Fantasia Review: Black Pond
DIn the running with Quentin Dupieux’s Wrong as the funniest entry in the Fantasia and possibly of this year so far, I am going to give Black Pond the edge because of its Errol Morris “Life is pretty damn strange, would you fancy a cup of tea and a chat about it?” penchant for absurdity in the mundane. While the events depicted in this almost-a-crime documentary are not ‘real’ as say Tabloid or Gates of Heaven, films are lies that tell the truth either way and funny is and funny does. Black Pond just wants you to have a banana, but not a midnight, bananas are for energy to go out and do something, not to satisfy a mere late night craving.
Let me start at the ending. (The film itself does so.)
The Thompson family, a pleasantly dysfunctional foursome two parents and two college aged daughters, are murderers. Accused in the tabloid media of killing local Surrey resident Blake a oddly depressed man whom the have over for dinner one evening, now face the camera and tell the story from their perspective. Brimming with both pathos and punchlines, the Guest-ian mock-doc essays a normal, slightly affluent, family that melts down when the parents souls are awakened to the possibilities and the sadness of life around them by their curious houseguest. Part poet part sociopath, Blake has his joy and his sadness on display at all times, this is endearing to Tom Thompson who encounters him on a park bench and brings him home for tea. There is an immediate bond in between Sophie Thompson and Blake due to their love of poetry and penchant for quoting (and creating) verse. Blake even gets along with the family dog, Boy, a three legged mutt that shouldn’t be swimming in the titular body of water. In fact it is Boy’s drowning on Blake’s watch after an evening of wine and company with the Thompsons, that precipitates the return of the two girls and their buddy Tim back for an impromptu and sidesplittingly mismanaged funeral that kicks off the increasing layers upon layers of character driven comedy.
Picture Ben Wheatley’s Down Terrace but with Alan Partridge as the clueless paternal figure. In fact Chris Langham is not only a dead ringer for an older, more distinguished, Steve Coogan, but he also has a daffy loquaciousness that is in infinite vein of comedy gold. Every moment this man is on screen, the film is laugh out loud funny. Blake exceptionally well realized as either an idiot-savant or a killer himself; his not-quite-confessionals are hilariously inept, but completely overlooked by Tom and Sophie in their own attempts both feed of his bizarre enthusiasm and also show themselves off to him. When not lambasting the foibles of the human condition, the film throws off dozens of pitch perfect sight gags, such as Sophie’s published-after-the-fact book of ‘One Word Poems.’ But Black Pond remains first and foremost a character study, one where every cast member is truly great, right down to tangential players such as the whistle-blowing psychotherapist Eric Sacks. Simon Amstell is an effective combination of Stephen Merchant and Edgar Wright, all wide eyed grinning and pithy observations: “This is my house. It’s large. My parents are dead.” Eddie comes into the picture by way of Tim (played by director Wil Sharp), a Japanese friend of the girls that goes for confessional as he drove them back to the house and witnessed Blake’s murder and funeral. Everyone, with the exception of Blake, has a passive aggressive streak and it seems the Thompsons have all been in a state of denial about their impending implosion for years (The family portrait amusingly tells the tale of one face blocking another in the frame and nobody looking in the same direction.) The parents are brittle and dead to one another, the daughters snipe at each other, and dread returning home to the just below the surface soulsucking suffocation. Black Pond is less a tale of the sordid details of instantaneous murder, but rather a chronicle of the slow decline of people who have compromised or given up something dear. Now that’s comedy.
The flat-out genius of in screenplay, combined with the most innovative use of the form since either Waiting for Guffman or BBC’s The Office shows tragedy in slow motion a wonderful base for pitch black hilarity (making the title a witty play on words.) All the details come out over the narrative, none of them in order, but rather in a series of direct to camera confessionals, re-creations of a sort, youtube clips and poetry readings. At one point there is a Lynchian (or Bergman-ian or even Greenaway-ian) series of two-frame portraits that is bizarre, aesthetically interesting and down right hilarious. And so goes Black Pond, a film that is 100% engaging for every single minute it is on screen, and laughing on the inside for nearly all of them. An upbeat score, which yes, is charmingly quirky, simultaneously belies the material and underscores it as well. With all this mugging for the camera actually the truth of the matter comes out from the, like everything else in the film, witty editing. Cross cutting observations, nay pontifications!, made by the characters with actual events, to create humour and association is one of the most sophisticated and effective uses of filmmaking. I’m sure Eisenstein never guessed how his theories would be used 100 years later, but these filmmakers were definitely eating their bananas at midnight.