I remember overhearing a punter at the London Film Festival one year asking the guy next to him what he’d seen and he replied: ‘A lot of films that could have been better’. My experience this year (last year) was a bit like that. Even before it started I had little appetite for it. It wasn’t COVID. Or maybe it was in a way – the COVID atmosphere, the virus and the measures taken against the virus conspiring to create a dispiriting miasma of veiled threat and cloying ‘safety’.
Nothing here quite overcame that. Only the big hitters like Titane seemed capable of doing so, and I tend not to bother with those at festivals, since I know it won’t be long before I will be able to see them on general release at a more relaxed and affordable screening.
Still, everything was interesting, and how could I not go and see a Welsh language horror film? Even if it didn’t turn out very well, they don’t come along very often. The director Lee Haven-Jones was careful to call it a ‘European horror film’, mind, but at the same time he was understandably keen to promote the Welsh film industry, such as it is.
I’m not sure that The Feast is going help the Welsh film industry much – it’s a mixed bag, though it musters up some intensity at the end. Jones’ allusions to Greek tragedy and Shakespeare are a bit wide of the mark however.
An MP (Julian Lewis Jones) lives with his wife (Nia Roberts) and two sons (Stefan Cennyd and Sion Alun Davies) in a remote house in the Welsh countryside, taking backhanders from mining companies drilling the land for minerals. But it all falls apart at a dinner party where the hired help is Cadi (Annes Elwy), an oddly distracted local girl.
Her distraction is understandable, as it eventually turns that Cadi is recently deceased, and currently animated by a local witch, or some sort of pagan entity at any rate. Not only does she spoil the party, she brings catastrophe upon the family: symbolically, it’s the land taking revenge upon those exploiting it or at least those – like one of the sons – who’d rather live in London.
The sons are drug addict and a rapist respectively and, along with the predictably smug father, aren’t particularly sympathetic or interesting, and since Roger Williams’ script doesn’t quite stretch to satire, this is a problem dramatically, as not much happens for quite a long time. As for the supernatural elements, they aren’t well integrated: it all seems to happen, when it happens, at once.
It’s too much, but in some ways this excessive quality of the final conflagration is the film’s strong suit – adding a little depth to the scenario, the wife seems to be participating in it as much as she is a victim of it. There is in this last blow-out at least a sense of a feast but it takes its time coming to the boil and might just leave you with indigestion. Although maybe that’s the intended response.
This Icelandic curiosity from director and co-writer Valdimar Jóhannsson (which has gone on general release) also tackles our exploitation of the natural world. A couple of farmers – María and Ingvar (Noomi Rapace and Hilmir Snær Guðnason) – who have lost a child, fixate on a newborn lamb who seems to be human from the neck down.
It isn’t clear at first whether ‘Ada’ as they call the lamb (after the dead child) is a genuine freak of nature or a shared delusion or somehow both, an ordinary creature transformed by their need. When an outsider, Ingvar’s brother (Bjorn Hlynör Haraldsson) turns up and, after reacting initially with disgust and bafflement, falls for the charms of his adopted ‘niece’, we can perhaps conclude that Ada is absolutely real, although the possibility remains that the brother has just been roped in to the fantasy.
However, any ambiguity is rudely shattered at the end when Ada’s biological father – a gun-toting ram walking on two legs (Rambo?) – appears and shoots Ingvar dead. I must say that this struck me as less shocking than silly, as if a mysterious fable had suddenly swerved into Aardman Animations territory.
However, the point, I suppose, is that the fairy tale delicacy of the film’s take on grief is unforgivably human-centric and requires disruption. Earlier on we saw María shooting Ada’s real mother, who had been pining for her offspring, so Ingvar’s undignified fate only evens things up from a certain perspective.
In other words, I’d have felt differently about this if I were a sheep. I can’t argue with that.
WHAT DO WE SEE WHEN WE LOOK AT THE SKY?
Also taking a turn towards fairy tale whimsy is this oddball love story, whose narration occasionally suggests that its whimsy functions as a diversion from a more brutal reality which is being kept offscreen.
It does features a talking drainpipe, however – though its speech is only reported in the narration: it doesn’t morph into an actual character. You’ll have to wait for the Disney remake for that.
The drainpipe is one of a number of unlikely agents who pronounce a curse upon the two lovers at the centre of the film, who – having only just met – are fated not to recognise each other again when their appearances change overnight (and they are played by different actors).
Nevertheless, love finds a way, and they end up working together for the owner of the cafe they were originally meant to be meeting at for their first date. Eventually the curse is lifted due to a self-reflexive cinematic intervention.
While the ‘moral’ of writer-director Alexandre Koberidze’s story might be that we shouldn’t be distracted by mere appearances, his method suggests quite the reverse – there are various digressions around dogs, football and cake, while the camera occasionally, as if not knowing what to do with itself, zooms in on a random bird.
The film is both restless and leisurely, slightly soporific even, but, grounded as it is in a particular place – the Georgian town of Kutaisi – never quite floats away into inconsequentiality.
ALL IS VANITY
Here too is an object example of how much you can get out of one location – in this case a London warehouse.
This low budget British film starts off as a humorously banal, faintly mysterious account of a fashion shoot before we pull back to discover that what’s actually being shot here is a film. Then no sooner have you adjusted to the meta-reveal than the cast have discovered a strange portal that takes them to the same location, but on the day before. All this in 72 minutes!
The extent to which this is an intricate philosophical puzzle or just a bit of a lark is unclear, and the cast members at the Q&A didn’t seem to know either, but it’s entertaining enough. Writer-director-producer Marcos Mereles said that the ‘moral’ was something like ‘go for it, take risks’ (‘You don’t need a plan’, as one of the characters says at one point).
So, yes, probably a bit of a lark then. But I would watch it again if it came up on, say, London Live.
I started with a feast so will end (for now) with A Banquet, not that either word quite does justice to a festival in which I was picking at bits here and there rather than fully indulging. Even that is more than can be said for teenage Betsey (Jessica Alexander) here – having had some kind of mystical experience, she stops eating (without losing weight) and becomes obsessed with the apocalypse, due any minute now.
Depending on your interpretation, this is either about the end of everything (a consummation devoutly to be wished, according to Betsey) or about a family being irresistibly drawn (after the death of the father) into the delusion of one of its members.
Initially resistant, Betsey’s mother Holly (Sienna Guillory), struggling to cope, comes to concede that her daughter may have a point, openly acknowledging that the apocalypse has its comforting side: it means that you can give up trying to hold it all together and just let go. Her own mother Rose (Lindsay Duncan) tries to intervene and provide a ‘voice of sanity’ – one which may, however, simply be lacking in empathy.
Director Kate Paxton reveals in the Q&A that she favours a literal explanation of Betsey’s visions but Justin Bull’s script perhaps pulls more the other way – at any rate, some sort of balance between domestic psychodrama and cosmic threat is maintained, and at the end it’s hard to decide whether Holly is experiencing spiritual transfiguration or emotional collapse.
Whether this ambiguity increases or weakens the film’s impact is something I am in two minds about myself, but it’s well enough acted and shot. In keeping with my overall festival experience the earth didn’t move for me though.