Sunday, August 10, 2014

2009 Toronto Film Festival Report - Part 4

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in October 2009)

Life during Wartime (Todd Solondz)

Solondz’ film is a continuation of his earlier Happiness, with the same characters but different actors; since there can’t be much of anyone around who still gives a damn about Happiness, the very concept drips with both self-regard and desperation. Some of the greatest directors alive clearly draw on a relatively narrow vein of experience and/or preoccupation, and so does Solondz, except you get the sense his experience is all based in a conventionally miserable childhood and his preoccupations all revolve around snide fantasies of getting even. Therefore the most appealing characters here are merely unfulfilled and pathetic; the rest of them are sexual deviants, or at least suspected of it. The comedy turns on (for example) a lonely mother telling her 12-year-old son how her new lover made her wet, or on the son calling her a bitch, or on Allison Janney’s bare breasts (or perhaps that was meant to be gritty, I don’t know). Maybe that makes it sound entertaining, and I won’t deny this snotty stare of a film doesn’t carry a certain fascination, but among so much great work at this year’s festival, it’s a nothing. The closing insight is that “in the end China will take over and none of this will matter,” but as far as the content of Solondz’ film is in question, we need hardly wait that long.

Le refuge (Francois Ozon)

Ozon’s films put you in mind of short stories rather than novels: literally because they’re usually fairly brief, but more broadly because they tend to focus on a few characters and on a bet-the-house structuring premise that might either break new ground or else flounder embarrassingly. I loved his 5 X 2 (the break-up of a marriage told in five reverse-order sequences), but his most famous film The Swimming Pool squandered its dazzling fabric on a tired meta-reality premise; his last movie Ricky, about a boy born with wings, was generally regarded as a bust, and certainly sounds like it. In The Refuge, after her boyfriend died of an overdose, a young woman retreats to a borrowed beach house, where the dead man’s brother comes to visit her. Ozon is always good with actors, and there’s a typically alluring air to the interactions here. It’s all about the ending though, a double whammy representing I believe her delayed waking from shock and self-absorption and reemergence into the possibility of meaningful (which is to say, messy) interactions, where she defines herself rather than having other things (men, drugs, pregnancy) do it for her. It may be largely subjective whether this strikes you as a brilliant psychological coup, or rather as one of those only-in-the-movies elevations of bizarre or perverse behavior. It’s reasonably stimulating as such, but unfortunately it does increasingly seem to me that Ozon’s movies – for all their qualities - basically just aren’t that necessary or important. A nice throwaway moment here seems momentarily to be taking the movie into Eric Rohmer territory, before categorically veering away again.

Enter the Void (Gaspar Noe)

In the church of cinema, Noe is a raving new-age prophet; shunned by most, perhaps blindly adored by some, but then who knows how much comparison-shopping they’ve carried out? His last film Irreversible remains notorious for its brutal extended rape sequence, although I also recall its final love scene as being surprisingly tender. The movie was structured in reverse chronological order (like Ozon’s 5 X 2…any more of this and it’ll be old hat) and Enter the Void sets out to raise the conceptual stakes in a couple of ways. It’s told mostly from its main character’s subjective perspective – we view everything in the movie through his eyes or else from a point behind his head, clearly seeing his face only when he looks into the mirror. Oh, and for most of the time, he’s already dead, so we’re actually tracking his spirit, or his continuing essence, or however you’d put it.

The character is a young American drug dealer living in Tokyo, living with his stripper sister; he’s shot early on during a police raid, and the movie then tracks the event’s present-day aftermath while also flashing back to illustrate their tragic upbringing. It’s a very Oedipal creation: Noe recreates a primal scene of the kid walking in on his parents, the relationship between the siblings has incestuous undertones, and there’s a recurring image of sucking on the breast. Virtually all the characters are sad spectacles of one kind or another, adding to an overwhelming feeling of trauma and turmoil. It doesn’t feel like anything you’ve ever seen before – the camera swoops into abstraction and murkiness before clawing onto something recognizable, then gets pulled away again, at times effectively suggesting a tortured, disembodied consciousness perpetually fighting its way out of the darkness.

At times it’s most engrossing, but you’ve mostly got the idea after an hour or so, and then it goes on for ninety minutes more, becoming increasingly familiar and repetitive in its rhythms. I’ve seen it compared to 2001: A Space Odyssey – one of Noe’s characters refers to death as “the ultimate trip,” the same phrase used to advertise Kubrick’s film in one of its re-releases – but Noe’s merry digital splattering doesn’t feel remotely like Kubrick. On the other hand, Enter the Void is indeed probably best enjoyed as sensual abstraction: the narration is just familiar sleaze (its complete lack of distinction is actually rather surprising), and the metaphysics make no more sense than a viewer might choose to find in them.

Honeymoons (Goran Paskaljevic)

This movie left me almost more heated up than I could bear. Ironically titled to say the least, it has two separate but complementary stories of young couples – one Albanian, the other Serbian – seeking to enter Europe, their progress stalled in each case by suspicion and paranoia. Their home cultures basically resemble raucous, grating hellholes: the older men are sad and broken, the younger ones are vicious bigots; women barely have any meaningful role at all. Any moderate thought, or such sissiness as preferring beer to the more proletarian drink “raki,” is likely to get you beaten up; another race war seems barely held at bay. The nouveau riche, from the little we see of them, bleed complacency. Those who try to improve their lives by getting out only break the hearts of those left behind, and then in the eyes of the European gatekeepers, Albanians and Serbians form a barely differentiated threatening rabble, undeserving of even minor niceties.

The program book says this is the first Albanian-Serbian co-production in cinema history and says it “reconciles the two nations by pointing out their similarities rather than their differences,” but it struck me less as reconciliation than a mutual scorching. Maybe it’s that I’m just not temperamentally suited to the cultures depicted here, but I could barely take it – I basically had nothing left with which to make an aesthetic assessment. I guess this makes the movie a success, but I would probably have been happier to watch a relative failure. I mean of course a nice Ozon-type failure, not a Solondz-level crap-out.

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