Wednesday, September 13, 2017

2001 Toronto film festival report, part three

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in September 2001)

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

The Piano Teacher (Michael Haneke)

Haneke’s drama about a piano teacher’s gradual capitulation to her sexual and psychological hang-ups is so raw and intense that it skirts the outer edges of watchability. “What is this foolish desire driving me into the wilderness?” sings a student in one scene, and the film draws on lead actress Isabelle Huppert’s vast resources to create a horrifying portrayal of that very journey. A severe teacher, she barely seems to take any joy from the music, and we gradually see that her psychological universe is just as barren, encompassing self-mutilation, voyeurism, debasement, substantial personal risk. It often seems that she barely has feeling, only desires, and orgasm seems abhorrent to her, as though even momentary fulfilment and rest would be more than she could endure. The film’s scheme includes a highly problematic relationship with her mother, and a finally devastating one with a young student who sees through some of her layers, but not enough of them. Haneke’s films are often set on the perimeter of psychological viability, and The Piano Teacher is a superb depiction of that place; it’s also a hermetic work though, so intense that even its greatest admirers may want afterwards only to forget it as quickly as possible.

Eden (Amos Gitai)

Gitai’s latest film is set in 1940, a confusing and not generally well-understood point in Israeli history. The movie does sadly little to illuminate it – it’s often so subtle in its telling that one might miss entire events. The film follows a small group of characters, embodying different perspectives and relationships to the Israeli ideal, and their fates broadly point to the way forward (in the final shot, the scene around the heroine shifts to the present day). It’s based on a short story by Arthur Miller, who plays the father of one of the characters – his presence is problematic, not just because he recites his lines so badly but because his presence skews the film too much toward comfortable Western intellectualism. For that matter though, the film’s casting is unsuccessful in a number of key roles. Gitai uses traditional distancing techniques to prevent easy absorption into the story and to focus the viewer on the broader historicism; however, it often seems fuzzy in its approach, and for all the variety of events and characters it’s very boring. One obtains flashes of insight, usually when the movie is most straightforward in reconstructing specific scenes or events, but no more than that. Overall, it seems like a major missed opportunity.

Trouble Every Day (Claire Denis)

Every year there’s at least one festival film that puts me to sleep, and here’s the one for this year. I was awake for the whole last hour though, all the better to observe people walking out around me. Denis’ movie is basically horror-film material – a couple of the characters have a vampire-like condition, a doctor is carrying out weird experiments, and his wife is locked up in the house – and it’s filmed in a moody, meditative style (the music score is quite beguiling). The movie links violence with sex, and the screams of the victims are as vivid as you’ll ever hear; together with the weary familiarity suggested by the title, the approach suggests that Denis is aiming not for mythology but for something more quotidian and immediate. It’s often impressionistic, one event following another through nuance rather than straightforward plotting (indeed, the movie is surely deliberately refusing to provide explanations, to tie up loose ends, or any of that normal stuff); it also has some striking set-pieces, and not just the violent ones – for example, it watches the mundane rituals of a young chambermaid who’s oddly drawn to one of the afflicted characters. But it’s very hard to concentrate on, and never delivers anything commensurate with the effort. I’ll concede though that a second viewing might cause this assessment to move sharply upward. (2017 afterword – it did).

The Man from Elysian Fields (George Hickenlooper)

When the festival has so much material that will seldom if ever be seen again, I guess there’s not really that much logic to spending even two hours of that precious time watching a smooth little movie that’ll fit just fine onto cable. But the vicissitudes of scheduling took me into this undemandingly delightful little fable about a career-imperiled writer who agrees out of desperation to go and work for an escort service. His first client is the wife of a fading literary giant who later enlists him to help write a final novel. This is lightly perverse material with lots of potential themes about whoring, integrity, self-deception, and the relationships between them all. Unfortunately, the movie’s heart lies mostly in what it all does to the writer’s relationship with his wife – not that this isn’t interesting too, but it’s far more conventional. The thing would seem more soft-centered if not for its terrific cast, including Andy Garcia (more appealing than he’s been in years), Mick Jagger (remarkably supple and idiosyncratic as the head of the escort service) and James Coburn (almost at the level of his Oscar-winning work in Affliction as the older writer). And the movie has terrific dialogue; it has the kind of one-liners and retort that used to flow from Woody Allen’s movies at their best (albeit in a somewhat different register).

Lovely and Amazing (Nicole Holofcener)

Holofcener’s film looks like a glossy contemporary comedy, but the movie may demand a psychotherapist as much as a critic – it’s virtually an encyclopedia on female angst and insecurities, spanning self-respect, body image, fear of aging, racial insecurity, stagnant relationships, and much else besides. By the end you feel properly entertained, but also educated and shaken – the scope is astonishing for such a small-scale movie. Catherine Keener (whose self-loathing and barely repressed anger is scary here) plays an unsuccessful would-be artist; her sister is an actress, convinced that her sputtering career is a result of her perceived physical defects. Their mother is going into hospital for liposuction, leaving her adopted black child in the care of the two sisters. The kid is a compulsive overeater and clearly disturbed – you worry about the child actress as much as about the character; Holofcener exploits a similar ambiguity in a scene in which the actress’ physical appearance is minutely criticized by her lover. The film has more of a stopping point than an ending, and various scenes and characters and developments are questionable too in one way or another, but overall it’s an excellent use of provocative material in an accessible package.

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