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.

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