Sunday, August 24, 2014

2009 Toronto Film Festival Report - Part 6

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in October 2009)

The White Ribbon (Michael Haneke)

This won the Palme d’or at Cannes this year, and it’s a rare year when I don’t think much of anyone disparaged the choice. Haneke is a stern taskmaster, sometimes giving the sense that he intends his films as strong medicine for our fuzzyheaded engagement with history, culture and the world. His best known film Funny Games is a violent drama about a bourgeois family disrupted by thugs, designed both to masterfully push your easy-response buttons and to shame you at your capitulation; recently he remade his Austrian original for Hollywood, which might theoretically have led the project a greater heart-of-the-beast resonance, but instead just seemed rather forlorn. Sometimes, as in The Piano Teacher perhaps, the films’ shudder value tends to overshadow all else, but Cache and Code Unknown, among others, are superbly original, multi-faceted examinations of our modern condition.

The White Ribbon is one of his most mesmerizing works, although at face value one of the more conventional viewing experiences. In 1917, a small German village starts to experience an unsettling series of strange accidents, tragedies and brutalities; some of them explicable, others not. The community has few reference points beyond its own boundaries: much of the commerce flows from the local baron, whose feudal presence reigns over everything; the church goes unchallenged; marriages are still negotiated through the parents. Beneath this of course, much is hidden, but Haneke (who shoots the film in pristine, awesomely controlled black and white) is extraordinarily subtle in what he reveals. His narrator, the local schoolteacher, invites us at the start to read the narrative as a contribution to understanding events that later happened in the country, but for example there’s no anti-Semitism or explicit signposts toward subsequent complicity. The film depicts both benevolence and malignity; ultimately one can grab at Haneke’s masterfully arranged threads and ambiguities and come away with a feeling of closure and compartmentalization, or else conclude that almost nothing has been resolved or mitigated. In this sense, the film brilliantly evokes the tangle of perspectives, from certainty (even if hypocritical and manufactured) to despairing, that underlie war, or indeed any national purpose.

The Informant! (Steven Soderbergh)

Soderbergh is surely one of the luckiest of all directors, approaching filmmaking as (in Orson Welles’ phrase) the biggest train set a boy ever had; sufficiently connected to get financing for movies representing little more than whims; a fast enough worker that there’s always something new in the pipeline to distract from recent under-achievements (already this year he’s released the highly impressive, brave Che and the lightly provocative The Girlfriend Experience). If there’s a connecting theme to his work, it might be an interest in networks of control and idealism, an admittedly big tent notion accommodating tales of scrappy underdogs like Erin Brockovich, grim social analyses such as Traffic, or even the precision-engineered Ocean’s 11 narratives. You can fit The Informant! – which has already opened commercially (I actually saw it after the festival) - in there too. In the early 90’s, a high-ranking but (let’s say) flaky corporate executive spies on his colleagues for the FBI, collecting evidence on price-fixing schemes, naively believing he’ll be lauded as a crusading hero and his rise within the company will continue unchecked; well, it doesn’t turn out that way.

Soderbergh shoots the movie in a brisk off-the-cuff style, rather mysteriously plucking some stylistic elements from the 70’s; it’s being marketed as a comedy, although the extent to which it’s relatively light might also be a measure of its toothlessness. Ultimately it’s a moderately interesting narrative and main character, but a flat piece of work overall, not leaving you with much to ponder afterwards. Maybe Soderbergh just makes it too easy to reach for this analysis, but beyond settling on a few broad-brush strategies and gimmicks, you wonder whether the material ever received his sufficient creative investment.

Bright Star (Jane Campion)

Campion’s first film in six years continues her interest in feminine self-determination and sexuality, but without any of the provocations of The Piano and In the Cut; it’s an immensely surprising and moving work (also now playing commercially – I saw this afterwards too). It chronicles the brief 19th century romance of poet John Keats and seamstress Fanny Brawne, and even though the film is Campion’s most delicate and ethereal, it might also ultimately be her most intense (in the same kind of way that Scorsese claimed at the time, perhaps a bit over-conceptually, that The Age of Innocence was his most violent work). Between Keats’ physical weakness, Brawne’s lack of worldliness, and the constraints of the times, there’s barely a hint of sexuality; it’s as if they channeled all their possibility into the creation of a shared sensibility, a heightened sensation of the present moment (“as if I was dissolving,” as Keats puts it). Campion’s finesse is dazzling, retaining objectivity while allowing full rein to the expressive possibilities of butterflies, cats and English lawns.

At the start of the narrative, Brawne is something of a fashion innovator, and more economically successful than Keats, but this seems to dissipate as the film goes on, suggesting the inherently regressive aspects of a great love. The frequent discussion of financial constraints, and the character of Keats’ much more grounded and rough-edged best friend dispel any sense that the film can only idealize creativity (one of its most charming elements is Brawne’s failure to grasp much of Keats’ work); yet in the end it’s as blissful a work of commemoration as you can imagine. The entire cast is ideal, but Abbie Cornish is particularly exquisite as Fanny.

And Overall…

Well, as always, I can only comment on my own little piece of it, but I had a good Festival. My test for that is pretty straightforward – it means I saw far more good movies than bad, and the scheduling fell nicely into place (nowadays I don’t really like to see more than a couple of movies a day, and I also like to confine it mostly to the daytime, so you see I operate under self-imposed constraints). Among my greatest pleasures: Les herbes folles, Hadewijch, Eccentricities of a Blonde-haired Girl, L’enfer d’Henri-Georges Clouzot, The White Ribbon and perhaps most of all Claire Denis’ White Material. Enter the Void wins a pennant for unduly occupying your mind once it’s over.

I saw no celebrities, went to no parties or other events…just saw mostly foreign movies, and made sure still to get my exercise and not to let my diet slip (that’s the Dr. Jack prescription for healthy movie going folks). The higher-profile side of it seemed like the usual mixed bag: George Clooney obviously nailed every step, but Megan Fox’s

Jennifer’s Body was the emblematic example of a movie with immense festival heat, but leaving barely a footprint in the world thereafter. And where did all the buzz go during the last four days anyway? Talk about excessive front-loading. And as I wrote earlier, the Festival didn’t deserve all that nonsense about its Tel Aviv tribute. Still, that all fell safely into the no-such-thing-as-bad-publicity quadrant. Overall, seemed like a hit to me!

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