Dispatches from the Opening Night of Derby Film Festival

Well, the first night at Derby Film Festival (Friday, May 9th) included an eclectic but very enjoyable double-bill.  QUAD is a wonderful cinema with a welcoming atmosphere - and it is home to a BFI Mediatheque, which is a fascinating way to spend some time. Here are some thoughts on the films I saw:

Venus in Fur, Dir. Roman Polanski
Starring: Emmanuelle Seigner, Mathieu Almaric 

Roman Polanski's adaptation of a stage play - which in itself was an adaptation of the titular 19th century erotic novel - is a comedic exploration of gendered power dynamics in sex and in art. Another example of Polanski's psychological self-examination, Venus in Fur deals with masochism and self-punishment in an intriguing, if occasionally heavy-handed manner.

 Mathieu Almaric, seemingly a double for Polanski himself, is Thomas, a theatre director who has adapted Leopold von Sacher-Masoch's infamous story. After holding day-long auditions for the female lead, the frustrated Thomas is about to quit for the evening. Abruptly, an actress called Vanda (Polanski's real-life wife, Emmanuelle Seigner) marches in, running late and dripping wet from a rainstorm outside. She loudly proclaims she knows nothing of the work, (but assures Thomas "I'm really demure and shit,") displaying few of the characteristics of the lady-turned-dominatrix she is meant to play.

Naturally, when she begins to read, she is magical. Dressed in an S&M dog collar and full-length 1870's gown, her innate talent and rough charm steadily draw in the director, who reads for the role of Severin. Severin is an obsessive masochist who asks Vanda to take him on as a sexual slave, degrading and humiliating him. The audition soon extends beyond any practical need, and the director/actress dynamic begins to shift. Vanda orders Thomas around the stage. Identities become fluid as the actors break in and out of the dialogue, inhabiting the characters and just as soon dropping conversation in between their lines. There is little notable camerawork herein; Polanski does seem to be filming a stage play, rather than creating anything truly cinematic.

Nonetheless, the scenes are fraught with sexual tension and claustrophobia. Vanda complains about the Biblical epigram Thomas chooses to open his play with. It goes, 'And the Lord hath smitten him - and delivered him into a woman's hands.' It's blatant sexism, she points out. Thomas defends the validity of his adaptation, arguing for the depth and complexity of the characters' relationship. Perhaps, Polanski suggests, only a man can so lightly appreciate a relationship involving degradation and enslavement - because it is merely play-acting. He can step out of the role easily in his real life, where he is unquestioningly dominant.

The roles of 'important' male director vs 'idiot actress' are reversed and then reversed again, leaving the question to be asked - what happens when a dominant man, play-acting at degradation, cannot step out of the role so easily? On an artistic register, Polanski seems to seek redress for the power imbalance - and looking at his own intractable history, perhaps even some strange form of penance.

    The Smallest Show on Earth, Dir. Basil Dearden
    Starring: Bill Travers, Virginia McKenna, Peter Sellers, Margaret Rutherford 

  This endearing oddity from 1957 could easily be written off, not wrongly, as being a trifle - though certainly one that cinephiles will appreciate. A middle-class couple, Matt and Jean (Bill Travers and Virginia McKenna) discover they have received an inheritance - in the form of a cinema - from a hitherto unknown great uncle somewhere in the North. They excitedly travel there to learn they have not inherited the enormous contemporary cinema in the middle of the city, but a dilapidated 1920's movie palace nicknamed "the fleapit". Infested with rats and located beneath a precarious train line, the cinema - called The Bijou -  is admittedly creaky. Still, a nostalgic audience might be taken aback to discover that no one is enchanted by the grandiose art deco flourishes of the place.

 As it turns out, the bemused Matt and Jean have also inherited three of the Bijou's strange elderly employees, one a drunken projectionist played by a well-disguised Peter Sellers. In a bid to earn some real cash from the inheritance, the couple decide to attempt to re-open the cinema. Their hope is that the self-satisfied businessman who owns the modern cinema nearby will be threatened, and buy them out.

Dearden's film is rife with funny little moments - particularly the gag where Matt knocks each row of ancient cinema seats backward like dominoes, or when the hapless couple are left to operate the projector, and run the film reel upside down, silent, and fast forward. It's revealing about the culture of film-going in the 1950's, as the rowdy audience giggles along, unfazed and up for anything. And then there's this quip, worthy of the best Hollywood screenwriters: 'I remember when she was pretty as a picture. A B picture, mind you.'

Although there is little space for modernism or precociousness here,  The Smallest Show on Earth does show a smidgen of awareness about the power of cinema over its audiences. A slice of movie magic is contained in a moment when a little boy becomes the first patron of the new Bijou; his coal-smudged face lights up with pleasure as the rickety projector clicks away in the background. Another is found when the elderly employees of the cinema weep over silent films they haven't seen in thirty-odd years; there is a sense that movies were not disposable, but meant something, quite intensely, to the people who loved them.

It is a trifle of a film, but its a deeply charming one, and sure to provoke a smile.


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