Festival Business

The opening weekend of the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival also signalled the beginning of TIFF’s second year in the $200 million dollar TIFF Bell Lightbox. The public side of the facility features five theatres, a ticket office, two galleries, a store and two cafés; the upper floors hold office space, private screening rooms, areas for press conferences, and a rooftop patio that brings a hint of movie-star flavour to the experience. (During one of my interviews up there I became convinced TIFF had bussed in models from South Beach for set decoration.) Cinephiles and critics are a notoriously finicky and cynical bunch, so there were lingering and inevitable grumblings about how the festival had “sold out” to real estate developers and deep pockets, but for two weeks in September each year, the Lightbox is exactly what Toronto needed. Along with providing several outstanding new theatres, it also solves countless logistical problems, especially on the press and industry side. As promised, the Lightbox has remapped the landscape of the festival. The once-popular Varsity theatre, which last year marked the northernmost edge of the fest, was finally dropped completely from the circuit, as the majority of public screenings continued their move south to the AMC and press and industry screenings were relocated to the Scotiabank. This year, TIFF also outfitted the Broadway-style Princess of Wales Theatre with state-of-the-art audio and projection, giving the festival one more venue on King Street for high-profile public events.

As far as I know, no one threw a birthday bash for the Lightbox, but it has certainly become the focal point of the festival’s identity. Audiences were treated to two Lightbox-related trailers before each screening, one a general branding and marketing piece, the other an advertisement for a gallery exhibit of Grace Kelly memorabilia, “From Movie Star to Princess”. That exhibit is, I think, a useful illustration of how TIFF’s current artistic direction, especially in terms of year-round programming, walks the fine and well-worn line between engaging cinema culture and serving commercial interests. Princess Grace brings glamour, name recognition, and popular appeal to the Lightbox galleries, while also giving the Cinémathèque license to show films by Alfred Hitchcock, John Ford and Fred Zinnemann. It’s a nice metaphor, also, for the festival proper, which, especially in recent years, has established itself as an increasingly important marketplace and launching ground for Oscar winners, while simultaneously working to maintain its reputation as North America’s most important showcase of world cinema. As far I could tell, TIFF managed to accomplish both this year. Clooney, Pitt and Gosling all looked great on the red carpet, apparently, and I saw a lot of very good films.

City to City

After stops in Tel Aviv and Istanbul, TIFF moved to Buenos Aires for its third annual “City to City” (CTC) program. Advertised as “an exploration of the urban experience through film”, CTC is a welcome addition in Toronto if only because it’s one more curated section of the catalogue. The festival’s massive size and its everything-for-everyone approach is, of course, both a blessing and a curse. TIFF watchers (yes, such people exist—I am one) have been known to gripe about the seemingly arbitrary programming distinctions: to cherry-pick one example, this year Bruce McDonald and Robert Guédiguian were deemed “Masters”, while the latest films by Ermanno Olmi and Terrence Davies showed up in “Special Presentations”. More significantly, screenings of repertory films have been almost completely eliminated from the festival due to the shuttering of the “Dialogues” program, at which filmmakers, actors, and other significant figures would introduce and discuss landmark films – Max Von Sydow on The Virgin Spring (Ingmar Bergman, 1960), for example, or Sidney Lumet on The Best Years of Our Lives (William Wyler, 1946). CTC addresses both of those concerns. In each of its three years, CTC programmers have taken a commendably catholic approach, balancing commercial films with more difficult fare, recent work with a few from the vault. I was especially pleased to see Pablo Trapero’s Mundo Grúa (Crane World, 1999) in this year’s lineup, although I didn’t choose to see it again (the double-edged sword of repertory programming). In the fall issue of Cinema Scope, Argentinean film critic Quintín accuses TIFF of having a “paternalistic” regard for his home city and yet still praises many of the specific programming decisions. I can’t speak to the quality of the lineup as a whole, but by coincidence I ended my fest with three films from the program, all of which I quite liked, and all of which benefited significantly from the juxtaposition.

The best of the films I saw in City to City— and one of the real highlights of TIFF, in general— was Nicolás Prividera’s Tierra de los Padres (Fatherland), although, frankly, I feel poorly equipped to discuss it in the detail it deserves owing to my scant knowledge of Argentina’s political history. Fatherland opens with a montage of black-and-white archival footage arranged sequentially from early-20th century film to recent video, most of it depicting war and civil unrest. The montage is set to a spirited rendition of the Argentinean national anthem and anticipates, in miniature, the overarching goals, both formally and rhetorically, of the film as a whole. Prividera ends the opening sequence by cutting to a high-angle shot of La Recoleta Cemetery in Buenos Aires’ wealthy Recoleta neighbourhood. Opened in 1822, the cemetery soon established itself as the final resting place for members of the city’s ruling and cultural elite. The more than 4,000 elaborately ornamented, above-ground vaults there include those of Eva Perón, Oliviero Girondo (whose poem “Atonement” features prominently in the film), and several presidents, governors and military leaders. Except for the closing sequence, a questionable helicopter-eyed shot that situates Recoleta within the larger context of Buenos Aires’ geography, both literally and economically, the remainder of Fatherland takes place within the high, marbled walls of the cemetery.

After glancing at its description in the TIFF catalogue, I expected Fatherland to echo Forever (2006), Heddy Honigmann’s curious and sympathetic essay film about people who make pilgrimages to the Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris. Instead, Prividera’s style owes more to James Benning’s brand of structuralism and to John Gianvito’s recent tour of forgotten American gravestones and monuments, Profit Motive and the Whispering Wind (2007). Prividera recruits volunteers, presumably locals touring the cemetery, to read brief poems and snippets from letters, novels, essays, speeches and other historical texts that he has pasted into a thick red book. Each reader is staged in a static, precisely composed shot and recites his or her passage with little emotional expression. The duration of each shot is determined by the length of the reading, and Prividera adds syncopated beats to the rhythm of the film by regularly inserting documentary tableaux: friends singing sentimentally in front of Peron’s tomb, a busload of school children taking a guided tour, a young couple giggling and snapping photos as they emerge from an open vault, workmen cleaning and maintaining the grounds.

Fatherland is interesting enough as a history lesson and as an ambivalent study of national memory; what makes it minute-to-minute compelling, however, is its form. Like Benning’s RR (2007), which finds infinite spatial variations in American landscapes, Prividera’s compositions are arresting as images in their own right, and the film’s repetitive structure trains viewers to spot the occasional, telling changes to the formula. For example, early in the film, a young man reads matter-of-factly from Juan Manuel de Rosas’ 1835 inauguration speech. It begins like so many of the shots that preceded it, but then the reader recoils ever so slightly, shocked at the words he’s hearing from his own voice. In the speech, De Rosas announced that the legislature had signed over to him absolute authority and that this concentration of power was necessary in order for him to save the country from itself. (When De Rosas was finally overthrown eighteen years later, the new national constitution included the “Suma del poder público” [Sum of public power], which made any future efforts to concentrate power in the executive branch a crime of high treason.) That brief pause by the reader, and the slight change of expression on his face, would be easily overlooked in other films; here, it’s a shock. Fatherland is most effective in moments like this, when it creates original and confrontational juxtapositions: a young member of the modern, educated upper class speaks in the voice of his country’s dictatorial past while only a few feet away, just outside the frame, working-class men scrub away at monuments to the dead for the benefit of tourists.

One recurring theme at TIFF this year, particularly among the generation of filmmakers who remember 1968, was a wistful nostalgia for a time when meaningful political engagement seemed possible — revolutionary, even. In that context, Santiago Mitre’s directorial debut, El estudiante (The Student), was a fun change of pace. Mitre, who co-wrote Trapero’s Leonera (Lion’s Den, 2008) and Carancho (2010), is too young to be nostalgic (he was born in 1980) and too cynical to treat institutional politics as anything but the fuck-all world it is. Echoing a tale told in so many political biographies, Mitre’s hero, Roque (Esteban Lamothe), first becomes involved in a student movement because he’s trying to get laid. Paula (Romina Paula), a beautiful and committed teaching assistant, serves as Roque’s Virgil, leading him by hand (and another, more vital organ) through the Inferno of backstabbing, sloganeering and self-interest. Mitre’s script has often been compared by American critics to Aaron Sorkin, but the only similarities I see between the two are the word count and the coming-of-age thrill that flavours Roque’s first tastes of power. Sorkin’s four seasons of The West Wing are unapologetically romantic: the morally-correct politicians are always the smartest and most quick-witted people in the room. The Student makes no real effort to justify in moral terms — or even to explain — the goals of Roque’s maneuverings. There’s endless talk about “reform”, but as far as I can tell, the only real goal is to get one aging career politician a promotion. The Sorkin comparisons more likely stem from Mitre’s directorial style, which, though not yet in the league of David Fincher, does show a real knack for propelling narrative. Esteban Lamothe and Romina Paula are great on screen, both individually and together, which is essential for a film like this that, ultimately, is about getting fucked.

Along with Crane World, the other open-vault film in this year’s City to City was Hugo Santiago’s Invasion (1969), which has, in recent years, re-entered circulation for the first time in decades after the discovery of a print in France. Co-written with Jorge Luis Borges and Adolfo Bioy Casares, Invasión sits somewhere on the paranoid-dystopia spectrum between The Trial (Orson Welles, 1962) and Alphaville (Jean-Luc Godard, 1965), although it’s not nearly as good as either. The film concerns a small cadre of middle-aged men who look like bored bureaucrats but who are secretly scheming to steal a truckload of radio equipment from the nameless, vaguely defined totalitarian forces who rule the land. The best and most absurd scene takes place in a sterile white room with three televisions bolted to the wall. One of the men has been captured and is being slapped around on a chair while an elderly woman mops around him, secretaries come and go delivering memos, and the sounds of typewriters and Morse code can be heard in the background. The banality of evil, indeed. The defining pleasure of Invasión, though, is its chaotic style. Cinematographer Ricardo Aronovich, who went on to work with Marguerite Duras and Louis Malle, shoots Buenos Aires in stark, grainy black-and-white, and Santiago’s cutting turns the narrative into a bewildering calamity. There’s desperation in every image, and the heroes are always literally on the run — the best of the many chase scenes takes place in an abandoned railway car, for no apparent reason. Later, a getaway car is blown up on the side of the road, again for no apparent reason. Whether this is a critical exploration of authoritarianism or simply sloppy filmmaking can be debated (I and most of the critics I spoke to in Toronto leaned toward the latter), but the resulting film remains a fascinating curiosity.

Wavelengths

In each of the eight years I’ve attended TIFF, the most expertly curated section has been Wavelengths, its program of avant-garde films. Much of the credit for the program’s success, both in artistic terms and in gross sales (it’s become a consistent sell-out over the last few years), goes to Andréa Picard, who officially announced during the fest that this would be her last year at the helm. Rumours about the move had begun to swirl in late summer, and the annual, close-knit gathering of experimental filmmakers, critics, cinephiles and friends at the Art Gallery of Ontario certainly did nothing to tamper them. But rumours be damned. Regardless of the reasons for Andréa’s departure, it’s a major loss for TIFF, and one that will be felt acutely by those of us who have come to consider Wavelengths the reason to attend Toronto. During her five years as sole curator, she invited onto the stage of Jackman Hall the likes of Michael Snow, James Benning, Nathanial Dorsky, Ernie Gehr, Jim Jennings and David Gatten. She championed brilliant younger filmmakers like Ben Russell, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Eriko Sonoda and Jennifer Reeves. And she supported the work of Toronto filmmakers, bringing much deserved attention to John Price, Chris Kennedy and Blake Williams, among others. On the last night of Wavelengths, before introducing his rapturous new film, The Return, Dorsky acted on behalf of most of us in the room when he gave Andréa a kiss and thanked her, sincerely, for the difficult and creative work she’s performed over the past few years.

There were 25 films in Wavelengths this year, far too many to cover in detail. I’ll focus, instead, on a few standouts. The highlight of the first Wavelengths program, “Analogue Arcadia”, was Edwin Parker, Tacida Dean’s quiet and affectionate study of American artist Cy Twombly, who passed away just a few weeks before the screening. Dean shoots Twombly in grainy 16mm, alternating between close-up inserts of his hands or the sculptures and tools around his Virginia studio and longer shots of him at work, which on this particular day involves paying bills, a brief discussion of Keats with a visiting Italian curator, and lunch at a local diner. Twombly moves softly and speaks softly, and Dean watches it all patiently from a distance, squirrelling her camera away in unlikely places in the hope of capturing some nugget of insight from the 83 year-old. That’s what these portraits of the artist are for, right? Dispelling myths and stealing wisdom? Taking Twombly’s given name, Edwin Parker, for the title of her film suggests that Dean is more interested in the person who became the artist — or, perhaps, at this stage in his life, the man who remains after the artist. She implies that what connects the two, Edwin and Cy, might be something as simple and indescribable as taste. “I like that. [pause] I like that,” Twombly says with a sudden spark in his eye while looking at something just outside the frame. Edwin Parker ends, fittingly, with a kind of eulogy, a solemn and graceful shot of his studio after dark, where his sculptures stand in testament.

The only feature-length film in Wavelengths this year was James Benning’s collection of video portraits, Twenty Cigarettes. As he travelled the world, Benning staged friends and acquaintances in front of various flat backdrops (an apartment wall, a graffitied steel fence, a sheet of plywood), asked them to smoke a cigarette, and then walked away, leaving them alone to interact with the camera however they pleased. The duration of each shot is determined by the smoker: in the opening minutes, for example, we watch Sompot Chidgasornpongse (a frequent collaborator with Apichatpong) struggle slowly and hilariously through his very first cigarette, while other, more practiced smokers make relatively quick work of it. The cigarette, of course, is a gimmick, the excuse Benning needed to get people in front of his camera and make them drop their pretenses and reveal their “real” faces. “The guard is down and the mask is off,” Walker Evans wrote, describing his own surreptitious photos of Depression-era subway riders. Evans’ book, Many Are Called, is a precedent for Benning’s work here, as is Jon Jost’s essay film, Plain Talk and Common Sense (Uncommon Senses), in which Jost invites strangers to pose for a photo and then pretends to fix a problem with the camera while his subjects “perform” nervously in front of it, first growing irritated and then, eventually, becoming bored and expressionless.

Benning became interested in shooting faces again, he says, after revisiting Andy Warhol’s Screen Tests (1965-66) for the first time in many years and after remaking two of his own films, One Way Boogie Woogie (1977, 2004) and North on Evers (1991, 2010). Twenty Cigarettes is certainly a more intimate experience than Warhol’s shorts. The simple, repetitive compositions and depthless backdrops focus the viewer’s attention squarely on the smokers’ faces, and the images eventually shrug off any would-be cinematic iconography. A few of the smokers attempt to strike a pose (filmmaker Thom Andersen is probably the most successful), but the deliberate awkwardness of the exercise frustrates their efforts. An attractive woman drops her femme fatale pout after the smoke repeatedly drifts into her eyes, causing her to squint and flinch. A young man maintains his tough-guy attitude for as long as he can muster it before finally giving in, stubbing out his cigarette halfway through, and walking away. “I feel like I know them all well now,” Benning says about the smokers. “It’s a funny thing. When I watch it now there’s a point in each shot when I feel the person.” That intimate connection between the filmmaker and his subjects proves to be both a strength and a weakness of Twenty Cigarettes. When I spoke with Benning after the screening, he seemed a bit sentimental. We talked more about the people in the film than about shot duration, off-screen space or digital technologies. In his attempt to “map the world into a package of cigarettes”, he’s made a kind of autobiography at one remove. Twenty Cigarettes is nostalgic and sweet, even, but it lacks the formal invention that makes Benning’s best work so impossibly compelling.

The third Wavelengths program, “Serial Rhythms”, was a prototypical Andréa Picard collection. It included new work by several filmmakers who she has supported consistently over the years (Price, T. Marie, Kevin Jerome Everson and Rose Lowder, whose Bouquets series continues to be among cinema’s most perfect things) and also featured this year’s lone avant-garde “classic”, a restored print of Sailboat (Joyce Wieland, 1967), which struck me as an exercise in semiotics leavened by a punk rock wink. The 3-minute film shows a grainy blue image of sailboats passing at a distance from left to right, while the top half of the frame is dominated by the word “Sailboat” in block white type. The real discoveries of the program, though, were Jonathan Schwartz’s A Preface to Red and Karen Johannesen’s Resonance. Shot in Turkey, Schwartz’s film is part ethnography, part Vertovian collage. It opens on a field of red brakelights in a nighttime shot of traffic before moving into daylight and a series of portraits, street scenes and bits of abstraction. The thrill of the film — and it really is an exciting viewing experience — is generated by the cacophonous soundtrack, a mixture of electric white noise, thumping dance music, sirens, and distant voices, and by Schwartz’s associative cutting. Resonance is a fine illustration of Picard’s curatorial fondness for op art. (“Serial Rhythms” was a physically demanding program to sit through. My eyes ached when it was over.) Constructed from blown-up 8mm images of porch railings against a brick wall, the film is a rapid-fire, pulsing object. Johannesen introduces the basic material of the film — horizontal and vertical lines, warm sunlight and shadow, positive and negative space—in the opening seconds, then works through evolving variations on the theme, causing the screen to shake and grow.

When I first read a description of Blake Williams’ Coorow-Latham Road, which closed out the fourth program, “Space is the Place”, I worried that it was so perfectly conceived that the description alone was enough, that actually watching the 20-minute video might seem redundant. Using Google Street View, Williams stitched together some 3,000 individual clips of a deserted highway in Southwest Australia, reconstructing the 46-kilometer route from the town of Coorow, named for the aboriginal word for a local stream, to Latham, named for an early English settler. The concept is thoroughly contemporary, relying on 21st-century technologies for its raw material, but Williams’ process for joining the images — Picard dubs it “spectral bookbinding” — harkens to the 19th century and the earliest days of the Kinetoscope. William’s formal strategy proves a fascinating and clever approach to the content. By no means an explicitly political film, Coorow-Latham Road does, however, foreground the colonialist history of the area by giving us a new (in the Modernist sense) perspective on the Outback, by which I mean both the literal geography of the place and also the “landscape” as a time-worn subject of art. The duration of the film is essential in this regard. Images fly by in silence, morphing impressionistically from one to the next, and for minutes at a time there are no signs of human life whatsoever. Williams very gradually pans (if that word is even appropriate here) to the left until even the last remnant of culture, the road itself, is beyond the edges of the frame. Google’s algorithm for interpolating the area between photos is optimised for urban and suburban spaces, so as the landscape streams by, it fractures occasionally into geometric shapes reminiscent of skyscrapers, an ironic visual metonym for “progress”. Watching Coorow-Latham Road proved, in fact, to be a singular experience, even within such a strong program of avant-garde films. It is simultaneously thought-churning, anxiety-causing and beautiful.

Vive la France

As usual, Toronto was the first stop in North America for most of the Cannes premieres, which this year included an especially strong slate of French films. Given that this report will be published nearly seven months after Cannes, I’ll devote the majority of it to titles that premiered in Venice and at TIFF, but I do want to make brief mention of two titles in particular. Bertrand Bonello’s L’Apollonide (House of Tolerance) is the best of the bunch. Set in a Paris brothel at the turn of the century, it combines an anthropologist-like attention to the day-to-day routines of prostitution with an overwhelmingly sensuous visual style. This film is dripping with warm colour and lush fabrics, but they’re not just set dressings or fetish objects. L’Apollonide is a melodramatic reimagining of the Grand Guignol that generates staggering emotion from its images. Bonello wisely avoids loading the narrative with back stories for the women of the brothel or the wealthy men who visit them there and, instead, records their faces, gestures and small talk, which speak so eloquently of their dreams, pain, and disappointments.

Bruno Dumont’s Hors Satan (Outside Satan), which also played at Cannes, is, like so much of his work, a fascinating and frustrating mess. Now six films into his career, I’ve begun to think of Dumont as a novelist at heart and a mostly failed image-maker. On occasion he creates startlingly original visions that burrow immediately to the core of his obsessions — think of Freddy and his friends vibrating rapturously as they practice drumming in La vie de Jésus (The Life of Jesus, 1997) — but too often, especially in recent years, there has been a disconnect, I think, between his apparent intentions and his cinematographic style. Dumont told audiences in Toronto that the title of the new film could be treated as two separate words, that he was interested in “outside” (the camera only briefly moves indoors) and “Satan”. And so he shoots David Dewaele wandering without expression through the grey, desolate dunes of Boulogne sur Mer on France’s northern coast. Dewaele’s unnamed character is a prophet or a healer or a visionary of some sort; he’s also a jealous and vicious murderer. Dumont has often been described as a transcendentalist filmmaker (including by me), and Hors Satan certainly fits somewhere in that camp. He even makes allusions here to Ordet (Carl Dreyer, 1955) and to Tarkovsky’s final two films, Nostalghia (1983), in a test of faith scene that recalls Erland Josephson’s walk with a candle, and The Sacrifice (1986), when Dewaele envisions an apocalyptic fire. But even compared with Dumont’s previous films, Hors Satan feels like a calculated provocation, begging audiences to question, both intellectually and viscerally, the limits of faith or ethics or whatever it is that makes us draw a line between good and evil. I just wish the film itself offered more guidance and wisdom on the subject. Without it, Dumont comes off as a bit of a bully and a bore.

At the midpoint of Nicolas Klotz and Elisabeth Perceval’s previous feature film, La question humaine (Heartbeat Detector, 2007), Mathieu Amalric’s corporate psychologist is taken by some younger colleagues to a late-night rave, where he drinks too much, kisses the wrong woman, gets in a fight, and blacks out. It’s a familiar genre convention made new and strange by Klotz’s mise en scène. Every film noir detective eventually abandons objectivity and “makes the case personal” but never has that on-screen transition been so ecstatic and otherworldly. Klotz and Perceval’s latest, Low Life, exists somewhere in the same psychological, political and aesthetic realm as that rave, an anarchic, strobe-lit, techno-beat space where youth act on instinct and chase the sublime. In their press notes, Klotz and Perceval claim to have made the film for their children’s generation, who were born into a “globalized mess” of a world mediated by technology and devoid of meaningful political agency. The filmmakers temper their nostalgia with a genuine admiration for today’s 20-somethings, who are “more lucid, braver than most” and who “make up other ways of resistance.”

Low Life begins as a street-level view of a student political movement before narrowing its focus to one couple in particular. Carmen (Camille Rutherford) and Hussein (Arash Haimian) meet when she and her friends confront the police at a squat for illegal immigrants where he has been helping out however he can. When Hussein receives word that his permanent refugee status has been denied, he and Carmen retreat into isolation, spending days together in bed behind a locked, hidden doorway. That plot summary begs comparisons with Les amants réguliers (Regular Lovers, Philippe Garrel, 2005) and The Dreamers (Bernardo Bertolucci, 2003), but Low Life is more directly indebted to the horror films of Jacques Tourneur, particularly I Walked with a Zombie (1943) and Night of the Demon (1957). In the latter, men die for simply holding a cursed piece of paper (the film has often been read as an allegory for the loyalty oaths of the anti-Communist era); in Low Life, the curse is real: having the right papers in 2011 is for many quite literally a matter of life and death. Klotz shot Low Life on a Canon digital SLR and the results are a little unlike anything I’ve ever seen before (Pedro Costa’s Colossal Youth [2006] is the nearest point of reference). Most of the action takes place after dark, and Klotz’s high-contrast, desaturated palette of greens, yellows and browns turns Lyon into a gothic underworld, something akin to a Straub adaptation of Ann Rice. Low Life received mixed-to-negative responses when it premiered in Venice, but it was my favourite film at TIFF.

Low Life also contains the single most striking image I saw at the festival. It comes near the end of the film, when a young, black immigrant paints his face white and performs a voodoo ritual. Klotz shoots him in a low-lit close-up. The paint has dried and begun to flake away, giving the boy’s face the appearance of a puzzle with missing pieces. It’s terrifying and uncanny, and a prime example of Klotz’s tendency to structure his dramas around brief, ecstatic interludes. By coincidence, the day after I saw Low Life, I encountered echoes of that image at the end of another zombie movie (of sorts), Chantal Akerman’s Almayer’s Folly. Akerman’s loose adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s first novel ends with a minutes-long shot of the title character, a middle-aged Dutch trader in Southeast Asia who has been driven to madness by his own foolishness and avarice. Drawn to the jungle by promises of wealth, Almayer (Stanlislas Mehrar) marries out of self-interest and then, in deference to the wishes of his benefactor, surrenders his daughter, who he genuinely loves, to a distant boarding school. By the end of the film, he’s penniless, broken, and alone — “living dead all these years,” he says caustically.

When I spoke with Akerman at TIFF, she actively resisted crediting the source material and claimed, instead, that the film owes as much to Murnau’s Tabu (1931) and to her own biography as it does to Conrad. Her reconfiguring of the original text reminded me most of Jean Rhys’s novel, Wide Saragasso Sea, which foregrounds the racist assumptions in Jane Eyre by inventing a life and psychology for Charlotte Bronte’s exotic “madwoman in the attic”. Akerman’s film likewise rounds out the two female characters who are given short shrift in Conrad’s novel, Almayer’s estranged, Malaysian wife (Sakhna Oum) and their mixed-race daughter, Nina (Aurora Marion). By simply casting the wife’s role — by giving her a body and a voice — Akerman exposes all of the tragedy in her situation that Conrad elides. Akerman also shifts the balance of the novel’s perspective by moving more scenes to the city and, in doing so, gives more weight to Nina’s story. When Nina is finally evicted from the strict, Catholic boarding school, Akerman follows her in a long tracking shot through a dark, busy street in Phnom Penh (Cambodia stands in for Malaysia). Marion walks like a model, with her neck straight and her shoulders arched, and Akerman allows us the time and opportunity to really watch her. It’s a powerful moment of rebirth for a young woman who has spent the majority of her life “in jail” (Akerman’s words), but her triumph is short-lived. When Nina finally confronts the father who abandoned her, she tells him bitterly, “They taught me to walk like a real girl.” A contemporary, sympathetic reading of Conrad’s novel might commend it for its critique of the dehumanising tendencies of colonialism, both on the colonised and the coloniser, but Akerman goes a few steps further. By rebalancing the dynamics of the central relationships, she finds — surprisingly, perhaps — greater sympathy for everyone involved.

Philippe Garrel’s latest, Un été brûlant (That Summer), begins with a fantasy. We’re first introduced to François (Louis Garrel), who is drinking alone and moodily (it’s Louis Garrel after all) on a sunny afternoon, before Garrel cuts to a high-angle shot of a fully nude, reclining Monica Bellucci, who slowly reaches out her hand toward the camera. Bellucci, we eventually learn, plays Angèle, François’s movie-star wife. Theirs is a tempestuous relationship marked by jealousy, betrayal and also deep, genuine affection. François is a recognisable Garrel “type”: artistic, melancholic, charming, reticent and philandering. Angèle is a bombshell and makes no apologies for it (it’s Monica Bellucci after all), but in her marriage, at least, she’s also sincere and solicitous. When François invites Paul (Jérôme Robart) and his girlfriend Élisabeth (Céline Sallette) to come live with them for the summer in Rome, Un été brûlant appears to be making that familiar turn into Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? territory, where the outsiders act as both a mirror and a catalyst, provoking a final, furious confrontation. And in some ways, that is, indeed, what happens, but Garrel’s compassion for each of the four characters prevents the film from becoming schematic. Like Klotz and Perceval, Garrel looks upon the next generation with both wonder and concern. There’s a moving and deep sadness in this film. It’s that familiar soul sickness that plagues so much of Garrel’s work. But unlike, say, La frontière de l’aube (Frontier of Dawn, 2008), which is so self-contained and dire, Un été brûlant exists in a larger world, where joy and sacrifice can offer absolution. Credit for the difference between the two films goes equally to Willy Kurant’s beautiful colour photography; to the invention of Paul and Élisabeth, who offer glimpses of an alternative to François’s despair (between this film and L’Apollinade, Céline Sallette was the star of the fest); and to a brief, unexpected, final on-screen appearance by Maurice Garrel, whose laughter and kind gaze haunt the film.

Other Fall Premieres

I saw a handful of other features that premiered in either Venice or Toronto, and among them were the only two films at the fest I actively disliked. Steve McQueen’s Shame stars Michael Fassbender as Brandon, a wealthy New York businessman whose sex addiction begins to intrude into other areas of his carefully compartmentalised life. Carey Mulligan plays his sister, a pixie-ish, down-and-out lounge singer with razor-scarred wrists. Through their manic-depressive interactions, we’re gradually given vague glimpses into Brandon and Sissy’s shared and presumably tragic past. “This film features a sex-addicted character, but it’s actually about much more,” Shame’s defenders would argue, and I suppose I see their point. But McQueen’s artifice-obsessed visual style, questionable plotting (particularly a homophobic turn near the end), and Harry Escott’s bombastic score keep getting in the way. The only time Shame really came to life for me was during a long scene between Brandon and a coworker who he’s met for a date. Fassbender’s uncanny charm plays against him in interesting ways as he struggles, awkwardly, to maintain his pose.

The other major disappointment of the fest also came from England. I was intrigued by the prospect of Andrea Arnold directing an adaptation of Wuthering Heights because her first two films, Red Road (2006) and Fish Tank (2009), are visually interesting but poorly plotted. I’d hoped that being constrained by a classic text would rein in her histrionics, and, indeed, for the first half hour or so the film does produce an exciting frisson. By casting young, working-class non-actors in the lead roles, and by making Heathcliff black rather than the “gypsy” of Brontë’s novel, Arnold defamiliarises a tale that has become bloated over the years with stuffy British airs. Watching Hindley Earnshaw act out his sadistic cruelty on Solomon Glave’s young black body — Arnold shoots with the same hyperrealism that characterises her other films — is a decidedly unusual viewing experience and one that forced me to rethink the Heathcliff creation story. The novelty, however, soon wears thin as Wuthering Heights follows the course set by Arnold’s first two films, collapsing into a frenzied mess in the final act.

Two more auteurs premiered adaptations of classic texts this fall, both of them grotesque, absurd, and, on occasion, surprisingly stirring. Alexander Sokurov’s Faust opens with a CGIed descent through the clouds and a God’s eye view of a small mountain town whose Expressionistic design recalls Murnau’s famous telling of the Goethe tale. Sokurov then cuts to a close-up of a rotting cock. “Where is the soul?” Faust asks, leaning his face in close to the flayed corpse. Rather than concentrating on the consequences of Faust’s famous bargain (which, ultimately, don’t seem particularly grave), Sokurov is more interested in the motivating temptations. Mephistopheles appears in the form of a hunchbacked moneylender (Anton Adasinsky), who leads Faust (Johannes Zeiler) by the hand through the town — and through an endless, rambling discourse — before finally stumbling upon a soul-worthy prize, one night with the beautiful and innocent Gretchen (Isolda Dychauk). Sokurov packs his 4:3 frame with bodies that are in constant, stumbling motion. For the majority of its 130 minutes, Faust exists in a claustrophobic and deeply unpleasant world, which makes the few moments of clarity, particularly one radiant and silent close-up of Gretchen, all the more moving and sacrifice-worthy.

Guy Maddin’s Keyhole is a gangster-style adaptation of The Odyssey set entirely in Ulysses Pick’s (Jason Patric) family home. Accompanied by an eccentric menagerie of characters, including a beautiful drowning victim and her tied-up lover, Manners, Ulysses sets off for the top floor in hopes of reconciling with his wife, Hyacinth (Isabella Rossellini). Along the way they encounter ghosts of the dead and visions of trauma from the past. There are monsters to be fought, including a hilarious-if-juvenile joke of a Cyclops, and we eventually learn that Manners is, in fact, Ulysses’s lost son. Keyhole is a perverse and barely coherent explosion of Freudian chaos, even by Maddin’s own standards, and the critical consensus has been mostly negative. What saves it, I think, and what makes it very much a Maddin film, is the final reel, when the ghost story fantasy fades, leaving only the home, an epic battlefield. In the end, Keyhole is Manners’ story, and the emotional core of the film is that primal desire for the domestic security of childhood.

The most pleasant surprise of the fest was Julia Loktev’s The Loneliest Planet, which begins in the vein of Antonioni before settling into something much smaller and more intimate. Alex (Gael García Bernal) and Nica (Hani Furstenberg) are an engaged couple backpacking through eastern Europe. The film opens as they arrive in a small town in Georgia, where they spend an evening drinking and dancing before deciding to hire a local, Dato (Bidzina Gujabidze), to lead them on a four-day hike through the desolate Caucasus mountains. Alex and Nica are by every indication a warm and committed couple. Loktev devotes the entire first half of the film to documenting the particular ease they share with one another — the way they pass familiar glances when in the company of strangers, or the simple pleasures they enjoy when climbing rocks together and making love. When the couple and their guide set off into the wilderness, Loktev breaks the narrative into chapters, dividing the sections with long, painterly shots of the imposing Georgian landscape accompanied by dissonant strings. These chapter breaks only heighten the increasingly palpable sense of dread and danger that characterises the first half of their journey.

I was frustrated by Loktev’s first narrative feature, Day Night Day Night, because her decision to elide the specific political motivations of her central character, a would-be suicide bomber, turns the film into a prolonged exercise in Hitchcockian suspense. The deliberate ambiguity there seems provocative in the worst sense of the word. The Loneliest Planet turns on a similarly ambiguous provocation, but it works brilliantly in the context of this specific relationship. At the midpoint of the film, two men stumble upon the couple’s camp, and after exchanging heated words with Dato, the older of the two raises his AK-47 and points it at the young lovers. Alex, in a flash of instinct, pushes Nica between himself and the gun before immediately recognising his mistake and stepping back in front of her. It’s an unexpectedly literary turn for a film like this, the kind of obnoxiously symbolic moment that would doom a Hemingway hero. But Loktev does something remarkable with it. Instead of taking the expected turn toward increasing conflict and violence (I worried briefly I was in for another Gerry [Van Sant, 2002] or Twentynine Palms [Dumont, 2003]), Loktev simply continues documenting their relationship. They walk on in silence now, traumatised by the event and by Alex’s “shameful” behaviour. I use scare quotes there because the film forces us to judge Alex and also to examine our own gendered standards. The film is most interesting, though, as a portrait of a loving relationship in a moment of crisis. Alex follows Nica through an abandoned house, desperate to reach out and comfort her but familiar enough with her behaviour to know that it’s not yet time. Dato, unexpectedly, becomes a temptation for Nica, an embodiment of the petty, what-if fantasies we all have when we fight with our partners. Loktev wisely leaves the fate of the couple undecided, which is precisely why the film works so well. Long-term relationships last because both people commit to the struggle of forgiveness and reconciliation. The Loneliest Planet gives us every reason to believe Alex and Nica can survive as a couple, but will they?

Toronto International Film Festival
8-18 September 2011
website: http://tiff.net/thefestival