Sunday, August 03, 2014

TIFF14: A Feast of Women Filmmakers

Tang Wei stars as Xiao Hong in
Ann Hui's The Golden Era
*Update: August 28th. Since this blog was first published on the 14th, many many other exciting films by women have been announced, including new works by Ruba Nadda, Pascale Ferran, Mélanie Laurent, Sophie Barthes, Anne Fontaine, Sarah Leonor, Maya Forbes, Shonali Bose, Laura Amelia Guzmán, Tala Hadid, Debbie Tucker Green, Suha Arraf, Naomi Kawasi, Rakhshan Banietemad, Alanis Obomsawin and Shira Piven. Please see the 80 Films to watch out for at TIFF blog posts for these amazing additions. TIFF is set to exhibit some of the best women filmmakers working today at this year's fest. 

Sometimes I feel as if I am still recovering from Mia Hansen-Løve's exquisitely nuanced Le père de mes enfants, which I reviewed when I first saw it at TIFF several years ago. Since I am increasingly drawn to films that dwell with characters as much as tell their stories, this beautifully observed chronicle of a French art house film producer's demise and the continuation of his legacy by his wife offered a structure that defied what people like me are supposed to teach, with a climactic plot point coming in the middle of the film and the entire second half passed in resolution. This is because the film is told primarily from its emotional narrative: following first the increasing despair of a man swallowed up by debt and then observing the grief-stricken determination of a woman to finish his projects. The tragedies are not narrative, they are relational, and Hansen-Løve has proven herself to be extraordinarily adept at portraying these states of being. In Goodbye First Love, the almost clichéd subject matter was unravelled by her into a series of painfully vivid vignettes of waiting, wanting, suffering and recovering.

Brady Corbet and Greta Gerwig in
Mia Hansen-Løve's Eden
Her newest film, 
Eden stars Greta Gerwig and Brady Corbet as lovers invested in the meteoric rise of French electronic music in the 90s. Hansen-Løve shot the film in France but also in New York, continuing a trend of filmmakers working internationally (which I critically consider in its Canadian contexts in a separate blog post. All but one of the women profiled here shot outside their native land). She co-wrote the script with her brother Sven who worked as a Parisian DJ during the period being chronicled in the film. The story focuses mostly on Paul, the DJ, and the impact on him of huge success.

Ben Kingsley and Patricia Clarkson in
Isabel Coixet's Learning to Drive
Also shot in New York is Catalan director Isabel Coixet's Learning to Drive. Coixet made her 2013 adaptation of the Cathy MacPhail novel Another Me in that city and continues to work internationally in 2014, having shot Nobody Wants the Night in Norway with Willem Defoe and Juliette Binoche. Learning to Drive stars Patricia Clarkson as a self-absorbed book critic who takes up driving lessons in the aftermath of a failed relationship. Her instructor is a Sikh man living in Queens (played by Ben Kingsley) who is also recovering from marriage problems. I have high hopes here. Coixet's feminist leanings will be upheld by the source material - Katha Pollitt's memoir/essay of the same name - but I am looking forward most of all to seeing Clarkson in a starring role directed by a woman - as it doesn't happen often, and that combination worked so well in Ruba Nadda's beautiful and affecting Cairo Time.

In 1990 I remember seeing at TIFF (or the Festival of Festivals as it was known then) a very deeply moving film by Ann Hui called Song of the Exile, about a Hong Kong woman reconciling her relationship with her Japanese mother - a tale that was autobiographical. It was one of the first films to awaken me to Asian cinema and to the changes of pace and energy one could experience there. I went on to faithfully follow her work in a career that has been prolific and included Summer Snow and the more recent Night and Fog. I am so excited that Hui is bringing The Golden Era (pictured at top) to TIFF straight from Venice where it will first show. The film is a biopic of the 20th century female Chinese novelist Xiao Hong (The Field of Life and Death) who wrote brave books that chronicled the suffering of women in Chinese society, particularly under Japanese occupation. A Chinese trailer is available but none yet with English subs. 

Jessica Chastain and Colin Farrell in
Liv Ullman's adaptation of August Strindberg's
Miss Julie
Liv Ullman. She was a goddess of my teenaged years. Her work with Ingmar Bergman actually introduced me and my friends to Bergman not the other way round. That gorgeous luminescent face at once gentle and profound came to us first in Cries and Whispers when we were barely teenagers and then we followed her into Scenes from a Marriage, Face to Face and backtracking to meditate on the intense intricacies of Persona. Her work as a director was less easy to access in the days before downloading, streaming and vibrantly rich film library collections. How wonderful then that TIFF is bringing Ullman's most recently directed film, an adaptation of August Strindberg's Miss Julie. There have been a number of fine film adaptations of the classic play but this one will star Jessica Chastain, Colin Farrell and Samantha Morton. The play can lend itself to the histrionic in less deft hands, but I am hopeful for Ullman's sense of restraint offering a new perspective to the story of the relationship of a wealthy woman and a valet.

The cast of Lone Scherfig's The Riot Club
In the early 2000s, I had the great pleasure of interviewing Danish filmmaker Lone Scherfig, for a now defunct (but pioneering in its time) online filmschool and magazine called Scherfig was promoting Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself, a gently funny story of Scottish brothers whose roles in each other's lives sadly and quietly reverse as they face unexpected life events. I had first come to Scherfig through Italian for Beginners, about a small village in Denmark and the interweaving of the lives of townsfolk who've signed up to learn Italian. Scherfig was lovely and very genuinely forthcoming on that day, sitting on the patio of the Hotel InterContinental on Bloor Street, her mild manner and voice punctuated frequently by an electric smile. I have watched her rise with such pleasure, including her interesting collaboration with UK artists and her more recent crossover hit An Education. This year she brings to TIFF another film about learning experiences, The Riot Clubabout two men who are kidnapped into an exclusive club at Oxford and find themselves falling headlong into the moral dilemmas of the rich and famous. The film will premiere here as a Gala.

Lykke May Andersen and
Nikolaj Lie Kaas in Susanne Bier's 
A Second Chance
And speaking of Danes, I am always glad when I see that the newest film by Susanne Bier has made it on to the roster of films announced. I first found Bier in an Industry video library screening room in 2006: unable to view After the Wedding at a cinema, I had taken it out in curiosity. I was absolutely smitten and that film remains in my top three movies of all time. Now Oscar-winning (for 2010's In A Better World), Bier has only improved over time. Her return to making comedy with 2012's Love is All You Need starring Trine Dyrholm and Pierce Brosnan was somewhat disappointing and lite for her, but enjoyable enough. This year she takes on the thriller genre with A Second Chance featuring Game of Thrones star Nikolaj Coster-Waldau. The film marks the continuation of a long collaboration with screenwriter Anders Thomas Jensen and editor Pernille Bech Christiansen and tells the story of a veteran police officer whose decision to take over the life of a child has profound implications for his own marriage and the baby's birth family. Bier has also made another film since Love - which I'm hoping may also turn up: Serena, starring Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper. I thought for sure we'd see that one as a Gala but it may not be ready yet or was scooped by another festival. We'll see!

In addition, I have already written about my interest and excitement in two films by women in the TIFF Docs programme: Tamara Erde's This Is My Land and Laura Nix (in partnership with The Yes Men)'s The Yes Men Are Revolting. The great programmer Kay Armatage, who introduced a specifically feminist vibe into this festival is greatly missed by me but her legacy lives on in spirit. I will not be surprised if I see her go by at any of these screenings. 

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