Sunday, June 19, 2011

2004 Toronto Film Festival Report, Part Thirteen

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in December 2004)

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

The Machinist (Brad Anderson)
Anderson’s low-key mood piece, which played in the festival’s Midnight Madness section, has already opened commercially, attracting most attention for the remarkable weight-loss regimen undertaken by its star Christian Bale. It pays off – from some angles he looks truly scary, and when the movie includes a couple of shots of the pre-deprivation Bale toward the end, the contrast is chilling.

He plays a machine-worker, unable to sleep, wasting away, with little human contact except for a prostitute (played by Jennifer Jason Leigh). Strange things start to happen to him – a freak accident to a fellow worker; mysterious notes left on his refrigerator - and his mental state grows increasingly brittle. From the start it’s obvious that this will be one of those “meta’ movies where everything will ultimately reorient itself in some fundamental way, revealing itself a dream or an enclave inside a Pennsylvania national park or suchlike. Such structures long seized to be interesting as ends in themselves, and this one adds nothing very new to the canon.

Still, the film maintains its drab aesthetic very effectively, and it has some moments of gorgeous masochism (such as when he throws himself in front of a car). But I think Anderson made a tactical mistake in following his last film, the forgettable chiller Session 9, with such a similar piece of work. His earlier bossa nova-tinged romance Next Stop Wonderland was full of delicate observation, with a feeling for its female character that makes a depressing contrast to his lazy use of Leigh in The Machinist.

Demain on demenage (Chantal Akerman)
One of my formative filmwatching experiences, in the mid-80’s, came when I saw Chantal Akerman’s Les rendezvous d’Anna on late night TV. I can no longer remember much about the plot, but I still have a profound sense of the film’s portrayal of alienation and detachment. I’d never seen something that felt simultaneously so unfamiliar and yet so psychologically relevant; it made the kind of movies I usually watched, with their conventional notions of pace and realism, seem paltry (since the title character is a film director, I suppose it also carried a certain glamour). Much later I saw Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, perhaps one of the greatest films about the toll of domesticity and mundane social structures. She’s made many movies since then, including numerous documentaries, most of which are hard to see outside film festivals (the easiest to catch on TV is A Couch In New York, her lumpy comedy with Juliette Binoche and William Hurt; predictably, it’s her worst effort from those I’ve seen). She seems to have an endlessly probing nature, accepting few preconceptions, continually turning over questions of femininity and sexuality and identity, often excavating themes of loneliness or lack of fulfillment.

Many of her films have screened at the Toronto festival, which this year showed her latest, Demain on demenage. It’s a rather strange film, and deliberately so. A mother (played by Aurore Clement, the Anna of Les rendezvous) moves in with her daughter after her husband’s death; they soon decide to move again and start showing the house to prospective buyers. A stream of visitors enters, each with his or her loopy evaluation criteria, some leaving in seconds, others remaining interminably and almost becoming part of the furniture. Meanwhile, the daughter labours away at an erotic novel, building in fragments of conversations she hears around her – she thinks it’s sexy, but people find it funny. The film prods and twists definitions of personal space, both physical and psychological, showing the programmed nature of normal responses and creating a near-carnival of the absurd; it often has the pace and rhythmic joie de vivre of a musical. (By the way, it also has a preoccupation with chicken that I was never able to make sense of).

But toward the end the women find an old journal kept by Clement’s Polish mother during the war. She reads the opening lines: “As I am a woman I cannot say all that I feel…I can only suffer in silence.” It’s a moment of great reverence, and the film almost seems to pause for a formal moment of silence. It soon starts up again, finding a non-traditional happy ending that Akerman merrily sends up even as she presents it. But the point has been made- Akerman may be able to goof around this stuff now, but it took a battle to get there. I can’t imagine Demain on demenage will inspire anyone as Les rendezvous d’Anna once did, but maybe the point is that it doesn’t have to. Fighting for less esoteric ground than Catherine Breillat, Akerman seems able to take a breather and play around with matters that in Jeanne Dielman were quite simply a source of agony.

Old Boy (Park Chan-wook)_
Park’s work is unknown to me, but he has a high profile aficionado in Quentin Tarantino. The new film Old Boy won the Grand Prix at this year’s Cannes event, which everyone assumes was due to Tarantino chairing the jury. The theory seems plausible: if only from the first line of the write-up in the Toronto programme book – “As mannered as a hyper-violent manga...” – you somehow suspect it wasn’t Tilda Swinton marshaling the Cannes jury in that direction.

The film is indeed tailor-made for Tarantino – it has the grim self-immersion of Kill Bill without the tiresome cross-referencing. It’s about a man who’s mysteriously imprisoned for 15 years; when he’s let out, transformed into a semi-crazed Kitano-like force of nature, he sets out to get revenge. It has several scenes with a knowingly high repellence quota, and several fiendish concepts and plot twists, presented in a style that fuses deliberate excess with a darkly tragic grandeur.

It’s a reasonable enough piece of work, and a gift for genre fans, but the fact of this movie and Fahrenheit 9/11 winning top prizes at Cannes only seems to me to illustrate how even rarified forums of cinema are infected by woozy capitulation to pop-culture and sensationalism. Old Boy’s flashy manipulations and contrivances don’t even belong in the same category as the festival’s best films. Park explains his intentions as follows: "I'm often misunderstood as a director who enjoys violence, but really I want to show how violence makes the perpetrator and the victim destroy themselves. I think I give more moral lessons to the audience than Disney!" All right, but this kind of theme is wearily familiar among modish directors, and the choice of moral benchmark speaks for itself.

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