London fest prioritizes the people over the premieres

Posted by · 6:52 pm · October 13th, 2012

LONDON – At no other festival I’ve attended is the faintly absurd bubble we film critics live in made more apparent than the BFI London Film Festival — a buffet far more concerned with serving the public the best world cinema has to offer, whether or not another festival got to it first, than with providing media outlets with grabby exclusives and world premieres.

For me and many of my colleagues, a Cannes-premiered film like “Rust and Bone” is already old news, despite not having officially opened yet; for London cineastes in the real world, tonight’s gala screening, with Marion Cotillard in attendance, is an eagerly anticipated event. That is as it should be: one of the things I love about my hometown festival is that it re-sparks thoughts and conversations about such films in a much more lively public context.

And that doesn’t only go for the starry drawcard titles: on Thursday evening, I attended a screening of Bosnian Oscar submission “Children of Sarajevo” (having missed it at Cannes, where it played in Un Certain Regard) at one of the festival’s off-course venues in South Kensington, and was both surprised and delighted to find an antsy crowd of Londoners queuing for standby tickets. Yes, this strong study of gender and religious prejudices in post-war Bosnia (more on the film later) was actually playing to a packed house, and then some.

A small part of me wants to ask the crowd if they know they can see such films in near-empty arthouses all year round; a larger part admires the festival’s clever marketing for making such commercially unviable works into hot tickets for a single week. This year the New York Film Festival, which once enjoyed a similarly low-key profile, entered a higher realm of publicity, grabbing flashy world premieres of such A-list titles as “Lincoln,” “Life of Pi” and “Flight” in addition to its playlist of greatest hits from other fests. Having briefly enjoyed the spotlight when it scored the first showing of “Frost/Nixon,” London would surely like whatever New York is having — but for the public that makes up the bulk of its audience, such distinctions are less important when, to appropriate the title of Alain Resnais’s latest (also in the fest), they haven’t seen anything yet.

The LFF has just wrapped its third full day of programming — having kicked off on Wednesday night with Tim Burton’s “Frankenweenie” and a large, loud opening party that I was lucky enough to attend. Even the fact that the party was moved this year from its regular home in Chelsea’s larney Saatchi Gallery to a quirkier warehouse space in the shabby-chic Docklands area seemed to me indicative of a festival keen to live a little closer to earth than usual. (Plus, it follows the meme that the Olympics announced to the world this summer: in London, east is the new west.)

I admit my coverage has been a little slow getting off the ground — partly because I’ve been stockpiling films to review in the coming week, and largely because many of the festival’s early highlights have already been reviewed on these pages. (For reference, LFF titles I caught elsewhere, with review links, include “Rust and Bone,” “No,” Beasts of the Southern Wild,” “Ernest and Celestine,” and “Laurence Anyways,” from Cannes,“Our Children,” “Good Vibrations,”and “Made in Ash,” from Karlovy Vary, “Fill the Void,” and “The Reluctant Fundamentalist” from Venice, and “Sister,” “Francine,” “The Delay,” “Aujourd’hui,” and “I, Anna” from Berlin.)

Aside from “Frankenweenie,” which received mostly affectionate British responses as the festival’s curtain-raiser, the biggest festival talking points of the opening days have been (to my ear, at least) Tomas Alfredson’s Cannes hit “The Hunt,” which keeps accruing ecstatic admirers as I think it grows only more dubious with distance; “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” which continues to slay international festival audiences months after its Stateside opening; “Ginger & Rosa,” which I haven’t seen yet, but seems to be rallying from its tepid Toronto debut, with much talk about Elle Fanning’s performance; and, of course, “Rust & Bone,” which also seems to be strengthening after a divided Cannes reception.

On a recent Oscar Talk podcast, Anne Thompson expressed her doubts that arthouse audiences would respond to Jacques Audiard’s dark melodrama; I, on the other hand, keep talking to people who have been moved to tears by the film, and the film’s UK marketers are capitalizing on the buzz with ubiquitous widescreen billboards around London. It’ll be interesting to see how it lands in the US. 

For my part, my favourite first encounter of the festival so far has been with Australian Oscar submission “Lore,” a superb portrait of the dying days of Nazism in war-ravished Germany that I’ll review in more detail soon, along with the aforementioned “Children of Sarajevo.” Indeed, one of the chief attractions of the festival for me is the opportunity to make further progress on that 71-title foreign Oscar longlist: Spain’s “Blancanieves,” Mexico’s “After Lucia,” Afghanistan’s “The Patience Stone” and The Netherlands’s “Kauwboy” are all films I hope to see and discuss here over the next week. 

Other titles likely to pop up in my coming coverage include “The Sessions,” documentaries “Mea Maxima Culpa,” “West of Memphis” and “Room 237,” as well as British highlights “Sightseers” and “Shell.” It should also be a good opportunity to revisit some films I saw but didn’t get to write about at earlier festivals: I know I’ve received a lot of requests for a review of “Amour,” for example, for which I never quite found the words at Cannes. Beyond that, it’ll be a matter of nosing through the lower-profile titles and seeing what truffles come up. On Saturday, meanwhile, I’ll be at the festival’s swanky black-tie awards dinner, and will follow up with a report: with both Helena Bonham Carter and Tim Burton due to receive presentations that night, it shouldn’t be dull. Stay tuned.

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