Cinema Seattle. Presenter of the Seattle International Film Festival

Nov 2002 - Volume 10, Issue 4

2002 Toronto Film Fest Wrap


by Shannon Gee

A weeklong bender is not quite the right comparison to make with the Toronto International Film Festival, although the sensation of watching as many films as you can in ten days does sometime feel like you are doing your body and brain damage. Going through a temporary multiple personality disorder is not totally right either, although there are several dual schisms happening during this festival: fanatic cineaste vs. normal citizen, journalist vs. critic, worker vs. superstar, the indie vs. the blockbuster.

No, binges and apoplexy are not accurate terms to describe the generally courteous, anticipatorily organized and cinematically sumptuous TIFF, but they’ve got a menu here that will blow your mind. 345 films from 50 countries in ten days. Gadzooks, where do you start? Festivals are different animals than the auspicious art house debut or marketing muscled premiere. You have to do your homework before you go. What had the buzz at Sundance? What did they like at Cannes? What just won at Venice? What did the person standing in line next to you see yesterday? What film fits into your schedule?

Film watching can be a passive activity, but attending Toronto is anything but. You march up and down Bloor Street in the city’s Yorktown district, your festival pass and lanyard flapping wildly in the hot September breeze. Famous People are continually walking past you too, but everyone here is on a mission - movies. There is no time to gawk.

Sometimes festivals can be a hit and miss affair, especially if you are watching three to four films a day, but that was not the case this year. There was an awful lot of good stuff at the 2002 festival, which makes for a banner forecast. I didn’t see the audience award winner (the New Zealand Whale Runner) or the IFC Visions Award juried winner (Alexandr Sokurov’s digital-video-shot-in-one-take Russian Ark), but I did see a few of the other festival award winners, including Peter Mullan’s The Magdalene Sisters (Volkswagen Discovery Award) and David Cronenberg’s Spider (Toronto-City Award).

Sparse, moody, Freudian and Oedipal, Spider features a shuffling Ralph Fiennes, a vicious Gabriel Byrne and a literally multifaceted Miranda Richardson. While I have to say Fiennes’s muttering performance wore on my nerves like the five layers of shirts on his schizophrenic character’s thin frame, the dream logic tale of an ex-mental patient returning to the childhood neighborhood of his nightmares is palpable and thick. (What Cronenberg isn’t?) The Magdalene Sisters is a nightmare too, a well made one that portrays the lives of four young women placed in a sadistic women’s home run by the Irish Catholic Church. Rejected by their families and sentenced by their perceived wanton ways (two girls got pregnant out of wedlock, another was raped by her cousin and the last was simply too attractive for anyone’s comfort), the four women suffer an unending parade of abuses sanctioned by the home’s nuns. The film has since pissed off the Vatican and has won awards at both the Venice Festival and Toronto.

I felt a odd sense of déjà vu as I was watching Catherine Breillat’s Sex is Comedy, her smart and funny follow up to last year’s nerve wracking à ma souer! Anne Parillaud plays an obsessive and border-tyrannical director named Jeanne whose quarrelling actors (Grégoire Colin and Roxane Mesquida, who played the Lolitaesque sister in à ma soeur!) are about to embark on a difficult sex scene, which is suspiciously reminiscent of the real time deflowering of Mesquida’s character in à ma souer! Sure, Breillat may be making fun of herself, but the effect is illuminating and indeed comedic. Not only does she create a fascinating send up of a manipulative director fulfilling her vision at all costs, but she also manages to reproduce the intensity of the actual sex scene from ç ma souer! and wag a couple of prosthetic penises onscreen.

Another French film more traditionally light in humor, Jet Lag is like a very long situation comedy starring two of France’s most beloved stars: Juliette Binoche and Jean Reno. She’s a hairdresser, he’s an ex-chef and they’re stuck at the airport during a worker’s strike. Not too many laughs ensue but it is awfully nice to sit in a theater with these two. Patrice Leconte’s L’ Homme du train is also based around a tit for tat paring, here it is veteran actor Jean Rochefort and rock idol Johnny Hallyday, and the results are much more satisfying. Rochefort is a retired literature teacher whose mundane existence is shaken up by Hallyday, a bank robber who has rolled into town for a heist. Both men discover that each other’s separate lives are what they’ve been longing for and by the end you know you’ve seen the one of the best love stories of the year.

While love was found, there is an awful lot of love lost in films that centered around family. Baltasar Korm‡kur - who’s spunky 101 Reykjavik ultimately celebrated the unconventional family - examines household dysfunction to the nth degree against the backdrop of the failing Icelandic fishing economy with the briskly energized dramedy, The Sea. Todd Haynes’s Far From Heaven was one of the most highly anticipated entries in the festival (the overcrowded press screening caused a bit of a critics war between Roger Ebert and the Canadian press) and the buzz around it was well deserved. An homage to and stripping away of the look and themes of 1950s era melodramas, Far From Heaven is eye popping in its saturated color scheme, jiffy in its costuming and revealing in its frank examination of issues that would never have surfaced in an Eisenhower-era film.

Julianne Moore is a well-heeled housewife whose family is on the verge of falling apart. Her husband (Dennis Quaid) is a verging alcoholic whose addiction may stem from repressing his homosexuality and she herself is attracted to another man, her wise and centered gardener (Dennis Haysbert) who also happens to be black. So much of America seems to still barely tolerate interracial and gay couples, so the artifice of the 50s melodrama combined with the anger, frustration and ultimate defeat of Quaid, Haysbert and Moore is a poetic reminder that we still have a long way to go.

If we were to judge by documentaries and political films alone, we might think we haven’t gotten anywhere. Around September 11th, every newspaper box on every street corner blared headlines that the U.S. was about to go to war. A couple of documentaries also set off the edgy mood, one being Horns and Halos, a tensely structured documentary on George W. Bush biographer J. H. Hatfield, whose pre-2000 election book on the future U.S. president was pulled from stores and publication due to its content. The most high profile doc at the festival was Michael Moore’s Cannes award-winning Bowling for Columbine. Columbine starts out with Moore’s regular shtick of satire and irony in his quest to figure out why the United States is so trigger-happy (an oft-quoted stat: The U.S. has around 11,270 gun-related deaths per year. In comparison, Japan has about 68). The film then gives way to a manner of seriousness not usually found in Moore’s work. While Moore has some moments of convincing debate combined with humor (the segment on the U.S.’s love of guns and America’s racist culture is animated South Park style), the film is no joke. Once the footage tapped from surveillance cameras rolling the day of the Columbine High School massacre hits the screen, you know that Moore is completely serious. He brings survivors of the massacre to Kmart headquarters to demand they stop selling ammunition in their stores. He marches up to Charlton Heston’s Beverly Hills home to confront the NRA spokesperson. One colleague called the film a piece of propaganda, but a "convincing" one.. Make no mistake, the film is manipulative (Moore’s line of questioning towards a missile building employee in the town of Columbine is just plain doofy logic) and many critics discredit Moore’s POV because of this, but given that the film’s message is to try and present an argument to lower violent gun crimes in America, I am more inclined to listen this time than complain

Seeing Columbine set the tone for things to come: on the eve of the first anniversary of September 11th, press shuffled into the screening of 11’ 09" 01, the controversial ensemble film made up of short films by directors from around the world in response to 9/11. Labeled "Anti-U.S." by Variety, the film unspooled with a high degree of expectation. 11’ 09" 01’ was less anti-American than pro-global, and while many of the films taxed and stretched emotional endurance, a few were under-whelming too. Where works by Sean Penn, Youssef Chahine and Mira Nair seemed grating or perhaps a bit too emphatic, many of the films came across with the message that as citizens of history and the world, we are all in it together. The first film, by Iranian filmmaker Samira Makhmalbaf, takes place in an Afghan refugee camp where the children are busy making bricks to build a bomb shelter. Academy Award-winning director Danis Tanovic (No Man’s Land) and Ken Loach show what the 11th means to Bosnian widows and a real life Chilean survivor of the Caravan of Death in 1973. Alejandro Gonz‡lez I–‡rritu’s simple but powerful combination of news broadcast footage and audio sound bytes brought it all rushing back - these were sounds and images that probably the majority of the world has seen and heard and will never forget. 11’ 09" 01 ends with Shohei Imamura’s fairly surreal tale of a World War II Japanese soldier who, rather than remember the atrocities he’s witnessed and committed in the name of war, decides to live the rest of his life out as a snake.

There were a few other entries based on cruel political histories that weren’t entirely successful as well. Max is an imagined pairing of a Jewish art dealer (played by John Cusack) and a young Adolf Hitler (Noah Taylor) and it’s a film that implies if Hitler had gotten his break in the art world, things might have turned out differently. Cusack’s jokey delivery (an example: "Hitler, let me buy you a lemonade,") makes it harder to buy into this semi-humanization of the tyrant, if that could ever be done in the first place. Atom Egoyan’s Ararat, which opened the festival, recounts the 1915 Armenian genocide by the Turks in his marked elliptical style. With its film within a film structure (the protagonists are working on a epic style movie retelling of the genocide) and its baffling subplot of an illicit affair between a step brother and sister, Egoyan appears to have misplaced his masterful touch of sketching emotional parallelograms. Ararat demands that he expand out of the cloistered universes he usually draws with deft skill. History seems too big for him here.

Some less opinionated films also could have used a bit more focus as well. High Art’s Lisa Cholodenko’s sophomore feature Laurel Canyon is an off-target nod to The Graduate, with an updated Mrs. Robinson-as-L.A.-rock-producer played by Frances McDormand (she’s Almost Famous’s Penny Lane grown up and with a paying job) and recent college graduates Alex, played stiffly by Kate Beckinsale, and Christian Bale as Sam, McDormand’s character’s son. Bryan Brown co-produces and stars in Dirty Deeds, a quick and flashy Australian mob thriller comedy that is ultimately weighed down by its poppy 60’s kitsch design and cantered frame edits, but features a heavy-weigh supporting cast with Toni Collette, John Goodman and Sam Neill.

Okay, so not everything was perfect at TIFF, but finding films that are flawless is an unlikely and frankly, unwelcome task. If perfection means formula and lack of risk, then I choose imperfect. Here are a few more: Jean-Pierre Dardenne and Luc Dardenne’s tag-a-long camera angles in the visually challenging and emotionally complicated Le Fils; Sweet Sixteen, Ken Loach’s heartbreaking tale of a young man stuck on the criminal path; Chen Kaige’s lovely ode to relationships and music Together; Abbas Kiarostami’s minimalist and revelatory examination of women’s relations 10, Hayao Miyazaki’s often delightful and near terrifying Spirited Away.

After another harried and non-stop round at TIFF 2002, one of the films that has stayed long in my mind is Mauritanian director Abderrahmane Sissako’s beautifully meditative Waiting for Happiness, which centers around a very young electrician’s apprentice whose friends, customers and fellow villagers wait out time in various stages of stillness and wonder. After another harried and non-stop round at TIFF 2002, one of the films that has stayed long in my mind is Mauritanian director Abderrahmane Sissako’s beautifully meditative Waiting for Happiness, which centers around a very young electrician’s apprentice whose friends, customers and fellow villagers wait out time in various stages of stillness and wonder. Films are called "moving pictures" but sometimes the most affecting images are the ones at rest. Unlike us Toronto Film Festival marathoners, firmly planted in our theater seats after four movies, people sitting still never looked so good.

Shannon Gee

Programs Fund