchic sci-fi banger Mona Lisa and the Blood Moon and Rebecca Hall’s astonishing directorial debut Passing.

The French Dispatch (dir. Wes Anderson)

Only die-hard Wes Anderson fans (Wes-heads? Is that a thing?) need apply to his new piece of fanciful japery. While The French Dispatch offers heavy doses of his love of whimsy and minutiae, the portmanteau structure and stacked cast of characters dilutes any possibility of thematic or emotional resonance to become an empty exercise in style and nostalgia., But it’s nostalgia for nostalgia’s sake, a remembrance of an imagined past that exists only in Anderson’s mind and in his films.

Developed as an ode to publications like The New Yorker, The French Dispatch begins with the publication of the titular magazine supplement’s last issue upon the death of its editor Arthur Howitzer Jnr. (Bill Murray) and chronicles four articles written by its most seasoned reporters, played by Owen Wilson, Tilda Swinton, Frances McDormand and Jeffrey Wright, with each article playing out as a vignette highlighting the different cultural, political, artistic and social aspects of the fictional French town of Ennui-de-Blasè. Each segment features a colourful cast of characters, from the prisoner-turned-artist Moses Rosenthaler (Benicio del Toro) and his guard/muse Simone (Leà Seydoux) to student activist Zefferelli B. (Timothee Chalomet) and Lieutenant Nescaffier (Stephen Park), who developed a new style of cuisine called “police cooking.”

All of the above (and more) is presented in Anderson’s trademark style of diorama-like set pieces, boxes-within-boxes resembling Seventies stationary and populated by an enormous cast of characters more often than not played by a well-known actor or Oscar winner sometimes in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo. The attention to detail is as always impressively mind-boggling but one is left with the question, to what end? Scratching the surface of The French Dispatch offers not much in the way of substance. Each segment is a satire on august institutions, such as the art world, law and order and politics, all things that should be taken down a peg or two and for that the film is quite entertaining. But Anderson isn’t saying anything that hasn’t been said before, or better, by other filmmakers. Also, his sandbox of cameos ends up being more distracting than affective, Christoph Waltz appears for two very brief scenes with virtually no dialogue and it’s a struggle to think what his character even adds to the film.

But at the end of the day, if you’re a Wes-head (I’m making it a thing) you’ll probably get a big kick out of this film as it is Anderson firing on all cylinders, aesthetics-wise. And there is a lot to enjoy here, a Hergè-inspired animated sequence is a delight and Jeffrey Wright is a standout as a writer modelled on James Baldwin, recounting his adventures when a police chief’s son is kidnapped. As a box of confectionary, The French Dispatch is an enchanting treat, but for fans of his more substantial work like The Royal Tenenbaums, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou or more recently The Grand Budapest Hotel, one may be left a little starved for something more to sink their teeth into.

Director: Wes Anderson

Cast: Timothee Chalamet, Lea Seydoux, Bill Murray

Writer: Wes Anderson, (based on a story by Wes Anderson, Jason Schwartzmann, Roman Coppola)

Mona Lisa and the Blood Moon (dir. Ana-Lily Amirpour)

Last night, in a crowded cinema, Mona Lisa and the Blood Moon started to a silent, unresponsive audience. The majority of the crowd could not quite process what they were seeing, was this a comedy, a horror film, or a piece of exploitation cinema? But then around the twenty-minute mark, laughter began to ripple through the crowd and by the end the entire cinema cheered, roared and applauded, throwing fists in the air in joy and exultation at story being played out on screen. Ana-Lily Amirpour’s latest is, on its face, a genre oddity but it just might be the feelgood film of the year.

We meet Mona Lisa (Jeon Jong-seo) almost catatonic, wrapped in a straitjacket and imprisoned in an institution. But with the onset of some strange new powers, she escapes into the hot New Orleans night, running across a handful of strange characters, including DJ and drug dealer Fuzz (Ed Skrein), beat cop Officer Harold (Craig Robinson) and eventually exotic dancer Bonnie (Kate Hudson) and her son Charlie (Evan Whitten). While Bonnie is content with using Mona Lisa’s power to make money and get revenge on the system that has oppressed her, it is with Charlie whom she forms a bond of close friendship. But who long can Mona Lisa evade the authorities? Can she ever lead a normal life? Can anyone?

Ana-Lily Amirpour made a splash in 2014 with A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, offering a fresh new voice in horror cinema that showed enormous promise, a promise which has been fulfilled with her latest outing. Mona Lisa and the Blood Moon is an anarchic, punk rock sci-fi in the mould of Alex Cox’s Repo Man, but with a Spielbergian touch that tugs at the heart strings, eschewing the creeping horror of her debut for an outwardly gonzo thrill ride disguising a nuanced story about post-capitalism and gender politics. Mona Lisa is literally a fish out of water, a Kaspar Hauser-like figure whose presence in the modern world offers up a stark reflection to our all-too-human distractions and obsessions: mainly sex and money.

These themes are drawn out beautifully by Jong-seo’s completely physical and almost wordless performance, at once innocently wide-eyed and intimidatingly powerful. Hudson is also great as the dancer who just wants a little taste of that ever-elusive American Dream. Ed Skrein is terrific as Fuzz, who turns audience expectation on its head offering a hand of kindness from an unlikely place. Robinson is also good in a rare “straight man” role, but the real revelation is Evan Whitten as young Charlie. A very talented young actor, Whitten is the heart and soul of the entire film and it is his relationship with Mona Lisa that offers the moments of heartfelt joy that ultimately won over the crowd in that cinema. Mona Lisa and he Blood Moon is a cult-hit in the making.

Director: Ana Lily Amirpour

Cast: Kate Hudson, Ed Skrein, Jeon Jong-seo

Writer: Ana Lily Amirpour

Passing (dir. Rebecca Hall)

Rebecca Hall, actress and star of such films as The Prestige and Christine has made her directorial debut with Passing, adapting for the screen the novel by Nella Larsen. Hall explores race and gender in America from a historical perspective as it charts the lives of two African-American women in late-1920s New York. The result is an astonishing debut, both in its measured design and visual aesthetic and its restrained yet profoundly emotional central performances.

Irene (Tessa Thompson) is living happily in Harlem with her physician husband (Andrè Holland) and two sons in their upscale brownstone. A woman of means she enjoys shopping in Midtown, her lighter skin allowing her to “pass” as white. But then she runs into childhood friend Clare (Ruth Negga) who has been living as a white woman with her rich and racist husband John (Alexander Skarsgåard). Their newfound acquaintance ignites dormant desires in both women; Irene feels jealousy toward Clare for her wealth and position while Clare yearns to return to a more authentic life. These feelings begin to rise to the surface as Clare ingratiates herself into Irene’s life and the many hypocrisies of society (both black and white) become more and more apparent.

Director Hall has assembled an all-star cast of some of the finest actors working today. Negga is perfect as Clare, her charm and grace hiding monumental pain and frustration, while Holland is the picture postcard of the dutiful husband, acting as conscience and devil’s advocate to Irene’s increasing self-doubt and dissatisfaction. But it is Thompson as Irene who is the central focus of the film and she holds the entire story together. She is a coiled spring of insecurity masked by her mannered period-perfect speech and outward style, yet also showing the cracks in the façade, the moments where Irene teeters on the precipice of complete disintegration. It is a superb performance.

Then there is the look of the film, shot entirely in black and white and in 4:3 ratio by Eduard Grau. It perfectly bolsters the 1920’s aesthetic while reinforcing, not just the black and white construction of society, but also the shades of grey in which Irene and Clare find themselves. The film on the whole reminds one of those of Douglas Sirk, whose melodramas such as All That Heaven Allows looked at taboo subjects struggling to be free under the constraints of an American society stifled by puritanism and double standards. With Passing, Rebecca Hall has arrived as a filmmaker, with this very well developed and assured debut feature worthy of the praise and accolades it deserves.

Director: Rebecca Hall

Cast: Tessa Thompson, Ruth Negga, Andre Holland

Writer: Rebecca Hall, (based on the novella by Nella Larsen)

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