The British Film Institute (BFI) is both the physical home and funding body behind the lion’s share of film activity in the UK. It is a beacon for film culture, and the London Film Festival is its flagship event. This year, as I collect my festival pass from the BFI’s iconic Southbank building, I am saddened by the realisation that “film culture” lives south of the river but hereafter my experience of LFF will be confined to corporate multiplexes and their rush queues in London’s West End. Weaving my way around tourist groups between the Cineworld and VUE cinemas in Leicester Square, and crossing an ideological picket line for industry screenings at Picturehouse Central (there were no physical protesters present this year, though the dispute is far from resolved), I am struck by the hypocrisy of the situation: the festival intends to celebrate and promote film culture and yet the experience is such that I consume from the hand of corporate enterprise.

My first screening is a powerful punch in the gut. Boots Riley’s Sorry to Bother You is a brilliant and biting satire on socio-economic structures of oppression in the US, from the neo-liberal vestiges of slavery to the commodification and dehumanisation of labour. Sat in the largest auditorium at Picturehouse, I laugh along as Cassius “Cash” Green (Lakeith Stanfield) tries adopting his “white voice” to level up in his shitty telemarketing job. It’s a shallow aim but becoming a “power caller” is the only way Cash can pull himself out of poverty in the very real-life game of post-colonial capitalism.

What elevates the film above just a simple comedy and into the realms of great, lasting cinema is the indefatigable way in which Riley employs irony to ensure the audience bear witness to what’s truly at stake: Cash crosses the picket line; he sells his friends down the river; but, when he finally reaches the top, it isn’t the usual “greed causes his downfall” narrative that plays out. Instead, Riley makes it clear that Cash is just a cog in a much bigger, meaner machine.

It is only when Cash meets the architect of his exploitation, Steve Lift (Armie Hammer), that he sees, first hand, the Holocaust referent horrors that his role as a “power caller” support. Here, the film shifts gears and Cash comes to understand how his individual pursuit of freedom is also an act of social violence. Watching this revelation play out onscreen as I sit in the comfort of a plush red cinema seat built on Cineworld’s corporate profits, as they continue to refuse to pay their staff the London Living Wage, I realise that I too am Cassius Green.

Sorry to Bother You (Boots Reilly)

I leave the screening with bile in my throat and a weight on my conscience: how can I watch and write about social decay when I am one of its pollutants? I wander around central London searching for my soul; I find my reflection in shop windows.

Hours later, I head back into the lion’s den to see more films plumb the depths of humanity on a larger than life, money-making canvas before me. As I sit down to write this report I stare at another blank canvas, for too many hours, wondering how to put a cinematic crisis of conscience into readable words. I think of Cash and what it took for him to Do the Right Thing. I think, as I often do, of the brilliance of Dorothy Parker and I start writing as I recall her famous quote, “I hate writing, I love having written.”

I wonder if Parker really said that. Marielle Heller’s Can You Ever Forgive Me? has me second guessing its authenticity. A bitter alcoholic, unwanted by anyone including her literary agent, and in debt up to her eyeballs, Lee Israel’s forgery of some 400+ personal letters from Parker and other literary giants is the subject of Heller’s middling dramedy. Adapted for the screen by Nicole Holofcener from Israel’s own memoir of the same name, Heller turns what ought to be a sobering look at narcissism into a quaint tale of literary misdemeanours and curmudgeonly charm. It’s clear from Israel’s actions that she was selfish and unkind. Yet Melissa McCarthy, who plays Israel, laces the role with longing looks for the approval of others and hangdog expressions that encourage us to empathise and maybe even like her. That she’s not at all remorseful for her fraudulent behaviour is also played for laughs. Killer barbs and quotable one-liners pepper the script, producing her tagline, “I’m a better Dorothy Parker than Dorothy Parker!” Only she isn’t.

Olivier Assayas also examines ethics and integrity in his bourgeois dramedy, Non-Fiction (alternatively titled Double Lives). A group of friends – a writer (Vincent Macaigne), actor (Juliette Binoche), publisher (Guillaume Canet) and political assistant (Nora Hamzawi) – attempt to navigate the trappings of twenty-first century love and life, both of which are laced with lies and betrayal. At the heart of the film is an unlikely protagonist in Léonard (Macaigne), another unwanted author who doesn’t seem to know that the literary game has changed. Instead of biographies, however, Léonard writes “auto-fiction”, a very slightly altered rendition of his real-life relationships.

Assayas calls the very ethics of authorship into question. Just who has the right to tell a story? For Léonard, the experiences belong to him, they are told from his perspective, any other party be damned. But the details are so thinly veiled that the entire city’s petit bourgeoisie know exactly who and what his writing is about. Though the questions Assayas poses are engaging enough, his execution has so light a touch here that the substance simply floats away.

Where Sorry to Bother You’s Steve Lift stole from the lives of Black working-class Americans, and where Lee Israel took the personalities of great talents, Léonard exploited the stories and experiences of his female lovers. Riley, Heller and Assayas share a fascination for the human desire for power and capital gain, but only Riley goes far enough in exposing the systems that create and uphold such exploitation. Heller and Assayas trade it in for the lols.

In Mia Hansen-Løve’s Maya, bourgeois subjectivity meets exploitation in the form of Gabriel (Roman Kolinka), a 30 year-old French war reporter who, after being rescued from captivity, travels to India to find himself in the adoring eyes of a young, impressionable woman (Aarshi Banerjee). Hansen-Løve’s film is hard to read, however. At arm’s length, the story suggests an exploration of man’s desire to exact power over others as a way of reinstating his physical and psychological masculinity. On the screen, though, Hansen-Løve casts her lens so tenderly over Gabriel’s bruised body, lowered doe-eyes and wounded ego that I wonder if she genuinely wants us to not only emit empathy but actually fall in love with his ginger privilege. And where does this leave the titular Maya? Her story is slight, her agency constantly cast in shadow until Gabriel’s need to re-establish himself as a man of the world finally annihilates her very existence.

In Daniel Goldhaber’s Cam, the annihilation of women is at the hands – or clicks – of technology. Lola is a webcam star, but she’s an outlier of the top 50 and aspires to reach number one. With her eyes on the prize, she ramps up her performances, introducing violence into her repertoire. Seemingly a film about female obsession, Cam is a student of theories of the gaze, allowing us to ruminate over the to-be-looked-at-ness of mediated images before it turns into a far more intriguing psycho-thriller. When Lola finds herself locked out of her account, she is shocked to see that “Lola” is, somehow, still online. Unsure if it’s a glitch in the system or if someone has actually stolen her log in and her image, things start spiralling out of control. Delving into cyborg theory and the artificial intelligence of technology, Cam becomes a dark, neon laced suspense, contemplating human participation in our own redundancy in the face of technological automation. The terrifying and dangerous question Cam asks is, what role do real-life women play if the interface of the internet can mimic their visual worth? It may be a far cry from engaging with the worker politics that fuelled Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) and Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times (1936), but Cam is a new entry a longstanding cinematic tradition of fascination with the impact of the apparatus.

In Carol Morley’s Out of Blue, the apparatus is an extension of human desire. From a gun, that intends to kill, to a telescope that hopes to discover and of the camera, that only ever captures part of the picture, Morley looks at the way in which humans develop technology with the intention of problem solving their complex and often violent desires.

Detective Mike Hoolihan (Patricia Clarkson) is assigned to investigate the murder of a scientist, who specialised in black holes. A strangely paced film, Out of Blue is star-gazing cinema that hopes to ground the mysteries of the universe in a potboiler narrative. Stylistic and well-crafted, Morley’s direction is inching at redressing an industry imbalance through the painstaking task of letting the camera linger just a little too long on individual shots. A generous act for her female lead character, Clarkson, whom she clearly adores, Morley’s cinematic universe gives women more space than most.

While the pacing is frustrating if original, it’s the screenplay that could use tightening up – and even cutting down as the narrative reveals are clumsy and cliched. There’s no doubt, however, that the direction is controlled and deliberate in its distillation of temporal expectation. Morley ruminates over female complicity in systems of abuse and oppression, something that surely requires and deserves a new and uncomfortable temporal parameter. Far from didactic in its approach, Out of Blue is nuanced in its examination of one woman’s actions and fears. Through a series of strange waking dreams that resemble unexplained black holes, Hoolihan finds herself locked in the inescapable nightmare that it might just be her fault. A truly haunting contemplation.

From the celestial to Celeste, there was no shortage of female protagonists this year and Australian filmmaker Ben Hackworth put one of the nation’s favourites, Radha Mitchell, centre stage. The titular character is a soprano singer in the advanced stages of terminal cancer, whose dying wish is to return her dead lover’s empty estate to its former glory and, in so doing, heal old wounds. A sort of scene of an emotional crime, Queensland’s Paronella takes on the decaying, tangled and overgrown beauty of a tortured soul. Though the screenplay is slight on the surface, there is plenty of depth in the execution. Hackworth’s direction is sparing and intuitive. He doesn’t show and tell but lets the camera glide over his characters in action, evoking an atmosphere of emotional charge to great affect.

In Fabric (Peter Strickland)

My final and by far my favourite film of the festival, Peter Strickland’s In Fabric, brought several contemplations around social politics and personal ethics to a stunning and hilarious head. Referencing softcore arthouse cinema and fashion catalogues as well as trashy television advertising, Strickland has the precision of Tom Ford and the melodrama of Dario Argento poised in every aspect of his mise-en-scene. Stylistically, the film is like a cut up and a collage, elegantly transitioning from photographic montage back to moving image with narrative ease.

The story follows a dress rather than a person, one that is cursed and literally attaches itself to a range of unsuspecting individuals who, at first, feel beautiful wearing it. The colour of the dress is “Artery” red and it is a literal heart-stopper. The dress journeys from its fashion shoot to a high-class department store, Dentley & Soper, before ending up on a rack in a charity shop, pawed by many but never truly owned. Strickland’s commentary on the life and effect of material products is just one of many witty observations within the film.

Inside Dentley & Soper are the world’s most exquisite and articulate shop attendants including Miss Luckmoore (Fatma Mohamed, a regular in Strickland’s films), who spouts critical theory as a sales technique to great comic effect. The elaborate and intricate performativity of fashion retail reminds me of Melbourne designer Christopher Graf’s concept store in Chapel Street in the late 1990s, if only it were staffed by vampires.

Speaking in his introduction at LFF about the contemporary implications of casting a Romanian in the role of a sales assistant in a British film, Strickland said that he tried not to worry too much about it as, after all, Fatma Mohamed was the right actress for the role. In the same breath, he described the film, “like Nigel Farage having a bad dream.”

With comedy regulars including Julian Barratt and Steve Oram turning up for good measure, Strickland’s film simultaneously makes fun of the petty rules of the service industries and their idiotic dogmas whilst presenting the commodification of human labour and behaviour as a cycle of complicity. With Ben Wheatley as one of many Executive Producers on the project, Strickland has employed an incredible crew whose visual talents elevate the film to a sublime work of visual art. From Ari Wegner’s cinematography (Lady Macbeth, 2016) to Paki Smith’s production design (High-Rise, 2015, Free Fire, 2016), In Fabric is an absolutely breath-taking visual delight that emphatically reminded me what cinema is capable of.

Along with two other stand-out titles, Panos Cosmatos’ Mandy, brilliantly scored by the late Johan Johansson, and Luca Guadagnino’s Suspiria, with its exceptional trance-like tracks from Thom Yorke, In Fabric, scored by Cavern of Anti-Matter, is every bit as aurally awesome as it is visually sound. Big and loud on the multiplex screens, it’s clear to see why such a film festival would want to screen its cultural program in corporate boxes. But, ducking out of Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma for a toilet break mid-screening, I found myself lost in the many corridors of the multiplex, returning to two wrong screening rooms before re-finding my seat in the right one. Such a problem will not plague general cinema-goers later in the year, however, as Roma is set for an exclusive (read: restrictive) theatrical release in Curzon Cinemas and a few other venues before it lives (or dies) in the UK on the small screen via Netflix.

Film culture, that funny thing that the BFI, through its flagship annual event of LFF, tries to cultivate, is held prisoner by the very machinations of the corporate enterprise that gives it space. I wonder if and hope that Boots Riley or Peter Strickland might, in the future, make a film about the problems of our industry. And then I pause to think about what kind of canvas might hold that image.

BFI London Film Festival
10-21 October 2018
Festival website: https://whatson.bfi.org.uk/lff/