Sunday, June 16, 2013

2006 Toronto film festival report - part 5

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in October 2006)

This is the fifth of Jack Hughes’ reports from the 2006 Toronto International Film Festival.

Bunny Chow (John Barker)

I probably wouldn’t have chosen this movie if not that I was lucky enough this year to visit South Africa, an experience that left my head spinning.  Between the bush and the townships, I’ve never felt such profound doubt at the way I’ve been applying my life (for better or worse, it passed). Bunny Chow poses no such challenges. It’s a ramshackle little film about three stand-up comedians from Johannesburg spending the weekend at an open air festival, each dodging various problems of women and self-determination. It’s produced by MTV Europe, which shows up in the ingratiating, improvisational style more than in the unflashy black and white photography. The movie is an engaging calling card for an African cinema that’s about something more than the burden of being African, although you wonder if it took blinkers to pull that off: the characters seem only relatively prosperous, and yet live in wonderful accommodations and drive nice cars – there’s no hint of Jo’burg’s notorious violence nor of its vast areas of deprivation (and it depicts a remarkably comfortable melting pot too). Hard for me to judge how representative this might be of the greater truth, but the film’s idealism is emphasized (albeit rather sweetly) at the very end, when it leaves the more self-confident characters to stew in their own juice and hands the final note of triumph to the consistent loser. Maybe I would have enjoyed it more if I weren’t so inclined (for now anyway) to second-guess it.

Syndromes and a Century (Apichatpong Weerasethakul)

One critic called Thai director Apichatpong possibly “one of the most brilliantly original directors in the world.” I haven’t seen his previous pictures, and can’t assess how distinctive his new film might be within his own body of work, but it certainly doesn’t feel like part of anyone else’s. The film starts in a rural hospital where it seems to be telling one story, focusing on a young female doctor and her interactions, then eases into another story told via flashback, before suddenly effectively starting all over again, replaying some of the same scenes with variations, now set in a more urban, dehumanized environment. It becomes progressively more allusive and disconnected, almost acquiring the tone of science fiction, seeming to seek out a more despairing tone, before finally reaching the threshold of a further reinvention. The underlying theme, I think, is the persistence and renewability of the human condition – there are several references to reincarnation, and the film conveys a serene faith in cyclicality. The tone remains gracefully balanced through numerous potentially jarring narrative devices, and the movie is pointedly contemporary for all its mystic ambitions. It’s not the easiest work to assimilate on a single viewing (I have some trepidation that I’ve misunderstood the thing completely), but my initial impression was that Apichatpong’s cinema might indeed be one of awesome possibilities.

Nouvelle Chance (Anne Fontaine)

After seeing Fontaine’s Entre ses mains last year, I wrote that she seemed capable of major work. Nouvelle Chance is not quite that, but it’s a completely delightful, gracefully meaningful creation. A would-be theatre director, with ambition far exceeding his talent, meets a Golden Age star while putting on a show in a retirement home, and hits on the idea of casting her in an obscure 18th century play, playing opposite a younger (but aging) and mainly decorative actress he encounters in his day job as a swimming pool attendant. The project, as Fontaine presents it, is a tumble of living history, glamour, classicism, logistical nuts and bolts, artistic differences, a love affair, betrayal, and swirling spirituality; the film satirizes artistic pretentiousness without ever demeaning the underlying object. The pitch-perfect ending conveys rejection and fulfillment in equal measure. Even if the film were not so charming and mature, it would be notable for the casting of Danielle Darrieux, dripping resonance across every frame she’s in, although co-star Arielle Dombasle is also as evocative and beautiful as one could possibly desire. I’m not sure why Fontaine is not becoming better known; maybe it’s damning with faint praise, but her films are as satisfying as Francois Truffaut’s – falling short of the highest possible level, but so enthralling that it hardly matters at the time.

And here are two others I saw in their subsequent commercial releases.

Confetti (Debbie Isitt)

It’s impossible to figure out by what criteria this got into the Festival – even the programme book write-up sounds strained. As it notes, this is a British Christopher Guest-type exercise built around the conceit of a bridal magazine running a theme contest around original wedding concepts – the three couples chosen to participate in the gala finale are tennis nuts, obsessive naturists, and fans of old Hollywood musicals (they’re all so patently inadequate that the movie’s contrivance almost stalls at the starting gate). The movie was largely built on improvisation, but on this occasion they would have been better off with a script – only a few of the actors come up with anything funny to say, and then only intermittently. It limps along, feeling tinny and parched, never acquiring much shape or momentum, until the finale, where events perk up a bit until Isitt comes out with the worst-photographed Busby Berkeley-like routine I’ve ever seen (the fact that the movie is deliberately inartfully shot doesn’t make it any more palatable). And while the wedding industry seems like a reasonable target for veiled commentary, no even half-meaningful statement can be extracted here. It all, of course, makes Christopher Guest look like a comic genius.

The Journals of Knud Rasmussen (Zacharias Kunuk and Norman Cohn)

This year’s opening gala reportedly left the greater part of the audience either bewildered or asleep, and I may as well come clean – I went to see it on a Friday afternoon, feeling fine when I went in, only to doze off for a good chunk of the film. This is not a happy admission for a determined contrarian and hard-line art film booster to have to make, and I’m not trying merely to claw back points when I say that the film’s strengths nevertheless come more easily to me afterwards than its flaws. Like Kunuk’s previous film Atanarjuat (The Fast Runner), the film  - set among the Inuit in the early 20th century as Christianity takes hold - seems to owe almost nothing to preexisting cinema. It’s as if the technical equipment and skills had been imported into an untouched world through some shamanism, and then absorbed into its unique tradition of storytelling and perception. The film is extraordinarily vivid at times, with virtually every scene yielding something distinctive, and of course it’s crammed with anthropological revelation and diversion. But this was all true of Atanarjuat as well, and that film was considerably more accessible overall. Kunuk is unquestionably true to himself and his roots, but it remains to be seen whether this can generate art that consistently speaks to the world beyond.

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