Friday, September 16, 2011

TIFF wrap-up part 1: enduring impressions

My festival is over. But my enjoyment of the films is not: now comes some of the best time – the next couple of weeks when I pour over what I saw, or let the natural tidal sea of images wash up what has endured and remained. During the last number of years, it has been increasingly true that the films I thought were my favourites or the best eventually shift and make room for some other film that was in fact more impactful. There have been only a few exceptions to this: in the last five years I think only After the Wedding and Hadewijch and Incendies have retained their status at the top of my immediate best lists. Examples of films that I initially liked, but which moved up and up in my appreciation after reflection are Mia Hansen-Love's Le Père de mes Enfants, Dorothee van den Berghe's My Queen Karo and Susanne Bier's In a Better World. I can never predict how that will go, so here for now are a list of films that are swimming in my head. And why.

The kids are all right. Several films I saw at this year's TIFF focussed on the re-sourcefulness of children in overcoming their own circumstances. Of these I have already written about the Dardennes brothers' Kid With a Bike (see below) which remains a favourite. But I was also moved by I Wish, the latest film by master Japanese filmmaker Hirokazu kore-Eda. In this story, two brothers separated by divorce find a way to reunite when they follow up on an urban legend that a wish will come true when made at the place where two high-speed trains cross. Bringing friends along from their respective worlds, they meet in the geographic middle and together shout out their deepest desires while staring down into the nanoseconds of bullet trains meeting. The inevitability of disappointment in the silence that follows tugs at our hearts but just as in Nobody Knows and After Life, kore-Eda surprises us, not by a magic realist finish, but by allowing the children themselves to have confronted their own truths in the meantime. The journey, not the arrival, is what matters. I loved the use of camera language in this film. The young boy whose dog has died continues to check the bag in which he has carried the puppy's body after the 'wish', and in one very long shot, we see him do it yet again as he arrives home. That one shot might just be my favourite in the whole festival: kore-Eda seems to be saying that we continue to wish even after we know the truth is what it is. It is the desire for hope that is the most enduring human emotion.

The kids are not all right, and they know it. Canadian Philippe Falardeau's exquisite Monsieur Lazhar will remain one of my favourite films from this year's festival. Here the children in a grade-school class cope with the traumatic event that opens the film: the suicide of their teacher in their own classroom. Bachir Lazhar (Mohamed Fellag) is the Algerian immigrant who becomes their new teacher and he himself is also recovering from traumatic events. It is predictable that students and teacher learn from each other, but what is not at all foreseen is how subtly and honestly the film deals with grief at all ages. I would be hard-pressed to think of any other film I know that shows children dealing so truthfully with loss. The two young children most at the centre of the story (Sophie Nélisse and Émillen Neron) are the only two to have seen the deceased Martine before they could be protected from that horror. They give beautiful performances as children following very different trajectories of guilt and sadness. In an essay she reads to the class, young Alice says her school is beautiful because it is hers and because she has made a life there. But it is not beautiful because it now holds a death. In one of the most insightful moments, the essay asks why her school punishes violence in children, and yet a teacher's violence is left unadmonished. The rare complexity of expressed feeling and complicated silence have never been so lovingly rendered. This film is winning awards wherever it goes and is proving that Falardeau's two previous gems La moitié gauche du frigo and C'est pas moi, je le jure! were not accidents.

Home is where the heart is…. trapped. Two films I saw this past week were about people enduring house arrest for the sake of moral and democratic principle. The first of these, Jafar Panahi and Mojtaba Mirtahmasb's This is Not a Film is still troubling me, though I saw it on the very first night (and wrote a bit about it then). I had thought I would write a full blog on Iranian cinema and its changing direction and that may still come, but it seems to need to gestate some more. For now I will say that I continue to be deeply moved by watching Panahi move around his own condominium struggling to act out and explain for us the progress of the film he had hoped to make but which caused him to be first arrested, then detained and now imprisoned. (The imprisonment followed the period this film was made in. Panahi is still in prison and now Mirtahmasb has been detained and banned from filmmaking also.) As a result of these events, the film is a testament to creative bravery but it also brilliantly portrays the ordinary horror of living out a known future in the seeming routine of everyday life. Panahi gets up late and eats breakfast, goes through his day as anyone might, with a big difference - he can't move from where he is. We hear him talk with his lawyer who assures him imprisonment is inevitable - but the ban might be lifted. The absurdity registers: what good is a lifted ban on making movies if one is in prison? The movie's most poignant moments come as he walks through the opening sequence for us of his proposed film describing the confinement of his main heroine. The irony is not lost on him and he pauses, momentarily overcome with emotion. When, in the film's final moments, he follows a custodian out of the basement exit and walks almost to the gate under the cloak of night, the fellow warns him to be careful and go back. Beyond the gate, a fire is burning - and that is our last image: a fire that is blazing uncontrolled. The warning could be about being found outside his home, or it could be about the fire, we're not sure which. But the fire burning on could have many meanings: the fire of creativity; or the fire of political tyranny that destroys that which it should cherish.

Home is where the heart is…. separated from love. The events which led to the home imprisonment of Burma's elected leader Aung San Suu Kyi are now well known to the world. Though Suu Kyi was released in November 2010, she continues to live in the country that her father gave his life for. Luc Besson's film The Lady was written by Rebecca Frayn who began working on the project in the early 1990s after spending time in Burma. She sent it to Michelle Yeoh who then requested Besson. The addition of David Thewlis as Suu Kyi's English husband Michael Aris completes the casting and is critical to its strength. This film might also have been called Portrait of a Marriage - as the union despite separation of the central couple is the galvanizing energy of the screenplay and story. We are not really guided through the ins and outs of Burmese politics and this is wise, as they are too complex for us to follow. Instead, Besson and Frayn focus on the human drama. It is a brave choice as it runs the risk of being accused of western appropriation, instead of a complete celebration of an extraordinary Asian leader within her own context and world. But I support them in this choice: the film is shot in English and many scenes occur in the English home of Michael Aris making it unabashedly an English take on the story. I was deeply moved by Yeoh and Thewlis, whose deeply embedded respect for their characters seems to shine out of their skin. Yeoh is so lovely in this role - perfect even. Her poise, her demeanour, her natural strength and fiery commitment and her moments of great loss are so finely conveyed. As usual with Thewlis you just want to reach into the film and hug him. He has that affable quality in all his movies but never more so than here, where he is also trying to conceal it under the visage of solidarity to his wife's purpose. The film walks the line of romanticizing their relationship - and we sense that there must have been a much greater complexity and suffering than is shown. But at this point in time, with Suu Kyi still alive and Burma still in play, it seems a wholly fitting way to show the lives. If I had to pick a favourite image from this festival, it might be one of the many shots of Yeoh from behind with her hair filled with orchids. These flowers entwined in her hair served visually to underline a deeper and more enduring truth: that delicacy and strength, when they are combined, make the rarest form of beauty.

Gender, revisited. There was once a television film made of the memoir Portrait of a Marriage by Nigel Nicolson that starred Janet McTeer as his mother, Vita Sackville-West. It was the film that introduced me to McTeer who is possibly one of the world's most underappreciated actors. I found myself suddenly thinking of that performance when McTeer turned up gloriously in Rodrigo Garcia's Albert Nobbs, also starring Glenn Close. The film as a whole suffers somewhat from screenwriting gaffes (including characters who speak out loud to themselves) and a kind of over-direction in places, but when these two actresses are together, it soars. I loved the nuancing and careful sexual politic of the gender bending in the film. Both actors are playing women who are passing for men in a class-defined Irish society of the late 19th century. The two scenes where they each reveal their true gender to the other are worth the price of admission, but I was also moved by the scenes of their friendship outside the hotel where Nobbs (Close) works, in the home that Hubert (McTeer) has made with his lawful wife. This is a rare and beautifully rendered glimpse of what gay and transgendered life might have looked like in the 19th century. There is a wonderful naivete in the character of Albert Nobbs which Close bears out with tremendous acuity and care. She somehow retains her femininity while also convincing us as a waifish, repressed waiter. As she slowly conceives the idea of wooing a maid (Mia Wasikowska) to help her in a dream of opening her own shop, her worry about when to reveal the truth to the woman seems like a simple problem, and not the enormous question of ultimate realities that it seems to us. As always with Close, it is her face that haunts and hunts the truth of a scene, and Garcia seems to know to leave the camera long on her in key moments so that her preoccupied and emotional face registers across a room or up a staircase from where she sits in attendance on her guests. I was astonished by a scene later in the film in which McTeer and Close, now dressed as women, take a walk on the beach. It is a source of humour that their awkward uncertainty as women causes them to now appear like men in drag. It is a signature moment that speaks to the incredible craft of these two actors at the top of their form. I won't be surprised, however, if it is McTeer who ends up gaining the most plaudits as the movie goes forward. She nearly upstages and steals the film. There is no official website for this movie yet - and no trailer - and finding images of Janet McTeer in the movie is almost impossible. But I did find this small clip showing them together. Enjoy. (And I can't resist adding a great clip from Portrait of a Marriage - which is entirely available on youtube - here.) Great performances in good films.

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