Sunday, April 10, 2011

2004 Toronto Film Festival Report, Part Three

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in September 2004)

This is the third of Jack Hughes’ reports from the 2004 Toronto Film Festival.

Silver City (John Sayles)
John Sayles’ reputation is getting a little shaky. His dedication to doing the films he wants to do can’t be in any doubt, and the scope of his interests is impressive, but approval for his recent films has been fitful. I thought Limbo was interesting for the way it digressed from Alaskan politics into existentialism, but the film could be regarded as merely incoherent. Sunshine State was a little flat, although it’s possible that this was part of Sayles’ commentary on Florida. Casa de Los Babys seemed abstracted and impressionistic. Through all of this the rap has often been that he lacks artistic vision, that his writing is increasingly pedantic. He certainly seems like something less than a truly great American director; he has the organization and the commitment, but compared to Robert Altman (who’s often worked in a broadly similar vein) he doesn’t have the occasionally inspired idiosyncrasy or the depth of feeling for messy personality.

Silver City only confirms these reservations. Already in commercial release, its main selling point is Chris Cooper as an airhead son of privilege running for governor of Colorado. Cooper’s hilariously inane speeches evoke you-know-who to a T, but this already shows you the film’s limitations, because it seems not to comprehend the calculation that lies beneath the real W’s buffoonery. Around this, Sayles builds a vaguely Chinatown-ish plot of hypocrisy and corruption involving an abandoned mine and a land deal. But where Chinatown was allusive and genuinely intricate, fluently fusing personal and political decay into a seamless web, Silver City plods from one thing to the other, never finding much buoyancy or coherence. It does make an important point, about the immense shallowness of the right’s homeland-embracing rhetoric. But if you share its views then the film merely states the obvious; if you don’t, it’s easily dismissible as a contrivance.

There’s no sign here of the ethereal tendencies of Limbo or Casa, and the film’s general washed-out inertia could be taken as an expression of the deadened self-satisfaction of power. But it might as easily denote a director who underestimates the audience’s sophistication and overvalues his own insight. Sayles’ trek through America is in danger of becoming downright boring

Kung Fu Hustle (Stephen Chow)
Getting into this film was like going through an airport – Chow’s last film Shaolin Soccer was real big with the pirates, and Columbia Pictures is evidently determined not to have the same thing happen again. All through the film, I’d swear a woman with an infrared detector thing had it pointed at my face, especially when I took an occasional – no doubt suspicious – sip of coffee. Early on I wondered if the film would be worth the trouble – I only went to see it because it fitted into an open time slot. But it’s unquestionably fun. The movie is indeed just one big kung fu hustle, just bang bang bang from beginning to end, crammed with balletic action, mysticism, good vs. evil showdowns, and so forth.

It’s crammed with movie references – Raiders Of The Lost Ark, The Shining, Sergio Leone, Jackie Chan, probably a hundred Asian movies I don’t know (apparently it’s a homage to the Shaw Brothers movies, which I’m not sure I’ve ever seen), and most prominently The Matrix. Indeed, it would almost be conceivable that the entire project is at its heart a debunking of that film and its pretentious sequels. It has an overload of digital effects, some funny (if generally obvious character business, and the most unorthodox villains since Miyazaki’s Spirited Away. If you pine for the choreography and sweep of the classic Hollywood musical, this is probably the genre that now comes closest to providing it. Even so, I'll never be a major aficionado of this kind of stuff – it’s too hermetic ever to be more than the candy you take between main meals. But in this case at least I can see why the pirates might be straining to get their hands on it.

5 X 2 – Cinq Fois Deux (Francois Ozon)
Pedro Almodovar (whose new film Bad Education I’ll review in a few weeks) is currently at the top of the heap of European directors, but Francois Ozon seems to have aspirations to push him aside, and could make it soon. Almodovar has been honing a specific affinity for lush stylization and hall of mirrors narrative, but Ozon is much more variable and resourceful, moving from the black comedy of Sitcom to the hermetic Fassbinder tribute Water Falls On Burning Rocks to the allusive and mysterious Under The Sand to the contrived delight of 8 Women. Somehow his work nevertheless seems to be of a piece, held together by a wry skepticism at bourgeois assumptions.

I think 5 X 2 may be his best film, although in some ways it’s his least surprising. It’s the story of a relationship told in five sequences, from their initial connection at a beach resort to the signing of the divorce papers. The film’s structural innovation – recently somewhat familiar from Memento and Irreversible – is that the sequences run in reverse order. The tone is calm and penetrating – it’s a tone familiar from observational European cinema. The film’s intrigue is in Ozon’s near-incredulity at the possibility that such relationships might exist at all, and how he consequently renders events calmly but ineluctably strange.

For example, after the divorce papers are signed, they arrange to sleep together again; she changes her mind, but he rapes her. On their wedding night he falls asleep too quickly, so she goes outside and meets another man, whom she has sex with. On the day their son is born, he simply disappears. The film’s expressions of “I love you” are intimately linked to these moments – they all seem like defensive movements in the wake of a transgression. The title clearly sounds more geometric than thematic, and I think this reflects Ozon’s beguilement at the very structure of relationships. The film’s backward trajectory seems to suggest his doubt at our tired paradigms by which they’re kindled, grow, wither and die.

The most explicit challenge to this structure within the film comes from the man’s gay brother, who has an open relationship with his latest boyfriend. Ozon is also gay, and 5 X 2 may provide the festival’s most astringent gay perspective on a predominantly straight world (Bad Education looks merely gauche by comparison). But like everything in the film, this is allusive rather than explicit. Overall, 5 X 2 is immaculately well played by the two actors, and I found it completely mesmerizing. It’s a miracle of utterly fresh coordinates planted in familiar territory, without apparent strain.

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