Sunday 1 October 2017

At the LFF: "9 Fingers"

The 2017 London Film Festival opens this Wednesday night with a gala screening of Andy Serkis's directorial debut Breathe, and runs until October 15, closing with Martin McDonagh's much-anticipated Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. A further 240 features will be screened between these two dates; as ever, my aim is to run reviews of the more notable discoveries here over the coming fortnight.

With a few bold strokes in its opening moments, F.J. Ossang's 9 Fingers establishes its own universe: high-contrast monochrome photography, eternal night, a man on the run, trailing long shadows as he goes. Ossang has occupied the fringes of French film culture for some years now - never quite making the leap from critical admiration on the festival circuit to wider international distribution - and one could perhaps try and position his latest as a crime thriller, although it's also very clearly a work in the vein of Welles' The Trial, Godard's Alphaville and (more recently) von Trier's Europa, recasting and reconfiguring contemporary locations to serve as the main reference points of some exitless, out-of-time dystopian netherworld.

The man on the run turns out to be Paul Hamy, established by last year's The Ornithologist as European art cinema's premier helpless patsy; he runs right into a band of oddly accessorised, knowingly named criminals who could be survivors of early Besson or Jeunet and Caro movies. Operating out of a country manor, this band of outlaws is obliged to abandon terra firma after taking delivery of the proceeds from their latest heist: a payload of polonium. They're doomed the minute we hear of their destination ("Nowhereland": an Antarctica of the soul, apparently, where we're told the emotions freeze over), yet what compels Ossang - and, to some degree, us - is how those aboard this ship of fools turn on one another like rats in a sack.

It is, be warned, a curious aesthetic to be confronted with this far into the 21st century. Irising in and out like the silent serials of yore, 9 Fingers presents as simultaneously dreamy and pastichey, like a Guy Maddin remake of Kiss Me Deadly, only with that filmmaker's puckish humour replaced by a frowning seriousness. When they're not squabbling or plotting, these crooks spend their time on the lam poring over poetry books and engaging in very Gallic conversations about existence. "The map is not the territory," warns the ship's navigator, which sounds ominous. Yet the film has extraordinary points in its favour. Like David Lynch in the recent Twin Peaks: The Return, Ossang has a gift for evoking vast conspiracies going on behind his filmed action, which transforms his characters into puppets, suspects or marked men. 

That action unfolds to a clanging electric-guitar score that rolls in and sounds like storm clouds gathering overhead. And it is, time and again, a hell of a thing to look at, all rolling sky- and seascapes that open up the horizon and ensure the film is never as oppressive as its predecessors in this field. (Au contraire, it's possible to wonder whether the ship is going to slide, unnoticed, off the edge of the world - or simply down the plughole everybody appears to be circling.) It's no-one's idea of a breakout hit, and - while we're always aware the characters are on the move - it's not without its longueurs, but it wouldn't surprise me if there were those, like this viewer, who preferred this kind of postmodernism - searching, freighted, possibly a little ponderous, informed not just by a long list of the director's favourite films, but an entire, centuries-old intellectual tradition - to the fly-by-night Baby Driver.

9 Fingers screens at the ICA this Wednesday at 6.20pm, then on Thu 5 at the Vue Leicester Square at 3.30pm, and on Sun 8 at the Hackney Picturehouse at 8.45pm.

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