Wednesday, September 12, 2007

An American in Toronto: Day Four (The Empty Spaces)

Steve reporting from the Toronto International Film Festival

I knew from the start that this day would be something of a question mark. Aside from the one film for which I made a point to buy an advance ticket (which I will get to later), Sunday held no choices that could be counted as exciting. My selections were made on the strength of length, proximity and whether or not I thought I could keep my eyes open during the film, as I'd only gotten three hours of sleep the night before. I might as well have picked my films with darts -- I would have gotten the same success rate.

Thats not really being fair to Lucía Puenzo's XXY, which for roughly two-thirds of its length deserves its fest-darling status. The title refers to the genetic makeup of fifteen-year-old main character Alex (Inés Efron) -- Alex is a functioning intersexual, better known to you and I as a hermaphrodite. Think about your teenage years, the confusion and hormonal insanity and emotional bruising. Now imagine having to deal with being neither fully a boy nor fully a girl. The premise smacks of Afterschool-Special rot, yet Puenzo and company manage to deftly avoid all the pitfalls of said genre en route to crafting a sensitive and surprisingly spiky film, one that depicts without hectoring or browbeating the particular hell that Alex faces. Engagement in the film is also helped by Efron's frankly remarkable performance, which contains a brashness and defiance that deserves mention in the same breath as Jodelle Ferland's Tideland turn and Eamonn Owenn's work in The Butcher Boy. But then the third act rolls around, and all the melodrama and block-letter pleas for tolerance and goopy sentiment that were staved off by the preceding hour-plus seep in like poisons into well water, irrevocably damaging Puenzo's film. (Seriously, who thought the quasi-rape scene was a good idea?) Alex is turned into a victim and the film finally runs itself aground. It's okay for what it is, but it had much better tidings within its grasp.

They Wait also demonstrates that it has the potential to become something better than what it is; unfortunately, that potential only lasts about ten minutes. There's a segment in the second reel, starting with a stinger that rivals The Mother of Tears for sheer seat-leaping effectiveness and proceeding through a golden-hued nightmare of shadow and detritus, where Ernie Barbarash's film looks like it might develop into a genuine sleeper. Immediately following the sleepwalking setpiece, though, the film quickly devolves into the billionth gaijin ripoff of Ringu promised by the film's concept -- quickly, harried mom Sarah (Jaime King) has to save her half-Oriental son after he's possessed by evil spirits.

Despite the ugly cultural rift that always occurs when one of these films gets Westernized (the message always being Heroic White Lady triumphing over the Evil Yellow Peril), They Wait is at heart an unambitious time-waster and will probably be on DVD from Lionsgate Studios in six months' time. It probably would have seemed okay at home, but in the context of a massive international film festival it just looks that much punier. The most interesting thing about this is that I skipped a chance to see Cannes favorite Secret Sunshine to watch this. Sometimes I am dumb.

I thought I was being smart when I queued up to see Barcelona (A Map), the latest film from Spanish director Ventura Pons. I'd not yet seen anything by Pons, but films like Anita Takes a Chance and To Die (Or Not) have made him a festival mainstay. So what harm could there be in checking out the latest film by a perennial who had yet to cross my radar? Subsequently, all I can say is that I hope Barcelona is a minor work in Pons's oeuvre, unless there's really that large a following for flat, logy films constructed primarily of two-shots and swaths of repetitive dialogue. Pons centers his screenplay around Rosa (Núria Espert) and Ramon (Josep Maria Pou), the latter of whom is dying of cancer. They go off and have various conversations with minor figures in their life (tenants in their apartment and semi-estranged family members and whatnot) then come together for a conversation with each other. That'd be all well and great if they had anything interesting to say, but they don't, so Barcelona becomes a dull film about dull people, directed with all the verve of a senior citizen in a swimming pool full of Sominex. A couple of movies this day saw my head and eyelids drooping a bit; with Barcelona, I kind of wish that I'd succumbed and let both droop all the way.

I also hit a rough spot near the beginning of Alain Corneau's Le deuxième souffle, but fortunately I rode it out and was rewarded with a tough, entertaining gangster drama. Based off a novel that also inspired a Jean-Pierre Melville film, Souffle concerns an old-guard gangster named Gu who escapes prison at the film's start with the desire to leave the country with his old girl, a bar owner who goes by Manouche; first, though, he has to find a way to scratch up a little cash.

Daniel Auteil plays Gu, and his performance serves as yet another reminder of why he's one of the top actors in France. Auteil has to be tough without being cruel, hard without being dislikeable, nostalgic without being a tiresome relic, and he pulls off the role with gusto. He's entirely believeable as a guy who can be tender with his lover yet put a bullet into a corrupt cop's skull without thinking. The rest of the cast is similarly strong, with standouts including Michel Blanc as a hilariously direct police investigator and Monica Belluci, all faded hope and concern as Manouche.

Corneau directs this as though he were trying to step into Melville's skin; he's got the laconic tough-guy stances, the thoughtful dialogue and the iconic fedora-and-matching-trenchcoat look down pat. He does let it run on a bit too long, with one too many scenes of gangsters jawing in circles at one another, and the ending seems a bit like the path of least resistance, due to familiarity and other reasons I won't get into; still, this remains stirring entertainment.

The day's last film was the single film I made sure to nail down ahead of time -- Silent Light by Mexican enfant terrible Carlos Reygadas. Reygadas's previous films have shown an extraordinary amount of visual promise but a juvenile fascination with the transgressive (especially sex between unattractive people). Early word out of Cannes suggested that Reygadas had finally moved past the latter while only refining and perfecting the former, thus delivering a must-see triumph. As it turns out, early word was as correct as could be.

Silent Light
, easily the best film I'll see at this festival, is a masterpiece of tone and form made by a talented man in full control of all his gifts. The story, about a Mennonite farmer who considers leaving his family for another woman, is as simple as stories get and not without reason -- the simplicity of the story reflects the simplicity of life in this secluded Mennonite community and allows time to appreciate the image-centered technique Reygadas is using. It's slow and deliberate, filmmaking at its most austere, and it's also, by the by, completely gorgeous and emotionally overwhelming at the same time. Too, the intentional awkwardness of the non-pro performances (all portrayed by actual Mennonites from various countries), rather than deflating the enterprise, give it a curiously naked and unadorned feel -- it's as though we're peeking in on something sacred, unknowable and devastatingly true. The moment I knew I loved this was early on, when the first meeting between the farmer and his illicit love is held in close-up with a lens flare positioned just right so that it appears that heavenly light is radiating from between their meeting lips, and Reygadas conjures up ten, twenty, fifty images that gorgeous. By the end of Silent Light (which functions not only as a beautiful end to the story but also a homage to a cinematic world classic that's one of the film's acknowledged influences), I was captivated and humbled. Who knew that the guy who opened his last film with a woman weeping while administering oral sex would reveal himself to be the successor to Robert Bresson and Carl Theodor Dreyer?


Anonymous said...

Silent Light - one of the ones I'm most looking forward to at the London Film Festival. Even more now having read that.


I haven't seen any Reygadas yet. (for shame I know) where should i start?

Paul C. said...

Start with SILENT LIGHT. I'd say the rest were just practice for him.

Anonymous said...

I'm dying to see Silent Light. It opens here in Mexico in October. Yet is up for Oscar Foreign Film consideration. Do you think it'd be an intelligent choice, Steve? It's too risky but it's Reygadas most accesible film to adte, as I've heard.

I actually think Japon and Battle in Heaven are really solid films, and that Reygadas is our best director.