Tuesday, November 17, 2015

2002 Toronto Film Festival Report, Part Three

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in October 2002)

This is the third of Jack Hughes’ reports from the 2002 Toronto Film Festival.

Ten Minutes Older: the Cello (Bernardo Bertolucci, Claire Denis, Mike Figgis, Jean-Luc Godard, Jiri Menzel, Michael Radford, Volker Schlondorff, Istvan Szabo)
A film consisting of eight short segments by eight famous directors. Like most previous exercises along these lines, it’s a disappointment, evidencing little inherent reason for existing. The segments all deal in some way with the “phenomenon of time,” but this vague mandate isn’t enough to lend the project much coherence. The best are probably Bertolucci’s – an elegant glide through episodes in the life of an immigrant – and Godard’s: working in the kind of collage-form he’s used on many other occasions, he expands the scope and emotional resonance of his segment beyond what the others achieve. Radford comes in a surprising third, using an old-hat science fiction premise but at least investing his sequence with good design and mild panache. As for the rest: Figgis uses the same four-screen/one-take technique he used in Time Code – nothing new ensues. Menzel juxtaposes scenes from the life of a Czech actor, achieving only mild poignancy (although I note that this sequence made the woman beside me cry). Szabo’s is a well-handled but basically mediocre one-take melodrama about how quickly a life falls apart. Denis’ segment is all talk. Schlondorff’s juxtaposes a banal voice-over with a banal series of images – the only distinction being that the sound and image are banal in quite different ways. For all its philosophizing, the film’s main contribution to the study of time is to raise the question of how such a film can seem to last so much longer than it actually does.

Julie Walking Home (Agnieszka Holland)
Holland’s film is about the fragility of both the secular and the spiritual; about how slight shifts in the equilibrium cause calamitous shocks. It’s not really that distinctive a theme, especially when presented in what is by now her familiarly overwrought style (see for example her last film The Third Miracle). Miranda Otto and William Fichtner are common-law spouses whose happiness is torn apart by his one night stand – then their son is diagnosed with cancer. She takes him to Poland in search of a famous faith healer who falls in love with her. Much about the picture – the mix of accents, locations, tone and ideas – has the feel of something pulled together to satisfy a committee of competing interests, although the competition may all dwell within Holland’s own sensibility. Her film has excellent moments (Otto is especially striking, almost frightening, in her seductress mode) but it becomes increasingly clear that the film has nowhere in particular to go. Like the birds to which it returns as a motif, it merely circles, before choosing a resting point that may be either arbitrary or deliberate (a distinction that may matter to the bird, but not to the onlooker).

Lilja 4-Ever (Lukas Moodysson)
Swedish prodigy Moodysson show here that he can work in a much darker register than his first two films, Show me Love and Together. The film tracks a miserable three months in the life of a 16-year-old Russian girl, who’s left alone when her mother skips with her boyfriend to the States. With no source of income, she slides easily into prostitution: the film is especially strong on depicting the near-inevitability of this fate for women in dire circumstances. When she finally meets an apparently nice guy who says he’ll find her a job in Sweden, he turns out to be a procurer of child whores. It’s gloomy subject matter, with almost every scene yielding some new tragedy or squalor. The young actress Oksana Akinshina is disconcertingly unemotive through most of it. But the film is ceaselessly perceptive and sensitive, without ever becoming sentimental, not even when it depicts her visions of the over-dosed friend she left behind, now sporting angels’ wings. The film was one of my favourites of the festival – not as artistically imposing as Talk to her or Dolls, but bringing a strong individual voice to a work of diligent anthropology.

Marie Jo and Her Two Loves (Robert Guediguian)
Every year, the festival selects one director for its retrospective spotlight feature. Guediguian, this year’s choice, sets all his films (the best known is Marius and Jeanette) in working-class Marseilles, and generally works with the same actors – his work thrives on intimate recognition. His latest is no exception. It’s the story of a woman simultaneously in love with her husband and another, finding that the weight of her love carries an inverse correlation to that of her happiness. “I only feel at peace when I make love,” she says, “otherwise I suffer.” The movie portrays this state adeptly, and is equally good at depicting the loneliness of being the man she’s not currently with. Guediguian paces things deliberately (some would certainly say slowly), spending much time on the details of their jobs and on inconsequential moments. He achieves the authenticity for which he aims, but can’t dispel a sense of familiarity (whether measured against his own previous work or that of others who’ve explored this territory). Towards the end, Marie Jo’s daughter erupts at her parents in idealistic disgust, and you realize how muted the film has generally seemed prior to that point. And while it seems clear that the director might profit from expanding his range, the swirling tragedy of this film’s final image isn’t a particularly effective step in that direction.

La ville est tranquille (Robert Guediguian)
The spotlight on Guediguian also included this film from 2000 – perhaps his most ambitious and most successful. A social epic along the lines of John Sayles or Robert Altman’s films, it weaves together some grim and often heart-rending stories of people trying to get by. A woman who works at the fish market prostitutes herself to buy drugs for her addicted daughter; a laid-off dockworker tries to make it as a cab driver but sinks into financial troubles; a black man is released from prison. Right-wing politics percolate in the background. The director’s at full strength here; intently focused on his characters, allowing us to feel the quiet desperation that mainly defines their lives (the muted quality of Marie Jo is more successful here because we understand it as a reflection of demands and pain that defy words), tracking occasional eruptions of joy and hope, of pain and despair. The film has a slight penchant for melodrama, which threatens to disrupt the verisimilitude, and the hopeful final image seems a little idealistic, but Guediguian doesn’t pretend there are easy answers for any of this, and his film as a whole seems wise and balanced.

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