London Film Festival 2018: First look reviews – Tumbbad and Girl

Tumbbad

India’s cinema industry is the biggest in the world, and it often bothers me that I know so little about it, whether that means the Bollywood mainstream or something like Tumbbad, which feels much more independent in spirit.

Told across three chapters and thirty years, Tumbbad sets up its backstory early, with the tale of the forgotten god Hastar, who stole all the gold from his mother, who created the world and the other gods. Legend has it that in a mansion in the town of Tumbbad, Hastar’s treasure is hidden. As a child Vinayak (played as an adult by Sohum Shah) becomes obsessed with the treasure, when he grows up it makes him rich, but riches come with a price.

Taking in folk horror, monsters and imaginatively bloody imagery that is equal parts Evil Dead and Guillermo DelToro, Tumbbad manages to be both familiar and distinctive. The tone of the piece evolves across the three chapters. The first is my favourite, with young Vinayak, his younger brother and his mother living in a deserted house, looking after an ancient woman, the grandmother of a rich old man who has promised them Hastar’s treasure as payment when he dies. The directorial team of Rahi Anil Barve, Anand Gandhi and Adesh Prasad do an excellent job of establishing a terrifying atmosphere as their camera moves through the house and a fear of the monster behind the locked door. The reveal of that monster late in the first act is startling; part old woman, part zombie, with her mouth nailed shut, she’s a strikingly scary sight.

In its second act the film trades more on mystery. We know Vinayak’s wealth comes from Hastar, but how exactly he gets the gold coins he returns with each time he goes to Tumbbad is left unshown for a long time. This section of the film is perhaps a little long, reiterating many times that Vinayak is only growing richer – and worse – each time he goes to Tumbbad and establishing the jealousy of the man he initially trades the coins with. Things kick back into high gear when we finally get to follow Vinayak all the way to Hastar, I won’t spoil what we see there, but it’s memorably nasty (even if the CGI isn’t always brilliant). The third act brings political relevance, with Vinayak’s claim on Tumbbad threatened by India’s partition, but that’s really mostly a vehicle for the final showdown, which puts an unexpected and clever twist on what we’ve seen before, all to deliver a memorably nuts image of Vinayak geared up for a fight.

Tumbbad is a mixed bag, the pace sags in the middle, and the message about the cost of greed is unsubtle at best, but the first act is full of genuinely unnerving folk horror. The film finds its feet again and shifts gears at the end of the second act to deliver something that is a tonal departure from the way it begun, but hugely entertaining in its own right. If this signals the direction of Indian horror, I’m interested.

Girl

Coming of age cinema has, over the years, taken in narratives about kids and teens from all over the world growing up in any number of different situations, but a trans coming of age narrative is still something relatively new. In Girl, Lukas Dhont tells the story of Lara (cisgender actor Victor Polster), a sixteen year old girl who is just starting female hormones and preparing for surgery in the future. Her family are loving, her friends at the high level ballet school she attends seem supportive, but still, it’s not an easy journey.

The best and most revealing aspects of Girl lie in the details, things that let us see just how deeply Lara’s desire to achieve the body she feels she always should have had runs and the pain she’s willing to put herself through to get to that place where her body matches the person she is. Early on we see her going through the painful looking process of removing strapping she uses to tape her male anatomy down, largely so she can look more like the rest of the girls when she’s in her leotard for ballet practice. Dhont shoots this, and almost everything else, with an astonishing level of intimacy, often framing Polster in close up and asking him to show more through his body than through dialogue.

Polster is incredibly expressive in the role. Some of the film’s most moving moments happen in the mirror with Lara, having recently started hormone treatment, looking for any sign that her breasts are starting to develop and finding none, with Polster giving us raw emotion through movement and facial expression. The most wrenching moments come when Lara is made not to feel like herself by the people close to her; when her six year old brother doesn’t want to get dressed he calls Lara by her old name and it’s clear how deep that wounding moment runs. Another hurtful moment comes when, having seemingly been accepted as one of the girls, the others ask to see Lara’s penis during a girl’s night in, bullying her into showing them. This is one of the film’s saddest and most disturbing scenes, but also one that speaks loudly about how far attitudes to trans people still have to come, even from those who are outwardly totally accepting.

These scenes benefit as much as the family scenes – which are sunnier, if increasingly only on the surface – from the naturalism of the performances. Opposite Polster’s remarkable debut Arieh Worthalter puts in a hugely sympathetic and, vitally, empathetic performance as Lara’s dad; entirely accepting of his daughter and her transition, but sometimes struggling with the fact that he can’t get through to help her when she’s clearly hurting. The film does take this to an extreme towards the end of the film that feels more like a stereotypical version of how we think a trans person would behave than something that comes from within Lara’s character. The last ten minutes, almost dialogue free, are rather cloying; a contrast to the more matter of fact tone of the rest of the film.

Dhont tries to draw parallels between the pain of Lara’s struggle to excel at ballet and the pain of her struggle to be and be seen as female. It’s an effective enough metaphor, but the ballet training scenes are drawn out sometimes to overegging the point. I’m perhaps not in the best position to review this film: Lara’s reality, Lara’s struggle is not mine, it’s not that of any of my close friends or family, and thus it’s not easy to say how well it represents those feelings and the process Lara is going through. Dhont and Polster present Lara not as a freak but as a person, one who knows who SHE is. In the moment it feels, at least, emotionally honest, searching for empathy and is impeccably acted and shot, and it is likely to make a wider audience feel at least some measure of that empathy. I think that has value in its own right.

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