Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Review: Lotus Eaters

The discreet charm of the Bourgeoisie

Yesterday, I reviewed Charlie Casanova: a scathing critique of the upper-middle class lifestyle. A few hours later, I watched a film that couldn't have been more different. Lotus Eaters is a film that tries to document a similar class with none of the anger or value judgements. Charlie was loud and brash. Lotus Eaters is observant and subtle.

From Irish director Alexandra McGuinness, this is the rare Irish Film Board funded film that isn't set in Ireland. The setting is instead London, with a loosely structured narrative that follows the exploits of a group of affluent, twenty/thirty-something year-old hipsters. The protagonist (if we can call her that) is Alice, a model and wannabe actress played by Antonia Campbell-Hughes. She and her friends stop at coffee-shops, attend gallery openings, throw parties, engage in casual sex and the occasional non-traditional relationship. They even occasionally shoplift to fulfill their kleptomaniac urges. The purty Alice is gazed fondly upon by the males in the group, but she herself is particularly keen for Ben (musician Johnny Flynn). Alas, things never go smoothly in the real world for a variety of reasons, and soon she finds herself stuck in a sort of love hexagon.

This is a hard film to critique in some ways. In aiming for an almost documentary-like realism, your acceptance of the film will largely be down to personal taste. There's a distinctive mumblecore-esque vibe to the thing, although it takes sometime to overcome a major obstacle: most of these characters are spoiled and shallow little brats, or so it appears. Indeed, a bunch of overprivileged hipsters are hardly the most instantly compelling of heroes. But as it goes on, McGuinness wrings some surprising dramatic turns and character developments out of this initially deplorable ensemble. Many of the observations of this particular strand of society are acute, and it's a film that's able to critique without judging. The narrative does, admittedly, try to engage with the contradictions of their shallow, devil-may-care attitude, and the repercussions of their extravagant lifestyle are reflected in the overall story.

It's ultimately up to the audience to judge and relate to these people.  It could definitely be said that McGuinness and co-writer Brendan Grant could have delved a bit deeper into the inner workings of these adult-children. Although praise should be reserved for Cynthia Fortune Ryan's (more double barrel names!) character Orna, an older, almost out-of-place member of the group. She's one of the few sub-characters with genuine depth as it's slowly revealed that she's both a highly vulnerable and utterly manipulative person.

Despite such examples of genuine insight, McGuinness has an unfortunate penchant for dramatic contrivance: the ending in particular is melodramatically at odds with the otherwise charmingly understated atmosphere. But there's certainly some engaging moments along the way to that relatively cheap outro. A full-length performance of the Magnetic Fields' classic Papa Was a Rodeo is enchanting, but I would say that as a Merritt fan. Still, it's followed by a surprise turn of events that completely changes narrative gears when you least expect it. A simple, formulaic romance this is not.

The documentary-style atmosphere is enhanced by relaxing and pretty black-and-white cinematography courtesy of DoP Gareth Munden. Performances are solid if unremarkable, and your sympathy will largely depend on your tolerance for unreasonably wealthy and beautiful people. Overall, the film may not be as sharp as an Aaron Katz or Andrew Bujalski joint, but there's something here, albeit a something that's hidden under a loose structure soundtracked by painfully hip indie music. Tolerance levels will vary from person to person, most certainly (one person's 'nothing happens' is another's poetry). For me, it's a flawed yet strangely engaging movie that bewitches as frequently as it frustrates.

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