(originally published in The Outreach Connection in October 2005)
This is the fourth of Jack Hughes’ reports from the 2005 Toronto Film Festival.
Le temps qui reste (Francois Ozon)
Ozon’s 5 X2, rather to my surprise, was one of my favourite films at last year’s festival. It’s the story of a relationship told in five sequences, the structural innovation being that they run in reverse order. The film’s intrigue is in Ozon’s near-incredulity at the possibility that such relationships might exist at all, and in how he consequently renders events calmly but ineluctably strange; among other things, it may have provided last year’s most astringently gay perspective on a predominantly straight world (Pedro Almodovar’s Bad Education, although much more widely praised, seemed to me merely gauche by comparison).
Ozon has seemed for a while to be aiming for the top of the heap of European directors. He’s extremely variable and resourceful, moving from the black comedy of Sitcom to the hermetic Fassbinder tribute Water Falls On Burning Rocks to the allusive and mysterious Under The Sand to the contrived delight of 8 Women. Somehow his work nevertheless seems to be all of a piece, held together by a wry skepticism at bourgeois assumptions. His new film Le Temps qui reste demonstrates all his proficiency, but is probably only a minor addition to the canon. It’s about an abrasive young photographer who receives a diagnosis of terminal cancer, decides to forego treatment, and spends his remaining time sifting the elements of his life – he breaks up with his boyfriend, reconciles with his sister, pays a touching visit to his grandmother, and so forth. There’s also a somewhat bizarre out-of-nowhere plotline that serves to reconcile his ambivalent view of his own childhood, and to deliver him to an ultimate state of benevolence and acceptance.
The film has some of Ozon’s most overt homosexual content, but he’s content on this occasion to work within familiar ideological and emotional structures – the character’s personal journey is conventional, and the film is accessibly even-toned. None of this undermines its emotional impact – scene by scene, it’s exceptionally well judged. But I saw it the day after watching a pair of other French films - Gentille and Un couple parfait – that provided, between the two of them, as much enjoyment but a higher dose of subtle subversion and technical provocation. By comparison, Ozon’s film simply seemed minor. He’s so smart though that this is probably part of a deliberate strategy, to establish his mastery of all points on the spectrum: his next film will probably kick us hard, where it hurts.
Lie With Me (Clement Virgo)
Virgo’s film was preceded by advance buzz about its daring - the programme book calls it a “distaff version of Last Tango In Paris”. It follows a young Toronto woman through a series of sexual encounters (linked by instantly forgettable other stuff), eventually focusing on her fraught relationship with a particular guy. The movie is shot in a ramshackle, drifting, close-up style, and this is occasionally successful in complementing the protagonist’s turbulent psyche – it also benefits immeasurably from the fearless central performance by Lauren Lee Smith. But on the whole it’s a superficial thing, unable to put these elements to any even quasi-profound purpose. The character’s inner thoughts, captured in voice over, are somewhat less than revelatory – for example: “I didn’t know how to love him. All I knew what to do was f***. It’s not enough to f***.” As for the sex, it’s at least more convincing than anything in Atom Egoyan’s new movie, but not very interesting for anyone aware of recent trends in European films. The movie does however attain a certain distinction from setting these goings-on against such familiar settings as Dundas Square and the Annex, which serve as compelling insurance against viewing any of it as being remotely glamorous.
06/05: The Sixth Of May (Theo van Gogh)
Theo van Gogh achieved his greatest fame in death, when he was shot in Amsterdam last year, apparently in response to numerous provocative statements on Islam. His films were not well known outside the Netherlands – I had only seen one of them, and it wasn’t at all memorable (I do recall it had something to do with phone sex). His last film takes off from the other high profile Dutch shooting of recent times – Presidential candidate Pim Fortuyn, who was killed in 2002, ten days before he might well have won the election. The film posits that a photographer, happening to be close to the scene, starts to string things together in All The President’s Men style, although (this being thirty years later) with more technological panache. Events move along zippily enough, but I will confess to not following all of the links, nor even fully comprehending where matters end up. I don’t think this is just my problem either – there’s not much sign that Van Gogh had his eye on an international audience here, and in any event his direction is fairly run-of-the-mill. There seems to be a vague attempt to embody some of Fortuyn’s signature issues and complexities in the narrative; for example, the anti-immigration stance inherent in his declaration that “Holland is full,” modified by his distance from the far right that’s generally associated with such stances, is echoed here in several inter-racial relationships, and perhaps also (maybe more insidiously) in the deceptions engineered by one of the immigrant characters. Intriguing as that is though, it’s far less resonant than any of the footage of Fortuyn that’s interspersed through the film.
All Souls (numerous directors)
Van Gogh’s death itself gave rise to a festival film, a compilation of short segments by 17 Dutch filmmakers, all linked more or less explicitly (for a non-Dutch viewer it’s not always easy to know which) to his murder on November 2, 2004 (coincidentally, but with a macabre artistic utility, the date of the last US election). As with most exercises of this kind, the approaches vary widely, from symbolic fantasy to erotic reverie to documentary to faux documentary to absurdist comedy to gentle observation to impressionistic collage; the most common theme is the difficulty of accommodating diversity and accepting societal evolution, without inhibiting free speech and while accommodating “tradition” (at least partly a xenophobic construct). The quality, in truth, averages out at the lower end of the spectrum – in particular, this isn’t much of a showcase for the Dutch sense of humour, although the best sequence, an evocation of an Amsterdam terrorized by a mysterious cloud, yields the punch line (an effective one, in context) that it was all caused by an old woman emptying her vacuum cleaner bag off her apartment balcony. Highs and lows aside, the film ably communicates the immense trauma of the event; it’s not analytical so much as bereft and woebegone, circling round Van Gogh’s departed spirit as if in the forlorn hope of effecting his return.