Ah yes, the London Film Festival. I remember that.
Well it did happen this year, it was just ‘different’ – they even tried to suggest that the festival we had (mostly online) represented some kind of exciting innovation rather than an attempt to pretend that a film festival was still happening.
I gave it a miss. I still have my memories.
From last year’s LFF, Indian film Jallikattu was one of those obscure selections which I expected never to encounter again. In fact, it has already been shown twice on Film 4, which at least gives me a chance to watch it in peace.
This was perhaps the most unusual LFF showing I have ever attended. The film was described as ‘nightmarish’ in the brochure but you certainly wouldn’t have known it from the reaction of the (mostly Asian and male, as far as I could see) audience, who laughed heartily and applauded often – even the production company logo got a round of applause.
Perhaps these people were involved in the making of the film, or perhaps this was a cultural thing – certainly this was not the kind of behaviour one has come to expect at LFF screenings.
And yet it didn’t matter, because the film’s evocation of the hysteria attending a buffalo on the rampage in a small Keralan village was vivid enough that it seemed to absorb whatever was happening into the cinema into its mise en scene. It was like a basic version of one of those ‘immersive’ 4DX showings you get in Empire cinemas, wherein the seats shake and water is spat in your face.
The laughter is not entirely inappropriate either, since Lijo Jose Pellissery’s film maintains a certain satirical distance from his characters.
It begins with shots of people in the village waking up – eyes snap open, lights come on, in a driving rhythm that suggests a community with a purpose, working together. What follows mostly demonstrates the exact opposite – a community at loggerheads with itself and easily plunged into chaos.
In fact, as the film moves on, there isn’t much sense of a community at all. Characters emerge but mostly fall away with their stories unresolved or untold (leaving aside the distinct possibility that I was missing subtleties which other members of the audience would have grasped immediately, however distracted they might have seemed.)
There is a central character – Antony (Antony Varghese) who sets out to catch the buffalo, and, when it falls into a pit, pretends that he engineered its capture. This results in the film’s most impressive display of joint effort, when the villagers come together to construct a winch, lifting the creature up to ground level. However, at this point it manages to run off again, killing one of the villagers in the process.
If Antony is a let-down in the hero stakes there is also Kuttachan (Sabumon Abdusamad), who is summoned by the village to hunt down the buffalo, and arrives to a rock star welcome, sitting on the bonnet of a jeep and cradling a rifle – though we soon learn that, prior to this, he was thrown out of the village for stealing sandalwood from the church roof, suggesting that the village’s judgement of him is not wholly reliable.
And in fact he has really come to settle a score with Antony, who shopped him, though after a fight with the latter, he does actually manage to get his hands on the buffalo – only for Antony to stab him rather than give him a hand, allowing the creature to escape once more.
‘They may move around on two legs but they’re still animals’, says an old man of the men around him, and Pellissery’s film doesn’t have much to say apart from this – that man (and it is definitely man) is just another beast. But it says it with a visceral thrust like… well, like that of a maddened buffalo, and the atmospheric music (Prashant Pillai), sound design (Renganaath Ravee etc.) and photography (Girish Gangadharan) back it up to the hilt, creating a vision of a community striving in a mad frenzy towards an unknown goal, perhaps something buried in the collective unconscious.
Because although the buffalo is ostensibly required for an engagement feast, by the end it is thrust down into the mud beneath a grotesque tower of living bodies, along with a screaming Antony. Following this memorable image, there’s a final scene featuring cavemen, as though the villagers have been transported back into prehistory, and goofy-sinister animations of primitive man adorn the closing credits.
By this stage – as I remember – nobody was laughing, as though even the notion of cinema as a communal activity had been cast into doubt.
Although it added to my enjoyment of Jallikattu, I have never been all that gone on being part of an audience, and I don’t imagine I’d have been too thrilled to encounter the same behaviour in, say, Basildon, as I did that evening in the Odeon Tottenham Court Road.
In fact – and given my scepticism about government policies to contain COVID-19, it’s slightly embarrassing to admit this – the imposition of anti-virus policies has in some ways created my ideal cinema experience: nobody can sit near me and they are effectively gagged.
It was this kind of thinking that brought me back to the cinema, even though in my last post I suggested that that wouldn’t be any time soon. Boris Johnson isn’t the only one who can do U-turns.
It is one thing to feel ‘safe’ in a venue and quite another to feel welcome. But I was pleased to discover that the Curzon Soho were willing to sell me a ticket on the door, and neither did I have to wear a mask throughout the screening; although you were encouraged to, unless you were eating or drinking.
Which I was. Constantly.
Rose Glass’ Saint Maud also played at the 2019 London Film Festival, where I didn’t see it, confident that there would be plenty of opportunity to do so, at the cinema, in the future. I didn’t foresee the shutdown of society, but even without that, my confidence has turned out not to be entirely misplaced.
There were even other people in the cinema, and although I could hardly have been further away from the ambience of the Jallikattu screening it was disconcerting to realise that I hadn’t been in one room with this many people for six months.
Perhaps this impacted upon my enjoyment of the film, along with the overwhelmingly positive reviews, which had left my expectations high.
I was expecting to be emotionally overwhelmed, and it didn’t happen. I can’t deny that it’s a good film, but I had anticipated something closer to a religious experience.
Funny I should say that, as it puts me in a similar position to the titular protagonist (Morfydd Clark), a seemingly prim, God-fearing young nurse who believes she can ‘save’ her charge, terminally-ill dancer Amanda (Jennifer Ehle) – not from death, but from damnation.
However, the cynical, chain-smoking Amanda is careless of her immortal soul, preferring to snatch as much enjoyment as she can out of the time she has left, which path takes her in the direction of excessive alcohol consumption and paid-for sex with a female friend.
Maud disapproves but still feels that she is making progress, not understanding that her employer, outwardly amiable, secretly regards her with with a mixture of patronising indulgence and contempt. When this becomes humiliatingly apparent during a party Amanda gives, Maud snaps, slapping Amanda, and swiftly finds herself unemployed.
At this point our unstable heroine (traumatised by an unspecified event glimpsed at the beginning of the film) reverts to her old pre-conversion life and name (Katie), and settles back into a dismal round of loitering in pubs, giving men hand jobs – and in one grim sequence atoning for spilling a man’s drink by agreeing to sleep with him.
It isn’t long before she hooks up with God again, even though He is really just another abusive male. He urges her (in Welsh) to get back in the game and she returns – as Maud – to confront Amanda, or the demon within her.
Things do not go well (though it depends on your point of view) and she winds up setting herself aflame on the beach in front of a group of onlookers sinking (as she sees it) to their knees in awe.
This scene is followed by the film’s most shockingly effective moment, in which Maud’s ecstatic perspective is abruptly contrasted with a few seconds’ worth of the reality of burning flesh – a moment of pure horror that managed to cut through my prevailing mood of frustrated ambivalence.
I have to concede that this is a good film, even a very good film. Great performances from Clark and Ehle, atmospheric direction, unnerving score from Adam Janota Bzowski…
Why then did it leave me cold? Perhaps it was the circumstances in which I saw it. Still, is that going to stop me coming up with a convoluted reason as to why my reaction was the film’s fault rather than mine?
Of course it isn’t.
The problem, it seems to me, is that we are all too aware that Maud’s religious beliefs are pathological. The film focuses obsessively on her but at the same time retains a sort of clinical detachment, as if it were observing a set of symptoms. Which indeed we are – fits, visions, acts of self-harm.
Maud’s religion is presented as a private mania, an eccentricity, with no connection to a wider church community. Glass even splits her into two: a religious and a secular self. We are given to understand that Katie is her ‘real’ self – the depressing nature of her existence in this mode ‘explains’ her need to convert, which in her case means a conversion into an entire new personality.
It’s an amusing idea – she becomes a Jekyll and Hyde character, except that in this instance Hyde is pious.
Yet it would have worked better in a less serious-minded horror film*; here it feels a touch too glib (had we been introduced to Katie first, this glibness would have been all too apparent I think).
There is nothing intrinsically wrong with this sceptical attitude, but it alienates us from the main character. We get to ‘share’ her visions, but when we see her levitating in her room, for example, it comes across as an eerie ‘effect’ rather than an insight.
I have no idea whether Rose Glass is herself a staunch Catholic or a non-believer but it hardly matters – atheists like Bruno Dumont or Jessica Hausner have directed convincing films about religious subjects after all. And plenty of horror films feature religious maniacs without becoming embroiled in theological niceties.
But this is trying for more depth and ambiguity, and doesn’t quite achieve it – when Amanda says towards the end that God isn’t real, it comes across as the film flatly stating its position. The problem, however, is not that the film doesn’t believe in God – it’s that it doesn’t believe in Maud.
In the scene immediately following this statement, Amanda starts to act as if demonically possessed – and the effect is risible. It fails because we are not emotionally invested in Maud’s beliefs – the CGI wings which Maud sprouts after she has killed Amanda, and thus ‘defeated the demon’, are a further case in point.
Only with the powerful final shot does the film come back to life, yet this is also emblematic of the film’s failings.
The shot presents us with a taste of the unbearable reality that makes Maud’s retreat into fantasy understandable. Understandable isn’t enough though. The sense of religion being dismissed as fantasy (and fantasy itself dismissed) is too strong – the film needs to be more attuned to unreason, even to its own unreason.
After all, there is no ‘reality’ in a film except that mediated through the eye of the writer-director, who is effectively playing God – in this case judging the main character and condemning her to burn.
Of recent British debuts Daniel Kokotajlo’s Apostasy better evokes the (dis)comforts of religion, and Claire Oakley’s Make-Up navigates the unsettled border between interior and exterior worlds more effectively. Saint Maud is in some ways a bolder film than either, and should be praised for this, as well as for its many other virtues – but its ambition tends to magnify its flaws.
This in any case is my unreasonable response, though it occurs to me that my sense of the film holding back from a proper identification with its protagonist derives from my own experience of watching it among people who have themselves been – as it were – ‘restrained’.
Still… one of the things we may have to learn from our experiences with COVID is that the ‘rational’ response is not so very far from the pathological, and that science – which has created its own hushed, hand-washing acolytes – has much in common with religion.
Just because we think we are behaving calmly and logically doesn’t mean that we aren’t really as crazed as the villagers in Jallikattu.
It was only made last year, but could it be that Saint Maud has already dated?
*Not that the film doesn’t have a sense of humour, but it’s telling that the humour is often at Maud’s expense, contrasting her high-minded intensity with the workaday realism of the people around her.