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- Day Ten, in which TIFF '07 ends
Toronto Film Festival 2007
SATURDAY, SEPTEMBER 15
The premise of Jacques Nolot’s Avant que j’oublie (Before I Forget) is perilous: a film about a detached, cynical HIV-positive writer in his late 50’s dealing with the banal, everyday realities of life, the film on the surface seems to propagate a number of negative stereotypes regarding homosexual men of a certain age (this is the clichéd world where leering older men with money joylessly buy the services of younger men, haunt the corners of cafes and bars and endlessly complain about how empty and emotionless their lives have become). But Nolot, a prolific French actor who not only wrote and directed the film, but stars in it as well, has stripped all traces of sentimentality from his film, in turn making it a film that is as poignant as it is difficult. The third film in a trilogy supposedly depicting the gay lifestyle in relentlessly matter-of-fact, the film itself can be hard to sit through—the long, seemingly endless shots patiently capture the most banal of occurrences and moments—counteract potentially sensationalistic material (one example: a business transaction can end with “what do I owe you?” “Nothing. I want you” and pants are indifferently taken off and a blowjob commences). A film more fascinating to ponder after the fact than while actually watching, I walked out of the screening not liking it much, but my feelings have become much more favorable in the days that have since passed.
New Wave master Jacques Rivette has certainly confounded both admirers and detractors with his period piece Ne touchez pas la hache (Don’t Touch the Axe). At first glance it seems that in his old age Rivette (who turned 79 in March) has gone the route of Truffaut and succumbed to the “cinema of quality” that he and his fellow critics and filmmakers in the Cahiers du cinema crowd railed against so famously in the 1960’s. A seemingly straightforward adaptation of a Balzac short story about the tempestuous relationship that springs between a gruff general (played by Guillaume Depardieu) and a willowy, headstrong duchess (Jeanne Balibar), this was the film that baffled me the most out of all of the films that I saw at TIFF. Not because it’s a difficult or extremely complex film, but because I was completely at a loss as to why I liked it so much. But some time for reflection and a really insightful article in the last issue of Film Comment (currently is not available online) helped me to realize that a large part of what makes Rivette’s film so fascinating is how he dissects and depicts the mechanics of performance and theatricality, but instead of bracketing it in the form of the theater-within-a-film that define much of his most famous work, he strips away the framing device and lets the “play” perform as the film itself. Depardieu and particularly Balibar are stunning, turning in extremely broad, theatrical performances that are at the same time sketched with authentic little moments, emotions and mannerisms. The film is being released stateside as The Duchess of Langeais, and I for one will jump at the chance at taking another look at this dazzling, multi-faceted film.
Finishing out the festival for me was the provocative Help Me Eros, written and directed by Tsai Ming-liang regular Lee Kang-sheng. Seeming taking up the fascination with naked bodies and sexual positions of last year’s Shortbus, what sets Lee’s film apart is the direction he takes the material, replacing Mitchell’s endearing optimism with a bleak pessimism. Revsolving around a number of loosely-connected individuals who all are experiencing depression in varying degrees, we follow them as they attempt to use sex as a means to reach out to someone else (sound familiar?). The film looks amazing—the neon lights, gaudy colors and deep shadows of urban Asia looks as voluptuously beguiling as it has for many an Asian auteur—and after adjusting to the sad rhythms of Lee’s film it becomes a moving examination of how despite all of the technology and comforts of modern life humans still manage to feel as isolated as ever.
So ended my TIFF 2007 experience, an amazing ten days filled with a really high percentage of excellent (or at least compelling, at the very least) cinema. I’ve learned a lot about the festival experience—the buying of tickets, the structuring of showtimes, my own personal capacity for consecutive film watching, etc.—and look forward to taking part in another major film festival, and hope to do it sooner rather than later. If my return to school was not an inevitability next fall, I’d say I’d without a doubt be back for TIFF 2008. I’ll be covering the much more small-scale San Diego Film Festival next weekend for DVD Verdict, and I suppose that will have to suffice for now.
Thanks for reading,
- Day Nine (almost done!)
Toronto Film Festival 2007
FRIDAY, SEPTEMBER 14
In Eric Rohmer’s Les amours d’Astrée et de Céladon (The Romance of Astrea and Celadon), the ethereal, almost magical pastoral landscapes of 17th century France are treated with such reverence (the area is now long since destroyed by urbanization, a lengthy opening title card laments) that I just automatically assumed that Rohmer was setting us up as parody of Hónore d’Urfé famous, five-volume novel. But as the film goes on, and the beautiful but poor shepherdess Astréa (Stéphanie Crayencour) spurns her lover (the equally beautiful but wealthy Céladon, played by Andy Gillet) that results in his suicide attempt, it becomes obvious that Rohmer is playing the material straight, asking—or more accurately, demanding—the we the audience put aside our postmodern, Monty Python-induced cynicism of all depictions of the Middle Ages and buy wholeheartedly into the courtly love tradition where it’s perfectly plausible that Céladon, after surviving his suicide attempt, refuses to reunite with the heartbroken Astréa because of an offhand comment she had made during their lovers quarrel. The film takes its time, indulging in digressions and meandering in and out of erudite philosophical discussions. But when the film hits its final third, and the reunion of the two lovers seems inevitable, Rohmer switches modes and the film is suddenly a light on its feet, comical game of cat-and-mouse, complete with pagan rituals, cross-dressing antics and gender confusion. At the final, inevitable kiss closes the film I was shocked to realize how subtly Rohmer had built to a rapturous concluding crescendo—I exited the theater beaming like an idiot. A delight, and without a doubt my biggest surprise of the festival.
One of my biggest regrets of the festival is not getting an opportunity to explore the Canadian Retrospective program, celebrating the work of director and cinematographer Michel Brault, in more depth. The one token entry I was able to catch, and one of my “holy-grail” films for a while now, was Edgar Morin and Jean Rouch’s groundbreaking Chronique d’un eté (Chronicle of a Summer), in which Brault served as cinematographer. As a Brault biographer noted, introducing the film, Chronique is an extremely uneven film, a series of dialogues and interviews among a swath of Parisian society during the summer of 1960 (the biographer rather cattily commented that most of the more interesting segments can be attributed to Brault). Admittedly, the film does start out very slowly, and I found myself fighting the urge to doze. But as the film goes on these rather extended clips of interviews (which was later termed cinéma vérité), at turns funny, touching, even harrowing, all become extremely compelling, and the influence of the style can be observed in everything from reality television to “confessional” YouTube clips. It’s more of a film to admire than to really love—but the film does manage to transcend its dusty historical importance through the reverberations, for better or worse, that we are still being felt today.
Two days before I left for Toronto I received in the mail via Greencine a DVD of Ingmar Bergman’s 1960 Oscar-winning The Virgin Spring. I sent it back the next day, unseen, hoping that I’d be able to get a ticket for TIFF’s showing of the film, being presented by its star, legendary actor Max von Sydow. Maybe the act of blind faith served as a good luck charm, because I was indeed able to get a ticket for the screening, ultimately one of the highlights of the festival. The film itself is a return to Medieval Scandinavia and many of the themes and elements that Bergman first explored so brilliantly several years before in The Seventh Seal resurface in varying degrees. Inspired by a traditional Swedish folk tale, the film revolves around the tragic circumstances surrounding the murder or the beautiful, petted daughter of a wealthy farmer played by von Sydow, and (inevitably, since this is Bergman we’re talking about here) the crisis of faith it inspires. Dramatically shot by Sven Nykvist (it was the first of many collaborations between director and cinematographer), the film is certainly not among my favorite Bergman films, but contains a lot of moving, quintessential Bergman moments, particularly von Sydow’s harrowing spiritual (and physical) breakdown. Astutely, von Sydow called the film “a drama of the two faith,” the clash of the “heathen” codes of faith being replaced by Christianity.
Certainly the highlight of the evening was the hour or so Q&A time that followed with von Sydow—I took four pages of notes, frantically trying to capture the eloquent actor’s comments on everything from the beginnings of his career through his famous collaborations with Bergman and the friendship he had with the director. I hope to type these up in readable form, and I’ll post them as soon as I do.
- Day Eight
Toronto Film Festival 2007
THURSDAY, SEPTEMBER 13
Funny, and how appropriate that the last Gus Van Sant that I saw was 2003’s Elephant since with Paranoid Park it almost feels as if we have followed the filmmaker and his camera on one of those giant, loopy circular pathways that define that earlier film, and have found ourselves once again meandering down the same empty, cavernous hallway of an anonymous American high school. That’s not to say that Paranoid Park is a retread in any way, because setting aside, Paranoid Park’s fractured, occasionally jarring narrative style is more immediately palatable (though I deliberately avoid the term “conventional”) than Elephant’s elliptical tracking shots and wispy threads of plotline; the basic story, adapted from a novel by Blake Nelson, concerns itself with the emotional fallout a high school skateboarder experiences after inadvertently causing the death of a security guard. Paranoid Park can be seen as an exploration of how the traumatic experiences forces an emotionally detached individual to deal with the specifics of his life (the disintegration of his family life, an obnoxious girlfriend he doesn’t like to be around, an uneasy, growing attraction to a girl on the fringes of high school society) all the while finding himself increasingly unable to cope with what seems like an irreversible downward spiral. Van Sant—aided by the masterful camera of cinematographer Christopher Doyle—treat the specifics of the narrative as details of marginal importance, completely honing their focus on navigating an increasingly turbulent emotional landscape. That no concrete outcome is ever given or even hinted at is certainly a risky narrative decision, but it pays off brilliantly as Van Sant and Doyle’s poetic reveries-turned-nightmares prove to be more compelling and haunting than any straightforward depiction of the basic story could ever have been.
(at last!) - Days Six and Seven
Toronto Film Festival 2007
Yes, the festival is over and obviously I fell way behind. As I learned, festivaling saps up your energy, and so I'm now wrapping things up after the fact. So...
TUESDAY, SEPTEMBER 11
Despite a drastic change in content and approach, love-it or hate-it reactions remain the constant in polarizing Mexican auteur Carlos Reygadas’s Silent Light (Stellet licht), an austere portrait of an illicit love affair ripping apart the seams of a Dutch Mennonite family in rural Mexico. Dreyer has endlessly and rightly been invoked in nearly everything I’ve read regarding the film, and the film has been more or less painted as a crisis of faith (the IMDb plot synopsis: “a father’s faith in God is put to the test when he falls for another woman”), but I found it one of the most unapologetically secular films of faith I’ve ever come across—this is certainly a film from the perspective of one standing outside the faith looking in. Bergman in Winter Light mode this certainly is not, as God is invoked only once in the character’s everyday conversation, and in that instance the main character cuts his father off, chiding “speak to me as a man, not a preacher.” I suppose this is my own Mennonite background speaking, and even with any reservations on the details of how Mennonitism is portrayed in the film (I was surprised to find that the sense of community, in many ways the essence of the Mennonite tradition, is almost completely absent from the film until the very end) I don’t wish to convey the impression that the film is anything other than magnificent—a really striking achievement of style and an uncompromising aesthetic vision. It’s the type of film that seems to stretch out and elongate time—there are stretches that seemed to go on infinitely and I longed for the film to just finish—but walking out of the theater, blinking uncontrollably from the sudden blast of sunlight, I was shocked to realize that my breathing had become labored and the film had seemed to settle heavily in the pit of my stomach. I hadn’t expected it, but I was deeply moved.
Considering the frantic, queered-up nature of the film, I probably couldn’t have selected a film more different film to follow up Reygada’s spare tone poem that Kenneth Branagh’s update of Sleuth. But adjustment issues aside, Sleuth proved to be quite an enjoyable visceral ride, marked by some scintillating dialogue (Harold Pinter is responsible for the reworking of Schafter’s original text) and that undeniable pleasure of watching two actors hamming it up and visibly delighting in the opportunity to do so. Michael Caine, who played the role of the young man in the original 1972 version of the film, now plays the character originated by Laurence Olivier; Jude Law, now in his second role originated by Caine after 2004’s Alfie, is now the young man battling the older man in this psychological battle of wits. It’s nice to see that Branagh can indeed function outside of Shakespeare’s shadow, and the film is very confidently directed and sharply photographed. The most interesting element of the film remains the intentional homoeroticism (I don’t know how it could not have been) constantly simmering between the two men, though the film actually begins to sag when the topic is broached directly. A trifle but an appealing one, consumed easily though just as easily forgotten.
The evening ended with the French Canadian offering Contre toute espérance (Summit Circle), apparently the second installment of director Bernard Émond’s loose trilogy using Christian virtues as their overarching themes. This one is supposed to be about “hope,” though after watching the film, that seems a head-scratcher—the film seemed utterly devoid of hope. Overall this is a relentlessly dour little film that endlessly and thickly pours on the tragedy as we witness a kind, devoted and hardworking wife broken down by the cumulative effect of losing her job and watching her beloved husband’s decline as he is stricken by a series of debilitating strokes. Guylaine Tremblay’s central performance is admirable but aside from the extremely deliberate and controlled directoral style, there was very little about it that separated it from an above average TV movie (though Darren Hughes of Long Pauses does outline some of the film’s strong points, many of which I hadn’t considered).
WEDNESDAY, SEPTEMBER 12
Tickets for El Pasado (The Past) were bought on the strength of Gael García Bernal’s acting talents and reputation for picking interesting projects to attach himself too. The film is a twisty tale about a wife who haunt her husband’s life after they decide to end their marriage, what initially seems to be an amicable separation begins to seem otherwise when she begins showing up in unexpected places and times in a seeming attempt to prevent him from moving on with the rest of his life. I was later found out that the film is the latest from legendary South American director Hector Babenco, the man behind such classics as Pixote and Kiss of the Spider Woman, which surprised me, considering how dull and plodding the film ends up being, particularly in the final third of the film where the complicated, nuanced criss-crossing of relationships and motives collapse in a tedious, exhausted heap. Bernal, who usually is able to shine in whatever the nature of the role, is strangely muted, or perhaps vaguely distant, which is a good way to characterize the entire film—after a while the film’s cyclical narrative seems so distanced from anything resembling real life that it becomes impossible to really care what ultimately happens to the characters. Disappointing.
It’s difficult to put a finger on Manoel de Oliveira’s latest, Christopher Columbus: The Enigma, a film which isn’t enigmatic as much as elusive… what exactly was Oliveira attempting here? The short running time (a mere 70 minutes) means that the expository first half hour, about two young brothers immigrating from Portugal, is left extremely sketchy and vague, with not nearly enough time allowed to really invest in the characters or their situation. Soon we’re skipping decades, watching as one of the brothers becomes a doctor of medicine moonlighting as a scholar of Portuguese history, and subsequently he and his wife travel to Portugal to try and help confirm Christopher Columbus was born in Portugal and not Italy. Together they visit locations relevant to the theory, talking and gazing at monuments and relics from the past, and at this point the film becomes erudite, talky and rather abstract. And oddly, it was at this point I found I was beginning to enjoy the film more, especially as I began to recognize that in a seemingly innocuous manner Oliveira was exploring (or at least touching upon) many of the lingering issues that continue to plague the Portuguese national psyche. This film isn’t an exploration of the heritage of the famous explorer of the title; rather, it’s about a people group struggling to come to grips with their collective fall from grace, having plummeted from the privileged status of once being one of the two superpowers of the world to being what is reported as the poorest country in Western Europe. If the acting often comes off as stilted and flat the photography is luscious and framing impeccable, and there’s a loose, offhand vibe that I was starting to catch just as the film abruptly concludes. A very mixed bag, though not without some unexpected points of interest.
- Days Four and Five
Toronto Film Festival 2007
Time, time, where does it go?
SUNDAY, SEPTEMBER 09
I knew I had to see Starting Out in the Evening from the moment it first came to my attention—I’m a sucker for the “aging, obscure artist takes talented youngster under wing” subgenre (and yes, that does mean I quite like Van Sant’s Finding Forrester). The film stars Frank Langella (the 1979 version of Dracula) as Leonard Schiller, a once-acclaimed novelist who has since fallen into obscurity and Lauren Ambrose (Six Feet Under) as Heather, a zealous graduate student who has decided to use her Masters Thesis to singlehandedly revive his reputation in the literary world, as well as Lili Taylor as Schiller’s indecisive daughter and Adrian Lester as her longtime beau. Though a tad conventional in direction, look and narrative style, the film is overall quite good and very nicely acted—unsurprising considering the cast—and the film is a generally thoughtful parallel exploration of coming to grips with the residue of disappointments accumulated over a lifetime as well as a poignant portrait of witnessing the toppling of a literary idol (which can be devastating for us Lit majors).
When introducing the film director and co-writer Andrew Wagner broke down on stage for what seemed like an endless minute or so, prompting the elderly man next to me to comment “someone must have died.” Not so, we would come to find out, Wagner was merely announcing that Langella was in the audience and would be joining him after the film for the Q&A (which was greeted with thunderous applause from the predominantly grey-haired audience). Upon reflection, Wagner’s tears hits to the heart of my nagging issue with the film—Starting Out in the Evening is so preoccupied with lovingly depicting the twilight years and so overwhelmingly enamored with Langella’s presence that it ultimately throws the film off-balance, shedding an unnecessarily harsh and unflattering light on youth, particularly its vivacity and ambitiousness. Maybe I am overly sensitive because in this stage of my life I strongly identify with Ambrose’s Heather, but it was something that marred what overall proved to be a very good viewing experience.
Later that evening I found myself near the end of a line of hundreds of people that wrapped around the block Ryerson Theatre is situated on—my first indication that this was probably not the relatively low-profile French film I had thought I had bought tickets for. My suspicion kept growing as I saw all the photographers with waiting cameras as I walked into the entrance of the theater and took my a seat near the front of the theater. When the lights went down and it was finally revealed to me what I was sitting down to watching, Sigourney Weaver’s new film, The Girl in the Park, I was horrified. Or perhaps that’s an overstatement—but my heart certainly sank as writer/director David Auburn took the stage and introduced Weaver and costar Kate Bosworth who were quickly paraded onstage for a hand wave before exiting the stage and the lights went down.
In his introductory remarks Auburn remarked that he wanted to make a film dealing with trauma, but not the traumatic event itself, but what happens many years down the road. And that’s literally what he did in his film. The story of a mother and aspiring jazz singer (Weaver) who is never able to recover from having her young daughter being kidnapped in a nearby park while her back is momentarily turned, the story picks up sixteen years later (as the subtitle clearly lets us know), revealing Weaver to be a shell of the vibrant woman she once was, literally having abandoned her husband and son many years before. But things begin to change when she begins to help a young hooker (Bosworth)…and then irrationally begins to believe that it is her long-lost daughter.
It’s really stunning that it is none other than David Auburn, who won the Pulitzer Prize for his universally hailed Proof, at the helm of this mess. Actually, the film isn’t bad so much as painfully average. Granted, this is Auburn’s directoral debut, but the biggest disappointment is in the screenplay itself which parades out every tired cliché and plot twist one would expect from a film dealing with a parent’s post-kidnapping experiences. Here now is the scene where Weaver goes to a playground and begins chatting with children until the police are called in by eagle-eyed mothers, here is the scene where Weaver strokes her daughter’s photograph as the music swoons in an outpouring of emotion. And everything is tinted in blues and grays so it must mean that Weaver’s life is a depressing mess; now that the image has changed to gold tones things much be looking up for her. Bosworth, an actress I generally dislike, actually gives some life to her flighty character; Weaver employs essentially the same weary expression throughout the entire film. Largely wasted are talented supporting actors Allessandro Nivola (so good in Junebug), Keri Russell and character actor David Rasche.
I really don’t know what I was thinking—in my rush at the ticket counter I must have gotten this title mixed up with Dans la vie and Dans la vie de Sylvie (either which I would have liked to see), or maybe it was lingering memories of the lovely film The Girl in the Park from a few years ago. Regardless, Girl in the Park is getting awful buzz her at the festival, though on star power alone it will probably make its way to American theaters at some point.
Monday actually kicked off with an afternoon showing—my latest start yet, and with a film that I had seen before, no less. The film is Czech New Wave classic Closely Watched Trains, the winner of the Best Foreign Film Oscar in 1966, which was being presented by director Ken Loach (The Wind that Shakes the Barley) as part of TIFF’s “Dialogues” series. I had sent he film years ago but jumped at the opportunity to see it on a large screen (and besides, I had the time slot open).
I won’t go into much detail, but needless to say I had nearly forgotten how wonderful this film really is, marked by a sly, racy comedic sensibility (“it seems very Czech to me,” Loach commented) and subtle but exceedingly graceful direction. More or less the story of a young dispatcher’s apprentice at a local train station, the film slowly transforms into a coming-of-age story as we watch the film's protagonist as he clumsily attempts to navigate the world of women and sexual pleasure that he has just recently started to become aware of. But for all the acutely observed moments and sequences of daily life at the slow rural station there’s also a thread of social and political awareness that runs through the entire film before it overtakes the entire film during the unforgettable climax. Unfortunately I was only stayed for a few minutes to listen Loach’s articulate thoughts on the film—at the last minute scored tickets to one of my most anticipated films of the festival, and had to rush to get to the theater on time.
One of my favorite types of film are lush and ornate costume dramas that have a naughty side to them. Needless to say, director Catherine Breillat’s reputation preceded her and along with the very positive reviews that came out of Cannes I couldn’t wait to see Une vielle maîtresse (The Old Mistress), which I initially hadn’t been able to get tickets for. Breillat, who suffered a massive stroke last year and is still extremely frail, introduced the films, and even if she was sometimes hard to understand (her physical ailments slurred a heavy French accent) I did catch a few quips on how she wanted an actor as beautiful as Alain Delon in her film, and extremely poignantly, her description on how escaping into the world of making movies is an escape from her physical reality.
The film, much to my relief, was everything that I had hoped for. Visually sumptuous (Breillet had mentioned that she had been particularly inspired by the paintings of Manet and Delacroix), the film never lets the sheer beauty of the period Parisian locations or opulent costumes weigh down the story or shield the sexual heat. Starring fiery courtesan Asia Argento and newcomer Fu’ad Ait Aattou as the rakish eligible bachelor she has kept under her sexual spell for a decade, the film first deals with their tumultuous relationship and how it later threatens to prevent Ryno’s marriage to the sweet, innocent and extremely wealthy young woman he has since fallen in love with. The impossibly gorgeous pairing of Argento and Aattou—hers an earthy, erotic beauty, his this marble-smooth perfection of a Michelangelo statue—fuels the film and provides it its heat, and as a result the film manages to dance the precarious line between feeling faithful to a past point in history yet showing an awareness of current sexual sensibilities. Not a film for all tastes—there were more than a handful of walkouts—but this could very well be my favorite film of the festival so far.
- Day Three Recap
Toronto Film Festival 2007
SATURDAY, SEPTEMBER 10
Saturday brought two screenings as well, both in the University of Toronto’s Isabelle Bader Theater. The first was Beyond the Years (Chun nyun hack), the 100th film from prolific (but previously unknown to me) South Korean director Im Kwon-taek. I had been seduced by the blue-tinted still included on the TIFF website (seen above) of two walking human figures dwarfed by massive, majestic rock formations in the distance that brought to mind Antonioni in L’Avventura mode, but the film was anything but, instead proving to be a rather conventional foray into nostalgic longing and regret. The story of a promising drummer who as a young man abandoned his sister, a singer, and their father, a master-musician and their vagabond lifestyle for a life of his own, the film keeps slipping back into sepia-toned flashbacks that catalogue the family’s downward spiral. All of the expected tragedies more or less show up, making the film tedious long before it should.
There’s also a significant cultural barrier in the film’s use of traditional Korean (I’m assuming it’s Korean) music throughout the film. I like to think that I can appreciate Asian music as much as a person with an untrained ear possibly can, but the constant showcasing of traditional performances not only stops the film dead in its tracks but becomes exceedingly tiresome (especially since the audience is asked to marvel over the singer’s skills, but I’m not able to detect much difference between the supposedly good singers and the bad ones). Another review I came across said that Beyond the Years lacks passion, and I think that’s probably where most of the film’s failure lies. A disappointment.
I met up with Ali a close internet friend who is covering the festival for The Film Experience Blog for a special presentation titled Mira Nair Presents: Four Views on AIDS. I really had no idea what I was walking into—I had selected it because I’m a fan of Nair’s work and my other option for that time slot was unavailable—but was expecting documentaries, most likely rather dour and didactic (but extremely honorable, of course). Much to my surprise, the films themselves proved to be nothing like I anticipated—inspired by her work on the 2002 omnibus film 11’09”01, Nair set out to harness Indian cinema’s remarkable and bountiful talent to help inform the public on the still rather taboo topic of HIV/AIDS. Though the stigma of being connected to a film dealing with this “concentrated epidemic” a number of initially enthusiastic stars and even major companies (Nair named Rolls Royce specifically) dropped out of the project, which at times seemed to threaten the project’s chance of ever coming to fruition.
Luckily, Nair and acclaimed Indian directors Santosh Sivan, Vishal Bharadwaj and Farhan Akhtar were all able to get their films made, films with the specific intention of being accessible and entertaining but beautifully made. Nair’s contribution, Migration, opens the presentation, and despite being filled with a number of striking images and starring Irfan Khan who did wonderful work for Nair in last year’s The Namesake, it ultimately succumbs to its turgid soap opera-ish “who’s sleeping with who” subject matter, not helped by a rather shill performance from Khan. But to its credit, Migration is the only film of the four to broach the issue of homosexuality in the spread of HIV, though it mostly done through implication.
The second contribution, Vishal Bharadwaj’s Blood Brothers, was probably my least favorite of the four. The story of a man who is mistakenly diagnosed with HIV and subsequently abandons his pregnant wife and son (the irony is that he works for a marketing department promoting condom use), it’s a tale of redemption and second chances, with a heavy-handed but well-meaning speech at its conclusion. The basic skeleton of an intriguing and potentially powerful story is clearly evident, but with just 20 minutes the film in the end falls rather flat.
Positive, the third contribution by Farhan Akhtar, was just the opposite—the film plods in the first minutes but slowly builds to a powerful, devastating crescendo by the time it concludes. Revolving around a university student who is being forced to chose between finishing his education and taking care of the AIDs-stricken father he feels has betrayed the family, it’s a moving vignette of forgiveness and the power of art—in this case photography—serving as a means of connection and emotional healing.
Santosh Sivan’s Prarambha, which concludes the omnibus, is clearly the most relentlessly crowd-pleasing, and also my favorite. It’s employs familiar road trip/initially indifferent adult who after a series of circumstances takes an abandoned child under their wing narratives and uses it as a showcase for a tremendously moving performance by a young boy with the biggest, most seductive sad brown eyes one can possibly imagine. It’s impossible not to root for the HIV-stricken boy as his bad fortunes are slowly reversed, and as the film's ending credits was received thunderous applause.
A panel including Nair, Bharadwaj, Akhtar and Ashok Alexander from the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation (the organization that put up most of the money for the project) followed the films. Together they fielded questions from the audience and helped fill in some motivation behind the project, revealing among other things that the target audience for the film are Indian sex workers, as well as their hope to have several more films produced to be included for theatrical release in both India (because “80 minutes is considered a short film in India,” Nair deadpanned to audience laughter) and America. Nair & Co. took a big chance with this project—it could easily have come off as more well-meaning than artistically relevant—but more than not, they managed to walk the fine line of didacticism and art. I was impressed.
The evening ended by meeting up with my friend filmmaker Kevin Lee of Shooting Down Pictures and several fellow critics covering the festival for drinks, a fitting end for the day.
- Day One and Two Recap... at last!
Toronto Film Festival 2007
So my initial goal in writing from Toronto was to submit some thoughts every 24 hours or so… considering that I’m now finishing my third day and this is my first entry should say something about how the last 72 hours or so have unfolded. That and it’s been impossible to get the internet—there are certainly internet cafes to be found, but I’ve yet to find one that doesn’t frown upon using your own laptop. *sigh* So Starbucks and their insanely priced wireless it is… until I find a better option, at least.
THURSDAY, SEPTEMBER 08
My adventures on Canadian soil (this is my first time visiting our northern neighbor) began at about 9:00 am Toronto local time… the opening day of the festival! (Indeed, a major planning mistake on my end.) But my friend who is graciously hosting my boyfriend and I during this trip met us at the airport and escorted us to his house in the suburbs east of downtown Toronto where we promptly dropped our bags, turning right back around to head downtown to the festival box office.
And what fun times ensued! I’ve been calling my experience in getting tickets for this festival a comedy of errors—and I’m honestly not exaggerating much. After a quick dash down to an internet café to retrieve the confirmation number for my festival pass (they wouldn’t give it to me without it), I waited about 45 minutes in line to be handed a credit-card sized pass in an envelope. And as I feared, this was only the beginning… I was sweetly told that because I hadn’t selected tickets yet (there was some confusion regarding passes and I missed the option for the advance draw for tickets) so I had to go wait in the other line to select my tickets. So to the end of the line we went as I scrambled to assemble some kind of viewing schedule from the giant boards indicating ticket availability. Thankfully—my first real lucky break of this whole ordeal—most of the films I had wanted to see anyway are not necessarily the most sought-after tickets in town, and with the notable exceptions of Naomi Kawase’s Cannes-awarded The Mourning Forest and Gus Van Sant’s Paranoid Park, an hour or so later I had tickets in hand for most of the film I had wanted to see in the first place.
But by that time everything had been sold out for Thursday evening so my friend did an abbreviated walking tour of the city, pointing out the location of most of the theaters in the festival which proved to be a major help in the days that followed. The evening ended over plates of pasta at my friends house… concluding day one in Toronto.
FRIDAY, SEPTEMBER 07
After another stop at the festival box office for tickets to fill in some of the gaps in my schedule, my boyfriend and I headed to the nearby Ryerson Theater for our first screening of the festival, Hou Hsiao-Hsein’s La Voyage du ballon rouge (Flight of the Red Baloon). I’m hesitant to write much about Hou’s delicately-calibrated mood piece at this time, considering that his films tend to really reveal their impact at a much-delayed date (back in 2004 when I attended the London Film Festival I had initially considered his Ozu homage Café Lumiere the least of the films I caught there; looking back now it’s the film I retain the most fond memories of). Interestingly, La voyage du ballon rouge is also an homage film, this time to the 1956 classic French children’s short Le ballon rouge, which is invoked several times by one of the main characters, a young Beijing University student filmmaker who has taken up a nanny position while studying in Paris. Soft spoken and reticent, Song (newcomer Fang Song) stands distinctly apart from the tempest of activity and emotions that swirl around her in the form of frazzled puppeteer Suzanne (Juliette Binoche), the mother of the thoughtful young boy Song has been hired to look after. This trio of characters serves as the foundation for a number of issues and dichotomies that are subsequently explored throughout the film, chief among them childhood idealism vs adult realism, fantasy vs reality, cinema and performance vs life, East vs West, etc. This might make the film sound a bit didactic, but the film is anything but—it is a seemingly modest study of characters and mood that achieves an unexpected buoyancy through a number of beautiful, subtle little grace notes that surface constantly throughout the film in the form of bits of conversation, facial expressions and unexpected motions of the body. This is not to say that Ballon rouge is a departure from the aesthetic rigorousness that marks Hou’s previous films—indeed, the entire film is composed of elaborate ten-minute takes, which is the all the more impressive considering the bombshell the ever-elegant Binoche revealed in the audience Q&A that concluded the screening, informing a gasping audience that it was all the dialogue and action was improvised, and what’s more, that the first takes were the only takes. After that revelation, the film more than ever seems like a happy cinematic miracle to treasure all the more. An excellent way to kick off the fest.
My second screening of the day also happened to be the film I had been anticipating the most coming into the festival—Les Chansons d’amour, the latest collaboration between director Christophe Honoré and actor Louis Garrel. The team that brought us the almost universally reviled Ma Mere in 2004 (my review for DVD Verdict is probably one of the only positive ones you’re likely to find), Les Chansons a’amour has been likened in nearly every review I’ve come across to Jacques Demy in his mid 1960's musical mode. Admittedly, in some ways the comparison is apt—this film is also young, exceedingly beautiful French stars constantly breaking out in song about love and loss—but Honoré’s film inevitably has a darker edge than Demy’s sparkling confections, and unsurprisingly concerns much of its time with exploring different forms of sexuality. The film revolves around a threesome (composed of Garrel, Ludivine Sagnier and Clotilde Hesme, Garrel’s costar from last year’s Regular Lovers, which I’ve also recently reviewed) and an unexpected tragedy that shatters their uneasy ménage-a-trois. After the enchanting, Nouvelle Vague-inspired opening credits the film lurches about, swinging from one situational extreme to the other with a jarring frequency, and the film takes an entirely unexpected direction (well, maybe it shouldn’t have been all that unexpected, all things considered) when shy Grégoire Leprince-Ringuet shows up and begins eying Garrel. I can’t and I won't claim the film is compeletely succesfull, but just like Ma Mere I found it fascinating—and it reinforces my opinion that Honoré is one of the most interesting young directors currently working in France. Can’t wait to catch up with the Honoré/Garrel collaboration Dans Paris which is currently in release in American theaters.
I was hoping for more… but Starbucks is kicking me out! À demain…
I found myself resisting Once (2007) for the first half hour or so—it might have been the comparisons to the Before Sunrise/Sunset films, or the fact that there was something that seemed vaguely coy and manipulative about the initial introduction and interaction of the two primary characters. But by the time the impromptu guitar/piano duet unfolds between Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová in the back of a local music store I had given myself over completely to the film's undeniable charms, because at that point the film has found its footing (quickly banished, thankfully, is the vacuum cleaner seeming to foretell an overkill of indie-fare quirkiness), and establishes an unassuming low-key rhythm that carries the film to its wistful conclusion.
The film holds up because of the chemistry of the two leads and the undeniable rapport they share when music wipes away their differences and pasts and fuses them temporarily together; Markéta, however, is particularly entrancing— her delicately wrought performance and ethereal singing voice mask what a catastrophe the character could have been if played wrong (how easy it would have been to veer into the territory of foreign-accented gamine or paper-pursuing femme-fatale!). To my mind, the best moment of the film is all hers—in search of batteries for a dead walkman in the late hours of the night, wrapped awkwardly in a tatty old robe, she mentally applies verses to a beat Hansard has written as she walks home. The camera, capturing every second without daring to cut away, watches and listens as the tentative hummed words slowly give way to an implausible crescendo of a fully produced song—it's a bit of magic only possible in the movies, of course, but it brought instantly to mind my own long walks around Europe, headphones in my ears, the notes seeming to provide the backdrop of what felt like my own little movie that only I knew I was starring in. And perhaps that's the main appeal of the film for me—it feels like a brief glimpse into somebody else's treasured, half-remembered memories, and I'm just grateful to be given a chance to take a quick peek.
Little Miss Sunshine (2006)
The closest we've gotten this summer to an indie crossover is a film full of flaws, chief among them being its annoying habit to just not go over-the-top with a situation, but run with it until it reaches levels of jaw-dropping inanity (at one point my friend looked over at me and commented sarcastically “are we watching a Disney channel movie?”). And a lot of the metaphors are indeed heavy-handed—the VW bus in the same decrepit shape as the family, held together only by combined willpower, for instance (though I’m not entirely convinced that their obviousness makes them any less affecting). The thing is, it felt like the film presented all of these shortcomings within its first ten minutes, and to have expected anything less than for them to pop up periodically throughout the film would have been more than just a little bit foolish.
That all said, more in this film to cherish than to loathe, which is a great credit to the pitch-perfect ensemble work of the cast for rising above the limitations of their script. Once again, I find myself in the position of Stephanie Zacharek making the exact point I wanted to make, and doing it much, much better than I’m likely able to. But I can’t agree more with her closing line that “greatness, sometimes, is the stuff that happens in the corners,” because that’s what I think is at the heart of Little Miss Sunshine’s ultimate success. Throughout the film I kept finding brief but constant moments to savor—a gesture, a facial expression, an quip coming from an angle I hadn’t anticipated. Mild Spoilers They appear from all over the place, from Paul Dano’s smile as he eavesdrops on his parents argument (I thought “oh, here’s the moment where his reservations against his family starts to melt”—his smile took me completely by surprise), to the written comment early in the film “please don’t kill yourself tonight,” to the glare Toni Collette gives Greg Kinnear through the windshield that says everything (and then some), to Steve Carrell’s unlikely sprint in the hotel that Zacharek sites in her review. If there’s a standout among the actors, it’s Steve Carrell (who I realize now I’ve grossly underrated)—that quick duck he attempts to make in the convenient store as his rival and former flame snicker at him from their convertible conveys the complete devastation of a person’s identity with more eloquence and resonance than I expected from a film of this nature. End of Spoilers
Thinking about it now, Little Miss Sunshine strikes me as being very similar to what happens with a lot of Robert Altman’s films: when the story takes a dive (and it does happen often, unfortunately) the actors always seem in place, ready to save the film from itself. Not that I think this film compares with most of Altman’s output, but the circumstances involved are similar enough to make the comparison.
Basically, I’m reasonably certain at this point that it’s going to be the films flaws that melt from my mind as time goes on, and it’s only going to be those flashes of unexpected humor and humanity that will remain firmly lodged in my memory. Yes, I liked it a lot.
Pedro Almadóvar’s Mala Educación was an exploration of varying shades of masculinity, a shadowy world of harsh blues with emotional edges that cut and slice. In Volver (2006), Almadóvar’s follow-up film, he turns his gaze to all things feminine: and the result is an explosion of warm colors and vibrant floral prints. Make no mistake, we’re in a very different world here—melodrama (perceived as a feminine realm) as opposed to noir (perceived as a masculine realm), and both films, both nearly masterpieces, somehow (in my mind at least), compliment each other. As if making the connection explicit, all male sexual transgressions are violently purged within the first minutes of Volver, leaving the rest of the cast—all female—to create a kind of hidden, personal utopia around themselves. While not a perfected world (for there are still abundant problems to be dealt with), this is certainly a community fostering and valuing solidarity above all things, for even when that solidarity is threatened—even on national television—it is never broken. Channeling Magnani, Loren and all those other great Italian martyrs of the domestic realm (as well as Mildred Pierce in a nod to Hollywood), Penélope Cruz stands as the protector of this little world which she created with the same combination of gentle care and utter ferociousness that goes into her dazzling gourmet meals. I take back all pronouncements I’ve ever made about Cruz being the worst actress working in cinema today, and will go as far as to say that the Best Actress award bestowed at Cannes on the entire female cast is a direct slap to her—this is an award that should have been all hers, and hers alone. While there may some vague feeling that the film doesn’t quite go far enough, or is just a little too rosy, it’s without a doubt a triumph for all involved.
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