Cambridge Film Festival Diary: Day 1

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One of the highlights of my year for the past two years since I started this blog, the Cambridge Film Festival kicked off again this week. For my third year at the festival, thought I’d try something a little different, given that the rate at which I manage to review films makes me the Geoffrey Boycott of blogging. (I promise not to state that my grandmother could have directed that better or that even a stick of rhubarb could have out-acted Kristen Stewart, as Mr Boycott invariably would.) So this year, I’ll be picking up more of a diary feel, which means I can at least give an opinion on everything, not just the feature films, and also share my experiences of the festival when I’m not sat in front of a cinema screen. (I would expect me to be sat mainly in the bar, although there’s already been a few other highlights.)

So here’s my rundown of day 1, Thursday 13th September 2012.

About Elly  The first film I’ve seen at the festival in the past two years was a 10/10 both times, and ended up in my top 10 of the year (Winter’s Bone and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy respectively, thank you for asking). While gratifying to see an outstanding film first up, it then leaves the problem that everything coming after it proves to be anticlimactic. About Elly neatly sidestepped that problem for me by just being great.

Actually the film before A Separation, Asghar Farhadi has now two definite pieces of work to show his ability to blend compelling narratives with suspense, to shade his characters rather than casting them as completely black or white and to be able to comfortably mix Iranian social issues with a more general backdrop. For the first half, About Elly could be set on a beach just about anywhere but events unfold in such a way that social pressures and gender issues help to shape the drama but to keep it accessible.

The story of a beach trip with turns to near tragedy and then an unfolding mystery, Farhadi keeps his characters grounded and believable and it’s to the credit of all involved that I genuinely couldn’t predict the outcome. Without being outlandish, there’s enough subtle twists and revelations of motives to keep you hooked throughout. Following in the footsteps of the likes of Abbas Kiarostami and Jafar Panadi, Farhadi is part of a strong generation of Iranian film makers, and About Elly and A Separation put Farhadi at the forefront of that group. The Score: 8/10

Come As You Are (Hasta La Vista)  Thanks to the Paralympics this summer, issues of disability and equal rights have been at the forefront of the minds of the nation, so this Flemish import may be arriving at just the right time. Loosely inspired by the experiences of Asta Philpot, three Flemish youths of varying degrees of disability have decided that they can no longer face the prospect of a lifetime of struggling to lose their virginity, and on hearing of a brothel in Spain that caters for those with similar conditions they determine to set off on a road trip, which goes about as well as road trips in comedies generally do, except with more jokes about disabilities.

During the Paralympics, certain tweeting comedians caused a furore by some of their humour, drawing a clear line where jokes should be fearful of crossing. Hasta La Vista understands this line well and always invites you to laugh with, never at, its participants when it comes to their disabilities, but to laugh at them for the same human fallibilities shared by everyone, whether disabled or not. The idea of heading to a brothel certainly won’t generate sympathy with everyone, but the plight and frustrations of these three lovable losers will keep you consistently entertained. A fantasy sequence near the end, intended to illustrate the liberation of the characters as they near the fulfilment of their quest, may actually cause you to question the reality of what you’ve watched and the ending feels a little pat while also leaving threads unresolved, but Hasta La Vista is still a journey well worth taking. The Score:  7/10

The Snows Of Kilimanjaro (Les Neiges Du Kilimandjaro)Robert Guédiguian has been to the Cambridge Film Festival before, and this time returns with a film inspired by a Victor Hugo poem, La Légende des siècles (The Legend of the Centuries). Set in and around a French shipyard town, Jean-Pierre Darroussin plays Michel, a French trade union representative whose show of solidarity in entering his name into a redundancy lottery at the shipyard sees him made redundant along with nineteen others. The film explores the ramifications on both Michel and his family and friends, but also on another of the nineteen, Christophe (Grégoire Leprince-Ringuet), who is attempting to raise his two younger brothers in the absence of their work-away mother.

Guédiguian is keep to explore the social ramifications of the decision, reflecting the current economic climate more sharply than even when the film was first shown at Cannes last year, but this makes for a slightly uneasy marriage of political discourse and family drama. Views of the characters are kept broad, but somehow the film never quite gets truly to the root of some of their motivations, and the eventual resolution to the plot strains credibility somewhat. Still, the performances of the whole cast are generally strong and evoke a suitable amount of empathy, but Snows may not last in the memory for as long as the recession might. The Score: 6/10

The film was followed by a Q & A session with Guédiguian, who spoke through the use of an interpreter, feeling that he could more correctly convey his answers in French than in English. I studied French for five years at school and a further year at uni, and can often follow decent chunks of French films without reading all of the subtitles, but confronted with an actual fluent French speaker discussing the finer elements of his film left me feeling the need to scurry back to my worn copy of Tricolore from school and do some urgent revision. Guédiguian was a delight, though, charming and erudite and fielding a long procession of questions in both French and English.

In summary:

Film of the day: About Elly

Quote of the day: “F*** Ryanair!” – various characters, Come As You Are

Festival stamina: I should explain; I’m trying to lose three stone at present, put on by poor eating due to a busy work life, and am trying to maintain that over the course of the festival, in addition to regular exercise. Hopefully this diary will help me to keep track of how that’s going. Day 1 was a firecracker chicken at the nearby Wagamama, and was suitably filling and low calorie. I also got around forty minutes’ walking in two and from my car, so energy levels remain high one day in.

Coming on day 2: Hope Springs, Avalon, Camp 14: Total Control Zone, Barbara and Tridentfest 2012.

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