Film reviews

London Film Festival 2017: Not really Loving Vincent, and not such a Happy End

Day Five of the London Film Festival brings a mixture of emotions for Callum Petch...

Happy End

STARRING: Isabelle Huppert, Jean-Louis Trintignant, Mathieu Kassovitz, Toby Jones, Fantine Harduin

DIRECTED BY: Michael Haneke
WRITTEN BY: Michael Haneke

If I came out of Happy End not in some way bummed, I would have felt like Haneke hadn’t done his job properly. Except that I didn’t come out bummed in the way that Haneke most likely intended. I mean, unless his point was to make an incredibly boring and largely-pointless rehash of his greatest hits that’s like a self-demonstration of what his biggest critics like to claim a Haneke film to be.

Which it could always be, this is the same guy who made both the original Funny Games and its deliberate shot-for-shot American remake, but that’s still no excuse for a film this relentlessly dull to watch. It starts brilliantly, though, with a pre-title sequence involving a mother being voyeuristically watched by somebody on a camera-phone, commenting quite sociopathically on her actions before eventually coldly drugging the woman into a coma with her own antidepressants. The person responsible for this is her 12-year-old daughter Eve Laurent (Fantine Harduin), who gets sent to live with her father Thomas (Mathieu Kassovitz). Then stuff happens for almost two hours, before the film abruptly (although admittedly humorously) ends.

Calling Happy End unfocussed would be like calling a Marillion song self-indulgent wankery. In a way, it’s yet another chance for Haneke to skewer the self-involved, self-interested sociopathy of the Upper-Middle Class – since the Laurents are a super-wealthy, multitudinous clan of duplicitous idiots who never address their feelings and don’t care about others except for the use they can provide – a topic he has never wanted for mileage out of in the past, but Haneke finds shockingly finds himself with no new insights or perspective to bring to the subject. The film is set with the European refugee crisis as its backdrop, but Haneke’s occasional shots at the Laurents in relation to that fact can’t help but feel token and disinterested, even if the imagery of black bodies briefly walking into and out of a blindingly White story should be loaded with symbolism.

Instead, what we get are a miasma of disconnected subplots performed by largely uninteresting and underdeveloped characters that attempt to blow through subjects better covered in full in previous Haneke movies. The technological sociopathy of films like Funny Games and Caché, the youthful desensitisation of The White Ribbon… Haneke even uses an entire subplot to semi-do-over Amour, complete with Jean-Louis Trintignant playing an elderly widower named Georges who keeps trying to kill himself or get others to do it for him (he’d already done in his paralysed wife a few years earlier). There are infidelities, shameful excuses for sons, legal settlements, Toby Jones and Isabelle Huppert are both here for some reason and wasted in ways that should be considered a crime enforceable by some kind of law, and it’s all so very, very boring. Going almost nowhere, saying next-to-nothing, lacking any of the provocation or dark humour or relentlessly coiled tension of his better work.

One could potentially read this an acclaimed director’s farewell tour – Haneke is in his mid-70s and this level of self-reference, lacking in any other graspable point, makes this explanation more logical than I’d like – but, if so… did he have to make a farewell this boring? This empty? This pointless and almost sleep-inducing (I count at least four instances where I almost drifted off)?


Thoroughbreds

STARRING: Anya Taylor-Joy, Olivia Cooke, Anton Yelchin

DIRECTED BY: Cory Finley
WRITTEN BY: Cory Finley

Playing in competition, which is seemingly where all the excellent films are hiding this year, writer-director Cory Finley’s debut feature, Thoroughbreds, is a pure riot from start to finish. In it we follow Lily (Anya Taylor-Joy) and Amanda (Olivia Cooke), daughters of two different incredibly wealthy families and, as we quickly find out, unabashed sociopaths, something Amanda has now fully accepted and which Lily is struggling to repress. The two were old friends who eventually drifted apart, brought back together once Amanda brutally euthanises her family’s horse and her mother decides to pay Lily, who’s already completed a fancy boarding school, to tutor her whilst the legal mess sorts itself out.

Believe it or not, there are further scars and false-truths laying underneath even those, and all reflect upon the entitlement, emotional abuse, and hypocrisies of their Connecticut environment and upbringing. There’s an underlying instinctive desire in the pair to impress one another through the drollest quips they can muster or the eventual willing embrace of their total disregard for others’ feelings – in Amanda due to her not having any other friends, instead passing her evenings by making wild bets on Online Poker, and in Lily because of her finding everybody else to be a vapid bore. They’re both terrible people, which is something the film’s willing to admit as it drives further down the road, but they’re terrible people in a community filled with terrible people, and they largely seem to find a genuine bond hanging out with each other again. This forms the weird heart of the film that’s able to elevate it into excellence, that pulls off the seemingly contradictory goal of being sweet but also sour as all hell.

Olivia Cooke and Anya Taylor-Joy appear in Thoroughbred by Cory Finley, an official selection of the NEXT program at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Claire Folger.

Sourness largely arriving through Thoroughbreds’ utterly wicked sense of humour. I’ve yet to see the word “comedy” be used anywhere around it, and that’s incredibly weird to me since I found the film to be absolutely hilarious throughout. Not unintentionally, either. There is a deliberate, off-kilter, detached streak of incredibly deadpan humour running through this film, in the way that both Lily and Amanda view and interact with their limited, disdainful world. Lily’s gradual embrace of her repressed fury and psychopathy, Amanda’s utter unwillingness to play down her detachment issues and ability to manipulate other people around her finger with ease. Olivia Cooke effortlessly removes herself from my personal Me and Earl and the Dying Girl shitlist by essentially playing Liv Hewson’s character from Santa Clarita Diet but without any of the moral indecisiveness – Amanda even views indecisiveness as the worst thing that any person could do. Meanwhile, Anya Taylor-Joy proves that her work in The Witch was no fluke and that she really is the real deal; Lily could easily have been the worst out of her and Amanda, given where the film ends up, but she refuses to allow the audience to stop seeing Lily as a person, maybe even one worthy of some kind of sympathy, however fucked up it may be.

The unadulterated thrill of watching Thoroughbreds can probably best be surmised via Erik Friedlander’s score: an awkward, wrong, atonal mess of a thing where nothing ever feels quite right, like somebody’s trying to approximate the idea of a score and failing miserably. And it’s in that failure that the fun can be found. Lily and Amanda are deeply-messed up products of their environments and their own entitlements, wandering around gaudy mansions propped up by Roman pillars, and playing with large-scale chess pieces in a garden so large it requires two motorised lawnmowing vehicles ploughing ahead at full speed to keep precisely cut.

Early on, Amanda teaches Lily how to fake crying, a trick she has mastered over the years due to her inability to feel emotions herself and even used during Lily’s Dad’s funeral. But for two teenagers incapable of feeling or thinking about anyone other than themselves, merely approximating the signifiers required to remain above the consequences that their families can’t just throw money and high-powered lawyers at, there is still something genuine there. It’s weird, and it’s inarguably unhealthy, but there is some kind of real connection, in some strange way, and watching them follow it further and further down is perversely fun to witness. That’s Thoroughbreds, and it’s bloody brilliant.

Click on Page 2 for reviews of Loving Vincent and Gemini

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