FilmSpace at Edinburgh Internation Film Festival: Varda by Agnes; Alice; Skin; Mrs Lowry & Son

FilmSpace was at the 73rd Edinburgh Film Festival. Film critic Calum Cooper concludes reviews from the festival with his take on Agnes Varda’s final documentary, a gripping debut from Josephine Mackerras, a hard-hitting biopic on identity, and the festival’s closing film.

Varda by Agnes – ★★★★☆

We’ve already celebrated a great film critic in Pauline Kael earlier this film festival, so it only makes sense to also celebrate a great filmmaker too. Agnes Varda was one of the most influential filmmakers of her time. With her unfortunate passing earlier this year it only makes sense to pay tribute to her singular vision and vibrant personality. This stunningly personal documentary, which also serves as her last film, allows the audience to spend two hours in her company, wonderfully exploring the creative realms of her mind in the process.

The film presents itself almost like a university lecture. Much of it sees Varda herself via stock footage sitting on stage at various venues, and addressing crowds of young, aspiring filmmakers in a formal manner. The film takes us through her career, and her approach to the craft, showcasing the very finest of her work, including all the techniques and thought process that went into Varda’s unique vision.

At the start of the film, Varda talks about what she sees as the three most important things to making a film – inspiration, creation, and sharing. This is filmmaking summarised in its purest form. First you need the inspiration to conjure your idea – which can be anything from a feeling to an image to a physical event. Then creation, which is the step by step process on getting your idea realised via the roots of craft. And finally sharing, which is having the courage to share what you’ve made with the world and hope that people dig it.

Agnes Varda may be branded the grandmother of the French New Wave, but what relevance does age have when your ideas achieve immortality?

This philosophy of Varda’s is hard not to appreciate for its sincerity and accessibility to all forms of storytelling. The documentary follows this approach astutely when dissecting many of her best-known films. By doing this, not only is it deepening our understanding of Varda’s filmography, but our image of Varda as a person. She was an eccentric, good-natured person who could glean ideas even from the strangest of places, such as creating art using potatoes with obscenely long roots. But her most spellbinding quality was her willingness to share her ideas, however absurd or personal, with the rest of the world.

Many of her films are masterworks (Cleo from 5 to 7, Vagabond, Faces Places). Others leave something to be desired (Lions’ Love). But Varda takes this in stride, reassuring her audience that critical success or scrutiny made no difference to her so long as she got to visualise and present her ideas. We get a real sense of what Varda was like as a person, and how much of that personality shines through in her films. Clever cutting in between her talks and her films or interviews surrounding her films (including a funny and down to earth conversation she has with actor Sandrine Bonnaire about Vagabond) allow for us to connect the dots between her words and her craft.

In doing this, Varda has not only built a fascinating and poignant documentary on her love of film, but has constructed a thoughtful and passionate guide into filmmaking for all those who are still up and coming in the industry. Her beliefs are what allowed her to create such magnificent films, and she encourages her audience, both those listening to her talks, and those watching the documentary via a cinema, to take that chance.  Varda’s biggest passion was storytelling, and in storytelling there is no such thing as an invalid voice. Nine times out of ten the thing holding you back is yourself, and I imagine Varda’s insightful perspective will give many the courage to make the leap and share their ideas with the world.

Varda by Agnes is a terrific documentary for aspiring filmmakers and film auteurs alike. Film is an art form that can be viewed, experienced, and interpreted by anybody, and getting to revel in such ideas with one of cinema’s greatest deities is nothing but the greatest of privileges. Agnes Varda may be branded the grandmother of the French New Wave, but what relevance does age have when your ideas achieve immortality? She may no longer be with us, but Varda’s films give the word eternity a new meaning.

Alice – ★★★★☆

Josephine Mackerras’s gut punch of a debut feature, Alice, is both captivating and hard-hitting. Able to balance such dramatic material a bittersweet poignancy on the freedom of life, it keeps you within its grip and leaves you on edge, your uneasiness only occasionally alleviated by its dark sense of humour.

The titular Alice (Emilie Piponnier) starts off a seemingly happy woman. Her husband has a successful job and she enjoys managing time with her young son Jules. However, a terrible revelation is soon made. Her husband has been spending all of their money on escorts, and has been doing so for several months. Heartbroken and enraged, Alice throws him out their home. But she has no time to grieve as eviction is on the horizon with so little money.

After intense exploring of her options, Alice decides she only has one choice. She goes after the escort services her husband used, seeking employment. It is the only viable way she can see that will pay the debt back quick enough to keep the house. She is eventually recruited, and from there the film becomes an allegory on what makes your life yours.

The emotional weight of her situation is presented in such a grim way via drawn out scenes and close quarters cinematography. There is a real sense of urgency to Alice’s plight, and a feeling of desperation in the choices she eventually must make.

Mackerra’s direction is both empathetic and sharp. It keeps you on your toes for much of the runtime by constantly reminding us how much debt Alice must pay in such short time. Not only that, but the emotional weight of her situation is presented in such a grim way via drawn out scenes and close quarters cinematography. There is a real sense of urgency to Alice’s plight, and a feeling of desperation in the choices she eventually must make. You feel as trapped as she does in what feels like an impossible situation, having to juggle such gargantuan debt with heart-breaking betrayal that she has no time to process, and the future of her child of whom she must now raise alone. So much is at stake and yet the only options she seems to be involving herself with the very thing that tore her life apart.

What makes the film so great though in spite of its heavy first half is what it amounts to. Alice eventually befriends fellow escort Lisa, a much younger woman with prospects of a university life but wants to stay in Paris to make more money. As Alice starts getting the money back and moving up the ladder of her new job, she and Lisa converse on the nature of life, and what true freedom is. What does it matter how, where, and why you make the living you do so long as you are happy? Applying such intricate philosophy to an occupation as unconventional as the escort service only further hits home the ideas the film is trying to sell, ideas that are strengthened by Piponnier’s marvellous performance and dynamic of hate and love with her husband and Lisa respectively.

Via this, and the dark places that the story eventually goes concerning her husband, Alice becomes a film that celebrates the freedom and possibilities of a life without burden, all the while scrutinising toxic masculinity and conduct. The film can be absurdly funny at times, using its presentation of entitled males to poke fun at the desperation on display, and how pitiful it is in comparison to the desperation Alice feels at the start of the film. But when it needs to, it takes itself completely seriously, allowing the audience to bask in the power of what it is ultimately saying.

Alice is a film that will engage with and reward those who seek it out. As heart-warming as it is bleak, the film celebrates the strength of its central character while never forgetting about the underlying themes it is promoting. The story twists and turns and goes to some strange places, melancholic and light-hearted alike. But it all the while keeps Alice and her story in focus, becoming a terrific character piece with plenty of wisdom in mind.

Skin – ★★★☆☆

I don’t envy director Guy Nattiv for having to handle a subject matter as heavy as the one in Skin. If I were given a project like this, I wouldn’t know where to start with it. Luckily, it is a field in which Nattiv has considerable knowledge of, given his Oscar-winning short film of the same name. By applying that knowledge, Nattiv has crafted a bold and gut-wrenching movie in the process.

Based on an incredible true story, Jamie Bell plays Bryon Widner, a neo-Nazi who has been raised by white supremacists most of his life. Mentored by the deplorable Fred and Shareen (Bill Camp and Vera Farmiga), who refer to Bryon as their son, Bryon is proud of his hatred, attending rallies, committing crimes in the name of white supremacy, and bearing numerous facial tattoos, all with distinct ties to his cult’s ideology. But when he meets single mother Julie (Danielle Macdonald of Patti Cake$) and her three daughters, who disavowed white supremacy a long time ago, Bryon begins to wonder if what he’s doing is really right. And thus begins a long and suspenseful road to redemption.

Nattiv’s short of the same name also dealt with issues of racism and neo-Nazism, but the similarities are purely thematic. The setup and characters are purely their own here. His short was about a despicable person getting their comeuppance by seeing the world in his victims’ shoes. This film is instead about the capacity for change, whether that’s replacing hatred with love or removing embedded images of racism from your very body.

Mike Colter plays activist Darlyle Lamont Jenkins, who says a line that I think sums up the film: “I take human garbage and I turn them into human beings.” The film is not justifying or glorifying the behaviour of white supremacists. It is as condemning of them as anybody, portraying their actions in no other light than deplorable, cowardly, and evil. Yet it also shows that underneath the hatred is potentially a lost soul who only needs guidance to see the error of their ways. No human begin is capable of change for the good, and it’s this staunch belief the film holds that makes it so compelling.

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Jamie Bell turns in one of his best performances to bring this character to light. He plays a broken man desperately searching for meaning in life. At the start of the film he thinks he has already found it, proudly terrorising non-Aryans. But, once he meets and begins falling in love with Julie (another riveting turn from Danielle Macdonald), he starts to see things in a new light based on her experiences. It’s equal parts horrifying and heart-breaking as Bryon starts to realise the severity of what he has been doing. Watching his journey from figure of oppression to family man is made all the more gripping with Bell and Macdonald’s chemistry, and two refreshingly disgusting turns from Bill Camp and Vera Farmiga.

There’s also the metaphorical ramifications of the film. Bryon covers himself in tattoos to show his loyalty to the cause. But the tattoos themselves are but a mask that he learns he has to shed. The film has a fixation on art and the meanings behind certain images. A swastika for example needs no explanation. You need only look at it and you know what it represents. Art can be both a symbol of liberation and hatred. Thus Bryon aims to change by changing physically as well as mentally. By stripping himself of his tattoos, Bryon is essentially cleansing himself – washing away the old Bryon and becoming someone new. And with such intense ideas around skin itself, whether for colour or decoration, the title becomes fittingly appropriate.

Skin doesn’t quite go as far as it could, keeping its commentary fairly straightforward. As such the film does seem a little surface level in its handling of such a subject matter. But what makes it work are the performances, the character building for Bryon, and its meaning. For it is ultimately a tale about the change that human beings are capable of under the right conditions; of how love always trumps hate. With the rise of far-right, it’s a sentiment that I feel today’s world needs more than ever.

Mrs Lowry & Son – ★★★★☆

Closing this year’s Edinburgh Film Festival is Mrs Lowry & Son, a historical biography that primarily serves as a vehicle for two extraordinary talents. The film’s substance is of a kind that will either dazzle or bore depending on your tastes. But as a source of dynamic electricity between two of Britain’s finest acting talents, there’s more than enough material to sink your teeth into.

Based on the life of L S Lowry, the film follows Timothy Spall as the aforementioned persona. However, he is not yet the famous artist that he is known for. Instead he is a middle-aged man living in a council property, looking after his bedridden mother Elizabeth (Vanessa Redgrave). A is mild-mannered and gets on well with the people around in, often playing along when the children of the estate block decide to pester him on his walks. His mother on the other hand is a bitter woman. They have had to move from their middle-class property into the council estate to afford the costs of her care, and she is not happy about it. She looks down on poorer communities, who she considers beneath her, while simultaneously sucking up to her wealthy neighbour so that she can “belong”.

Meanwhile, Lowry has been painting for years, but is apprehensive about telling his mother. She does not approve of something so seemingly mundane, and wants him to focus all his attention on caring for her and keeping up family appearances for the sake of more elitist figures.

At the core of this film is the story of a son who only wants his mother to say that she’s proud of him. Ambition and the lust for creativity are powerful things, but I believe that if our parent(s) actively disapprove of what we’re doing then no amount of praise in the world can fill that void. What’s a glowing review compared to the pride of a mother or father? If we can’t win their admiration then what worth is the affection of others?

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Timothy Spall is magnetic in his portrayal of Lowry, a man his paintings, and desperately wants to share his love of art with his mother, but is met with scepticism, disapproval, and prejudice instead. Vanessa Redgrave is possibly even better as Elizabeth, playing a woman who’s seemingly broken but still has a visceral coldness to her. She is also seeking approval too, but from the wrong crowd. Rather than the proud approval of a loved one, she is seeking vain, vacuous approval from upper classes to build up her misplaced ego. She is seeking a sycophant where Lowry is seeking a supporter. It adds fascinating dimensions to the mother and son duo, who have their similarities, but, personality wise, couldn’t be more different.

The film is essentially a series of conversations spawning over various days, meaning much of the story is placed on the shoulders of the dynamic Spall and Redgrave share. Granted their ability to work off on another is a reminder of what powerhouse performers the two of them are, but as a result much of the film is a lot of talking with little visual flair. It’s constructed more like a play than a film, which does limit the film from going all the way with its potential, particularly as Lowry’s artistic skill isn’t delved into as much as it could’ve.

It’s a more subdued work than most biopics, but it’s one that has plenty on its plate for the right audience member. As the concluding film to what has been a great film festival, it’s certainly no Beats or Stan & Ollie. But as a film in its own right, Mrs Lowry & Son does have some intelligent commentary and two incredible performances to deliver said commentary. It’s worth seeing for the performances alone. And if it sounds a bit too shrill to you, then you need not fret. It’s not like you’ll be short of options based on this festival’s offerings.

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