FilmSpace at Glasgow Film Festival: Arctic; Vox Lux; Float Like a Butterfly

FilmSpace is at the 15th Glasgow Film Festival, bringing a series of reviews on loads of new films. Film critic Calum Cooper looks at a survival thriller starring Mads Mikkelsen, a strange but fascinating film on the price of stardom, and an uplifting Irish film on belonging and individuality.

Arctic – ★★★★☆

Joe Penna’s Arctic begins with a man named Overgard, played by Mads Mikkelsen. He is carving something gargantuan into the snow of the Arctic Circle. Where he is isn’t clear, as snow covers the seemingly endless plains all around him, the screen basked in white. It seems ritualistic, as if he has done this over and over.

An overhead shot reveals that the carvings spell a word: S.O.S.

The next few scenes entail Overgard going about the small camp he has fashioned around the wreckage of his plane. He catches fish using makeshift rods and he spends copious time trying to signal for help with a distress beacon and a dynamo, all while trying to get a better understanding of where exactly he is. We don’t know how long he has been stranded, but it has clearly been a long time.

One day, his distress beacon picks something up. A crashed helicopter which had been sent to find him. There is a survivor in the wreckage, a young woman who doesn’t seem to understand English but recognises the gravity of their situation. Utilising new information from the downed helicopter, Overgard makes a difficult decision and decides to journey with the injured unnamed woman to find help.

This is a solid premise for a film that really only requires the skill of the director and the strength of the lead actor to carry it. That places a lot of pressure on those things admittedly, but if chosen wisely they can take the film a long way.

Wisely, the lead actor is Mads Mikkelsen, who I think is one of this generation’s best actors (look no further than The Hunt or Casino Royale to see why). He is once again mesmerising. With very few lines of dialogue throughout the film, the bulk of his performance comes from his mannerisms and expressions, however subdued. He acts as though he has been stranded for years – he could very well have been with the film’s ambiguity to time and place – thus, each decision Overgard makes and each leap of faith he takes, Mikkelsen imbues with character. You can almost see the gears in his head turning despite minimal speech, allowing us to fully understand his mentality and imagine what he would’ve been like if not for his predicament. Not many actors could’ve done that, but Mikkelsen pulls it off terrifically.

Dialogue restriction is constant, even with the arrival of a secondary character. The relationship between Overgard and the young woman reminded me of the old Czech film, Coach to Vienna, where a German man and a Czech woman have to flee from WW2 together. They cannot understand each other’s language, but through behaviour and empathy become attached nonetheless. The dynamic is very similar here. They do not understand each other but her survival encourages Overgard and gives him a stronger will to survive, for both their sakes. Overgard does oversee her survival for the most part, but it added a lot of much needed determination to Overgard and his own need to live.

The film’s cinematography also contributes to the film’s relentless intensity. Sweeping shots and wide angles of snowy mountains create the impression that they go on forever. It heightens the feelings of isolation, as if almost encouraging Overgard and the audience to give up on the hope of survival. Close quarters cinematography is also adopted where appropriate, such as inside wreckages and ice caves, and a particularly scary moment involving a polar bear. Much like the bitter chill of its setting, the film never lets up. It gives us time to know and understand Overgard and his situation, but then keeps you on edge, tight within its grasp as this character we’ve come to empathise with battles the elements on a chance of survival that may or may not be present. It serves as a remarkable testament to willpower and the human spirit.

Survival films are not easy to craft, but Penna has done a marvellous job with Arctic. Nifty direction results in imagery that’s as breath-taking as it is haunting, an intensity that rocks you to the core, and yet another phenomenal act from Mikkelsen serving as the soul of the film. It’s a gruelling watch, but one that offers thrills and scares alike, all as a celebration of the utmost powerful human desire to simply live.

Vox Lux – ★★★☆☆

Vox Lux is probably the most unique film I saw at the Glasgow Film Festival, and that includes Under the Silver Lake. It’s received completely polarised reactions, and it’s easy to see why. I myself came out scratching my head and telling myself, “I think I liked it”. I’ve had some time to reflect since then. It’s a film that would probably benefit from a second viewing in my case, but the film we got is one that I find myself fascinated by, thus making it strangely admiring.

It’s hard to summarise without seemingly spoiling chunks of the film, but I’ll give it a go. It details the life of Celeste (Raffey Cassidy of Tomorrowland and The Killing of a Sacred Deer), who survives a horrific ordeal at the start of the film. She and her sister Ellie (Stacy Martin) write a song in dedication to the lives lost, and the song becomes a hit. Quickly Celeste finds herself rising through the music industry, all the way up to the present day where she is A) now played by Natalie Portman, and B) an alcoholic, self-obsessed single mother to a teenage daughter (also Cassidy). The first half of the film details Celeste’s rise to stardom, and the second half showcases her preparation for a massive gig in spite of a media fallout involving her and another horrible incident.

There’s a lot to take in with the film already, and I’ve not even mentioned other key players like Jude Law as Celeste’s manager or Willem Dafoe as narrator. On the one hand, that is a weakness, for it can give the film a scattershot feel to it, as it goes from one narrative beat to the next arguably too rapidly, to the point where the first and second half can come off as two different experiences.

MORE FROM FILMSPACE AT GLASGOW FILM FESTIVAL: Connect; Under the Silver Lake; Out of Blue

But on the other hand, the way the characters and story are laid out can be interpreted in a variety of ways, each as interesting as the next. I personally saw Vox Lux as a criticism on the American Dream and the exploitations of the music industry, but my friend saw Celeste as a metaphor for America as a whole, citing numerous moments in the story to back up his interpretation. Perhaps it’s just artsy fartsy stuff, but I do think there’s a subject matter being chastised by the story as it encompasses the antics of a star with undeniable talent getting corrupted and twisted by the darker elements of the industry she aligns with. It’s kind of like an anti-A Star is Born in that regard. But that’s just my take.

Going alongside its interpretive story are strong visuals, a vivacious soundtrack, and some stellar performances, particularly from Cassidy and Portman. As I was walking out of the cinema, a guy behind me was saying that he thought this was the single worst performance of Portman’s career. Clearly he’s never seen the Prequel Trilogy, even though that wasn’t Portman’s fault anyway, but I digress. I personally thought Portman embodied the broken star clinging on to fame splendidly, able to convey an arrogant entitlement and blend it with exhausted vulnerability and fear. It’s a grand performance, rivalled only by that of Cassidy who plays both the younger Celeste and Celeste’s teenage daughter (a casting decision that threw me for a loop initially). She gets across stoic presence in her first few scenes, evolving into the persona Portman eventually becomes naturally, while also flexing her range with a more anxious role as Celeste’s daughter.

Sia contributes to the film with original songs for Celeste, and the mixture of editing and cinematography also aid the film’s building sense of disheartenment as Celeste slowly starts to turn into a drunken diva, capturing the pains of fame at such a young age in the process. Its impactful to watch, but it can also feel a little overstuffed with the frequency at which the film goes from scene to scene, scenes that are undoubtedly making points, but ones that may be up for debate, for better or worse.

I feel like I’m chickening out and going with the safe middle of the road option with this three star rating. Regardless, I suspect this rating will change upon a second viewing. I am liking it more the more I reflect on it, but a part of me still isn’t completely sure. I can at least credit Vox Lux for its style, soundtrack, audacious look, and compelling central performances, even if it is a bit bloated or tonally imbalanced. If that sounds like something you’d be into then by all means check it out. Just make sure you know what you’re getting yourself into first.

Float Like a Butterfly – ★★★★☆

There’s a moment early into Float Like a Butterfly that I’m still mulling over. We are in Ireland in the 1970s, and Hazel Doupe’s Frances is watching footage of a Muhammed Ali interview with her family, who are integrated into the Irish travelling community. During the interview, Frances’ grandfather expresses solidarity with Ali, claiming that the Irish travelling community is treated with as much vitriol as African Americans.

With the context of the film, it’s hard to argue against. The setup sees Frances as an aspiring boxer. This is largely due to her idolisation of Ali, an African American who defied contemporary conventions. The film is even named after a famous quote of Ali’s: “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee”. Frances wishes to do the same, being a young woman who has suffered from the death of her mother at the hands of policemen that see her and her community as lesser, as well as the resentment of her father who sees Frances’ refusal to conform to gender stereotypes as something to belittle.

A journey to a nearby town to search for a potential husband with her father and timid younger brother only further enhances Frances’ beliefs as she sets out to prove her worth as a fighter to her father, her enemies, and, most importantly, herself. The end result is a charismatic, heartfelt coming-of-age tale that packs as hard a punch as its heroine.

It’s a somewhat conventional idea, but what makes Float Like a Butterfly work so well is the main character and the themes that come with her story.  On top of Hazel Doupe’s resilient, star-making performance, the character of Frances is a fascinating character who gives the themes a sturdy platform to stand on. Director Carmel Winters seems to be using the film’s 70s setting and divisive communities of the time to show the relationship between belonging and individuality. Her fixation on these ideas comes through skilfully. Frances wishes to pursue her dreams of boxing, although where she belongs does not seem to permit that. Even still, she has a sense of loyalty to them, offering to use her abilities for the better of the community as a whole. It makes her a very compelling lead of which to attach ourselves to.

Director Carmel Winters seems to be using the film’s 70s setting and divisive communities of the time to show the relationship between belonging and individuality. Her fixation on these ideas comes through skilfully.

But it’s not just Frances that defies the wrongful convention. Her brother, and even her father to some extent, do so too. While the stereotype of the time was that females are needed for domestic labour and males go out and do the hard labour, Float Like a Butterfly turns this on its head. Frances is most in tune with herself when she’s flexing her muscles, and her brother Patrick would rather stay home and take care of the camp than go out hunting or fighting with his father, as shown in a moment when Patrick is spooked at the idea of skinning a rabbit, but Frances does so without hesitation. Even Frances’ father in his first few scenes seems all on board with Frances’ boxing prospects, but retracts those beliefs once he returns from prison. It’s never made explicit from what I can recall, but I suspect the sudden change ties in to the death of Frances’ mother. It makes for interesting drama between this familial trio as well as between the travelling community and the stiff-lipped police officers and villagers that taunt Frances and her family.

Accompanying this is committed reliance to the show don’t tell rule, with many small interactions between the fun supporting players, such as Frances’ stern but loving grandmother and eccentric grandfather, revealing much character in both Frances and her community. When dialogue is used however, it is witty and sharpened by classic Irish dialect and idioms, the same way Scottish slurs amplified the script for Wild Rose. The murky cinematography adds to the prejudiced world the characters occupy, while bright colours offer specs of hope, and the classical Irish soundtrack celebrates both uniqueness and ancestry, the core dual elements of the movie in my view.

Float Like a Butterfly is a wee treat of a film. Joining the ranks of other delightful modern Irish films like Sing Street or the animated films of Cartoon Saloon, it’s an intricate, smart, and emotional piece of character and family drama with plenty of rich values to double with its entertainment. Stunningly crafted and deftly written, it’s a highlight of this year’s festival.

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