The Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), held from September 6 to 15 2001, was rocked mid-way by news of the terrorist attacks on September 11. The innocent pleasures of the first half of the Festival gave way to stunned and disturbed screenings in the second half, as these films seemed suddenly transformed, acquiring a new and urgent identity through their hidden affirmations, while of course it was we who had changed rather than the films themselves.
It became apparent that films at the Festival by several older directors were stamped with certain common qualities: relaxed ease, assurance, and fluency. Shohei Imamura’s Warm Water Under A Red Bridge (2001) featured as a central character a woman who gushed fountains of water when in the throes of arousal. This rollicking metaphor for vitality careens through the film in various guises. An aging character, now retired and living out his final days advises: “Do it while you can still get it up; there’s not much else to life”. One could almost hear the director himself in those words – Imamura announced his retirement after his previous film, Mr. Akagi (1998), but has thankfully been unable to stay away. Imamura has always professed a strong interest in the “lower part of the human body” – in fact, a large retrospective of his films, curated by the Cinémathèque Ontario in Toronto a few years ago, was titled “Pigs, Pimps and Pornographers”. Despite its lightness, there is no mistaking the fecund hothouse ambience which is his signature.
Ermanno Olmi’s The Profession Of Arms (2000) is a very different work, bearing as much gravitas as the Imamura does humor. Set in the sixteenth century when German armies were invading Italy, The Profession Of Arms focuses on the heroic figure of a captain in the defending Papal army. The real subject here is the fundamental changes to the practices of war and politics at the time, the honorable and fair battle giving way to the inhuman superiority of newly invented firearms (thus the title). The film locates that point in history when technology entered the war equation, leading to significantly less reliance on patient diplomacy, changing the ground rules of conflict resolution forever. All these ideas emerge not in dry, textbook form but filtered through a rigorous and striking mise en scène: revealing close-ups, strongly authentic props and setting, and natural lighting. A film that, in its anti-sensational approach and disjunctive editing, was unjustly ignored at Cannes.
To put it simply, Eric Rohmer’s L’Anglaise et le Duc (2001) has the most beautiful use of digital imaging I have ever seen. Rather than recreate revolutionary-era Paris with period sets, Rohmer has chosen to use paintings of the time as models for his digital images of eighteenth century Paris. He has then superimposed his cast onto a background plane of these digital images. Contrary to the current practice of using digital imaging to construct an ‘authentic and virtual’ reality, Rohmer deliberately stylizes the streets of Paris so that they seem oddly shorn of documentary authenticity. Instead, we get paintings that move, a touch surreal and strange in their appearance, yet nevertheless evocative of a specific place and time. The effect is rather like the technology-appropriating yet warmly human music of 1970s Brian Eno, in which technique is subjugated to human imperfection. L’Anglaise et le Duc revolves around the relationship (typically Rohmerian in its contradictions and complexity) between Englishwoman Grace Elliott and Philippe “Egalité”, duke of Orleans. In an interesting and uncommon inversion, the royalist-sympathizer Grace is depicted as full of empathy, courtliness and generosity, while the republican revolutionaries display every manner of barbarism, a view that is consistent with the romantic conservatism that runs through Rohmer’s entire body of work, beginning with his “moral tales” series.
The 92-year-old Portuguese director Manoel De Oliveira has been furiously prolific of late. A film about an aging artist like his Voyage To The Beginning Of The World (1997; in which Marcello Mastroianni, in his last film role, played a film director named Manoel), Je Rentre À La Maison (I’m Going Home, 2001) is about coming to terms with age and grief, and how we go about filling our lives with the habitual in order to avoid confronting and acknowledging personal loss. Oliveira approaches these issues from unusual angles, for example, a conversation between two men in a restaurant during most of which the camera dwells on the infinitesimal shuffling of their shoes, or repeated takes of a scene on a movie set during which the camera, rather than show the scene, stays on the director’s face in close-up, registering every nuance of expression as he hears each word and sound. A film of strong performances, especially Michel Piccoli as the aging actor and John Malkovich as the film director.
Toronto has always been a festival with a strong French presence, and this year was a record-breaker. Marion Vernoux’s previous film, the criminally ignored Rien À Faire (1999), examined a love affair between two unemployed people. It was as grave a film as her new Reines D’un Jour (A Hell Of A Day, 2001) is playful and breezy. Reminiscent of a lighter-veined Magnolia (Paul Thomas Anderson, 1998) or the films of Wong Kar-Wai, this dazzling and ambitious ensemble comedy thankfully plays fast and loose with conventional expectations of timely exposition, wheeling us around characters and locales with glee. Vernoux has the rare gift of weaving in serious character and relationship explorations into a lighter comedic setting, lacing the soufflé with an acidic bite. Boasting a high-powered cast including Karin Viard, Helene Fillières and Sergi Lopez, this is blithely unclassifiable filmmaking. A gently anxious Vernoux appeared for the premiere screening, revealing that it was much easier for her to obtain financing for this film than for Rien À Faire. Ironically, Reines D’un Jour is as provocative and probing as her previous film, but pitching it as a comedy tellingly removed its financial obstacles.
A gritty, shocking and poetic first feature shot in black-and-white, Le Souffle (Damien Odoul, 2000) is imbued with a distinct fearsomeness beneath its pastoralism. Depicting a day in the life of an adolescent boy visiting his uncles on a farm, Le Souffle is set in a rural dystopia. The boy seethes with undirected pubertal energy and after he is initiated into manhood at an afternoon party where he gets drunk, a banal and horrific set of events duly follow. Influenced by Dreyer and Dumont, Le Souffle, if not quite in their league, does wisely to withhold psychology, allowing incident and mood to reign.
There are too few filmmakers who have chosen to depict the world of work, and done so with complexity or subtlety. Ermanno Olmi made it his great subject in films as stylistically varied yet thematically united as Il Posto (1960), One Fine Day (1969), The Circumstance (1974) and The Tree of Wooden Clogs (1978). The French director Laurent Cantet follows up his excellent Human Resources (2000) with the ambitious L’Emploi Du Temps (2001). The title refers to an “appointment book”, and just as Human Resources was about working, this is a film about not working, being on the periphery of the working world, and searching for employment that will allow one to make a decent and respectable living. At the center of the film is a marvelous performance by Aurélien Recoing, who appears in almost every shot of this wrenching film.
Jean-Luc Godard’s much-anticipated Eloge de L’Amour (In Praise Of Love, 2001) surprised all by securing Canadian distribution even before it played at the Festival. Divided into two parts, the first shot in velvety black-and-white Paris (the first time Godard has filmed exteriors there since the mid-1960s) and the second in oversaturated color DV, it deals with politics, history, love, cinema, you-name-it. Of special cinephilic interest: the film posters that Godard uses as background for conversations, including Pickpocket (Bresson, 1960), The Apple (Samira Makhmalbaf, 1998), Rosetta (Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne, 1999) and La Lettre (De Oliveira, 1999). As in Nouvelle Vague (1990), the narrative exists merely as a pretext, a vessel to hold commentary, images, contemplation, music and poetry. A jolting reminder of why Godard remains, as always, the most radical of narrative filmmakers.
Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s powerful Kandahar (2001) was among the strongest films at the Festival: accessible without sacrificing its boldness, direct and resonant despite its provocative nature. An Afghan-born woman, now a journalist in Canada, returns home to visit her sister whom she left behind in Afghanistan. She arrives in Iran and attempts to travel in disguise to the Taliban stronghold of Kandahar. The film is utterly unpredictable in its narrative arc, and is even injected with an internationalism that would normally be alien to its setting. Polish Red Cross workers and a black American, all speaking fluent Farsi, make unexpected yet poignant appearances. Makhmalbaf stages a marvelous parachute-drop scene and charges it with macabre, and surreal absurdism. A chilling scene in a madrasah run by the Taliban focuses on a young student as he unsuccessfully grapples with the spoken-word script to accompany the ritual of displaying his Kalashnikov rifle, evoking the uncomfortable auditions of Salaam Cinema (1995) in a whole new context. Following his making of Kandahar, Makhmalbaf wrote an insightful and enormously informative essay on Afghanistan, which is available at http://www.iranian.com/Opinion/2001/June/Afghan/index.html. If anything, both the film and the essay possess new and urgent significance today.
Sometimes a single image or line of dialogue can radically alter or enhance our understanding of an entire film. The moments that bookend the film Under The Skin Of The City (Rakhshan Bani Etemad, 2001) play such a role. As the film opens, an older woman (the matriarch in this family melodrama) speaks hesitantly and inarticulately into a camera for a film crew that is visiting the factory where she works. As the film concludes, she once again addresses the camera, but this time indignantly (after we have seen the drama of her family play itself out) and demands “Tell me…just who will watch this film?” More narrative driven and melodramatic than anything I have ever seen from Iran, this film nevertheless weds the momentum of a swiftly moving plot to a surprising open endedness and moral uncertainty that completely belies any genre expectations. It also reputedly contains the first kiss to ever be seen in Iranian film, even if it is just a son planting it on the head of his mother. In its depiction of rampant private sector corruption, spousal and sibling physical abuse, and even the foul language that erupts occasionally from its characters, Under The Skin Of The City is among the riskiest and most politically adventurous Iranian films seen thus far.
In Unfinished Song (Maziar Miri, 2001), a musicologist returns to his native province on a mission to collect songs sung by women, and finds that not only are women forbidden to sing in public, their songs are being forgotten and written out of history. He pursues one such singer to try to capture her singing on tape. Through his journey, the film takes us through cross-sections of Iranian society and hidden strata of its bureaucracy. The journey is documentary in feel, and aside from a convenient coincidence or two, and the overly teasing elusiveness of the “Rosebud” motif, Unfinished Song is consistently engaging. In one of its best and most deadpan scenes, the researcher waits behind a curtain as several women sing snatches of familiar, Westernized, untraditional melodies (much to his impatience). The long arm of the West has managed to penetrate even the veil of a traditional household in remote rural Iran. Globalization indeed.
Ulrich Seidl And Austrian Cinema
The Festival Director’s Spotlight this year fell on largely unknown Ulrich Seidl from Austria, who makes documentaries, fiction films, or daring and probing admixtures of the two. Loss Is To Be Expected (1992) is a marvelous multi-layered documentary which focuses on two neighboring towns on the Austrian-Czech border and the lives of a few older people in these towns. One Austrian man who has lost his wife of many decades steps out to woo (without much tact or romantic instinct) a Czech woman primarily because he needs someone to cook and keep house for him. Seidl films extended, revealing conversations between the leading characters and then breaks away to stage long-take tableaux in which people do silly or sober things that are ostensibly part of their daily routines.
In Models (1998), we intimately follow the personal and working lives of several characters, all female models, in Vienna. Their crushingly sad and empty lives are on full display and Seidl is more than just exploiting these characters. He is asking questions about what we are watching: Do you think these characters (all female models playing characters close to themselves, we are led to believe) are complicit in their own exploitation by the industry and by this film itself? Are you watching a documentary or a fiction film? Is there a difference? Is this film venomously criticizing its characters’ obsession with their physical beings, is it merely using it as exploitative fodder, or is the film asking difficult and worthy moral questions? The film evinces enough sympathy and ambiguity for its characters to be a truly disturbing, thought-provoking and radical work.
On the other hand, the interrogations of misanthropy which were a powerful agendum of Models are nudged from the sublime into the ridiculous, replaced by nothing more than outright misanthropy itself, in Seidl’s latest Dog Days (2001). In how many ways can I show you human beings’ cruelty to each other? he asks, and proceeds to answer in a seemingly endless series of one-note flagellations, mind-numbing in repetition, magnificently redundant in their monotony. Nevertheless, Seidl is doing no less than question the terrain of fact and fiction in film, and trying to define their amorphous boundaries. Provocative and vitally exploratory filmmaking.
One of my favorite films of the Festival was also from Austria, Jessica Hausner’s Lovely Rita (2001). The 29-year-old Hausner, a former student of Michael Haneke’s, made the icy, Bressonian short Inter-View (1998) which unfortunately sank without a trace into the movie oblivion awaited by most shorts. Now she has made her first feature film, and it’s a beaut. 14-year-old Rita lives with her self-involved, suburban parents who don’t have a clue about the adolescent tumult their daughter is going through. She befriends the little boy next door, and has a (very) brief bathroom affair with a bus-driver. Granted, these are familiar ingredients, but the director has alchemized them into something new and revelatory. Though the film is set in the present, the décor and costumes are pure-1970s, and the shock zooms are both droll and dislocating, suspending our expectations of time and place. Further, a rigorous ellipticism (clearly influenced by Bresson and Haneke) disengages convenient links between cause and effect and distances us from the events. In the Q&A, she spoke about employing these devices to induce “uncertainty” and suspend “judgment” about the characters and their actions. Will we ever see or hear of this small gem of a film again?
The tightly interlinked films of Tsai Ming-Liang’s small oeuvre are a boon to adherents of auteur cinema. Starting with Rebels Of A Neon God (1991), Tsai has made five feature films and his newest, What Time Is It There? (2001), is nothing short of an accumulation and culmination of all the elements of his work. His lead actor, Lee Kang-Sheng, has appeared in all his films thus far, and most of his films feature the same family in the same apartment. In the new film, Lee plays a watch-vendor who becomes obsessed with a woman customer who leaves for Paris. He proceeds to set every watch and clock he can find (and try to find them he does) to Paris time, and rents and compulsively watches The 400 Blows (François Truffaut, 1959). Meanwhile, she drifts through a lonely Paris, and among other things, is propositioned by Jean-Pierre Léaud in a deserted cemetery. As is Tsai’s inimitable style, the film moves with deadpan unhurriedness, drawing its multiple plot strands together for a surreal finale of great power. Tsai’s narrative genius is to preserve the mysteries of a slowly unfolding (mostly silent) narrative, guiding it to a moment of true transcendence, as he has done in every one of his films. Tsai and Lee appeared for a wonderful Q&A during which he excitedly proclaimed his love for Tati (something we had strongly suspected) and said that meeting Léaud was a bittersweet experience for him. The magic of his childhood memories of Antoine Doinel in The 400 Blows was inseparable for him from what he called the “cruelty of reality” when he encountered an aging Léaud. He also said that his relationship to Lee Kang-Sheng was similar to that between Truffaut and Léaud: he wanted to watch Lee grow older in front of the camera. Lee doesn’t have to “act”, he said, “his mere presence moves me”.
To seal Taiwan’s one-two punch at Toronto came Hou Hsiao-hsien’s Millennium Mambo (2001), my favorite film of this Festival. A perfect companion piece to his previous film, Flowers Of Shanghai (1998), which was acclaimed as highly as any film released in the last ten years, Millennium Mambo begins, as its predecessor does, at a large table with several characters drinking and playing games. Only now, the time is the present and the soundtrack is not traditional Chinese music but the crack and thump of techno. A beautiful bar hostess leads an aimless, drifting existence, first with her jealous and immature boyfriend, a techno DJ, and then a mature and sensitive gangster. The film’s finale movingly takes place on a chilly nighttime street at a film festival in Japan. Long takes and muted, pitch perfect acting combine with gorgeous compositions. The neon that suffuses the interiors (and almost the entire film is set indoors) appears delicious and poisonous by turns. Hou’s masterful use of ellipses and gaps are thrilling, never obfuscating. By simultaneously providing and withholding information about the characters, Hou creates films that continuously disengage and re-engage emotional identification. In other words, he creates great films that speak movingly to both our hearts and our minds.
In Olivier Assayas’ documentary portrait of Hou, HHH: Cinema De Notre Temps (1997), we were delighted to discover that Hou has a rambunctiously playful side, and loves to karaoke. This is clearly the side of Hou which executive-produced Mirror Image (Hsiao Ya-Chuan, 2000), a film that recalls Wong Kar-Wai. It is a comedy with a feather-light touch and it’s only after we leave the theater that its dark sub-terrain sneaks up on us.
The Orphan Of Anyang (2001), an adventurous low-budget film by first-time director Wang Chao, concerns the plight of a single unemployed worker who takes in an abandoned baby. The grim social realities of China have not been glimpsed by the West quite in this fashion before and the long takes and precise attention to sound only deepen the documentary urgency of this remarkable film.
The prime mover of the Kazhakh new wave, Darezhan Omirbaev was the featured spotlight director at this Festival three years ago. His fourth and newest film, The Road (2001), is a wry slice of “self-reflexion” in which a film director takes a road trip to visit his ailing mother and experiences various dreams and reveries along the way. Hiding its wit in its disjunctiveness, the film adds up to a not-very-generous portrait of the film artist as a cad justifying his trespasses in the name of “Art”.
Murali Nair made the six-minute short Tragedy Of An Indian Farmer in 1992, a social document that was more eloquent than most full-length features. His first feature, the wonderfully deadpan political satire Throne Of Death (1999), won the Camera d’Or at Cannes 2000. His new film A Dog’s Day (2001) is an ambitious political allegory and a deliciously vicious satire, both acute and astute. Nair, who hails from the south-western state of Kerala, is that rare Indian director who makes “art cinema” (in a country where the boundaries between commercial and non-commercial films are drawn deeply and unmistakably), that is uncompromisingly substantive yet deeply funny. If the comic side of this tragicomic film can be parlayed into crossover appeal, let us hope that the film finds a distribution deal waiting at the end of the festival-circuit tunnel.
TIFF is among other things, a terrific anthology Festival. If the film year begins in May with Cannes, Toronto features a smorgasbord of offerings that contains some of the year’s best of the festival circuit. Most notably, the cream of Cannes likely finds its way here. The unfortunate exceptions this year included Kiarsotami’s ABC Africa, Sokurov’s Taurus, Sandrine Veysset’s Martha…Martha and the Godard-endorsed That Old Dream That Moves (Alain Giraurdie), all 2001 films that were unfortunately missing on the program.
If TIFF follows Cannes in chronology, it is followed in turn by the New York Film Festival (NYFF). Of the 24 features on view at the NYFF, 16 were at Toronto. In fact, the NYFF program is usually released about midway through TIFF, and can often be put to good use. Faced with a wide field of over 300 features at Toronto, the small and exclusive New York program helps TIFF goers re-evaluate and re-prioritize the second half of their schedule, dropping some screenings in favor of others which suddenly seem much more promising because they are now playing at New York.