Sunday, May 1, 2011

2004 Toronto Film Festival Report, Part Six

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in October 2004)

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

9 Songs (Michael Winterbottom)
Winterbottom turns up at just about every festival, almost always working a new genre or at least a new angle. He’s amazingly talented and facile: last year he made both In this World, a documentary-style examination of Afghani refugees, and Code 46, an enigmatic futuristic semi-thriller. In the last few years he’s also covered war (Welcome To Sarajevo), Westerns (The Claim), social drama (Wonderland), and an archaeology job on early 80’s British rock (24 Hour Party People). Only the last of these feels particularly vital. Winterbottom’s eclecticism and speed tend to seem like an end in themselves, as if his career amounted to some kind of contest entry. I wrote that line last year, and it seems more apposite than ever, because he turned up this year with a hardcore sex film. 9 Songs got heaps of attention at Cannes, and is provoking pages of coverage in its native Britain, where it’s been called “the rudest British film ever,” rather as if it were a Carry On film with really bad doubles entendres.

If only. The film shows the relationship of a British man and a somewhat younger American woman – mostly having sex, but sometimes taking drugs, hanging out, arguing. They met at the Brixton Academy rock venue, and the movie weaves in performances by groups like Super Furry Animals and Franz Ferdinand (nine of them I guess, although it felt like less). Sometimes it shifts to Antarctica, where the man flies a plane over the ice and thinks back to the relationship. This generates the film’s only stab at overt meaning: that the Antarctic is “claustrophobic and agoraphobic at the same time, like two people in a bed.”

It’s an odd, impressionistic film, running a mere (and rude) 69 minutes. The sex is the only thing memorable about it, but it’s not memorable enough to justify the hype (I know, critics always write things like that and it probably sounds disingenuous, but it really is true). The film has a sweaty, physically authentic intimacy to it, but the relationship never feels particularly real, and the symbolic weight implied by the use of Antarctica coexists oddly with the disposable quality connoted by the film’s brevity and general lack of introspection. On the way out of the screening, I heard one guy say the movie should have had more sex in it, and he might be right – you know what they say, in for a penny, in for a pound (the current version is in for maybe eighty cents). Winterbottom supposedly offered to cut the film down if it avoids censorship problems, which earned him a rebuke from the movie’s own producer. But it probably tells you a lot about how he sees all this – he’s done that now, so on to the next thing.

The Sea Inside (Alejandro Amenabar)
After the virtually incomprehensible Open Your Eyes and the inconsequential The Others, Amenabar works in a more middlebrow register with The Sea Inside, a well-handled drama of a paraplegic who simply wants to die. Javier Bardem plays him with great depth of feeling; in bed for 28 years since a diving accident broke his neck, frequently smiling only because, he says, in his state of dependency on others you learn to cry by smiling. Running over two hours, the film paints a detailed portrait of the family that cares for him, and of the “Death With Dignity” activists that work for his cause.

It’s a good movie, but it perhaps sums up its ingratiating approach that during the year or so covered by the film two different women fall in love with the character, and this is despite his tenet that “total dependency comes at the expense of intimacy.” The film is premised on an unimaginable boredom and loneliness, but as a viewing experience it’s mostly warm and comforting, and too polished to feel very natural. Amenabar employs his formidable technical skills to expand Bardem’s claustrophobic environment, taking him on flights of fantasy over fields and shorelines, or vividly recalling the accident. Basically, the film belongs primarily with the big gala selections as the rare foreign film that can take care of itself, commercially speaking; Bardem will very likely win an Oscar nomination (he already won Best Actor at the Venice festival). This is all fine, but the movie’s reception as one of the festival’s best only demonstrates how the consensus notion of film art is watered down.

Mon Pere est Ingenieur (Robert Guediguian)
Guediguian’s films seldom show anywhere except the film festival, where he was the subject of the spotlight section a few years ago. He shoots all his films in Marseilles, with decidedly blue-collar leanings, using the same lead actors from film to film. His most famous work is Marius Et Jeannette, an easygoing middle-aged love story; his best is probably La Ville Est Tranquille, a majestic survey of marginal existence. Marie-Jo And Her Two Lovers, a couple of years ago, was amiable but suggested for once that Guediguian might be in danger of over-mining his narrow vein of material. The start of the new film seems to confirm this fear, with a bizarrely contrived scene of the director’s two lead actors playing a modern Mary and Joseph, wandering through Marseilles on December 24 looking for a place to give birth. For a while after that the film seems to flail around between reality and fantasy, between past and present. But at its heart it’s a fairly simple story about an idealistic doctor who has mysteriously entered a catatonic-like state. Her former partner, now a politician, returns to take care of her, and discovers that she was facilitating a local Romeo and Juliet-like romance between a young white girl and Arab boy. In some way, it seems, the power of her identification with their love, or else the trauma of her family’s resistance to it, has pushed her toward this withdrawal.

“I’m sick of people holding the world back,” she says at one point, “to preserve their own petty lives.” Mon Pere est Ingenieur at times seems ready to leave Marseilles behind – it talks more of global problems, it harbours a sentimental vision of unity and belonging, and it escapes frequently into myth and fairy tale. At the end though, it’s as wedded to the old town as ever. The film is ultimately sweet and warming, but nothing about it feels particularly necessary – much of it is a retread of Guediguian’s previous work, and the bits that aren’t are generally contrived. What holds Guediguian back from moving on?

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