Saturday, August 11, 2012

2005 Toronto Film Festival Report, Part Two

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in September 2005)

This is the second of Jack Hughes’ reports from the 2005 Toronto Film Festival.

Water (Deepa Mehta)

This was the opening Gala this year, beating out the new Egoyan and Cronenberg entries. It’s the third film in Mehta’s “Elemental Trilogy” – the previous two were Fire and Earth, neither of which left any impression on me at all. Since then she’s made Bollywood Hollywood, a truly terrible film, and the unappreciated The Republic Of Love  (which I didn’t see). Water is about the mistreatment of women in 1940’s India, first married off at startlingly young ages, and then – when their husbands die on them –internally banished to an ashram for widows; based on what’s shown here, the only practical role men might ever allow a widow to fill is that of whore. This is all rooted in Hindu dogma, but as one character says, disguised as religion, it’s just about money...having one less mouth to feed.

It’s powerful material, and makes for Mehta’s best film. She went through a lot to make it. The film originally started production in 2000 in India, but filming was shut down after mass protests; the director received death threats and was burned in effigy (it was ultimately shot in Sri Lanka).  Still, respect for Mehta’s commitment cannot dismiss the fact that the film is still significantly flawed by her excessively linear sensibility. Bizarre as this might sound from any synopsis of the plot, it often feels somewhat sugarcoated, with a sappily portrayed love affair powering much of the plot mechanics. It has some moments of considerable tragedy, but Mehta doesn’t bring much tonal variation to events, blunting their impact both as drama and – more significantly – as politics. The cameo at the end by an actor playing Gandhi also seemed to me rather fanciful. It’s a handsome and engrossing work, not unworthy of its high-profile status, but it’s hard to align oneself wholeheartedly with the general wild enthusiasm it’s received.

The Well (Kristian Petri)

I subscribe to the critical orthodoxy on Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane – it’s one of my favourite films. As everyone says, it has immense stylistic imagination and confidence and always seems boundlessly energetic, but there’s something almost supernatural to its scope – it’s more closely rooted (we now know) in Welles’ own psyche and destiny than he could possibly have appreciated at the time, and performs a more effective biopsy on a certain strand of 20th century culture than a young man should have been capable of. Whenever I watch the aging Kane stagnating in his vast collection of artifacts, his youthful exuberance collapsing into helpless intransigence, I can’t help thinking of Welles’ subsequent career; with its countless unfinished projects and restless shifts of focus, his unquestionable air of majesty, figuratively and physically over spilling all normal boundaries, toppling over (often knowingly, it seems) into bitter comedy. The imagery of artistic and personal gluttony hangs heavily over him, but to see him only in those terms obscures the delicacy, radicalism and considerable poignancy of his work.

Some of Welles’ uncompleted films are as famous as other directors’ masterpieces – The Other Side Of The Wind, and Don Quixote, which he shot on and off in Spain in the 1950’s. In The Well, documentary filmmaker Kristian Petri posits himself as a successor to Thompson, the investigating reporter in Kane, traveling through Spain in search of the secret of Welles’ love for the country (he shot several films there in addition to Quixote, paid extended visits throughout his life, and decreed in his will that his ashes be buried in the titular well, located in a famous bullfighter’s private garden) and perhaps of greater insight into the director’s fragmented career. As he freely admits in his voiceover, the most compelling parallel may be between Petri’s dawdling, travelogue-like approach to this project, and Welles’ almost compulsive inability to knuckle down and finish anything (vividly described here by Jess Franco, his assistant for a time, and later himself the antithesis of Welles as a mega-prolific genre director). Petri comes across as naively earnest, ultimately concluding (underwhelmingly, obviously) that Welles was “a riddle with no conclusive answer’; he also blows his film’s most attainable prospect of true distinction by failing to show us very much of the copious recently unearthed footage shot by Welles in Spain. Even the legendary Quixote is seen here only in a few grainy fragments.

Still, the film is fascinating for all those who revere Welles. He was fascinated by bullfighting, and occasionally thought of making a movie about it, captivated in particular by the tragedy of its structure, exemplified by the bull’s central “innocence.” Ultimately, he concluded that a film on the subject could “never outstrip would merely degrade it.” Which resonates with so much of Welles’ work, built around characters of extreme, wanton flaws and yet unquestionable grandeur, observed with perhaps the most tender, intricate tenderness in all of cinema.

L’Enfer (Danis Tanovic)

This is Tanovic’s first film since winning the foreign film Oscar for No Man’s Land, based on a script that might have been destined for Krzysztof Kieslowski (of The Decalogue and the Three Colours trilogy), had he lived. It’s an overstuffed melodrama, tracking the anguish of three sisters; one with a cheating husband, another in a hopeless love affair, the third simply unfulfilled and hollow. The theme of absent or errant fathers is central to the structure, with past errors and betrayals replayed from one generation to the next. And the women react in turn, sometimes by tying down the hatches and doing all possible to hold steady, but sometimes more drastically. As one of the three makes clear in a presentation on Medea: “under extreme pressure women will ultimately explode...and children end up in pieces.”  Add all of that together, and it seems that modern life must be a hell indeed.
I watched Kieslowki’s Red/White/Blue again recently, and came away uncertain that the director for all his ambition possessed a very coherent theory of modern existence. But he created astonishing networks of allusion and connection, was thrillingly alert to the currents in modern Europe, and was subtle enough in his evocation of the divine and the mystical that it never seemed utterly contrived. By comparison, L’Enfer, although beautifully made in a formal sense, seems much more conventional and ingratiating. Tom Tykwer also took on left over Kieslowski material a few years ago with Heaven, and produced an oddly distant, academic work. Tanovic does a warmer and subtler job, but it surely seems simpler in this version than the wily old master would have allowed.  

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