I am increasingly belated. Already it is 2023 and I still haven’t got around to dealing with the 2022 London Film Festival. However, in many respects the festival itself hadn’t yet escaped the preceding lockdown years – obviously nobody was expected to wear a mask anymore, but the films were understandably still busy processing the trauma, explicitly or otherwise.
French writer-director Bertrand Bonello’s Coma is dedicated to his daughter and observes the almost solitary existence of a young girl (Louise Labeque) in a government-imposed lockdown, as she speaks with friends online, stages soap operas with her dolls and watches blandly sinister YouTube broadcaster Patricia Coma (Julia Faure) making pronouncements about the non-existence of free will and the advisability (or otherwise) of putting your hand in the food blender.
Our heroine experiments with this last, and also plays with a knife, while Bonello (notionally) looks on coolly; an acknowledgement, perhaps, of the way that lockdown usurped the parent’s responsibility to protect their child.
The emotional impact of the film is largely muffled, and there’s a sense of its ideas not having been fully realised. Which works to convey the fug of lockdown: you might in theory be free from the ties of the outside world now, but a fuzzy sense of oppression remains, inhibiting meaningful activity. That’s how I remember it, anyway.
Gilles Deleuze is quoted here, warning against the dangers of being ‘caught in another’s dream’. We are privy to our heroine’s dreams, and they are the most vivid scenes in the film, all set in a weirdly-lit forest full of dimly-glimpsed, disturbing figures and distant screams. Our protagonist is informed that this is the only place where she can truly be free – so perhaps freedom isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
But even lockdown isn’t safe. At one point one of Labeque’s Zoom companions, with whom she has been rating notable serial killers, is apparently assaulted and dragged offline by an intruder, a moment of drama that soon slips away into apathy – the victim never returns, except in another dream.
WHERE IS THIS STREET? OR: WITH NO BEFORE OR AFTER
No before or after, and precious little during either, in this film by Portuguese directors Joao Pedro Rodrigues and Joao Rui Guerra de Mata, which goes even further to rub our noses in the lockdown experience, or absence of experience.
I enjoyed The Last Time I Saw Macao, the directors’ previous collaboration, so maybe it bothered me less than it should have that this film riffs on 1963 film The Green Years, an important work in the Portuguese New Wave. I had neither seen nor heard of The Green Years, and didn’t know Portugal had a cinematic new wave – though why shouldn’t it? – but felt quietly confident that the film would still have something to offer.
What it had to offer, in the event, was closer to nothing, but then that was the point. The film consists largely of shots of (mostly) deserted offices, streets, waste ground in locked-down Lisbon – locations from the original film – plus a couple of musical numbers from Isabel Ruth, the earlier film’s star.
There are hints of other narratives going on elsewhere: body parts discarded at the side of the road, furtive outdoor sexual encounters, doors opening and closing. Which may or may not relate to The Green Years but, unsupported by any experience of that film, what you are left with is the most unsparing account of lockdown yet, focussing on the emptiness, the disruption of narrative it brought.
There is no dialogue as such, though we hear a voice on the radio telling people to stay indoors. The film too is ‘keeping us safe’, from any potentially disturbing emotional involvement. A few people walked out nevertheless, raising the question of why I was still there when there was no government edict compelling me to stay – a train of thought possibly anticipated on some level by the directors as part of the film’s psychology.
Will O’ The Wisp, Rodrigues other recent film, made John Waters’ 2022 top ten, suggesting that he still has a communicable sense of fun. The best joke here has a clapperboard appearing onscreen and someone shouting: ‘Action!’ Followed by pan across to another empty office chair.
A manticore is a mythical beast assembled from pieces of other animals – human head, lion’s body, scorpion’s tail – and Spanish writer-director Carlos Vermut’s compelling film has an equally slippery identity, existing on the very fringes of SF/horror but sometimes doing a convincing impression of an oddball romance.
Julián (Nacho Sánchez) creates monsters for computer games, the scarier the better. Working from home, he finds his solitary existence briefly upended when a fire breaks out in a neighbour’s apartment and he rescues a little boy – to whom he experiences an attraction, which he later acts on in the virtual world, creating the boy as a character using software from work.
Then an encounter with the distinctly boyish Diana (Zoe Stein) a student caring for her bedridden father at home, seems to find him ‘moving on’ into a more wholesome (and real) relationship – it even seems like we might be in for a happy ending, and in a perverse way that may be what we get.
Not happy for Julián though, as his virtual indiscretion with the neighbour boy was, it turns out, logged on the software of the company he works for – and now no longer works for. When Diana gets to hear about this, he is no longer in a relationship either.
His reaction to this involves inveigling his way into the neighbour’s flat and drugging the boy, but he is deterred from anything further when he spots a picture the boy has drawn of him as a tiger with two heads (in their only previous encounter he told the boy that, as a child, he had wanted to be a tiger when he grew up.)
The distraught Julián then throws himself out of the window but survives, paralysed, at which point Diana, whose father has now died, returns to care for him in an ironic ending that, while neat, still leaves questions reverberating.
Does Julián’s estrangement from his own father (they ‘don’t speak’) in some way account for his fixation on the boy? Was Julián himself abused? And what about Diana – was her obsessive ‘care’ for her father indicative of another unhealthy relationship, persisting now with Julián?
At one point during their courtship Diana relates her first experience, as a youngster, of watching porn, a videocassette her father had slipped into the wrong box – she thought she was watching (equally illicitly, perhaps) Videodrome.
Sex as science fiction; as horror. One way of thinking about Manticore is to draw an obvious parallel with the monsters Julián creates and his own ‘monstrousness’, but perhaps the real ‘monster’ is desire itself – this thing that’s out there in the spaces between people and free to take on all kinds of potentially grotesque shapes, in spite of society’s attempts to contain it and confine it to upbeat love stories such as this film sometimes appears to be.
In it’s emphasis on the perils of isolation (and working from home) Manticore seems to be operating under the influence of lockdown, and the same might be said of Attachment, another film that does a plausible impression of a romance. At first.
Gabriel Bier Gislason’s debut has Maja (Josephine Park) connecting with Leah (Ellie Kendrick) in a Danish library – a connection so overwhelming that that Maja is soon packing her bags and moving to London to live with her new soulmate.
Leah’s mother, Chana (Sofie Gräbol), who lives in the apartment upstairs, is not so keen on the relationship, however. Maja assumes that her frostiness comes from either an Orthodox Jewish disapproval of lesbianism or a morbid obsession with protecting her daughter – more likely, both – and eventually manages (not without resorting to dirty tricks) to extricate her lover from her mother’s influence and take her to Denmark.
Here, however, her behaviour grows increasingly strange and alarming – is this mental illness? Well no, it transpires that Leah has been playing host to a dybbuk, a demon that, if the correct rituals aren’t observed, can take her over. Chana has been scrupulously observing these rituals; in her absence, the dybbuk is gaining ground.
The film ends with a ritual conducted in an endearingly amateurish fashion, by Lev (David Dencik), a Jewish scholar, but he is only able to save Leah at the expense of Chana’s self-sacrifice, which leaves Maja to inherit the burden of keeping Leah safe.
The performances are good, but the transition from morbid psychology to the supernatural feels a little forced – Maja’s ‘conversion’ too sudden. Even so, the film mostly works, perhaps because it turns on the universal need to keep your loved ones safe, and the ultimate impossibility of this.
Making ‘fantasy’ (mental illness, superstition, religion) a necessary recourse. A fantasy which, in the COVID years, was in full effect, suggesting that lockdown is casting its shadow here too.