FilmSpace at London Film Festival: Knives Out; Portrait of a Lady on Fire; Judy and Punch; Rocks

Calum Cooper

Film critic Calum Cooper has gone south for the 63rd London Film Festival. Up next are reviews for both Rian Johnson’s and Celine Sciamma’s newest films, both of which he praises highly, as well as the comical Judy and Punch, and the poignant Rocks.

Knives Out – ★★★★★

Rian Johnson is one of the most innovative filmmakers working today. Not only did he direct arguably the greatest hour of television ever made with the Breaking Bad episode ‘Ozymandias’, but his films constantly uproot and reconstruct the genre of which they identify with. This can be seen in Brick, Looper, and particularly Star Wars: The Last Jedi, which is the best Star Wars film since Empire (no, I will not be justifying myself). Knives Out is no exception. It breaks down and re-invents the tropes of whodunit mysteries, and in the process produces one of the year’s most entertaining films.

Crafted very much in the vein of an Agatha Christie mystery, Knives Out begins with a large wealthy family, made up of all sorts of characters, played by the likes of Jamie Lee Curtis, Chris Evans, Toni Colette, Michael Shannon, Don Johnson, and Katherine Langford among many others. The patriarch of the family, Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer), dies in an apparent suicide. But when famed detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) and his team arrive, he suspects foul play. Assisted by the housekeeper Marta (Ana de Armas), a seemingly key player in the investigation, Blanc must unravel the mystery of Harlan’s death.

There’s an underlying irony throughout the story that sets the tone marvellously. Harlan built his legacy by writing detective novels, and now his own death is the centrepiece of a murder mystery. It’s almost like a self-fulfilling prophecy, and from the get go sets a humorously self-aware tone that’s both fresh and exuberant.

This feeling of fun permeates the film, right down to the impressive ensemble cast, all of whom look as if they’re having a blast with the material. They fulfil the archetypes of their designated roles superbly, but each actor brings singular airs of charisma to each of their roles, whether as the spoilt son living in the shadow of his father (Shannon), the entitled, prejudiced figure who hasn’t worked for their fortune (Don Johnson), or the rebellious flyboy (Evans). They create numerous larger-than-life presences, all with voices fighting to be heard, while still remaining tethered to reality by the smart social commentary Johnson has woven into the film via the family dynamics.

It’s really nice to see Craig having fun with a role again, embodying a Californian accent and a sense of thrilling adventure every time he opens his mouth. Blanc is an eccentric and fascinating detective that I can see appearing in further movies. He explodes in extravagant joy on screen, while Marta serves as the compelling and necessary emotional core of the story, Ana De Armas bearing and championing all the weight that comes with this.

Not only is it so tightly written so as to sufficiently fit several characters into the story, but it is wickedly smart in how it approaches its mystery too. It’s a film that pulls the rug from under the rug from under another rug.

Before I saw the film, I attended a Screen Talk with Rian Johnson, hosted by Mark Kermode, in which Kermode described Knives Out has “funnier than most alleged comedies this year.” I share his feelings, for the film’s central irony is not the only hilarious element. The film is ingrained in its whodunit identity, harkening back to Poirot and even 1985’s Clue. Yet, out of all of Johnson’s films, it is also the most self-aware in its bending of conventions. It mocks itself through quick-fire dialogue and a sense of looseness that keeps its premise engaging and its mystery enticing, without ever being arrogant about its own intelligence. The results amount to numerous and consistent laughter, either from the absurdity of certain scenes or the lengths of which particular characters go for their own avarice.

Knives Out is also, like Johnson’s other films, beautifully well made. The set design is as boisterous and imaginative as its setup and the world the film inhabits. The colours erupt off the screen, and the giddy energy the film contains can be seen through its sharp editing and cunning direction that never brags about its cleverness, but still shows off in playful fashion.

But, like with most of his films, it’s Johnson’s script that connects it all together. Not only is it so tightly written so as to sufficiently fit several characters into the story, but it is wickedly smart in how it approaches its mystery too. It’s a film that pulls the rug from under the rug from under another rug. It remains one step ahead of the audience, keeping its cards up its sleeve, but leaving the edge exposed just enough that we find ourselves overlooking it, until it is weaponised for the many revelations this film has hidden.

What we have here is a story that’s as larger-than-life as the people who occupy it. But that does not mean it hasn’t got things to say. In fact, it has rather a lot to say, both in regards to its genre and particularly towards the current climate of today’s world. For underneath the unique twists and turns that keep us puzzled and enticed is plenty of scathing, for both  prejudice and elitism, the film in itself being a powerful reminder that kindness and integrity will always outclass conniving arrogance and entitlement. One could even see the film as a response to the troll culture of the internet, particularly as this film arrives in the aftermath of the numerous non-controversies and pathetic YouTube man-baby rants concerning The Last Jedi. Whichever way you choose to view the film, it still works swimmingly. The interpretations are numerous, but the sense of frivolous entertainment will be universal.

My great-grandmother had a saying for whenever someone was being a smart arse – “have you been in the knife drawer? You’re so sharp you could cut yourself.” I apply this same saying to Knives Out, only this time it is a term for endorsement. It is funny, clever to the point of , stunningly well made, and an all-around whale of time. Johnson has defined his career on breaking the rules of genre and redefining them in bold and fresh ways. Knives Out continues this in the most enjoyable of senses, cementing Johnson’s place as one of the smartest, and most daring, filmmakers working today.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire – ★★★★★

Celine Sciamma has crafted her finest film yet in Portrait de la jeune fille en feu (aka Portrait of a Lady on Fire), an utterly spellbinding experience of the most radiant of proportions. Here is a filmmaker who loves the very nature and essence of what it is to tell a story, and has woven that very passion into every stroke of her own metaphorical brush. It is a remarkable film for LGBTQ+ cinema. It is a tremendous film for 21st century cinema.

Set in the twilight of the 18th century, Portrait of a Lady on Fire concerns two characters, Marianne and Heloise (Noemie Merlant and Adele Haenel respectively). Marianne is a young painter who has been commissioned by Heloise’s mother to paint Heloise, a young woman whose portrait will be used to elicit marriage proposals. Heloise, who does not wish to be married, initially has to be painted in secret by Marianne, who pretends to be a new family maid in order to be close to Heloise. But as the two begin letting their guards down around each other, a slow-burning but intense romance begins to blossom.

Sciamma is smartly and sensitively examining love and life with this film. As the characters grow closer they discuss how life is really a mere collection of fleeting moments. All a succession of random events from birth until death. Portraits and paintings could be considered little more than a glance at a moment in life, a single second in a lifespan of millions captured forever.

This is where the genius of the film comes from. A portrait is a mere moment in one’s life. But creating that single picture consists of hundreds of precise strokes and colours in order to capture that frame of life in all of its glory, ensuring that a mere second captured by paint has all the value of a full life. Marianne spends so much time getting every little detail on Heloise’s portrait right; using a painted moment to uncover the true beauty of the person behind the canvas. Is it any wonder why they become infatuated with each other?

Sciamma approaches her film in a similar fashion to how Marianne approaches her portrait. Because of this, every frame of the film becomes figuratively and literally a painting. Claire Mathon’s cinematography dazzles with its vast array of colours and shots, capturing the beauty of the landscapes and coasts of which the characters visit. So much of the film is entrenched in the show don’t tell rule, meaning even the most seemingly mundane of shots has something in it that catches the eye, should it be a small smile a character makes to show their growing affection, or a particularly vivacious colour used to showcase the setting.

Sciamma approaches her film in a similar fashion to how Marianne approaches her portrait. Because of this, every frame of the film becomes figuratively and literally a painting.

But, like the most stunning of paintings, the foreground matters as much as the background. Luckily our foreground consists of two immaculate and engrossing characters, both played phenomenally by Merlant and Haenel, whose chemistry is as natural as it is intoxicating. It’s the kind of duo act that strengthen each other’s performances just by sharing the screen together. They embrace and elevate Sciamma’s script and direction strikingly.

Meld these elements together and you find yourself spellbound in a romance which builds so subtly that you almost aren’t aware that it’s happening. It avoids the clichés of typical romance films to demonstrate genuine love growing between two people who seek the solution to their isolation in each other. More importantly, it dodges the trap of relying on the problematic male gaze to tell an authentic lesbian romance, a trap films of the past have been guilty of (*cough* Blue is the Warmest Colour). In fact, men are completely irrelevant in the narrative. I can only recall one scene where a man appears let alone speaks. It allows for a fresh and crucial perspective in which a film about women is told by women.

From all of this, various thematic areas are explored, such as erotic awakenings, obsession, and memory. As the characters grow closer, the inevitable reality that Heloise will be married off one day sinks in, and all the two will have is the image of the other, whether through art or memory. But, like the titular painting, will that one day burn away into a bleak and forgotten moment of the past like so many before? It creates a genuine sense of dread in an otherwise stunningly romantic piece. I dare not ruin what the ending suggests, but it beautifully brings its thematic and narrative substance together in perfect unison.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire hits UK cinemas February 2020, and it is going to be unbearable waiting that long for a second viewing. It is an articulate, gorgeous, and utterly immersive movie that marks a new high for romance films going forward into the new decade. They say memory is the poet’s choice of love. After watching this masterpiece, I suspect that the present moment is the artist’s choice of love.

Judy and Punch – ★★★☆☆

Judy and Punch is a smart and comical smack in the face towards the patriarchy. It combines the absurdity of our strangest insecurities with a self-aware edge to deliver a film that scrutinises mob mentality and promotes unity. All while being a clever inversion and re-examination on the classic and timeless puppet show.

As we all know, Punch and Judy is an ancient puppet show that all but invented slapstick. Essentially a puppet goes around whacking other puppets with a block of wood, often at his wife’s expense. It’s about as easy to follow as you can get, and it’s seen as the pinnacle of entertainment in the town of Seaside (ironically not near the sea at all) in the 18th century.

The puppeteers of the show are also known as Punch and Judy. They are played by Damon Herriman and Mia Wasikowska respectively. They’re a married couple with a young daughter, who’s never named as far as I can recall. They hope to use their show to escape the town, but Punch has a serious drinking problem that prevents them from making enough profit to do so. One day, when Judy goes out, Punch makes a disastrous mistake. Rather than admit to his mistake however, he goes to extreme measures to protect his own image, resulting in a baffling but nonetheless entertaining movie.

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Mirrah Foulkes writes and directs the film with a sharp eye and mind. It’s a darkly funny film that basks in the bizarreness of its own world, in a clever duality of the puppet show that goes beyond merely switching the names. However, it is also a gravely observant one. In the background of the film is an ongoing witch hunt, an obsession of the time period, where women are hunted and killed for having even the most marginal of differences from societal standards. This later joins the main plot in both weird and enjoyable ways.

This ties in to the puppet play in itself. The first person Punch beats with his stick in the play is usually his wife. In the years of the play’s inception this was seen as hilarious, but when viewed through the lens of the evolving centuries, through years of domestic abuse and gender inequality, it suddenly loses its comedic effect.

Using this ancient play as a springboard, Foulkes has used her film not just for the sake of cordial entertainment, but as a platform to ridicule and scrutinise mob culture and patriarchal entitlement, the kind of which we would’ve hoped would be at an end by now but is unfortunately still ever present. Bringing her vision to life is Wasikowska’s fantastically sentimental performance, as well as Herriman’s joyfully snide one. Their impeccable chemistry enhances the already sharp script and confident direction Foulkes implements, providing us with engaging characters, an informed and effective story, and a colourful soundtrack to boot.

The film does meander on occasion, seeing as it goes between two different stories after a while, and I feel like it could’ve gone even further with its ideas than it does. But do not mistake this as a rejection, for Judy and Punch has so many other qualities to offer. In terms of comedy, entertainment, and a decent level of commentary, the film works. And for me, that’s more than enough for my endorsement and recommendation of the picture.

Rocks – ★★★★☆

London has never been so expressive in Sarah Gavron’s Rocks, a harrowingly thematic film that details the struggles of the modern working class girl in grim and poignant detail. It’s a film that on the surface has so much darkness, but its heart brims with life and light. It’s a terrific film that boasts insight and empathy, the sign of a truly great story.

Bukky Bakray plays Shola, nicknamed ‘Rocks’. She is black, teenage girl living with her younger brother Emmanuel and her single mother. Although the family struggles financially, Rocks is gifted in make-up, often applying her creativity for the benefit of her many friends. Her closest friend Sumaya looks out for her, but Rocks still puts on a brave face and focuses on her makeup and friends, even in the grimmest of times.

One day Rocks comes home and finds her mother gone. She says on a note she will be back in a few days. But days turn into weeks, and Rocks realises that her mother is not coming back. With the realisation that she now has to solely support herself and her young brother, on top of the pressures of her school and social lives, Rocks must double down and face this new challenge head on.

What I admire about Rocks so much is that it would’ve been very easy to make this an entirely melancholic experience where things get considerably worse, whether due to circumstance or the main character’s pride. Think a live-action Grave of the Fireflies. Yet, Gavron and her screenwriters, Claire Wilson and Theresa Ikoko, instead make this a film about strength and endurance. While the situation Rocks finds herself in is terrible, mostly due to how out of her control it is, the filmmakers instead choose to focus on Rocks’ tenacity and strength. It’s about her strive to survive, not her predicament.

Because the film’s character dynamics are so well fleshed out early into the story, we feel the comradeship permeating the screen. It joins earlier films from this year like Booksmart and Hustlers as a championing of sisterhood.

Gavron’s last film was the 2015 film Suffragette, another film in which women are resilient against the pressures of the time. That film was more about the female experience collectively, whereas Rocks takes on the individual female experience. Nevertheless, Gavron is acutely aware that Rocks’ experience is not unique. In fact, it is similar to those of many working class girls and women in London, and in other cities for that matter. Therefore, her utilisation of on-location settings around London, as well as the usage of London-based actors – all of whom are excellent – give the film an added sense of dimension. It grounds the film that much deeper into a feeling of reality.

However, the film is also deeply entrenched in the concept of solidarity. When their mother disappears, Rocks’ brother turns to Rocks for comfort and reassurance, and Rocks, who attempts to endure the harrowing ordeal by herself for so long, must learn to turn to her friends and her community for her own reassurance. Because the film’s character dynamics are so well fleshed out early into the story, we feel the comradeship permeating the screen. It joins earlier films from this year like Booksmart and Hustlers as a championing of sisterhood, and how sometimes just being able to look to someone for comfort is enough to allow the individual the strength to overcome anything.

There’s a line in Rocks where a character proclaims, “not every woman can nurture a child.” While this may be true, this is not the argument of the film. The film is instead a staunch supporter in community and companionship with friends and family. It sticks to its beliefs from its entrancing opening to its bittersweet ending. As such, Rocks evolves from a good film that wonderfully utilises its London setting and actors to a film that empathises and celebrates the best humanity can offer. A couple of pacing isssues aside, it’s a real gem of a film.

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