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Portrait of a Lady on Fire
Portrait of a Lady on Fire

13 must-see arthouse films that will light up London Film Festival

A guide to working your way around the festival this October – and remember that if you’re under 25 tickets for select screenings are only a fiver

Robert Pattinson murdering a seagull with his bare hands. Shia LaBeouf playing his father in his own life story. Adèle Haenel and Noémie Merlant exchanging glances in an exquisite period romance. For two blissful weeks, the London Film Festival transforms the city into a celebration of arthouse cinema. Multiplexes screen obscure foreign-language dramas, austere auteurs do Q&As at venues more used to Marvel garbage, and you find yourself realising mid-movie that the person whose massive head is blocking the subtitles is actually the very same actor on screen.

As directors and actors usually attend these screenings, it’s your chance to see Timothée Chalamet in the flesh and realise that he’s just a normal human being, or to finally tell your favourite auteur, “This is more of a comment than a question…” In the line-up, there’s everything from Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story (contender for best film of 2019) to Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman (contender for longest film of 2019) with, of course, more obscure movies in between.

If tickets have sold out, never fear: a) extra tickets will be released on September 26 b) you can queue up on the day and get into nearly everything c) it doesn’t cost a penny to stand outside a cinema for two hours while imagining how much fun you could be having inside. In fact, if you’re under 25, option B will mean your ticket only costs £5. Here’s what we suggest you watch in October.

PORTRAIT OF A LADY ON FIRE (dir. Céline Sciamma)

Awarded the Queer Palm at Cannes, Sciamma’s fourth feature basks in the simmering flames of a forbidden romance between two 18th century women. Marianne (Noémie Merlant) is an artist hired to covertly paint a picture of a Countess’s daughter, Heloise (Adèle Haenel, star of Sciamma’s Water Lilies). Heloise’s mother, though, intends to send the artwork to prospective men, like a 1770 prototype of Tinder. Sciamma, who also directed Girlhood and Tomboy, can do no wrong: it’s a match made, and lit, in period-drama heaven.

ZOMBI CHILD (dir. Bertrand Bonello)

Hollywood has given us a certain idea of what a zombie is. However, the word “zombi”, as per the Creole spelling, originally referred to the trancelike state of starving, overworked slaves on plantations. So Bonello’s Zombi Child, the French auteur’s follow-up to the similarly provocative Nocturama, revitalises the genre as a colonialist revenge-thriller set in both 1960s Haiti and at an all-girls boarding school in the present. Expect post-screening discussions about white privilege, cultural appropriation, and the French hip-hop soundtrack.

THE WHISTLERS (dir. Corneliu Porumboiu)

Silbo, the ancient Spanish whistling language, finally reaches the world stage. Though Porumboiu is typically known for slow-burn dramas like Police, Adjective, the Romanian New Wave icon’s latest is a noir-thriller in which gangsters communicate via Silbo to bamboozle the police. Catrinel Marlon, seen pointing a gun in promo images, has been tipped by critics to be a future Bond girl. You do know how to watch The Whistlers, don’t you, Steve? You just put your lips together – and sit enthralled for 96 minutes.

THE PAINTED BIRD (dir Václav Marhoul)

A 35mm monochrome arthouse period-drama that was the talk of Venice Film Festival. Sounds beautiful, right? Well, The Painted Bird, a three-hour Holocaust horror about a young boy evading the Nazis, gained notoriety last week for the number of walkouts at its world premiere – including journalists who fell down the stairs in their rush to escape. An adaptation of an already controversial 1965 novel, the critical hit (the ones who stayed, loved it) includes a kid mutilated by pecking crows and Udo Kier gouging out a man’s eyeballs with a spoon.

CLEMENCY (dir. Chinonye Chukwu)

In January, Chukwu became the first black woman to ever win the US Grand Jury Prize at Sundance. That the film is still unreleased suggests it’s being saved for more awards around Oscar season. Starring Alfre Woodard (Crooklyn12 Years a Slave) as a prison warden responsible for delivering the lethal injection, Chukwu’s complex drama deals with meaty material – especially when the next inmate on death row is a black man accused of killing a cop.

ROCKS (dir. Sarah Gavron)

A pulsating portrait of female friendship, Gavron’s Rocks stars an ensemble of first-time actors who were selected through two years of workshops, casting calls, and visits to schools around east London. At the centre of the girl gang is Olushola, a British-Nigerian 15-year-old with the nickname of Rocks. When Rocks and her baby brother are abandoned by her mother, she fears authorities will separate her from her sibling – so Rocks, with the aid of her best mates, keep her situation a secret. If you’re under 25, tickets for Rocks only cost £5. If you look under 25, well, it’s probably not that hard to lie.

BACURAU (dir. Kleber Mendonça Filho)

The Brazilian director behind the quiet, pensive Aquarius has returned with an ultra-violent sci-fi western set in the future. An explosive genre mash-up about class warfare, Bacurau wowed critics at Cannes with its political fury and zany antics: the white and wealthy battle the poor and hungry in what sounds like a smarter, artier version of The Hunt. Though Bacurau is a fictional village, the auteur is taking aim at Bolsonaro, a president who is currently threatening to shut down Brazil’s state funding for films.

DOGS DON’T WEAR PANTS (dir. J-P Valkeapää)

In Valkeapää’s sex-positive Finnish comedy, a widowed man copes with his depression by hiring a dominatrix to whip away the pain. In other words, it’s a sweet and meaningful (S&M) movie in which you can see breath-play, BDSM, and 50 other shades of kink on a big screen. And if you’ve been stroking your leather sofa and plucking up the courage to tell your partner what really floats your boat, just bring them along and pretend it’s a sequel to All Dogs Go to Heaven.

MAGGIE (dir. Yi Ok-seop)

“Everybody loves the X-ray room.” A loopy South Korean comedy narrated by a catfish, the wild adventure kicks off with a workplace scandal: a hospital’s X-ray machine has captured two skeletons having sex. However, multiple staff members are paranoid that they’re the boning culprits, and the story spirals into a sci-fi lark with earthquakes, gorillas, and disaffected youths in Seoul. OK-seop, who plays Maggie, explains: “These are the social problems occurring in Korean society right now… people think there will probably be hidden cameras in the restroom.”

LINGUA FRANCA (dir. Isabel Sandoval)

Sandoval, a transgender woman of colour, is a writer-director who stars in this drama about a Filipino woman facing deportation from America. Desperate for a Green Card, Olivia (Sandoval) arranges a phony marriage with Alex (Eamon Farren) – but then that falls through, too. “I’ve always been drawn to marginalized women in fraught socio-political milieus,” Sandoval said last week at Venice Film Festival. “And this premise strikes me as particularly resonant in these times.”

DEERSKIN (dir. Quentin Dupieux)

If you’re wondering what the director of the “Flat Beat” music video would do with access to two of the hottest names of French cinema, the answer is the madcap arthouse comedy Deerskin. Dupieux, otherwise known as the DJ Mr Oizo, writes and directs the surreal story of a loner (Jean Dujardin) who pretends to be a movie director in order to chat up an amateur film editor (Adèle Haenel, the festival’s MVP). However, that’s barely scratching Deerskin’s weirdness: the protagonist’s jacket is also voiced by Dujardin. You will need to watch to find out if Uffie makes a cameo or not.

HONEY BOY (dir. Alma Har’el)

The American honey that is Shia LaBeouf has written an origin story in which he plays his own father. In the childhood memoir, directed by Har’el (Bombay BeachLovetrue), the “Shia LaBeouf” character is Ortis Lort, played as 12-year-old by Noah Jupe and as an adult by Lucas Hedges. Expect drugs, traumatic incidents, and a movie-within-a-movie that looks suspiciously like Transformers. If you’ve been enraged, confused or enamoured by LaBeouf’s onscreen and offscreen endeavours, Honey Boy will hopefully answer your questions.

THE LIGHTHOUSE (dir. Robert Eggers)

Robert Pattinson masturbating to a mermaid, Willem Dafoe getting buried alive, and it’s all shot on 35mm with a 1.19:1 aspect ratio. What else do you need? Eggers’ follow-up to The Witch promises to be even more idiosyncratic, not just in language (“If I had a steak right now, I would fuck it”), but for the number of viewers going home with newfound fetishes for mermaids and being buried alive. It won’t have a UK release until 2020 so see it now.

London Film Festival takes place on October 2-13. Tickets are on sale now to BFI members. Tickets are available to the public on September 12, with more released on September 26. The full line-up can be found here.