Thursday, September 20, 2012

TIFF '12: True stories of people and animals

Once Upon a Time Was I, Veronica

Hotel rooms and bars, coffee shops and offices, street corners and many different screening rooms. In long lines. Every once on a while, at my desk. Here and there, in my own warm bed. It was a good TIFF for ol’ JB, busy, largely free of the runaround, free booze, too much coffee, too little food, movies movies movies, including several very good ones, some of which will make their way toward the regular sorts of cinemas, many of which will recede into the vast film festival fog. In that former, happy category, keep your eyes peeled for an expansive post here in phantom country about something we like to call Tabu, from Portugal’s Miguel Gomes. In that latter, frustrating category, a great discovery for me was a character study entitled One Upon a Time Was I, Veronica, from another Gomes, this one a Brazilian named Marcello. It’s a sensual, wise film I knew nothing about going in. Its eponymous heroine (Hermila Guedes) is a young doctor who lives with her ailing dad, whom she loves—seemingly to the exclusion of others; the film belongs in that small niche of sensitive, complicated films about fathers and daughters, a niche which also includes Claire Denis’ 35 Rhums and Ozu’s Late Spring. Veronica has good friends, loves to swim and to dance. She has an active, often fulfilling sex life, vividly captured in several memorable scenes, often full of laughter and happy fumbling, but she feels no great urge to get serious with anyone. Using a handheld recording device she undertakes some amateur self-analysis; she conceives of a movie of her life where she gets a happy ending of her own idiosyncratic design. Refusing to force any artificial resolutions upon Veronica, Gomes helps her find that ending, which became only more satisfying to me the more I thought about it in the hours and days afterward.

Something in the Air

More likely to garner a proper theatrical run in the near future—one would hope, anyway—is Something in the Air (Après mai). Set in the early ’70s, the latest from Olivier Assayas, the prolific writer-director of Irma Vep, Summer Hours and Carlos, is an autobiographical portrait of the artist as a young dissident, trying to forge a political identity while struggling to come to terms with a calling as suspiciously bourgeois as painting (Assayas’ métier before he got into cinema). The film moves fluidly from one extended scene to another, through demonstrations, nocturnal vandalizing, ideological powwows, travels abroad, brushes with mysticism and drugs, trysts with likeminded lovers, hellos and farewells with sundry friends, art classes and film sets. Elegant and inquisitive, rich with period detail, Assayas keeps just the right distance at all times, never judging his characters, however young and zealous, never over-emphasizing a single scene to give us a false sense of sudden realization: self-discovery is an ongoing process, and Something in the Air simply lets us drift along with its teenage protagonist for a while, long enough to sense the great changes that occur both in his own psyche and in that of an entire generation trying to make sense of the world in the wake of that titular turning point of May, 1968.

Ginger and Rosa

Sally Potter’s Ginger and Rosa takes a somewhat similar tack, tracing the collapse of a friendship between two teenage Londoners in the early ’60s, one of whom (Elle Fanning) becomes increasingly devoted to the cause of nuclear disarmament, the other (Alice Englert) to finding some bohemian-traditonally domestic hybrid life with her best friend’s handsome writer father (Alessandro Nivola). The film ends rather too neatly, but the lead-up is utterly engrossing, and the supporting cast, which includes Timothy Spall, Annette Benning and Christina Hendricks, is marvelous.

Post Tenebrus Lux

Family life may seem wildly fraught in Ginger and Rosa, but those aspiring adolescent radicals and their lusty, misguided dads ain’t got nothing on the violent, neglectful, doomed patriarchs of Mexican writer/director Carlos Reygadas’ Post Tenebras Lux. Like Something in the Air and Ginger and Rosa, the film is very much grounded in autobiography, though when refracted through the prism of Reygadas’ (often beveled) lens, personal memories and anxieties blend with fantasies and dreams, visions of radiant demons carrying toolboxes (a archetypical fatherly accessory if ever there was one) and spectacular acts of self-destruction. There’s little in the chronologically amorphous Post Tenebras Lux that lends itself to easy synopsizing; let’s just say that the young family at its center, living in beautiful rural Morelos, move through a series of crises both banal and mythic: the sexual dissatisfactions of life after kids, substance abuse, betrayals, attempted thefts, and petty acts of revenge. The kids are played by Reygadas’ own children, and give some of the most natural and mesmerizing performances I’ve seen this year from humans. (See below for non-humans.) Just watch that gorgeous, eerie opening bit, where little Rut, just old enough to walk, scurries through a dusky valley where all sorts of livestock get restless and the sky darkens and thunders. Tenebras, indeed.


Of the Canadian titles I caught, Sarah Polley’s Stories We Tell (yet another fascinating, formally engaged, autobiographical work) and Peter Mettler’s smart but deeply groovy hypno-essay film about the nature of time, The End of Time, are both strong works that will be dealt with in this here country soon enough. But my favourite Canadian film this TIFF? Bestiare, from Quebec’s ever-inventive Denis Côté, auteur of Carcasses and Curling. As the streets of downtown Toronto were stampeded by fans, stargazers and nut-jobs clamouring like wild beasts for a closer view of, say, Shia Leboeuf, I was tucked away in Lightbox, delighted and mesmerized by the many animals on display in Côté’s observational, but also witty, playful, maybe political (but probably not), quietly provocative and beautifully crafted study of four seasons of life at the Hemingford Parc Safari zoo. For all the big stars striding the red carpets in expensive clothes over the last week and a half, I confess that I was most drawn toward the hairy ones, the four-legged ones, the odorous ones, the inarticulate yet inherently cinematic stars that graced Bestiare. Here’s hoping you get a chance to see them yourself soon. 

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