Une vieille maîtresse

6-15 September 2007

Each year, the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) seems a little grander, more populated, more aware of its world-class status. Good planning and the Herculean effort of an army of well-trained volunteers keep the festival running smoothly, but it’s increasingly difficult to get into films at the last minute. My subjective impression is that the programmers are feeling more pressure over the years to select films that are a bit less arty and more accessible. 2007 has been crowded with acclaimed work from established art-house directors; and, as the only major festival that is dedicated to providing an overview of worldwide festival activity, Toronto exhibited a generous portion of the celebrated, challenging works from this year’s European circuit. But, when it comes to the relatively unknown international work that fills out the Toronto program book, it may be that the festival is now too important to too many parties to be as devil-may-care in its booking practices as it was ten or even five years ago.

Still, if there’s been a shift, it’s a slight one, and Toronto is still diverse enough to give cinephiles of all stripes a wild ten-day ride. (1) Though Toronto doesn’t depend on premieres as heavily as do the old European festivals or Sundance, it has become a choice venue for debuts, particularly but not exclusively for Hollywood prestige fall films. The most anticipated of the Toronto premieres was hometown boy David Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises, which won the festival’s People’s Choice audience award. Steven Knight’s script, about a London midwife, played by Naomi Watts, who defies the Russian mob in her attempt to trace the parentage of an orphaned infant, is largely a concoction of behavioural clichés that cloud the midwife’s motivation and compromise her intelligence. Cronenberg’s recent move into the commercial action genre has the effect of setting into relief a style that has never been easy to analyse: a deliberate visual plan, with minimal cutting, that evokes the storyboard; a proclivity for moderate wide-angle distortion; old-fashioned dramatic backlighting; emphatic acting that isolates lines of dialogue and exaggerates the actors’ salient characteristics; and an unblinking presentation of violence and sex that does not encourage emotional participation. The centre of the film is held, not by Watts, but by Viggo Mortensen as a laconic, ambitious Russian mobster who has a soft spot for the midwife when he’s not amputating the fingers of corpses to prevent identification. Despite the problems with the characterisations, Cronenberg’s portentous, withholding camera creates a compelling tension around Watts and Mortensen’s love/hate scenes. The film’s highlight, a brutal knife fight in a bathhouse, shows Cronenberg equal to the task of devising plausible fight choreography that makes sense without the help of editing, and recalls Anthony Mann in its physicality and its suggestion that violence is painful even for he who administers it.

My favorite Toronto premiere was the South Korean film Haeng-bok (Happiness), a jump up in quality from the previous work of the talented Hur Jin-ho (Palwolui Christmas [Christmas in August, 1998], Bomnaleun ganda [One Fine Spring Day, 2001). The story, about the love between a barely recovered playboy alcoholic (Hwang Jeong-min) and a fellow clinic patient with an incurable lung disease (Lim Su-jeong), is tinged with the sentimentality favoured by Korean melodramas. After only a few minutes, however, it becomes clear that Hur has achieved a quiet virtuosity in the rhythm and alternation of scenes, playing intelligently with the balance of intimacy and solitude, hope and despair, self-preserving and self-destructive impulses. Scenes are connected with unemphatic jump cuts that often end the action before its expected point of rest. The narrative is fatalistic on the large scale, but individual moments play with our expectations of how the emotional payload will be delivered, finding not only a calm that is not native to melodrama, but also an existential anguish that exceeds the requirements of the tearjerker. Beneath the emotive surface of Happiness, its melodrama is inflected with stoical detachment, right up to the beautiful desolation of the final crane shot.

Happiness is a particularly nice surprise after Hur’s last film Oechul (April Snow, 2005), which seemed to show him being absorbed by the mainstream. I had hoped for a similar comeback from Bengali director Rituparno Ghosh (Bariwali [The Lady of the House, 1999], Chokher Bali, 2003), whose first Hindi film Raincoat (2004) was a relatively lusterless affair. Unfortunately, The Last Lear takes Ghosh further into impersonality and subjugation to star power, here personified by Amitabh Bachchan as the cranky, booming theatre actor who is coaxed by a young director (Arjun Rampal) into playing his first and last film role. Bachchan’s shticky performance dominates the movie, but the prioritising of performance over character is written into Ghosh’s script (from a play by Utpal Dutt) and ratified by his direction, and carries over to the rest of the cast, which includes Preity Zinta, Shefali Shetty, and Divya Dutta as the woman in Bachchan’s life who are somehow changed after a long night of reminiscence. Another director taking a step toward the middle of the road is Sweden’s Åke Sandgren (Truly Human/ Rigtigt menneske, 2001), whose Den man älskar (To Love Someone) maps the anguish of a couple (Sofia Ledarp and Rolf Lassgård) when the woman’s first husband (Jonas Karlsson) is released after serving a jail sentence for battering her. Heavy on emphatic close-ups and solemn from the get-go, the film is dramatically effective, but it stays so close to its concept that it comes to resemble a case study, with the characters losing scope (and, paradoxically, even focus) as the schema plays out.

One of the most discussed Toronto premieres was Brillante Mendoza’s Tirador (Slingshot), part of a wave of socially conscious Filipino digital features that have begun to draw critical attention. Tirador’s loose narrative caroms through the slums of Manila, starting with a long night of flashlight-lit police raids, picking up and then abandoning the troubled stories of a few recurring characters, and ending in a political rally that focuses the subtext of the disconnect between government and Filipino life. A punch-drunk handheld camera, jittery editing, and ragged sound cuts keep the film in a constant state of agitation. The behaviour on display ranges from brutal to merely gleefully dishonest: Mendoza especially enjoys long confrontation scenes where the audience acquires sympathy for an accused character who is finally revealed to be merely a good liar. When Mendoza goes into a lower register, he can depict emotional states with sensitivity; and a few violent scenes are frightening in their understated realism. But Tirador’s panorama of depravity is inevitably tinged with sensationalism, and somehow Mendoza does not seem especially upset about the debased state of the world. Another Asian premiere, Pang Ho-cheung’s Cheut ai kup gei (The Exodus), posits a conspiracy by women to murder men, and curiously frames the concept as a rather plodding procedural spearheaded by a lone, inexpressive cop (Simon Yam). Pang’s flair for squared-off compositions and Kubrickian tracking shots occasionally pays off with a striking, chilly long-shot cityscape; yet it seems perverse to treat a war between the sexes with so little audacity (or sex, for that matter). In its final third, Pang finally shakes off genre, as the film simultaneously breaks down into meandering semi-improvisation and finds a droll comic tone that nonetheless stays on the surface of the weighty subject matter.

The most troubling experience I had at the festival was with Ira Sachs’ Married Life, a retro comedy noir, adapted from a novel by John Bingham, about a conventional man (Chris Cooper) who decides that the kindest thing he can do for the wife (Patricia Clarkson) he plans to leave for a younger woman (Rachel McAdams) is to kill her. Sachs and co-writer Oren Moverman frame the film as a comedy of manners and a philosophical inquiry into the nature of marriage, then abdicate that mission by depicting the marriage in a completely generic manner. Similarly, the film declines the story’s possibilities for black humour, and is plainly uninterested in the psychology of crime. Failing to orient itself in any way, it becomes a vacuum, a rote recitation of the mechanics of the murder plot. Sachs’ excellent previous films, The Delta (1996) and Forty Shades of Blue (2005), were freeform, ambient and observational; the new stylistic tack of Married Life has the disturbing effect of erasing his sensibility. Another unsuccessful project from a major director, George Romero’s Diary of the Dead suffers from an excess of personality rather than a lack of it. Having decided that the zombie universe he created can be used to express any theme he wants to explore, Romero launches his youthful cast on a solemn contemplation of the ethics of the photographer and the shortcomings of Internet culture, with their fear of being eaten by the undead finding only occasional, muted expression. Still able to create exciting action scenes by playing with documentary forms, and sometimes finding his flair for dark humour (notably in a lively interlude involving a handicapped Amish zombie fighter), Romero has had increasing difficulty over the years blending his theatrical instincts and his love of overwritten dialogue with the cinema-verité techniques that he plays off against the horror genre’s enduring artifice.

Corroboree

Making its international premiere at Toronto after playing Sydney and several other Australian festivals, Ben Hackworth’s Corroboree starts with the promise of an absorbing story: on a bus, a handsome, untutored young man (Conor O’Hanlon) who looks like a refugee from a Warhol movie listens to a tape that alludes to a part he will play in an unspecified ceremony. “It will be difficult at times, I don’t doubt it… I want you to be lost in some of these moments”, says the voice on the tape. Arriving at a ramshackle rural vegetarian hotel/resort, he is pulled into a room by a middle-aged woman in her nightclothes. “What’s going on?” the boy asks. The woman, as clearly a professional actor as the boy is not, offers a few hurried explanations – “In this scene I’m your mother” – and then draws the ill-equipped boy into a scene with florid dramatic dialogue. As the boy moves uncomfortably from one tableau to the next, we begin to sense that Hackworth’s mystery narrative was a lure to coax us behind the scenes of an amateur movie production that deconstructs itself with the amusing incompatibility of its production elements. (Was the actor who plays the boy left in the dark as well?) Even the Tsai-like compositions – hard-edged frames, often with foreground diagonals, that do not adapt to the characters’ movements – are sometimes revealed as the camera setups of the film within a film, which has not engaged a camera operator. If you respond to the deadpan presentation, Corroboree finds ways of renewing its droll comedy over the course of its 90-minute running time, and suggests an intriguing social context for the shoot that we grasp only in fragments. First-time director Hackworth is in total control of his medium, so much so that one wonders where he goes from here.

Not quite an international premiere (it would have been in Marshal Tito’s day), the Macedonian film Jas sum od Titov Veles (I Am From Titov Veles) won a Special Jury Award at the Sarajevo Film Festival a few weeks before Toronto. Its story, of three adult sisters sharing a small house and hoping to escape their constrained lives via visas or marriage, is driven by symbolism, fantasy sequences and a taste for the uncanny and outrageous. The sisters are conceived in large concepts: the oldest (Ana Kostovska) is a serious methadone addict, the youngest (Nikolina Kujaca) is promiscuous, and the middle sister (Labina Mitevska) never speaks and lives in a childlike fantasy world. The thematic explicitness of the material is hard to swallow at times, yet director Teona Strugar Mitevska creates attractively serene, sunlit compositions, and manages, just barely, to ground the film in the physicality of the sisters’ lives together, the intimacy of sharing meals and a communal bed. The enigmatic mute sister is the film’s organising consciousness, and the director renders her subjective world with broad but expressive strokes, using natural light and sound, not to contrast reality with the girl’s imagination, but to depict imagination as an evocative reconstruction of reality. The film’s casual sexual directness seems part of a unified vision of life as a confluence of bodies, textures and ambience.

Overlapping Toronto by a few days, the Venice Film Festival supplied Toronto with a number of high-profile titles that had barely been marked by critical opinion. One of the most buzzed-about of the Venice films was En la ciudad de Sylvia (In the City of Sylvia), a first fiction feature from Spanish director José Luis Guerín (En construcción, 2001). Ostensibly the story of a young artist (Xavier Lafitte) who journeys to Strasbourg in search of a girl he met years ago, Sylvia establishes from the outset that narrative vectors will take a back seat to an evocation of city environment, rendered abstractly with lengthy takes of background activity and the exaggerated ebb and flow of urban sounds. Guerín uses a long café scene, with the artist sketching the women sitting around him, to disabuse us of our notion that point-of-view reverse-shots and close-ups will alert us to dramatically significant events or trigger story activity. Then, a special girl (Pilar López de Ayala) emerges from the ambience, and the point-of-view sequence makes a bid to revive its narrative utility during a beautifully shot 20-minute pursuit through back streets (which inevitably recalls Vertigo) and an equally lovely confrontation on a trolley car (which just as surely evokes Sunrise). If Sylvia is seen as a formal struggle between classical narrative cinema and post-Godardian autonomy of style, then the final movement of the film announces the victor in no uncertain terms. The artist’s notebook is ultimately identified with the film itself, and the wind that blows its pages back and forth in the last sequence may be Guerín’s playfully proposed alternative to classical time-driven structure.

Les Amours d'Astrée et de Céladon

Allegedly the final film of the great French director Eric Rohmer, Les Amours d’Astrée et de Céladon is not your usual career summation: it’s a faithful adaptation of a 17th-century text by Honoré d’Urfé about the loves, misunderstandings and impostures of 5th-century shepherds. A title card announces Rohmer’s intention to tell the story in the 17th-century manner, and much of the film’s fascination is in the way that he discards modernist stylistic tools (for instance, he systematically cuts with dialogue, despite having written the book on contrapuntal dialogue editing with Ma nuit chez Maud, 1969) and rummages through film history for techniques that he finds suitable. Many of these techniques are from the silent film, and Astrée et Céladon sometimes resembles Griffith with its all-encompassing establishing shots of characters in nature. Rohmer preserves and highlights aspects of the material that are perplexing to a modern sensibility: a dedication to comprehensive storytelling that leaves little to back story; an advocacy of the virtue of romantic love that gives enormous leeway to well-reasoned, cynical opposing positions; lengthy, tortured justifications for the Druid celebration of Roman gods in a monotheistic context; and a surprising sensuality, sometimes verging on lewdness. Though only devotees of cultural history are likely to be fully attuned to Rohmer’s intent, more modern souls should at least be distracted by Astrée et Céladon’s torrential flow of conversation and incident.

Venice gave a festival premiere to Claude Chabrol’s La Fille coupée en deux, which opened theatrically in France in August. Chabrol has been working in a light-hearted, dialogue-driven mode with his recent thrillers, and La Fille sprints through its story of an ingénue television personality (Ludivine Sagnier) in love with a famous, married writer (François Berléand) but pursued by a dandyish and unstable young heir (Benoît Magimel). The plot is more dramaturgically focused than anything Chabrol has done since La Cérémonie (1995), possibly because it seems inspired by the real-life Nesbit/White/Thaw scandal recounted in Fleischer’s The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing (1955) and Forman’s Ragtime (1981). Oddly, La Fille depends heavily on a sexual mythology – an experienced man corrupts a young woman by teaching her sexual proficiency – that one associates with the 19th century. But anachronism is not the film’s biggest problem: the dialogue by Chabrol and Cécile Maistre is overexplicit and unnuanced; the characterisations are damaged by careless structure (i.e. the ingénue requires only the slightest of apologies from the heir after a first date that ends with him trying to strangle her); and Chabrol squanders his dramaturgical advantage by seeming uninterested in the inner state of the ingénue, the psychic space where all strands of the movie converge. A few flashes of insight or giddy humour, conveyed via portentous close-ups or fast cutting, remind us of Chabrol’s directorial power; but he seems rather too casual behind the camera lately.

One of the most perplexing films at Toronto was Shinji Aoyama’s Sad Vacation, which premiered in Venice’s Horizons section. After a desultory opening act that mixes a number of showy, unmotivated style ideas, one begins to think that Aoyama is trying as hard as possible to alienate the admirers of his acclaimed Yûreka (Eureka, 2000), to which Sad Vacation is ostensibly a sequel. Then the film settles into a more leisurely pace and hints at a plot, with the shady but decent young protagonist (Tadanobu Asano) uneasily reunited with the mother (Eri Ishida) who deserted him, and living in a communal business environment with her new family and her employees. An almost Capraesque folksy moralism takes root, but the ramshackle story keeps shifting gears awkwardly. Not without its moments of interest, and alternating between willful ugliness and visual elegance, Sad Vacation plays out like a game of Exquisite Corpse. Maddening though it may be, it’s probably exactly the film Aoyama wanted to make.

A few challenging, if not entirely satisfying, Toronto films premiered in August at the Locarno Film Festival. Quebecois director Bernard Émond (La Femme qui boit [The Woman Who Drinks, 2001], La Neuvaine, 2005) confirmed his taste for grim subject matter with Contre toute espérance, about the spiritual and financial trials faced by a couple (Guylaine Tremblay and Guy Jodoin) after the husband’s debilitating stroke. Émond has been gradually simplifying his style to the point of invisibility, which here has the effect of exposing an uncertain relationship between his theme and subject matter. A forcefully expressed political angle – the couple’s difficulties are exacerbated when the wife is laid off due to ruthless corporate policy – does not cohabit well with the fatalistic progression of the story, and the fatalism in turn seems to inhibit Émond’s attempt to shine a light on the wife’s inner journey. Still, the director tracks his characters’ descent with an admirable, unblinking gaze; and if only one shot of the film really dives into mystery, it’s good that it’s the last shot.

Kurdish director Hiner Saleem (Vodka Lemon, 2003, Kilomètre zéro, 2005) takes a whimsical approach to an even more unnerving subject – slow death by old age – in Sous les toits de Paris, a vehicle for the superb Michel Piccoli, playing an impoverished but independent old man living in a Parisian tenement house. Focusing in the film’s first half on the supportive relations among the building’s residents, Saleem establishes a leisurely, lyrical tone that, despite some sharp observations, borders on preciousness and sentiment. Remarkably, he holds onto that tone as the old man transitions to a painful state of infirmity and decline. Saleem’s light manner makes the protracted agony only marginally less difficult to watch, and the film’s weird echoes of Tati become even more pronounced after the man’s discomfort robs him of the power of speech. How a director like Saleem, with his penchant for goofiness, comes to a project this forbidding is a mystery of directorial personality – but the bold gesture earns him good-will points.

Silent Light

2007’s crop of competition films at Cannes was widely considered the strongest in years. Mexican director Carlos Reygadas’ Stellet licht (Silent Light) is one of the acclaimed Cannes titles that has already received extensive coverage – and yet commentators have had difficulty finding a conceptual framework to integrate such hot-button aspects as its conspicuous borrowings from Dreyer’s Ordet (1955), not to mention the seemingly self-sufficient virtuoso tableaux that begin and end the film. It’s becoming increasingly clear that Reygadas skews more postmodernist than modernist, and perhaps his suggestions of a unified aesthetic enterprise (like the clock that is stopped early in the film and started again after the climax) are red herrings. The extraordinary physicality of his camera style, and his fascination with large-scale systems (natural, organic and mechanical), serve largely to defamiliarise the world; and his visuals can be seen as an attempt to remove camera movements and compositions from their traditional interpretive role, and to invest them with a weight and a physics that renders them autonomous.

Catherine Breillat’s Une vieille maîtresse was reasonably well-received at Cannes, but not well enough for my taste: typed as a niche provocatrice, Breillat is never granted centre stage in the world film arena, even with her critically successful projects. An adaptation of a 19th-century novel by Jules-Amédée Barbey d’Aurevilly, Une vieille maîtresse steps back from the grandiloquent philosophising of Romance (1999) and Anatomie de l’enfer (2004) and picks up the more multivalent discourse of earlier Breillat films like Parfait amour! (1996) and 36 fillette (1988). Of course, Breillat would not choose source material that did not challenge our conception of what a period film is supposed to be. At times, the movie seems to be about the attempt of a disreputable playboy (Fu’ad Ait Aattou) to find love and respectability with a young bride (Roxane Mesquida) and her surprisingly sympathetic grandmother (Claude Sarraute); more substantially, it depicts the long-term, intimate but unstable relationship between the playboy and a temperamental Spanish courtesan (Asia Argento); and, in passing, it documents society’s effort to understand and assimilate these difficult citizens. Breillat changes narrative gears several times, forcing us to plunge into an uncomfortable intimacy with the characters after an emotionally distant first act, and then letting our hard-won identification die away in a final section whose bleak ellipses reminded me of Bresson’s Lancelot du Lac (1974). Wrestling with the iconography and the mores of two separated centuries, Breillat throws out unexpected character and social observations like a Roman candle. Her vision of cruelty and empathy operating hand in hand in human nature gives her enormous freedom to inflect dramatic conventions, and she passes back and forth with assurance across the invisible barrier that separates sexuality from the rest of our lives.

Andrei Zyvagintsev, whose Vozvrashcheniye (The Return) won the Golden Lion at Venice in 2003, received inexplicably mediocre reviews out of Cannes for Izgnanie (The Banishment), about the marital crisis of a mobster (Konstantin Lavronenko) whose wife (Maria Bonnevie) is pregnant after an infidelity. Set in a remote rural location, the story gathers intricacy as the anguished mobster falls back on the advice of his older, more hardened brother (Aleksandr Baluyev), and as his wife’s withholding, self-destructive posture gradually reveals its dimensions. Zyvagintsev’s beautiful compositions, bringing out uncanny aspects of natural settings, and slow camera movements are often noted; less so his sophisticated depiction of the natural complexity of everyday psychology, and his dramatist’s skill at unspooling complicated plot. (Clarity arrives late in his films, but no later than he intends.) Like Vozvrashcheniye, Izgnanie (based on William Saroyan’s novella The Laughing Matter) begins and ends in music-drenched meditation, with a more concrete, story-driven central section. It’s possible that the film’s final movement springs one plot twist too many and dissipates some of the considerable tension of the film’s tragic arc. Still, a much more spectacular Cannes than this year’s would not justify Izgnanie’s neglect.

Winner of the Grand Prix at Cannes, Naomi Kawase’s Mogari no mori (The Mourning Forest) sends a young, inexperienced nursing home worker (Machiko Ono) and an old man with dementia (Shigeki Uda) on a mysterious forest journey to a destination that only the man knows. Kawase creates a plot motivation for the strange journey, but the emotional investments of the characters are, not exactly absent, but rather subsumed in a generalised sense of importance that permeates the film from its early scenes. Kawase’s casual command of her mobile, following camera is exciting and, as in her earlier Sharasojyu (Shara, 2003), she makes a connection to the roots of melodrama by unabashedly synchronising the outbursts of nature with narrative high points. Still, Mogari no mori gives the unwelcome sense that its characters are getting a free ride on Kawase’s mystical involvement with her own concept instead of coming by their emotions the hard way. And the director’s documentary-influenced depiction of the geriatric home has the bad side effect of making the lead performers seem inauthentic.

California Dreamin'

Twenty nine-year-old Romanian director Cristian Nemescu was killed in a car accident during the editing of his feature debut California Dreamin’. His post-production team finished his rough cut, titled California Dreamin’ (Nesfarsit), and screened it at Cannes, where it won the Un Certain Regard award. An ambitious farce about an American captain (Armand Assante) and his troops stranded in a small Romanian town by a stubborn, corrupt railway chief (Razvan Vasilescu) during the Kosovo conflict, Dreamin’ is practically an homage to Billy Wilder’s sprawling comedies, with the bewildered Americans at the mercy of the Romanians’ criss-crossing objectives, including the political maneuvering of the mayor (Ion Sapdaru) and the romantic schemes of the railway chief’s daughter (Maria Dinulescu). Nemescu and his co-writers Catherine Linstrum and Tudor Voican successfully mimic Wilder’s flair for topical reference and his vision of a world driven by self-interest. And, truth be told, Nemescu’s filmmaking skills are considerably more supple than Wilder’s: he’s a confident action director, has a great eye, handles erotic scenes with enthusiasm and, above all, has an instinct for how to use naturalism as a counterbalance to farce. Dreamin’ should have been, and probably would have been, much shorter than 155 minutes: as it stands, it assembles so much digressive material that the story’s momentum is weakened. While less than a complete success, the existing cut is an amazing calling card for a director who might have been more than a footnote to film history had he lived a few more months.

A few of the best films at Toronto hailed from Cannes’ Directors’ Fortnight. Jacques Nolot’s Avant que j’oublie (Before I Forget) unfolds with the utmost simplicity: its protagonist, played by Nolot, is seemingly a vehicle to allow the filmmaker to report in detail on his life as a gay sexagenarian in Paris. The style is so direct that the daring of Nolot’s storytelling is not immediately apparent. A lengthy, uneventful scene of insomnia and nighttime illness bumps up against an unannounced interlude of sadomasochistic afternoon sex; a witty parlor conversation about the fees of gigolos and psychiatrists is followed with an unwelcome depiction of the breakdown of bodily functions. Nolot accumulates what seems like a comprehensive survey of the lifestyle of his social group: the amiable arrangements between impoverished young men and their moneyed elders; the lifetime bonds that substitute for family; the importance of inheritance within the community, and the difficulty of defending bequests against family claims. But one should resist the impulse to praise the film as a mere sociological tour: what makes it exhilarating is Nolot’s confident demonstration that his powers of selection and freedom of expression are all that he needs to make pure, unique cinema. If Avant que j’oublie is as nakedly autobiographical as it seems, then I hope Nolot’s friends and counsellors are taking his talk of suicide seriously….

Another assured work from the Directors’ Fortnight, Sandra Kogut’s Mutum is an adaptation of a classic Brazilian novel by João Guimarães Rosa about the life of a poor family in an obscure rural area, and particularly about the lively, inquiring consciousness of one of the family’s male children (Thiago da Silva Mariz). Kogut has a flair for evoking the natural environment, and Mutum grabs attention with its compelling visual and aural depiction of quiet sunlit afternoons and violent rainstorms, gently contrasted with cuts across time. But even more striking than her sensitivity to ambience is Kogut’s remarkable achievement in leading a group of non-actors to a simple, full-bodied acting style that shows no sign of either camera-consciousness or staginess: a far cry from the just-say-the-line-and-stand-there approach favoured by art filmmakers in the post-Bresson era. Always considered somewhat peculiar by his own family, the young protagonist’s real issues are illuminated only at story’s end, in a beautiful sequence that plays to Kogut’s strengths as a filmmaker of the senses.

Ploy, the latest film from Thai director Pen-ek Ratanaruang, seems to alienate many viewers with its loitering pace and its surrealist inclinations. Mostly set in a drowsy hotel in the wee hours of the morning, the playful story centres on a travelling couple (Pornwut Sarasin and Lalita Panyopas) who ventilate their marital problems after the husband invites a provocative young girl (Apinya Sakuljaroensuk) to sleep in their spare room. In a distracting subplot, a maid and bartender (Phorntip Papanai and Ananda Everingham) make wild love in another suite; like almost everything active in the film, the affair is probably the dream of one of the more indolent characters. Working again with his old cinematographer Chankit Chamnivikaipong after two films with Christopher Doyle, Ratanaruang dawdles in a gauzy world of diffuse light, shadowy corridors, and translucent room dividers. For viewers who are not lulled to sleep, Ratanaruang complements the overall tone of absurdism with flashes of wicked humour that are often expressed via unobtrusive editing juxtapositions.

The most touted of this year’s Berlin premieres was Jacques Rivette’s Ne touchez pas la hache, adapted faithfully from Balzac’s novel La duchesse de Langeais, about a fierce military man (Guillaume Depardieu) who stages an awkward but increasingly insistent courtship of a coquettish noblewoman (Jeanne Balibar) during the French Restoration. The relationship begins in a series of receptions and parlor conversations, with Rivette integrating the formal manners of the place and time into an almost ceremonial presentation, framing the couple with his typically unbalanced, weighty medium close-ups. But the officer is gradually revealed as a criminal superman with a limited tolerance for polite romantic negotiations; and ultimately Balzac’s Thirteen emerge and take charge of the narrative, swaggering under Rivette’s cool gaze. Ne touchez pas la hache starts out with vague echoes of Rivette’s La Réligieuse (1966), but it eventually reminded me more of his La Belle noiseuse (1991): both films are about a powerful man with a philosophical agenda, and a desirable woman who capitulates to the man’s position, so that the movies are in danger of seeming to endorse the male fantasy. Balibar is excitingly dramatic (and erotic) as the embodiment of flirtation, though Rivette sometimes leaves me confused about whether to attribute theatricality to the character or to the film’s style.

The Tracey Fragments

Meanwhile, in Berlin’s Panorama section, Canadian director Bruce McDonald reinvented the cinema with his remarkable The Tracey Fragments, adapted by Maureen Medved from her stream-of-consciousness novel about a 15-year-old Winnipeg girl (Ellen Page) suffering dramatically from the slings and arrows of adolescence. McDonald undertakes to break the screen into an array of panels, of ever-changing quantity and attributes, each containing an independent image. Whether McDonald has created an entirely new art form or an N-dimensional version of an old one, it’s immediately clear that every law of the cinema is rewritten in this universe, and that even the most arid and academic forms of montage are transformed into infinitely flexible instruments. Knowing that he’s discovered the philosopher’s stone, McDonald tirelessly generates new formal prototypes every few seconds, and leaves us at film’s end with the sense that he could have kept going forever. What makes Tracey more than an impressive demo is its unity of form and feeling, the sense that its screen may have been shattered by its young protagonist’s hormonal violence, McDonald’s wild-eyed punkish sense of drama, and Medved’s vivid dialogue (“He touched me, he stuck his cock in me, and he said I love you, in that – exact – order!”). Old-school viewers may have a tough time adjusting to Tracey’s fragmentation, but even they might appreciate McDonald’s surprising compositional grace, which culminates in a beautiful, melancholy riverside tracking shot under the end credits.

A much less assertive piece of cinema, Dutch director Nanouk Leopold’s Wolfsbergen, which premiered in Berlin’s Forum section, follows the reactions of three sisters and their families when their father announces his intention to commit suicide. Leopold’s storytelling is so elliptical that the connections among the characters don’t solidify until the film is nearly over; and she willingly sacrifices narrative tension in favour of a leisurely, drifting rhythm, focusing on tangential details of daily life, and pausing to enjoy the quality of light in her locations. As in her previous film Guernsey (2005), Leopold does not shy away from the most unattractive and conflictual aspects of family life; and, as in Guernsey, she waits until the very last shot of the film to add the extra dimension that completes her aesthetic strategy. One hopes that her subtlety does not deprive her of the critical attention she deserves.

Reaching all the way back to January’s Sundance festival, Toronto screened British music video director Garth Jennings’ engaging Son of Rambow, slated for theatrical release in 2008. A hard-charging farce about a school bully (Will Poulter) and a timid boy (Bill Milner) who join forces to shoot a homemade sequel to First Blood (1982), Son of Rambow belongs to the dormant tradition of gag-driven comedy, and Jennings is a natural at exploiting long-shot compositions and forced foreground/background oppositions to create cartoonish spatial exaggerations. The sadomasochism of the unequal friendship, and the younger boy’s crazed pluck in performing the stunts that his domineering friend devises, give the film an emotional angle that Jennings doesn’t seem to trust – hence Rambow’s gradual devolution into a standard-issue sentimental dramedy of male friendship betrayed. (Women take up almost no psychological space in this film.) It seems likely that Jennings’ talent will be obscured by his commercial instincts – which is too bad, because not everyone can do this sort of comedy.

Toronto International Film Festival website: http://www.tiff07.ca

Endnotes

  1. For coverage of the acclaimed non-narrative Wavelengths program, see Darren Hughes’ Toronto reports in his Long Pauses blog.