The 2009 London Film Festival is still going, though it’s over for me. I’ll admit to feeling pretty burnt out. Illness has made my voice as deep as Dr. Mrs. the Monarch, and my brain as mushy as overcooked Maris Piper potatoes. How I managed to make it through three films on Monday is beyond me, with an imminent coughing fit scratching away at my uvula for most of the day. I trust that every festival-goer in those three rooms will be glad to know I didn’t ruin their entertainment, even the latecomers who kept swapping seats throughout, driving me into an almost murderous rage.
It took until last Friday to realise that the latecomers who had plagued me throughout the festival were return-ticket-holders who were being allowed in at the last minute — a theory postulated by fellow festival-attendee and friend of the blog Mr. Millan. He’s a more understanding person than I am, but even so, when people were still stepping over us twenty minutes after the lights had dimmed, all sympathy vanished. While the audiences at the festival were generally wonderful, attentive and respectful, this late attendance and the inability of some patrons to sit in their allocated seats really ruined some movies. It’s hard to concentrate on the really rather important opening scenes of movies when people on either side of you are arguing over who gets what seat.
One selfish person who seemed affronted by the suggestion they get the hell out of someone else’s seat managed to completely distract me during the opening moments of Nicholas Winding Refn’s gruelling Viking Grrrr-a-thon Valhalla Rising. A title card flashed up with something on it about clans going to the ends of the Earth and killing each other with a variety of gruesome implements. I think it did, anyway. For all I know it could have been talking about Viking couture and ancient Scandinavian infrastructure investment, so annoying were the lady’s adamant pronouncements that she was not going to move. She did, though. And then sat in someone else’s chair, meaning she put up the same struggle three minutes later. This second disturbance was during a series of moody shots of some gruff looking gents huddling on the side of a hill, so it wasn’t so bad.
If there was any image that summed up Valhalla Rising, it would be of gruff looking gents huddling on the side of a hill. There was a lot of it. The thin story follows the final journey of mute Viking warrior One Eye, played with silent intensity and motherfucking epic badassery by Mads Mikkelsen. Disclosure: he only gets to dole out a bit of ultraviolence here and there as Winding Refn’s carefully paced movie grinds toward its inevitable conclusion. The movie has been marketed as a Viking combat actioner like The 13th Warrior or the deeply tedious and offensively stupid Pathfinder, but it’s much more meditative than that. Audiences may not be prepared for the funereal pace of the actual film. That said, when it kicks off between our taciturn anti-hero and some gruff gent who had just been huddling on the side of a hill, One-Eye is a riveting protagonist, effortlessly and brutally destroying all foes. He’s the Viking Brock Samson, and very fetching he looks in his leather jacket and trews.
After escaping from capture by some folk whose identity might have been revealed in that title card I didn’t get to read thanks to the annoying lady, One-Eye and a tag-along boy (Are, played with mischievous charm by Maarten Steven) come across a band of idiot Christian Vikings, who think they can reach the Holy Land — from Scotland, mind — via teeny boat, in order to crush the infidels in the name of Christ. This does not go well. A long stretch of the movie shows the band of zealots — plus One Eye and his adopted companion — sitting in a boat surrounded by thick fog, desperate for water. When they eventually land it seems they are in Hell, but in fact they have found the endpoint that One Eye — who appears to be psychic, considering his rather accurate visions of doom and misery — has been heading towards all along. Does his journey doom them, or do they accidentally doom themselves? One-Eye appears to be the only person who has any idea of what is going on. He is yer actual one-eyed man who is king in the land of the blind.
As with Von Trier’s Antichrist, nature is the enemy here, even more so than the various warriors dispatched by One-Eye. Though our hero and the annoying band of treacherous Christian Viking jerk-offs come up against a very real antagonist in their final destination, the thing that finishes them off is their inability to comprehend and adapt to their surroundings, or to move past their ignorant superstitions and suspicions. Though One Eye’s feelings are unclear, it’s likely he does think he has reached the afterlife, which is a forest where only predators lurk. The Christians, on the other hand, bicker about whether it’s the Holy Land or Hell, and their foolishness and fear of the landscape is the end of them. One Eye is lucky. He soon realises what his visions have been showing him: the moment of his death, which he embraces gladly. I didn’t get to see John Hillcoat’s adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road at the festival, but I’ve heard troubling rumours that the final act is more reassuring than the one in the book. Funnily enough Valhalla Rising has an even darker final act than McCarthy’s book. In this world there is only madness, loneliness, and death. It’s worse than having your movie-going experience disrupted by thoughtless Londoners.
It’s not all death and misery. Valhalla Rising is staggeringly beautiful, with Refn and cinematographer Morten Søborg filling the screen with terrifying close-ups of rugged tough guys contrasted with imposing hillsides, dark forests, overwhelming mists and breathtaking skies, almost exclusively depicted in murky greens, blues and shocking reds. Along with Enter The Void, it’s the film festival choice I’m most pleased with getting to see on the big screen: both movies would be greatly damaged by being seen first on a small screen. Though much of the movie is taken up with aimless wandering and muttered conversations, the atmospherics are perfectly handled by Refn. The imagery looms down at you, as if choking you. At times I felt like I had a mute Viking badass standing on my chest, it was so oppressive. If the narrative leaves you unimpressed, I can’t imagine the grimy precision of the mood mechanics won’t make an impression. I left the room annoyed by the longueurs but unable to shake the memory of the experience. It’s possibly the best deeply flawed movie I’ve seen in a while, something I can’t in good conscience rave about but want to recommend to everyone.
Unlike Metropia, which is just deeply flawed. As with Gerald McMorrow’s Franklyn, I would love to be able to praise Metropia unreservedly for being so defiantly odd and ambitious, but the unsatisfying narrative, murky visuals, and deathly pace are hurdles too big to jump. As far as I could tell it was set in the future, in a Europe suffering from oil shortages. That’s what it says on the film’s Wikipedia page, so I’m going with that. The title cards that set up the background were obscured by — yes — several people coming in late. Seriously! You thought I was over-reacting in the first half of this post? No! We’re talking about a screening that was delayed by about twenty minutes so the director could introduce it! This was going on all the time, and I seemed to be the douchebag-magnet. God!
Roger — The protagonist of Metropia – is a paranoid loser who resists using the underground rail system run by yer bog-standard sinister post-dystopic corporation Trexx (not named after the brand of vegetable fat). This same corporation — which, wouldn’t you know it, is totes ev0l — is using a microchip-laden shampoo called Dangst to monitor and control the minds of those who use the product. Well, I say control, but in fact Roger just seems to be plagued with chatter from Trexx worker Stefan — voiced by Alexander Skarsgård — who gives him vague suggestions and listens in on Roger’s dreary thoughts, which revolve around his fear of the underground trains, his potentially adulterous girlfriend Anna, and the woman featured on the side of the mind-controlling shampoo bottle. And I thought I’d had shitty jobs in the past.
As with much post-PKD SF, the potentially schizophrenic protagonist is manipulated by forces greater than him to do something something [vagueness supplied by movie, not by blogger]. In fact, Roger’s complicity in some kind of shareholder battle between Trexx CEO Ivan Bahn and his daughter Nina (voiced, respectively by Udo Kier and Juliette Lewis) seems more accidental than anything, and has barely any effect on him. At the start of the film he’s cowardly and having relationship troubles, and in the final scene he doesn’t seem any less plagued by his nervousness, and his relationship has been saved by events outside his control. I’m not saying a movie has to follow rules of narrative, but if you’re going to try something different, make sure it’s worth doing that. Bring something new to the narrative melange. I couldn’t care less about Roger at the start of the film, and that opinion didn’t change one jot by the end. Plus he looked like a creepy-ass bobble-head and he freaked me out.
I’m a sucker for visually innovative movies, so none of that would matter if the film looked great, but even though Metropia is certainly distinctive the animation is an additional turn-off. As the Wikipedia page details, the bizarre characters are actually photos of random people manipulated using Photoshop and Adobe After Effects, then animated in front of photos of European locations. I doff my cap to director Tarik Saleh, lead animator Isak Gjertsen and art director Sesse Lind for creating something this distinctive, but the murky visuals have the unintended consequence of being soporific. Saleh talked about the movie, and his charming anecdotes about the movie energised the room, but by the mid-point it felt like the audience was flagging. The biggest obstacle is the inexpressive facial animation. Vincent Gallo and Juliette Lewis’ dialogue is already mumbled (as per), making comprehension an issue, and with the fleshy bobble-head faces being animated as minimally as they are it’s all but impossible to become emotionally invested in what’s going on. The cluttered absurdist plot doesn’t help.
Responding in such a negative way to a movie when the director is in the room is something I never thought would happen to me. Throughout Metropia I was annoyed and frustrated, but a little voice was telling me, “Dude, the guy that made this is behind you. Have some respect.” And I should, really. Unlike the really unforgivably dreadful movies I’ve seen this year — such as Lesbian Vampire Killers, The Proposal, X-Men Origins: Wolverine, and Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li — this was made with passion and love by a group of individuals who obviously believed in what they were doing. It’s not a lazy cash-in or tacky exploitation flick, but sadly it’s also a rote SF movie with a unique aesthetic that gets in the way of telling the story. Nevertheless, as with Franklyn, I wish all those who worked on the movie the best of luck in the future.
Nope, saying that doesn’t make me feel any better about criticising the film. ::sigh::