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.

Monday, September 18, 2017


(originally published in The Outreach Connection in September 2001)

If this year’s Oscars had to be held next week (and I don’t mean to suggest I can’t wait until March) it looks to me like the best actress race would be between Renee Zellweger, Thora Birch, Kirsten Dunst and Piper Perabo. The combined age of whom might just about amount to a Judi Dench. Hollywood’s always criticized for giving the younger women all the breaks, but this is something new. Especially as none of the four had to pretend to be in love with Michael Douglas, or with any other contemporary of their grandfathers (well, Birch in Ghost World hooks up with Steve Buscemi, but that’s hardly the same thing).

Piper Perabo

Perabo is in the current Lost and Delirious, a Canadian film about a doomed affair between two teenage boarding-school girls. In their top floor dormitory, she and Jessica Pare share an idyllic rapport, and a bed, until they’re discovered together. Pare quickly turns stridently heterosexual to safeguard her reputation. Perabo, whose character is stamped from the first scene as a potentially out of control self-dramatizer, quickly goes over the edge – accosting Pare with Shakespearean monologues in the library, challenging her new boyfriend to a duel with real swords, and yelling abuse in all directions.

If I had an impressionable teenage daughter with a touch of the turbulent poet about her, I definitely wouldn’t want her going near this film until she’d made it safely into her twenties. Resembling a slightly softer Angelina Jolie (who did win an Oscar for burning through a very similar role in Girl Interrupted) and radiating as much misplaced self-assurance. Perabo makes breakdown look like the only way to go. The movie devotes itself to her at the cost of almost anything else – she’s allowed to rant and pose long after the teachers should have sought serious help, and her special relationship with a hawk in the forest is too easy a symbol of the primal force she embodies. She’s quite excellent, and she’s certainly charismatic, but in an abstract kind of way. Still, give her a few years, and Piper Perabo may be the next Julia Roberts.

Apocalypse Now Redux

I don’t suppose Francis Coppola’s Apocalypse Now Redux will be eligible for any Oscars this year (on its first release, in 1979, it lost to Kramer vs. Kramer – how dumb does that seem now?) Coppola and editor Walter Murch have gone back to the Vietnam epic, brushing up the image and sound quality and adding some fifty minutes of new scenes, bringing the total running time to three and a half hours. I haven’t watched the original for many years, so I’m not well-equipped to carry out a before-and-after comparison (critical opinion seems generally in favour of the new material, although with some strong dissenters too). But I do agree with the pack that Redux is the most impressive American movie to be released this year.

It's an engrossing spectacle, of course – especially in the early part of the film where Coppola feverishly orchestrates helicopters and explosions and people into an evocation of war that’s too beautiful and vivid to be quite real. In his famous performance, Robert Duvall is almost excessively charismatic as the brutally effective Colonel Kilgore, razing villages as if as an afterthought while indulging his passion for surfing: an absurdist approach that might have worn thin if pursued for the entire movie. As it continues, the film tones down its potentially cartoonish edge, but hones in on the intense incongruity and confusion that are rather brashly contained in the Duvall scenes.

Martin Sheen plays Captain Willard, sent to travel up-river with a small group, in search of an army colonel who’s deserted and now leads a strange community in the depths of the jungle. In one of the newly-added sequences, they encounter two Playboy bunnies, stranded after their promotion tour helicopter ran out of fuel. Later, they find a French family holding out on a plantation long after all others have left, still dressing formally for dinner and engaging in conversation as though caught in a time warp. These sequences make Redux less of a pure war film and more an abstract meditation on political, cultural and psychological confusion (with Vietnam being one of the all-time great media for such a project); leading more inevitably now to the famously murky finale where Sheen finds the missing Colonel Kurtz, played by Marlon Brando.

Kurtz is viewed by his followers as a great man, but the main mouthpiece for this is Dennis Hopper’s character – a standard-issue 60’s hippie photographer – suggesting that Kurtz’ power lies mainly in the very idea of transcendence (or dropping out). Brando’s most famous line from the movie is his final apparent indictment of war “the horror…the horror…,” but if Kurtz is mad, it seems attributable as much to excessive introspection as to his experiences in themselves. “It’s judgment that defeats us,” he says in one of his monologues, and at another point: “You have the right to kill me, but not to judge me.” The movie damns judgment, and makes it almost impossible to render. Just when Sheen should deliver some closure to himself and to us, he becomes incomprehensible.

The film uses fades and slow dissolves and mist to hide the basic linearity of its structure (they encounter one incident, then travel on up the river for a few minutes and encounter another): it ultimately generates the sense of a world turned on its head. It’s no great shakes as politics or analysis, and its energy sometimes seems touched by naivete, but no other current film has even half as much going on.

The Others

I suppose my list of Oscar contenders should also have included Nicole Kidman – especially since Moulin Rouge and her new film The Others constitute two separate chances (if the Oscars are as sentimental as some say, then the break-up with Tom Cruise may constitute a third). But I thought she was swallowed up amid the technical cartwheels of Moulin Rouge, and she’s quite cold and unemotive in The Others. Not that this isn’t what the film, a well-crafted haunted house story, needs. But despite the effective mood and pacing and the nicely sprung surprise ending, it’s hard to get really excited about a movie with so little emotional depth. And Kidman never does anything at all unexpected in it. I’d like to see her carry off a role in which “delirious” was a major concept, but I can’t imagine it.

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.

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.