Thursday, May 28, 2009

cannes: what to look for in toronto

You can talk about Sundance and Berlin, but the biggest crop of films to be anticipated at TIFF usually originates in Cannes. As the spring slides into summer and the earliest press releases for TIFF start to trickle forward, the question then becomes whether these sought after movies will make it to Toronto - or be scooped by Venice. With the French festival now down, I have my wish list all ready.

Ounie Lecomte's A Brand New Life (pictured above) is high on that list. From a first time filmmaker, this Korean story of a child whose life is forever changed when her stepmother puts her up for adoption on a whim, could well be the Four Months, Three Weeks, Two Days (which rocked the 07 Cannes festival and which I reviewed then) of this year's film crop.

Bright Star is Jane Campion's meditation on the short life of poet John Keats. With its gorgeous pallette and reserved performances, it is already being called her finest film ever. I hope this means it is a throwback to her earliest and in my mind her best work in films like An Angel at My Table. An exciting contender.

I am intrigued always by the work of Michael Haneke, whose film Cache I reviewed in 2005 and whose Code Inconnu I remember vividly for its moments of sudden everyday despair. The White Ribbon which won the Grand Prix and the FIPRESCI journalists prize this year at Cannes looks at autocratic rule in families on the eve of World War I where the inhuman connections found in the home foreshadow the battlefields to come.

Haim Tabakman's Eyes Wide Open takes a look at homosexuality in Orthodox Jewish Jerusalem. This subject was dealt with in Avi Nesher's The Secrets, but that was about young girls. This film about two butchers is much more daring in its pursuit of the subject matter and has already been apparently banned in some communities. While "being banned" can be a badge of honour that sometimes disguises a mediocre film, this subtle story is likely to be a much talked about critical hit.

Hugely exciting for me is Andrea Arnold's follow-up feature to her brilliant Red Road (reviewed in 2006) with Fish Tank, which co-won the Jury prize. Arnold follows in the tradition of Ken Loach with gritty social realism and by casting a non-professional actor (Katie Jarvis) in the lead role. And speaking of Ken Loach, his Looking for Eric, a comedy about a depressed middle-aged postman, is looking to be on my list of Toronto hopefuls. I never miss a film by this master.

Speaking of masters, Lars von Trier (Antichrist) and Quentin Tarentino (Inglourious Basterds) both premiered films that were much anticipated and ultimately received with either controversy or disappointment or both. I will not likely pursue either of these films, though I respect and admire these filmmakers. And I am sad to have no interest at all in Ang Lee's Taking Woodstock, based on a feeling of 'been there, seen that' about the subject matter. But when it comes to returning genius, always genuinely exciting to me is a new film by Pedro Almodovar. Although Abrazos Rotas (Broken Embraces) appears to have been met mostly with disappointment, I will not miss it. Elia Suleiman's The Time that Remains has had unexpected buzz - this film based on the diaries of Suleiman's father is being billed as a "deadpan Palestinian comedy".

Out of competition there were some other possible gems. I loved Robert Guediguian's Marijo et ses deux amours in 2002. This year Guediguian is offering a World War II drama about the French resistance called Army of Crime. Actress Fanny Ardant, whom I've long loved, has a debut feature, Ashes and Blood that I will be eager to see. I will also be headed to Coco Chanel and Igor Stravinsky, Jan Kounen's biopic of the two cultural icons who fell hard for each other before their respective careers took them in geographic and psychologically opposite directions. The movie features gorgeous Mads Mikkelson, who starred in my 2006 TIFF favorite After the Wedding.

I've received and renewed my Industry pass invitation so the run-up to TIFF 09 is officially launched. More to come!

Sunday, May 10, 2009

the white countess

Those who have seen the Shanghai and Hongkong films of Wong kar-wai, have likely been appreciating, without knowing it, the colour palette of cinematographer Chris Doyle, an Englishman working in China, and a diviner of eras as no other cameraman. He deserves his own post, but I am still hanging on Natasha. In my pursuit of a greater appreciation of her work, I have been dabbling in her films, all of which teach me how utterly underrated this actor has been, by me and by the world, and how sad that I myself am only gaining the full knowledge of this as a result of her death. She was incredibly gifted and while I still stand behind my fondness for her in The Parent Trap (see earlier post), there are so many other riches.

More recently, I have been absorbed by The White Countess, a film which has an astonishing amount of layered meaning going on within performances and within the construction of the thematic development of the film itself. Richardson plays an exiled Russian countess who does taxi turns in a shabby dance hall to support her also-exiled family. Written by Kazuo Ichiguro with lovely touches of humour and spare splashes of narrative (wisely never allowing 'story' to be driving), this Merchant Ivory production might easily have succumbed to a burdensome fancifulness of context: Shanghai in the between-the-wars melting pot of the 1930s, where deposed Russian nobility live and work side by side with Jewish merchants escaping rising anti-Semitism in Europe. However, the lushness of cinematographer Chris Doyle's visual style, and the patiently detailed direction of James Ivory keep the film in a kind of trance-like combination of realism and dreamworld.

They are ably assisted by Redgrave royalty as the burnished victims of Bolshevism: besides Richardson herself, Vanessa and Lynn Redgrave play members of the Countess' extended family, people whose delusion and despair have turned them into rather nasty, or simply saddened people. (Though it is unquestionably Natasha's movie, both Redgraves earn their keep with a memorable scene each: Lynn in a turn of exquisite cruelty as she explains to Richardson why she will be left behind in the exodus from Shanghai that ends the film; and Vanessa in a moment where she offers Richardson a 'soft' pillow for her to sleep on after a hard night's work.)

Ralph Fiennes plays an American survivor of equally tragic circumstances, made blind by an accident that killed someone close to him. Once a 'diplomatist', he is now a wealthy man-about-town, drowning his losses in alcohol and dreaming of his own big bar/nightclub. Circumstances introduce him to the countess, whom he later positions as the 'centerpiece' of this new bar. The two have a wonderfully unconsummated but loaded relationship: deeply mutually respectful and kind, while also frustratingly unfulfilled, simply because of how dissipated they are by their own losses. What a wonderful diversion from more typical boy-meets-girl scenarios of most North American films. The need of Fiennes' 'Mr. Jackson' to keep everything anonymous between them, slowly wears thin as he himself falls hopelessly in love with his club's leading lady. His unrecognized passion is revealed in sudden fits of possessive temper, when he bounces from his bar characters who are relatively benign in the corrupt scheme of this world, merely for having offended Sofia's honour.

Richardson's Sofia remains aloof throughout, as if she herself is one of the battered boats our characters escape on in the film's final sequence with a faded but unfettered elegance. She is amazing in this film. There is a brooding in the eyes that reveals the deepest pain, even while showing pleasure in simple joys. It is as if the pleasure and the momentary pain go hand in hand. It is a remarkably observed detail of character that flows right out of a desire (expressed in the movie's commentary) for nuancing a Russian sensibility. Having written about Russians myself, and known a few, this is exactly the quality worth striving for. It means that a character's deep sadness and equally her capacity for happiness are never in dispute. One scene which captures this duality with absolute brilliance occurs when someone from her old world in Russia, now himself reduced to bussing bottles and clearing tables, recognizes the countess in the club. Approaching her with the utmost respect, he reminds her of their childhood times together playing tennis. The slow recognition on her face, the movement through beats of uncertainty to amazement, to joy, to tragic sadness again as he kisses her hand to leave, are breathtaking. The brimming brooding eyes as he moves away speak vividly to all of her losses. It is a master class of "beat" work!

The character who ultimately unites our two lost souls is Katya, the daughter of the countess, whose bright alertness to her world makes her an easy pawn in her family's dynamics but also enables her to be freed from them in the end. Played by Madeleine Daly, her red-headed narrow face seems a more likely offshoot of Grushenka, played by Madeleine Potter, the countess' sister-in-law, who is childless and tries hard to drive wedges between mother and daughter. Katya walks through all the worlds of this film: though never seen in the nightclub, she does meet up with and befriend the Fiennes character, and reminds him of his own lost child. She also provides a tie to the other social world of this film which is a family of Jewish immigrants to Shanghai, whose children are a more natural source of companionship for her than her strange family. This exposure helps give her a worldliness that fully ennobles one of the last shots of the film, as she stands staring off the prow of a ship into her own future.

This image at left comes from that same last scene. It represents one of the few moments of near-happiness and transcendence that exists in this film. Our tragedy-sodden characters only find solace with each other through another tragedy, which is the end of the world as they were living it. This is often how it is in life: it often does take the utter decimation of the static place in which we have cemented ourselves, to push us forward, kick us out of the trenches of our own pain. On a boat bound for Macao our characters huddle in the mist and listen to the sounds of a forlorn but hopeful trumpet, now free of the baggage of what was, and off on a new voyage.
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