28 January 2021
For each of the features in competition, IFFR asked a critic, writer, academic or programmer to write a short reflection in a personal capacity. The resulting series of ‘Appreciations’ aims to encourage viewers − and filmmakers − at a time when there is no physical festival. Olaf Möller shines a light on Lone Wolf.
A little over a century and a score ago, Joseph Conrad found inspiration in an event from his recent past for one of his most famous novels, The Secret Agent: A Simple Tale (1907): the accidental death of French anarchist Martial Bourdin by a prematurely detonated explosive device. But those were slower days, and the 13 years between the Greenwich Bombing and the book’s publication may have felt shorter than the few months that Lone Wolf, Jonathan Ogilvie’s congenial adaptation of Conrad’s masterpiece, is set in the future: the story is told in the summer of 2021 while unfolding in part during the days IFFR is now taking place.
And yet, Lone Wolf feels like science fiction − like an eerily underground version of Steampunk, where the present in its grimy-tacky concrete-neon-Formica ordinariness is the past and the world of CCTV is a future that has long been happening, and yet feels difficult to grasp, as it produces essentially little more than emptiness and mass. Aeons of alienated footage that nobody ever watches, shot from often-awkward angles using lenses that distort the images, producing at times gaudily off-colour flashes in them. Ogilvie wrote his PhD thesis The Cinematics of Surveillance partly about the beauty of these disturbances.
The daily life of agent/traitor Verloc, his girlfriend Winnie and her autistic brother Stevie that Chief Inspector Heat edited together for the perusal of the Minister, could just as well be a total fabrication. She herself suggests so, and it certainly looks bizarre, like a comedy, if only because events are sometimes seen from mystifying perspectives such as the inside of a smoke detector.
The fact that in this parallel universe people still come to buy porn DVDs at the sex shop run by Winnie feels as endearingly antiquated as the luscious pleasure she takes in smoking. The same way the almost absurd omnipresence of cameras makes the sheer idea of a police informant look ludicrous. But then again: a DVD is something to pop into a player without leaving a data trail, which to a subversive like Verloc is mighty appealing. Hence his passion for fax, an ancient future he’s likely to offer a new lease of life (and the recent past has shown that he’s correct in his assessment). So, what are we all but actors, as culture still needs to provide content for the images CCTV records: nobody needs the intel Verloc provides to his supervisor, but they need him to make his co-conspirators perform their roles in the play the Minister or his cohorts wrote for them.
It's astonishing how close Ogilvie stays to the original text while crafting something from it that is wholly his and absolutely of our time: an entertainment of the daring and unruly kind, which mixes the popular and the experimental in the most delightfully surprising fashion.
Olaf Möller is a film scholar, critic, curator and programmer for several film festivals, including IFFR.
‘Appreciations’ aims to encourage viewers − and filmmakers − at a time when there is no physical festival. Discover more short reflections on the features in competition.