A lot has already been written about the changes at this year's AFI Fest (Oct 30—Nov 7, 2009). So, just to briefly recap; tickets to all the screenings (including Galas and Special Presentations) were free. And as newly appointed Artistic Director Robert Koehler liked to remind everyone during his pre-screening introductions, this was the first time that LA played host to a completely gratis festival. Thus it was a little disconcerting that the first few days saw quite a few half-filled theaters. General consensus suggests that people who would have otherwise paid for guaranteed tickets were not willing to risk standing in the Rush Line (at the start of the festival all tickets were "sold out"). But after the first few days, ticket-based confusion was sorted out and the Sunday post-Halloween screening of Chabrol's Bellamy was nearly packed (pretty impressive considering it was rather early in the afternoon post a night of merriment and revelry).
However, those that didn't make it out, nursing hangovers or whatnot, really weren't missing much. Gerard Depardieu plays Detective Bellamy, who's taking a brief vacation with his wife at their country house. But an insurance claim murder mystery drops into his lap and he just can't resist indulging in a little sleuthing. Also, his boozy brother comes to stay with the couple for a while, and familial squabbles and emotional strain ensue. Chabrol, Depardieu, murder, family quarreling—all seemingly wonderful elements that, when put together, should prove engaging and fascinating, but alas, everyone (including Matthieu Chabrol, whose original jazzy score is generic and overly emphatic) seems to be working on auto-pilot. The script is lax and dull; the mystery is solved halfway through the film with little else remaining afterward to keep our attention or interest. And while the film tries to grapple with morality and the relativity of guilt and innocence, at the end, a dark secret is revealed that heavy-handedly attempts to further moralize. Maybe this revelation would be more startling if there was any reason to care about the thoroughly dullard characters, but there's not.
The Red Riding Trilogy, although dramatically different in tone from Bellamy, also falls into the category of murder mystery-thriller. Comprised of three films, each spearheaded by different directors (Julian Jarrold's Red Riding: 1974, James Marsh's Red Riding: 1980, and Anand Tucker's Red Riding: 1983) the trilogy encapsulates the pursuits of two different serial killers, choosing to follow a different protagonist each time around (1974 features Andrew Garfield's hot-under-the-collar journalist, 1980 stars Paddy Considine as a near-sainted cop, and 1983 splits its time between David Morrissey's detective awakening to his conscience, and Mark Addy's weary lawyer). Maybe it's because I had the bar set so high, expecting something as wildly engrossing as Memories of Murder or meticulously constructed as Zodiac, but none of the films hold up well, the narrative far too convoluted and muddled. The tapestry of characters and actions is so complex and tortuous that it proves very difficult to keep everything straight in one's head (to attempt to recount it after just one viewing would be impossible), and watching them all one right after the other is a bit of overload.
Aside from narrative issues, in the first two films the protagonists are not nearly developed or interesting enough to carry the story. With Andrew Garfield you never really understand why it's so important for him to solve the case of the murders/kidnappings of a few young school girls (aside from the fact that he has a tryst with Rebecca Hall, mother to one of the lost girls). Though to his credit, the actor's performance is somewhat intriguing. With the exception of forgetting to act wounded (he gets beat up rather badly numerous times, but after each altercation he seems right as rain, with no restrictions in physical movement to speak of), he does manage to pull-off the sarcastic, cocky reporter vibe (quite a departure from his achingly shy and timid character in Boy-A). Point is, Garfield has range as an actor, but his character here is underwritten. And Paddy Considine, while also offering a solid performance, is given a rather stale character. Only in the third film, with a once crooked David Morrissey reconciling himself to an inner morality, and a wonderfully curmudgeonly Mark Addy inhabiting the sore bones of a world-weary lawyer, does the trilogy actually offer compelling, conflicted, interesting characters. Which is not to say that Red Riding: 1983 doesn't also suffer from various faults of plot overload, resulting in narrative whiplash, before it at least attempts to tie together all the loose threads.
Watching all three films marathon-style with ten minute breaks in-between was a bit grueling. All three are consistently bleak and almost terrifyingly dark in tone. Neither one of them stands as an exemplary entry into the thriller/serial killer fold, yet there are instances within each film of sheer brilliance, where just for a moment all the formal qualities coalesce, creating a sad, haunting beauty. But such moments are few and far between. I can't say that these are good films, or that I even liked them all that much, but they are worthwhile, if only for those few devastating moments. Just don't watch them all in one day—that'll cause a headache. And depression.
On a lighter note, one of my favorite discoveries of the festival was the French-Canadian film I Killed My Mother, written, produced, directed, and starring twenty year-old Xavier Dolan. The film had its world premiere earlier in the year at the Cannes Film Festival, taking home three awards. It's a semi-autobiographical dramedy, chronicling Hubert's (Xavier Dolan) alternately comical and highly strained and painful relationship with his mother. The constant fights and misunderstandings that occur between the two are amusing and a bit over-the-top, yet always firmly rooted in an authenticity of familial dynamics. Their relationship is deftly rendered and nuanced, both coming off as believable characters, similarly impatient with one another, each feeling grandly misunderstood, neither one sainted or vilified. Familial relationships are most difficult of all since we have no say in choosing our family, so oftentimes love and hate are inextricably intertwined. Dolan masterfully negotiates the travails of learning to navigate those emotions, reconciling ourselves as best we can to the people we hate and love. Dolan's film is visually intricate (alternating between warmly-lit tableaux and cinema vérité black-and-white footage) and droll, while being emotionally affecting. Quite frankly, this is one of the best directorial debuts I've seen in quite some time, and if this is what Dolan can pull off at twenty, I can't wait to see what he'll achieve in ten years time.
Another wonderful revelation was Pedro Costa's Ne Change Rien, which took a few days remove to really seep into my bloodstream, but now I can't get it out of my mind. It's a documentary featuring Jeanne Balibar and her band as they try to record an album. Admission: this was my first Costa, so I have no idea how this film fits in with the larger scope of his oeuvre, or if the style is indicative of his usual approach. But in either case, this is one of the most visually striking films I've seen, comprised of mostly static long-takes in soft and smoky black-and-white. The narrative is quite simple: there's no intrigue, no inner-fighting, just process; the endless rehearsals, mild frustration and hushed beauty. It's not dramatically captivating so much as it is serenely enchanting. And if I didn't know any better, I'd swear that Costa's in love with Balibar. In each frame she's quietly, devastatingly beautiful and sultry, the soft light hitting her features in such a way that it lends her an almost ethereal aura. Sigh.
Veronika Ferdman is a student at USC, earning BAs in Philosophy and Critical Studies-Film.