(originally published in The Outreach Connection in September 2005)
This is the first of Jack Hughes’ reports from the 2005 Toronto Film Festival.
Breakfast on Pluto (Neil Jordan)
Neil Jordan has been directing films now for over twenty years, but I somehow still think of him as being relatively new. This is partly a compliment insomuch as it speaks to the sense of boyish reinvention that underlies much of his work, from Angel through The Crying Game through The Butcher Boy to The Good Thief, not to mention the Hollywood stint that culminated in Interview with a Vampire. He started as a writer and has continued to publish periodically, and his films have always evidenced a literary sensibility. This is of course a common way of denigrating directors whose works appear to lack that cinematic je ne sais quoi, and I must admit I share that same adverse predisposition - it's as if a literary facility, founded in the intimate arrangement of words and phrases, were generally at odds with the more fluid technology of cinema. This is too trite though, for Jordan's films are highly intuitive and able, and in any event, the notion of a man with a movie camera, imposing his personality on celluloid through sheer force of will, is no more than a pipe dream, particularly given the infrastructure that surrounds even a medium-budgeted production. Still, the truth is that it matters little to the appreciation of any particular Jordan film whether or not you’ve seen any of those that preceded it, something that impedes the thrill of bearing witness to evolving artistry.
Breakfast on Pluto continues the pattern, following the life of an Irish boy who would rather have been born a girl, and whose abstracted take on life helps him in navigating personal travails galore, as well as fraught encounters with the IRA, British police, and so forth. In the end, of course, he forges a stable if highly unconventional present where all the loose ends of the past are neatly arranged. The film has lots of flash and glam and evocation of seedy locales and edge-of-center behaviour, and is again confidently cinematic and consistently sensitive (although I could have done without the whimsical talking robins). Cillian Murphy gives a well-sustained study in chronic feyness, surrounded by guest stars such as Bryan Ferry as a bag of sleaze. The programme book called the film “electrifying, carnivalesque” which is not inappropriate, if you focus on the inherently short-lived, transient nature of those qualities.
Manderlay (Lars von Trier)
I wouldn’t strenuously disagree with the common list of faults identified by critics last year in Lars von Trier’s Dogville: pretentiousness, repetition, lazy point scoring. Even so, this film about a woman’s humiliation in a small Depression-era village is stylistically so fascinating (it was shot in its entirety inside a Swedish warehouse, with no sets) that a reasonably minded viewer should have been able to stay with it through these challenges. And it’s clearly a major piece of political cinema, even if one’s assessment in that regard is inevitably going to be coloured by personal preconceptions.
Von Trier conceived Dogville as the first in a trilogy about America, of which Manderlay is the second. It has the same stripped-down style, faux-archaic voiceover narration, and potentially hectoring approach to narrative and significance. After leaving the village at the end of the previous film, Grace (now played by Bryce Dallas Howard) comes across an unreconstructed slave plantation where she declares freedom for all, and installs herself as a benign temporary despot, to oversee the transition to democracy. If her powers of persuasion and rational argument fail, she has a coterie of her father’s gangsters on hand to back her up. Most of the movie follows the ups and downs of this social experiment, and the prototype-like quality of the visuals meshes well with the content. The parallels with the current situation in Iraq, and with countless other episodes in American history – or even its entire history, depending how coercive and duplicitous you take the governing ideology to be – are obvious, and although these parallels sometimes seem to come too easily to be that valuable, it’s perpetually surprising how much complexity von Trier squeezes from the mix. The film’s digressions into sexuality may be even more provocative, although I’m not sure his handling of that aspect is quite as assured.
Ultimately, the film’s main ingredient may well be sheer audacity, but at least von Trier’s applying himself to far more worthwhile ends than the average egomaniac director (a value judgment on my part, obviously). When I looked back the other day, I was surprised how often I had one of his films in my top ten for a given year. His Dancer in the Dark was a potentially harrowing tale of suffering, interrupted by several large-scale musical numbers; it’s a deeply contradictory, ambiguous film, with the lead performance by Bjork ably encapsulating those traits. Before that, his film The Idiots hung out with a group of middle-class professionals who’ve become preoccupied with “finding their inner idiot.” Notorious among other things for its orgy sequence, it certainly possessed a certain congruence of form and subject, and had a squirming comic effectiveness. Even earlier, his TV series The Kingdom was a mesmerizing ahead of its time melodrama. I think the only von Trier work to have failed to make much of an impact on me was Breaking The Waves, still probably his greatest consensus success. Still, in the recent documentary The Five Obstructions, he was fairly honest about showing himself to be smug and borderline insufferable, and most critics do not like Manderlay as much as I do. It would not be surprising, before too long, if he simply wore out his welcome.
Adam’s Apples (Anders Thomas Jensen)
This Danish film, about a convict released into a sort of halfway house overseen by an eccentric priest, has a fairly terrific first half. I don’t usually make a point of citing the names of unknown actors, but Mads Mikkelsen as the priest pulls off a characterization of great originality; convinced that the Devil is out to get him (a theory somewhat borne out by his immense personal bad luck), but indefatigably resourceful at every turn. Later on the film takes on more than it can handle – matters get cartoonishly violent, or else overly explicit in other ways, and it ends up as a bizarre and somewhat off-putting exercise in, I suppose, magic realism. The programme book claims that the film’s visual style evokes “Bergman, Dreyer and Tarkovsky,” but if anyone seriously agrees with that, I will take on Adam’s bet from the film and bake them an apple cake.