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Locarno Film Festival: London clichés the only problem with Joanna Hogg's new film Exhibition


The growing number of film festivals that insist on showing world premieres in competition has meant that apart from the so-called “A-list” festivals of Venice, Cannes and Berlin there has been slim pickings for other festivals in Europe.

Trying to find enough quality films to make a competition programme sufficiently interesting is a huge struggle for any Artistic Director outside the powerful triumvirate. The Moscow Film Festival was slated by sections of the Moscow press corps, although the anger was not just at what was seen as a poor programme, but also because three of the films selected had homosexual themes. The festival organisers complained in an interview with FIPRESCI (The International Federation of Film Critics)  about the struggles festival programmers have to find world premieres.

One festival that seems to be successfully adapting to the challenges is the Locarno Film Festival, set against the backdrop of a picturesque lake in Switzerland. During the 90s, the festival had a reputation for launching new talent and curating an eclectic and diverse programme. The explosion of new entrants onto the film festival circuit over the past decade coincided with a drop in the quality of the programme. Then over the past four years, first under the custodianship of Oliver Père, a former head of the Cannes Director’s Fortnight, Locarno found its footing again, positioned as a launch pad for edgy independent fare.

In his debut year, new artistic Director Carlo Chatrian has continued the good work with a competition selection of 18 films, featuring 16 world premieres and 2 international premieres.

The main interest from Britain was in the unleashing of a third film by Joanna Hogg, whose previous efforts were the Tuscany set romance Unrelated (2007), which won her the award for Most Promising Newcomer at the Evening Standard British Film Awards and Archipelago (2010) set around a family trip to the Isles of Scilly.

Her new film Exhibition is set in a modernist house in London owned by an artist couple, who have decided to sell. The interesting casting sees two acting debutants take on the roles of principal protagonists D and H: Turner prize nominated conceptual artist Liam Gillick and Viv Albertine, the onetime guitarist of influential all-English punk group The Slits. There is also a minor role for Hogg regular Tom Hiddleston as the estate agent charged with selling the unique house.

This though is essentially a two hander about a couple whose decision to sell their house evokes memories of the past highlighting the rut of their current relationship. The couple also work in their house, communicating with each other via telecom. H has the more successful career and his performance artist partner reveals a tension in their relationship when she states that she can’t ask H to review her work as he is constantly undermining her confidence. Their sex life is poor. Friends constantly talking about their children annoy them. The problems with the film come from the use of too familiar clichés about London life.

Hogg is an expert in the cinema of suggestion and from their actions and the sounds we hear off-screen, it becomes apparent that there has been a significant trauma in their common past, something that leaving their house may alleviate. The story and characters haunt long after the credits roll and it’s a picture that takes some time to sink in.

Less successful is Mary Queen of Scots directed by Thomas Imbach. The Swiss director takes a sombre, austere approach to a period drama about royalty, eschewing elements of the story that need big set-pieces and lavish costumes. Instead the director tries to get into the mind of Mary but is on a hiding to nothing because of the performance of French newcomer Camille Rutherford (who struggles with the English dialogue scenes) and a poor script.

It was clear why an exception to the world premiere rule was made for Short Term 12, an American independent set in a foster-care facility starring 21 Jump Street star Brie Larson. Written and directed by Destin Cretton, who based some of the characters on his own experiences working at such a facility, the story tells of a care worker’s struggle to cope with problems in her own relationship and past whilst also looking after kids in her care.

Away from the competition one of the highlights of Locarno has always been the open-air screenings at the Piazza Grande. The criteria for choosing these films are that they can get several thousand bums on seats each evening. This year the festival benefitted from glorious warm evenings with stars beaming in the night sky. Only the opening night film, 2 Guns starring Denzel Washington and Mark Wahlberg suffered because of bad weather. There was a mix of new films and classics, including those from the two directors receiving a retrospective at the festival, Werner Herzog and George Cukor. Fans of revenge thrillers should definitely look out for the American independent Blue Ruin. One should definitely have a sweet movie tooth for two of the other selections, the closing night film was Richard Curtis’ About Time and also screening was the Michael Caine starrer Mr Morgan’s Last Love, in which the British actor plays a Paris-residing American (with a dodgy accent) who following the death of his wife befriends a young dance instructor on a bus in Paris.

Locarno Film Festival ends 17 August