Diary of an SFF Fiend: Bait, In Fabric, The Souvenir
By Fred Pryce
The Sydney Film Festival can be whatever you make of it. If you’re like me and obsessively follow indie film news from around the globe (also known as being a gigantic nerd), it’s an opportunity to catch up on festival favourites, or to try and find the hidden gems that might not see a release here otherwise. But the range of films on offer is huge - local and international features ranging from pretentious wankbait to lowbrow comedies, short films, animations, and a sizable collection of documentaries, if that’s more your thing. What all screenings have in common is a big crowd willing to give something different a chance. I find that the construct of a festival means people are more excited about films outside the mainstream than they usually would be, and being in a theatre surrounded by equally invested people is a far richer experience than watching a torrented video on your dusty laptop screen at 2am (though this remains an important ritual). Given how homogenised most Hollywood offerings are becoming, it lends me hope that people are still interested in unique cinematic visions, even with the allure of options like YouTube shortening our collective attention spans. Pretentious wankbait intro over!
My festival experience kicked off with a trio of films that share some coincidental commonalities: they’re all English, they all use historical throwbacks to get something across, and they’re all concerned with class.
Bait, by lesser-known director Mark Jenkin, fits most strongly into all of these categories. If you’ve ever taken a film class, you might know of Sergei Eisenstein, the Soviet filmmaker known for pioneering the use of montage (a series of juxtaposing shots condensing time and space) in pro-Bolshevik films like Battleship Potemkin. Revolutionary at the time, montage is the basis of modern cinematic language, and taken for granted in the way we ingest filmed content. Jenkin has experimented, and found a way to uncannily recreate the look and feel of these century-old Eisenstein films (flickering, high-contrast black and white in a square frame), in order to take cinema back to its basics—the contrast of one image with another. The narrative is straight from Eisenstein as well, that of a hard-working Cornish fisherman who watches as his town is taken over by rich London tourists, while the locals struggle to even get by. Though didactic, his dedication to this outdated aesthetic tends to abstract the story and turn every image into a symbol; hands roughly grabbing fish are contrasted with tourists extravagantly filling their fridge, worn-down boots juxtaposed with Macbook Pros. This abstraction turns something very contemporary into old-fashioned melodrama, and by alienating us from the present it brings to mind the same issues of capital and class conflict that have existed since cinema began. It’s the most strange, arresting, and entertaining piece of communist agitprop you’ll see this year.
The next film is similarly strange, to the point of being totally unclassifiable. In Fabric, the follow-up to Peter Strickland’s queer-BDSM drama The Duke of Burgundy, is best described as a horror-comedy, but sits in a niche of its own. Fondly recreating the heightened, stilted feel of stylish horror films like Dario Argento’s Suspiria (meaning bright colours, weird dialogue, and ghosts), to tell a consumerist parable about a very haunted red dress, from a singularly fucked-up department store. What’s most refreshing about the film is how it is more than the sum of its genres and influences, and isn’t content to just be retro fun. The horror and comedy don’t detract from each other, so moments can be disturbingly hilarious or hilariously disturbing, and the aesthetic is perfectly attuned to never distract from the contemporary British setting. It’s a film best left unspoiled, but the largest (and best) stretch of it follows Sheila (Marianne Jean-Baptiste), a mother who navigates the horrors of working for a bank, dating after marriage, and a washing machine that wants to violently kill her. She also reinforces the importance of diversity in leading characters, not just because she’s a middle-aged black woman, but because she is charming and endearingly human in a unique way that we almost never see in films. In fact, Jean-Baptiste’s performance is good enough that when the film leaves her behind to veer in another direction, it loses something, and begins to drag. Rather than following a single thread, or a collection or many, the film is bifurcated almost perfectly in two, and leaves you wanting more from either story. In any case, it’s a fascinating and unpredictable watch that will never lose your attention, from Mighty Boosh star Julian Barratt dropping a cameo as an HR representative from hell, a retail employee who has walked straight out of Roald Dahl’s The Witches, and what I can only call one of the most sexually unpleasant scenes I’ve ever witnessed (in a good way!). What’s it actually about? Who’s to say! It leaves certain impressions of the images we are fed to sell products, from toxic masculinity to idealised feminine beauty, but you could just as easily see it as a very weird, very fun time.
And last but not least is Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir, a period drama that’s the most traditional of the three and has received a good deal of attention following its premiere earlier this year. Featuring real-life daughter-mother pair Honor Swinton Byrne and Tilda Swinton (though she isn’t in it much), Hogg has recreated her own experiences into a beautiful and unsettling memoir. Julie (a stand-in for Hogg), leaves her sheltered and privileged upbringing to attend film school, but the direction emphasises the architecture of her surroundings trapping her in, framing her within walls and doorways as if she hasn’t psychologically left the nest. The ‘real world’ comes knocking in the form of Anthony (Tom Burke), who is basically evil Hugh Grant—a mumbling and mysterious charmer with an unknown occupation and a heroin addiction. Over the course of a year, Anthony fully integrates himself into Julie’s life, leeching money and leaving her to deal with the consequences. Though I’m unsure if it fully coheres as a self-critical investigation of privilege, as a portrait of an abusive relationship it is absolutely searing, mostly due to the faultless lead performances; every time Anthony criticises her with an excuse of helping her, or Julie apologises for something she didn’t do, or he takes her money and lies, I felt my breath catch in my throat in the way it does when something feels totally real. It’s also stunningly shot and assembled, with some magnificent old-world English locations, plus a great soundtrack and a Richard Ayoade cameo (another Mighty Boosh star!). It’s a swooning, heartbreaking gem of a film, that’s powerful and fragile in the same way that memories are. And for Robert Pattinson fans, he’s scheduled to feature in an upcoming sequel to the film. Even though I loved it, it did uphold a core belief of mine: most movies can, and should, be shorter.