Monday, October 3, 2016

2003 Toronto film festival report, part eleven

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in November 2003)

This is the eleventh of Jack Hughes’ reports from the 2003 Toronto film festival.

In the Cut (Jane Campion)
Campion’s best film remains The Piano, and it seems increasingly unlikely that she’ll ever top it – it’s in so many ways unprecedented, as though it spring fully formed from some turbulent half-alien dream. Her subsequent films (Portrait of a Lady, Holy Smoke and now In the Cut) all contain ideas as interesting as anything in The Piano, but they lack its astonishing visual and thematic coherence, its fierce acting and icy weirdness. In the Cut, which has already opened commercially since its festival screening, is being marketed as a thriller, with the particular attraction of Meg Ryan in a hard-edged role involving several nude scenes (which comes across as a calculated provocation). But it’s not thrilling at all, and Ryan isn’t a particularly compelling presence in the film. It’s best taken as a loosely assembled scrapbook of impressions and ideas about female sexuality (for a near-definitive summary of these, see the October issue of Sight and Sound), with the ostensible plot providing the loosest of governing structures.

Ryan plays a teacher in New York who’s interviewed by a police detective (Mark Ruffalo) about a brutal murder to which she’s a possible witness; they have an affair; other strange men hover in the background along with a strip joint, phallic symbolism and other relentless oddities. There’s a lot of talk about sex, mostly rather earnest and knowingly raunchy. Ryan also collects lines of poetry that strike her (often gleaned from subway ads), and several of the film’s conversations involve the meaning of a particular word; the sense is of grappling for language and meaning, with sexuality as the predominant input. The film is shot in a claustrophobically jittery manner that made my wife physically sick, and possesses a persistent morbidity that left a couple of other women of my acquaintance nervous about walking home afterwards.

Some have compared the film (particularly re Ryan’s character) to the 1971 Klute, which actually seems more astute and subtle about compromised female sexuality than In the Cut does. It’s also somewhat tempting to compare it to Catherine Breillat’s work, such as Romance and Fat Girl – a comparison that further underlines the latter-day Campion’s relative lack of discipline and analytical prowess. Still, the film’s territory is inherently fascinating, and it does teem with stimulation (of all kinds).

The Middle of the World (Vicente Amorim)
This year the festival devoted its national cinema section to Brazil, under the title “Vida de Novo.” In summarizing Brazilian films of the last few years, the program book mentions Central Station and City of God, which I think may be the complete list of Brazilian cinema that I’ve seen over that period. So many resurgent national cinemas, so little time. I was only able to fit in one title this year: Amorim’s debut film (I particularly regretted missing Carandiru, a prison drama by Kiss of the Spider Woman’s Hector Babenco).

Middle of the World conveys a perhaps unavoidable ambivalence about Brazil – on the one hand sweeping beauty and passion and pride; on the other poverty and danger. The former generally carries more weight here though, which is why some might think the film a bit soft (as much Middle of the Road as of the World). A youngish couple and their five children cycle across the country to Rio de Janeiro in search of work, stopping at way stations, sometimes picking up a little money by singing and doing odd jobs, often going hungry. The eldest son is on the verge of going his own way; the father tries to assert his authority and keep his dignity even under these parched circumstances; the mother can hardly bear it, but keeps going.

It's a vivid, fluent film, packing a wealth of mood and incident into its concise 90 minutes. Ultimately, it’s more a travelogue than anything else – the ending is conventional, and the overall impression modest. You don’t feel the hunger and the weariness of their long trip as keenly as you experience the momentary pleasures of spontaneous music, or an encounter with some quirky character they meet along the way. But it’s a pleasant counterbalance to the scathing vision of City of God (not that I’m saying a counterbalance was necessarily required).

Code 46 (Michael Winterbottom)
Winterbottom had two new films at this year’s festival: In this World, a documentary-style examination of Afghan refugees, and Code 46, an enigmatic futuristic semi-thriller. In the last few years he’s also covered war (Welcome to Sarajevo), Westerns (The Claim), social drama (Wonderland), and an archaeology job on early 80s British rock (24 Hour Party People). Most of these played at the festival too. Only Party People feels at all vital, like a film that he made because he just had to. Usually, his eclecticism and speed seem like an end in themselves, as if his career amounted to some kind of contest entry (he’d be a good foe for Lars von Trier in round two of The Five Obstructions). Unfortunately, I don’t know of anyone who’s particularly excited by this, except apparently for festival programmers.

I didn’t see In this World, but Code 46 (which somehow snagged a gala spot) epitomizes what I’m talking about. It’s set in Shanghai, in one of those budget-friendly futuristic environments that looks pretty much like the present day, with a few bits of high-tech gloss and hints of Big Brother. It’s a more homogenized world too, at least in the major cities; traditional culture has largely been pushed into what’s called “outside.” None of this is particularly original or bracing, and the plot resembles a deadened distillation of elements from Minority Report, Gattaca, Wim Wenders’ Until the End of the World, and others. It stars Tim Robbins as an investigator who can read minds by virtue of an “empathy virus” he’s ingested, and Samantha Morton as the quarry he falls in love with. The overall arc is one of tragic romance, of humanity trying to assert itself against increasing constraints. That reminds me of a lot of movies too.

I might have felt unusually distanced from the movie because I had to watch it from the mezzanine at Roy Thomson Hall – a location I detest. I can’t get wrapped up in an image that seems so far away – it’s like staring into the bottom of a bucket (my preferred spot is right up front in the second or third row, where it’s just you and the looming screen). Code 46’s forensic air probably suffered from this handicap more than a more exuberant movie might have done, so I feel obliged to make this full disclosure. That said, I’m still pretty confident the film doesn’t amount to much. Oh well, maybe next year’s pair of Winterbottom movies will be stronger.

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