Blissfully Yours

The 2002 Toronto International Film Festival (5th to 14th September) screened over 260 feature films in a variety of programs including: Galas (high-profile Canadian films like Atom Egoyan’s Ararat and David Cronenberg’s Spider jostling with Hollywood offerings like White Oleander and The Four Feathers); Special Presentations (interesting films from well-known auteurs, e.g., Almodóvar’s Talk To Her, Paul Schrader’s Auto Focus, P.T. Anderson’s Punch-Drunk Love, Tom Tykwer’s Heaven); Visions (a new and marvelous program introduced this year, which featured an embarrassment of riches including Claire Denis’s Vendredi Soir, Lynne Ramsay’s Morvern Callar, Gus Van Sant’s Gerry, Larry Clark and Ed Lachman’s Ken Park, etc); and Masters (including Kiarostami, Kaurismäki, Breillat, Bellochio, and three Indian directors, Adoor Gopalakrishnan, Buddhadeb Dasgupta and Mani Rathnam). The special national cinema spotlight fell on South Korea and the Canadian retrospective honored cinema-vérité pioneer Allan King.

What follow are capsule notes on a handful of films.

* * *

Unknown Pleasures (Jia Zhang-Ke)

“Shit, are the Americans attacking?” exclaims a character in the film, hearing a nearby loud explosion moments after she has been watching a TV news report about China demanding an apology from the US for violating its airspace. It turns out, in this instance, to be not so. Dealing primarily with two disaffected youths, Unknown Pleasures paints a vivid context and a complete cultural and sociopolitical tapestry to locate them in it. Both the private sector and the state make equally vigorous use of free enterprise sloganeering. The Mongolian King liquor company operates a theater troupe with dancing girls, employing a brilliant tag line to legitimize the unholy communion of art and commerce (“Art sets the stage and the economy performs on it”). The voice of the state, not to be outdone, blares from radios, aggressively promoting the state lottery (“Make your leisure time pay!”). The young men and women in this film are sons and daughters of the single-child family policies instituted in China in 1980. Pinning their hopes to the promised dreams of popular culture, their failures are all but inevitable. Romance withers, job prospects evaporate, families crumble, and with nothing better to fall back on, the two friends stage an absurdly inept robbery, cribbed from a hugely successful film (unnamed but clearly Pulp Fiction). If all this sounds pretty dreary, Unknown Pleasures is anything but. Packed with affectionate, astute use of popular music, fashion and even cartoons, it is also peppered with wry, unexpected humor (like a customer chancing upon a seller of pirated VCD’s and haranguing him for not carrying art-fare like Platform or Xiao Wu, Jia’s two previous films). The long takes (reminiscent of Hou) help the audience find a place to inhabit inside the film. And once you’re inside, Jia’s China closes in all around you, palpably real and rich, sadly without hope.

The Man Without A Past (Aki Kaurismäki)

The Finnish director brings his signature deadpan drollery to this sweet and touching tale of an amnesiac. While the mixture of comedy and pathos is perhaps not as miraculously felicitous here as it was in his sublime Drifting Clouds (1996), this is nevertheless a richly enjoyable and deceptively light work. Kaurismäki’s influences have included an unlikely and eclectic gallery of auteurs, and the actors in this film (with Cannes award-winner Kati Outinen a prime example) speak their lines with a Bressonian neutrality of expression. After his previous film, Juha (1999), a black-and-white silent with intertitles, Kaurismäki returns here to the elegant color palette of Drifting Clouds. His legendary love of music is given superb rein—a juke-box is the centerpiece of a home, and a Salvation Army band plays melancholic rockabilly after the sun goes down. The film feels thoroughly and comfortingly accessible and yet when the lights went up, I wanted to stay and watch it all over again. In its gradual revelation of the amnesiac’s less-than-innocent past, it calls to mind Hal Hartley’s Amateur (1994), and both films share an aphoristic playfulness. One feels like dragging one’s non-art-cinema-loving friends to this film, knowing that it just can’t miss.

Russian Ark (Alexandr Sokurov)

The film traverses three centuries in less than a hundred minutes and in a single Steadicam shot with no cuts. Unthinkable without digital video, it was unfairly ignored at Cannes (not even a technical prize), but proved to be a great audience draw in Toronto. Sokurov’s self-described “film in a single breath” is both a stroll through the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg and a magnificent tour through Russian history, culture and art. An offscreen narrator (Sokurov) follows a diplomat (who clearly embodies Western Europe) as they travel through the museum and through time, arriving finally at the last great royal ball, held in 1913. The swooningly elegant atmosphere of the ball, with an orchestra conducted by Valery Gergiev, is a fittingly heady climax to this tour de force of a film. Unsurprisingly, when the ball concludes and it is time to leave, the diplomat elects to stay behind (seduced by the romance of a time gone by, and thus stuck for eternity in the time of his choice). The narrator recedes alone, threading his way through the tired but elated throngs to arrive at a still and empty resting place in a passage that proves the perfect decrescendo for this symphonic opus.

A Tale Of A Naughty Girl (Buddhadeb Dasgupta)

A Tale Of A Naughty Girl

In a rural brothel, a prostitute attempts to sell her pre-teen daughter Lati as mistress to the businessman Babu who owns the local cinema. Filmed in the austere and idyllic Purulia region of Bengal like Dasgupta’s previous film Uttara (The Wrestlers, 2000), it is similar in its stunning deployment of widescreen compositions. In a perverse twist on the priest-as-movie-censor scenes of Cinema Paradiso (Tornatore, 1988), Babu has his projectionist construct infinite loops of rape scenes from mindless Bollywood films, which then constitute his evening entertainment. A number of stories intersect, and Dasgupta assigns a different tone and register to each, deftly balancing tragedy, slapstick farce and social commentary. Furthermore, he sets the action around the time of Neil Armstrong’s moon landing, and counterpoints the young Lati’s hunger for the outside world and the celestial with the inexorability of her impending fate. Dasgupta, like Cocteau, came to the cinema as an established poet, and his films are suffused with visual care. When asked if this film would open only in an “art-film theatre” at home, he pointed out that no such thing existed in India, and that, moreover, this was no art-film, just a film (“Where is the art in it?” he demanded). One could have debated with him on that point.

Morvern Callar (Lynne Ramsay)

As the successor to her now-classic debut Ratcatcher (1999), Ramsay served up this deeply subjective, magically impressionistic, poetry-charged film. Finding her writer boyfriend’s body on the floor on Christmas eve soon after his suicide, supermarket employee Morvern (an extraordinary Samantha Morton) decides to pass off his debut novel as her own. (With deliberate care, she backspaces his name, James Gillespie, into oblivion, replacing it with hers. We recall with a chill that the unforgettable boy-protagonist of Ratcatcher had the same name). A most unpredictable trip to Spain with her best friend ensues. Rarely have I witnessed a film so imbued with a dangerous instability and ever-imminent surprise that feel simultaneously terror-inducing and beautiful. In its abrupt and constantly startling montage, meticulous image-making, ghostly intimations of off-screen space and phenomenal use of music (much of it impeccably chosen techno), Morvern Callar ambitiously weds avant-garde vision to narrative form, its abundant expressiveness relying scantly on dialogue. In other words, it feels nothing less than a complete rejuvenation of the possibilities of “pure” cinema—a true masterwork. (The must-own soundtrack, which features Can, the Velvet Underground, and Lee Hazelwood, among others, will be released on Warp Records).

La Vie Nouvelle (Philippe Grandrieux)

Never before have I lasted through a film, loathing every minute of it, completely unmoored in its universe, only to be miraculously turned around by a few words (spoken in this case by the director) after the film has concluded. La Vie Nouvelle begins with a subjective camera shot, trembling in palpitation, which rushes toward a group of old men and women gazing into the sky at night. Soon after, in what might be a post-apocalyptic morning somewhere in Eastern Europe, a young woman is singled out from a group, stripped and sold into prostitution. At the club where she works, an American then becomes obsessed with her. Upon this skeleton of a narrative hangs the film, which is concerned chiefly with dredging up half-hidden fantasies of the director’s camera-eye through a druggy, hypnagogic stupor. (“I film not just with my eye, but with my whole body, and sometimes with my eyes closed,” said Grandrieux). La Vie Nouvelle includes several excruciating scenes of sexual violence and drunken menace (Dennis Lim wrote in the Village Voice: “You don’t watch La Vie Nouvelle so much as squint and flinch your way through it”). Yet, I must reluctantly admit that its non-ironic and un-interrogated use of violence and dread never smacks of the simply gratuitous. The higher purpose is a liberation of the forbidden (dis)contents of the unconscious, unmediated and in its ugliness, somehow pure and honest, if not actually watchable! So, despite my unquestioning admission of its merits (such as they are), a film I would think twice about recommending you endure.

Les Diables (The Devils, Christophe Ruggia)

Two abandoned siblings, Chloé and Joseph, are on the run, heading to Marseilles to find their “home,” which doesn’t exist. The catatonic Chloé is fiercely protected by her younger brother, and the pair have seen more betrayal in the world in their dozen or so years than most adults ever will in a lifetime. Les Diables opens with a wondrous silhouette of brother and sister on the white sheet of a tent as they slink across a yard, searching for food like wild animals. (The director confessed that he was quoting the shot from the kindred Night Of The Hunter). The hurtling urgency of the film’s narrative matches the children’s feral hunger for family and home. It is not surprising that no miraculous happy endings await them. Les Diables instead concentrates on the journey, both harsh and startling, during which the children come of age. Rather than being a “troubled youth” film, Les Diables is more interested in strongly individualizing its characters—social comment, though powerful, is incidental, and the children’s personal story, which often suggests the presence of autobiographical elements, is supreme.

Shadow Kill (Adoor Gopalakrishnan)

Shadow Kill

Set in pre-Independence 1940s India, Shadow Kill features as its protagonist the state executioner, rendered as a gentle and kind soul, prayerful and honorable, serving his maharajah with unquestioning humility. Growing older and infirm and increasingly downhearted, he turns to drink, awaits his death and prepares his freedom-fighter son to take over the family profession. The son, whose ideologies could not be more opposed to his father’s line of work, nevertheless acquiesces without a murmur. This Malayalam-language film is directed by Adoor Gopalakrishnan, one of India’s foremost living filmmakers, who hails from Kerala (the Indian state which, after Bengal, has produced the greatest number of art-cinema auteurs). The rich ambiguities of Indian life and culture permeate this haunting film—the executioner is also the village healer, using rope from the hangings as his healing instrument; the goddess Kali to whom he prays embodies both good and evil, sin and sinner; and the maharajah always sends out a clemency timed carefully to arrive moments after the execution has taken place so that he will be absolved of the sin of sentencing a man to death. The film’s ironies are quiet but omnipresent, serving to present India in its maddening and awe-inspiring complexity.

Blissfully Yours (Apichatpong Weerasethakul)

Personally, this remarkable Thai film proved to be the greatest surprise of the Festival. We spend a few hours one warm afternoon with a young woman (Roong), her Burmese refugee boyfriend (Min) and a slightly older woman (Orn) who is being paid by Roong to take care of Min. The film’s stunning accomplishment is to transcend all genres not by standing outside them but by enfolding and subsuming them within itself. It situates a political context (the plight of Burmese in Thailand), examines love and sex with an observant attention and a vérité authenticity, and concludes with a sequence of unspeakably rapturous languor. Thrilling bursts of surprise festoon the film, as when the opening credits arrive a good 45 minutes into it, set to an irresistibly buoyant Thai pop rendering of “Summer Samba”. Later, we are startled to find Min’s sketches and drawings inscribed in the frame as an accompaniment to his voiceover narration. Ambiguities of love and transience hover in the air. The boundaries between fiction and documentary are not just erased, we forget that they even existed to begin with. In the end, Blissfully Yours feels complete, a universe unto itself, evoked in entirety.

Sex Is Comedy (Catherine Breillat)

Breillat’s previous film, À ma soeur (Fat Girl, 2001), created history in Ontario by being banned. Ironically, her new film recreates the controversial seduction scene from À ma soeur which led to its proscription. Anne Parillaud (Luc Besson’s Nikita) plays the agonized film director Jeanne, working like a chemist, laboring to catalyze an erotic reaction between her male and female leads. The young Claire Denis veteran Gregoire Colin is the surly male actor, and as his co-star, Roxane Mesquida reprises her role as the soeur of the previous film. Jeanne’s problem is that the two actors can’t stand each other, and this makes their love scenes together in the film-within-the-film more than a little unconvincing. Jeanne, who is making up the film as she goes along, writing scenes as the befuddled crew sits around and waits, is a fascinating and complex creation—an artist whose technique includes lying and cooing, flattery and manipulation. Breillat’s direction of Jeanne the director is wonderfully witty, sexy and satiric. Jeanne’s close confidant is her assistant director Leo, and on one occasion, she coaxes him into play-acting the seduction with her, getting discomfortingly intimate with him despite his protests that he is being aroused. (She chuckles, and continues). Only later does the camera pan around to reveal the entire crew watching the scene that we supposed was an intimate one. After the screening, Breillat cracked that this film à clef was a tame and muted auto-portrait. Referring to the banning of À ma soeur, she said with a brilliant stroke of unwitting malapropism, “I started shooting this film the day I heard of my banishment in Ontario”, and wondered if this film would suffer the same fate.

Vendredi Soir (Friday Night, Claire Denis)

“Cinema is montage,” Denis has said, and this film is a thrillingly potent incarnation of that assertion. Adapted from the best-selling novel by Emmanuelle Bernheim, Vendredi Soir opens with Paris at dusk, and spends a few hours with Laure (Valérie Lemercier) as she sets out to dinner, becomes trapped in an impossible traffic jam in the midst of a public transport strike, and offers a stranger (Vincent Lindon) a lift. Denis’s camera has over the years become an immaculately tuned instrument. Gliding over surfaces and lingering on textures, it is guided by an intuition that is nothing short of breathtaking. Especially since her previous two films, the epochal Beau Travail (1999) and the much-misunderstood Trouble Every Day (2001), Denis’s works have grown remarkably attuned to the mysteries of the physical, which her camera studies with a searching, exploratory curiosity. Yet there is something new in this film—an exciting playfulness and lyrical prodigiousness that puts me in mind of pianist and master balladeer Bill Evans at the peak of his powers. Chrome lettering on a car begins to dance, a lampshade sashays through the air, anchovies on a pizza perform a terpsichorean twirl—and yet the effect is never incongruous, only rapturous. Fashioning these frissons together into a symphony is the unerring montage, resulting in a hypnotic daisy chain of effortless surprise. In all, Claire Denis’s most tender, most romantic, most poetic film—and thus the best film I saw here in Toronto.