You Bet Your Life

September 8–17, 2005

Returning to the Toronto Film Festival after missing last year’s event, I noticed that the enterprise had moved a few more notches toward world domination. North American filmgoers can still use the festival to catch up with much of the last six months of international film activity, but a greater proportion of the Toronto program is devoted to world premieres, many of them from prestige filmmakers. “Second only to Cannes” was a phrase that popped up a few times in the press, and some pundits were bold enough to go further.

For the filmgoers in the trenches at Toronto, it remains easy to ignore the market activity and the Madonna sightings while trying to fit as many screenings as possible into ten days. The festival’s increased power to draw premieres means that more and more films arrive as unknown quantities – and, though there’s no evidence to proclaim a trend, I think I experienced a slightly lower ratio of hits to misses than in previous years. (If there’s any correlation between who writes a film’s program notes and who selects it, then I regret the departure from the programming staff of Kay Armitage after the 2004 festival.) Still, given the many pressures that are exerted upon them, Toronto’s programmers do a good job of rendering unto Caesar the necessary amount of high profile, distributable product, while maintaining the festival’s reputation as a haven for art cinema.

Among the prestige films that debuted at Toronto before their theatrical releases was Roman Polanski’s pleasing Oliver Twist (2005), a light-footed adaptation (by Ronald Harwood) that nudges the familiar material toward eccentricity rather than pathos and sadism, toward an evocation of English ambience rather than expressionism. The film becomes less interesting in its second half, as the dramatic gears engage and force Polanski to inhabit the melodrama instead of skipping alongside it. But the director is more adept than ever at ducking through holes in the meticulous period recreation and creating local subjectivities, like the lucid episode in which Bill Sykes’ dog intuits the moment when his master turns upon him. Certainly Polanski deserves our gratitude for obliging the cast not to sink their teeth too deep into Dickens’ juicy dialogue.

Another, less appealing Toronto debutante was Stephen Frears’ Mrs. Henderson Presents (2005), a shameless bitchfest about the Punch and Judy relationship between a cranky aristocrat widow (Judi Dench) and a veteran showman (Bob Hoskins) who team up to give Britain its first nude revue. Frears and screenwriter Martin Sherman are aware that Dench’s character is a bit of a menace to society, but they can’t very well provide any meaningful perspective on her, as the whole enterprise is built around the pleasure given by her evil tongue. Ultimately the film arrives at obligatory moral lessons and a bit of patriotic uplift. Even more unsatisfying was Mary Harron’s biopic The Notorious Bettie Page (2005), a rote assembly of as many character quirks as could be dug out of the public record. Helplessly hung up on the concept of Bettie as an incorrigible innocent, the film never comes close to suggesting the kind of temperament that might sustain a career in the sex industry of the ‘50s and ‘60s, nor the qualities that make Bettie more enduring than her forgotten sisters in arms.

Wassup Rockers

Larry Clark, whose persistent prurient streak has somehow blinded the world to his exceptional gifts as a filmmaker, came to Toronto looking for distribution for Wassup Rockers (2005), his bizarre, intriguing study of a group of young Latino skateboarders from South Central L.A. The first half of the film comes close to recreated documentary, flavoured with Clark’s participatory enthusiasm; more’s the surprise when the second half turns into a goofy, B-comedy fable about the gang’s dreamlike adventures in the backyards and bedrooms of the rich white denizens of Beverly Hills. Odd that Clark should opt for the grotesque to treat this race conflict, when his natural strength is a love for his characters so great that he can observe and report uneasy details that would destroy a lesser artist’s sympathy. (The caricatured villainous white boys in this film belong to the same social class as the New York-based monster-heroes who were rendered so affectionately in Kids.) The film’s sex content is mostly restricted to talk, no doubt because of the age of the protagonists; but the talk is fresh and interesting, corresponding to no preconceived ideas about adolescent posturing. So often called exploitative, Clark instinctively avoids exploitation where most filmmakers plunge in, showing both the terrors and joys of the kids’ inner city existence without amplifying them into dramatic hooks.

Jim McKay’s Angel (2005) deals with the travails of inner city youth in a more earnest and coherent way, though it lacks Wassup Rockers’ inspiration and direct connection with its characters. The title character, a suddenly homeless black New York high schooler (Jonan Everett) staying with a sympathetic teacher (Rachel Griffiths), calls to mind the protagonist of Maurice Pialat’s L’Enfance nue (1968): gentle and sympathetic, but occasionally capable of enough antisocial behaviour to give credence to the anger of the father who has evicted him. McKay never finds an effective way to drive this paradox home, though he is an honest enough filmmaker to expose it. A bit laboured and overly conceptualised even when it’s trying to be messy, Angel is still committed enough to the spirit of documentation to produce a number of interesting behavioural moments from the family and school life of Angel and his friends.

The South Korean film Sa-kwa (2005), which won Toronto’s FIPRESCI international critics’ prize, is a slice-of-life love story that becomes increasingly impressive in its persistent refusal to streamline any emotion or interaction for ease of use. The simple story, about a recently jilted woman (Moon So-ri) who surrenders to the whirlwind courtship of an amiable eccentric (Kim Tae-woo) then experiences post-nuptial disillusionment, is notable for its emphasis on the woman’s complicated relationship with her difficult family and its effect on the course of the marriage. The acting is sometimes a little broad, the camera style a little too prone to routine close-ups; but first time director Kang Yi-kwan manages to find in almost every scene an emotional cross-current, so that we are invited to ponder each action instead of endorsing or condemning it. Often very funny, Sa-kwa nonetheless delves into uncomfortable relationship problems that the audience cannot expect to vanish after a last-scene reconciliation. Another South Korean entry, Hur Jin-ho’s Wae chul (April Snow) (2005) (which became a big hit in Japan after its international premiere at Toronto), is a classic tearjerker about a man (Asian megastar Bae Yong-joon) and woman (Son Ye-jin) who meet while waiting for their unfaithful spouses to come out of comas after a car accident. Hur (Christmas in August, A Perfect Spring Day) defers the melodrama as long as possible in his quiet, stoical way, but the characters never become more than pawns, moved from place to place to suit the needs of the purely sentimental story.

À travers la forêt

The talented Jean-Paul Civeyrac, whose impressive Toutes ses belles promesses played Toronto in 2003, finally seems to be making a dent in the festival circuit with his 65-minute drama À travers la forêt (2005), which travelled to the New York Film Festival after its Toronto premiere. The fable-like story, about a despairing young woman named Arielle (Camille Berthomier) who is desperate to make contact with her recently deceased lover, is shot in ten single takes, each of which lasts an entire scene. Civeyrac’s camera hovers close to the characters, enhancing the abstract tone by eliminating establishing shots and restricting our view of backgrounds. Though Civeyrac has not abandoned his characteristic dialectic between the frivolous and the solemn (he even inserts a few musical numbers), the film never wanders more than a few steps away from the abyss, and it perhaps suffers a bit from the limited range of emotions available to its transfixed protagonist. Varying its level of artifice according to a plan that is revealed only gradually, Forêt benefits from a second viewing, so that the viewer can try on different interpretations of Arielle’s strange journey into the afterlife.

From another realm of French cinema, Anne Fontaine’s Entre ses mains (In His Hands) (2005) is a suspense film about a married insurance adjuster (Isabelle Carré) who becomes increasingly attached to an enigmatic veterinarian (Benoît Poelvoorde) who may or may not be the serial killer stalking the city’s women. Practically a remake of Claude Chabrol’s Le Boucher (1969), Entre ses mains makes a certain number of irritating commercial concessions, and the presentation of the heroine’s emotional arc seems uncertain, neither clearly delineated nor clearly marked as a mystery. The film’s biggest asset is Poelvoorde, fascinatingly cast against type as the love object/murder suspect.

One of the most surprising, and ultimately one of the most appealing, of the Toronto premieres was You Bet Your Life (2005), a first directorial effort from Austrian Antonin Svoboda, who has produced films by Barbara Albert and Jessica Hausner. The film is a showcase for the oily charisma of Georg Friedrich, playing Kurt, a ne’er-do-well and gambling addict who threatens to take the film down with him to the depths of sociopathic self-destruction. Then, a secret ingredient is introduced into the story: after a freak winning streak at roulette, Kurt becomes obsessed with letting the roll of a die govern all his life decisions. Suddenly Kurt becomes an observer of the events of his life, or rather a story constructor. One feels the weight of Kurt’s bad life decisions being lifted from the film – and, in fact, after taking up the die, he seems just as willing to do decent things as harmful ones. Not unlike the juvenile delinquents who become hippies or punks and thereby transition to intellectual pursuits, Kurt develops a philosophical sensibility out of this new posture. Svoboda displays a playful, light-footed sensibility that at first seems an attempt to mitigate the bad vibes of the downer subject matter, but which the film grows into very nicely.

Paréntesis

Playing catch-up in the South American art film boom, Chile gives us first-time directors Francisca Schweitzer and Pablo Solís, whose hyperkinetic Paréntesis (Time Off) (2005) reminds us how chaotic the stylistic tropes of the nouvelle vague must have looked before they were absorbed into film culture. The protagonist is an insomniac, obsessive-compulsive 28 year-old (Francisco Pérez-Bannen) who malfunctions after losing his girlfriend, but is restored and even improved by his oddball friendship with a 16 year-old (Carolina Castro) who is between bouts of schizophrenia. Schweitzer and Solis gussy up the slight story with every technical gimmick they can think of: crazy cutting, focus play, slow motion, swish pans (with swooshing sounds), photo montage, fades within scenes, even the odd musical number. But they make a point of holding on to a baseline sense of reality amid the camera trickery, and the (sometimes excessively) goofy elements of the story are weighed down by an underlying melancholy that blossoms in the final scenes. Like François Truffaut, Schweitzer and Solis deploy conspicuous technique in order to obscure psychology, introducing an element of poetry into the simple task of making story connections.

A small pleasure that should perhaps be noted for posterity, Bénarès (2005), apparently the first movie from Mauritius, tells the story of two young men who journey to the city to find prostitutes to bring home for an overnight stay. In the back of a pickup truck, the men and women chat and make a connection, with particular emphasis on the men’s attempt to transfer to the women something of their feeling for the life and history of their small town. First-time director Barlen Pyamootoo, working from his own novel, uses a simple camera style, paying too little attention to ambient sound, and troubling the film with an odd light-jazz score. But the gentle conversation takes on a distinctive, modernist shape that is fully revealed only at film’s end. I wouldn’t be surprised if Pyamootoo were in the early stages of becoming a good filmmaker.

Venice, which overlapped Toronto this year by a few days, debuted Emmanuelle Bercot’s Backstage (2005) just a few days before its Toronto screening. Bercot, whose remarkable 1999 short La Puce starred the teenage Isild Le Besco, here pushes the actress to the limits of her considerable emotionality, casting her as Lucie, an obsessive fan who gets to live the fairy tale of becoming part of the entourage of the rock star (Emmanuelle Seigner) she worships. The film starts with such a wild, unsustainable burst of rock romanticism that one necessarily expects a dialectical collision of tones instead of a development of the opening theme. And the depiction of Lucie’s life as a handmaiden to the goddess does in fact introduce some realist texture and a measure of the quotidian. But Bercot only hints at the expected drama of disillusionment and normalisation: though she banks the film’s romanticism after the loony opening, it continues to glow right up through the final frames. Feet of clay notwithstanding, Seigner’s larger-than-life idol never completely loses her magical quality, either for Lucie or for us; and ultimately Backstage‘s considerable pleasure comes from the breathless feeling of making a map of sacred ground.

C.R.A.Z.Y.

A well-deserved smash hit in Quebec before its screenings at Venice and Toronto (where it won the Best Canadian Feature Film award), Jean-Marc Vallée’s C.R.A.Z.Y. (2005) has a narrative sweep that is unusual in the Quebecois cinema, where modesty of scale is the rule. A first-person, decades-spanning account of a young man’s turbulent coming-out in the ‘60s and ‘70s, C.R.A.Z.Y. dwells nostalgically on period details and on the boy’s memories of his family, a crazy quilt of Catholicism, machismo and hipsterism. Working off of the rhythms of the voiceover and the copious music selections (which both characterise the protagonist and serve as the film’s true scenario), Vallée and co-scenarist François Boulay arrive at a dramatic depiction of the boy’s inner life, which is shot through with the magical thinking and grandiose mythology of early childhood. Playing the charismatic, androgyne hero in his older incarnation, Marc-André Grondin is surprisingly able to hold his own in his lifelong power struggle with veteran Michel Côté’s ultracool patriarch.

Displaying both the virtues and vices of homemade cinema, Ning Ying’s Wu qiong dong (Perpetual Motion) (2005), another Venice premiere, takes place largely in a spacious Beijing apartment, to which a vengeful wife (Hung Huang) invites three girlfriends to discover which one is sleeping with her husband. The film starts off on the wrong foot, not just because the unpromising premise is pounded hard, but because Ning, director of 1995’s fine Min jing gu shi (On the Beat), exhibits dubious taste in camera effects and even more dubious taste in how long to sustain them. Eventually, as the women open up to each other, bits of verbal wit poke through the theatrical conventions, and then surprising flashes of emotional intelligence. In its final half, the film almost completely abandons its earlier revenge plot and turns into a reverie of nostalgia for “the class-struggle era”, as the middle-aged women sing along to the patriotic songs of their youth and examine collections of old Mao buttons. The project never unifies, but ultimately Ning’s dramatic skills outweigh her lapses in judgment.

La Neuvaine

The Locarno festival, which wrapped a month before Toronto, also contributed a number of interesting films to the Toronto slate, including La Neuvaine (2005), the third feature by Quebec’s Bernard Émond. Always drawn to the darkest subjects, Émond here eschews the social detailing of La Femme qui boit (2001) and the restless motion of 20h17, rue Darling (2003), arriving at a contemplative minimalism that does not always escape being dour. Crosscutting between Jeanne (Élise Guilbault), a doctor in an advanced state of depression, and François (Patrick Drolet, named Best Actor at Locarno), a stolid young man attempting to avert his beloved grandmother’s death through acts of religious devotion, Émond adds a third strand to the editing mix, a flashback to the horrific event that triggered Jeanne’s depression. Though the intertwining of these story lines is disorienting at first, each story fragment is quiet and direct, and the tension of the film eventually empties out into the still landscapes of rural Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupré after Jeanne and François meet and are infused with some of each other’s qualities. Though Émond has established himself as one of Quebec’s most talented art filmmakers, one wishes upon him a musical or a light comedy next time out, just for a change of scenery.

The Lebanese film A Perfect Day (2005) (which won the FIPRESCI prize at Locarno) is an interesting combination of lucid, intelligent direction and evanescent material. The film follows a recessive young man (Ziad Saad) over the course of a single day in Beirut, during which he attempts to have his missing father declared dead, is diagnosed with apnea, dodges the phone calls of his needy mother (Julia Kassar), and pursues a beautiful girlfriend (Alexandra Kahwagi) who has decided to end their relationship. Far from action-packed, the film dawdles over random sensory input and everyday social detail, and the various plot threads seem either too dramatic or too inconclusive, depending on which direction one wants to push the film in. Directors Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige seem quite confident about their strategy: they have a strong sense of location and sound, and their subjective rendering of the protagonist’s perceptions is so precise and abstract that they sometimes seem to be making a conceptual movie about the nature of experience. Can Hadjithomas and Joreige apply their considerable skills to a more classical story structure? Or will their future films reveal that such drifting, attenuated material is a necessary condition for their art?

My biggest disappointment at Toronto was Nobuhiro Suwa’s Un Couple parfait (A Perfect Couple) (2005), which won the Special Jury Prize at Locarno. Like Suwa’s brilliant M/Other (1999), Un Couple parfait depicts a relationship at the end of its tether: after having decided to separate, a couple (Bruno Todeschini and Valéria Bruni-Tedeschi) attend a friend’s wedding together and torture each other with recriminations in their hotel room. Suwa always makes movies with dialogue that does not feel written, but here he strongly conveys the experience of actors stranded in very long takes, improvising helplessly and waiting for the director to cut. The shapeless quarrels express no progression and give the marital crisis no specific profile.

Winner of the Best Film award at the Moscow Film Festival, Alexei Uchitel’s Kosmos Kak Predchuvstvie (Dreaming of Space) (2005), set in 1957 Russia near the Norway border, makes running references to the beginnings of the space program, though its real centre seems to be the obsession of an excitable young short-order cook and amateur boxer (Yevgeny Mironov) with a mysterious working-class-hero type (Yevgeny Tsiganov) who may be preparing to flee the USSR. An elaborate subplot about the protagonists’ romantic relationships with two sisters serves only to transform the younger man’s obsession into an almost tearful state of reverie. The final movement of the film fragments into a phantasmagoria, as an alternative to confronting the nature of the male bond. Confusing and confused though it may be, Kosmos Kak Predchuvstvie has surprising emotional range, and Uchitel displays a Hollywood-like fluency in mixing a variety of disparate camera styles.

Sunlaga Enu Pinisa

The two most exciting films at Toronto this year premiered in Cannes’ Un Certain Regard section: Cristi Puiu’s Moartea Domnului Lazarescu (The Death of Mister Lazarescu) (2005) and Vimukthi Jayasundara’s Sunlaga Enu Pinisa (The Forsaken Land) (2005). Lazarescu received enough media attention from Cannes that it need not be discussed in a Toronto wrap-up, but Jayasundara’s extraordinary debut, which shared the Camera d’Or, still has a lower profile than it deserves. Setting a story of infidelity and family jealousy amid the ongoing violence between the military and rebels in Sri Lanka, Sunlaga Enu Pinisa is so reticent about putting its narrative forward that its first 30 to 45 minutes seem like a plotless succession of scenic long takes. Even at this point, Jayasundara’s compositions strike such an attractive balance between naturalist observation and formalist abstraction that the time passes pleasantly. Gradually the characters become distinct, a bit of drama rears its head – and the images take on a new charge, starting to reframe around the emerging conflicts and becoming more varied and mobile. At a certain point one realises that each shot is self-sufficient, containing its own development and its own tension between artifice and realism. Jayasundara gives the image a strong sense of geometry, and the characters inhabit the shots (which generally last an entire scene) as snails inhabit a shell, playing off of symmetries and partitions. And yet the viewer is just as likely to come away with an intense impression of the ceaseless wind, sandy waterscapes, and sunlit rainstorms that are as much the film’s subject as its background. Only 27 when the film was shot, Jayasundara already displays a complete command of the medium.

Not exactly a success, Antony Cordier’s first feature Douches froides (Cold Showers) (2005), which screened in Cannes’ Directors’ Fortnight, nonetheless deserves a footnote. Centering on a high-school judo athlete (Johan Libéreau) whose sexy girlfriend (Salomé Stévenin) and new judo pal (Pierre Perrier) converge with him in an ill-fated (but rather hot) three-way, the film also gives ample time to the boy’s poverty-wracked but wacky family and his sports life, which has attracted the interest of the local business community. The script by Cordier and Julie Peyr is full of characterisations and incidents that are too neat or too cute, all of which Cordier the director hypes enthusiastically. Yet something relaxed and digressive about the film’s tone mitigates the banality, and disorienting time cuts and a creeping mood of existential sadness overtake the final scenes. It’s hard to tell where Cordier’s real interests lie: one can imagine him making a good movie someday, or a really bad one.