(originally published in The Outreach Connection in October 2006)
This is the seventh of Jack Hughes’ reports from the 2006 Toronto International Film Festival.
Red Road (Andrea Arnold)
This is Arnold’s first feature length picture (although she won an Oscar in 2003 for best live action short film) and took the special jury prize at Cannes last May. That award is easy to understand, for this is an expertly constructed drama, almost unbearably intense at times, and provocative about issues of morality and justice, especially in a surveillance society that reduces the physical and figurative ability to hide. It’s built around a Glasgow woman who monitors the network of security cameras trained on a rough part of the city; she recognizes a man just released from prison, starts to monitor him obsessively, and then gradually to inject herself into his life. There are some similarities with films like Vertigo and Blow-Up in how a desire we can only partly understand is driven by a compulsion to watch and to influence, but the precise contemporary milieu makes Arnold’s film distinctive and disturbing. Both lead actors are excellent, sustaining a strong feeling of pending violence. The film’s overall shape, once revealed, might be seen as a little too contrived (although very clever) and it certainly works too hard at providing a final feeling of closure. Still, it’s hard to imagine how a debut film could be much more assured.
Fay Grim (Hal Hartley)
For a while I thought the laconic Hartley might be one of the best directors of his time, although with hindsight he may always have been playing to the downtown crowd. Henry Fool was a distinct high, but since then his work has seemed tapped out. So back to something that worked at the time, with this sequel to Henry – Parker Posey’s suburban housewife (the wife Henry left behind at the end of the previous film) is suddenly catapulted into international espionage when her vanished husband’s rambling journals turn out to be currency in a terrorist plot. Well, it doesn’t work any more. Hartley’s patented technique, somewhere between cool and stunted, seems now less calculated than merely limited. The film, dense in exposition, codes, double-crosses and jumbled motivations, no doubt parodies the genre and the new imperative of “connecting the dots” against terrorism, but when carried out at such length and artificiality, parody is barely distinguishable from a pallid stab at the real thing. And the obsession with the earlier film’s entrails (presumably barely remembered now even by those of us who liked it) speaks merely of expired inspiration. If I hadn’t sadly suspected it might turn out this way, then this would have been my biggest disappointment of the festival.
Flandres (Bruno Dumont)
Dumont has a tenuous following at best – Humanite caused a bit of a scandal when it won several major prizes at Cannes, and his next film Twenty-Nine Palms was mostly seen as silly and tawdry. Personally I was highly susceptible to Humanite’s metaphysics and committed weirdness (it made my DVD-purchase grade, and I can’t say more than that), but there’s no question that Dumont is an egoist with an occasional lack of grace and limited preoccupations. Flandres exhibits his usual failings, and yet it seems imbued with a more straightforward sense of humanity, even sentimentality, rendering it rather more accessible and perhaps straightforwardly likeable. The film starts among a group of French farmers who are going off to an unspecified war (the details are intriguingly anachronistic), and a local girl who sleeps with two of them; later we follow the men through the brutal conflict, while the girl finds herself pregnant and is hospitalized. Dumont sees both home and war fronts as barely better than primitive; flesh and churned earth and blood and dying and living are all elements in some desolate recipe (although this approach makes for a compelling depiction of war), and yet he implies that something transcendent lies close to the core of all this. It’s an easy film to criticize, but I must admit I found it oddly impactful.
L’Intouchable (Benoit Jacquot)
Jacquot has been, rather inexplicably, a film festival favourite, subject of a spotlight retrospective in 1997 and now designated as a “Master,” although I’m not sure even discerning filmgoers really think of him as such. His last film A tout de suite was highly engaging though, indicating the possibility of a new, more discursive direction. L’Intouchable has the same loose feel as that movie, but is much slighter. A young actress travels to India to find the father she’s never met, and in the course of the journey acquires a certain amount of spiritual self-definition. Jacquot’s muse from A tout de suite, Isild Le Besco, again plays the protagonist here, and it’s not difficult to understand her appeal for him – not a classic beauty, she nevertheless suggests considerable sensuality and complexity, generating maximal affect from minimal apparent input. She seems to embody the loosening of Jacquot’s technique and the apparent dissipation of his interest in plot and structure. But I’m not sure there’s much more to this film than the concept “Isild goes to India.” It effectively captures some Indian vignettes and gently conveys her acquisition of greater serenity, but the film strikes me as a substantially blank canvas. A Master, I think, would demand more of himself, and of us.
And I saw this next one on its subsequent commercial release:
The Last King of Scotland (Kevin Macdonald)
Macdonald’s first fiction film (after documentaries including Touching The Void) is an intensely vivid dramatization of Ugandan Idi Amin’s decline from apparent liberator to outright murdering despot, as seen through the eyes of a young Scotsman who flukily becomes his personal physician. If you’ve ever seen a Western-made film about Africa, that synopsis already gives you the flaw – this is yet another film in which we concentrate on the narrow moral dilemmas and hazards of a single white protagonist, while the suffering of the multitudes passes mostly unseen in the background (the underappreciated Shooting Dogs, which quickly came and went a few months ago, was relatively more effective in pushing home the full extent of what happened in Rwanda). Forest Whitaker (in a performance that’s mentioned as an Oscar possibility) is effective enough at capturing the extremes of Amin’s personality, but the scenes that might make the portrayal truly illustrative simply haven’t been provided to him. Ultimately, the film merely becomes annoyingly contrived and sketchy. For all its obvious flaws, it’s saturated with atmosphere and dread, and hardly allows a dull moment, and given how the Amin regime already counts as distant history under the weight of so many subsequent cataclysms, it’s a useful contribution to future History Channel archives.