There was a faint sense of relief as the Dublin Film Critics Circle (DFCC) — presided over by this newspaper's Tara Brady — gathered to present their awards for the 2020 Virgin Media Dublin International Film Festival. Not because the members were in any way wearied by this year's selection. Bartosz Kruhlik's singularly imaginative Supernova, one of many discoveries, was a worthy winner of best film. Launching a state-of-the-nation audit around the aftermath of an accident in rural Poland, the picture is exactly the sort to profit from exposure at such an event. Supernova makes good use of its limited budget, profits from economic editing and ends with a tantalising unanswered question. Tomás Ó Súilleabháin's majestic Arracht, an Irish-language famine drama, beautifully shot by Kate McCullough, took best domestic film in a year crowded with potential breakthroughs. Cannes and Toronto premieres such as Quentin Dupieux's Deerskin and Justin Kurzel's True History of the Kelly Gang played well on their Irish debuts. Pump another pint of VMDIFF juice in our veins.
The relief stemmed rather from the realisation that the festival had just about dodged the (literal) viral panic that was shutting down similar events — and delaying Bond films — all over the globe. This journalist was happy to tell Barry Keoghan, here for Nick Rowland's Calm With Horses, that his next movie, The Green Knight, was going to South by Southwest. Two days later that Austin event was cancelled. Remembering the snow that caused such havoc two years ago, Gráinne Humphreys, the event's unstoppable director, might have feared that a curse had befallen them, but quite the reverse was the case. VMDIFF 2020 looks like the last film festival to escape unscathed before the plague of cancellations set in. They were, if anything, blessed.
The disease did nothing to stop audiences cramming into the auditorium for a conversation between Mark O'Halloran (about whom more in a mo) and the legendary screenwriter Charlie Kaufman. The hordes were equally busy at a diversity panel, convened to tease out issues springing from the still ongoing 2020 Gender Parity Pledge signed by VMDIFF and others in 2019. Neasa Hardiman, whose horror flick Sea Fever landed here after a successful opening at Toronto, was among those discussing strategies to counteract gender imbalance. "It's about creating culture," she said. "Women making stories about adventure and excitement, with women at the heart of the production, driving the action."
International highlights of the festival’s second half included Sarah Gavron’s gorgeously organic Rocks. Gavron banished thoughts of her anaemic Suffragette with a bouncy, beautifully acted drama concerning a black girl coping with abandonment in a feisty, noisy version of East London. Loosely plotted, packed with strong improvised action, the film profits from a heartbreaking performance by Bukky Bakray as a kid working hard to shut out inconvenient realities. There’s something of Céline Sciamma’s Girlhood here. There is also a bit of François Truffaut’s The 400 Blows. But Rocks couldn’t be more English.
Another British director pushing in novel directions was Emerald Fennell. Previously show-runner on Killing Eve and Camilla Parker-Bowles (as she wasn’t yet) in The Crown, Fennell has kicked in the door with a hugely eventful, occasionally broad provocation about a young woman seeking revenge for her friend’s rape. Carey Mulligan, alternately surly and furious, makes the most of a character whose invention is exceeded only by her determination. The invention is on a par with similarly didactic satires such as Boots Riley’s Sorry to Bother. The jokes are as black as ice. The payoff is outrageous. Sure to generate debate when it opens commercially in a few weeks.
Two excellent films from masters arrived after surprisingly muted praise at the Venice and Toronto Film Festivals. Hirokazu Kore-eda's The Truth bears many warning signs of the overcooked "first film in English" by a non-Anglophone director: too many stars, glamorous setting, Juliet Binoche. But The Truth proved to be a knotty investigation of high-end maternal neuroses. Catherine Deneuve plays a much-idolised French actor (no stretch). Binoche is her screenwriter daughter. Kore-eda resists the temptation to play grand-dame games and allows the relationship to tease out in subtle ebbs and flows. Worth it alone for the scene in which Deneuve eats dinner at a Chinese restaurant with only her dog for company.
If you know and love Roy Andersson then you will seek out and adore About Endlessness. The Swedish director's latest follows the strict templates observed in earlier masterpieces such as You, The Living and A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence: grey, bleakly comic vignettes play out in single, static shots that savour rectilinear, consciously artificial sets. A couple watch birds fly across the city. A priest drags a cross up an urban hill. And so on. As ever, the humour is deliciously dry and salty — inviting us to snort at our own foolish delusions. One could argue for satire of his compatriot Ingmar Bergman's films on the fragility of faith, but that is surely too banal a reading of Andersson's obscure intent. Another essential film from a modern great.
Mark O'Halloran, actor, writer, raconteur — known for writing Adam & Paul and Garage — was also at the festival to introduce Rialto, the cinematic translation of his play Trade. Directed by Peter Mackie Burns, the film stars Tom Vaughan-Lawlor as a Dubliner who, facing up to unemployment and the death of his father, takes to paying a young man for sex. The integrity of the performances is striking. The sense of place is impressively realised. If anything the engagement with depression is almost too intense to bear. Scenes hang uncomfortably in the brain long after the credits have rolled.
Also among the domestic releases, we had Nick Rowland's atmospheric crime drama, Calm with Horses. Adapted from a story by Colin Barrett, the piece stars Cosmo Jarvis — English, but good with an accent — as the two-fisted enforcer for a drug gang in a puzzling corner of County Nowhere (mostly Connacht, but also a bit Northy). Strong support from Ned Dennehy, Barry Keoghan and Niamh Algar helps flesh out an environment that suggests rural gothic by way of an avant-garde Wild West. The film gets away with its poetic aspirations. The jolts of horror are properly jarring. But it doesn't seem content with its own cluttered ending.
Phyllida Lloyd's Herself was surely the most eagerly anticipated of the Irish releases. Clare Dunne, also the screenwriter, stars as an abused woman who, rendered homeless during the ongoing crisis, elects to build her own house in a friend's back garden. The film certainly has an element of fantasy about it. How many people in a similar position will happen upon a free strip of land and an army to help out for minimal compensation? But writer and director undercut those movie-movie conveniences with reminiscences of brutal abuse and well-researched explorations of bureaucratic inflexibility. Following ecstatic reviews at Sundance and a profitable sale to Amazon, the film is now slated for an awards-season release in North America. Having picked up the Michael Dwyer discovery award — named for The Irish Times' late film correspondent — from the DFCC, Dunne is already ahead of the pack. Let's hope she doesn't forget us.
The Dublin Film Critics Circle 2020 awards
Actor : Albano Jeronimo, The Domain
Actress: Barbara Sukowa, Deux
Screenplay: Congcong Teng, Send Me to the Clouds
Director: Roy Andersson, About Endlessness
Cinematography: Leonardo Simoes, Vitalina Varela
Maverick: Pat Murphy
Documentary: New York Our Time
Discovery: Clare Dunne
Jury Prize: Moffie
Jury Prize: Marona's Fantastic Tale
Jury Prize: Deerskin
Jury Prize: If You Are Happy
Jury Prize: Paddy Slattery