Wednesday, September 14, 2011

TIFF '11: The roles we play

In the last few years I’ve been able to interview Werner Herzog several times in connection with his Toronto International Film Festival premieres, and as much as I enjoy these experiences—Herzog is nothing if not entertaining company—our conversations, if you can call them that, along with his public appearances, have made me increasingly suspicious: Has the filmmaker become too much of a showman? Has his schtick become too wrote, his eccentricities token, a put-on, an extension of the sort of too-recognizably Herzogian branding that threatens to over-burden films like My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done?, converting them into a sort of check list? When I speak to him I feel less like he’s responding to my questions than he’s launching almost randomly into his prepared anecdotes, which are part of his hard-sell. (“Herzog always delivers!”) But I’ve just seen Into the Abyss, his new film about two inmates in Texas—one on death row, one serving a sentence that wouldn’t see him up for parole for another 40 years—and the families of those inmates victims. It has no trademark Herzog voice-over, and features no exotic landscapes (unless you consider rural Texas to be exotic). And watching it I realize that, while Herzog the public figure may seem less than engaged with an honest and open exchange, Herzog the filmmaker is in fact more invested in people at this point in his career than at any other. In Encounters at the End of the World he was as interested in the people who filter down to the bottom of the world as he was in the Antarctic undersea strangeness. In Cave of Forgotten Dreams he was as curious about the scientists at work in the Chauvet Cave as he was in the cave’s astounding Stone Age art. Into the Abyss is an extraordinary film precisely because of Herzog’s faith in his subjects, all of them struggling to come to terms with different kinds of murder, to supply the film with its wonder and meaning. He listens exceedingly well. He provokes, he seeks out quirk at every chance, but he also exudes real compassion without flamboyant sentiment.

On a somewhat similar note, Alps, the latest from Yorgos Lanthimos, which had its TIFF premiere to some very enthusiastic fans last night, echoes Dogtooth, its predecessor, in its obsession with role-playing and heavily constructed modes of behaviour: the film is about a group of people who rent themselves out as surrogates to people who have lost a loved one, pretending to be the dearly departed for as long as it takes to get over the loss. Of course, it’s kooky and formalist as all hell. It’s also fascinating, and surprisingly poignant. A potential point of contention for some will lay in the fact that while the flat performance style of Dogtooth was contained within a cloistered family unit, Alps opens up the canvas to the rest of the world—and it turns out that everyone else acts like that too. But this filmmaker, so drawn to intricate, rule-laden systems and the process of how they inevitably break down, is not as schematic as the oppressive patriarchal figures he creates. As rigorously Bressonian as his films’ now apparently de rigueur performance style is, there is still room for spontaneity. There are moments when his protagonist—beautifully played by Aggeliki Papoulia—becomes so immersed in the people she’s temporarily resurrecting that emotional or guttural responses break up, or rather transcend her deadpan. There are real people with real feelings in Alps—it’s just that they’re placed in situations that interrogate the very notion of how feelings are expressed.

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