Art films don’t have to be serious, but a lot of them are. Madness, suffering, death—at times these become depressingly familiar themes at film festivals. For this reason, the rare comedy film is welcome: comedy highlights of last year’s festivals were Matchmaking Mayor at Berlin and Sons of Norway in Reykjavik. Although you’re primed to enjoy them, comedies are a reliable choice, as they typically have to be original, as well as funny, to be included in the festival.
What if you could have a festival that showed nothing but comedies? And what if it cheered you up during the most depressing month of the year? That’s just what the charity ‘Loco’ has done this year. London’s very first comedy film festival is taking place this weekend at the BFI. It started last night, and you’ll have to be quick if you want to take part: it ends Sunday night, and tickets are selling fast.
Two of tonight’s films have been selected by Edgar Wright, who wrote and directed Hot Fuzz and Scott Pilgrim vs the World. He will be at the BFI to introduce screenings of his own film, Shaun of the Dead and Mike Leigh’s Life is Sweet. Alongside these two established talents, Loco will present its ‘Discovery Screening’ this evening: Black Pond, the feature debut of Tom Kingsley and Will Sharpe, and ‘All Consuming Love: Man in a Cat’, an animated short with a decidedly unusual premise.
Sunday starts with a Keaton-Chaplin double bill (Sherlock Jr and The Champion), followed by a 50th anniversary screening of Go to Blazes, a British comedy about a bunch of jewel thieves who choose a fire engine as their getaway car. The festival concludes with its most unusual and intriguing event: the first-ever live reading of The Day Off. The script was written in the 1960s by Ray Galton and Alan Simpson (creators of Steptoe and Son), and intended for a film starring comedy legend Tony Hancock. Unfortunately, the film was never made, but maybe a modern adaptation will be in order if this weekend’s live reading proves a success.
Last night, the festival kicked off with two previews: a sell-out screening of The Muppets, followed by The Fairy (La Fée, 2011). The Fairy is set in the port city of Le Havre, and stars the film’s three writer-directors: Dominique Abel as ‘Dom’, a night porter at a cheap hotel, and Fiona Gordon as ‘Fiona’, a scruffy guest who introduces herself as a fairy who can grant Dom 3 wishes. Bruno Romy plays the perilously short-sighted owner of a local bar, ‘L’Amour Flou’. The film’s creators act alongside an excellent supporting cast, including Philippe Marz as troublesome British guest ‘John’, with ‘Mimi’, his beloved Westie.
The programme guide describes The Fairy as influenced by Michel Gondry, Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Jacques Tati. True, it does contain something of Gondry’s whimsical imagination, Jeunet’s eccentric and grotesque characters, and Tati’s near-silent physical comedy, but these are merely comparisons that help audiences to know what to expect. The Fairy has its own original spark, and couldn’t be confused with the work of any of these directors. Its comic situations are highly original, often laugh-out-loud, and at times daring: many gags made the audience not just laugh, but gasp with shock, or cringe in pain. While The Fairy pushes the envelope, its overall tone is rarely as exaggerated or baroque as either Gondry or Jeunet, and its storyline has more drive than Tati. As stand-up comedian Stephen K. Amos remarked in a surprise introduction to the film, the trailers really don’t do this film justice. Any one sequence from the film could reasonably stand alone as a comic sketch, but the real power of the film’s comedy only emerges when the scenes are linked together into a coherent whole, building on each other with their repetition and variation, enacted by an endearing cast of characters.
While The Fairy is a thoroughly enjoyable and original comedy the first time around, much of its appeal lies in surprise, so it’s probably not a film that you would want to watch again and again. Classic comic films often rely on verbal or physical gags that can be easily repeated: this way, we enjoy them again, mentally, every time we are reminded of them by situations in our everyday life (the perennial response to ‘Surely…’ in Airplane! for example, or The Young Frankenstein‘s use of ‘Ovaltine’). In The Fairy, there is very little verbal humour, and its physical humour is so extreme that it evokes cartoon more than reality—you will probably never encounter anything like it in real life. I still recommend this film wholeheartedly, though, for its genuinely funny gags, its originality, and last but not least, its lovely aesthetic, which splashes cheerful patches of colour onto a modestly washed out backdrop.
As for Loco itself, the festival is a fantastic idea, at the perfect time of year. A comedy film festival should have the potential to attract a broader audience to the festival experience. True, it’s not as though we can’t get comedy when we want it, on TV or at the multiplex. But the popularity of events like Secret Cinema has proven that people want not just content but a proper experience: a night out with friends, some live entertainment, and a chance to participate: Loco, with its parties, workshops, special guests and public screenings provides just that. I hope that it will be back again next year, hopefully lasting longer than just 3 days, and with a line-up that includes more contemporary international fare. As The Fairy proves, comedy can travel very well.