By Andrew Tracy

While I don’t have the globetrotting experience to draw such a conclusion legitimately, I’ve no doubt that Toronto is little better than any other festival for creating a genuine dialogue about films viewed during, or even keeping a record straight in one’s own overstuffed head. Passing encounters in lobbies yield just enough time to volley monologues at each other, each party performing not so much for the other’s benefit as for their own—at one point, a respected critic offered me a stage-voiced assessment of the size, position, and ass-slapping tempo of Tony Leung’s balls in Lust, Caution, while teenage volunteers stood politely on either side. Even for those blessed few (the present writer included) not obliged to catch the big tickets, meet deadlines, or talk shop, the viewing pace can leave behind only residual snatches of film memories, encapsulated in a few quickly tuned phrases intended as much for oneself as for possible audiences, willing or unwilling. As the inescapable pressures of festival-going naturally produce soaring overpraise and cataclysmic denunciation in abundance, the key is to find moments of sanctuary, pockets of restfulness where films can find some breathing space to turn over in the mind—and hopefully, some films that adopt that relaxed tempo as well, in contrast to the hard-sell products that dominate so many festival reports.

It was thus a rare pleasure to enter the gauntlet at a resolutely contemplative pace with not one, but two films which respectively politely ask and scornfully demand that the viewer come to them. Michelange Quay’s leisurely, Denis-inflected meditation Eat, for This Is My Body was perhaps the most likable under-the-radar offering at the festival. Soaring into the Haitian countryside in its breathtaking opening shots, Quay comes to rest in a palatial estate inhabited by the bedridden Catherine Samie and her daughter Sylvie Testud, who proceed to enact a symbolic, nonnarrative roundelay with their native servants and visitors. The postcolonial didacticism is somewhere beyond pointed, but Quay continually subverts the strictures of polemic to allow his images, concepts, and actors, professional and non-, free play within his design. A black-suited, gravely countenanced procession of boys attending a non-existent dinner with Testud—at which they are told to pretend to eat and give thanks in endless unison—are suddenly confronted with an enormous white cake, which they proceed to first eat, then laughingly destroy in a foodfighting free-for-all; later, what begins as a discordant introduction of feigned violence with toy machine guns during a circular pan of a room escapes its leadenly symbolic fetters and becomes simply a joyful spectacle of boys at play.

To acclaim Samie and Testud’s “bravery” would be trite; let’s say instead that their faith in Quay must have been substantial to allow themselves to be used as presences more than performers. Pleasingly, Quay refuses to turn his actresses into despicable scapegoats. These women generate their own brand of sympathy in their frailty and wispiness, but that instinctive response is clouded by the sentiments expressed at the beginning of the film in Samie’s remarkable, close-up monologue. The evils of colonialism, as Quay demonstrates, are both a frame of mind and a lived reality retaining the corruption of that thought in each of its facets—and a reality destined to push itself ever further away from the vibrancy and generosity of human community.

“Generosity” is hardly the first word to come to mind when speaking of Béla Tarr, and a majority of critics returned the disfavour in their reactions to The Man from London. One wonders what they were expecting, and hesitates to concur with their quite legitimate complaints of a mismatch between style and material; if only that conclusion came from contemplation rather than knee-jerk dismissiveness, we might be approaching something like a dialogue. I was fortunately able to engage in just such a rarity post-screening, which was invaluable for getting a conditional handle on the difficult object under consideration. On initial viewing, Tarr’s “stubborn stylistics” (as per David Bordwell) are here employed not for the heightening and illumination of a particular manner of life (as in Sátántangó [1994]) or a cosmic idea of life, however pretentious (as per Werckmeister Harmonies [2000]), but largely for their own sake. If the main character Maloin (Miroslav Krobot) had been less of a typical Tarrian lump, there might have been the chance that Tarr’s style could awaken some mystery of character. Instead, the usual subordination to design is made a veritable aesthetic tyranny, all the more evident in light of Tarr’s misuse of Tilda Swinton’s distinctive expressiveness in the role of Maloin’s put-upon wife, the dreadfully nasal fishwife voice which dubs her lines an insult not only to her craft but a disruption to the otherwise pristine surface of the film.

Nevertheless, that The Man from London is indeed a failed artwork is only the beginning of contemplation. The ontology of Tarr’s long-take aesthetic, first evoked explicitly in Sátántangó—the simultaneity of lives being lived rather than their fragmentation into narrative links—is still in place, still relevant, and still yields some marvelous effects: observe the second appearance of a bearded old codger whom Tarr focuses on, seemingly inexplicably, in an earlier scene for a masterful realization of overarching design. Looking further, there are even the ghosts of thematic threads in Tarr’s depiction of the place women are relegated to in a world dominated by men, or the carnivorous centrality of money and its utter uselessness as strictly physical possession. Yet the renderings of these concerns are more hieroglyphic than realized; the monumental drabness of Tarr’s port city ultimately exists in a Europe of the mind and the screen, absent a connection to lived experience, however heightened.

That same disconnect recurs in more paradoxical form in Cannes prizewinner Naomi Kawase’s The Mourning Forest, one of the most exhilarating and frustrating films of (this miniscule cross-section of) the festival. Kawase, whose wondrous Shara played Toronto in 2003, is one of the most talented filmmakers working today, and one whose talent is so inextricably tied to her limits as artist that the prospect of her making a truly great work is sadly difficult to countenance. Next to the Dardennes, Kawase makes perhaps the most precise and thematically/narratively/experientially motivated use of handheld cinematography of any contemporary filmmaker. The pristine pictorial beauty of her opening shots are not so much contrasted to the shakiness of the following scenes as completed by them: the restorative power of the natural world (as in the torrential downpour which both disrupts and invigorates the climactic parade in Shara) is never an idealized other to human life, but a revelation of the already present.

Kawase’s rigourously worked-out parables are as unportentous as they are due to her adeptness at integrating them into a seemingly casual narrative flow. By the time that caregiver Machiko (Machiko Ono), who might have been responsible for the death of her infant son, has unwillingly taken to the hills with her aged widower charge Shigeki (Shigeki Uda), it is somewhat surprising to realize that a story has indeed taken shape out of the film’s earlier, evocative threads. The saving grace of Kawase’s overly explicit design is the relentless physicality of her filmmaking—even symbolic journeys are journeys, after all. The wearying progress through the forested hills to the secret gravesite of Shigeki’s long-dead wife is followed in its every toilsome step, and Kawase achieves some truly remarkable confluences of narrative, emotion and visuals in her employment of the natural world: Machiko’s shrieked warning to Shigeki to not cross a swollen river (as she implicitly relives her child’s drowning) is interrupted by a sudden, shocking flood of water, which could be either a flashback, a symbolic punctuation, or even a present reality.

Yet the enthralling power of such moments is mitigated by the constant awareness that they have been engineered, however exquisitely. On the slim evidence of two films—Kawase has made nine documentary and fiction films since 1992—Kawase is more inclined towards illustrating her predetermined themes than exploring them. There is a neatness to her execution which stops somewhat short of profundity, an overexplicitness conjoined to her considerable subtlety. A final, extraneous title crawl in The Mourning Forest informs us that the Japanese word for “mourning” denotes both the state, act, and site of bereavement, as if extrinsic information (depressingly included for international audiences, one hopes) were a necessity for the onscreen evidence. It’s an unfortunate truth that some fine artists are confined within inherent limits, but if Kawase’s artistry may be forever boxed in, its beauties are not to be dismissed.
Far more distressing are the deliberately self-destructive actions of a similarly confined artist whose response is to summarily destroy his own legacy. Despite its almost universal condemnation, the eponymous Kitano’s autocritique Takeshis’ (2005) was a clever and sophisticated work about artistic bankruptcy, like its Fellinian model a rejuvenating experience cloaked in an admission of impotence. The bare fact about Kitano’s Glory to the Filmmaker! is that it is largely unwatchable, and even worse is that it is designed to be so. If only one got the sense that Kitano was genuinely devoted to his own obliteration; as Tony Rayns notes, Kitano has become “the kind of postmodernist who lies awake nights alternately pondering the end of his world and his next career move—more like Woody Allen than Clint Eastwood, these days.” An even more pertinent comparison would be that other hara-kiri careerist, Lars von Trier, smirkingly eviscerating the tools of his trade, right down to the reductio ad absurdum of the random-shot-selecting Automavision in The Boss of It All (2006). As in so many of his provocations, however, von Trier is acting in bad faith: the scarred and barren surfaces conceal a still considerable talent for scenario, storytelling, and unified action, particularly evident in Boss’ hilariously elegant construction. No such luck for Kitano, his few moments of mild inspiration displaying a comparable bad faith but little leavening wit. Archaeologists of the text maudit are welcome to their findings; to invoke Barthes on Pasolini, Kitano’s deliberately idiotic wallow prevents us from redeeming ourselves, rejection merely confirming the filmmaker’s success. At least one can take cold comfort, or mild sadness, from the fact that Kitano isn’t enjoying himself either.

Kitano’s self-destructive bent is only an advanced case of a far more common crisis of self-definition. So much of the most distinctive contemporary filmmaking is grafted onto conceits which don’t rate the exquisite treatment they receive—the facets of style are brought simultaneously into sharper relief and unflattering light when applied to shallow material. After the Doyle-porn of Invisible Waves (2006), Pen-ek Ratanaruang has at least found a more substantial subject for his crisply dreamy atmospherics in Ploy, but the late-night/early-morning jet-lagged ambience of richly appointed hotel sterility is still far more powerful than the marriage dissolving within it; at least the intertwined narrative of the hotel maid and bartender’s coupling generates an irresistibly powerful (and playful) eroticism.

Where Ratanaruang’s style unhelpfully surpasses his subject, Vincenzo Marra’s subtly disruptive precision in L’Ora di punta unfortunately sinks back into the essential banality of his. The quietly disorientating temporal and narrative jumps which Marra used to such effect in the excellent Vento di terra (2003) are still present, and the insistence with which his frequent, assertively close close-ups consider the conventionally handsome countenance of finance cop-turned-real estate wheeler-dealer Filippo (Michele Lastella) aims to suggest the deeper strains beneath the conventional motions of the plot. However, this time Marra’s almost imperceptible subverting of his familiar template blurs the line between subtlety and lack of commitment. Ultimately, the film slips into the very vein of luxe-laden (those suits!) exportable melodrama it is attempting to transcend.

Nevertheless, the intentional or unintentional tentativeness of these films can be something of a tonic from the hard-sell conceptual juggernauts surrounding one at Toronto. There are pleasures to be had in limited works, whose confines can sometimes provide a space for appreciation as opposed to the relentless attention-grabbing of their more assertive competition. Although adding further confusion to TIFF’s already blurry distinction between their Discovery and Visions sections, in assembling both veterans and newcomers under its rather inscrutable banner the newly minted Vanguard program at least yielded Celine Sciamma’s fine debut Naissance des pieuvres. A familiar tale of emergent female pubescent sexuality, Sciamma’s film borrows both its everyday sensuality and aquatic setting from Lucretia Martel’s The Holy Girl (2004), but appropriation can be justified if used to explore a subject rather than make a name. Sciamma’s feminine triad—sullen and reserved (Pauline Acquart), luscious and self-confident (Adèle Haenel), pudgy and self-conscious (Louise Blachère), respectively—are perfectly cast, and the guiltless eroticism they generate between them is often entrancing. If Sciamma’s stylistic conceits are rather baldfacedly schematic even as they are unerringly effective—the conspicuous and unremarked upon absence of adults, the graceful and grotesque water ballets, the cool blue light enveloping the isolated Haenel—the evident talent and thought behind them are, for now, more important than their too-pointed intentionality. Like her model, Sciamma’s challenge will be to find material that will allow her skills to expand rather than harden into affectation.

The chances of that happening, of course, are slim in a festival atmosphere where even the “contemplative” comes across like an audition reel; last year’s more conventional Turkish meditation on village life, Times and Winds, finds an analogue this year in the beautifully filmed and aesthetically negligible black-and-white shenanigans of India’s Frozen. Willingly straitjacketing one’s work, after all, is a proven path to securing those coveted niche positions on the festival circuit; as with this year’s most vaunted conceptual boondoggle, I’m Not There, the capsule descriptions are a reliable guide to the ensuing reviews. Although it might be a reactionary impulse, there’s something to be said for withdrawing from the high-stakes game of critical price-fixing and simply drifting pleasurably through films whose modesty belies a more generous, holistic view of the world.
Surprising then that such an experience comes courtesy of Alexander Sokurov, whose Alexandra is one of his most (seemingly) unassuming and affecting efforts. The titular grandmother’s journey to visit her soldier grandson at a Checnyan military base proceeds so casually that the film’s thoughtful depth is easy to overlook. Sokurov does not simply contrast the maternal fussiness of his wonderful lead actress (Galina Vishnevskaya) to her hardened grandson (Vasily Shevtsov) and the militarized, too-young youths under his command. As their initially warm reunion gives way to a broaching of the past, Sokurov depicts how in the realm of the family, even love is war—an early, pointedly edited scene in the belly of a tank, where Vishnevskaya aims and pulls the trigger of an unloaded Kalashnikov, subtly indicates the deeper movements of Sokurov’s design. The brevity of the visit nevertheless implicates the whole person, and while Vishnevskaya is certainly too set in her ways—and wholly aware of this—to repair the advertent and inadvertent damages of a lifetime, the chance of creating new connections still exists: her parting invitation to a local Checnyan woman to visit her at home however modestly promises a genuine broaching of new territory within herself, and in her relations with others. With neither grandiose conclusions nor inflation of domestic intricacies into the leadenly symbolic, Sokurov captures a specific moment in time and the sad threads of intertwining and diverging narratives that run through it, the personal and political both.

Pace Sokurov, we might inflate (or deflate?) that conclusion to the jaded fest-gazer him or herself. Dependent on one’s particular temperament, the festival narrative is more or less firmly locked in place from year to year, the slight concessions to the Zeitgeist rarely more than surface disturbances to settled views. The chance that they might be disturbed genuinely still persists, however, and it’s the possibility of an affront to our preconceptions—rather than their endless, oblivious indulgence—that, one hopes, sustains us from year to year.