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  • Reported from BFI London Film Festival

Most of the conversations (and the longest queues) at the London Film Festival tend to be centred around the high-profile gala screenings, whether they’re the big studio pictures gearing up for the Oscar race or arthouse fare on the festival circuit, but there are plenty of smaller films worth talking about if you delve deeper into the programme. This year’s festival opened with Jeymes Samuel’s The Harder They Fall, a boldly revisionist take on the western, and one that set the tone for a series of films that tried to look at familiar genres in a fresh way.

Sometimes these films can look extremely familiar at first glance. The screenplay for Inexorable could easily have been the template for a glossy ‘Nanny from Hell’ Hollywood thriller in the mid-90s. Instead, the Belgian director Fabrice du Welz takes the film in a different direction. Shooting on super 16mm, he has made something that feels grainy, rough and intimate, despite the palatial surroundings of this family’s country retreat. The hangdog Benoît Poelvoorde is Marcel, a writer who has failed to deliver a second novel in the twenty years since his hit debut Inexorable, and Mélanie Doutey is his wife and editor Jeanne, who is also the daughter of his late publisher. “I feel like a usurper” Marcel admits after moving his things into his former father-in-law’s office, but the real usurper is walking up the driveway in the shape of Gloria (Alba Gaïa Bellugi).

This is a classic interloper plot, with a stranger arriving to expose the fissures in a family that apparently has it all. Du Welz doesn’t make any attempt to disguise how unhinged Gloria is – she gives herself a black eye to expedite the family’s sympathy and acceptance – but the true reason for her fixation on Marcel, whose novel she has memorised, remains under wraps until the end. It perhaps stretches credulity that Marcel and Jeanne would be so trusting and immediately hand childcare responsibilities over to Gloria, but Du Welz and his actors make these characters real people with raw, complicated emotions, and when we reach the inevitable bloody finale, it feels messy and tragic for all concerned rather than exciting or cathartic. Inexorable may be a film uninterested in sticking rigidly to the Hollywood playbook, but Du Welz does acknowledge his influences, giving special thanks to John M. Stahl and Gene Tierney in the end credits.

Alba Caïa Bellugi as Gloria in Inexorable (2021)
Alba Caïa Bellugi as Gloria in Inexorable (2021)
© Courtesy of London Film Festival

Michael Pierce made a big splash at the 2017 LFF with his debut feature Beast, and he’s followed it up with an ambitious thriller that attempts to use the genre as a vehicle for exploring a variety of issues such as trauma, mental health and racial profiling. Encounter has an attention-grabbing opening, using visual effects and microscopic imagery to make insects look like alien invaders. That’s how former US Marine Malik Kahn (Riz Ahmed) sees them, as he has developed an acute paranoia about aliens using insects to control mankind, and we see him spraying himself with bug spray in his hotel room before absconding with his two sons (Lucian-River Chauhan and Aditya Geddada) and hitting the road.

There’s a compelling narrative here about how trauma warps our perspectives, and how parents can influence and poison the minds of their children, but Pierce seems too constrained by genre conventions to develop those ideas. As the film cuts back and forth between Malik and his pursuers (Octavia Spencer and Rory Cochrane in stock roles), Encounter settles into a more conventional and less intriguing rhythm. The film is also unclear on how delusional Malik is meant to be, with his mania clearing up a little too conveniently towards the end. Pierce directs with plenty of confidence and style, and he gets excellent work from the reliable Riz Ahmed and his two young co-stars, who find a touching intimacy in their scenes together. It’s an involving and skilfully-made film, but one that narrows disappointingly from its exciting start.

Encounter (2021)
Encounter (2021)
© Courtesy of London Film Festival

Paul Andrew Williams is another filmmaker who generated a lot of excitement with his debut, but his subsequent career never quite delivered on that promise. After the riveting low-budget thriller London to Brighton (2006), Williams made a couple of uneven horror films and the sentimental Song for Marion (2012), before spending the next decade working in television. The most intriguing thing about his film Bull is that it indicates a return to the thriller territory of his breakthrough, and the film’s protagonist, known only as Bull (Neil Maskell), is also returning to his old stomping ground. He has emerged, seemingly from the dead, to take revenge on the crime family that betrayed him a decade earlier. The first act of violence we witness is a shooting, but Bull’s weapon of choice is a blade. In this film, you’ll see bodies and faces get stabbed, fingers and limbs hacked off, and when Bull tells somebody “I’m gonna make you eat that little knife you’re holding,” you know what’s coming next.

After his years in television, Williams clearly relishes working on the bigger cinematic canvas. He makes effective use of the wide frame, notably in the fairground sequences, and on a couple of occasions he reveals Bull lurking in one corner of the screen after drawing our attention elsewhere. But he also appears to relish depicting Bull’s sadistic acts too much, and the film becomes a grim, bloody slog. At the heart of Bull is the lingering question of what happened to the main character and how he is even alive to wreak such vengeance. Williams fills in the story of his feud with the family’s patriarch Norm (David Hayman) through frequent flashbacks, but the attempt to graft an element of spiritual horror onto the climax of the film is a misguided move that simply doesn’t work at all. Bull is a hollow, nihilistic spectacle.

More satisfying horror could be found in the festival’s Cult strand, most powerfully in Paco Plaza’s La abuela, the story of model Susanna (Almudena Amor) and her ailing grandmother Pilar (Vera Valdez), who requires round-the-clock care after suffering a brain hemorrhage. As soon as Susanna is settled into her grandmother’s apartment, inexplicable things start to happen, with the near-catatonic Pilar seemingly possessing the power to stop her granddaughter from ever leaving. Plaza certainly knows his way around a jump scare and La abuela delivers plenty of creepy moments, but what’s more impressive is the emotional core that he develops at the heart of his film.

 Almudena Amor and Vera Valdez in La abuela (2021)
Almudena Amor and Vera Valdez in La abuela (2021)
© Courtesy of London Film Festival

Susanna’s deep affection for her grandmother is emphasised in the tenderness of the early scenes, which makes her growing fear of the old woman even more harrowing. La abuela also confronts her fear of ageing, with Susanna being told early on that she’s “old” for a model as she edges towards her 25th birthday and suffering nightmares about her body wrinkling and falling apart. The striking newcomer Almudena Amor is a captivating protagonist, bringing layers of raw emotion to her performance, and a wordless Vera Valdez gives an extraordinary physical display that makes Pilar alternately vulnerable and terrifying. The whole film has been crafted with real elegance, and Daniel Fernández Abelló’s 35mm cinematography makes particularly beautiful use of shadows, lighting one tense set-piece with just the glare from Susanna’s phone. It’s perhaps worth noting that La abuela is one of a number of independent and foreign-language films at LFF that chose to shoot on film, achieving a richer aesthetic than some of the bigger budget studio pictures that were made digitally.

Closer to home, Lee Haven Jones’ The Feast stood out in the programme as a rare Welsh-language horror film, and this is a movie with very deep roots in the director’s homeland. Jones opens with a shot of an industrial drill plunging into the countryside shortly followed by a workman collapsing with blood running from his ears, indicating that whatever spirit is animating this film will emerge from beneath the Welsh earth. The Feast is a real slow burn. A large portion of its running time consists of eerily creeping steadicam views of plush corridors in the ostentatious home of a Welsh politician and his family, with the camera occasionally lingering on the inscrutable face of Cadi (Annes Elwy), the enigmatic stranger who has turned up as a last-minute replacement to help prepare for a dinner party.

Annes Elwyn in The Feast (2021)
Annes Elwyn in The Feast (2021)
© Courtesy of London Film Festival

Jones has a sharp eye for arresting compositions and a firm grasp of tone, but he is a much more confident director with the measured build-up than the grand guignol finale, which is messily constructed and lacks the impact that it might have had in more assured hands. This is a very absorbing and intelligent folk horror, though. Each member of the family, plus one of their guests, is shown to be venal and corrupt, and Cadi’s revenge on them is a potent rebuke to all those who would exploit and defile this land. The Feast is a solid debut feature, but it may stick around with viewers longer than many of the festival’s more accomplished films thanks to one of Jones’ musical choices – the catchy 1960s Welsh pop song Watshia di dy hun is featured at the end of the film, and it has been rattling around in my brain ever since the credits rolled.

Exploring Virtual Realities at the BFI London Film Festival 2021

At this year’s LFF Expanded programme, we played virtual pianos, travelled through melting doors and spoke to director Asif Kapadia about his VR animation Laika, the story of the first dog to be launched into space.

By Rebecca Harrison

Exploring Virtual Realities at the BFI London Film Festival 2021