Wednesday 11 October 2017

Most Beautiful Island

The Wait Wait Show

Most Beautiful Island
2017 USA Directed by Ana Asensio
London Film Festival Monday 9th October

My third film of this year’s London Film Festival was Ana Asensio’s Most Beautiful Island. It’s a low budget work about a poverty stricken Spanish lady who has moved to the US to escape reminders of a tragic event in her past. It’s written and directed by Asensio and stars herself as the film’s main protagonist, Luciana. As the director told the audience in a Q&A with some of the actors and one of the producers at this screening, the film is inspired by her own experiences with the darker underbelly of an America where you have to do whatever you can to make ends meet and survive without being, as another character called Olga (played in this by Natasha Romanova) puts it, “eaten by New York”.

The film starts off beautifully with an abstract shot of people walking backwards and forwards in the streets of New York but it seems like their bodies are unnaturally elongated. Although the shot is held for a while, my brain couldn’t quite process what I was looking at... was it a reflection in a window, was it some kind of filtered image. Then, more images of the hustle and bustle of New York grabs our attention as we follow Luciana and some others on their daily journey though a chaotic city filled with energy. The credits appear over this sequence and, although the images are well shot and using quite a lot of moving camera to follow the action, the whole effect of the editing is like a pack of cards being riffled right into your field of vision as the chaos of the city lands in your face and... yeah... it’s a good way to start a movie.

What we have here is a film that has a big tonal shift about a half to two thirds of the way through and I almost wish I hadn’t watched the trailer before clicking on the ‘book a ticket’ button in terms of knowing the way the story, such as it is, was going to change but, on the other hand, if I hadn’t been responding to what must have been appealing elements of the trailer then I might not have gone to see this one at all so... yay for trailers. I’m so glad I caught this one.

So the first part of the film follows the central character as she tries to do various things like visit a doctor without having any health insurance, looking after two kids as a nanny (which really piles the pressure on Luciana) and the whole feel of most of this first section is of a kind of ‘throwaway kitchen sink’ kind of cinema. It’s effective in that it brings the viewer into a kind of fly on the wall appreciation of the reality of this character’s life and the terrible things she has to face.

One nice, very brief sequence in this section is where Luciana and her friend have to give out flyers dressed as ‘sexy chickens’, for want of a better term. It’s interesting actually... and this could either be serendipity or just a really great artistic decision but... the constant and unstoppable shouts of the girls as they try to entice potential customers to take a flyer is kind of manifesting itself on the soundtrack design in a way that is not unlike the constant, grating clucking you sometimes get from the real life versions of the poultry in question. It’s an interesting burst of human noise when a lot of the previous sound pollution on the movie is less human than this sudden burst of two frantic voices trying to catch the eyes of passers by. So, yeah, clever stuff and since the director seemed so intelligent in the Q&A and, obviously, with the construction of her film being quite clever, I’m going to make the assumption that this was a genius artistic choice rather than a happy accident... although sometimes the retention of an accident after it’s happened is also a wise decision.

Another great moment in the film is where Luciana is sitting in a bath and she sees a piece of tape on the wall by the side of the tub covering a hole. I’m not going to tell you what happens next but although it seems almost Lynchian in its placement in the story, it also kind of sets up both the psychological mindset of the character and the way in which she copes with a certain aspect of life in the way that it slightly echoes something which is to come much later in the movie and also leads us into an artistic expression involving close ups and an exaggerated soundtrack effect which will also, as it happens, echo something later. This is a pretty well thought out movie, to be sure.

As the character goes about her journey, her friend Olga casually gives her an invite to a job where she will get paid $2000 for just a couple of hours of work, as long as certain rules are followed. We are still in the general free-for-all of the discordant everyday existence of the character at this point so it comes as more of a shock to the system when we go into the last sequence of the film... everything that has occurred before this lulling us into a completely different mindset in much the same way that, for example, Takashi Miike’s Audition turned out not to be a romantic comedy after all. This becomes a waiting game where Asensio uses her skills as a director to make things as uncomfortable for the audience by using the kind of suspenseful language of the ‘horror movie’. This isn’t technically a horror movie, in fact... but the tone of the final act is and everything kind of slows down while the camera shots appear to be held a lot longer in this next sequence.

Luciana and the other girls are locked in a big cellar and looked at by ‘customers’ who go into another room and nobody is allowed to leave. Each of the girls are dressed in the same costume and are carrying a handbag they have been given which is padlocked shut. The next 20 or more minutes is an excruciating and unsettling sequence as the girls wait to be called into ‘the room’ to play ‘a game’ for the customers. When it becomes clear that sometimes a girl will leave the room and get payed and, sometimes, they don’t leave there alive at all, Luciana tries to escape but, as you would expect from a movie which hasn’t yet revealed the nature of high stakes activities in the adjoining room, she has no success at changing her fate. In a slight change to the rules she accompanies the dominatrix-like host (played wonderfully by Caprice Benedetti in sophisticated, sinister mode) to go in with Olga and we are finally shown just what takes place on the room... in another sequence which may make some audience members hold their breath.

I won’t comment on the general content of this end sequence and I won’t let on whether Luciana survives what happens to her or not. What I will say... and the director was very keen to get this point across in the Q & A... that whatever happens to the character after the film has finished, Luciana is able to kind of forgive herself for the tragic incident which has happened in her past which has caused her to take on this kind of existence in the first place. The film does leave questions hanging in the air but, honestly, that’s not a bad thing and I’m kinda glad that Asensio deliberately, like some of the best filmmakers do, chose not to cross all the ‘T’s and dot all the ‘I’s. A film is, after all, a phenomenon which, like most pieces of art, leaves something to be pondered on after the initial experiencing of that art... like a piece of scar tissue in the brain that haunts you for a period after the initial response. And that’s exactly what happens here... this is a film that you may find yourself thinking about for a good while after.

Most Beautiful Island is a really cool movie. It’s been described by some as having a Grand Guignol feel to it. I’d have to say that’s about right, from what I know of the kinds of skits that were put on in that theatre but, not in the blood n’ gore sense that a lot of people tend to associate with that term (this is not a bloody film) but more in the kind of suspense filled tension generated in a fair few of them, including those which were less about bloodshed and more about an examination of the human condition, albeit in an exploitative form. Ana Asesnio has created a really interesting piece of art here and, although she has her acting career, I really hope she continues to write and direct because she’s definitely someone to watch, I would say, on the strength of this directorial debut.

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