The gap between the public face of the Toronto Film Festival and the experience of festival-goers continues to widen. Improbably enough, mild-mannered Toronto has come to signify movie stars and red carpets for the American mass media, who are hungry for a Cannes closer to home and tired of trying to spray gold paint on the low-voltage indie gathering at Sundance. And yet the movie moles who buy Toronto’s 50-film Festival Passes and burrow in for ten days generally experience an event that bears no resemblance to the celebration on television. Among North American festivals, Toronto does the best job of being everything to everyone: a star-studded glamour tour, a collection of topical material for the casual culture maven, a review of the current work of art-house stars, a recapitulation of the last six months of international art cinema. It’s extremely easy to miss the Nicole Kidmans and Denzel Washingtons altogether unless you try hard to cross their path – in fact, it’s even easy for likeminded film buffs to dive into the festival and lose touch with each other for the duration.
My own private Toronto is an attempt at a snapshot of the year’s festival activity. For North Americans who miss Cannes and Berlin, Toronto is the best hope of catching the interesting titles from these festivals that haven’t generated enough attention to guarantee distribution. And Toronto also screens much of the fall festival crop: not only its own world premieres, but also films traveling from Venice, Locarno, and Edinburgh. I tend to pass on the big titles that are about to play at the New York Film Festival or open theatrically in the US, so my festival wrap-up is short on buzz films and long on titles that might vanish into the miasma of international indifference. And yet I found no shortage of exciting filmmaking. We see only the smallest fraction of the world’s worthwhile movies: the good-year/bad-year verdicts that emanate from Cannes each spring are based only on the response to a handful of privileged projects, and say nothing about the actual state of cinema.
Most foreign filmgoers give short shrift to the Canadian product on copious display at Toronto, but the home team fared pretty well this year, and one of the festival highlights by any standard was Robert Lepage’s ambitious La face cachée de la lune (The Far Side of the Moon). Lepage, a well-known Quebecois playwright, has made a series of worthy films (including Nô  and Possible Worlds ) in recent years, but this new work is a leap forward in confidence and virtuosity. Nominally the meandering tale of a melancholy academic/part-time telemarketer and his more worldly TV-weatherman brother, La face cachée is so dense with associations that the slight story becomes merely one element in a kaleidoscope of special effects, bravura transitions, fanciful production designs, and interpolated historical material about the space program and Soviet culture. Unflagging in visual and verbal wit, and yet emotionally true to its protagonist’s weltschmerz, Lapage’s meditation on reconciling the banal and the essential calls to mind the work of Sacha Guitry (and how many films have ever done that?): not only is it the work of a man of the theatre adapting his own impressively verbal play and taking both the starring roles, but Lepage the actor is also a ringer for Guitry himself. Still, the uninitiated will probably not guess that La face cachée started as a play, so adept is its manipulation of time and space.
One of the most anticipated of the Toronto premieres, Jacques Rivette’s Histoire de Marie et Julien takes the veteran Nouvelle Vague director into Val Lewton territory, which in retrospect doesn’t seem that far from his usual beat. The story, laid out methodically but casually, involves a clock repairman named Julien (Jerzy Radziwilowicz), indulging in a bit of blackmail on the side, who encounters his lost love Marie (Emmanuelle Béart) and brings her to live in his house. As Marie integrates into Julien’s life and helps out with his blackmail scheme, she also pursues a mysterious occult agenda that gradually takes the film over. Despite the increasingly bizarre plot, Marie et Julien is familiar territory for Rivette, who is perhaps even more of a creature of habit than Eric Rohmer. The elements of his style – the willful suppression of psychology, the bold use of visual motifs that hover somewhere between metaphor and ambient detail, the rigorous and serene compositions and cutting patterns, the paring away of story to reveal a pattern of rules to an elaborate game – create a universe that teeters on the brink of reductive reflexivity but never quite topples. I can’t always see what Rivette gains by stripping his presentation down to such bare patterns of encryption, but his cerebrality paradoxically heightens the sensual impact of his imagery: a cat crawling over the intricate mechanism of a clock; a money drop in a stationary streetcar; an exquisite room of stained glass where the undead meet to exchange tips.
Damien Odoul’s new film Errance marks him as possibly the most unpleasant modern director who must be taken seriously. An elliptical account of the decline and fall of an ill-matched couple (Benoit Magimel and model Laetitia Casta), Errance is packed full of every kind of repellent material, from organic malfunction to bodily disgust to an endless parade of loud, drunk, scary, hateful, exaggerated performances. No excess seems to faze Odoul, who suggests a Paul Gégauff without drama or classicism to rein in his offensive impulses. And yet Errance is ultimately a film about true love – a love helpless in the face of human weakness and doomed from shot one, but nonetheless enduring and inevitably moving. A far more sedate and less interesting French premiere, Anne Fontaine’s Nathalie… (2003) tells a perverse story – of a wronged wife (Fanny Ardant) hiring a prostitute (Emmanuelle Béart) to seduce her husband (Gérard Depardieu) – with high drama, flat vocal tones, lots of solemnity, and no sensitivity to the delirious implications of the subject matter, or even to the details of everyday life. One fears at this point that Fontaine’s considerable talent has been submerged for the sake of Euro-prestige.
Among the Spanish films that premiered at Toronto on their way to San Sebastian, my favorite was Cesc Gay’s In the City (2003), a casual study of a group of friends in Barcelona who struggle with insecure marriages and untenable affairs, in that staccato, deadpan style that characterises so much Spanish comedy. As in his earlier Krampack (Nico and Dani, 2000), Gay seems a little tidy and schematic at first, but gradually arrives at a plausible level of entropy and openness, creating appealing complexities both within individual scenes and over the course of the movie. Achero Mañas’s November (2003) a mock-documentary account of the history of a street theatre troupe, is more ambitious than the director’s earlier El Bolo (2000) but somewhat less satisfying. Mañas’s analytical approach to his subject, with talking-head commentary and faked live-action footage interspersed with dramatic scenes, does little to qualify his pure identification with the troupe’s confrontational enthusiasm, so that the film finally feels little more complicated than a simulated episode of Behind the Music.
One of the most talked about of the Toronto premieres was Thom Anderson’s Los Angeles Plays Itself, a three-hour analysis of the depiction of Los Angeles in movies, constructed largely of movie clips. Anderson’s running commentary, read by Encke King, first comes across as sporadically cranky and resentful, and eventually settles into a groove as a Marxist-influenced lecture on the deceptions of Hollywood ideology and the turning points of Los Angeles political history. In the last hour, Anderson threatens to leave movies behind altogether in his didactic zeal, so that it’s easy to forget the loving attention he gave along the way to documenting the history of some of Hollywood’s favorite locations (the Bradbury Building, the Ennis House) and the location shooting of key Los Angeles films (Kiss Me Deadly [Robert Aldrich, 1955], Double Indemnity [Billy Wilder, 1946]). Along the way, he champions neglected films like Gone in 60 Seconds (H.B. Halicki, 1974) and The Model Shop (Jacques Demy, 1969), praises the direction of Jack Webb, and takes a few fairly cheap shots at the likes of George Kennedy, Klaus Kinski, and Henry Jaglom. Like so many other leftist thinkers, Anderson takes offense at “Hollywood’s personal ideology” without tracing it back to the culture and prejudices of the mass audience that Hollywood so slavishly courts. Ultimately, Los Angeles Plays Itself plays out as a document of the conflict between Anderson’s love of movies and his distrust of mass media.
Bong Joon-Ho’s extraordinary Memories of Murder opened in South Korea earlier this year and screened at the Cannes film market, but seems to have made its festival debut in Toronto. A leisurely account of the criminal investigation of a real-life serial murder case, Bong’s film begins as a black comedy of errors, combining droll deadpan humor and broad physicality as it observes the hapless, often brutal police running down meaningless clues. Gradually the story shifts into a becalmed, meandering mode, and then into maudlin existential anguish, finally ending with a touch of chilling absurdism. The most exciting aspect of Memories is Bong’s superb control of the expressive possibilities of the frame. In a festival where good and bad films alike tended to suppress composition in the name of realist or minimalist strategies, Memories hearkens back to the cinema of Murnau and Mizoguchi with its multiple visual planes, action growing from the center of the image, and unobtrusive use of shot duration to create both humor and drama. A perplexing film in many ways – and one that must play quite differently to South Korean audiences, who are familiar with the unsolved murder case – Memories is almost too much of a good thing in the variety and complexity of its director’s sensibility.
Opening the Montreal Film Festival days before its screenings in Toronto, Louis Bélanger’s Gaz Bar Blues is the kind of good, small Quebecois film that rarely plays outside Canada. A nostalgic story of a family-owned gas station that is a gathering place for an assortment of local working-class characters, Bélanger’s film plays just a little cute, but is perceptive and light-footed in sketching the anxiety of the benevolent paterfamilias (Serge Thériault) unable to maintain a safe haven for his troubled family in the face of a changing society. Photographed with the medium-length lenses and gray-on-gray production design favored by Quebecois product, Gaz Bar Blues also evinces the modesty of scale and emphasis on craft that prevent most Quebecois films from making a splash in the international art-house market.
Among the crop of Venice films at Toronto, the most exciting was Jacques Doillon’s Raja, one of the peaks of that director’s 30-year career. Taking on the difficult subject of the relations between colonists and the colonised in Morocco, Doillon sidesteps the usual white man’s trap by finding as much inspiration in the resilience and humor of the Moroccan women struggling for existence as he does in the juicy role of the wealthy middle-aged French expatriate Fred (Pascal Greggory), whose overdeveloped sensibility is drawn to the erotic possibilities of the young women who work in his garden. Fred focuses his attention on Raja (Najat Benssallem), not the prettiest or the most available of the workers, but the one who rouses the aesthete in him. Raja responds with a mixture of romantic curiosity and financial pragmatism, and the stage is set for a bittersweet May-December colonial romance that never quite happens. Instead, the film lays out its initial conditions – social, economic, sexual, and existential – and then enumerates and elaborates their daunting consequences with unforgiving logic. Doillon observes the debacle with a mobile, objective camera that surreptitiously heightens the drama of longing and despair that takes over both the protagonists. Depicting both French and Moroccan culture with sympathy and wit, Raja uses the language barrier between the would-be lovers as an excuse to throw up a network of perpendicular commentary, so that we watch the lovers watching their own fluctuating emotions.
Another excellent arrival from Venice was Argentinian Celina Murga’s debut feature Ana and the Others, which premiered at Buenos Aires earlier this year. Some viewers will no doubt be fazed by Murga’s debt to Eric Rohmer: I can’t think offhand of another film in which the influence of a master filmmaker is so comprehensive, in both style and subject matter. But Murga’s sympathy for Rohmer’s aesthetic is so natural that she is able to create with freedom and inspiration within the parameters of his conventions. The story concerns a young woman (Camila Toker), returned to her hometown of Paraná from Buenos Aires, who conducts a seemingly casual search for an ex-boyfriend. Gradually we see the fixity with which she carries out her mission, while Murga’s 16mm camera documents the intransigent reality of the time and space through which her determined protagonist moves. Murga departs from Rohmer’s aesthetic only at the very ending – and arguably this ending is her only misstep! But, before that, the heroine’s endlessly inventive interaction with the eight-year-old boy (Juan Cruz Diaz La Barba) she meets in her journeys should convince skeptics that Murga is no mere imitator.
Several of the best films at Toronto had premiered a month earlier at the Locarno Film Festival. The pick of the Locarno crop for me was Jean Paul Civeyrac’s Toutes ces belles promesses, a musical without songs orchestrated to a Mendelssohn soundtrack. A romantic film with a paradoxically realistic, almost clinical perspective on pain and loneliness, Promesses traces the steps of a Parisian cellist (Jeanne Balibar), dumped by her orchestra-mate lover, whose emotional distress leads her to explore her memories of her turbulent family life and to travel to the provinces to seek out her dead father’s mistress (Bulle Ogier). Civeyrac’s light touch with heavy material and his musical sensibility made me think first of Ophuls, but Civeyrac is much more subjective and impressionistic, and consequently more predisposed to close-ups. With its theatrical dialogue filtered through Balibar’s graceful, sing-song delivery, Promesses is probably closer in tone to the sad comedies that Michel Deville and Nina Companéez created in the ’60s and early ’70s. Certainly it’s been a while since any filmmaker saw fit to express the joys and sorrows of the human condition through the very serious business of women trying on hats.
Another Locarno premiere that focuses on the lives of women, Rituparno Ghosh’s Chokher Bali: A Passion Play is an intelligent adaptation of Rabindranath Tagore’s novel set in Bengal in 1902–05, when British dominion had sown the seeds both of nationalist rebellion and of culture clash between traditional and Western values. The eponymous protagonist (Aishwarya Rai), a young widow in a society that severely restricts widows’ social and economic prospects, takes refuge with a friend’s family, where she fascinates the family’s two adult sons and befriends the childlike wife of the eldest son. Unfortunately, the woman’s independent temperament is of little help to her in her volatile circumstance, and what little social standing she possesses is threatened when nature takes its course. Everyone in the film is a mixture of sympathetic and unsympathetic, free and determined, giving and self-protecting; though the three-hour film successfully sustains its epic sweep, its vision of the characters and their social grid is increasingly entomological. Serene and pictorial, Chokher Bali becomes convincing as a social critique by taking a genuine interest in the minutiae of family life and the interaction between erotics and politics.
The Magic Gloves, the third feature by the fine Argentine director Martin Rejtman (Silvia Prieto ), pushes the deadpan style of Spanish comedy so far that the abstraction comes out the other end. The exceedingly loose story follows a hapless, melancholy couple (Gabriel “Vicentico” Fernández Capello and Cecilia Biagini) who are adopted by a social group centering on a aggressive music producer (Fabián Arenillas) and his equally controlling wife (Susana Pampín). Breaking up early in the film, the couple drift through a series of life changes, usually engineered by their more vigorous but no more enlightened companions. Rejtman depicts every crisis and solution in the film in the same unflappable, static style, generating humor from the characters’ and the camera’s persistent lack of reaction. The impassivity of the Spanish comic style is here pushed to its logical conclusion, a passivity that is ultimately more sad than mirthful.
Unlike the fall festival films, the Cannes premieres come to Toronto documented by a trail of reviews in the trade papers and French-language press. The acclaimed Cannes prizewinners were all on the Toronto schedule, as well as a number of films that have so far avoided scrutiny in North America, such as Naomi Kawase’s remarkable Shara, which was shown in competition at Cannes. The story of a Japanese family coping with the mysterious disappearance of one of its children, Shara seems at first expansive and digressive to a fault, allowing itself leisurely plotless interludes that document diverse aspects of the family’s life without obvious internal connections. But connection is entirely what Kawase is about, and the film’s narrative strands come together in a dazzling centerpiece scene of a dance troupe performance at a small street festival, a scene that does just about everything that cinema can do. Shot in a few mobile, responsive long takes that repeatedly reconstruct the space of the street with slight shifts in position and focal length, this scene brings both nature and community to bear on the family’s problems with an offhand, indirect force worthy of Rossellini.
Kawase’s visual plan is built around a series of long Steadicam tracking shots that follow the various characters through the streets and into the houses of the Nara residential neighborhood where the movie was shot. Her tracking shots evoke documentary realism in their unsteadiness and their exposure changes, and yet they map out the neighborhood with total accountability, so that the audience almost knows the way when the teenaged protagonists sprint from school to home in response to an emergency at the film’s climax. Among other things, Shara conveys the feeling of a modern Japanese community as effectively as Ozu and Naruse evoked the lower-middle-class neighborhoods of Japan in the 50s.
Shown out of competition at Cannes, Gilles Marchand’s debut Who Killed Bambi? had garnered such mixed reviews that I was unprepared for its old-fashioned confidence in working and reworking the medical suspense thriller subgenre. Marchand, cowriter of Dominic Moll’s With a Friend Like Harry (2000) frames his story as a fairy tale, with the big bad wolf a handsome, sadistic doctor (Laurent Lucas) who anesthetises and fondles his female patients, and the heroine an intrepid nurse trainee (Sophie Quinton) who plays detective. The symmetric compositions and daring production design – all color coding, with Marienbad-like hospital corridors of blue and illuminated white – deftly set the tone for the abstract moral conflict. But ultimately Bambi is built around the inspired casting of Quinton, a newcomer whose wide-eyed naivete seems more a state of being than a performance. Early on, Marchand suggests that his Hitchcockophilia may be more than casual, as our heroine suffers from chronic fainting spells that signify her ambivalence toward her sexually alluring adversary. Does Little Red Riding Hood secretly want to be eaten? Bambi may run afoul of audiences who expect a feminist thriller and get a voluptuous flirtation with the death wish.
One of Europe’s best new directors, Solveig Anspach, confirms the promise of 1999’s Haut les coeurs! with her fine Stormy Weather, which debuted in Cannes’ Un Certain Regard section. Anspach uses a documentary-like, subjective camera style – a bit like that of the Dardenne brothers, though less rigorous – to show the increasing involvement of a Belgian psychiatric doctor (Élodie Bouchez) with a volatile, mysterious Jane Doe patient (Didda Jónsdóttir). When an unthinking bureaucracy discovers the patient’s identity and ships her back to her family in a small town in Iceland, the determined doctor follows, attempting to retrieve her patient but running afoul of both Icelandic social conventions and her own emerging vulnerability. The overt realism of Anspach’s camera style is a cover for a dreamlike, melodramatic narrative where will and emotional connection transcend practical considerations. More than many international co-productions, Stormy Weather is a tale of two countries, and it’s a tribute to Anspach’s visual sensitivity that one feels the contrast of climates and cultures even in the simplest institutional interiors, let alone in the awe-inspiring shots of Icelandic sea and sky.
Belgium also gave Toronto audiences Thomas de Thier’s fascinating debut Des plumes dans la tête, an original contemplation of emotional loss that appeared at Cannes’ Directors’ Fortnight. The subject matter – a mother (Sophie Museur) loses her child and avoids pain through denial and insanity – could have been unbearable to watch, but de Thier finds in the woman’s solution the springboard of an artistic approach built around emotional counterpoint. He uses ellipsis to skip lightly over the parents’ anguish, resorting instead to associative editing to focus on the vividness of nature, which is heightened by the director’s subjective techniques. Strangely, Des plumes explores the mother’s world through the imagery of joy and wonder, and her ultimate, tenuous renewal is compared to the rapture of teenage love. Structure and storytelling take a back seat to the moment-by-moment expressiveness of de Thier’s style to such an extent that Des plumes feels akin to non-narrative cinema despite its orthodox plot.
One of Quebec’s most interesting directors, Bernard Émond, would probably remain Canada’s secret were it not for the continued support of Cannes’ Critics’ Week. His new film 20h17, rue Darling is markedly different in style from his fine 2001 La femme qui boit: where the earlier film is carefully composed in old-fashioned long and medium-long shots, the later is handheld, mobile, and disposed toward medium shots and close-ups. But Émond’s subject is once more alcoholism, as a tentatively sober former crime reporter (Luc Picard) who narrowly escapes death when his apartment building explodes turns his professional skills to uncovering the story behind the disaster. Our expectations of a detective story are disappointed, as the reporter is actually delving into his near-death for the best reason in the world: as an excuse to drink. Émond’s account of the fall and rise of a fragile man covers little new territory as a story, but his intelligent script immerses us in the literate sensibility of his protagonist, who knows that his season in hell has brought him only the smallest, saddest increment of wisdom.
Vincent Gallo’s much-maligned The Brown Bunny, 30 minutes shorter than the two-hour version that graced Cannes, generated surprisingly good buzz at Toronto, with a few backlashers calling it their favorite film of the festival. Seen on my last night in Toronto, Bunny struck me as too crazy to be a success and too fascinating to be a failure. Most of the film is an unhurried documentation of motocross racer Bud Clay (Gallo) on a cross-country drive, with pit stops for very awkward interactions with an assortment of women. I couldn’t appreciate Gallo the director’s Cassavetes-like taste for the realism of blown lines and bewildered pauses, and the characters seem motivated less by psychology than a desire to sustain extended actors’ improvisations. But Gallo films locations with a stranger’s lucidity and an impressive commitment to natural sound and undoctored images. At film’s end, the plot kicks in with a vengeance as Bud is reunited with lost love Daisy (Chloe Sevigny). The infamous blowjob scene turns out to be rather sweet and life-sized, with Daisy holding up her end of the running conversation with amiable mumbles of “Mm-hmm” and “Mm-mmm” around a mouthful of penis. And André Bazin would probably have appreciated how the movie-familiar fantasy ending absorbs a documentary authority from the transgressive authenticity of the oral sex.
A few of the worthy films I caught at Toronto trace their ancestry back to February’s Berlin Film Festival. Sören Voigt’s elusive but intriguing Identity Kills uses a DV handheld camera and prosaic dialogue to tell the story of a young woman (Brigitte Hobmeier) drifting through life after a suicide attempt. At first the woman seems to lack distinctive qualities, other than being a patsy for her violent boyfriend; gradually she reveals an interest in acquiring character traits through contact or imitation. Largely improvised, the film consists of a series of discrete scenes in the woman’s life, events that give a poor prognosis for her future but don’t quite add up to a psychological profile. Voigt maintains the woman’s unknowability with an unobtrusive control of what is revealed and what is concealed. His trick is to blur her transition from aimlessness to mental illness, so that there is no dramatic turning point that kicks the story from one act to the next. Despite its modest presentation, Identity Kills eventually impresses with its undeniable intelligence and its knack for hiding its story in plain sight.
Making a stop at Toronto before its planned theatrical release by Sony Classics, Sun Zhou’s Zhou Yu’s Train (2002) tells an arty story with surprising light-footedness. Gong Li plays a mysterious woman whose frequent train rides to visit her poet lover (Tony Leung Ka Fai) expose her to the attentions of a good-natured veterinarian (Sun Honglei); she also plays a second woman who traces the steps of the first, and whose role is not established until film’s end. Character confusion and time jumps ought to make the film hard to follow, but its emotional line is so direct, its dialogue so down-to-earth, and its acting so cheerful that the story sorts itself out. Sun has a nice sense of space and makes imaginative use of locations, even though the busy editing rarely lets us hang on to an image for long. Undoubtedly Gong Li is a bit of a capital-A Actress at this point in her career, but she commandeers the camera for good rather than evil, managing to preserve her characters’ ambiguity even as she enhances their glamour. One can quibble with the film here and there, and it takes a turn toward conventional sentiment at the end, but it’s a pleasure to be able to describe a film as Hollywoodish and mean it as a compliment.