The Forbidden Room
The 2015 edition of the Toronto International Film Festival has drawn to a close, the ticket stubs have been swept up, the people from elsewhere have all gone back to elsewhere and the weather has chilled. After so much time watching movies, staying up too late, drinking too much and having fleeting close encounters with those passing through, it’s hard not to feel like I just experienced some rich, dense, prolonged dream. Especially when so many of the most striking films at TIFF 2015 possessed the feverish pulse or seductive fluidity of dreams—yes, I’m thinking of you, The Forbidden Room, Guy Maddin and Evan Johnson’s intoxicating and hilarious nesting-doll mega-narrative, which transports us into a volcanic island, a submarine where sailors eat pancakes for extra oxygen and a wolf’s den where bizarre tests of brain and braun are undertaken. Those are just a few of this film’s hallucinatory rest-stops, many of which feature cameos from the likes of Geraldine Chaplin, Charlotte Rampling and Udo Kier. Maddin has made the most dynamic next step possible in his extremely particular oeuvre, and The Forbidden Room will be writhing its way into a theatre near you soon.
More sober by comparison—what wouldn’t be?—but no less errant and wide ranging in its trajectory, Tabu writer-director Miguel Gomes’ Arabian Nights trilogy was presented at TIFF both as three separate screenings and as a single back-to-back six-hour marathon. Gomes hasn’t adapted Scheherazade’s Arabian Nights but, rather, borrowed its episodic structure as a means of casting a panoramic view of his country in the midst of its ongoing austerity crisis. Gomes and his collaborators spent eleven months traversing Portugal in search of stories, places and faces, blending these elements into an unforgettable, anachronistic, documentary-fiction hybrid. At one point we meet a dog who gives what may prove to be the single greatest performance of 2015 by man or beast. Cinema doesn’t get a lot more inventive, resourceful, socially engaged and daring than this.
The Forbidden Room and Arabian Nights both premiered at major festivals earlier in the year, but of the new or nearly new films at TIFF 2015 my favourite was easily Brazilian filmmaker and visual artist Gabriel Mascaro’s Neon Bull, which follows a handful of people doing the grunt work on a traveling vaquejada, or Brazilian rodeo show. Featuring rapturous photography from Diego García—who also shot Cemetery of Splendour, featured in last weeks’ TIFF report—Neon Bull brims with sensuous, gorgeously composed images of people and animals in settings where the indoors and the outdoors meet. It introduces us to memorable characters struggling against confining economics but dreaming nonetheless of bigger things. Near its finale is one of the most astonishing, beautiful and moving love scenes in recent memory, incorporating themes of work, class and gender in a single, perfect, unbroken shot.
Neon Bull was one of a dozen films featured in TIFF’s new Platform section, named after Jia Zhangke’s masterpiece, which “spotlights the next generation of masters.” Platform is a competitive section and its winner gets $25,000. The inaugural judges were Jia himself, along with Claire Denis and Agnieszka Holland—a very formidable jury, which made it that much more surprising when it was announced that their prize would be going to Hurt, Toronto director Alan Zweig’s documentary about Steve Fonyo. Knowing that I will be seeing Hurt soon enough I didn’t catch it at during TIFF. Zweig has made at least one truly superb film—A Hard Name—and I have absolutely no doubt that the film is very good, though knowing Sweig’s work it is very hard to imagine that Hurt, pegged as an outlier from the outset, meets the criteria for auteur-driven innovation that Platform seems to imply. Perhaps this is what happens when you get three very opinionated cinematic giants—one of whom is my favourite living director—trying to agree on something.
Still, it doesn’t take cinematic giants to arrive at a frustrating compromise. This year’s International Critics Prize in TIFF’s Special Presentation section went to Desierto, Jonás Cuarón’s exceedingly cliché-ridden thriller about Mexican migrants getting hunted down by a xenophobic, murderous lunatic. Were this an exploitation flick made by Larry Cohen in the 1970s it might have had its shaggy charm, but this vehicle for Gael García Bernal and Jeffrey Dean Morgan, helmed by the son of an extremely successful director, is riddled with the sort of things that should send Cuarón to screenwriter’s jail and features only the most superficial of polemical threads. Perhaps better compromises can be arrived at by thousands of people who have never really met: the People’s Choice Award, a prize one doesn’t usually expect to go to challenging or especially artful films, went to Lenny Abrahamson’s surprisingly strong adaptation of Emma Donoghue’s bestselling Room.
A few more notes-in-brief before I close this. Hou Hsaio-hsien’s martial arts film The Assassin is as exquisite and a lot more heartfelt than its reputation suggests. Athina Rachel Tsangari’s Chevalier, which chronicles an increasingly ridiculous competition to be “best at everything” between a half-dozen men on a yacht is truly one of the funniest movies I’ve seen in ages. Lucille Hadžihalilović’s haunting Evolution is set in some strange seaside place where there are only pretty little boys and women with mask-like faces and whatever is really going on here is super-sinister. Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson’s stop-motion Anomalisa, about a middle-aged motivational speaker staying at a Cincinnati hotel, is an absolutely ingenious conception, with every tiny detail tweaked so as to speak to its theme of the world’s numbing sameness and the way that sameness can be alleviated—however briefly—by falling in love. Unfortunately it is also one of these films where once the initial mystifications dissolve and you realize where it’s all going it no longer seems as emotionally resonant as you’d hoped.
Chantal Akerman’s No Home Movie is a first-person documentary bidding farewell to the director’s late mother and is so very knowing about the struggles involved in watching a parent age. Patricio Guzmán’s The Pearl Button considers the exploitation of Chile’s indigenous people under Pinochet and, like the director’s rigorously associational masterpiece Nostalgia for the Light, a great many other fascinating topics. Lastly, Sergei Loznitsa’s The Event is a elegantly constructed collage of archival footage shot in Leningrad in August 1991 during what was effectively the fall of the Soviet Union. This mesmerizing, lively film chronicles an even that’s still less than a quarter-century-old, yet it’s almost impossible to believe these days that Russia was once so full of optimism, marveling at their country’s new possibilities. What stays with you most are the faces of those people filling the streets in the days before social media, all of them wanting to know what’s going to happen, wanting to be part of something. I love sequestering myself in the cinema, but The Event makes you long for the open air, for the clamour of your fellow citizens, and, even more than in the most finely tuned drama, for a reason to wonder what will happen next.