Saturday, July 13, 2013

2006 Toronto film festival report, part 8

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in October 2006)

This is the eighth and last of Jack Hughes’ reports from the 2006 Toronto International Film Festival.

Summer Palace (Lou Ye)
The Chinese authorities recently banned director Lou from making films in China for five years, after he took this film to Cannes without the proper approvals. Presumably this was substantively motivated by its depiction of Beijing University in the late 80’s as a morass of volatility and sexuality, with not an ideological precept in sight: it also includes a (somewhat murky) depiction of Tiananmen Square. But the film certainly won’t seem very provocative to Western eyes. The first half, based around a rural girl who attends the university and goes wild, before dropping out in the wake of a busted love affair – is diverting but never as probing or acute as one wishes for, and then the second half, following the two ex-lovers in their divergent paths through life for the next fifteen years, eventually comes to seem like little more than soap opera. The programme book calls the film’s style “oblique,” but actually it’s all too comprehensible – the attempts to mirror internal and external states come across as laboured. With no particular finesse of technique overall, the movie is unfortunately more interesting in theory than in practice, although the theory does count for a lot here.

Renaissance (Christian Volckman)
I don’t have any specific interest in animation, nor in the science-fantasy genre, so a film combining both held no particular appeal for me. But sometimes you go with what fits the time slot. Renaissance certainly has a distinctive technique – it’s composed almost entirely of pure black and pure white, eschewing shadings, so that foregrounds and backgrounds can often be distinguished only through evocations of shadows and movement. It’s impressive, for example, how much facial expression can be evoked through the movement of four blobs of black. The problem is that the main aesthetic takeaway is pretty well established after ten minutes, and so it all comes down to the story, which is a humdrum concoction in the vein of Blade Runner and many others. It’s Paris in 2030, a young female scientist has disappeared, and a hard-bitten cop searches for her, with a sinister corporation lurking in the background. The film’s conception of the future isn’t particularly distinctive or detailed, and whereas animation used to carry the constant advantage of pulling off spectacles that couldn’t be achieved otherwise, digital technology has narrowed that gap considerably. So the movie basically didn't feel that necessary to me.

Paris je t’aime (the Coen Brothers, Wes Craven, Alexander Payne,  Gus Van Sant and others)

You could use up your word quota just listing the directors and principal cast on this one, a collection of 18 vignettes set in various areas of the City of Love. This was the last film I saw at the festival this year, and since I was seriously flagging by then, it was a just about perfect stopping point, delivering goodwill and a vague sense of upper-middlebrow activity (hard to feel you’re slumming it when all those auteur names keep popping on and off the screen) without making any serious demands on the audience. Most of the segments are just pleasant baubles. Alfonso Cuaron’s is, strangely, the dullest and least inspired. Christopher Doyle’s is the giddiest and most boundary pushing. The Coens deliver a very proficient metro nightmare. Gerard Depardieu recruits Ben Gazzara and Gena Rowlands for a Cassavetes reunion, but then fails to think of anything interesting for them to say. Olivier Assayas’ story of an American actress and a drug pusher is one of the few segments that might productively be stretched out to greater length. Tom Tykwer’s segment, with Natalie Portman, is certainly the most hardworking. But nothing in the movie will persist as more than the slightest footnote in its creator’s biography.

And then I saw this one later on in its commercial release:

Infamous (Douglas McGrath)

This is the unfortunate film covering almost exactly the same ground as last year’s Capote – Truman Capote’s researching and writing In Cold Blood, in particular his relationship with one of the convicted killers - and since Capote scooped up enough attention for five average films, there was never going to be much left over for Infamous. It’s almost impossible to write about it on its own terms, so here it is: it’s more or less the same length as the first film, but spends much more time on his celebrity friends and less in charting the precise impact on Capote’s artistic soul; Toby Jones may be a closer physical match than Philip Seymour Hoffman, but is also less charismatic and nuanced; the casting is blander all the way along the line; the storytelling has much less finesse here, often relying on talking heads to deliver key information or interpretation. I have to admit that I never quite understood why Capote was so highly valued, and found that film heavy going at times for all its strengths, so in a certain lesser way it was actually more fun watching the glossier Infamous and ticking off similarities and differences. But truly, this film’s only place in history, along with the likes of Milos Forman’s Valmont, will be to surface every five years or so in articles about strange movie coincidences.

And that’s it for this year’s festival. Many writers found this a bit of an off year. The opening gala left many people cold, the most heralded premieres (The Fountain, A Good Year, All the King’s Men) frequently fell a little flat and there was a lack of real breakthrough discoveries: the People’s Choice went to a movie called Bella, about which I barely heard a word before, during or after the festival. Several writers even criticized the caliber of the visiting celebrities, or maybe it’s more that they failed to do anything sufficiently splashy once they got here (Sean Penn’s famous cigarette aside). I never know to what degree the quality of the films I saw can stand as a representative sample, so I can only say that I enjoyed most of them, although I did feel a little deprived of near-masterpieces. The two films I liked most were probably Tsai Ming-liang’s I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone and Alain Resnais’ Coeurs, and in truth there’s probably a bit of a gap between those two and whatever it is that might take my bronze medal.

I mentioned above how I was flagging, and it’s true – I actually seriously (well, semi-seriously) considered dropping out before the end. On two occasions in the last two days, I actually went to the wrong theatre, which tells you a lot about how my faculties were becoming undone. Is this the beginning of the end for your indefatigable reviewer? Only time will tell!

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