Catch-up: Leeds International Film Festival

From Effie to Cathy: not much of a stroppy leap.

DOZENS of films have already graced screens across Leeds this week as the city celebrates its 25th annual international film festival.

Kicking off the opening gala was an adaptation of Bronte’s classic novel Wuthering Heights – a masterpiece which has tortured generations of GCSE and A-level students with its verbose layers of allusion.

But if you’d plonked them down in front of Andrea Arnold’s version of events I doubt anyone would have got less than an A grade in their exams thanks to an over-zealous use of the camera’s lingering gaze – y’know, for those who need it spelling out.

One thing worth mentioning: I never thought of Bronte’s work as a particularly hairy piece of literature but in Arnold’s hands there’s such a heavy-handed fixation on tangled tresses, matted fur and coarse manes that it borders on abuse of the metaphor.

In small doses, the attention to detail is  necessary – the first time Heathcliff and Cathy touch, seemingly insignificant, is by way of sharing a horseback ride. Sure, the second her wild locks tickle his face as they gallop across the moors, he is clearly and unashamedly in lust. But there’s no need to hammer the point home with such regularity.

On the other hand, some of the constant camera abuse is balanced out by the stripped down aesthetic – there’s very little in the way of fancy technology employed and the wilderness of the moors is captured by frame-after-frame of no-frills filming.

Stark white skies meet verdant green fields, hand-held cameras capture first person rambles over the hills, and if the camera crew had a wind muffler in the van, it certainly wasn’t used as they scaled the moors to capture moody scenery. 

The theme of ‘the wild’ – a key feature in the novel – is rarely far from the action. The characters snap with short tempers, the horses bray and rear uncontrollably, and the brisk winds batter the actors’ faces and carry away their words.

Not that Heathchliff was ever particularly chatty mind – some of the scenes are punctuated with brusque Yorkshire put-downs and half-intelligable threats of violence but not much else of note. 

But of all the oddities of the film, the one that jars most is the casting of Heathcliff with a black actor.

At the crux of Bronte’s novel was straight up class prejudice – Heathcliff was an outsider first and foremost because he was a poor orphan. In Arnold’s adaptation, the hatred towards the young rogue is explained away with scenes of blatant racism, which is an unnecessary re-write at best.

Jarivs: A-OK...

Over in music documentary land, The Beat is the Law – Fanfare for the Common People, takes the audience on a decade-by-decade breakdown of Sheffield’s burgeoning music scene from the 70s to present day, putting Brit-poppers Pulp at its heart.

If you ever wondered what occupies the space between the Human League’s “Don’t You Want Me Baby” and Pulp’s “Common People”, this film tells you.

Carefully weaving industrial revolt and its effect on the arts scene in the Steel City, The Beat is the Law takes you on a journey that stops off for a chat with Cabaret Voltaire, ABC and obscure house and dance acts, Chakk and Clock DVA.

For music buffs with a love for the bizarre, this social commentary on a South Yorkshire city’s battle with the death of its industries is an epic history lesson.

Golden Owl competition entrant, The Other Side of Sleep offers a truly disturbing account of a youngster’s battle with sleep deprivation.

In echoes of Sarah Kane’s play 4.48 Psychosis, a teenager wakes in the woods wrapped in a duvet and lying next to a corpse.

She wanders through the film like a zombie, occasionally nodding off and waking up covered in scratches. It’s never altogether clear what’s real and what’s fantasy – we’re led to believe she has committed a dreadful murder but the film employs a dreamlike atmosphere which acts as a constant and confusing mistress throughout.

I'm sure the director had best intentions too...

Finally – and I won’t labour the point too much – the fact I fell asleep three times during Romanian new wave effort, Best Intentions, probably speaks louder than words.

While there were moments of pure absurdist theatre – not least a psychiatric patient who lurked magnificently in the background wearing a rabbit mask, – the monotony of the plot dragged the film into the ground.

As a fan of experimental cinema and a lover of the avant garde, it was a disappointment to see moments of brilliant camera work wasted on mundane dialogue.

More to come: Finisterrae, Together, Shut Up Little Man.

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