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London Film Festival review: The Afterlight

The Afterlight is the last-chance saloon for the lost souls of film history. It’s a conceptual experiment, one that stalks the shadows of world cinema, gathering the spectres of movie stardom as it stumbles all the way to obsolescence. This new film from Charlie Shackleton, which played the Experimenta strand of the London Film Festival, is cast entirely from the grave and destined to self-destruct. Composed of snippets of archive cinema, The Afterlight stars only actors whose obituaries have already been published and exists only in one 35mm print, which will deteriorate, just a little, with each screening, until even these echoes diminish.

Omar Sharif, Humphrey Bogart, Setsuko Hara, James Mason, Ruan Lingyu, all wash up here on the screen, along with more recent arrivals at the casting call: Barbara Windsor, Olivia De Havilland, Kirk Douglas. As Shackleton explained in the post-screening Q&A, he tried to avoid using the most celebrated scenes, shots and quotations for each actor, so it’s not so much about star-spotting as sustaining an atmosphere of faded glamour, yearning for the past while straining to get a closer look at it. Thankfully, as Shackleton put it, this is a film not a trivia game.

Readers of this blog will recognise Louise Brooks immediately, for example, but others might not. True Brooksophiles will be able to identify the scene and movie, naturally, but they will also have been looking out for Lulu from the start. She is completely at home in the seamy atmosphere of this haunting film, which begins with a meticulously constructed sequences of stars walking, through the small hours, along riverbanks and train tracks, pavements black with rain, until they arrive at the film’s one new location, the Afterlight, a joint where the faces at the bar are all too familiar, and everyone knows their name.

It’s a bar, seemingly, where people drink to forget. When our stars reawaken, they are disorientated, groggy, it might be four in the afternoon. Their hangovers compound their remorse, and it’s not long until they reconvene at the Afterlight to sink a little more oblivion. Fade to noir.

It’s a beautifully edited and composed film (including some very deft uses of music), with no grating attempt to force a storyline on these disparate characters: the chaos is part of the appeal. And as film students learn that stars bring their existing persona, the weight of their CV, into each new role, something of each film bursts into The Afterlight itself: lonely places, lost girls and snake pits.

As the film continues, absorbing all these references as it goes, audiences might expect a conflagration to finish. The drama of a nitrate fire rather than the dull wear of print fatigue. But Shackleton’s film plays it cool. If you’re familiar with some of his other work, you might also expect his analytical, witty voice to appear. Also no. There’s a little effects work to freeze our ghosts in time, but that’s it. Perhaps this is part of the point: the faces of the past have nowhere left to look.

Peter Tscherkassky’s Train Again (2021)

The Afterlight screened in a double-bill with Peter Tscherkassky’s Train Again (2021), an utterly thrilling explosion of early cinema apocrypha. Riffing off everyone’s favourite unfounded rumour about credulous spectators at the Grand Café in December 1895, Tscherkassky compares the shock of moving images to the velocity of train travel and multiplies their forces.

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