Wednesday, September 17, 2014

TIFF '14: Emotional weather report

Clouds of Sils Maria

Breaking from its customary early September chill, Toronto finally took revenge on the polar vortex. The highs were in the 30s. I would have under any normal circumstance savoured the pristine skies and hot sun, but I spent those days happily lost in the clouds. Clouds of Sils Maria, to be precise. My best consecutive three hours in the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival included a relaxed, extensive interview over good coffee with the ever-engaged and engaging Olivier Assayas, Clouds’ writer and director, followed by a live, on-stage, career-surveying conversation between TIFF CEO and programmer Piers Handling and the luminous, fiercely intelligent Juliette Binoche, Clouds’ star and, to some extent, its subject. Clouds follows a successful French actress in middle age who accepts a role in a remount of the play that made her career. Except that where once she played the ingénue she’s now in the role of the older woman with whom the ingénue tumbles into a fiery erotic entanglement. Most of Clouds is set in a remote Alpine cottage where Binoche runs lines and runs into some eerily parallel relationship with her assistant, played a remarkably good Kristin Stewart. Elements of Persona hover over Clouds, but Assayas infuses the film with a strangeness and resonance entirely native to this particular story, its ghostly location, its lead actress and chief collaborator, and its sense of what it means to immerse oneself, at risk of losing oneself, in the liminal space between play and reality.

above: Foxcatcher 
below: Maps to the Stars

It is not lost on me that that last bit also summarizes the experience of attending a major festival like TIFF. Movies-movies-movies, interviews, prepping interviews, movies-movies, the hunt for free drinks, the remoteness of sleep or a balanced meal. Head in the clouds. No complaints. I’ve seen a number of good bigger films coming soon to a theatre near you. Foxcatcher fuses keyword elements from director Bennett Miller’s earlier features, Capote and Moneyball. Depicting the fateful convergence of multi-millionaire John Eleuthère du Pont (Steve Carrel, with prosthetics) and Olympic wrestlers Mark (Channing Tatum) and Dave Schwartz (Mark Ruffalo), it’s a true-crime sports movie, a critique of American entitlement blanketed from frame one in absolute inescapable dread. Speaking of dread, I’ve also seen pabulum disguised as humanist social study: Men, Women & Children, Jason Reitman’s ensemble drama about suburban white people sex lives in something dressed like the digital age, is not good, and unfortunately it is not not-good in the sort of hypnotically appalling way that Labor Day was not-good, or, rather, bad. Alas. The title suggests that it’s “for everybody.” I’ve also beheld the weirdness that is David Cronenberg helming a Hollywood satire. Julianne Moore gives a truly gutsy performance as a popular actress panicking in middle age (yes, there’s a few this year, and why not?) and Cronenberg makes this odd choice of project fascinatingly his own, but the script feels out-dated and unfocused. Of course, I’m probably still going to watch it several times. It’s Cronenberg. He’s never not-interesting.

above: The Princess of France
below: Jauja

But a perfect day at TIFF still speaks to me in Spanish. Or whatever that shushy variation of castellano is that Argentines speak. And man, can they speak. Most especially if they’re in a Matías Piñeiro movie. This charismatic, prolific and rather ingenious young porteño crafts taut, fluidly photographed films packed with incredible aural and visual density. The Princess of France is his third film to deposit fragmented Shakespearean comedies into a contemporary Buenoes Aires full of young people talking about love and reading and art-making. There is a tremendous amount of kissing in this dizzyingly cryptic but utterly delightful spin on Love’s Labour’s Lost. There’s also soccer, Schumann, and dancing in the dark. No such mirthful activities are to be found in Jauja, Liverpool director Lisandro Alonso’s wonderfully creepy and visually stunning chronicle of a doomed Patagonian exploration undertaken by a 19th century Danish engineer---played by Viggo Mortensen! He gets lost in the wilds searching for his errant teenaged daughter and speaks excellent broken Spanish with a Danish accent.

The Duke of Burgundy

But lets get back to the monarchy. If The Princess is easily one of this festival’s best films, The Duke of Burgundy is not too far behind in the ranking. Berberian Sound Studio director Peter Strickland’s third feature is set in a world without men, a sly conceit that allows him to tell this tale of love-term love heightened then hampered by sadomasochism without the distraction of having to represent gender or homosexuality in a story that’s really about something else. Like Clouds, the film’s women interact with the mediating device of a kind of theatre, a script that dictates the narrative of their elaborate erotic fantasy life. The film generates suspense through the ambiguity of what’s scripted and what is, for lack of a better word, genuine. But to reduce The Duke of Burgundy to a story synopsis is to ignore what really animates Strickland’s fecund imagination. The film is rife with beguiling flurries of images of forests, lingerie and butterflies, with sounds of clocks, sighs, heavy heels on wood floors. It’s intoxicating, funny, bizarre, yet totally relatable. Yes, a love story, that evergreen of film types. 

Two Days, One Night

And then the weather turned. Midway through this year’s Toronto International Film Festival the rain came, the movie-interview-bad diet-scheduling nightmare-late party-general hustling regimen led to inevitable exhaustion and, in my case, a head cold. The temperature dropped 20 degrees in two days, but the cold that descended on Toronto and its thousands of cocktail dress-clad women was not enough to freeze out the big, bruised-heartedness of the Dardenne brothers’ Two Days, One Night, which finds Marion Cotillard, the Dardennes’ first movie star, marching doggedly under summer sun across Seraing, Belgium to convince her co-workers at a solar panel factory to give up their bonuses so she can keep her job. Brimming with sentiment yet fundamentally unsentimental, Two Days calls for but does not expect solidarity as it hurtles toward its inspired climax. 

above: Time Out of Mind
below: Heaven Knows What

Some of the underdogs represented at TIFF 2014 trumped Cotillard’s protagonist, who fears her family will be relegated to public housing, by not having housing at all! But while Cotillard-as-working class caused me not a momentary ripple of disbelief, it isn’t easy to get over the notion of Richard Gere as an alcoholic homeless man in Oren Moverman’s Critics’ Prize-winning Time Out of Mind. The hurdle is somewhat mitigated by Moverman’s choice to make virtually every cramped frame of his film a palimpsest of fences, bars, passing cars and other blurred foreground objects obscuring Gere. This shrewdly saturated mise en scène serves to remind of the invisibility of its central character, a non-entity with a hand out. I have all kinds of reservations, but the accrued loneliness of Time Out of Mind clung to me. The Safdie brothers’ Heaven Knows What is Time’s opposite: made with zero stars and little money, it follows a young homeless addict as she traipses New York, attempts suicide, gets high, screams and says “fuck” a lot. Its lead is, or was, a genuine homeless addict and author of the film’s source material. It’s an arresting film that goes nowhere. It feels fully derived from the real, though I’m not sure it gives the real anything back in return.

The Look of Silence

While we’re getting real, let me tell you about the greatest nonfiction film at TIFF, which may be the greatest nonfiction film of 2014, and is certainly part of one of the greatest nonfiction cinema projects of this century. Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Look of Silence is a companion piece to last year’s The Act of Killing, but where that film explored Indonesia’s legacy of violence by getting intimate with those who did the killing in the anti-communist purges of the 1960s, this new film, an immersive study in reconciliation, fear and forgiveness, focuses on the victims, in particular one man, Adi, whose brother was mutilated and murdered. Adi is an optometrist and pays visits on his neighbours, some of them directly involved in the killing. He tests their eyes as well as their willingness to recognize their own heinous acts. Adi was at the screening I attended. I think the gravity of what he’s done with Oppenheimer must have hit him in a new way while watching the film with an audience of stunned foreigners. He was unable to even speak during the Q&A. This man’s courage is unbelievable moving to me. Oppenheimer’s achievement with these films will be discussed for many years to come.

above: Pasolini
below: Manglehorn

A very different sort of true story gets a curious workout in Abel Ferrera’s gorgeously photographed Pasolini, which stars Willem Dafoe as the late Italian polymath and cinematic provocateur. The film follows Pasolini on the final days of his life, which ended in brutal murder. The film also realizes fragments of two projects Pasolini would have made had he lived, and this aspect of Pasolini is a lot goofier. Maybe not as goofy as the streetdancers or the mime or the Harmony Korine-run massage parlour in David Gordon Green’s Manglehorn, but Manglehorn is supposed to be kinda goofy. Let’s call it a work of goofy beauty, a tale of longing and confusion in old age, featuring a brilliant, endlessly inventive central performance from Al Pacino as a Texan locksmith slipping into dementia. Pacino also slips into dementia and is also brilliant and inventive in Barry Levinson’s The Humbling, but that movie is a goddamned mess and a gross misreading of the Philip Roth source novel.

above: Sand Dollards
below: Goodbye to Language

The Japanese protagonist of Korean comic maestro Hong Sang-soo’s Hill of Freedom spends much of the film reading a book about the nature of time, probably not aware that as he waits to meet an elusive Korean woman he is himself in a strange, wonderful, chronology-defying little movie about the nature of time. Time weights heavily on Geraldine Chaplin in Laura Amelia Guzmán and Israel Cárdenas’ excellent Sand Dollars, which finds Chaplin’s wealthy sextagenarian tourist falling perilously in love with a very young and lovely woman in the Dominican Republic. Time can be read and revered in the centuries-old architecture visited and pondered in La Sapienza, French director Eugène Green’s stirring story of remarriage. Lastly, time is chopped up, toyed with, stacked and elongated in Goodbye to Language, the enduringly iconoclastic Jean-Luc Godard’s clipped, playful 3D extravaganza. It was my last screening of TIFF 2014. To my surprise, it seemed every other person I know in Toronto was there and eager to discuss and laugh and decompress afterward, a reminder that for all the pomp, red carpets and tiresome Oscar buzz, film festivals are at their best when they serve to create communities of people who cherish cinema as a shared experience.   


Bunched Undies said...

Wonderful article filled with great info, thank you.
It's funny, I had a similar experience when I saw Goodbye to Language at a commercial cinema in Paris this summer. After the film, all us patrons milled about chatting in a variety of languages. In this case no one knew each other, but it felt strangely like a reunion of an unofficial Godard fan club. I wonder if JLG would be thrilled or appalled to know his film brought people together.

JB said...

Thanks, Bunchie. That sounds like a lovely encounter with Goodbye. And I'm sure JLG's cockles would be warmed.

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