Thursday, September 04, 2008

first reviews!: l'heure d'ete; two-legged horse; short cuts canada2; from mother to daughter

Yes, you can see from that blogline that the plans changed! Getting into Toronto later than I expected, and needing to pursue an important personal meeting, I had to forgo Passchandaele - to my sadness!

However, this meant I began the day with Olivier Assayas' lyrical L'Heure d'Ete which I have said was a top pick. It took me a moment to recognize Jeremie Renier from the Dardenne Brothers L'Enfant which I saw at this festival a few years ago. In that film, he played a thief who trades in his newborn son behind his mother's back, to get much-needed cash and then spends the rest of the movie trying to get the boy back. In this movie, he is a complete contrast as a well-groomed businessman living in China, home to deal with his aging mother's estate. Charles Berling plays the oldest son, and only family member still attached to all his mother's life represents. And Juliette Binoche appears as Adrienne, the disaffected designer living in New York and Japan.

The Japan and China aspects of this screenplay are no mistake. Increasingly French film is taking on notably Asian accents as well-known filmmakers cross oceans to trade skills and work with each other. In Paris Je T'Aime, Binoche appeared in Nobu Suwa's segment. And last year, she was featured in Voyage du Ballon Rouge, the homage to the French classic The Red Balloon by none other than Hou Hsiao-Hsien. Now we have a French filmmaker, Olivier Assayas making a film with all French actors but in a decidedly Asian style, with extended takes, naturalistic overlapping dialogue and a focus on character dynamics rather than narrative. From the opening extended sequence of children playing in the height of summer bliss, crashing through trees and fields to arrive at the sweeping lawn of a summer house, to the final moments at the same house, now quite transformed, the film uses silences and the gathering light of dusk to resonate the far-reaching impact of small, seemingly not so insignificant (and yet profound) family decisions. What I particularly admired about it was that everyone got along, even while causing deep divisions and rifts. Tension in drama does not have to be about argument! It is about the desire to avoid argument, even while there is deep emotion, and even as honesty and open talk are engaged. This is French fusion in fine form.

It's becoming increasingly impossible to talk about the Makhmalbaf family of filmmakers without reaching for the superlative thesaurus. Last year, its most junior member Hana Makhmalbaf gave us the astonishingly assured Buddha Collapsed out of Shame. This year, older sister Samira is in the spotlight with Two-Legged Horse. The cinema of Iran enjoys the unique reality of being completely uninfluenced by North American movies. How is this possible? Because of cultural sanctions, which also prohibit the portrayal of any adult situations of either sexuality or political expression. As a result, this nation's movies are often about children, who provide a safe way of critiquing society. In Two-Legged Horse, Samira Makhmalbaf has said in an interview on the family website that she is exploring ideas of relations among political powers and also among people. In her movie, a boy with no legs is carried through his life by a mentally and physically challenged older boy. Both are more or less orphaned, though the boy with no legs is rich, and his father has enough money to leave him for months in the care of others. The older boy is hired to be his "horse", to carry him everywhere. Samira's greatest gift his her subtle capacity to build a sense of tolerance within us: just as we have gotten used to one form of degradation, another starts.
As the two boys are left to fend largely on their own, the older boy's role as the 'horse' starts to become a surreal game in which they both engage the horror of its oppression with seemingly equal interest and need. The excesses of it are such that by the film's end the boy has almost literally been transformed into a horse. The nuances of their growing co-dependency, both necessary and chosen, are contrasted by the almost gothic emotion of the older boy, whose inability to speak well reduces him to animal noises most of the time. Samira Makhmalbaf is an amazing director of men and boys (in all her films) and here it pays off in spades.
As the community of village boys set on confronting our heros gathers around them in a hopeless cockfight-style battle, they rub their hands "like swords" in relish of what is coming. It is almost like orchestrated music, its rhythm and vocal language (without words) incredibly rich. Another classic from the woman who brought us The Apple, Blackboards and At Five in the Afternoon.

After this feast, I took a break and returned too late to gain admittance to 33 Scenes from Life, much to my dismay. So instead, I wandered into a Short Cuts Canada Programme (2) that was in progress. What a great result! These thoughtful pieces were all engaging human relationships and memory in unusual ways. Philip Barker's Night Vision, featuring Severn Thompson (whom I have been seeing this summer in Stratford Festival productions) works in a palette of gorgeous greys and blues to convey a confusion of dreamed-of 'storytelling'. The always strong Helen Lee went on location to Seoul, Korea to shoot Hers At Last, a portrayal of parallel stories of two women locked by loneliness: one to an art world she cannot belong to, and another to a marriage in which she never sees her husband. This woman's long distance calls home to her native Mongolia and private prayer ritual are all she have to connect her to her truer sense of self. Rosa Rosa, by Félix Dufour-Laperrière, used thinly transparent layers of hand-drawn animation to engage a generic story of a family coping with war. And Constant Mentzas Gilles looks at the agonizing decision of an aging woman in caring for her mentally challenged son. Strong work in an art form that is truly all its own.

Standing in line for my next film, I met Helen Zuckerman, who runs the Jewish Film Festival which occurs every year in May. She urged me to be sure to see Ari Folman'sWaltz with Bashir, which was indeed my late in the day scheduled heavy-hitter. Since I had time first, I decided to check out Andrea Zembelli's From Mother to Daughter. A documentary commenting on another documentary, it takes a look at the women profiled in Giuseppe DeSantis' Bitter Rice, made during the 1940s, which profiles the women who worked in the rice paddies of Italy - yes, you read that right, Italy. Rice vermacelli...anyone? Zembelli's film picks up the same women in 2007, as the chorus they have formed and sung in through the years, made up of songs sung in the rice paddies, immerses itself in a contemporary folk youth concert in Rome, mixing it up with young hip talents. I had to leave it early, but all signs pointed to a delightful film and a good note to end the day on. I will be sure to catch Waltz with Bashir later in the week!
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