Monday, September 4, 2017

2001 Toronto film festival report, part two

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in September 2001)

This is the second of Jack Hughes’ reports from the 2001 Toronto film festival

What time is it there? (Tsai Ming-Liang)

Tsai’s film confirms him as a major poet of contemporary despair. A young watchseller has a brief contact with a customer who tells him she’s going to Paris. She gives him a cake, and it seems that this act of minor kindness shakes the structure of his drab, circumscribed life. He becomes obsessed with changing every timepiece he sees by seven hours, to conform to Paris time. The film is suffused in alienation, longing and futile endeavors. His mother, grieving for her late husband, devotes herself to rituals and superstitions that may tempt his spirit to return (at one point she mistakes what he’s done to the living room clock as a supernatural manifestation). Meanwhile, the girl’s stay in Paris is presented as one lonely, mechanical scene after another. All three plot strands culminate in desolate sexual encounters, but the film’s ending finds transcendence in some truly inspired and deeply beautiful images. The film was often virtually hypnotic to me. There’s no question that it’s slow and deliberate and narrow in its preoccupations, but its central idea works perfectly: dour lives demand grand gestures, whether physical or metaphysical, and even if these don’t succeed as intended, it’s beyond us to assess the full scope of their consequences.

The Pornographer (Bertrand Bonello)

A curious account of a veteran director of pornographic movies who’s way past his personal and professional peaks and can barely keep going. The pornographer started in the business in 1968, when making porn was plausible as a political act, and he can still conceive of himself as a former revolutionary, but that self-image no longer holds. In the film’s saddest scene, the producer spontaneously takes over the direction of a scene, disregarding the director’s fragile aesthetic scheme to inject louder moaning and more money shots. The casting of Jean-Pierre Leaud, archetypal 60’s French actor, as the pornographer, confirms that the film is as much about the decline of cinema (not just of the porno kind) as anything else. The pornographer’s story is generally presented in a classical drawing-room kind of style, but it’s contrasted with a vaguely Godardian treatment of his son, a student who joins an activist movement the main weapon of which is silence, the thesis being that muteness is “the ultimate opposition.” The juxtaposition makes for something genuinely weird and oddly nostalgic, and at least halfway stimulating. Certainly at the end you’re left with a convincing sense of decay and intellectual futility; given the film’s esoteric preoccupations though, it’s hard to know how much value to place on this. I think the film might be all but meaningless to someone not acquainted with the heyday of New Wave French cinema (a declining breed, obviously).

The Navigators (Ken Loach)

Loach’s film shows the readjustment of a group of Northern English railway workers after the deregulation of the mid-90’s. The British public’s contempt for the state of its railways makes this movie a pretty safe bet on its home turf, and Loach punches home the easy targets, having great fun with the new customer-friendly terminology and training video culture that suddenly gets dumped on the men. As usual, he makes an efficient argument against capitalist excesses while paying mere lip service to the other side; also as usual, he simplifies the real economics of the case and grossly caricatures the corporate bosses. Largely backed by a laconic jazz score, the movie is pretty easygoing compared to some of Loach’s earlier works – it’s far more assured than last year’s uneasy Bread and Roses. Ultimately, his protagonists seem like babes in the new market-friendly woods, and in the melodramatic but affecting finale they sell their souls to keep on going; the camaraderie of the opening stretch is replaced by a resigned, neutered obedience. The movie is tremendously entertaining and covers a lot of ground in an hour and a half – pound for pound, Loach is one of the prime storytellers in the game.

A ma soeur (Catherine Breillat)

This typically provocative film from Breillat is a further variation on her ongoing investigation of female sexuality, this time contrasting two teenage sisters – one a confident looker, the other clumsy and overweight. The “fat girl” (the film’s title for English release purposes) variously gets both abuse and affection from her sister; they’re fascinated and disgusted by each other. “Hating you,” she says, “is like hating part of myself – that’s why I loathe you so violently.” In the film’s key scenes, the fat girl pretends to be asleep while her sister on the other side of the room has sex with her boyfriend – his ruthless manipulation (you know what you’d do if you really loved me…) sets up a continuum of exploitation and victimhood. The latter part of the film, as their mother drives the sisters home from vacation, reduces them both back to being just kids, and Breillat seems for a long while to be vastly overdoing the shots of the car journey – time and again you anticipate an accident that never comes. But then the film takes a turn that is truly shocking, and can be read as sick fantasy, morbid come-uppance, terrible turn of fate, or as a realignment of the sexual politics. It’s probably all four, and leaves a potent after-impression. The movie will probably neither expand nor contract Breillat’s circle of admirers – I found it more subtle than Romance, but not as rich as her earlier Une vrai jeune fille, although its peaks may reach higher than that film’s.

Heist (David Mamet)

Mamet’s stripped-down crime drama doesn’t make much of an impact; as with Robert de Niro in the similar The Score, you wonder whether Mamet is overly interested in sacrificing his talent to the demands of genre. The movie’s terse plotting, snappy conversation and emotional minimalism come from the “less is more” school, but set against the other films I saw on the same day, it’s plainly just less. Lines like “he’s so cool, when he goes to bed the sheep count him” try too hard for classic status, and they read better than they sound. The film has some good twists and turns but that’s all they are – the movie doesn’t have the philosophical and emotional richness of Mamet’s last film State and Main, and the frequent confusion over who’s doing what to whom gets harder to take one you realize it’ll never really matter. Actors like Gene Hackman and Danny DeVito keep it interesting, but they’re just fleshing out ciphers in an arbitrary universe.

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