There is something wonderful about reflecting upon the highlights of this year’s London Film Festival to find that they consist of vibrant debuts from a French female director and a Zambian / Welsh director (Rungano Nyoni’s I Am Not A Witch, not expanded upon in this feature but well worth a watch), an award-worthy performance from a Chilean trans actress, a teen comedy that’s darker than treacle and a gay drama capable of pinning you to your seat.
Jeune Femme is the feature debut from Léonor Serraille. A charged and abrupt melodrama about a woman leaving an emotional path of destruction around Paris, the film won of the Camera d’Or at this year’s Cannes and won over critics instantly. Laetitia Dosch stars as the flame-haired Paula, freshly separated from a toxic boyfriend with only her moxie and a stolen cat to help her get by, burning bridges as quickly as she builds them and doing what she can to stay afloat. Inevitable comparisons to Frances Ha and recent British indie Daphne may all too easily shoehorn Paula in with this group of well-intentioned but ultimately failing women, but there’s infinite layers to both the character and her city thanks to Serraille and her predominantly female crew.
In Sebastián Lelio’s Chilean drama A Fantastic Woman, one question rings out above them all: could this be the first trans woman to win an Oscar? Daniela Vega the actress in question, giving an exquisite, stoic performance as Marina, a young trans singer left grieving and homeless after her older boyfriend dies unexpectedly. Instead of comfort, Marina is greeted with suspicion and rage from family members and the authorities alike, subjected to the cruel behaviour and barbaric procedures as a means of clearing her name. It’s a sad and strange experience to be more outraged by the punishments endured by a character onscreen than the character seems to be themselves. Vega seems almost accepting of her mistreatment, either immune to the harshness of her surroundings or restricted by grief. Whatever her reasons, she’s captivating, gently aided by Lelio’s patient direction and Benjamín Echazarreta’s decadent cinematography.
From a woman mourning her lover to a boy mourning his father, The Killing Of A Sacred Deer is a tale of vengeance to the extreme, hardly surprising when Yorgos Lanthimos is at the helm with longstanding co-writer Efthymis Filippou. Now with an Oscar nomination under his belt for black comedy The Lobster, Lanthimos is seen here at his most lavish, unravelling his drama on the vast streets of a nameless suburb, where esteemed heart surgeon Steven (Colin Farrell) has an unthinkable decision to make after a botched surgery leaves a troubled teen fatherless. Like Steven, the film exercises cowardice. Several times a pivotal moment will arrive, the score swells, the characters brace for impact, but Lanthimos flinches. It’s a gorgeously shot film but lacks the deliciousness that it craves, bar a few savage scenes from a territorial Nicole Kidman and a chilling performance from a thick-lidded, stuttering Barry Keoghan.
A lesson or two in darkness could perhaps be learned from Thoroughbreds co-stars Olivia Cooke and Anya Taylor-Joy, who in contrast exceed all expectations. They take writer-director Cory Finley’s biting debut screenplay to giddy heights, beckoning gasps and laughter alike. The pair play childhood friends, Cooke, a disengaged genius who recently euthanised her family horse and Taylor-Joy a waspy college dropout who loathes her stepfather. Taylor-Joy is a delight, but Cooke is a revelation. For a character supposedly devoid of feeling, she steals every scene, winning conversations with her monotonous drawl and vacant stare. It’s a wicked and welcome film that strangely still manages to summon charm, especially from Anton Yelchin, whose disillusioned local drug dealer is his final role.
One of the most highly anticipated films of the festival, and with good reason, was Luca Guadagnino’s painfully romantic Call Me By Your Name. Armie Hammer is Oliver, an idyllic academic who travels to northern Italy to study under a prestigious professor and stay in his family home during the summer. Tall, with confidence pressing upon arrogance and looks worthy of a Ralph Lauren campaign, Oliver instantly earns the attention of the professor’s teenage son Elio, played by an equally brazen and becoming Timothée Chalamet. Nothing can prepare you for the depth and weight of this love as it unfurls. It’s a warm, vulnerable relationship, full of respect and humour that is carried effortlessly by the two leads, whose bronzed bodies crash together with unquestionable authenticity.
London Film Festival runs until 15 October. For more information: www.whatson.bfi.org.uk
1. Stills from Sebastián Lelio’s Chilean drama A Fantastic One.