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All Things Bright And Beautiful

From strikes to viruses, Sarah Helm muses on some of film-making's difficulties, and also celebrates the successes of Barbie.

The Film Industry, eh? You wait for what feels like an eternity before you feel safe enough to go back into the cinema because of Coronavirus, to watch a movie that had been delayed for 18 months because of restrictions, only to have productions halted again due to an ongoing strike concerning the use of AI. Who’s going to serve me deafeningly crunchy, stinky nachos when I’m watching the latest Pixar now, I ask you?

Well, never fear – September is here! And with it the start of Chiltern Film Society’s 55th season, which presents fifteen international films, handpicked by its own select committee (from recommendations by its loyal members), which will be screened at The Elgiva, even if HAL 9000 is writing and starring in all the projects currently in production.

CFS kicked off the season on Wednesday 6th September – with the glamour that you’ve all come to expect – with Official Competition (2021), a sly, absurd but affectionate Spanish language satire on the perils of working in the film industry. Penélope Cruz blisters as Lola Cuevas, an eccentric, reclusive, flame-haired film director, hired by a millionaire (Jose Luis Gomez) to adapt a Nobel Prize-winning novel about sibling rivalry into a major motion picture, in an attempt to secure his legacy. The brothers of the novel are played by Felix Rivero (Antonio Banderas) and Oscar Martinez (Ivan Torres), a movie star and method actor respectively, who spend the film bickering and bitching as they both vie for the attention of their demanding director.

Directed by Argentinian duo Gastón Duprat and Mariano Cohn, with a screenplay that they wrote with Andres Duprat, Official Competition is a critique on how ridiculous and cutthroat movie making can be, and the lengths that artists will go to to satisfy their own egos.

The difficulties connected to making movies are often fodder for filmmakers. CFS has screened several titles connected to the narrative, including Birdman (2014), One Cut of the Dead (2017), Mia Madre (2015), What Just Happened (2008) and Fade to Black (2006).

As a former film student, I have some insight into the painstaking rigmarole that it takes to get your scripted vision to the screen. The 90s slacker comedy Living in Oblivion (1995) is more a scene by scene ‘how-not-to’ manual than a raucous piece of entertainment, documenting how hard it is to get things right and how very easy it is to get it wrong. Even the favourite of juicy gourd transporters everywhere, Dirty Dancing (1987), has a few early scenes where the boom is in shot – have a look at the Kellerman’s dance classes next time you watch it – it’s been there all the time, you’ve just blanked it out. Which shows how easy it is to slip up under pressure. And that’s just the technical side. Consider what happened three years ago, when the world stopped for a while…

Filming Official Competition began in February 2020, in Madrid, but had to be halted after eight days due to the Coronavirus pandemic. The production resumed again in September that year. At the height of Covid-19, Spain had very stringent rules for working and keeping people safe. Official Competition can work as a document from this time. The film, for the main, is a three-hander, using many static wide angles, interesting shot choices and lots of deliberate space between the stars and other cast members. You’ve got to wonder what was going through the minds of the actors in the crowd scenes after all that distancing, especially if anyone coughed…

It may come as a surprise to learn that although Penélope Cruz and Antonio Banderas have been friends for over 30 years, this is the first film that they have made together where they share any considerable amount of screen time. The two previous films that they have worked on are I’m So Excited! (2013), a comedy set on an aeroplane, in which they both have cameos and share one scene, and Pain and Glory (2019), where Cruz plays Banderas’ mother, but is only seen in flashbacks. Both these films were written and directed by Spanish auteur, Pedro Almodóvar, whom Cruz is often cited as being his muse. It was a good thing that Cruz was not too inspired by Almodóvar for her role in Official Competition, as the successful pairing might have come to an abrupt end.

It would be remiss of me, while talking about female directors, monstrous male egos and a leading lady who is both the epitome of style and eccentricity, without mentioning Barbie (2023), whose existential crisis was visited on The Elgiva on September 12th for a parent and baby screening (especially for Barbie’s pregnant friend Midge?), as well as at the usual matinée and evening screenings.

Full disclosure, I was a staunch Sindy girl, after being gifted my first doll for my fifth birthday (I always thought that our British counterpart had a friendlier face). I wanted to love Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird (2017) more than I did (no, it’s not heresy. It was good, I just preferred Booksmart (2019) and Frances Ha (2013)). With this in mind, and knowing what hype had surrounded the Barbie movie (although I tried to limit what I knew before watching it, and I’d recommend everyone else to do the same), I attended the screening with some trepidation. I should not have worried (story of my flipping life). Barbie will make you laugh, cry, feel anger and despair, fill your heart with joy, ponder your purpose, contemplate the meaning of existence and make you thankful that neon fashion is no-longer ‘a thing’. I went to the screening with my mum, and we had a brilliant afternoon, and both of us were thinking about the content of the film for days afterwards. There are many jokes, musical numbers, high concept sets and fashions, and Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling, who play Barbie and Ken respectively, were born to play their roles. Plus, anyone who remembers the opening scene of Jaws (1975) (which I recently had the pleasure of watching at St Albans’ Odyssey cinema), will understand the (nautical) lengths to which women will go to, to escape a man at a campfire playing guitar at them.

Barbie has just become the first film, directed by a solo female director (Greta Gerwig), to make one billion dollars world-wide. (The Lumière brothers only started in 1895, so there’s not much catching up to do…), so, whatever you think about the perky, pink princess with flat feet and crippling self-doubt, she’s here to stay.

At its heart, Barbie is a celebration of the world’s most recognisable plastic fashion doll, a feminist call to arms, and a question about how we can make things better for our future generations.

So there you have it. Powerful women in roles of authority, men with huge egos searching for purpose, screenplays taken from beloved intellectual properties… and jumpsuits – as if that wasn’t enough! And the new season’s only just opened!

Whatever takes your interest, we hope it gives you some food for thought.

Why not check out the CFS membership? 

We’ll see you at the movies!


Information about the Chiltern Film Society can be found HERE

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