Monday, December 7, 2015

2002 Toronto Film Festival Report, Part Six

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in November 2002)

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

Dolls (Takeshi Kitano)
Kitano’s stone-faced action films have always incorporated a deep vein of lyricism, if not sentimentality (see especially Kikujiro), although his last film Brother was something of a regression to deadpan violence. Dolls takes Kitano to an astonishing new level – it’s unabashedly romantic. The film loosely intertwines three stories. A man abandons his fiancée and she ends up brain-damaged after a suicide attempt – he returns to her and they end up wandering the country, permanently attached by a rope tied around their waists. An aging gangster rediscovers the love he left behind long ago. A pop star’s career is ended by accident: a devoted fan blinds himself and then forges a relationship with her. Even that brief synopsis indicates the film has a perverse streak, but that’s merely seasoning to a banquet of color and design and balletic juxtaposition. The film has one memorable image and idea after another, often tossed away with the confidence of a real master. The theme is the fragility of human interaction, how the heart jerks us around like puppets; not such a revelation in itself, but there’s never been a treatment of it quite like this one. Possibly the best film I saw at the festival – certainly the one I have the most immediate interest in seeing again.

(NB December 2015 update – I never did see Dolls again, and can’t imagine it would be as striking now as I thought it was then, but it would be nice to be wrong about that)

Moonlight Mile (Brad Silberling)
Silberling’s gala presentation has already opened commercially, to a lukewarm reception. It’s hard to imagine anyone having strong feelings either way about this movie – it attempts to touch bases with all available emotions, but ends up occupying some neutral zone where they all cross each other out. The film follows the parents of a young woman shot dead in a random shooting, and her fiancée who’s living with them, and it’s apparently based on a real incident from Silberling’s life. The movie is distinctive enough that you accept it as the record of a personal response to a personal tragedy, but this is something you note academically, not emotionally. It has a dream cast – Dustin Hoffman, Susan Sarandon, Holly Hunter, all of whom seem to be doing their own thing, and Jake Gyllenhaal as the fiancée; he’s a sweet enough but overly mannered centre. The film is visually quite delicate – I registered any number of pleasing compositions, but all in isolation, like photographs from an album.

Shadow Kill (Adoor Gopalakrishnan)
This is the first film I’ve seen by Gopalakrishnan – actually I’d never heard of him before, although the Festival slotted this one into its “Masters” category. The picture doesn’t quite confirm him as a master; it has the feeling of a relative diversion from someone capable of much more ambitious work. It follows an aging executioner who must do his duty even though the burden of the task has almost eaten away his soul, and he’s become a drunk. Halfway through the film, on the eve of an execution, a soldier starts to tell the story of a young girl’s rape and murder, and we’re taken in another direction. The film has a stark, divorced, slightly dreamlike feel, with intensely rich colours, and it has an undercurrent of acute pain; it feels torn from a volcanic imagination kept here within unnatural constraints. The ending feels hurried, and I think more people walked out on this movie than just about any other I attended during the week. Still, Gopalakrishnan’s work is clearly worth seeking out further.

La derniere letter (Frederick Wiseman)
Certainly the simplest film I saw at the festival in terms of its raw ingredients, and running just one hour, this is legendary documentarian Wiseman’s first “dramatic” film. It’s a monologue performed by actress Catherine Samie, taking the form of a last letter to her son from a Russian-Jewish woman trapped in the ghetto and expecting to die at the hands of the Germans. She performs on a blank stage, with no props, only shadows – sometimes multiple shadows that eerily evoke her experiences reflected through multitudes of others (at times, this evokes the expressiveness of something like Dreyer’s silent films). Wiseman does an able job of varying the film’s visual impact, although the array of angles and fades sometimes seemed to me rather arbitrary (such as the moment when she’s describing the massacre in the ghetto and her hands seem to be showing rabbit shadows). For all its inherent power and evocative scope, the text itself seems to me unexceptional, and Samie’s performance is a standard-issue theatrical display. Still, no one could be completely unmoved by the film, or by her final exhortation to her son.

8 Women (Francois Ozon)
Ozon is widely regarded as the most promising of young French directors, although his diverse body of work so far includes a disproportionate amount of overdone trivia. 8 Women is that too, but here it evokes a blissfully, indulged kid who shows off his surplus of toys, wearing a huge grin: how irritated can you be at him? With a dream cast of French actresses (including Catherine Deneuve, Isabelle Huppert and Emmanuelle Beart), it’s a murder mystery confined to a single country-house set: Deneuve’s husband has been killed and everyone (daughter, mother in law, maid etc.) has at least one motive. Revelations fly in all directions – it’s as if none of them had talked for a day before this. The piling-up of taboos causes hardly a dent in the glamour – actually it serves as a liberation to several of the characters. It’s a complete contrivance of course, but Ozon’s delight is infectious. The eight musical interludes, one for each actress, cap this off as the kind of music they just don’t make anymore (and insofar as it contains same-sex kisses, they never did).

Russian Ark (Alexandr Sokurov)
Sokurov’s film consists of a single 96-minute shot. There are other long-take films – Andy Warhol kept the camera going five times as long on the Empire State building; Mike Figgis in Time Code did it simultaneously with four separate cameras – but I doubt it’s ever been attempted on a project of such complexity. The camera travels through 200 years of cultural Russian history – through theatres, art galleries, grand balls, a meal at the table of the last Tzar – tied together by a European diplomat who wanders through it all. The choice of a European guide is significant, for the film evidences some regret – however knowing – for the loss of a certain grand sense of what it was to be Russian, of a certain cultural sensibility. The film indeed resembles an “ark,” a store of fragments of imperiled memory. At the end the camera travels out through a window to stare at the sea, and the narrator says “We are destined to sail forever…to live forever,” but this may be as much wish as prediction. Sokurov’s films can be heavy-going, and his technical feat here makes demands on the viewer – you realize how easy it is to let yourself be guided by traditional montage. If a conventional film is a journey, Russian Ark is a privilege.

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