Feminism Through Folklore: London Film Festival 2020

Shirley

“Folklore is as different from literature as can be: there’s no author,” writes Susan Scarf Merrell in her novel, Shirley, “the form is meant to change, whether slowly over time or in a moment as a singer or a storyteller perceives a new angle.” At this year’s London Film Festival the new angle is undeniably feminist and I was struck by just how many films in the selection drew their inspiration from mythology, lore and fable: from Josephine Decker’s adaptation of Shirley to Jennifer Sheridan’s minimal horror, Rose: A Love Story.

Decker, the inspired writer-director behind Madeline’s Madeline (2018), reshapes Scarf Merrell’s fictional tale about American horror writer Shirley Jackson (Elisabeth Moss) into a murky, claustrophobic and increasingly erotic drama. It has the kind of heady, clandestine femininity that’s reminiscent of Carol Morley’s The Falling or Peter Strickland’s The Duke of Burgundy. Touted as an “anti-biopic”, the film provides a snapshot of Shirley’s life as she writes her novel Hangsaman in the company of two fictional houseguests, aspiring folklore lecturer Fred (Logan Lerman) and his wife Rose (Odessa Young). A viscous atmosphere of intellectualism pervades the dishevelled home Shirley shares with husband Stanley (Michael Stuhlbarg), but as the men make a daily escape to the university, Shirley and Rose are confined to the house. 

Elisabeth Moss Shirley Jackson Film
Elisabeth Moss as Shirley Jackson

Stanley’s casual manner as he invites Rose to quit studying and “chip in” with cooking and cleaning sets the tone for the film’s gendered relationships and Rose soon becomes a plaything for the tortured Shirley; both a confidant and a victim of Shirley’s cruelest games. In the face of creeping domesticity and no short supply of small minded gossip, the women embrace rumours of witchcraft and paganism as a source of unity and empowerment. For Decker, folklore is a feminist instrument. By calling herself a witch, Shirley elevates herself above the judgemental community that’s clearly threatened by her peculiar genius. She appears to relish her status as an ‘outsider’ even as it destroys her from within. 

Decker’s rich visuals fuse womanhood with nature and the occult – from the moist greenery of the forest floor to the smoky orange glow of bonfires – never failing to suggest the contradictory ways society perceives its women. In her mind’s eye, Rose sees a group of college girls dancing provocatively around a tree, the nubile temptresses suggesting the very real danger of her husband’s infidelity. But as the camera pans further along the tree lined avenue, it lands on the poster for a missing girl; the inspiration for Shirley’s Hangsaman and a symbol of all the girls “lost” to the patriarchal society that makes women invisible, erasing them from history. 

While Decker uses gendered folklore to examine the position of women in society, in Undine writer-director Christian Petzold re-writes the myth of the water nymph through the lens of female desire. It’s fabled that when a man calls her name three times, the water nymph, Undine, will emerge and agree to become his lover. But if he is ever unfaithful, Undine must kill him, return to the pool and wait for the next man. In the film’s Q&A, Petzold explains finding his “position,” on this traditional story in Ingeborg Bachmann’s novel, Undine is Leaving, in which the nymph is “fighting against the idea that her identity is just built on the desire of men”. At the opening of Petzold’s film, Undine (Paula Beer) chooses her own lover. 

Undine

The entire film unfolds with the slow-burn intensity we’ve come to expect from the writer-director of Phoenix and Transit (both are screening on MUBI and well worth a look). And plays out alongside a detailed and fascinating history of Berlin via Undine’s job as a museum guide. Just like Undine, “Berlin doesn’t know who it is,” says Petzold, “it needs story and history”. Undine’s verbal lectures echo her origins within the oral traditions of myth and folklore, which have their own synergy with cinema itself. “Cinema is not literature, it is more [like the] oral tradition,” says Petzold. Indeed, he connects the myth of Undine to film history and the way cinema has historically treated its female stars: “And so all the women in [early] cinema are the creation of men… It’s a bit like the man at the pond who’s crying for Undine. And Rita Hayworth is coming out.”

It’s a system female filmmakers like Argentinian writer-director Natalia Meta are seeking to change. Meta’s genre-bending horror, The Intruder, about a woman experiencing possession, is a powerhouse of female talent with women serving in the roles of cinematographer, editor and producer. Working with women was “even more” important “in this film where women are so in touch with vision and mystery,” explains Meta in the Q&A. The film ripples with folklorish spirits as Inés, a dub artist played by Wild Tales’ Erica Rivas, discovers unexplained interference on her audio tracks. With a similar attraction to the “relationship between dreams and reality, between fantasy and reality” as Decker expresses in Shirley, Meta manages to subvert a classic horror interpretation (of the novel by C.E. Feiling) to explore love and desire.   

Rose: A Love Story

Rose: A Love Story shares this disruptive character, turning vampire folklore on its head to offer a surprisingly delicate and tender take on marriage and compassion. Writer Matt Stokoe eschews the desire and seduction of the female vampire myth, introducing us instead to a married couple grappling with the wife’s mysterious illness. The lived-in chemistry of film’s stars – Sophie Rundle and Stokoe himself – is its lifeblood. Its scares derive, not from any supernatural force, but from Stokoe’s volatile masculinity: a man worn down with the burden of caring and now susceptible to violent fracture.

Wolfwalkers

If these offerings sound a little too dark, enter Wolfwalkers, the beautifully conceived animation from Cartoon Saloon’s Tomm Moore and Ross Stewart, and the third instalment in the Celtic trilogy that includes Secret Of The Kells and Song Of The Sea. The story takes us to Kilkeny in 1650, during its occupation by English invaders. Here, the expansion of the densely populated city brings people into conflict with wolves who are controlled, according to local folklore, by mysterious wolfwalkers. The subtext is pertinent, fusing the damaging effects of habitat loss with the consequences of colonialism and the cultural ignorance displayed by occupying forces. “The healing,” explains Stewart, comes from the film’s two lead characters, English girl Robyn (Honor Kneafsey) and wolfwalker, Mebh (Eva Whittaker). The film only “clicked into place” when the duo began re-writing the children as girls,” explains Stewart, “we had gotten the gender wrong for a while.” The finished result has fierce mother earth vibes that place women at the centre of regeneration and renewal; the harbingers of an optimistic future. 

Shirley and Wolfwalkers are released in UK cinemas Friday 30th November 2020  

London Film Festival: Earthquake Bird & Nocturnal #LFF2019

Nocturnal Cosmo Jarvis

More first look film reviews from this year’s BFI London Film Festival #LFF

Earthquake Bird Alicia Vikander Riley Keough Naoki Kobayashi

EARTHQUAKE BIRD

Writer-director Wash Westmoreland (Still Alice) adapts Susanna Jones’ lightweight crime novel about a female translator accused of murder in Japan. Lucy Fly (Alicia Vikander) has lived in Tokyo for five years. She’s composed, capable and taciturn. The victim is a hopeless newcomer, a flirty, wide-eyed American blonde (Riley Keough). Their uneasy friendship, complicated by Lucy’s mysterious boyfriend Teiji (Naoki Kobayashi), is the source of the film’s rising tension. It plays out in flashback from the police interrogation room.  

Westmoreland borrows this difficult structure from the novel. Yet, while Lucy’s memories feel like interruptions on the page (the desire to return to the interrogation always pressing) Westmoreland’s immersive storytelling drags us deep into the past. He neatly swerves the novel’s half-remembered, dreamy sexual encounters to provide a more grounded depiction of sexual obsession and jealousy. 

Alicia Vikander serves the material well with a performance that’s tantalisingly remote. She smoothes out Lucy’s hard edges – only occasionally is she piercing and indelicate – which opens up a chasm of ambiguity and doubt. Reserved, awkward body language reveals her vulnerability in sharp contrast with the physical ease and confidence of Keough’s Lily.

With a few structural tweaks, Westmoreland shifts the film towards a meditation on guilt and culpability. The classic ‘confession’ scene is used to land, not on who killed Lily, but on the genesis of Lucy’s current state of mind. 

As he attempts to move into more sophisticated territory, Westmoreland continues to nod to the classic crime genre. Lucy is translating a detective show; song lyrics allude to death and killing. Yet for all his thematic efforts, it is surprising that Westmoreland (who has a track record of female led projects including Still Alice and Colette) allows the novel’s emphasis on female oppression to languish in the background.           

With Earthquake Bird Westmoreland offers up a moody and superbly performed crime drama. His reimagining of this urban space is suitably atmospheric and he proves himself more than capable of building to a tension filled, climactic finale. Yet there remains a whiff of unfulfilled potential in the project which lacks the necessary substance to really take flight.     

Earthquake Bird is in selected cinemas from 8th November and on Netflix from 15th November 2019.

Nocturnal Cosmo Jarvis Lauren Coe

NOCTURNAL

This slow-burn debut reveals a striking new talent in writer-director Nathalie Biancheri. Her emotional drama, Nocturnal, traces an ambiguous relationship between a 16 year-old girl and an older man, Pete, played with intensity and sensitivity by rising star Cosmo Jarvis. 

Jarvis, who appeared in the 2016 film Lady Macbeth opposite a fierce Florence Pugh, has been compared to Matthias Schoenaerts of Rust and Bone and Bullhead. Watching Nocturnal, it’s easy to see why. His bulky, rugged physical presence masks a fragile self-image and a deep undercurrent of feeling that seeps out in practiced conversations and gentle tears.

Before long, teenage Laurie (Lauren Coe) is infatuated but Pete’s motivations remain mysterious. Biancheri’s near square aspect ratio (reminiscent of Andrea Arnold) pushes us into greater intimacy with the characters and Nocturnal quickly becomes a heady, emotionally fraught experience.     

Biancheri and co-writer Olivia Waring (Flora & Fauna) offer an interesting and original exploration of youthful indiscretions and their consequences; of love, family and intimacy. Both Laurie and Pete feel trapped in their lacklustre seaside town. In teasing out these threads Biancheri creates a compelling sense of place and a subtext that taps into modern concerns about social mobility and exclusion. 

You can find more coverage of the 2019 BFI London Film Festival here.

For The Love Of Lovecraft: Richard Stanley’s Color Out Of Space Adaptation

In H.P. Lovecraft’s weird tale, The Color Out Of Space, a meteor crashes into a remote farm. In the days that follow, the land becomes tainted by a strange colour, taste and smell. The family inhabiting it begin to go mad. Richard Stanley’s vivid and freakish adaptation of this eerie story screens at the 2019 BFI London Film Festival. 

Lovecraft’s story about the peculiar effects of a meteor crash is bursting with visual description, textures and sounds. At first glance, it’s a rich candidate for film adaptation. You can almost hear the ‘most detestably sticky noise’ infecting the land; almost see and feel the ‘brittleness and hollowness’ of the ‘glossy’ meteor. But Lovecraft’s vivid descriptions offer only comparison and similitudes for disturbing effects that exist entirely outside our frame of reference. ‘The colour which resembled some bands in the meteor’s strange spectrum, was almost impossible to describe; and it was only by analogy that they called it colour at all,’ writes Lovecraft. His stylistic choices highlight the limits of human knowledge and experience; the limits of our senses and language. Try imagining a new, undiscovered colour and you will appreciate the underlying challenges facing the filmmaker: how to physically present what can barely be imagined; how to make us see and hear what we are physically unable to perceive. Can visual reality ever live up to the terrifying ambiguity of Lovecraft’s figurative language? Could adapting his story be a doomed task? 

The challenge of turning imagination into reality – of manifesting fear which arises, ‘not because of anything that can be seen or heard or handled, but because of something that is imagined’ – would dissuade many filmmakers. But writer-director Richard Stanley (Hardware, Dust Devil) seizes the opportunity. Stanley’s Color Out Of Space is Lovecraft on acid: everything is amplified, stretched, exploded.

Lovecraft writes that ‘no sane wholesome colours were anywhere to be seen except in the green grass and leafage; but everywhere were those hectic and prismatic variants of some diseased, underlying primary tone without a place among the known tints of the earth’. Stanley’s inspired response is to suffuse the screen with an intense purple hue and a vibrating, kaleidoscopic iridescence. By the chaotic climax, this pigment pervades everything and, as the visuals blur and warp, the beautiful becomes nightmarish. 

One glance at the electric pink opening of Stanley’s debut – the now cult cyberpunk film about a genocidal robot and a post apocalyptic New York, Hardware (1990) – reveals he had the creative vision to take on Lovecraft all along. The saturated colours, atmospheric skies and disquieting, electronic score take the artistry in Hardware to the next level. Colin Stetson, the composer behind Hereditary, echoes the elongated, synthetic sound of Hardware while low, vibrating rumbles also embody the spirit of Lovecraft’s descriptions: ‘Things moved and changed and fluttered, and ears tingled to impulses which were not wholly sounds’. The film’s sound design is relentlessly unnerving. High pitched noises suggest the screaming of the meteor’s victims. Throaty animal sounds evoke something twisted and malformed.

While Lovecraft avoids labelling the menacing presence as ‘alien’, always maintaining an air of mystery, Stanley accepts that his audio-visual medium will inevitably show too much and opts for shock value instead. His film is weird in the extreme, overpowering in its sheer strangeness. The loss of Lovecraft’s creepy, past tense storytelling will likely be too much for some viewers, but the trade-off is extraordinary as Stanley sucks us into the rapid, cataclysmic present tense. Eerie recollections are replaced with nutty and repulsive body horror. The film’s slimy, squirming imagery is reminiscent of Eraserhead: mind-bending and introspective. While the plot leans rather too heavily into familiar horror beats, the atmosphere is so baffling it’s almost magnetic.     

Stanley adds to Lovecraft’s simple story a kooky sensibility. He updates the nineteenth century setting to the present day where it takes on the quality of a satire, poking fun at the middle classes who seek mindfulness in the rural landscape. How better to dramatise our essential fear of the outside (so prevalent in Lovecraft’s original story), than with affluent, low-key America whose idyllic existence is punctured and assaulted? Nicholas Cage is delightful as the unfulfilled patriarch of this picture-perfect family. His obsession with a herd of alpacas – the ‘animal of the future’ that was acquired at an exorbitant cost – provides a searing comic highlight. And, as the laughs add-up, Color Out Of Space begins to feel frenzied, jerking between tonal extremes.

Stanley’s interpretation of the material might be outlandish but a love of Lovecraft runs deeply through his picture. References to Hardware – ‘no flesh shall be spared’ is pasted on the teenage boy’s bedroom wall’ – go hand in hand with references to Lovecraft’s worlds. One character is seen reading Algernon Blackwood’s The Willows – a major influence on the author – while the book of black magic that appears in so many Lovecraft stories, the ‘Necronomicon’, plays a vital role in the film’s plot. Stanley infuses Color Out Of Space with witchcraft and pagan imagery, muddling it somewhat, but offering a deeply affectionate homage.

Color out of Space is that perfect blend of author and auteur. An unmistakable entry in the Stanley catalogue, it demands to be watched on the big screen. Even in its quietest moments, the film operates on a different wavelength to most in its genre. Those who let go and follow Stanley down his rabbit hole will enjoy Color Out Of Space immensely. The rest will be left asking, what on earth was that?

Color Out Of Space screens at the BFI London Film Festival on Monday 7th and Tuesday 8th October. See the full festival programme here.

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