24 Lies a Second: Starry/Knight

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Nobody with a brain would release a mainstream commercial movie at the moment, given that the multiplexes are still the kingdom of Commander Bond (down to only twenty-five showings a day last time I checked, but even so). Any movie making its debut at the moment is likely going to be one which isn't expected to appeal to the Bond audience – so we're talking slower, more thoughtful, more challenging films. I suppose I could just come straight out and say 'art house'.

David Lowery's last film, The Lighthouse, had that kind of vibe to it, but landed a major release because it was (nominally) a horror movie and had some big-name stars in it. There's something similar going on with his new film, The Green Knight. The original release of this film in the summer was a casualty of executive skittishness meeting a spike in the Covid levels, and it eventually emerged a few days before No Time to Die, although it was simultaneously released to stream and only seems to be playing in art houses cinemas where I'm currently living.

This is a new take on a (and the film acknowledges this) much-retold tale from the Arthurian myth cycle, that of the bold Sir Gawain and his encounters with the title character. Gawain is played by Dev Patel (I leave it to you to decide whether mythical 6th-century Britain is the right place for colourblind casting), the Green Knight is played by Ralph Ineson under prosthetics, Alicia Vikander pops up in a dual role, Joel Edgerton is third-billed despite not being in it much and Sean Harris gives an idiosyncratic but memorable turn as King Arthur.

The story, for anyone not steeped in mediaeval literature, is of Arthur's young nephew Gawain, who seeks nothing more than to make a name for himself by doing great deeds. He gets his chance when the Green Knight rocks up at the Camelot Christmas party, looking to play a rather odd game. You know how things can get out of hand at a party: Gawain ends up beheading the Green Knight, who takes this in surprisingly good spirit – Gawain now gets to be famous for a year, before honour requires him to seek out the Knight, who under the rules of the game gets to do unto Gawain what Gawain did to him…

At heart this is a movie pondering just what constitutes a good life – should Gawain have opted for longevity, obscurity and domestic contentment, or is he right to seek out immense peril and near-certain death if it means people will still be casting modish young actors of Gujurati descent as him in movies 1500 years later? But, perhaps inevitably, there is a lot more going on here than that – this is one of those films which is so heavily symbolic and allegorical that the actual story almost seems secondary. Working out what it all means is intensely challenging, especially while watching it; the decision to avoid a conventional resolution to the story is also likely to annoy some viewers.

Probably best to enjoy the ride, then, for this is a very good-looking film with an impressive soundtrack too. Much of it concerns Gawain's escapades on his quest to find the Green Knight, and these are very much a mixed bag – there's one episode which owes a clear debt to Barry Lyndon, another is a rather eerie ghost story, while a third resembles nothing more than a monumental LSD trip. What unifies the film is an odd blend of gritty realism and an unsettling sense of the genuinely mystical: it has a carefully studious quality to it which sometimes makes it difficult to fully engage with, but there is much about it which is highly impressive.

Much of the same is true of Fanny Liatard and Jeremy Trouilh's Gagarine, the lazy pitch for which would be something like 'The Martian set on a French housing estate'. The origins of the film are curious: the directors were hired to make a documentary interviewing the residents of Cite Gagarine, a housing project in Paris which was about to be demolished, and they found the experience so fascinating it inspired them to make a narrative film with a similar theme.

Alseny Bathily plays Youri (Yuri, according to the subtitles on the print I saw), a teenager living alone in Gagarine – his father is gone, while his mother has taken up with a new partner and is living elsewhere. Such is Youri's attachment to his home that he's doing his best to stave off the pending demolition by fixing up all the lights and fittings in the vast tower block almost single-handed, using supplies he's getting via a young woman from a nearby Roma community (she is played by Lyna Khoudri).

Of course, Youri is being rather naäve, as well-meaning DIY cuts little ice with the people who make decisions about urban redevelopment, and Gagarine is condemned to be pulled down. The community disintegrates as everyone is relocated, but Youri sticks around, living in secret in the project even as the demolition crew move in; in his mind, his little refuge in the sky becomes a space capsule he is constructing for himself…

At least I think that's what's going on. There's a sort of Nouvelle Vague neo-realist sensibility to Gagarine (which is what makes it such prime counter-programming material); the lives of the young characters are brought vividly to the screen and the dissolution of the Gagarine community is presented as something to be regretted – but the film also cheerfully launches off into flights of magic realism as it continues and Youri's astronautical fantasies take hold.

Perhaps I'm just thinking of High Rise and its film adaptation, but there is something almost Ballardian about the way in which Gagarine treats geography as an extension of psychology and blurs the distinction between inner life and the physical world. Quite what's going on eventually becomes a bit obscure, but there is some fabulous imagery along the way, even if the plot itself seems to end up very secondary to the look of the thing. The result is a likeable film, occasionally both touching and visually impressive (though seldom at the same time). If it makes a tenth of a percent of the box office of No Time to Die I'll be astonished, but it's nice to see that there is still a choice of viewing even at times like this.

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