Thursday, 28 October 2010

The Sleeping Beauty

Event: The Sleeping Beauty, dir. Catherine Breillat - London Film Festival
Location: Vue Leicester Square

The London Film Festival closes today. Earlier on this week, I took the opportunity to check the festival out (finally!) by seeing Catherine Breillat's The Sleeping Beauty. I had no idea what I was getting myself into: other than pouring through the synopses listed on the BFI website, I did no other form of research.

Before the film started, I made sure I arrived at West End early, to get a chance to soak in the atmosphere and see where the buzz is. And disappointingly, there weren't much of any. I've been to the Toronto Film Festival many times, so this might be a biased opinion, but it seems like the reason people attend the London Film Fest is that it is in London, whereas, the reason people attend the Toronto Film Fest is that it is the film festival. I also ended up sitting next to an eccentric old man who kept complaining about how crazy and busy central London is. Not a good start.

Regardless, the film! According to the synopsis, this film is a modern re-telling of the classic fairytale. It looks at what happens to a young princess
(Anastasia) who had a curse put on her and had to fall asleep for 100 years. We are invited to follow her point of view and step into her dream world. What's interesting is that in this version, Anastasia falls asleep at the age of 6 and wakes at the age of 16, so this is essentially a coming-of-age story, a cinematic Bildungsroman.

Not to give too much away, the narrative deals with modern ideas of growing up, including the discovery of sexuality (for fun, Anastasia reads aloud dictionary terms like hermaphrodite), the problems of gender identity (she doesn't like wearing dresses, wants to be called Vladimir, and desires to be active and transgressive), and plays with notions of lesbianism and virginity. Here is a princess who doesn't need to be saved. She goes on a wild, imaginative adventure for 100 years, and when she wakes up, she doesn't just wait for the 'prince' to rescue her.

I've never read Angela Carter, but her famous rewritings of fairytales with a feminist twist is an obvious comparison to this work. Normally I would applaud an artist for trying to re-interpret classical works in a new way, but other than the interesting questions the film raises about gender/sexuality, I find the performances quite flat. The actors are all beautiful creatures with angelic faces, but the lines were delivered without much realism. To be fair, a reviewer suggested that this is intentional, to indicate that we are witnessing a dream world.

Furthermore, I personally dislike films that had a great focus on diegetic sounds to the point where there is hardly any background soundtrack: you can hear every rustle of a dress, every step a person makes, every little annoying noise that usually a bit of good sound editing could clear up. It reminds me of Antonioni's films in that sense. He uses that kind of sound realism successfully, to denote existentialism and a loss of meaning, but I don't think that's what Breillat is trying to do here. Either her budget wasn't big enough or she spent it on the wrong things (it looked like she spent a lot - in fact, too much - on costumes and props).

Another director Breillat reminds me of is Guy Maddin, who is very much inspired by the aesthetics of silent films. In The Sleeping Beauty, there are no technological special effects. When monsters and fairy creatures appear, they are all acted out by real action.

Overall, I thought this was an interesting film, though I came out dissatisfied. It is definitely not to everyone's taste.

Tuesday, 12 October 2010

Quentin Blake & Roald Dahl: A Journey

Event: Words on Monday - Foyles Literary Evening: Quentin Blake & Donald Sturrock
Location: Kings Place, London

Everyone knows Quentin Blake: the famous illustrator of Roald Dahl's books. His trademark squiggles can be recognised anywhere.
Anyway, he was in dialogue with Dahl's official biographer, Donald Sturrock at a Foyles literary event, and it was a good fun hour spent learning about Dahl's life, his art and of course, his relationship with Blake.

I didn't know that Roald never set out to be a children's writer, and that for the longest time, he refused to write a book dedicated to children. In his early adulthood, he wrote primarily macabre short stories that featured grotesque narratives and strange characters. Little did he know that his fascination with grim and ghastly plot lines can translate well in to the sphere of children's lit. Quentin remarked: 'You can write the most horrific scenes, as long as there's terrible laughter (afterwards)'. If you look back at Dahl's repertoire, it is quite stunning that books like The Twits (about an ugly, nasty couple doing horrible tricks to each other) and The Witches (about a group of - yes - witches who wanted to destroy children!) could be good children's novels. The Witches, for example, has been a frequent target of censors, but if you look back at the history of children's tales / fairytales, Roald Dahl's 'macabre' stories would fit quite nicely in the tradition. Children's stories evolved from the oral tradition: often, they were horrific cautionary tales where people - good or bad - can die horrible deaths.

In any case, apparently Roald Dahl had an imposing persona at times (Quentin said wryly: 'When Roald Dahl's not happy, you knew about it'), but he could also be very engaging with the young. In one instance, at a book signing, a little boy looked up to Dahl and asked:
'What do you do when people tell you they don't like your stories?'

His immediate response? 'I hit them'.

Anyway, it was good to hear Quentin Blake's take on the books, and his description of how his art functions in relation to the text. He says Roald's stories are very action-driven: he uses a character's actions for characterisation, and the challenge for Quentin is to convey the characters' behaviour/actions without giving too much of the plot away. So if there's a scene where a teacher (in Matilda) hits a student by smashing a plate on his head, instead of capturing the moment when the plate comes into contact with the boy's head, Quentin decided to show the teacher lifting the plate in mid-air. This suspension draws the reader to the text, and instead of detracting from the reading experience, enhances it by leaving you with a sense of anticipation.

I thoroughly enjoyed the talk, although it was a bit short for my liking (it was about an hour long, followed by a quick book signing session). Also, I really dislike Q&A periods when they open it up to the general audience. Call me a snob, but usually people ask the dumbest questions, and only because they love the sound of their own voice.

Other than that, a good event!