Sunday, September 12, 2010

TIFF '10: Ways of dying

The 35th Toronto International Film Festival is in full swing, and I’ve finally found some time to give a few impressions. The weather’s been kind of rotten. I got soaked last night biking home from a sort of ridiculous event held at a downtown beauty salon. Everyone was waiting for Guillermo Del Toro, not the first guy you think of when you think of high-end cosmetics. Rubbery prosthetics, sure, but energizing foot moisturizers not so much. When he finally arrived the poor guy was accosted out front so insistently it took about an hour for him just to get in the door. I spoke with him only briefly. We had a very silly exchange about tacos. I guess I was hungry. It started to pour precisely when I decided to make my way home, too drunk on free wine to have the sense to take a streetcar. Halfway along my journey my complimentary bag of cosmetics became so waterlogged it burst all over Queen Street. As I parked my bike on the curb and ran out into Saturday night traffic it occurred to me that if I were hit by a cab and killed while fishing tubes of gels and creams out of puddles I would probably feel really embarrassed about it afterwards. But we’re talking about, I don’t know, $200 in beauty products here. Anyway, I didn’t die.

I have however been watching a number of movies about dying, how best to face up to it, and how best to deal with its aftermath. By far the most playful of these is Athina Rachel Tsangari’s
Attenberg, which opens with what is certainly the most awkward on-screen kiss in recent memory before unfolding its narrative through something like cinematic snapshots, brief, often wordless scenes punctured with curiosity, mischief, humour, and a subtle, creeping morbidity. Whole days in Tsangari’s expansive chronology are conveyed with just a few such enigmatic passages. Like last year’s Dogtooth, which Tsangari co-produced, Attenberg is marked by its somewhat perverse engagement in family, belated sexual development, and an extreme case of naïveté that, aggressively quirky as it may be, is mercifully and rigorously stripped of affectation—its lead actress Ariane Labed just won a much-deserved award at Venice. Dogtooth director Giorgios Lanthimos meanwhile shows up here playing a kindly, soft-spoken love interest who connects with Labed by way of their mutual fondness for the ’70s electro-punk duo Suicide. Tsangari’s approach is at once anthropological, elliptical, and surrealistically comic. The movie surprised me more than once, not the least reason being that it genuinely touched me by the time it concluded. It’s the story of a dying widower trying to prepare his adult daughter for, well, basically for he rest of her life. Like Claire Denis’ 35 Rhums, this feels like another enormously creative variation on Ozu’s Late Spring.

Alejandro González Iñárritu’s
Biutiful finds a very stressed-out Javier Bardem given only weeks to live and trying his best to ensure his children will be safe after he’s gone. The Barcelona they’re inheriting is forbidding, characterized most boldly by illegal migrant labourers living in secret huddled masses and in danger of mass arrests or meaningless death. Their mother is deeply unstable and unable to see her kids as dependents rather than peers. The movie feels like a study in entropy, though there is some consolation via rather beautifully staged intimations of an afterlife. Bardem’s character has a special gift: he speaks with the recently deceased and thus knows there’s something after all this suffering and worry. His performance is marvelous, alternately fiery and calm, and there are moments, sequences, actually, of real grace—we’re dealing with a director that above all thinks in sequences—but there’s also that nagging sense that González Iñárritu is, once again, just too heavy-handed, too eager to impart upon us his own ostensible profundity. I have very mixed feelings, though nothing in Biutiful irritated me as much as that third act of Babel.

Alexei Fedorchenko’s
Silent Souls begins in the Kostroma village of Neya, “a place no one remembers anymore,” while its story deals with customs that are equally in danger of being forgotten. A woman dies, and her husband, the director of a paper mill, wants to deal with her remains in the traditional ways of the Merja, an ancient Finno-Ugric tribe from whom many of Neya’s citizens are descended. This involves, among other things, washing the body, fastening coloured ribbons to her pubic hair, and transporting her to a river, where she’s to be cremated before having her ashes deposited in the water. The ritual requires the cooperation of the paper mill’s photographer, who’s the picture of discretion, and also our narrator. Silent Souls just won the FIPRESCI prize at Venice and has already received a lot of highly enthusiastic reviews. It’s a serious, thoughtful, very respectful work, and I’m happy to see it doing well, but I just wasn’t quite as taken with it as many of my colleagues. Based on a novel by Aist Sergeyev, I am sure found it too reliant on voice-over, too overbearing in its use of music, and, even when taking the somberness of the action into account, its performances still struck me as a little more lifeless than seemed entirely necessary. Yet its story, especially as it pertains to the Merja culture, is never less than fascinating. It’s final image is truly poetic—and relayed almost entirely through voice-over.

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