Wednesday, December 30, 2015

'Flung out of Space': Todd Haynes' Carol (Review)

Carol refers to Therese in the movie as 'my angel, flung out of space'.
But it is the film itself which seems to float in a liminal place.
[Note: this review includes some direct and implied spoilers. Italicized words that aren't movie titles, are linked to outside sites.]

Ever since I first stumbled upon news of Carol some time last winter, I have been sort of leaning toward it in a posture of waiting. I joined the fan pages (Carol has one of the best-maintained and most creative fan pages of any movie I've seen). I followed every clip or behind-scenes mini doc that turned up on youtube, including those blurry heartfelt but roughly assembled tributes by fans overusing second or third generation bootlegged footage, while a late 40s ballad croons. The list of these 40s and 50s standards that run in the background of the movie was released early on and I bought each tune separately, compiling my own soundtrack and putting it on in my car, learning all the songs; wonderful songs by Billie Holiday and Helen Foster and Jo Stafford. I took away with me on summer holiday The Price of Salt, the Patricia Highsmith novel she wrote as Claire Morgan, on which the movie is based. Rereading it brought back the youthful memories of the first time that story came into my life and the people associated with that. In May, I waited on Twitter for the first Cannes reviews to drift in. Traveling that day, I got out of the car and stood by a field with my phone at the exact hour that I knew the first press screening came down. Refreshing my feed, I waited, while a cow stared. Then the accolades started to come: 140 character rhapsodic bleats, for me like the first transmissions of men on the moon. When it didn't come to TIFF, I observed longingly as it played through literally every other fall festival on two continents. And then, in late December, it finally arrived in Toronto where I have now seen it. Twice.

And although I have always been predisposed to love it, I had a sense of art entering the veins and swimming upstream. I had that experience in 1993 when I first saw Kieslowski's Three Colours: Blue. I had it in 2011 with Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life. And now I've had it again.

One of the best B-rolls from any movie any time, underscores the
low-budget simplicity of the filmmaking. Go here to see the video.
This film has already inspired some of the finest writing about film that has happened this year and also some of the dreamiest. Manohla Dargis in the New York Times. Justin Chang in Variety. Describing the impact of Carol (Cate Blanchett) on Therese (Rooney Mara) in their first meeting over a Christmas department store counter in 1950s New York, Village Voice critic Stephanie Zecharek writes, "When Carol drifts into view, she's like a waft of perfume, with a woman attached." I admire the opening paragraph of Darghis' review in which she places the narrative convention-breaking mutual attraction among the two women, into a variety of artistically opposing trends, from the literary to the art historical. Chang's opening paragraph, also describing in detail the first encounter of the two women, is equally emotionally evocative. (But read to the end of both reviews - they're so well written!) Nor have the poetic accolades been reserved to critics. In awarding the astonishing work of cinematographer Ed Lachman (whose decision to shoot in Super 16mm film is a rare gift to us as an audience), the Camerimage Film Festival in Poland named the movie's "aristocratic grace and elegance." Whether it's in Twitter bleats, or long rhapsodic blog posts like this one, everyone who sees this film feels compelled to write about it.

Haynes has said that he was influenced in his aesthetic for Carol
by American 50s photographer Saul Leiter. On the left, an untitled
image for Harper's Bazzar by Saul Leiter. On the right, Carol
seen inside a cab, in the movie Carol.
Many of them want to reach first of all for the obvious comparison to Todd Haynes' earlier film Far From Heaven. I did this too, in my first post on Facebook back in May before I had seen it, because at a glance and without knowing, that's what you think you're going to get. But it doesn't actually work - that comparison. (As the director has tried to say a number of times, including in this NYFF onstage interview.) What the two movies have in common is their social context - the 1950s, but that's it. Far From Heaven was an homage to the late 50's Douglas Sirk robustly colourful dramas of that era. By contrast, inspiration is actually owed in Carol to the early 50s/late 40s gritty landscapes and portraits of the photographers of the post-war period. Haynes has said that he looked at the work of Saul Leiter, and yes! this is exactly what we see - both the earlier painter version of Leiter and the later fashion photographer version. (Here is a good brief primer on Leiter.)

The use of colour in some scenes evokes the colour
work of photographer Helen Levitt and the  

late period of Vivian Maier.
The Leiter-style view of city streets through cab and building windows is very evident in influence of a number of Carol scenes in which we see events almost voyeuristically through vehicle windows or the windows of restaurants. In one of the more idyllically happier scenes when they are on the road together, the couple is seated near a diner window as Carol opens a gift. Here we are looking the other direction, out through an unusually bright and vivid window onto a nameless street, even as Therese tells us that she could get used to having a city entirely to herself. In a different scene, the single flash of red colour on a brown street shot from above, singles Carol out of the drab array of New York sidewalk life in the style of Helen Levitt or the very first colour work (as far as we know) of Vivian Maier.

And yet somehow the movie avoids feeling like a pastiche, a survey of art styles. Here credit goes to Production Designer Judy Becker and Costume Designer Sandy Powell. Holy smoke curling gently from a lit cigarette. It is hard to imagine a more compatibly unified design sensibility. While the sets are muted in a late 40s post-war grey-brown, so real that you feel you can reach out and touch the steel leg of the motel breakfast table, the contrasting energy of Carol's chic ensembles allows a feeling of relief and animation, even while the richer woman's wardrobe is elegantly reserved. The fur coat is the only opulent moment and even the sandy colour here is perfect. Moving among odd looking dolls at the toy department where Therese works, Carol is indeed like a waft of perfume with a woman attached.

Later in a dialogueless scene where Therese photographs Carol buying a Christmas tree, Carter Burwell's haunting Philip Glass-like score emotionally details a moment when Carol, adjusting her fur coat around her, momentarily sees Therese photographing her. What Manohla Dargis calls the 'erotic power of the gaze', is plainly offered here from one woman to another and without much awareness on the part of the gaze-er.

Blanchett's nuanced performance is measured, rather than mannered, a very delicate thing to accomplish in a period-drenched movie like this one and a choice few other actors would be capable of. Her performance is so nuanced and brilliantly layered that many might miss these subtleties, looking for more overt signs of 'acting'. Or they might mistake her stylized choices of character behaviour for something contrived. But Blanchett has always had the extraordinary capacity to hold contrasting styles in one performance and orchestrate them powerfully. I remember seeing her in a Sydney Theatre Company (at BAM) performance of Hedda Gabler near-exactly ten years ago in which she held both the manipulative and vulnerable sides of the brittle title character in an equally firm grasp. I wrote about her capacity for this kind of brilliance, even then.

She is alternately assured and uncertain, in a way that makes clear how the era required one to mask the other. Carol's dilemma brings her slowly to a very fragile place - there are so many times in this performance where my heart breaks for her, and they are mostly outside of the 'big' scenes. One moment occurs when she is finally reunited with her daughter and cries out in relief and a kind of desperate joy. But Blanchett also finds complex grade even in the seduction where Carol is feeling a bit more in control. Here, the moments of pleasure, excitement and uncertainty happen almost contrapuntally to her gestures of calculation. I think of the contrast, for instance, of her juggling the phone while cooking, unquestionably pleased that the employee who sent the gloves is Therese and hurrying her into the promise of a lunch date. Then there is the lunch date itself where the character wants to charm - so the actor has chosen the stylized gestures. In a moment when Therese says she is sorry about Carol's divorce, Carol replies "don't be" with six subtextual lines of dialogue running underneath the only two spoken words. This is vintage Blanchett, and part of what makes this performance one of her very finest ever. Carol is barely holding her life's joys and sorrows together but is driven forward uncontrollably into them, in a way that led many married lesbians of this era to very dark and depressed states of mind. (Biographies of Highsmith make clear the toll of double life: some of the women the writer was associated with or had as lovers, ended their lives in suicide, including the woman whom Highsmith encountered in a department store and who inspired the book -- though they never actually knew each other. For years, lesbian love stories of this era ended with a character killing themselves -- think The Children's Hour. The Price of Salt was a tremendous departure from this for its time.) In a moment when Therese haltingly says over the phone to Carol that she would like to "ask you things, but I'm not sure you want that", Blanchett's hunch over the receiver on her end is almost agonizing as she murmurs back, "ask me things. Please." (See clip above left.) The emotional map in both characters is out of the darkness of clandestine feelings or relationships and into the light of love.

Rooney Mara's natural innocence as Therese moves in the context of
the porcelain dolls she half-heartedly sells in the film's opening scene.
Mara's performance too, is a startlingly nuanced and carefully planned creation, from its ingenue and childlike beginnings to its sophisticated endings. The story is theoretically Therese's but Haynes' decision to slowly change the point of view works brilliantly to unite them around a central moment of decision. In addition to her own beautiful hesitations and seemingly effortless naturalism with the character, Mara knows how to balance the scenes with Blanchett, how to both accompany, complement and contradict her co-star's energy, the way a fine pianist supports a virtuoso soloist. And yet, within her own robust moments, she fills the screen. There are many times when Therese simply gazes at Carol in wonder, unable to quite comprehend her beauty and/or transfixed by it. She is a beautifully written character and Mara doesn't miss a beat of what's been given to her. One detail picked up from the book is Therese's desire to take care of Carol which is not something she can really offer her lover at this time. Each time she expresses the wish to 'do something' for Carol in a moment of crisis it is wholly from the heart, making Carol's clearly drawn lines in the sand between their relationship and the horror with with her husband's legal manoeuverings all the more heartbreaking. Yet Mara seems to understand that Therese is finding herself through these moments of wanting to take care of Carol. They come spontaneously and abundantly, the exact reverse of her behaviour with Richard her boyfriend.

The extraordinary gaze each gives the other in the final moment of the film is one of the most love-drenched and also soberest endings to a romantic movie ever. It is exactly the moment of arrival into their own space. In the goodbye letter she had written earlier, Carol even then looks ahead to some unknown moment in time of reunion. "I want you to imagine me there to greet you like the morning sky, our lives stretched out ahead of us, a perpetual sunrise." By the time that possibility actually arrives, we the audience have completely forgotten that she had dared to dream of it. But Therese has not. Mara's moment of the character making that breathstealing walk in the restaurant is a way of showing us that Therese has hung on those lines of Carol's, even as she has in all outward appearances, let go of her.
 And just as Kristen Stewart surprised us in Clouds of Sils Maria, Mara, who has a much longer track record of impressive performances, still surprises us in Carol. (Interesting, too, that both these performances come as the young actors are playing ordinary young women, watched and loved by older more famous female actors playing established doyennes.)

The sense of modulation and contrast is the heartbeat of Carol. Not just in the intimacy of the women but in the larger landscape on which they are set down, like the human-behaving dolls that line the counters of Frankenberg's. Every good relationship drama should have a central contrasting energy. A vibrating from one thing to another. In Carol, it is as if the era is moving along one trajectory, and the relationship along another and they are forced to intersect not just by the oppressive nature of a society's understanding of morality, but by the behaviour of people when they love each other. At a critical and unforgettable scene in a lawyer's office, Carol says to her ex-husband, "We're not ugly people". The movie reminds us that being ugly is actually a choice we make, motivated by emotion. We choose to be ugly. No matter who we are. Or we don't. Perhaps the bravest thing about Carol is that it ignores the narrative convention of North American cinema that all characters must fight, that overt behaviour is better story telling. Carol makes a decision she knows is right for her daughter but one which she says comes without any sense of whether it is right for her. "I'm no martyr," she says. "I have no clue... what's best for me."

Composer Carter Burwell, with producer Elizabeth
Karlsen and screenwriter Phyllis Nagy at the Hamptons
Film Festival where Burwell's work was awarded.
The screenplay is remarkably strong, even apart from the wonder that it could be so, when it has felt the influencing hands of a decade or two of collaborative input, not the least of which has included an incredible nine numbered Executive Producers and four main producers, as well as countless (one assumes) notes sessions from previously assigned directors, not to mention Haynes, and the other creative team. Screenwriter Phyllis Nagy jokes about it in interviews, but it must have been fatiguing to be so surrounded and indeed she tells us that at one point she had dropped work on the project altogether. It took a period of wooing by British producer (and the true miracle-worker of this movie) Elizabeth Karlsen to bring her back on board. Somehow she has managed to sound faithful to the period, stay respectfully true to the Patricia Highsmith novel (she knew Highsmith) and also take the liberties needed to make it cinematic. (At first, I was sad about the choice to replace Therese's solitary drive home, with Carol's friend and former lover Abby driving her instead. In the novel that journey is the main period of Therese's maturing and mourning. But having seen it a second time, I realize they were absolutely right to do it this way. Therese's journey to maturity in the movie, is through her work, her art.)

If the movie is on a pedestal, as critic Zecharek ended her review by saying, it is being held up by the just-plain-gorgeous supporting performances that surround our duo. Chief among these is Sarah Paulson as the one-time lover and best friend of Carol, whose too-plain devotion sometimes makes us worry that there is some other agenda going on for her, even with absolutely nothing in the writing to support our worry. It is a perfect supporting performance: gently calibrated with her character's own losses and also upholding the leads. But equally perfect is Kyle Chandler as Harge, Carol's husband. (The clip at left captures these two strong performances brilliantly, while also giving us yet another "window" to frame a character's emotion.) In Chandler's best moment, he gets up from the floor where he has been trying to fix the plumbing and, stumbling out in anger to the adjacent room, asks Therese "how do you know my wife"? It is both aggressive and poignant -- a continuous balancing act that he accomplishes with assurance. Both Chandler and Jake Lacy's characters are decent men who just don't get it, though Lacy's character Richard, Therese's boyfriend, at least has a moment when he names the love for what it is.

Although Todd Haynes himself has gone to great lengths to talk about his desire to show the darker aspects of this time, ie, the fact that this love affair would have been deemed dangerous and 'criminal' in its era, part of his accomplishment comes in his accomplished work of contrasting that climate with the emotional tenderness of the two women. Here, he says he was deeply influenced by Ruth Orkin as a photographer, and by the movies of Orkin and Morris Engel, particularly The Little Fugitive, and the 1956 film Lovers and Lollipops which he asked his creative team (including Blanchett and Mara) to watch, before they started shooting. The few clips available on youtube are revelatory in illuminating the verité style and also framing of Carol. (In the clip here, one of my favourites, notice the use of windows and doors and changing points of view.) Although the Orkin/Engel film is more dialogue driven than Carol, the emotional intimacy of its characters is foregrounded. And the tenuous nature of new love is vivid. Carol is, however, less whimsical and more brittle than Lovers and Lollipops.

The eroticism is gentle and spare, just to let us know it is there, and
landing on the side of tenderness. Yet another bravely right decision.
It is this slightly brittle edge that has caused some to find the movie a bit cold. If your heart is beating with the women, there is no chance of being cold, even for a second. The intimacy is all emotional, although we get the nude scene kind too. But that one love scene seems almost intended to be an abbreviation, so that the audience will not focus on it too much. In fact, there are other scenes that accomplish the tenderness of intimacy more vividly. After a terrible event that might have separated them, Carol tells Therese she doesn't have to sleep in the other bed in the new hotel room. Even fully clothed, as Therese comes into Carol's arms, she disappears under her in a way we all dream of being embraced -- with such deep love, more important in this moment, than the desire that got them into trouble.

There are many moments when Judy Becker's production design acts
like a visual 'score' of the movie's deepest underlying themes.
If there is any coldness in this film, it might come from the experience of the complete absence of a buffer zone inside which we can distance ourselves. While most people have acclimatized themselves to a culture in which same-gender love is acceptable, this is a film which will call out any remaining doubt about that, not because of the actions of its characters, but because of how normally it is presented, with characters both flawed and caring. There is no desire or need to make these love-marginalized women too good, or too bad, and there is no agenda, which many (from any perspective on gay sexuality) may want unconsciously to see while watching Carol, whether they mean to or not. Although profoundly romantic, it is not sweepingly romantic in the Dr. Zhivago sense - it is not an epic, but a small quiet film, as all the artists who worked on it keep trying to tell us. Its strength is in its subtleties and chamber music intimacy. Therefore it does not remind us of our separateness, but draws us into its small circle. It invites the (willing) viewer into a hypnotic trance of something startlingly familiar but presented in an entirely new way, while surrounded by a masterfully composed aesthetic of image and sound in which every emotion we have is vibrated deeply within us. If you are willing, there is no escaping Carol. Unless you choose to abstain. Unless you find that the absence of that thing that would have given you a soft cushion from its core truths, is too hard to be without. (And if Carol does not have the traction it should in the awards season, I propose that this will be the main reason.)

The two leads, as photographed by Wally Skalij for the L.A. Times
All of the characters in this drama are equally human and capable of caring and giving but are caught in the maelstrom of their own emotional worlds. Blanchett and Mara have been trying to say this in each and every interview, even as they are time after time asked about doing love scenes together. Rooney Mara has an incredible, almost unbelievable genuineness in interviews -- she is entirely herself, and openly adores Blanchett, who in turn praises the work of the more ingenue actor whenever she can. In all of these press pieces, and in their magazine cover-ready couture, they are contrastingly (to the glamour) laid back as they talk about the film. The wonderful Indiewire interview in Cannes captures that perfectly.
"It's still an unnatural and overdetermined moment at Cannes.
It's like launching something from the top of a wedding cake,"
says Todd Haynes, in the best joint interview, done on the morning
after the Cannes debut, by Nigel Smith of Indiewire.
Cannes was the debut, but also a place that made it easy for all of the artists to bask in the tidal wave of love that washed over the breakers of the Mediterranean and onto the Croisette. Descending the red carpeted staircase, slightly out of step with each other, the blush of that first screening was everywhere on them. (Even if such hyper-focus is not a true gauge of how a film is; and even if the two leading actors were required too many times to stand like wax objects at Madame Tussaud's, living into what has become the orgyistic fetishism of celebrity. Go here for my article on that.)

Although most queer criticism of the movie has lauded and welcomed its breath of fresh air, there has also been a whiff of critique towards the movie because it is not agenda'd enough. In this way, the film reveals the agenda of the respondents, because it has no agenda itself. This kind of writing misses the point that the brilliance of the movie (which includes at least three openly gay artists in its main creative team), is that it can convey the experience of human love in general, while also detailing lesbian relationship in particular, and very specifically, lesbian relationship in the 1950s. It is a hat trick of cinematic integration.

Many of their scenes occur while they themselves are en route.
The result is a sense that we are voyaging with them, as uncertain as
they are about how it will all end.
There is one memorable scene for me when Carol and Therese are traveling in the car together, still freshly in love but also haunted by very recently devastating events. Carol says "What are you thinking?" and then before Therese can answer, adds, "You know how many times a day I ask you that?", vaguely irritated. Therese apologizes and there is a tension before she can say anything. This moment of things being fraught and going south, so soon in a relationship, with its following moment of silence, is just raw and simple. Therese starts to explain and it is true and also overstated and all those things we do in those fraught moments. It defies the narrative conventions of "they start out here, then this happens and they feel this way and then this happens and they feel that" - a system of writing in which emotion is always at the hands of narrative events. Always in response to it. We know from our own lives, that such patterning is ridiculous. It is screenplay mapping that is taught in film schools in the early years, so that writers have that skill, but which is then later ditched by good writers who understand that human emotion and relationship modulate and vibrate up and down all the time. All the time. (This understanding is directly reflected in the modulating, tremulous music of Carter Burwell's score.) It is a terrible waste, a terrible convention to map the emotional line of a screenplay directly to its narrative events. (But I am trying to write a book about this so I won't get distracted.)

Eventually, in the scene I've described, Carol pulls the car over and firmly reassures Therese with clarity and also love. Blanchett and Mara know how to stay reserved so that we get a chance to feel it, instead of watching them feel it for us. But there is a thread of the unknown also still there. The underlying preoccupations of a woman torn by love for her child and love for a lover, who knows as she drives and smokes, that her life is not going to be about choosing between them, but about how not to lose both. Then there is the woman riding in the passenger seat who has suddenly understood that her failed personal sense of passivity has in fact driven events. Her incapacity to say no when she should (a beautiful character-writing detail) has led to more moral responsibility than she has ever wanted to assume.

In an "anatomy of a scene" video for The New York Times, Haynes
explains how he alternates static shots with two moving shots at the
end of the scene in which the women first meet, allowing a sense of

emotion now in play. (Go here to see the entire video.)
Todd Haynes has explained how one choice of the film is to subtly and slowly shift the perspective of the movie from Therese's point of view, to Carol's. This happens figuratively so many ways but most strikingly in the scene that bookends the movie, in which Carol and Therese meet up for the first time after a period of separation. By the time we return to the scene at the end of the story, we understand how critically important it is. But we experience it from the place of the person with the greater losses. Then we follow our protagonist out into her Bohemian life, where the chance for a whole new relationship with a lovely brunette, hangs on the precipice of a casual flirtatious conversation in the kitchen of a party, a scene shot breathtakingly from outside the building where the women are framed in one of two windows and the new love interest moves from one window, to the other, to talk. Although I am sad that Carrie Brownstein did not have more screen time in this movie, this distance from the new possibility in Therese's life, helps us know exactly what her likely decision about it will be.

The last two shots of the film have been given away in all the trailers,
but they still manage to be electrifying when they actually occur.
The end of this particular sequence is for me a small sacred space. As she is making the decision, and getting ready to leave the party, Therese looks down at the young man who has been a formative mentor to her, while remaining a minor character in the story. He is a writer whose career advice and job at the New York Times first increases her profile as a photographer. Earlier, we see him in the projection booth of a movie theatre, taking notes on Sunset Boulevard and claiming, as he does so, that he is "charting the correlation between what the characters say and how they really feel." By the time we see him doing this again at this moment near the end, he is sitting on the floor with his girlfriend watching a movie on television. The film he is watching is not given to us. But the dialogue we hear from it is, "what are you going to do?",  to which someone responds "I'm praying." "Praying!" "Praying." As almost the only dialogue from this scene, it brilliantly underlines the moment of decision. Therese's action takes her out into a place of liminal uncertainty, with a future entirely unknown, except that it includes the possibility of love. 

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

#TIFF15 Reviews: Landscapes of the Heart

Agyness Deyn in Terence Davies' deeply felt Sunset Song

At the half-way mark, so far my TIFF15 has been marked by stunningly gorgeous cinematography, beautiful images that surround and coax and comfort protagonists in the tumultuous voyages of life and uphold them in the best sense of cinema: illuminating their joys and sorrows and decisions and losses in the most cinematic way. The big star at TIFF this year is.... the landscape camera. 

Sunset Song
The sweeping hills of Aberdeenshire are soaked in violets and blues in Terence Davies' very harsh and beautiful Sunset Song. Based on a Scottish classic novel by Lewis Grassic Gibbon, its tremendous scope (and Terence Malick-style length) are worth every moment. I missed the very first and the very last minutes of the movie but everything inbetween lived into what we can come to expect from Davies, whose early film Distant Voices, Still Lives, remains one of my most vivid memories of the early days of the festival. Often preoccupied with family dynamics and fatally flawed vicious patriarchs, Davies seems to have met his metier in Gibbon's novel about a young woman whose passionate attachment to the land she grew up on prevents her from leaving a tyranical father and a deeply unhealthy and dysfunctional family. Instead, by the end, she is its sole survivor, whose capacity for happiness is unleashed all at once but we sense will not necessarily be here for long. Peter Mullan is devastating as the horrible father - he has had enough practice playing such brutally etched characters but he is always able to make us see something of the lost soul buried within.

Agyness Deyn is lovely as Chris, whose deep attachment to Blawearie, her homestead and the small region of Kinraddie prevent her from taking opportunities she could easily win with her bright mind and her passion for books, to get away from it all. But getting away would be to tear the heart out of her. This double-edged reality walks the line of credibility at times but Davies helps us by often figuring Chris in relation to the countryside and even in the most horrific of family times, she appears to have a towering strength within her slim lass frame and eyes wet with grief. I love the sounds of Davies films: in this one the feet in wet mud, the sounds of the wheels turning on carts, the shuffling of animals in stalls and the wet air being sucked in on cold mornings. And of course, always, the songs. It wouldn't be a Davies film without singing songs in their entirety, lustily, releasing the soul.

Eddie Redmayne as Lili Elbe in The Danish Girl by Tom Hooper

The Danish Girl
A languid lake and six tall skinny feathery trees are figured first in their natural setting and then in the painting by Einar Wegener, later Lilli Elbe, a Danish post-impressionist artist and landscape painter of the 1920s whose journey from man to woman marks the first known instance of sex-reassignment surgery. As Einar, her marriage to painter Gerda Gottlieb was originally threaded on their common commitment to their art and the movie presents a soulmate connection that would continue and help to uphold the events to come. The solemn and smokey landscapes of Danish hills and lakes set the mood for our journey with not only an artist of intense sobriety, but one who peers into his own paintings as if hoping to find himself there. Instead, it is in the work of his wife that Lili first finds herself. Sitting for her in a ballerina's dress, Lili feels herself stirring within and begins to be born. 

Slowly over the next hour of scenes, Eddie Redmayne transforms before us in the most nuanced and subtly beautiful ways. Lili is wholly feminine as she emerges from the shell of Einar, and the very gentle and gently graded degrees by which she finds her way in the world are so beautifully rendered. Redmayne's choices are so subtle and nuanced that we hardly know they are happening until the culmination of them all arrives and Lili is a masterpiece, a beauty and a whole soul emerging and vibrant. Alicia Vikander as Gerda captures the pain and pleasure of seeing a beloved transform in front of her, though the script sometimes positions her to say platitudes and that grated on me. I often found myself thinking of Xavier Dolan's beautiful and brilliant Laurence Anyways. Both movies focus on a love story more than the transition of identity but Suzanne Clément brought a brittle passion and urgency to the losses and the need and an anger. I sensed that Vikander might have too, if the script had offered her more room for it. She is instead the doting wife, who never quite forgets the husband she has lost, even as she is coaching Lili into life. The last scene of the film veers heavily toward a cliché but I came away very moved by the emotional line of the film. From the first moment she glances at us, Lili never lets us out of her grip.

Juliette Binoche in Piero Messina's The Wait
The Wait
The brown and black almost lunar-barren landscapes of Sicily make up some of the first spectacular exterior shots of Piero Messina's debut feature. And then there are the interiors: a large stone villa slowly being shuttered and draped in black to mark the beginning of a time of mourning. The beginning of a time of waiting. The slow caress of a crucifix in the opening sequence spirals us toward a grieving mother, whose grief causes us to see only a changing soundless collage of people passing before her and the coffin of one she loves. Messina's intense interest in the physical detail of emotion starts with the glimpse of a wet trickle running down the leg of the woman toward her wobbling pumps. Later, his camera finds shadow and light in everyday objects and those shutters which open and close and open and close like the aching heart of the two souls within, Anna, played by Juliette Binoche, and her son's girlfriend Jeanne, played by Lou de Laâge.

Anyone who understands how paralyzing grief can be will also appreciate Anna's desire to hold onto the possibility of life by clinging to Jeanne, allowing her in and shutting her out simultaneously, but clearly needing the life that courses through her young veins. Reviews of this movie from Venice seem preoccupied by the perceived cruelty of Anna's not revealing to Jeanne the fate of her boyfriend, but I was mesmerized by this tension. This is a movie about faith experience by and for people who get those three days between Good Friday and Easter Sunday when there is only the bleak and desolate silence of the tomb. The wait in the biblical story is not for an expected release. No one expects it to end as it does. To anticipate that this movie might offer something similar is to doubt how much the filmmaker truly understands that the biblical event only happened once. We grieve, we cling to the signs of life, we hope for some sense of resurrection but we are human and inevitable truths come crashing in. My only quarrel with The Wait is that the depiction of religious ritual borders on the creepy to those unfamiliar with it. (It's hard to remove the Klan-like associations that North Americans have with white-hooded figures, even if they are harmless in this expression.) My favourite aspect of The Wait were the conversations between the women, casually pursued in that liminal space where neither one is either asking or telling what seems obvious to share. Liminal space of emotion is so rarely portrayed in movies - so I am grateful to Messina for offering it to us with such grace and careful tenderness. 


Nanni Moretti and Margherita Buy in Nanni Moretti's Mia Madre (My Mother)

Mia Madre (My Mother)
The landscape is entirely internal in Nanni Moretti's very moving Mia Madre (My Mother). I loved its wistful look at how life catches up to us when we are face to face with the mortality of those we love. But rather than move in three acts toward a character's transformation, this latest vision from the Italian comedy master actually just allows us to witness a woman filmmaker's slow slide into understanding how complexly difficult and hard to be with she's become (foiled by John Turturro as an equally challenging American actor), and that is enough. Moretti and Marguerita Buy hold the vast emotional range of grieving/caring in compelling tension with each other as their characters experience both grief and moments of lovely humour and Guilia Lazzarini as the grandmother/ mother of the title is perfectly poised between submitting to illness and continuing to live into the needs and expectations of her two deeply affected children.

Moretti has given us something both difficult and tender but in very unexpected ways. The undercurrent of the movie is an interest in classical literature which the dying woman instructed in the local university. Margherita's insistence that her daughter pursue and perfect her Latin studies seems controlling at first but leads to gentle scenes between grandmother and granddaughter which make clear how much Margherita has missed in being so obssesed with the near-static continuity problems in her own life and work. I also enjoyed the scenes between Moretti and Buy as they pass grief back and forth. Although we all know the stages of grief well by this point, the movie makes clear that they are constantly in rotation, rather than falling in linear sequence. We move in and out of acceptance and preparation and denial even while the loved one is still with us.

While watching this movie, I had a strange moment of dots connected. I came from a screening of Wim Wenders' Every Thing Will Be Fine into the Moretti. Early in the film, Margherita passes, in a dream/memory sequence, in front of a movie theatre where the non-specific poster nonetheless clearly references Wim Wenders' movie Wings of Desire. An odd passing of the baton from one master to another.  

Naomi Kawase's An

Splashes of bright yellow and waving masses of cherry blossoms populate the urban landscape of 
Naomi Kawase's beautiful An, a very deeply felt and lovingly observed almost essay-style film about three people who help each other slowly across difficult thresholds in life. The movie has been accused of being sentimental but it is a shame that we have learned to hate that word. No one likes manipulative emotion, but this is sentiment in the best sense, meaning the tenderness and nostalgia are earned through the experience of each character's surrounding darkness. 

Almost experimental in places, and very focused on Japanese culture, An challenges our contemporary (universal?) acceptance of alienation and instead dreams of community, while turning light on the forgotten peoples of Japanese society. Visually rich with its bright canary yellows overtop dreary urban landscapes, it suddenly breathes into lush greens at the end and those perennial cherry blossoms. In a festival which chooses to open with a movie about compulsive destruction, this film is a wise and important call to dwell in our own sadnesses, reach out to others, be nostalgic, tender, and hopeful.


Miss Sharon Jones!
By far the standout event of my festival so far, however, came without lush cinematography, though Barbara Kopple's documentary Miss Sharon Jones! is beautifully shot and observed. The film's screening last Friday evening opened with the signature beats and strains of the Dap-Kings, those wonderful musicians who back up one of North America's best kept secrets (except she's not - she's been on Ellen!), Sharon Jones. Kopple's doc is a confident and tender portrait of the legendary soul singer's recent fight with cancer. Surrounded by her musicians and boisterously popping with energy, we also see her by turns very quiet and still. Jones reveals all sides of her soulful self under the incredibly assured and masterful lens of Kopple, who shows us what happens when an unstoppable spirit is forced to lie low. The movi
e ends on a high note of comeback performance that is riveting and enlivening. Then, in the post-screening conversation, Jones shared with us that the cancer is back. In the hush that ensued, spontaneously Jones sang for us. Demonstrating the unconquerable spirit that the movie celebrates, she sang a capella, a hymn that she also sings in the movie, an expression of her deep faith. A movie, a woman and a moment of tremendous beauty and grace.

The natural gravitational pull of the exiting crowd caused me to find myself standing side by side with the singer as we made our way out. The few things I said to her reflected my own state more than hers but were my way of expressing solidarity. She responded with a gentle arm at my waist and a declaration to fighting as she has to date. In a gorgeous white dress and pumps, striding purposefully, she seemed every inch capable of exactly that, as determined and resilient as she was in every moment under Kopple's watchful eye.

Ultimately, the most powerful landscape is that of the human heart. Where the soul and the spirit go, the camera follows.

Monday, September 07, 2015

TIFF15 and its Tongue-Twisting Titles

Looking for Grace
Every year at TIFF, there is a strange confluence of movie titles that sound very much alike. It is a real test of the true cinéaste to be able to sort out your syllabic similarities and know your names! Here are some of this year's tongue-twisting titular teasers.

We have Rams and we have Lamb, and be sure to catch the 7 Sheep. There's Bird Hearts, Sparrows and Peacock and The Chickening and Men and Chickens.

Ma Ma,  Maman and My Mother will be there and if you see him, don't forget to Honor Thy Father!

You can find out About Ray, (Otto) and Benjamin. But you're fresh out of luck if you've expected a Carol! And if you're Looking for Grace, you might run into Violet or Victoria. After the screening? Catch the party for Ivy. On 25 April, she'll be 45 Years.

There's The Danish Girl and the Missing GirlThe Final Girls and Girls Lost.  But The Girl in the Photographs just might be Janis: Little Girl Blue.  And those Beeba Boys will tell you the Phantom Boy is just a Boy.

Watch out for The Dressmaker and The Women He's Undressed, and don't let The Assassin, Kill Your Friends or Black will be Black Mass.  

You can be Born to Be Blue or Born to Dance -- and rehearsal is In the Room. And speaking of Room, just so you know, The Forbidden Room is The Green Room.

There's a Beast and Beasts of No Nation, and As I Open My Eyes, I turn my Eye to the Sky. There's The ReminderThe Mind's Eye and A Copy of My Mind.

If you're searching for London Fields, go past London Road to Bleak Street.  And be sure to see Mountain before those Mountains May Depart!

There's Sunset Song and Song of Songs and though This Changes EverythingEvery Thing Will Be FineBeing Ap and Being Charlie are probably Je Suis Charlie's friends.

There's The Wait and The Waiting Room and The Wave and Waves '98 and Wavelengths come in all sizes and shapes. The River of Grass is Downriver from River.

If you see Francofonia in February, you've likely Forsaken Frenzy, Freeheld and Fugue. You could catch up to Jack and James White and a Youth in Young Patriot.

Join those Journey of a Thousand Miles: Peacekeepers or just Journey to the Shore.  There's Love and Much Loved and if you're needing more, there's A Tale of Love and Darkness and A Tale of Love, Madness and Death.

There's Paradise and Paradise Suite, but when I say I Miss You AlreadyIt's Not You that I mean.

Cemetery of Splendour
Laurie Anderson might tell you the Heart of a Dog is A Heavy Heart and neither of these is Murmur of the Hearts. That Dog kept An Old Dog's Diary: it says don't Starve Your Dog. Remember also that Dogs Don't Breed Cats. 

The White Knights may take you for Five Nights in Maine, or take 3000 Nights to see all those Arabian Nights. When all that is done, May We Sleep Soundly? Sure! But beware the Sleepwalker on the loose out there. Also, just so you know, Eva Doesn't Sleep. Neither does Eva Nova!

Casualties of Modernity
Make sure you don't mix up Families with The Family Fang or you may find yourself afoul of El ClanLolo and Yolo are not really French Blood; it's better to see them as Blood of My Blood.

Fire Song is not Fireworks and if you're starting to be confused, it could be there's A Fire in My Brain that Separates Us. 

What does this all mean? Well... in searching title Truth, settle instead for A Flickering Truth. After all, titles like Cemetery of Splendour may just be one of those Casualties of Modernity.

Saturday, September 05, 2015

80 Films to Watch Out For at TIFF15 Part 4 R - Z

This is Part 4 and the final section of a list begun in Part 1 A-D and Part 2 D-L and Part 3  L - R offering the last twenty titles of eighty movies, given alphabetically, that I am looking forward to seeing at TIFF15.  An  indicates a movie in my top twenty priority list. Titles link to the TIFF profile page and wherever a trailer is available, I have provided it. All still images can be found on the TIFF website at the movie page linked.

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Grímur Hákonarson is a relatively new Icelandic cinema voice and Rams is only his second feature. However, this tale of two feuding brothers who are both suddenly subject to the same crisis, which they can only resolve together, won the Un Certain Regard prize at Cannes. The trailer is extremely promising, both for its gorgeous visuals, but also for the storytelling which combines deadpan humour and everyday ordinary tragic situations. 
Contemporary World Cinema

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Atom Egoyan's latest follows a holocaust legacy survivor (Christopher Plummer) as he fulfills a long-held promise to avenge family deaths during that unforgettable period of history. The challenge is his failing memory. Egoyan's work has been evolving in interesting ways of late, as he pursues more conventional narratives while retaining his own unique visual style.

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Right Then, Wrong Now

I have a bizarre history of always really wanting to see the films of Hong Sang-soo and somehow always missing them. I did see Our Sunhi and liked it very much, but regret missing both In Another Country, largely considered his best work, and last year's Hill of Freedom. So this year I am absolutely determined to see this quirky and audience-pleasing film about a filmmaker and a painter who meet and spend a day together, and then meet and spend the same day together .... again. It won the top prize at the Locarno Film Festival. 

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Rocco and His Brothers 

A long-time fan of the Italian neorealist, Luchino Visconti, I am excited to see this significant but rarely screened late work of the master, from 1960. Told in five parts, it follows each of the five sons of an impoverished Italian family as they try to improve their lives. Despite its split screens, the trailer is hypnotic.

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This is one of those times when I wasn't sure that a good adaptation of a bestseller (by Emma Donoghue) was even possible, given how confined the playing space is. I have never seen the work of Lenny Abrahamson and my track record with this programmer is not great. But the teaser trailer utterly sold me - and that rarely happens for a movie I'm not already interested in. Now I very much hope to see this somehow.  
Special Presentations

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Sleeping Giant

Canadian Andrew Cividino's movie has had a near-perfectly paced emergence as a Canadian feature of significant presence this year. The short film version screened at TIFF14 and the feature bowed in off-competition at Cannes earlier this year. Featuring performances by new actors and locals of the area where the movie was shot, it profiles a trio of teenaged boys coming of age near Sleeping Giant Provincial Park, on the northern shore of Lake Superior. 


* * * * *

Son of Saul

This first feature by Hungarian director and Béla Tarr protégé László Nemes was a sleeper hit of Cannes and won the Grand Prix Award. A holocaust drama about a man who is forced to remove the bodies of gassed victims at Auschwitz and in doing so uncovers a man he believes to be his own son, the movie won strong praise despite its very claustrophobic photography and relentlessly single point of view. I have heard the film praised highly but was also given a personal account by someone who saw it at Cannes and found it too weighted morally to the main character. I am curious to see how faith tradition works in the story, since the man spends much of the remainder of the film trying to find a rabbi who can cant a kaddish prayer for the dead. Is this kind of obssession delusion or salvation? 
Special Presentations

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Song of Songs 

Another of the Israel/Palestine films on offer this year made by women. So many reasons I am drawn to this one, from its desire to portray life in a 19th-century Jewish shtetl, to its story of a friendship among a boy and a girl who must stare down the limitations of Orthodox custom, even as they are embracing them. Really looking forward to this new feature from Eva Neymann.
Contemporary World Cinema

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Seneca Falls, Selma, Stonewall. We hear Obama's voice invoking these milestone locations of uprising for women, blacks and gays, respectively, right at the very beginning of this trailer. When I first read about this feature I was a bit worried that it might glamorize this episode in the history of gay rights in America. But the trailer has put me on track again and I am so glad that director Roland Emmerich wanted to finally give us a dramatic feature version of an event that fostered a courage that every gay person tips their hat to.

* * * * *

Story of Judas
(trailer is in French with no subtitles)

So, as a biblical scholar, I have to be interested in this new film from Rabah Ameur-Zaïmeche and I am, but I am a bit cautious about its premise. I am not troubled by the idea that Judas was friend and confidante whose role in Jesus' death has been over-simplified. What worries me is the storyline that he was seeking to destroy a gospel record transcribed by another early disciple, because Jesus didn't want his words written down and being distorted. There is so much to challenge in that premise, starting with the fact that the notion of distorting or manipulating scripted text is a very very modern idea and Jewish followers of Jesus in the first century would have understood written texts in a very different way that we do today. But I have to see it! And I am open to the possibility that it will challenge me in the best sense and get me thinking. 
Contemporary World Cinema

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Summertime (La Belle Saison)

It is undoubtedly a banner year for love stories among women and adding to the mix is Catherine Corsini's 1970s story of two Parisian women who meet and fall in love in a context of feminist politics but whose relationship is supremely tested when one of them is forced back to her rural roots to face family expectations there. 
Special Presentations

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Sunset Song

If this gorgeous image isn't enough to compel you, than let me tell you that it's been four years since we've had a new work by Terence Davies and like the beautifully moving films which came before, this meditation on a Scottish classic novel focuses on a dysfunctional family and a woman torn between a desire to leave and her passionate attachment to the land. Davies' earliest and most revered films were based on his own life and the stern, violent patriarchal father figure is present here too. And if you aren't already familiar with the lengthy takes and slow pacing that characterize his movies, keep in mind as you go that the emotional payoff is often profound.
Special Presentations

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The Treasure

A simple idea, the search for lost family wealth buried on the property during the Communist rule of Romania, is at the heart of this newest film by 12:08 East of Bucharest director Corneliu Porumboiu. But even in the trailer it's easy to see how much political symbolism may be at work here. As they always do, this treasure hunt requires some investment and putting all at risk in order to find more, is a classic structure of both comedy and tragedy. I have no idea which will govern here, but if the trailer is our clue, I would say we're meant to laugh.
Contemporary World Cinema

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Icelandic auteur Baltasar Kormákur moves to television from movies to direct a series about a police chief who becomes trapped on a ferry in a snowstorm with the murderer he is looking for - he just doesn't know who that is. The new programme Primetime has as its strength a chance to preview work like this, which may not make its way on to Netflix for a while to come. There is no trailer, but there are many reasons to trust being put in the hands of this brilliant director, whose 101 Reykjavik has become an international classic.

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I am always interested in any story about the blacklist era of Hollywood and its arch nemesis The House UnAmerican Activities Committe. I was very influenced by stories told by my AFI screenwriting mentor, writer Al Leavitt, who was also blacklisted after having had a rising Hollywood career that included scripts for Deborah Kerr and Cary Grant, only to be out of work for a long period, and to also end up writing under an assumed name. Trumbo's story is his own, however, and the trailer gives away most of the essential plot points, including the way in which Trumbo managed to not only continue writing but win Oscars that others accepted for him. Jay Roach (of Austin Powers fame) normally makes lighter fare, and I hope that this doesn't become a comedy-driven piece but anything that has Helen Mirren playing a society columnist is bound to be worth it.
Special Presentations

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It's hard for me to get excited about any other Cate Blanchett film when this remarkable actress is rumoured to be the reason we don't have Carol at TIFF. (See my addendum to this earlier blog.) And I am not that interested in the scandal that surrounded Dan Rather in breaking the post-millenium story that George W. Bush had once avoided being deployed to Vietnam, even if it did cost the noted CBS anchorman his career. So why is this film on my list? Well, I have always enjoyed movies about American politics and broadcasting, right from All the Presidents' Men, and since Spotlight, the other movie about journalism and scandal coming to TIFF, has had lots of buzz, I prefer to feature this one. Especially since James Vanderbilt's strong credits as a screenwriter should bode well for his feature directing debut.
Special Presentations

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Un Plus Une

I love Elsa Zylberstein, who rarely gets a feature role that we get to see in North America but whose work in Il y a longtemps que je t'aime (I've Loved You So Long) alongside Kristen Scott Thomas and her performance in La Petite Jérusalem have been under-appreciated. I also really enjoyed Jean Dujardin in The Artist. Put them together in a new film by legendary French New Wave filmmaker Claude Lelouche and what's not to be excited about? The premise, two people who meet at a state dinner and together explore India's spiritual pilgrimage sites, makes it even better!
Special Presentations

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Several storylines eventually overlap and converge at Ville-Marie Hospital in Montreal in Guy Édoin's new dramatic feature. Starring Monica Bellucci as a European film star shooting in Montreal, the movie apparently also offers us the movie within the movie that she is making. Relationships, distance and unresolved past events populate the movie's themes.
Special Presentations

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The Wait (L'Attesa)
Piero Messina.

See Part 1.

* * * * *

Women He's Undressed
Gillian Armstrong has given me so many wonderful movie experiences over the last thirty years. Who could forget My Brilliant Career, which helped to move the career of Judy Davis out of Australia and into the world? Mrs. Soffel, High Tide, Little Women, each a gem. Moving to documentaries, Armstrong turns her lens on Orry-Kelly, the Aussie in Hollywood's glory days who was one of the industry's most cherished costume designers. Life as a closeted gay man was not easy, even in a business and a profession highly populated by gay men. Armstrong's caring exploration will likely focus as much on the man behind the legend as the clothes on the screen.
Tiff Docs

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I have been resisting this movie, ever since reading about it for Cannes, in part because of this kind of image: senior men ogling a naked woman (it's the poster for the film, but does it really need to be the screen still for the trailer as well?). However, this latest from master Sorrentino has had such wonderful reviews and responses, including by women, and the trailer hints at something much more soulful than I had anticipated. So I will take the leap of faith.
Special Presentations

That's it! More coming on Wavelengths and then it will be time for TIFF and the first reviews!