Sunday, May 15, 2011

2004 Toronto Film Festival Report, Part Eight

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in November 2004)

Being Julia (Istvan Szabo)
You’d think the artistic and commercial failure of producer Robert Lantos’ Sunshine would have killed off his enthusiasm for Istvan Szabo, that film’s director, but instead Lantos has been bragging in interviews about how he talked Szabo into taking on Being Julia, overriding the man’s insistence that he has no aptitude for comedy. Since Szabo’s sensibility is about as stodgy as it gets, it shouldn’t have been hard to take him at his word, but I guess that’s producing genius at work for you.

Lantos got off a little luckier than he deserved, entirely because of the fine central performance by Annette Bening. She plays a theatrical diva in 1930’s London, married to impresario Jeremy Irons, at the top of her game but developing major ennui until she falls into an affair with a young admirer. When that peters out, the beau takes up with a young actress whom he then engineers into a star-making part in Bening’s latest play, setting the stage for sparks.

Actually, these never quite manifest themselves. The film is pervasively flat, smothering potential themes and nuances, never summoning any visual panache, and seldom allowing the starry (in a B-list kind of way) cast to gel. The ending, in other hands, might have been devastating; here it’s merely academic. But Bening, despite an overdone accent, is extraordinarily vibrant and resourceful, commanding every scene. She makes the film, but also dooms it, because her outsized virtuosity rubs in the drabness of everything else. A more able director might have kept things in perspective, but Szabo seems to have been otherwise occupied, convincing himself he could do funny. Despite the film’s obviously minor status, it dutifully received the festival’s opening gala slot, and is now limping along in commercial release.

3-Iron (Kim Di-duk)
I only know Kim from his film Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter...And Spring, released here a few months ago. It’s about the life of an aging monk and his young acolyte, living in magnificent isolation; the acolyte leaves, later returns, order resumes itself. Perhaps one of the year’s best reviewed films, Spring… seems slow and meditative by mainstream standards, but it’s actually a knowingly accessible and ingratiating piece of storytelling, artfully tapping a wide emotional register. Kim’s earlier films were apparently very different, more abrasive. 3-Iron, lacking the pictorial quality of Spring…, may not become as great a popular success, but it’s a stronger film overall and actually a wonderful, innovative love story. Once again, it constitutes a dream of redefining the world, this time not by withdrawing from it but by mastering and then disappearing within the spaces woven into and unnoticed by the everyday.

A young man breaks into empty homes; he doesn’t steal anything but stays for a while to absorb the lives of the inhabitants, trying on clothes, fixing deficient equipment and hand washing dirty laundry. In one house he encounters an abused young woman; when her husband returns, he takes revenge on him (using the 3-iron of the title). The woman leaves the abuser and joins him on his journey, easily assuming the same rituals. Once they’re caught and separated, it seems the project must be at an end, but instead it enters a more ethereal stage – the characters ultimately achieve what you might call a highly bearable lightness of being.

The man doesn’t say a word throughout, and the woman says only three – the film’s first half in particular often resembles a deadpan silent comedy. The tone sometimes becomes darker, but doesn’t stay there; even when you think it’s entering madness, or else the supernatural, it keeps one foot in the humdrum and benign, and ultimately plants both feet in sentimentality. I’m not sure that Kim has a truly exciting worldview as yet. The film’s final caption - “It’s hard to tell that the world we live in is either reality or dream” - is unoriginal and then for good measure stated too literally. A film that promises for a while to be both beguiling and bracing ends up being mostly just the former. But that’s hardly negligible.

Zulu Love Letter (Ramadan Suleman)
“How can we hope to heal this land when there are so many restless souls?” asks a character in Zulu Love Letter, summing up the brooding despair and unreconciled sense of loss that hangs over the film. It’s the present day, and a black journalist tries to reopen the case of a missing girl while dealing with her own tortured memories and family problems – in particular a broken marriage and a deaf daughter (whose condition seems like too strenuous a metaphor for a societal “failure to communicate”). The film does communicate its basic point – that South Africa has not come close to realizing the promise of the end of apartheid. But then everyone in the audience could likely have stipulated this point before the film even started.

The meshing of political and private is hardly an unfamiliar structure for issue-oriented films, and although the raw anger here occasionally connects, matters aren’t carried off here with much skill. The swings from (almost documentary-like) images of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to late-night alcohol-laden personal recriminations seem particularly laboured, especially given the clichéd performance of the lead actress (although lines like “I need to end the wake in my head” would surely defeat anyone). And in the end, after dipping into particularly clichéd conspiracy territory, the film merely lunges for a relatively positive reconciliation, leaving earlier issues trailing in the dust.

This particular film was shown as part of a section called “South Africa: Ten Years Later” but otherwise could have fitted into the “Planet Africa” category that’s been part of the festival for over a decade. I don’t know how many attendees seek out the films in Planet Africa for reasons of personal heritage, but I truly doubt that many do so for aesthetic reasons. I know that any demand for an African cinematic style would only cheapen the complexity and breadth of what we sum up as “Africa,” but a director like Abderrahmane Sissako (whose Waiting For Happiness screened at the festival two years ago) succeeds in creating a narrative and visual tapestry that owes nothing to Western preconceptions. It must be acknowledged though that Sissako’s film would not readily qualify as accessible entertainment. Zulu Love Letter seems formed almost entirely by Western norms; the film looks and feels entirely familiar, even when it momentarily shows us something new. “We’re supposed to be in charge in this country,” says the journalist bitterly, and the film shows effectively enough the fallacy of that illusion (albeit on a narrowly personal level that denies us much sense of the broader machinery), but the film’s strongest statement of compromise and thwarted ambition lies in its very conventionality.

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