Saturday, September 15, 2012

TIFF12 Reviews: Films by Women, Part I: Watchtower, Hannah Arendt, Inch'Allah

Nilay Erdonmez in Pelin Esmer's Watchtower
After the wonderful Laurence Anyways, I went home for two days, returning on Saturday (a week ago now). In some ways it was crazy to be missing two of the most important early days of screening on the Sales and Industry pass, but a medical test left me with no choice. I was lucky therefore, that my first three films back were by interesting and visionary women filmmakers, veteran and newcomer alike, because their strengths and compelling subjects immediately brought me back into festival life.

The Film Library for Industry reps is one of the many great assets of having that pass. Films that fall afoul of scheduling can be screened in this small narrow dark room, provided you book ahead. In past years, I have had important personal moments this way: most memorably, the first time I saw Susanne Bier's After the Wedding. Though some of my most sought after titles were not available in the library (like Susanne Bier's latest film, Love is All You Need), last Saturday afternoon, with a gap of time suddenly available, I was happy to settle for Watchtower, Pelin Esmer's fable-like tale of a guard and a coach hostess whose fates entwine with coincidence while both are fleeing from their own secrets.

Esmer surrounds both characters with a mystery that protects them from being too easily understood. The event that binds them ultimately is one of very beautifully constructed crossroads: (without giving it all away), the very thing which the young hostess wants to be rid of, is that which the guard wants to prevent her from losing. The young woman lives a life that seems modern - she is making her own income and living independently. But it soon becomes clear that her freedom is in fact her prison: escaping an unwanted reality, she tries to live out her very private predicament under the constant supervisory world of men, who do not hesitate to comment on her every move.

Therefore, the guard's unfaltering willingness to put himself on the line to assist her arrives as a kind of salvo for the audience, even if we know he is haunted by his own demons. His perserverence in caring for her is also respectful - even when she appears to be indifferent he seems to understand her deeper motivations. His generosity eventually allows both of them some moments of redemption from past tragedies.

I also enjoyed the mist-enshrouded tower of the guard, and its views over a smoky blue forested part of Turkey I would not have known existed.


Barbara Sukowa in Margarethe von Trotta's Hannah Arendt
Margarethe von Trotta has dedicated her life to illuminating the stories of women, both fictional and real. Her films about Rosa Luxemburg (Rosa Luxemburg) and Hildegarde von Bingen (Vision) are at opposite ends of my TIFF 30 year range of experience: I think it was Rosa Luxembourg that first introduced me to von Trotta in the mid-80s and I have followed her ever since. This year von Trotta is back with a biopic of the great German-American political theorist Hannah Arendt, in the film with that title.

Hannah Arendt attempts to be a film entirely about thought --- a brave undertaking in a visual medium. Arendt's life would easily fill out a mini-series: her early relationship with the German philosopher Heidegger alone could be three or four segments. Because she is focussed on Arendt's intellectual achievement, Von Trotta chooses instead to drop us into the American experience of Arendt in the post-war era, picking up her story at the time that Arendt served as a correspondent for The New Yorker magazine to cover the trial in Jerusalem of Adolf Eichmann. The famous Nazi war criminal had helped to design and administrate the "Final Solution". The movie covers only the events of the trial in 1961, but there are several brief flashbacks to earlier eras.

Janet McTeer as Mary McCarthy in Hannah Arendt
Several Americans become important in the drama. Nicholas Woodeson plays William Shawn, the then editor of The New Yorker who tries to warn Arendt about the controversy that is coming, and Janet McTeer is back as the American writer Mary McCarthy - her bearing and self-possession reminding me a great deal of her performance as Gertrude Lawrence in the BBC series Daphne. Her defense of Arendt to a group of Princeton intellectuals in a late scene nearly steals the film. She is always a breath of fresh air because she is able to inject humour into what she does, in the same way that Allison Janney does (who would also have been good in this role - much as I adore McTeer and appreciate Woodeson, why are Brits being cast as Americans?). McCarthy's exchanges of "looks" with Arendt over gossip-intrigue among husbands and friends, convey a lovely sense of the intimacy between these two famous friends, where the screenplay otherwise did not have much time for it.

Barbara Sukowa is wonderful as Arendt, particularly in a climax scene in which she finally breaks her silence and defends her New Yorker articles by explaining more fully what it means for evil to be 'banal'. The greatest atrocities are committed by those who have abdicated their 'personhood' in order to submit to the machine they are cogs in, she tells us. For Arendt, the abdication of personal responsibility and culpability for individual acts, as they participate in a whole, is more inherently demonic than being the architect of these same plans. In this same scene, a student asks her why she describes Eichmann as having committed crimes "against humanity" and not just "against the Jews". Arendt's response, that a crime against a Jew is significant as a crime against humanity, allows the film to exonerate her, and locate her safely back in the intellectual realm, but it doesn't resolve the dilemma of the controversy. Her quest for people to understand "how profoundly important it is to ask these questions" about the nature of evil, finally emerges here, just as a film about thought should: its intellectual premise gathers shape and form and is born in the moment of her delivery. As a result, the critical scene becomes the arrival of the theory, rather than simply a scene in which she vindicates herself against her critics. This kind of subtle control is what makes von Trotta such a fine dramatist, even if her visual style lacks any distinguishing and memorable characteristics. German filmmakers develop a premise better than any other in Europe - and we are carried along in their capable thinking.


Evelyne Brochu as Chloé (left) in Anaïs Barbeau-Lavalette's Inch'Allah
There was much I was excited about in anticipating Anaïs Barbeau-Lavalette's Inch'Allah. One of a number of films this year looking at the Arab Palestinian experience, Inch'Allah works hard to represent the human beings on both sides of the West Bank wall in complexly human light. But there is no question where its sympathies lie. The film's main protagonist Chloé, a Montreal physician, lives in an unnamed part of Israel, but works in the clinic of an unnamed community on the Palestinian side. The film chooses to focus on Chloé's foreign presence amid the conflict, and her resulting naivete becomes the underlying problem and danger of the film. In this way, Barbeau-Lavalette draws us into the web of thinking we know what is going on, and discovering that we don't.

Although I was impressed by how well the film depicted life on both sides of the 'wall'; a problem with the screenplay is that we are not able to see the final impact of her experiences on Chloé. Things start out well: as she begins to take action and make her sympathies and affinities clear, we see how she lacks any real agency within that decision. She is left devastated by the events she has witnessed, and increasingly radicalized, but ultimately the movie is inconclusive about how she is changed. By contrast, in very simply drawn lines and scenes, the film offers very sympathetic and moving portraits of the two young women who occupy Chloé's attention at home and at work: a young female Israeli solider named Ava (Sivan Levy) who hates her job and is occasionally won over by Chloé's desire to build bridges, and a pregnant Palestinian woman named Rand (Sabrina Ouazani) whose husband awaits sentencing and whose unborn child lives in constant danger of ever making it safely into the world. 

The bravery of Inch'Allah comes in its desire to show a wide-range of Palestinian and Israeli personality and experience. Radicals and activists draw Chloé in and there are no clear villains or heros. Having witnessed the death of a boy who attacks an Israeli boundary patrol jeep, Chloé is hardened, but Barbeau-Lavalette prevents us from easy sympathies when the same group of children are seen taunting the pregnant Rand with jeers about her losses. The film seems to be saying there is no winner here, no clear moral absolute, other than the reality that oppression leads to oppression. These are ways that the film shows real strength - by asking us to see the human beings within the conflict, while making clear the central imabalance of power.

A plot element at the very end of Inch'Allah lead me to believe that something is happening which does not actually turn out to be true. Rather than serving as a 'twist' story element, it is in fact an ambiguous problem that takes some of the dramatic punch out of the film's forceful ending. My seatmates in the screening I attended joined me in scratching our heads afterward. "Was she carrying something?", we asked each other. The uncertainty is important because the final action of the screenplay is in the hands of someone other than our heroine. That is a good thing - because when I thought that they were taking Chloé herself to a radical action, I was certain I was the watching the screenplay derail in front of me. But I believe the accidental ambiguity about an interesting choice, also cost the film its due impact.

Inch'Allah is well worth seeing, despite its unevenness. The last shot, of a child whose well-being has been cast into the shadow for much of the film, shows him making a hole in the wall and telling us what he sees. He does so beneath the "Shift+Control+Delete" graffitti (the image is shown in an earlier preview post below), and we are asked to look with him, into a future of hope. The choice reminded me greatly of Banksy's famous painting on the West Bank wall, in which two children are playing with paints and create an image of a wall broken, on the other side of which is paradise. Safi (this child)'s vision is simpler: "a tree, and then another tree above it", leaving us to wonder, who those trees are.

More films by women coming! 

Friday, September 07, 2012

TIFF12 first review: Laurence Anyways

Suzanne Clément, Melvil Poupaud and Xavier Dolan at Cannes
Laurence Anyways is the story of a man who wants to continue a life-long committed soulmate relationship to a woman, while embarking on gender reassignment to become a woman also. It is about love that endures and also fails, even while the lovers cannot expunge each other from the soul. And I'm not sure which is more astonishing: the fact that at age 23, Québecois filmmaker Xavier Dolan has already made a third fine film, or that at age 23, he has already understood so much, and with such maturity, about the complexity of human relationships.

I wasn't sure at the start. Laurence Anyways begins with intellectual exercise: lovers entwined on a bed, and in a car, reciting out loud the things that 'limit our pleasure'. The items are all expressions of banality that derive from a culture too invested in surface living; by making their list, Laurence (Melvil Poupaud) and Fréderique or Fred (Suzanne Clément) keep themselves on the outside of banality; they are self-imposed outcasts of the kind of day-to-day clutter that make life "routine". They are passionate and devoted to each other, despite that the film's first dramatic turning point - the revelation of gender identity - happens in that most drôle location of romantic thrill-seekers - the car wash. It took me a long while to try to figure out whether Dolan was trying to establish his lovers, tongue-in-cheek, as a kitsch counterpoint to the 'banal' normal lives of the people around them, or whether his characters were so invested in their drama that they failed to see how it had developed its own banality.

Luckily, it was neither. And I do mean luckily. Because this film teeters through sections of its two hours and 40 minutes perilously near to being a film which is parodying itself. But perhaps its ultimate brilliance, is that the soulfulness of its characters, their relentless generosity (even while they are unkind to others), the depth of their passionate longing for each other and the inevitability of their fate all make their way through the landscape(s) of cultural dissipation (whether that is colourless suburban Québec, or electro-rocking nightclub-pinks-and-greys flickering Montréal) tied by a love that won't die.

What I loved about this film is its relentless heart. Love pulsates without sexuality: it is a really remarkable thing that a film about the sexually-obssessed 80s and 90s that involves transgendered identity and the sexual morality of a me-generation - does not ever once give us real sex. It is one of the great strengths of Laurence Anyways.  Dolan wants us to be absolutely clear that this is about love, about two people who believed their generation could "handle this", the 'this' being a self-reinvention that was not about the outward shows of protest that characterize the "look" of the students in the corridors of the school where Laurence teaches, who watch her arrive on her first open day as a woman. The punk make-up and torn jackets and studded faces of those staring at her, are a fantastic counterpoint to the otherwise elegant and tasteful Laurence, in the slow-motion parade of reactions. We are absolutely meant to wonder, who is in identity crisis?

The two central performances are very moving. A moment I will take away from this festival, already, with attachment, is an image of her sitting on a bathroom floor, smiling with pride and affection, as Laurence applies makeup for the very first time. Her agonized journey is one that almost upstages Laurence's (and that may be true also of performance), which I found a fault of the film until I realized that the film is not really about Laurence by herself. It is entirely about Laurence in relation to her great love.

The lovers part. The lovers are then reunited by art. By the art of Laurence. In their reunion come betrayals of others. And then, in the smaller, but unexpectedly profound betrayals of each other, there is the realization of what has actually been sacrificed so that one of them could find peace. But it's okay. In a strange way, their's is a happy ending. And you sense, as the credits roll, that the story isn't done even so.

A word about style. Comparisons have been made of Dolan to Almodovar: both are gay filmmakers, both have a style that embraces larger-than-life emotion. At the moment, Almodovar has more storytelling craft, a sharper eye for how to keep the entire emotional line coherent. But Dolan has a nuancing of emotion that I have not seen in Almodovar. The quivering lip of Fred is given its full edit, the time it takes Laurence to experience fully that first moment as a woman in her classroom, is given the rich long sustained breath it deserves - instead of just being a story beat. We are held in it to the point of excruciating waiting -- for what will happen. And that's how it should be. It may be to his credit that Dolan takes too long with the beats of characters: frankly if a filmmaker is going to err one way or the other, I'd much prefer them to err on this side. And yet the sharp editing of the afore-mentioned car wash moment, contrasted with a long, langorous shot of Fred indulging her own desire for sexual and gender expression at a ball later in the film, made absolutely clear to me that Dolan knows how much time to spend with characters, in the right moments, so that we truly feel the dilemma. He can snap the car-wash scene at its climax into a shot of Fred walking down the street away from it and be right on top of 'story'. But I think he just prefers to soak in the emotional realities and ride them for all they are worth. Go for it, I say. As a result, we are also shown a much more genuine and true (I imagine) profile of the process of gender reassignment, which in this film happens over ten years. The earliest scenes of Laurence as a woman show her head bare in the cut she had worn as a man. We are not ever meant to think of this as an overnight transition - and with that comes the learning realisation that the truth is the truth, at every single moment and every stage of that transformation.

Laurence Anyways is sooo worth seeing no matter how it impacts you. So much of the mise en scène is absolutely gorgeous. The first shots of a transformed Laurence emerging out of mist and fog are kitschy-poetic, but also serene. There is in the end, a strange serenity to Laurence Anyways. We get so inside the characters that we ultimately absorb and do not care about the particulars of the world they are moving through, including the strange coldness, melting like the ice of the Isle of Black that they escape to, that can be found in the mother (played by Nathalie Baye) and Fred's sister (Monia Chokri) --- except to notice when it is warm or cold. We get drawn into each of these sad and lost characters who surround the lovers and recognize people we have known, or even ourselves. They are indeed banal, but Laurence and Fred can't help but ultimately redeem them.

Monday, September 03, 2012

TIFF12 - The Final Short List

Carlos Reygadas' Post Tenebras Lux has already brought controversy
in its Cannes screenings. Someone who has seen it told me
recently that it is both deeply poetic and moving and also
terrifying. Reygadas is pushing boundaries in ways that are
about exploring meaning in a variety of contexts.
I hope so much I get to see this.
With three days to go before the games begin, I am finding myself in that place of anticipation and uncertainty: with so many excellent options, how to weed out and fix on the 30 or so I may actually hope to see? The list of 80 + films that I previewed in the posts below, had asterisks indicating those I thought would already push through to a second round but even these have had to be refined. My U of T class will also be seeing films together, and the requirements of that course had to factor into the mix as well.

Li Ruijun's Fly With the Crane has come way up my list, as I consider
the films I want most to see. The premise of a man reflecting on his
own death and trying to reconcile himself to cremation offers the
promise of depth and heart, while the presence of the children may
present humour and lightness also. Ruijun's Summer Solstice was also
memorable from years past.  
Teaching schedules have imposed their way on to the map - and as a result one of my most prized Top Seeds, The Hunt, may go down in flames to scheduling. Both public screenings are off-sale now, and the only P & I screening for the film happens exactly when I must be in class teaching! I may stand in line on the Monday night however, to try to get in Rush to a public screening. This is how it goes: all's fair in love, war and TIFF random scheduling. (And sadly, three of my most sought after films in the whole of the festival are screened at exactly the same time on the first Thursday - Anna Karenina, The Hunt and Amour -- Thus all three go down in flames for me because no secondary P&I screening is being offered, and all three are already Off Sale in the public screenings. Note to self: next year get the P & I pass with the Public tickets attached to it!)

Mary Margaret O' Hara plays a tourist in Austria to attend to a
sick friend, who takes solace in the Kunsthistorische Museum in
Vienna in Museum Hours. There she finds friendship with a guard played
by Bobby Sommer.  I have never seen the work of Jem Cohen but am
drawn to what I've now read about his unusual style. This has become
a must-see for me now.
For fuller descriptions, please see the posts below where I have described each of these films in greater detail. Here I am just listing them again, refined to the 30 odd films I will put priority on. (Again, alphabetically.)

All that You Possess
Amour (Pub screening rush)
Anna Karenina (Pub screening rush)
Beyond the Hills
Clandestine Childhood
(The) Deep
Fill the Void
Fly With the Crane
Hannah Arendt
I was already strongly inclined to see Annemarie Jacir's When I Saw You
but the trailer for the film has really excited me.  
(The) Hunt (Pub Screening Rush)
The Impossible
Late Quartet
Laurence Anyways
Love is all You Need
Mekong Hotel
Midnight's Children
Museum Hours
Post Tenebras Lux
Rhino Season
Royal Affair
Ben Affleck and Rachel McAdams are just two reasons why
To the Wonder is a top seed. The first and main reason is because
it is incredible that after a masterpiece like Tree of Life, Malick is
already giving us another film. These feasts usually come every six
years, not within 12 months of each other.  Can't wait.
Satellite Boy
To the Wonder
Wavelengths 1
Wavelengths 4
When I Saw You
White Elephant