Monday, September 25, 2017

2001 Toronto film festival report, part four

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in October 2001)

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

La chambre des officiers (Francois Dupeyron)

After half his face is blown off near the start of World War One, a French officer spends the rest of the war in an officer’s medical ward, where he and those around him gradually learn to live with their disfigurements while undergoing apparently endless surgery. Although it’s a viable anti-war piece, the heart of the movie is in the meticulous process by which the men conquer their suicidal urges, their fears of mirrors and of the gazes of others, ultimately even acquiring the inner resources to make fun of themselves. A disfigured woman, spurned by her own family but beautiful to the men, provides another frame of reference. Sometimes the film seems strained and over-calculated (for example, in making us wait half an hour to see what the officer’s face looks like after the accident) but at its best it’s extremely relevant and yet somewhat other-worldly. Episodes like the mens’ trip to a bordello are faintly surreal as well as moving, and when the armistice is signed, the men celebrate as fervently as the crowds – but it’s a celebration taking place in a sealed-off corridor, high above the masses. The film’s life-affirming themes are all the more convincing for its lack of sentiment – it conveys an emotional theme with clinical precision.

Monsoon Wedding (Mira Nair)

A certain crowd-pleaser (and the winner at the Venice film festival) about events surrounding an affluent Indian family wedding. The bride and groom barely know each other and she’s still carrying a torch for her ex-boyfriend, the father (the movie’s beleaguered centre) has money problems, the wedding planner is unreliable and distracted, and (in a surprisingly dark turn), one of the elders is revealed as a child molester. Things go on, of course. The movie has been compared to one of Robert Altman’s sprawling canvases (Altman must be evoked how often his name is evoked nowadays), but that only indicates its limitations. There’s an inevitability to the direction it takes, and the film never gets that deeply under the skin of its characters or of the social segment they embody. Instead, it throws out references and concepts like wedding confetti, presumably reasoning that if enough of them stick, the film will amount to an emotional epic. The juxtaposition of modern and traditional attitudes and outlooks is generally interesting, but on the whole I learned less about contemporary India from the film than by watching Satyajit Ray’s 30-year-old Days and Nights in the Forest a few months ago. And less about the human condition than in fifteen or twenty other festival films.

Hotel (Mike Figgis)

Figgis’ film again uses his split-screen technique from Time Code, but this time it’s mixed in with various other experiments – the film plays throughout with image speed, size, quality and placement on the screen. The film’s plot is much more elusive and sprawling than the earlier film too, involving the filming of a Dogme-style version of a classic play, a mysterious conspiracy among hotel staff, and various other stuff (some of which I couldn’t follow). The film is not conventionally entertaining, and in its willful obscurity and unanchored feeling may remind people of this year’s other weird hotel movie – Wim Wenders’ Million Dollar Hotel. Being just about the only person who liked Wenders’ film, I’ll admit to some admiration too for Figgis’ latest effort. I don’t think it has the overall coherence of Time Code (which to me fused form and content very effectively) but then it’s not meant to – it’s allusive and deliberately eccentric. You always suspect it’s going to end with some kind of metaphorical comment on cinema, but it’s still a surprise how Figgis gets there. He makes the tyrannical, edgy director into a truly supernatural figure, and simultaneously evokes both da Vinci’s Last Supper and B-horror movies, which should indicate the film’s variety if nothing else. For star-spotters, the film includes a brief and pointless appearance by Burt Reynolds, a slightly longer one by Lucy Liu, and perhaps the best performance ever by my old schoolmate Rhys Ifans.

Birthday Girl (Jez Butterworth)

Butterworth’s second feature is much more professional and smooth than his messy, barely coherent debut Mojo, although what minor ambition the earlier film possessed seems to have vanished along with the rough edges. Birthday Girl is a conventional, predictable film about a mild-mannered, unfulfilled bank clerk who searches for a Russian wife on the Internet. He ends up with a real hot babe who may not live up to all his specifications (she can’t speak English) but makes up for it in other ways (primarily by fully indulging his bondage fantasies). Things get sticky when two friends of hers suddenly turn up unexpectedly – will our hero ever find true happiness? This is the kind of movie that hardly needs a festival spot – there’s nothing about it to get critics even modestly excited, and since Nicole Kidman plays the girl, the film is already guaranteed all the publicity it needs. The movie moves along nicely, but it’s completely predictable, and it has nothing at all in the way of nuance, theme, artistic embellishment etc.

Eloge de l’amour (Jean-Luc Godard)

Godard’s new film, widely regarded as his most successful in years, still failed to quite overcome my 15-year mental block on his work – I was engaged in flashes, but the overall shape of it eluded me. Those flashes may be adequate reward though. A meditation on love, cinema, memory and art, the film’s most prominent narrative element involves a project to make a film out of an aging couple’s memories of the Resistance; the first half is shot in pristine black and white, the second in more impressionistic digital video color. Godard works in densely allusive fragments; every scene is striking for the vividness of his compositions; the soundtrack is dense in philosophical and intellectual propositions. In a film that takes numerous potshots at Hollywood (particularly Spielberg), Godard continues to believe in the fallacy of straightforward, self-contained representation – affirming that “you can only think about something if you think of something else.” While this seems as modernist a position as ever, his attention to cultural and political history and lack of frivolity give the film a timeless romantic quality: the music score is certainly as elegiac as the title demands. A character quotes “The measure of love is to love without measure,” and Godard’s feeling for cinema is indeed immeasurable; the film is moving even as it rejects the means by which other films move us.

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