Friday, August 15, 2014

2009 Toronto Film Festival Report - Part 5

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in October 2009)

White Material (Claire Denis)

Denis is plausibly having the best current run of any European director – L’intrus was almost overwhelmingly evocative and complex, and Vendredi soir and 35 rhums are the most beautiful miniatures you’ll ever find (most damagingly for Toronto’s reputation as a promised land of cinema, none of these received a regular release here). She tells great, vibrant stories, but isn’t at all constrained by conventional notions of structure or pacing or narrative linkage. Her movies aren’t merely jigsaws though, like so many now, in which the temporal jumble eventually reveals an essentially simple concoction; it’s rather that she thrives on possibility and inter-connection, and simultaneously hears the displaced butterfly as clearly as the oncoming train. She’s portrayed Africa before (she grew up there), and returns now to depict the last days of a white-owned coffee plantation, as an unnamed country swallows itself up in blood and lawlessness. Isabelle Huppert plays the operation’s main engine, refusing to acknowledge danger, pushing grimly on while the rest of the family plots to get out or simply loses its bearings.

This is grandly suited to Denis’ immense strengths: every detail of the family’s existence embodies a differentiation that’s historically unfair at its core, and yet they now embody continuity and tendering and economic contribution where the social movement only brings waste and pillage; the mournfully beautiful African spaces have never appeared so intensely menacing and unknowable (the title indicates how the family finds itself increasingly dehumanized, less participants in events than historically-charged chattels, and existentially periled by the knowledge that if expelled from this country, they have no natural home now in mainland France). Denis’ film has no imposed speechifying, but bakes the tensions into its very core; it’s a million miles removed from movies that complacently deny Africans their own stories by focusing on a white protagonist, because the traumatic transition depicted here is so resonant as a portrait of broader historical legacies strained beyond sustainability. As always with Denis, the flow of images – immensely evocative of the lived-in reality while uncannily lighting up the thematic layers below – is peerless.

Soul Kitchen (Fatih Akin)

Akin’s The Edge Of Heaven was one of the stronger recent examples of the jigsaw storytelling technique you see everywhere now, but the constant reliance on coincidence rather wore out my welcome for it, particularly compared to his brilliant, scalding breakthrough Head-On. Akin is German, of Turkish ancestry, and his films keep a boot in both cultures; he’s at the vanguard of the new Zeitgeist-busting European cinema that burns across borders and genres. The new film’s title suggests an explicit American influence, also evident in the movie’s brassy title design and music score; to be honest though, the movie feels most American in its relative simplicity and lack of ambition. The central character is Greek this time, running a greasy spoon type restaurant in a flavourfully renovated Hamburg waterfront space; when he upgrades the menu with the help of a highly-strung chef, the schnitzel-loving clientele deserts him, until he catches a new wave and becomes the hottest spot in town. He’s also helping out his petty criminal brother, trying to maintain a long-distance relationship with a more bourgeois woman, and fending off a scheming developer with designs on the property.

Nothing about the way this plays out is remotely surprising – the American remake can proceed apace with just the most minimal script tweaks – but Akin keeps it vibrantly buzzing along, cooking up a good overall aroma. The movie doesn’t push the point, but makes it clear that the spine of German society (the easy money and the sense of entitlement) still belongs with the old stock; for immigrant cultures it’s a tougher climb, which is not to say it can’t be done. Without any mention of the economic crisis though, the movie’s vision of entrepreneurism already seems a little abstract: aren’t those new-gourmet restaurants, full of young arty types, a prime symbol of an unsustainable bubble?

My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done (Werner Herzog)

There was a time when Herzog was a crown prince of art cinema, prodigiously generating varied chronicles of extremity, benefiting immensely from the copious legends of his personal fearlessness and eccentricity. He lost his mojo somewhere in the 80’s but regained it a bit with the documentaries Grizzly Man and the Oscar-nominated Encounters At The End Of The World, and now he turns up at the festival with two new fiction films! Bad Lieutenant, which I left for later, is by all accounts the better of the two. This other is a thin work, a psychological suspenser of sorts about a man who loses his marbles, kills his mother, and holes up in his house with two hostages; detective Willem Dafoe pieces together the back-story. Judged as a genre exercise, it’s quite slapdash and underdeveloped; seen as an examination of (let’s say) esoteric behavior, it’s largely arbitrary and opaque.

Unless, that is, one muses (as many have) on David Lynch’s credit as executive producer, perhaps suggesting a rare bastard child of mismatched auteurs. Sometimes the movie definitely seems like it’s working toward a Lynch-like mythology (what do all those ostriches mean?). But although it has an occasional Lynch-like lack of naturalism, it has none of his depth of texture or complexity of behavior – Lynch wouldn’t even allow a home movie of his to come out so visually and aurally flat – so I guess we should take his involvement as a tease. Anyway, it’s not saying much for Herzog’s latter-day skills when the very possibility of someone else’s vague contribution to his movie is more interesting than what he brought to it himself.

Face (Tsai Ming-Liang)

Another tale of decline…Tsai has made some wonderful, revelatory films about alienated Taiwanese youth, gradually developing a distinctive set of personal codes: dank and often flooded interiors; ornate musical inserts, their bright sentiments contrasting ironically with the grim surrounding reality; fish tanks; mysterious, furtive encounters. This was once thrilling as both style and content, but increasingly feels either like a narrow variation on ground already traveled, or else like a questionable variation to expand his range. Face is a bit of both, meshing his familiar iconography with a vague chronicle of a Taiwanese director making a film of Salome in Paris; the film explicitly pays tribute to Francois Truffaut, casting key actors from his life and career such as Jean-Pierre Leaud and Fanny Ardant. The Festival program book calls it Tsai’s “most stylistically inventive work to date” and says it’s about “how images can function as both facades and works of art.” Well, maybe so, but there’s hardly anything inherently revelatory in that subject, and while the invention is sometimes quite mesmerizing (the book correctly cites a remarkable climactic dance sequence), at other times it’s barely distinguishable from visual and thematic gibberish. Sadly, watching Tsai’s films now almost feels like a chore.

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