Friday, September 06, 2013

TIFF13 First Reviews!: Manakamana, Story of Children and Film; Blue is the Warmest Color; Le Démantèlement

Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux in Abdellatif Kechiche's Blue is the Warmest Color
Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velese's Manakamana
It felt spiritually luxurious (an oxymoron?) to start my TIFF 13 with Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velese's beautiful Manakamana, shot entirely on the cable cars that bring pilgrims to the Manakamana Temple in Nepal. The filmmakers were also working with the coincidence that the length of time it takes to run a full magazine of 16mm film is almost exactly the same as the time it takes to ride to the temple, in one direction. Although partly funded by the Harvard Sensory Ethnography Lab, Stephanie Spray has spent many years making films in Nepal, which allowed her to 'cast' people in this documentary whom she knew. The result is a vivid portrait of eleven groups of people as they ride upward (and then downward) coming to and from a spiritual encounter. There also animals on the ride: the goddess Manakamana demands animal sacrifice but although the practice has now been outlawed at the temple, animals find their way on to the cars. The real time accompaniment of the camera became quickly transporting, as the lush green hills of Nepal floated beneath the subjects. I was transfixed and could have watched this film all day. Coming out and adjusting my eyes to the bustling chaos of King Street, I had the feeling of fulfilment that every year I hope for somewhere along the line of the festival -- and here it was after the first film! I almost didn't need to see another one. But of course I did! (I hope to write a much fuller, much more reflective piece on Manakamana at a later time.)

Shinji Somai's Moving, one of the many films discussed in
Mark Cousins' S
tory of Children and Film 
My next film was Mark Cousins' Story of Children and Film. From the Irishman who gave us the omnibus Story of Film two years ago, this follow-up piece which profiles the way children have appeared on the silver screen was remarkable but not quite as fully formed as the other work. Providing his own narration, Cousins' voice is affable and feels conversational, like sitting with someone at their computer console as they show you favourite clips. But this very quality can also limit the film. Cousins frames the discussion around footage of his own niece and nephew who provide links to the film's themes that at times felt forced. He seems to have understood this himself, for the movie departs half way through to a trip to Wales, from where the rest of its thematic branches are investigated - but without children - in a way that was never quite convincing. No matter. Cousins' decision to break up his discussion into various moods and child states-of-being was brilliant and provided nice links among the chosen selections themselves. Also, I think of myself as someone who has followed closely children in the cinema, but I am indebted to Cousins for introducing me to at least a dozen films I did not know and now want to see badly. Among those I did know, I was thrilled to see Shinji Somei's Moving, excerpted several times throughout the documentary. I still remember vividly first seeing the film at TIFF in the 90s.

Blue is the Warmest Colour was a high seed for me coming into this year's fest. Fresh from Cannes and its Palme d'Or win, the screening of the film happened on a day when many media were running a story quoting the actresses about how difficult it was to make. (Not sure why these articles are circulating now - and hard to tell if they are based on contemporary interviews or those made at Cannes.) It doesn't matter. Whether it is pornographic or not, excessive or not, the controversy around this film cannot obscure its central beauty: this is a very deeply felt, caring and loving profile of what it is to be in a new passionate relationship. Both Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux give remarkably nuanced performances, but the film unmistakeably belongs to Exarchopoulos; her appearance in every single scene of a three hour film holds us without any gaps - she is incredible. My story editor brain wanted to intervene as I saw the film making its narrative twists and turns but most of my notes are incidentals about continuity and motivation. Ultimately, the film is about passion: the erratic and impulsive decisions that we make when we are deep in love. The much-discussed love scenes, with their graphic sexuality, rang true for me and did not raise any concerns about exploitation. I found the film's depiction of relationship on the whole quite loving. If the director appears to be a bit infatuated with his leading lady... well, it's not the first time. I spent part of my summer watching Godard films, which star his muse Anna Karina. And so it goes...

I was very sad that I had to miss the first 40 minutes of Sébastian Pilote's Le Démantèlement, about a man who decides to dismantle his sheep farm in rural Québec in order to give financial support to a daughter who is in need. The last hour of the film that I did see was very compelling. Gabriel Arcand does a wonderful job as Gaby, a man walking the line between a resolute decision, profound losses, and bumbling and awkward relationships with everyone in his life, from his friend who desperately tries to talk him out of it, to his other daughter and his ex-wife. A conversation late in the film with his second daughter helps us to come to terms with his decision; it is a critical scene in a beautifully structured screenplay. Supported by great old favourites of Québecois cinema like Lucie Laurier, Gilles Renaud and Johanne-Marie Tremblay, along with newcomer rising star Sophie Desmarais (who is also appearing in Sarah Prefers to Run) this is a beautiful ensemble piece, even though the main character spends most of his screen time alone. Agata Smoluch del Sorbo's programme note describes the film as channeling the spirit of Michel Brault and Claude Jutra and she is right. Animals also run as quiet and powerless partners to Gaby's decision-making. Animals were also present significantly in Manakamana, and in both films offered a reflection of the harsh realities of life, while also being silent witnesses of important spiritual transitions. 

A great first day.
Gabriel Arcand in Sébastien Pilote's Le Démantèlement

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