FilmSpace is at the 73rd Edinburgh Film Festival. Film critic Calum Cooper reviews the darkly uplifting comedy Emma Peeters, the campy thriller Body at Brighton Rock, and the Glasgow based feature Balance, Not Symmetry.
Emma Peeters – ★★★☆☆
Emma Peeters is a film that’s somehow both colourfully upbeat and tragically melancholic. It’s a dark comedy in the purest sense, combining genuine laughs and the usual quirks of the rom-com genre with real pathos. It’s a refreshing, if not particularly demanding, film with plenty of charm hidden underneath the bleakness.
The moment the film opens we find ourselves identifying with the main character. Emma Peeters (Monia Chokri) is a 34-year-old actress living in Paris. She is auditioning for the lead role of a film, but knows she hasn’t got it when the director asks if she could play an extra. After a fun animated sequence for the opening titles, we learn the full extent of Emma’s situation. She is living alone, with the exception of her cat Jim, and has yet to make her big break in acting. She lives above a hairdressers and works in a dull shop selling TVs to pay the rent. Her only recognisable role is in a detergent commercial, which the TV shop she works in plays over and over. Even worse, her 35th birthday is approaching, which she sees as an “expiry date” for her to achieve her dreams, based on the shallow priorities of the acting business.
Emma decides that this is too much for her. Her life has gone too far off road from where she wants to be, and the final straw has been broken. She decides she will give herself one week to sort out all the loose ends in her life, and then she will commit suicide. Although the process does see her having a potential romance with the funeral director (Fabrice Adde), she is nonetheless determined to end it all.
A comedy based around suicide could very easily fall into the realms of tastelessness. Thankfully, writer-director Nicole Palo has clearly given a lot of consideration to the material. In the process, she has made a film which plays like a comedic version of Frances Ha. It’s witty, empathetic, and remains oddly sweet despite its dark subject matter.
It’s ultimately a love story in the pursuit of death, which could’ve very easily become crude, but is instead both funny and wholesome.
Peeters as a character has clearly been laid out well, and is successful in evoking sympathy. We are able to understand her situation before the opening credits have even rolled, and small moments reveal just how beaten down Peeters now is. It would be bad enough if she’d never made it into a role, but the fact that she’s been in the one ad shows that she’s had a small portion of success. The only thing worse than no success is having a slimmer of it and losing it. It’s like a high that you’re unable to recreate, and Peeters’ inability to achieve what she sees as a satisfactory objective is the fuel to her woe, and the catalyst for her to make such a drastic decision. Chokri’s performance is stellar in her capturing of someone who has given up on life, but struggles with the potential consequences of what comes after.
Palo’s empathetic touch is precisely what the film needs to prevent it from becoming a case of pessimism. A gleaming colour palette gorgeously contrasts with the film’s eerie undertones, as does gleefully dark comedy which ridicules and shuns the overwhelming nature of life that can present itself towards those who pursue less secure, but more artistic careers. The film focuses more specifically on the struggles of women in the entertainment industry, as shown by Peeters and her relationship with her best friend and fellow actress Lulu (Stephanie Crayencour). Much of it is done for comedy, but it nonetheless presents a fun, impactful dynamic and tone of which the film rides off of breathlessly, making even the most dramatic of conversations or darkest of moments oddly funny.
It gradually shifts focus from a sombre piece on self-disappointment to the budding love between Peeters and the funeral director, Alex, where the overall point of the film emerges. It’s ultimately a love story in the pursuit of death, which could’ve very easily become crude but is instead both funny and wholesome. In attempting to chase after death, the film ultimately is a celebration of life and all its highs and lows. It’s nothing especially new, but that matters little when the tone is as charming and humorous as this.
Nicole Palo deserves a lot of kudos for pulling this off. I reckon even more veteran filmmakers would struggle to do so, especially in such a charismatic way. You read the synopsis and it may seem off-putting. But I can assure you that Emma Peeters has its heart in the right place, and has plenty of laughs to spare too. It’s a really fun time.
Body at Brighton Rock – ★★☆☆☆
Body at Brighton Rock is an odd case. It seems to have a clear goal in mind for what kind of film it wants to be. That’s evident from the confident way Roxanne Benjamin directs the piece. Yet it’s quite the overbearing watch too. The campy B-Movie style it mimics is difficult to pull off, but in this film’s case it becomes as big a hindrance as much as a way to distinguish itself.
Its premise is very much in line with its style. Wendy (Karina Fontes) is a young park ranger in training. She’s a clumsy teen who dodges her responsibilities, so much so that she offers to change shifts with a friend so that she can be close to a guy she fancies. Her clumsiness gets her lost somewhere deep within the vast trail of the forest, near a natural landmark called Brighton Rock. Suddenly, she comes across a dead body lying in the woods. When she radios it in, she’s told that because the rangers cannot identify where specifically she is, she needs to stay with the corpse overnight. Wendy reluctantly does so, but in a wild forest in the middle of the night, with a potential murderer lurking around.
For roughly the first half of the film I was more or less on board with it. I found some of the creative choices – music and sound effects wise - a little strange, but I was otherwise getting drawn in to the characters and the style the film was evoking. It’s idea is very out there, but the best films that adopt campy characteristics often are. Benjamin’s talent as a storyteller is on full display with the way she introduces her characters and their interactions with one another. It feels natural, and plays along with the initially light-hearted approach.
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My problem is that the premise loses steam after a while. Once Wendy finds the body and is made to stay with it, the film becomes surprisingly dull, as we are pretty much left alone with just her and the corpse. There’s a lot of routes that they could go with this, but the ones they go for feel underdeveloped or typical. Although the character work is initially strong, the film doesn’t do a whole lot with Wendy either. She does a few cool things based on improvisation – which shows a level of ingenuity from her – but the film seems to be very much about what’s happening to her rather than how she deals with it. In other words, it feels like the idea was given much more priority than the people who were having to see the idea through.
Benjamin seems aware of the film’s narrative hollowness, for she attempts to compensate by being rambunctious with it’s presentation. Loud bursts of music or noise, accompanied by cheesy zooms and panning, plague the film whenever something is meant to be ominous or mysterious. It certainly gives the film a style, but it also means it falls into the common tropes of jump scares, and, even worse, false scares. It becomes very grating after half an hour of it, with the slightly off dialogue initially adding to the charm but eventually becoming an earworm in itself. It’s so insistent on this specific template of storytelling, while falling in and out of engagement with its own main character, that I found myself shutting off.
The film may be somewhat effective for the right audience member, but it proves an isolating piece that seems tonally confused at best. It attempts to have some level of suspense, while also falling back onto B-Movie cheese when it exhausts the potential of its story and characters. Therefore it becomes hard to fully invest in, especially if B-Movie gimmicks aren’t your thing. It’s got its perks, but the film ultimately becomes as lost as its heroine the further into the story it gets.
Balance, Not Symmetry – ★★☆☆☆
Balance, Not Symmetry is a film that I really wanted to like. There’s something so viscerally colourful about its enthusiasm for the link between art and life that a part of me wonders if there’s simply something I’m overlooking. However, it doesn’t change my underwhelmed feelings by the time the credits rolled.
Laura Harrier of Spider-Man: Homecoming is Shirley-Caitlin,a Scottish-American student studying at the Glasgow School of Art. However, we meet her when she is at a low point in her life. Her father has abruptly past away, leaving her mother (Kate Dickie) grief-stricken. The film follows Shirley-Caitlin as she struggles to balance supporting her mother and coping with her own feelings of loss, all the while trying to get her Third Year art project off the ground, with some support and inspiration from friend and flatmate Hannah (Bria Vinatie of The Florida Project).
What’s interesting about this film is that its soundtrack was, as far as I know, conceived before its story and characters. The music is performed by Simon Neil, the lead singer of Biffy Clyro, who worked closely with director Jamie Adams on the script too so that his songs could be featured at various intervals within the film. The soundtrack itself is vibrant, diverse, and pulsating with feeling. It’s cracking stuff. Although I found the sound mixing to be strangely off, as whenever the music played, and it plays often, I felt like my ear drums were on the verge of exploding from its loudness.
The film rushes to make a cohesive narrative to connect the dots that are the various songs. As such,it feels like all style and minimal substance, with even the style feeling hastily constructed.
The film also features a terrific young cast, who are the best thing about the film. As well as Harrier and Vinatie as on and off again besties, you have Freya Mavor, Tamsin Egerton, Scott Miller, and Lily Newmark of Pin Cushion (a film that’s really worth seeking out if you haven’t already), all of whom are either staff or students of the art school. They occupy the film with warmth and vivacious authenticity, with Bria Vinatie stealing the film as the sharp and fiesty Hannah.
But I find this to be a case where the film’s selling point is also its greatest weakness. It’s certainly experimental trying to conjure a story around numerous tracks. It has the strength of its actors and the beauty of its Glaswegian backdrop to go with it too. But in doing so the film rushes to make a cohesive narrative to connect the dots that are the various songs. As such, it feels like all style and minimal substance, with even the style feeling hastily constructed. The opening funeral scene features all kinds of shots – overhead, close-ups, and even slightly off centre shots that the film repeats in several instances – yet they don’t add anything to the scene that a more modest or tranquil still wouldn’t have done on its own. It’s unnecessary flair that comes off as excessive rather than artistic.
Via its meandering story, the film attempts to address various themes on love, loss, artistic ability, and female friendship among others, all of which are admirable things to tackle. But since its priority seems to be working its narrative around the songs instead of just letting the narrative play out freely, it feels like a story with big portions missing. It plays out more like an album for music videos than it does a coherent film. That may be precisely what fans of the Balance, Not Symmetry album are looking for, but personally I’m looking for a film first and a music video second.
I suspect Balance, Not Symmetry will find a dedicated audience regardless of what some inexperienced critic like myself has to say on it. Its soundtrack and young cast are big pluses, and seeing Glasgow landmarks that I spent a chunk of my life around on the big screen, like Kelvingrove Park and Mitchell Library, is undoubtedly pretty cool. However the film itself, despite its well-meaning intentions, is a hollow entity that uses its rambunctious style as a scapegoat instead of a reinforcement. Then again, so much of our time is spent around abstract artists that a part of me does wonder if this style was deliberate. If perhaps it’s taking from abstract artistry and applying it cinematically in order to create a similar effect? Maybe. But I’ve always found abstract art problematic. So many people can do it, but only a few can do it well.