Sunday, June 5, 2011

2004 Toronto Film Festival Report, Part Eleven

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in November 2004)

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

Modigliani (Mick Davis)
An obvious labour of love, this gala presentation (and Davis’ debut as a director) concentrates on the last year of the tempestuous artist’s life, in particular his intense relationship with his common-law wife (who ultimately committed suicide the day after his death) and his knowingly pumped-up rivalry with Picasso (who, years later, uttered the artist’s name on his deathbed). The film looks great, with the appearance of slightly yellowing canvas; it sounds less good, partly due to the questionable decision to employ an English-language soundtrack. It depicts much turmoil, but doesn’t touch on the only thing that really matters – the source of the painter’s distinctive aesthetic (what did those swan necks and gracefully distorted proportions really mean?) The lack of a critical perspective ultimately leaves it feeling somewhat inert. Most of its devices, like Modigliani’s conversations with his younger self, or the use of Chariots of Fire-type music to drum up excitement for a big head-to-head painting contest near the end, are clichéd.

Andy Garcia, carrying too many B-movie connotations, is a questionable choice as Modigliani, and the actor playing Picasso has the bad luck, in his very first scene, to be handed dialogue almost identical to that of an old Jon Lovitz SNL sketch. On the whole, it’s far below the best of the festival, which tends for some reason to be typical of gala presentations scheduled for the home stretch.

The World (Jia Zhang-ke)
This was my introduction to the work of Chinese auteur Jia - I didn’t see his acclaimed film Platform. The World is an engrossing work, illustrating a China in transition, touching on its persistent poverty (especially rurally), its abiding mystery and its banality. It focuses on a young boyfriend and girlfriend, both working in a Beijing theme park filled with scaled-down replicas of world landmarks (the Pyramids, along with a mournful-looking camel; the Eiffel Tower; a Manhattan skyline that as the manager proudly points out still has its World Trade Center). Their momentum seems to be toward marriage, but it’s a slow momentum; each is distracted by vague thoughts of other people, family problems, or a sense of alternative possibilities. The park purports to present the world at one’s doorstep, symbolizing its accessibility and the possibility for achievement, but instead it just formalizes their lives’ limitations; she remarks for instance that she doesn’t know anyone who’s ever been on a plane. The movie uses occasional cartoon inserts that through their peppy excess underlie the characters’ inertia (and, as a secondary theme, the mixed blessing of their reliance on cellphones). This all makes the film sound like a real downer, and it’s certainly melancholy, but it’s also filled with humour and incident and is a continuously fascinating work of anthropology – it’s particularly attuned toward women and the forces that drive them toward merely superficial advancement, ornamentation or even prostitution. In some ways the film reminded me of Edward Yang’s YiYi from a few years ago (although Jia at this point is a little more prosaic than Yang) and it was one of my favourite discoveries at this year’s festival.

Ils se marierent et eurent beaucoup d’enfants (Yvan Attal)
Attal’s follow-up to the blandly pleasant, self-referential My Wife Is An Actress (in which he played an ordinary guy married to a famous film star, played by Attal’s real-life wife Charlotte Gainsbourg) shows intriguing development. The early stretch is worryingly bland, centering on the creaky old formula of three buddies: the nicely domesticated one, the one married to a bitch, and the one who sleeps around while claiming to envy the others. Fearlessly embracing cliché, Attal even resorts to that hoariest of devices, the late night poker game. But the film becomes progressively more adventurous, throwing in fantasy, reversals of expectation, temporal shifts, new directions and sidelines, an enterprising music soundtrack with a heavy Radiohead quotient, and a cameo by Johnny Depp. Depp initially seems to be playing himself but later appears to be representing a female fantasy of the ideal male. Maybe that’s pretty much the same thing.

The movie increasingly takes on the air of a plaintive scrapbook, with the courage to leave matters largely unresolved – its ultimate artful messiness, connoting broken-backed compromise as being as good as it gets for relationships, is actually its strongest element. Ultimately it’s still pivoted on the favourite subject of middle-aged male filmmakers without a distinctive worldview (or maybe the second favourite subject, after the inner lives of hitmen) –how can a man settle for one woman when there are so many others out there? And as a secondary theme – what’s it all about anyway? The film has no major insights into all this, but it glides around the weary old battleground with increasing fluency. As if anchoring itself in a long tradition of middlebrow French cinema, it has cameos by Aurore Clement, Claude Berri and Anouk Aimee. The latter two, as Attal’s parents, are used simply to reinforce an easy point about how relationships wither; it’s a waste of resources and yet the excess is almost ennobling.

Ray (Taylor Hackford)
Hackford’s biography of Ray Charles, which has already opened commercially, is a consistently convincing reconstruction of the great singer’s life up to the mid 60’s (the point at which a heroin bust forced him to clean up and reevaluate his priorities). Jamie Foxx pulls off a note-perfect evocation of Charles, frequently achieving the presumed goal of documentary-like fidelity, the period is well caught, and scene by scene the movie plays well (the music, of course, is especially rousing). But there are an awful lot of these scenes, and you gradually realize that they’re not yielding any greater illumination than you’d get from reading a bio while listening to a greatest hits album.

I’m genuinely unsure, from watching the movie, whether Charles is an impossibly mercurial figure whose motivations are opaque even to himself, or whether that’s a measure of the film’s lack of depth. His refusal to play a concert in segregated Georgia, highlighted by the movie as one of his cornerstone achievements, comes across as a snap decision unmoored in any particular political awareness; his ground-breaking swing into country and western music comes from nowhere; his drug use and womanizing are observed but never felt. As if aware of its paucity of analysis, the film keeps flashing back to the death of his younger brother, a few months before Charles lost his sight, and even concludes with an imagined conversation where his mother tells him to clean up, something that smacked to me of desperation. Overall the film doesn’t live up to the considerable surrounding hype.

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