Finding Lola

Nigel Mulligan has found something here.

 

Shot in scorched and enigmatic black and white, Andrew Legge’s debut film, Lola (2022, 79mins, 15A, UK/Ireland) co-written with Angeli Macfarlane, is a found-footage mockumentary, in which we are purportedly watching a recovered 16mm film reel about two orphan English sisters Martha (Stefanie Martini) and Thomasina (Emma Appleton) who have inherited the remnants of their parent’s experiments in radio technology. Dating from 1940 during the Second World War, the footage depicts the film’s eponymous Lola, a machine able to intercept future radio and television broadcasts.

Intelligence

The two sisters, nicknamed Mars and Thom, secretly harness some of these foresights and earn a small fortune in betting on horse racing while being entertained and inspired by future performers like David Bowie, Bob Dylan, and the Kinks. By the use of period cameras, cinematographer Oona Menges contrives a ‘vérité’ look, which editor Colin Campbell intercuts with authentic archive material and digitally altered newsreels overlaid with designer scratches and grainy effects to enhance the impression of wartime authenticity.

As the Nazi offensive is pressing across Europe, a member of British intelligence, Lieutenant Sebastian Holloway (Rory Fleck Byrne), detects unusual radio waves coming from an unknown source and traces them to a country house in Sussex where the sisters reside with their machine. Subsequently, Lieutenant Holloway and his commander Major Henry Cobcroft (Aaron Monaghan) begin harnessing Lola’s capabilities as an anti-intelligence weapon, using it to interpret transmissions from the future about the time and location of German bomb attacks to allow the British to shoot down enemy planes. As a result, with Lola’s help, the sisters become unsung heroes in the towns and cities they save, while Holloway and Cobcroft take the credit on behalf of the military.

Patriarchy at its purest

This is not only patriarchy at its purest but capitalism at its most calculating, in which the workers (Mars and Thom) are separated from the fruits of their labour, which is then offered up for the good of the war machine in a way that not only escalates the passion of combat but also helps propel the plot and enhance the film’s dramatic tension.

To keep the sisters sweet, they are invited to a military celebration of the successful tactical manoeuvres they have helped orchestrate, during which, in a wonderful scene, Mars plays The Kinks’ 1964 song ‘You Really Got me’ on the piano, a song she has obviously heard from the future through the mediation of Lola. After she retro-introduces it to the audience, it not only catches on at the function but becomes a hit across London, whose title gives rise to a popular idiom.

In this playful engagement of the spirit of music in a sci-fi context, and although the machine is supposedly named after the sisters’ mother, there is perhaps also an allusion to The Kinks’ classic love song ‘Lola’. Though the film itself veers down a clichéd love story route as Mars falls for Holloway, it probes a more solemn plotline as the sisters are subsequently separated and Thom’s tinkering with Lola increases to keep up with the Germans’ attacks, an obsession which seems to backfire as it appears to change the trajectory of events in the future.

Divine comedy

Well known for his love of electronic music, The Divine Comedy’s Neil Hannon scores the film with a stylish arrangement of Moog synths that echo the sound of Kraftwerk, whose own avant-gardism makes his contribution a kind of retro-futurism. To Mars’ dismay, when looking through the visual transmissions of Lola, David Bowie’s discography no longer appears to exist in the future, and iconic songs like ‘Space Odyssey’ have been superseded by military march music with such ominous titles as ‘The Sound of Marching Feet’ and ‘To The Gallows’, suggesting that the Germans, and indeed German fascism, are going to triumph. As the film enigmatically begins to re-write history, we realise that its interceptions from the machine of the German attacks are ultimately not sufficient enough to prevent their take over.

If the film’s attempt to ‘mockument’ the divisive effects of war on the relationship with the sisters, it loses some focus in its elucidation of the intricate inner lives of its female leads. In this respect, it might miss a political beat in attuning the audience to an evolving understanding of feminism as inspired by the gender politics of the future. If feminism poses a profound threat to the inextricably linked bedfellows of patriarchy and capitalism, Lola’s most authentic commentary in this domain lies in its bleak mirroring of a reality in which the sisters fail to escape from the repressive and regressive trap of the machinations of imperial powers and turn out to be just pawns in the game.

Ironically, however, a question that emerges from Legge’s film concerns not so much the future as the past and whether we can ever stop making the mistakes of history. However, we get the pessimistic sense that no interceptions of transmissions from the machine can change the fate of German Fascism which eventually becomes British Fascism while also wiping out future key artists like Bob Dylan’s early anti-fascist songs or Nina Simone’s music that was anti-colonial at heart and tore down social barriers at the time.

Tragedy and history

These artists re-created themselves through music against the very oppressive culture that gave birth to them. In this context, the film evokes Hegel’s concept of historical progress and the spirit ‘at war with itself’ in which each phase of the historical dialectic contains the seeds of its own negation and destruction. To recall Marx, who certainly followed this aspect of Hegelian thought, creative beings are born out of chaos and for any sustained social transformation to take place, there needs to be revolution.

If Lola ultimately highlights how the casualties of war are families and communities, the film’s lasting message is that there is always something war cannot destroy that propels us to live to fight another day. This intangible surplus is the found footage that ‘mockuments’ the trials and tribulations of the film’s machine, whose pseudo-evidence, rising like a phoenix from the flames of war, furnishes hope of the possibility of an alternate potential future.

Legge’s film offers us a fascinatingly playful take on the sci-fi genre, breathing new life into the simultaneous promise and perils of new technology and the trope of the potential consequences of meddling with information from the future to try to change events in the immediate present. To judge by his debut, however, Legge’s uniquely alternative and inventive approach to filmmaking is already affecting the fabric of his own future as a director in ways that are still to be seen.


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Nigel Mulligan is a writer, psychotherapist, lecturer and filmmaker living and working in Dublin, Ireland.

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