This is a film of surfaces, for better or worse. Strikingly stylised, as if it were a haunted comic book, its narrative split into demarcated vignettes, Tim Sutton’s latest feature has a superficial political point at its centre. Financial inequality and crooked property development go hand in hand, leaving marginalised outsiders angry and alienated, distanced from a society that refuses to include them. This is a worthy argument in and of itself, but is here rendered in cartoonish brute fact. The rush of acute images thwarts cogent intellectual response.
The outsiders are Saul (Cosmo Jarvis), a young man with social problems, and Zama (Dela Meskienyar), a young woman with a complex Muslim identity. They meet in a Brooklyn bodega and fall in love. Of course theirs is a ménage à trois with the city of New York, its stratified lineaments shot in stark and contrasting tones by cinematographer Lucas Gath. Their tender, respectful romance is imbricated with a sort of anti-establishment heroic plot and an abstracted socioeconomic commentary. These overlapping planes leave, perhaps deliberately, sharp and unseemly edges.
The forlorn crusader element is embodied by Saul, part on the way to Damascus, or at least not heading for the Upper East Side of Manhattan. To call him a DIY superhero may be pushing it, though his frustrations, often wrought by the injustices of gentrification, hint at an asymmetrical form of urban retaliation. His is a lonely kind of warfare. In his sights is Johnny Lee Miller’s oleaginous, slightly lacklustre property tycoon, a symbol of excessive greed and pathetic nepotism. The developer is both Saul’s inverse and doppelgänger. All men are in some way sons, their fathers either disappointed or absent altogether.
Jarvis’s performance is full of granite charisma, even if it is a little affected, as Saul fluctuates between moments of mumbling sensitivity and incandescent outburst. Props and scenery take sporadic thumping. Zama is a more complicated character: issues of her religion and race are elegantly interrogated through Lizzie Donelan’s studied costume design. Emotionally reticent, newcomer Meskienyar is an effective counterpoint to Jarvis’s freewheeling magnetism.
There’s a particularly gratuitous scene, supposedly emblematic of the seedy, degenerately wealthy 1%, which isn’t justified from the character’s conceivable perspective. It seems to be more a product of the director’s ogling than that of anyone in the film. But overall, Funny Face is a forceful interrogation of common free will as it is trampled upon by modern corporate realities. Human relationships form resistance against our otherwise determined fate, found in social bonds yet to be destroyed by market forces. This suggests a regressive and dubious nostalgia for an old New York, a skyline for the community, the age-old tale of responsible capitalism.
Funny Face does not have a UK release date yet.
Read more reviews from our Berlin Film Festival 2020 coverage here.
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