London Film Festival 2018: First Look Review – Angelo

It didn’t surprise anyone who saw his first film, Michael, to discover that director Markus Schleinzer used to work with Michael Haneke. Disquietingly still and at times striking, it was a debut that felt too in thrall to another filmmaker to be more than promising. Angelo, while sharing may of the same stylistic choices, is a more distinctive work.

The Angelo of the title is the ‘court moor’ to several families in Viennese society in the 18th century, and the three chapters of the film follow distinct chapters in his life; his childhood training with a woman who wants to allow him to ‘become human’, his time with the Kaiser, telling embellished tales of Africa for aristocratic audiences and his later life and how he ends up being remembered. Schleinzer unfolds this story very slowly, in long and often static takes, but while it can drag at times, the film does eventually reward patience, drawing together in a way that hits you in the gut.

From the start, Schleinzer sets out his formal approach to framing (constrained further by the Academy ratio the film is shot in). The arrival of boats carrying young African children, destined for sale, is viewed from a distance, them and the people transporting them appearing as dots on the landscape, before we see everything in close detail as they are prepared for presentation to a buyer (Alba Rohrwacher). In a film that is otherwise entirely in period detail, the warehouse that this presentation takes place in is interesting: it’s unmistakably a modern space; steel girders and fluorescent strip lighting. It’s clear that this isn’t a mistake, I took it as a tacit acknowledgement that slavery, while not in exactly the same form, is still a problem in the modern world. The film’s formalism feels most severe in the first part, perhaps reflective of the rigidity of the rules that surround Angelo (played in this segment by Kenny Nzogang) at this point, as he is taught French, made to learn the recorder and generally bred to be some mix of adopted child, pet, and ornament for his guardians to show off. This rigidity even extends to Rohrwacher’s performance, just look at the shock and the way she freezes when Angelo hugs her.

The camera is slightly, though only slightly, liberated in the second and third parts, moving within shots more frequently and yet the only time we see Angelo (now Ryan Nzogang) truly unguarded is in secret with his wife (Larisa Faber), who is white. The racial politics here are fascinating as, in one scene, he repeats the speech he used to give about Africa, playfully pantomiming for the person around whom he doesn’t have to be a stereotype.

Schleinzer’s camera often reveals big shifts in plot with the simplest of images. We see new characters introduced through tableaux between acts, which gradually show every character in the film in a single space and in one sequence late in the film, a revelation is seeded in a way that is initially elliptical, but eventually desperately sad. Often this technique means that the emotion of a turn of the plot hits us hard, all in a single moment; a cut to a glass-fronted case, for instance. The eventual power and pain of Angelo comes from the cumulative effect of the sad irony of a man we see transcending the stereotypes of his time, and the place we find him as we cut to the final title card. In its own way it’s as brutal as anything at this year’s LFF.

This may not be a film you love in the moment, but for me it has stuck in the memory and continued to hit harder as I’ve looked back at it.

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