Sunday, June 12, 2011

2004 Toronto Film Festival Report, Part Twelve

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in November 2004)

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

p.s. (Dylan Kidd)
Kidd’s follow-up to Roger Dodger (in which Campbell Scott played a chillingly articulate, almost nihilistic man on the prowl) plays as if the director was freaked out by the dark psychology of that film (not that it took things to the extent it might have) and thus retreated as far as possible in the opposite direction. This yields p.s., an ethereal piece of tissue that will probably play forever on women’s cable networks (it’s already opened commercially). Laura Linney plays a dean of admissions at the Columbia University art faculty, swept off her feet by a young applicant (played by Topher Grace) who reminds her of an old boyfriend (he even has the same name). Linney is wonderful as always; she’s the only actress I can think of who seems to act with her skin, and the initial sex scene between them (within a couple of hours of his formal interview) is nicely done.

But the movie has a total tin ear for human behaviour – you won’t often hear anything as arch and contrived as her initial phone conversations with Grace and those with Marcia Gay Harden as her best friend. It takes off in a weird, unfocused direction in which major incidents increasingly seems to be happening offscreen and recounted to us afterwards; I started thinking I might be watching an Alan Ayckbourn-type experiment where the best stuff was being projected in the theatre next door. In the end you can just about join the dots to see a broad notion of how Linney’s nothing-happening character has come through an intersection of revelations about secret desire and cast off her unnecessary mental baggage to accept Grace simply as a “beautiful snowflake” in his own right – she seems blissfully happy in the end. For the audience, this provides a generalized payoff of well being, but no more than you’d get from staring at a kitten for a few minutes. And I can’t imagine what Kidd was thinking.

Los Muertos (Lisandro Alonso)
Los Muertos is the second film by Alonso, who according to the programme book “is one of the most talented and visionary filmmakers to emerge from the New Argentine Cinema movement” (I didn’t see his first film, Freedom). It follows a man who’s released from prison after many years and travels to see his daughter, living in dirt-poor circumstances in the heart of the jungle. His journey takes him by road, working in some fascinating glimpses of dusty, threadbare communities, and then by boat. He’s a man of few words and he stops frequently to contemplate things he hasn’t seen for years. The film moves correspondingly slowly, but precisely.

But at the start of the film we saw what looked like bodies lying in the forest, and a man standing over them. Presumably this is a memory of his crime (in the following scene we see him waking up). The film has the vague trajectory of Apocalypse Now – a journey that appears to be headed for the heart of darkness – and at various times it seems certain that something dangerous is about to happen. The possibility of violence is made explicit in a surely unfaked, startlingly matter of fact scene where he kills and disembowels a goat (where were the cat-killer protestors when this movie was showing?) The expectations are never met, and it seems to me that this is largely the film’s point – not to tease us exactly, but to make us aware of the limitations of our preconceptions, by showing us something far outside our normal frame of reference. Looked at that way though, it’s a bit of a set-up, a “gotcha” exercise.

That aside, the film is a wonderfully sustained study, fascinating in its details, but I’m not wholly sure what it amounts to. The festival program book calls it “difficult to label,” which seems right, although the film raises the disquieting possibility that the label may be “less than meets the eye.” I concede though that Alonso’s future films may prove me vastly wrong about this.

A tout de suite (Benoit Jacquot)
The festival has treated Jacquot very well over the years – he was the subject of its spotlight section a few years ago, and most of his subsequent films have been screened there. But I wonder how much of an impact this has made. Jacquot’s movies tend to leave little after-impression, and barely seem as if they’re meant to – they’re more like pages than chapters, brief eruptions of incident. My favourite has been A Single Girl, with Virginie Ledoyen as a disaffected young hotel worker whose life is on the brink of acquiring actual responsibility and definition. But maybe the pace of that film – she’s in non-stop motion between cafes, hotel rooms, kitchens, lobbies – provides a more distinctive rhythm than is usual for his work.

A tout de suite is now my new favourite Jacquot film. It’s about a girl who falls into a romance with a young Moroccan. One night he calls and tells her he just robbed a bank; she helps him escape, and then joins him and his accomplice as they flee to Spain, then Morocco, then Greece. The film is shot in a grainy black and white, and is another Jacquot exercise in immediacy – the title “Right now” could almost be his work’s emblematic label. But it’s highly affecting, because it probes the shortcomings of such short-termism as a psychological state or life strategy. The girl, often expressionless, almost never voicing anything of much depth, has the air of someone always on the verge of arresting her momentum, but lacking the resources to pull it off. She’s a student artist, and in an early scene at class, when they’re asked to draw an outline of a person but not the face, she unthinkingly disregards the instructions; she already has outlines aplenty, but needs inner connectivity (perhaps it’s significant that, at the very beginning, we’re told about her distanced relationship with her mother). She smuggles friends in to stay the night, coordinating the logistics with the assurance of someone constructing a secret routine more real than the real one. “It was the good life,” she says of the early days with her boyfriend, “I don’t know if it was true life.”

The character is young, and the consequences of her impulsiveness inevitably grow beyond her capacity to marshal them. But the film doesn’t identify her condition merely as a phase – it’s clearly a psychological state – “to put myself in people’s shoes.” There’s surely something of such a condition in filmmaking too, which is perhaps why A tout de suite, for all its apparent throwaway qualities, feels so measured and consequential among Jacquot’s works.

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