HadewijchFirmly established as the pre-eminent film event in North America, the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) seems less compromised than comfortable. Rumours of a few years ago that TIFF was cutting back on adventurous programming may or may not have been accurate, but quite a few strange little items are still finding their way into the festival. And the personnel changes of recent years (with Cameron Bailey replacing Noah Cowan as co-director in early 2008, and CEO Piers Handling occasionally talking about phasing out his programming role) don’t seem to have altered TIFF’s gestalt in any material way so far. Perhaps the festival has become so large and so much a city institution that the biggest pressure on its directors is to maintain its traditional qualities, rather than to cater to any particular interest group.

Bell Lightbox, TIFF’s upcoming exhibition centre in downtown Toronto, dominated the festival’s pre-movie welcome clip, which was also a publicity bonanza for Toronto rock band Pilot Speed, who provided the festival’s theme song. Repeat attendees, suffering as always from the repetition of TIFF’s five-minute battery of publicity materials and sponsor acknowledgements, were actually treated to the best introductory program in memory, the “Toronto 175” collection of archival clips celebrating the city’s 175th anniversary. Thanks to the aging of the cinematographic apparatus, images from documentary subjects like Toronto Fire (1904) are restored to a primal, intense relationship to reality, providing a challenge to the subsequent feature programs that could not always be met.

The Toronto premiere I was most anticipating was Bruno Dumont’s Hadewijch, which turned out to be Dumont’s smallest and most people-centered film. Inspired by the writings of the eponymous 13th-century mystic, Dumont recasts her as a modern girl (Julie Sokolowski) from the Île St. Louis, in love with Christ but tormented by his physical absence, finding outlets for her extremist nature that were not available in the 1200s. Working in a narrower aspect ratio than before, Dumont brings out the tableau-like aspects of one-shot and two-shot closeups, as if daring us to penetrate the intractable exteriority of his characters; strangely, he has developed a taste for slow forward tracking shots that remain abstract, never quite hooking up with the drama. Just as strangely, Dumont not only puts the words of the original Hadewijch in the mouth of his modern-day character, but also crafts a story that explores her internal dilemma, even though the fierce physicality of his style seems rather to evoke the arbitrary and inexplicable. Exciting though the film often is, the end result feels a bit calculated, with the narrative never connecting sufficiently to the inchoate, ominous face that Dumont’s universe presents.

Among the Hollywood films using Toronto as a launch pad for a fall release, the most prestigious was Ethan and Joel Coen’s A Serious Man, the story of a timid Jewish schoolteacher (Michael Stuhlbarg) in 1970s Minnesota who endures a series of grotesque hardships that drive him to the roots of his culture in a search for meaning. Given the Coens’ characteristic stylisation of the world into a series of intensified movie tropes, it’s no surprise that the script’s comic persecution of its sad-sack protagonist is protracted and distorted until it becomes a trial for us as well. Yet, as the climax approaches, the brothers shuffle the deck in surprising ways, and the film fragments into dream sequences then explodes with five different closing paradigms, each one enough to wrap up your average movie. As difficult as I found A Serious Man to sit through, it confirms the Coens’ growing ability and willingness to find formal expression for their metaphysical aspirations. Something interesting is happening with these guys.

Trash HumpersAnother Toronto premiere, Harmony Korine’s Trash Humpers, was surprisingly well received, given that its mere existence is something of an affront to the paying filmgoer. Donning latex old-age makeup, the director and two collaborators commit various random social offences, occasionally pausing for shaky vocal renditions of folk songs, or to spotlight their friends’ funny costumes or campy routines. The medium is the message here: Korine shoots with a VHS camera, and degrades the visuals even further with dropouts and “auto-tracking” effects. The Bazinian tactic succeeds in revivifying the image and even in restoring the unsettling aspect of the kitschy makeup, and it’s hard not to feel good will toward the purity of Korine’s ontological concept. But the pleasant effect wore off for me as the variety show wore on. The overall result isn’t so far from that of a Warhol film – maybe one of the Warhol films where the cast is trying a little too hard.

TIFF ran into some controversy when its new City to City program, focusing this year on Tel Aviv, triggered an anti-Israeli protest and moved several filmmakers to withdraw their films. Nonetheless, City to City provided one of the best of the Toronto premieres, Niv Klainer’s Bena. A project of modest scope, Bena seems at first a naturalistic story of a man (Shmuel Vilozni), caring for his schizophrenic son (Michael Moshonov) at home, who takes in a Thai woman (Rachel Santillan) in danger of deportation. The motivations of all the characters are artfully obscured, and at first we might question the authenticity of the son’s insanity and the plausibility of the woman’s new role in the troubled home. But small flashes of mood coloration, both lighthearted and surreal, gradually distance us from a realist stance and suggest a more abstract, fabulous reading, which makes better sense of the ominous geometry of the story. Ending the film on a satisfying note of quiet fatalism, Klainer is a talent to watch.

Suspended somewhere between early Godard and ‘70s Roger Corman factory, Canadian filmmaker Reginald Harkema confirms both his ambition and his questionable judgment with Leslie, My Name Is Evil. An à clef adaptation of the Charles Manson story, daringly sexualised and heavy-handedly framed as a challenge to American bourgeois morality, Leslie begins promisingly with a series of jarring tone shifts that not only throw the sex/death nexus in the audience’s face, but also establish that Harkema intends to address serious issues with a wild comic tone. Mixing broad playing with direct address, all the while stirring in odds and ends of characterisation, Harkema sometimes manages to push skit humour to the point where it becomes a distancing device, but increasingly settles for mere cartoon cliché. Still, the filmmaker’s audacity narrowly tips the scales in his favour: how can one dismiss a film in which a special effect visualises an unborn baby as a self-immolating Buddhist monk?

An unheralded Mexican film named Alamar (To the Sea) generated a surprising amount of critical buzz during the last days of TIFF. The story, slight to begin with – a Mexican father (Jorge Machado) takes his five-year-old son (Natan Machado Palombini), who lives with his mother in Italy, on a fishing expedition to a remote coastal region in Mexico – almost vanishes behind the didactic mission of the project, as the son’s learning experience is entirely coincident with ours. The film has considerable travelogue appeal, and the beautiful natural light and waterscapes of the Chinchorro region create an idyllic atmosphere. But director Pedro González-Rubio’s documentary-style hovering camera doesn’t do very much to organise the experience; and the issues accompanying the father-son relationship are too suppressed even to be called latent. I somewhat preferred another Toronto premiere with a wilderness coastal setting, Oscar Ruiz Navia’s El Vuelco del Cangrejo (Crab Trap). A leisurely tale of an impoverished Colombian black settlement dealing with the predations of a white landowner and puzzled by the appearance of a young white fugitive (Rodrigo Vélez), El Vuelco del Cangrejo puts its trust in the windy ambience of the sparsely populated seascape, and in a faintly Bressonian camera style that advances the narrative without amplifying the drama. The personal stories are handled so elliptically that they ultimately seem perplexing, whereas the political story could do with more ellipsis. But the weight of Navia’s visual style makes the film linger in memory.

Australian director Claire McCarthy’s The Waiting City, about a tension-ridden Sydney couple (Radha Mitchell and Joel Edgerton) waiting in Kolkata to adopt a child, partakes of the long fictional tradition of Anglos softened and deepened by a visit to an ancient mystical locale: Rossellini’s Viaggio in Italia (Voyage to Italy, 1953), Wilder’s Avanti! (1972), and Maugham’s The Razor’s Edge are all evoked. McCarthy’s telephoto-heavy visual scheme is both good-looking and attentive to the teeming environments that the couple pass through. But she is a bit too explicit about each character issue: a fatal flaw for a film that concerns itself with the mystery of how changes in people might occur. Another disappointment among the Toronto premieres was Triage, a study of wartime trauma that favours movie conventions over plausible human behaviour. Director Danis Tanović always impressed me with his formal intelligence in the past, even when I didn’t enjoy his material; but here the direction seems part of the problem, from overly on-message performances to lighting that exposes the artificiality of the sets.

Overlapping TIFF for a few days as usual, the Venice Film Festival shipped a stream of high-profile almost-premieres across the Atlantic, with accompanying last-minute buzz. The Venice title that excited me most was Ahasin Wetei (Between Two Worlds), Sri Lankan director Vimukthi Jayasundara’s follow-up to his remarkable debut Sulanga Enu Pinisa (The Forsaken Land, 2005). No Jayasundara admirer would expect him to provide a straightforward story, but Ahasin Wetei floats off into the narrative stratosphere, maneuvering a few archetypal characters through a modern-day apocalyptic story of civil unrest and violence, which transforms at unexpected intervals into a folkloric account of a prince’s mystical adventures. There’s no obvious key to the narrative, and I was never able to extract much meaning from any of the storytelling modes. But Jayasundara remains the most stunning director of exteriors this side of Mizoguchi. Using changes in terrain to transform the image dramatically with simple pans or tracks, moving characters or vehicles into or across landscapes to generate multiple planes of action, he makes Ahasin Wetei gripping on a formal, shot-by-shot level even without benefit of narrative tension. Still, I’m hoping that he’s gotten the parallel-dimension thing out of his system for a while.

Life During WartimeTodd Solondz’s Life During Wartime, a sequel to his 1998 Happiness, moves the director away from the postmodern fragmentation of Storytelling (2001) and Palindromes (2004) and back to a more traditional interweave of family stories. The battle lines around Solondz are unlikely to be redrawn at this point. His urgent need to transgress is clearly genuine, and not merely a disguised way to bond with kindred spirits. His detractors point to his persistent tone of caricature and his outright mockery of his often-pathetic characters; his defenders counter by noting his increasingly emotive empathy for the existential plight of these same characters. Both observations are true: we may all be the product of opposing psychological forces, but most of us paper that fact over more effectively than Solondz. As with all of his films, I began Life During Wartime sniffing suspiciously at the mannered, almost sitcomish dialogue delivery, punctuated with neatly packaged bursts of obscenity or perversion. Then, gradually won over by his refusal to abandon his human wreckage, I began to notice Solondz’s flair for turning contradictory emotions into sharp absurdist dialogue, and wondered whether his talent would have been better received were he a playwright. Here as in Happiness, the tortured sex-offender dad (Ciarán Hinds) is the principal vehicle for Solondz’s despair, but even the most unpleasant characters remain in focus – like the sex offender’s oppressive, bourgeois wife (Allison Janney), who exclaims to her lover in a moment of abandon, “Fuck the kids, fuck family” and then awkwardly retracts her momentary rebellion.

Soul Kitchen surprised some of Fatih Akin’s arthouse following with its commercial comedy format, wherein a bunch of misfits and marginal types try to foist an haute cuisine restaurant on working-class Hamburg, fight off threats from nasty land developers, and find true love. There’s nothing arty about the project from top to bottom, but Akin has a good time dollying around the city and cutting scenes to the rhythm of soul music. Though the last third of the film gets tangled up in a conventional series of menacing plot developments, Akin seems more interested in random moments of serendipity or grace, and has a nice way of seasoning broad comic routines with small, humanising gestures.

Though a notch lower in prestige than Venice, Cannes and Berlin, the Locarno Film Festival, which takes place a month before TIFF, provided a disproportionate number of my favourite films this year. At the top of the list is La Donation, the high point to date of Quebecois filmmaker Bernard Émond’s career. Set in the small town of Normétal in the Abitibi-Ouest region of Quebec, and haunted by the clear gray skies and dark wooded areas that seem ready to reclaim the settlement at a moment’s notice, La Donation is the continuing story of Jeanne Dion (Elise Guilbault), the embattled doctor of Émond’s La Neuvaine, whose search for meaning leads her to a trial period as the impoverished region’s only physician. Casting a number of residents of the area, and directing his professional actors to match the quiet stoicism of the amateurs, Émond arrives at an uncanny evocation of the mood of Bresson’s Journal d’un curé de campagne (Diary of a Country Priest, 1950), in which the performers are less documented for their reality than enlisted as principles of existence. As a follower of Émond since his first feature La femme qui boit (2001, also starring Guilbault), I had begun to fear in recent years that he was settling into a reflex solemnity that was yielding diminishing returns. To my delight, La Donation recasts Émond’s art in new terms, not so much dispelling his heaviness as offering it to us, contextualising it with brisk pacing and a strong narrative hook, exposing it to the skies and cold winds. Now would be the perfect time for programmers worldwide to give Émond greater exposure.

The Golden Leopard at Locarno went to She, a Chinese, the second feature from the expatriate Chinese novelist Guo Xiaolu. Advance word skewed toward the negative, and a flashy trailer increased my pessimism. But the film dazzled me. It becomes clear almost immediately that its organising principle is not story or even style, but the force of Guo’s personality, which whips together diverse materials into a fluent commentary that transcends form. As the sullen, deadpan young protagonist Mei (Huang Lu) rides over assorted trials in rural China with a combination of strength and obliviousness, and then bolts from a guided tour to try her survival skills in the UK, Guo narrates her passage with funny chapter-heading intertitles, bursts of loud rock music (John Parish’s score is excellent), and comically rushed transitions. The emotional gap between the story upheavals and Mei’s inner life reminded me of several major filmmakers: Godard for the playful exploitation of the audience’s distance from the fiction; Sternberg for the loving fascination with surfaces that reveal nothing; and Renoir for the way that philosophical perspective is used to lighten a dark story’s mood. I have no idea why Guo’s considerable talent is lost on so many critics.

Screened at Locarno after winning the Grand Jury Prize at the Shanghai Film Festival, Pema Tseden’s Xunzhao zhimei gengdeng (The Search) is allegedly the first Tibetan film made openly in China. Structured around a film crew’s search for rural performers for an adaptation of a traditional Tibetan opera, Xunzhao zhimei gengdeng is actually an elaborate riff on the theme of performance, stringing together stories within the story and impromptu auditions, and exploring various drily comic ways to interrupt, contextualise, or serialise them. Tseden’s remote visual plan, keyed to the expansive terrain and hanging back at important moments, is gradually revealed as a important component of his mission to restore the uncanny aspect of performance by subtracting its direct appeal to the audience. (In the film’s climactic scene, we see that the film crew’s cameraman has a more conventional dramatic sense than Tseden, slowly zooming in on the singer that the film crew has been pursuing, while Tseden’s camera remains stubbornly locked-down.) By the time the search reaches its conclusion, song and theatre seem to be springing unbidden from the Tibetan landscape. The print of Xunzhao zhimei gengdeng that screened in Toronto contained awkwardly translated English subtitles that improved after fifteen minutes or so, but made it difficult to perceive the film’s formal and verbal intelligence.

Sham Moh (At the End of Daybreak) certainly confirms the ability of Malaysian director Ho Yuhang, but poses questions about how he applies that ability. Based on a true story of a relationship between a 23 year-old boy (Chui Tien You) and a 15 year-old girl (Ng Meng Hui) that devolves into blackmail and violence, Sham Moh begins with an eclectic display of playful stylistic experimentation that accentuates the subjective and even fantastic aspects of the interior lives of the protagonists. As impressive as Ho’s many small stylistic coups are, and as wedded as they are to an interest in his characters’ psychology, they eventually seem inappropriate for a crime story that depends on an opaque, exterior view of behaviour, and that is in no position to develop the subjective touches that went before. Ho’s earlier Tai yang yue (Rain Dogs, 2006), calmer but equally visually impressive, also raised the issue, which is still on the table, of whether Ho’s style choices are a response to his material or an adornment of it.

Presented in Locarno’s Piazza Grande ten days before its French theatrical premiere, Arnaud and Jean-Marie Larrieu’s Les derniers jours du monde, which witnesses the destruction of Europe via virus, nuclear attack, and assorted other implements of destruction, was sensibly programmed on TIFF’s last night. As usual in this genre, we are allocated an identification figure (Mathieu Amalric) – but this audience surrogate is not quite standard issue, in that he has lost an arm as a result of his adulterous sexual fixation on an androgynous sex worker (Omayrah Mota), who cannot be dislodged from the top of his priority list even as death rains down around him. The end of the world according the Larrieus is light on exciting violent spectacle, but full of beanballs thrown at our delicate psyches: sometimes via the wholesale abrogation of sexual barriers, sometimes by confronting us with unsettling evidence of the fragility of the body. For the characters as well as the filmmakers, the apocalypse is about freedom, about the falling away of social and psychological constraints – and if the Larrieus sometimes treat the apocalypse rather casually, they take sex very seriously. Among the film’s many pleasures is the best role in years for the admirable Karin Viard, as the protagonist’s abandoned but not forgotten wife.

CrackieLabrador-based director Sherry White premiered her film Crackie at the Karlovy Vary Film Festival in July before bringing it home to TIFF and a subsequent Canadian theatrical run. Set in a rural part of Newfoundland that seems dominated by scrap yards and garbage dumps, Crackie is the story of 17 year-old Mitzy (Meagan Greeley), suspended between her tough, practical grandmother/caretaker (Mary Walsh) and the worthless mother she idealises (Cheryl Wells). The film is a bit broad and schematic around the edges, but subtle and affecting at its centre: Greeley’s wonderfully simple performance scales the girl’s reactions down so that both her vulnerability and her inner strength seem in harmony with her hardscrabble environment. White portrays Mitzy’s first sexual experiments frankly and without sentiment, and gets emotional mileage out of her turbulent relationship with the eponymous dog who figures in her transition to adulthood.

Out of the Moscow Film Festival, Kira Muratova’s most recent provocation, Melodiya dlya sharmanki (Melody for a Street Organ), tracks the Christmastime journey of two orphans (Olena Kostiuk and Roma Burlaka) through the urban obstacle course of Kiev. The indifferent world around them is stylised by Muratova into a disordered, Brechtian arena of performance, generally of a loud and abrasive sort. The children are impassive, bundled up in whatever winter clothes have not been stolen by predators. Though sometimes oddly mature in their logic and their mutual caretaking, they remain childlike within a world that punishes them for it: they take gleeful pleasure in a stranger’s slot machine victory even though they are starving, or curl up in a ball in a solipsistic attempt to escape from pursuers. As inspired and insightful as Muratova’s multilevelled panorama is, the world’s persecution of the children eventually comes to seem like an expression of filmmaking cruelty – especially in the final act, where the children’s sense of play dissolves under the weight of misfortune, and Muratova increasingly resorts to fictional contrivance to assure a bad outcome.

TIFF’s generous selection of the year’s Cannes crop is one of its major attractions for stay-at-home North Americans. Many of the Cannes premieres – including two of my favorite TIFF screenings, Mia Hansen-Løve’s Le père de mes enfants (The Father of My Children) and Tsai Ming-liang’s Visage (Face) – have been chewed over pretty thoroughly by the film press since last May, but a few interesting Cannes titles always fly under the critical radar. Thai director Pen-ek Ratanaruang’s Nang Mai (Nymph), selected for Cannes’ Un Certain Regard section, seems to have underwhelmed most commentators, which is understandable, as Ratanaruang barely seems to be thinking about his audience in his recent work. Ostensibly a ghost story about a tree nymph who disrupts a marriage on the rocks, Nang Mai has as little interest in mysticism as it does in thrills. What Ratanaruang cares about is an indolent, almost somnolent atmosphere, to which he sacrifices everything else. He frequently cuts directly from pre-action to post-action, creating a sequence of static states; even his exteriors feel enclosed and shadowed, as if prepared for an afternoon nap. Though Nang Mai may not be a well-oiled pleasure machine, it provides a sheltered, not inhospitable mental space where we are invited to share the characters’ contemplation. At this point, Ratanaruang’s films are probably interesting primarily to connoisseurs of directorial attitude.

La PivellinaOne of the most unassuming pleasures of the festival was Tizza Covi and Rainer Frimmel’s La Pivellina, which premiered in Cannes’ Directors’ Fortnight. A production of modest means, La Pivellina depicts a Romani circus troupe, living in makeshift circumstances on the outskirts of Rome, who find and care for an abandoned two year-old girl. All the individual components of the film, including Covi and Frimmel’s documentary-style follow-cam, sound ordinary and even sentimental on paper. But the toddler is a magic object from a documentary point of view: not only does she change the scale of spaces (the filmmakers cannily shoot her mostly in long shot, where she seems an alien presence), but she is also a perfect actor, and nudges the rest of the cast toward an admirable authenticity. (In one wonderful shot, the baby drifts gradually off to sleep in close-up, while her caretaker narrates the process on an off-camera phone call.) Casually inserted footage of the troupe’s circus routines also gains force from the naturalistic context, and from Covi and Frimmel’s eye for depth compositions. It’s possible that the slender story line meanders a bit too much, leaving the baby behind for stretches of time and losing focus; but the filmmakers end on an uneasy, well-managed note of ambiguity that confirms the formal intelligence behind their unassuming mise en scène.

Cannes’ Critics Week contributed what I thought was the best debut feature at TIFF, Alejandro Fernández Almendras’ Huacho. A straightforward, observant tale of a poor suburban Chilean family (well played by non-professional actors) whose members each get a quarter of the film for an account of their daily activities, Huacho does all the little things right. The deft editing gives the film a brisk pace, and yet the cuts preserve the documentation of time-consuming, patient activity. (A sequence of the family’s grandmother selling homemade cheese by the side of a road over the course of a day is particularly impressive, even exciting, without anything much happening.) Striking an interesting political balance, Fernández Almendras is faithful to his perceived view of the family’s persistence, stoicism and acceptance of difficulties, yet gently shapes the narrative to highlight each member’s struggle with hardship and class inequity. The film’s symmetrical structure, more effective for being understated, jumps out with pleasing directness at the ending.

One film that traces its pedigree all the way back to the Berlin Film Festival deserves mention, not because it will need help finding an audience, but because critics are likely to dismiss it as middlebrow prestige entertainment. Rachid Bouchareb’s London River depicts the horror of the 2005 London bombings via the fears of a Guernsey war widow (Brenda Blethyn) and an African living in Paris (Sotigui Kouyaté), who have both journeyed to the big city seeking news of their children. Nothing in the film’s large structure is entirely unexpected, not even the racism exhibited by the widow, otherwise a sympathetic identification figure. But Bouchareb tells the story with an eye for psychological detail and with a light-handed approach to any emotion that threatens to become vicarious expression for the audience. Many more ambitious films would do well to emulate his delicacy and clarity.

Toronto International Film Festival
10-19 September 2009
website: http://www.tiff.net/default.aspx

About The Author

Dan Sallitt is an American critic and filmmaker.

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