Saturday, September 19, 2015

TIFF '15 Part One: High and low

The Toronto International Film Festival moved its base of operations downtown a few years back with the grand opening of TIFF Bell Lightbox, an elegantly designed five-cinema arthouse multiplex, complete with offices, restaurants, an art gallery, a bookstore and, wink-wink, a high-end optometrist. Being at the corner of King and John places TIFF smack-dab in the heart of one of many Toronto urban zones that, like urban zones the world over, is being rapidly overtaken by high-rise apartments—in fact there is a high-rise apartment building attached to TIFF Bell Ligthbox. It’s thus all too apropos that one of the most highly anticipated films in this year’s Festival is a film about a high-rise, one that harkens back to the early days of this particular architectural-lifestyle phenomenon while looking forward to the rampant, violent psychopathy the phenomenon obviously engenders.

Based on one of the late J.G. Ballard’s most essential novels and directed by Ben Wheatley (Kill List, A Field in England), High-Rise is, naturally, a horror movie. The story, faithfully adapted by Amy Jump, Wheatley’s partner in life and cinema, follows the same trajectory of many Ballard narratives, obsessed as they are with the way that civilization and capitalism reach critical mass and plunge us back into primitive anarchy. Set in the 1970s, the film is brilliantly designed, often outrageously funny, and features excellent performances from Tom Hiddleston, Sienna Miller, Luke Evans, Elizabeth Moss and Jeremy Irons as the titular high-rise’s architect, who near the film’s end wonders if perhaps his creation “will become a paradigm for future developments.” (That line got a big laugh at the screening I attended today.) It’s not easy to make a well-shaped narrative film from Ballard, and High-Rise does indeed run out of steam in the second half—and then gets it right back again in a beautifully gauged finale.

From High to low, both with regards to economic status, architectural latitude and geography: Bleak Street is the latest film from the great Mexican auteur Arturo Ripstein. Based on a true story about two midget wrestlers accidentally murdered by two middle-aged sex workers in a dingy Mexico City love hotel, the film is one of Ripstein’s finest, most eerily beautiful explorations of the strange and sad destinies of the down and out, captured in spectral black and white camerawork that floats adrift through the poor places where the sun only enters from very high above and the residents struggle always to get by. The film brims with black humour, yet it also carries with it a peculiar compassion that is the opposite of sentimentality—Ripstein, like his one-time mentor Luis Buñuel, refuses to make the marginal into saints, but by telling their stories with focus and fascination, he brings them closer to us.

Closeness and the ways in which time and truth-telling can eat away at it is central to 45 Years, Weekend director Andrew Haigh’s slow-burn stunner of a relationship drama. The film features magnificent performances from Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay as an elderly English couple whose preparations for their wedding anniversary party are curtailed by the news that the remains of a woman Courtenay loved and lost before he and Rampling met have been discovered. Constructing his film from many quiet, exquisitely composed scenes where much drama goes unspoken, Haigh achieves the very impressive feat of conveying how a couple who have lived the majority of their lives together could be tossed into an emotional tempest by events that took place five decades ago. 

The present is also impinged upon by the past—the long, long, long-past past—in Thai maestro Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s haunted and haunting Cemetery of Splendour, which largely unfolds within a small, improvised hospital in which a group of soldiers suffering from a mysterious sleeping sickness are cared for by nurses and volunteers and overlooked by these weird and beautiful luminous tubes. We learn early in this latest film from the director of Syndromes and a Century that the hospital has supposedly been built on top of a centuries-old cemetery for kings—and their spirits may be involved in the onset and alleviation of the enigmatic affliction. In one of the most imaginative and moving sequences I’ve seen in any film this year, a psychic gives one of the hospital volunteers a tour of a building that no longer exists.

Such sequences cast the real world about the cinemas in new, more vivid shades. As I wander the streets of Toronto after another triple-feature, already over-caffeinated and somewhat dazed, it’s films like those listed above that make me pause to consider the allure of something as ephemeral as the changing autumn light. Movies are commonly thought of as machines of fantasy, but they can also make the world more real. I’m not just saying that because I stood beside Mathieu Amalric at the bar of the Bovine Sex Club, saw Jia Zhang-ke dine with his family at a mediocre Chinese restaurant, or got to share come canapés with Laurie Anderson. It’s the images and sounds infusing our collective psyches as we sit and watch film after film here: they change us. And if I try to watch the good films and avoid the stupid ones, I sometimes believe that may be changing me for the better.



Bunched Undies said...

"And if I try to watch the good films and avoid the stupid ones, I sometimes believe that may be changing me for the better." Word. Thank you for this wonderful essay, and for the heads-up on some really interesting sounding films.

JB said...

Thanks, Bunchie. More TIFF reportage to come...