Our penultimate day at the festival (an inconvenient wedding for one of us - not ours - and a trip to LA for the other put paid to Saturday) was a pretty varied affair. Beginning with a particularly tetchy Q&A after a movie we quite enjoyed, followed by a documentary about a movie we'd never see (now rectified) and topped off with the BFI Surprise Movie (which would have been surprising even if we'd know what it was)....
Q&A sessions are a integral part of the LFF experience. We’ve been to some doozies in our time. Ginger Baker still takes the biscuit but an awkward encounter at the premiere of the otherwise unremarkable Serena sticks in the mind. Sometimes though it just takes a couple of malcontents and the whole tone of the session changes…
Cowboys is a rough remake of the old John Wayne movie The Searchers which if you’ll recall tells the tale of a rancher who sets out to retrieve his niece from the clutches of the nefarious locals, only to realise that she has been ‘tainted’ by them and thus has to be done away with. For me it’s largely memorable for some truly stunning cinematography and of course, that shot of Wayne standing in a doorway. Whatever your thoughts on that movie though, I wouldn’t read too much of it into this one.
Thomas Bidegain’s debut as a director after penning both A Prophet and Rust and Bone, this modern day western takes place in a weird bit of French society that apes the American cowboy world. It’s 1995, father Alain (François Damiens) and sulky teenage daughter Kelly share a slightly awkward dance together at a fair and before you know it, she has vanished completely. Alain assumes she has been kidnapped and heads off to the police station before combing the town for her. When a letter is received at home saying that she is fine and the family are not to look for her, Alain confronts his daughter’s Muslim boyfriend’s family. They have not seen their son either and so Alain sets off on a trail across the world to find his daughter.
It’s a queasy concept from the outset, if somebody doesn’t want to be found, should you go looking for them and if you do, are you going to be prepared for what you find? Bidegain skips forward in time without much warning on two occasions, the first picking up with Alain and Kid (his son Georges - Finnegan Oldfield), now a teenager as they travel together following increasingly desperate and expensive leads. Alain’s marriage has fallen apart in the interim with his wife desperate to continue living despite the loss of her daughter and his unrelenting desire to chase her down. The second leap forward in time finds Kid, seemingly at peace with his sister’s disappearance but soon revealed to be working as an aid worker in the Middle East in the hope that he can track down Kelly.
The contrast between the father and son’s views on life is a noticeable one. Alain is at odds with a world where Muslims and non-Muslims are part of the same society, something that goes back to the strangely folksy but ultimately xenophobic cowboy scene back in France. Kid on the other hand, appreciates that the world has changed immeasurably since his sister disappeared but still cannot quite let go of the quest.
Despite the wails of protest from three people in the audience during the Q&A (who managed to find this movie both racist and mysogynist), Cowboys is a complex and nuanced movie that rewards close attention to the motivations and consequences of all its characters. Oldfield is perhaps an odd choice for a French part but his vulnerable Kid is a good character with far more about him than his troubled father. Spanning two or so decades of turbulent times across Europe and the Middle East, the movie doesn’t hammer home the Muslim / non-Muslim conflict points, it is more subtle and interesting than that. Female characters are somewhat secondary to the main two men but the Kid’s mother and his ultimate wife are neither stereotyped or offensively one-dimensional.
In a rare case of not having not read the book but not having seen the movie, I decided to shoe-horn this one before heading to the pub to prepare for the BFI’s Surprise Movie of the festival (which Jo will review at some point because I still have no idea what quite to make of it). Steve McQueen it would seem, not satisfied with being one of the most magnetic movie stars of his generation, was also a dab hand at the old racing lark. Gabriel Clarke and John McKenna decided that this was worthy of more of a look than has currently been afforded and so we have their documentary revolving around McQueen’s love of racing and his subsequent attempt to make a fictional movie based around the Le Mans 24 Hour race.
Steve McQueen: The Man & Le Mans is more than just a convenient title, the man’s obsession with racing is far more all encompassing that one movie and this documentary is an interesting insight into a world that until now we haven’t really seen. In the run up to the 1970 Le Mans race, McQueen was stellar. Hits like The Thomas Crown Affair and Bullit (both 1968) had cemented his star after star building turns in John Sturges’ The Magnificent Seven and The Great Escape. Movies were only part of McQueen’s life and off set, he was fast becoming a well respected motor racing driver. It seemed like the perfect time for the actor and Sturges to collaborate on the greatest endurance race in the world and so Le Mans was born. Sadly there was no script and all the professional racing drivers in the world ain’t going to fix that….
I’ve since watched Le Mans and…. well, it was an experience. That there was no script is now painfully obvious, the first lines of dialogue being uttered some thirty-eight minutes into the movie and the remaining film being an incredible view of the race but a woeful experience as a piece of human drama. The documentary though is everything the movie was not. Filled with talking heads who experienced the vanity project scale up and then meltdown and audio recordings of McQueen (who tragically died in 1980 of a rare form of lung cancer thought to be caused by asbestos), the film makers have done a great job of supplementing the impressive race footage with a human voice. The film makes have done well to get insight from a huge range of people, including McQueen's son Chad, his ex-wife Nellie Adams along with a number of the professional drivers involved in the movie, all mixed with archive footage of the cast and crew.
The professional drivers are particularly interesting. Professional at a time when that didn’t mean earning a fortune, they were more than happy to effectively drive practice laps and get paid a relative fortune for it. The feeling of brotherhood within the drives is extended to include McQueen who, despite superstar status, was very much just one of the drivers (all be it one who couldn’t get insurance to cover him during the actual race). Witness his continued (failed) written attempts to get all proceeds from the premiere of the movie donated to one of the drivers who lost part of his leg in the making of the film.
Steve McQueen: The Man & Le Mans is ultimately a tragic tale of a man who never quite fulfilled his potential in the one area he probably valued above the other hugely successful elements of his life. Ahead of his time technically by decades (the racing scenes stand up magnificently today making reliance on CGI seem cowardly and, well, ungentlemanly), McQueen struggled to articulate a human story into his grand vision. That this struggle is echoed in the personal life outlined here is a bigger tragedy.