IFFR 2023 review: LOLA (Andrew Legge)

“A unique and highly enjoyable film that rewrites history by looking at the future, and a must-watch for cinephiles who want to see what the medium is capable of with the right amount of imagination.”

“Art is the weather vane of the future.”

Cinema has always had a fascination with time travel and temporal paradoxes; stories in which the past is influenced by people from the future, often with unforeseen and disastrous consequences (but culminating in a happy end; we’ve all seen Back to the Future, right?). Stories of trying to alter the future are more rare, but that is exactly the premise of Irish director Andrew Legge’s debut feature LOLA. Shot beautifully on 16mm, the film plays around with the visual signifiers of the eras it pulls in, but also tries to look at deeper issues that affected the era the film is actually set in. A quirky collage of post-war 20th century pop culture mixed with a thoughtful story about the power of knowledge and the importance of deciding what to do with it, LOLA is a winning combination that should continue its run on the festival circuit (a run that started in Locarno) and in select arthouse theaters.

The year is 1938 and the orphan sisters Thomasina (Emma Appleton) and Martha (Stefanie Martini) have somehow managed to create a machine that can receive broadcasts from the future. Living in their ancestral Sussex country house since the death of their parents, the girls’ imaginations and brilliant minds are allowed to run free. The ‘wild’ images and music they receive from decades ahead feed their rebellious nature, and for a time they enjoy the dance crazes and hairstyles of the ’60s and ’70s as innocent fun. With the German war threat looming Thomasina resolves to use their machine, which they have dubbed LOLA, for good. ‘Predicting’ German attacks lets them prevent thousands of innocent deaths, and the public dubs the mysterious female voice that warns them The Angel of Portobello. They soon find Sebastian (Rory Fleck Byrne), a British intelligence officer, on their doorstep, and he moves into the house to better coordinate the war effort the sisters are now fully engaged in. Britain deals the Nazis some hefty blows based on their intelligence, but when an eager Thomasina makes a mistake that causes the war to take a dramatic turn, so does the relationship between the two sisters, with the dashing officer as the catalyst.

LOLA is ostensibly a found footage film, put together by Martha in hopes the footage will show up on LOLA in the early ’40s to push Thomasina to prevent the terrible fate that befalls them (therein lies the paradox). To make this work and in an ironic twist given the film’s premise surrounding the power of technology, Legge brilliantly and imaginatively plays with film technique to create a coherent story while still retaining that much-needed handcrafted feel. Shot on a Bolex 16mm, Legge processed the film stock with boiling water to make it look old and grainy and full of scratches and glitches, which allowed him to splice in archive footage (albeit digitally altered) from the time period. By making Martha a budding filmmaker who documents their every move he gave himself an excuse to have a camera present at all the major story beats. The end result is an entertaining and at times funny film that could for the most part truly be put together from shards of their lives.

Knowledge is power, and power reveals. At the peak of their success Thomasina’s fanaticism starts to cause a rift between her and her softer sister, who in the meantime has fallen in love with Sebastian. Under the right circumstances fanaticism can slide into fascism. This is the serious undertone to what is mostly an enjoyable and decidedly British romp. The danger that lies within the power of technology is another one; if social media is teaching us anything, it’s that the danger is inherent. The film posits that the most important power is the power of imagination, which may be a somewhat stale message and a pat on the back to artists (as is the quote above), but there is a sense of optimism to it that permeates the whole film.

For the pop culture nerds there are plenty of gems to be found. Can you imagine a future (or is it a past?) in which David Bowie is a dentist and 1973’s top hit is Reginald Watson’s The Sound of Marching Feet (yes, the Nazis won), sounding eerily close to Bowie if not for the fascist lyrics (his follow-up hit, the somber ballad To the Gallows, is even more sinister). Martha turns The Kinks’ You Really Got Me into a hit before it is released decades later in a show-stopping performance, making the title a rallying cry for the British people. Not to mention the sly way characters insert themselves into archive footage of Hitler, Churchill, and others, recontextualizing the images.

These are some of the more silly (in a good way) elements of LOLA, bound to put a wide stupid grin on anyone’s face. At its heart it is a film that plays with notions of technology and mass media and their influence on history, but as one of the characters says, “History can be made and unmade“, and LOLA itself shows that cinema has the power to do that. If Tarantino did it with his ending to Inglourious Basterds, LOLA takes it to the next level. Legge, whose preoccupation with technology already showed in several of his previous shorts, has crafted a unique and highly enjoyable film that rewrites history by looking at the future, and a must-watch for cinephiles who want to see what the medium is capable of with the right amount of imagination.