The Weird and Wonderful Films We Saw at the 2019 London Film Festival

Some off-kilter delights from the 63rd LFF.

London Film Festival

The 2019 London Film Festival was full to the brim with prestige dramas and awards contenders alike. New entries from Martin Scorsese, Noah Baumbach, and Marielle Heller dominated the program, but alongside their hotly-anticipated titles was a selection of indie horror, high concept romance, and sneakily subversive genre fare, providing a necessary balance for festival-goers of all kinds. So join us as we run down the weird and wonderful of this year’s LFF.


Saint Maud

Saint Maud

The story of a young nurse’s obsession with absolving her patient deals with familiar ideas of sin and punishment, but Rose Glass‘ debut is no imitation. Instead, the film takes its title character’s desperate need to the extreme, as she tries to “save” Amanda (Jennifer Ehle), a dying woman hanging onto life through sex and booze.

Maud (Morfydd Clark), a recent convertee, believes absolving Amanda will atone for past transgressions, but when this proves difficult, she goes on a destructive path. One of anger and self-punishment, building to a surreal climax that speaks to notions of misplaced faith and overwhelming guilt. As bleak as this all sounds, Saint Maud is also full of well-timed black comedy that slots right alongside the more wince-inducing moments (the best of which sees nails placed inside a shoe). It’s a film best seen with an audience, one that’ll laugh along one minute, then audibly squirm the next — a high honor for any horror film.


Bacurau

Bacurau

The winner of this year’s Cannes Jury Prize, Bacurau defies explanation or anything resembling classification, but I’ll do my best. In the near future, the small Brazilian town of Bacurau loses its matriarch. Shortly after, strange occurrences start piling up — examples include horses on the loose and UFO-like drones hovering above — and that’s to say nothing of the corrupt politician who is met with pure disdain when he rides into town. What’s the connection? Things become clear when the nearby farmers are found dead, and one Udo Kier arrives on the scene.

Bacurau (also known as Nighthawk) slowly unravels to the point where it’s hard to tell what you’re even watching for some time. But the film that emerges on the other side is a stylish, revenge thriller, one that combines its western, horror, and psychedelic influences with a side of Quentin Tarantino and John Carpenter. With one eye on gore-inflected madness and the other on the sorry state of Brazilian politics, this one is not to be missed.


Color Out of Space

Color Out Of Space

H.P. Lovecraft has never made for an easy adaptation. Maybe that’s why so many directors (most notably Guillermo del Toro) have spent years trying to get them off the ground. So leave it to Richard Stanley, back after a 20-plus-year exile, to return to the director’s chair with an adaptation of “The Color Out of Space,” one of Lovecraft’s most popular short stories.

In a Q&A following the screening, Stanley spoke of how he went about transplanting the story into a feature film narrative, in addition to reckoning with the racist beliefs of the celebrated author. And the results are, well, mixed. The family drama bolted to the story isn’t particularly compelling, with most of the characters coming off as vague sketches, and the attempts to challenge Lovecraft’s racism exist mostly on the surface.

What the film does pull off is the descent into madness of Nicolas Cage‘s Nathan, a man whose stable family life is turned upside down when a meteor starts upending his serene family life. The transformation of his farm matches the deterioration of his mind, and Cage is the perfect vessel, from improvising bits about peppers to ranting and raving about his alpacas.

Stanley and his crew also pull off some impressive effects, from the practical Thing-esque creatures that inhabit the farm to the swirling CGI colors, all achieved on a minimal budget. So despite some narrative shortcomings, there’s plenty to recommend about Color Out of Space, whether you’re in the market for a wild Cage performance or some out-there Lovecraftian imagery.


Dogs Don’t Wear Pants

Dogs Dont Wear Pants

Many films would claim to be about grief, but few are like Finnish drama Dogs Don’t Wear Pants. Following the death of his wife via drowning, Juha (Pekka Strang)’s life is thrown into disarray. He’s barely functioning and seems most content when suffocating himself on his wife’s clothes. Things change, however, when he takes his daughter for a tongue piercing and stumbles upon a dominatrix who lashes out at him for interrupting her session. And just like that, he’s hooked.

He goes back, again and again, desperately trying to feel something while developing an obsession with the closed-off Mona (Krista Kosonen). It’s Juha’s search for a healthy outlet for his grief that provides the heart of the film, and his painful journey is treated with tremendous empathy by director J.-P. Valkeapää, who carefully dissects the self-punishment one goes through after failing to save a loved one.

By literalizing that feeling in the form of S&M, Valkeapää and co-writer Juhana Lumme give Juha a path to rebuilding himself while acknowledging that doing so is far from easy. Dogs Don’t Wear Pants is a tender, funny, and appropriately gruesome (the removal of a fingernail is somehow NOT the hardest part to sit through) look at grief that truly stands out on this list of oddballs.


On a Magical Night

Magical Night

Much like Noah Baumbach’s Marriage StoryOn a Magical Night opens with a married couple in crisis. And that’s about where the similarities end, as this French comedy from Christophe Honoré spins a high concept yarn around this premise, allowing Maria (Chiara Mastroianni) and Richard (Benjamin Biolay) to examine their marriage from a distance.

After her husband discovers she’s been cheating on him, Maria spends the night in the hotel opposite their apartment. There, in very A Christmas Carol fashion, she’s visited by her mother, grandmother, a 20-year-old Richard, and all her romantic partners from during her marriage. The concept does get away from Honoré over time, as the film switches perspectives and it becomes increasingly unclear whose point of view we’re experiencing at any given time.

What the film does have is visual imagination to spare. There’s a moment when the couple looks to each other, standing over a model version of their street, that is a wonderful illustration of the longing they feel, despite their circumstance. On a Magical Night also has an acerbic sense of humor that keeps it afloat when the narrative begins to sink. Frustrating? Sure, but it’s a commendable misfire that’s worth seeking out nonetheless.


Zombi Child

Zombi Child

And if you thought On a Magical Night presented a challenge, Bertrand Bonello‘s Zombi Child laughs in the face of that film. Following multiple characters in different time periods, it’s a similarly unwieldy affair, but in its favor is a stronger grasp on its ideas, and it ends on a surprisingly moving grace note. The narrative is partly based on the life of Clairvius Narcisse, a Haitian man believed to have been turned into a zombie in the 1920s, but combines his story with a fictional one of Mélissa (Wislanda Louimat), a present-day teenager starting at an elite school.

To say more would be to give up the game, but the result is a film that uses its parallel timelines to tell a story of oppression, cultural appropriation, and finding one’s home. The fragmented structure hurts the storytelling at times, resulting in some characters getting the short shrift, while Bonello’s decision to replay certain scenes from different perspectives is one that doesn’t help the disjointed feeling. His use of documentary footage to capture Haitian Vodu ceremonies does lend the film an air of authenticity, though, while the poignant ending Zombi Child builds to brings it all together in a satisfying way.

Sometimes knows what he's talking about.