Sunday, March 24, 2019

BFI Flare: the Swarm

My first visit to BFI Flare yesterday coincided with the big anti-Brexit march and, consequently, I found myself in Waterloo station buffeted by hordes of blue-hatted folk carrying quite amusing and thoughtful placards. Some were even making them as they waited to move on, hand-lettering their messages in felt tip pen. Everyone seemed determined, energised and focused--quite unlike the government! It made me terribly proud to be un-British, as it were.

Tell It to the Bees
Anyway, on to the festival, where I viewed a feature, Tell It to the Bees, and a shorts programme, Challenge Accepted. The former reminded me a bit of Carol, if that were set in a small Scottish town and everyone dressed in black. Actually, it is a bit different. There is an upper class-lower class romance, a child and a villainous husband combining in 1952. But Tell It to the Bees has an odd surrealist cast, most notably in its depiction of the titual bees. The child, who is the narrator for the tale of repressed lesbian love, is a budding bee whisperer and it is his ability to call forth the bees for a key swarm (no spoilers) that forms a key moment in the plot. The lovers, buttoned down Dr. Markham (Anna Paquin) and down on her heels single mum Lydia (a radiant Holliday Grainger), are not welcome in the town any more than the interracial romance of her sister-in-law is. A price will have to be paid.... It is a pleasure to see Anna Paquin, whom those of a certain age will remember as the girl in The Piano, all grown up and back playing a Scot. Even more intriguing that she is the key influence on the child, a role reversal of sorts. The chemistry works well between her and Grainger and if the ending is a bit puzzling, it's an affecting film.

The swarming reminded me of a scene in Vita & Virginia, the opening night film I saw in preview, in which Virginia Woolf rushes out of a house and is confronted by a murmuration of black birds that suddenly descend on her, pecking at her as she cowers and flaps. But they are all in her mind, as the members of her party look on in bemusement. I also felt bemused but for different reasons. Oh, dear. Where to start? How about the casting? Gemma Arterton as Vita Sackville-West? The two would have been about 30 and 40 when they met. Arterton is 33 and her co-star Elizabeth Debicki, playing Woolf, is 28. Moreover, as we all know, Sackville-West was an androgynous woman. Butch, we might say now. She favoured tweeds and extravagant hats and disguised herself as a man to pursue her affair with Violet Trefusis, as depicted in Portrait of a Marriage, in which she was memorably portrayed by Janet McTeer. Watching Arterton and Debicki, one sees in them more of the Sackville-West/Trefusis coupling than Sackville-West and Woolf.

Vita & Virginia
 Arterton, a fine actress, plays Sackville-West as a coquettish, lovestruck puppy dog, batting her eyes at Debicki and then playing hard to get. Her Vita is a power femme, not the "scandalous ruffian" of Woolf's description. Debicki, meanwhile, tries valiantly to grasp the complexity of Woolf, her repression, her wit, her fantastic way with words. But most often she is reduced to staring off vacantly into space. It is a most frustrating film, fraught with contemporary touches like a club soundtrack more at home in Heaven and jarring addresses to camera. That type of eccentricity worked brilliantly in The Favourite. But here it smacks of a director, Chanya Button, not quite sure what to do with the material. Ironic, really, for two such accomplised writers to be left so high and dry.

And then there was Challenge Accepted, which was led by people of colour, though this was not mentioned in the notes. There really should have been a trigger warning for Masks, which presents a budding romance between two girls disrupted by a mass shooting clearly based on the Pulse attack in 2016. The insistent gunfire was incredibly disturbing, but the film, a student project, was of a very high standard. Other films in the programme seemed to be proof of concept projects, establishing a premise but not really seeing it through. I was most taken by Piscina (Pool), a Brazilian drama in which a woman seeks out a woman from her grandmother's life. The references to the Second World War were poignant and if it tailed off at the end, leaving the audience and the elderly woman hanging, well, there was quite enough to suggest a longer version would be well worth a watch, as would Concern for Welfare, an Aussie short in which a trainee police officer finds herself out at work but still closeted at home.

As I made my way home in the evening, thwarted by a disappointing lack of seating at the BFI, I found myself among the returning swarm of the march, more placards waving, hats being doffed and plenty of selfies being taken, as the people had their say.

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