Monday, September 21, 2009

Goodbye Toronto: Fish Tank and Le Refuge

MattCanada reporting from the Toronto International Film Festival

The festival has ended and Lee Daniels' Precious has won the jury prize. Congratulations to it, and the scores of awards it is now assured to collect. Before I say goodbye, notes on the last two films I saw at TIFF: Le Refuge and the much talked about Fish Tank.

I was very excited for Le Refuge because François Ozon is one of those world cinema directors I always enjoy. However, despite great performances and beautiful cinematography, it left me cold. The story of a pregnant drug addict (Isabelle Carré) forming a relationship with the dead baby-daddy's gay brother (Louis-Ronan Choisy) seemed too oblique to me. Maybe it's just that I like a few more histrionics, but to be perfectly honest, by the time the film ended I felt very little. Le Refuge is technically accomplished but I just couldn't connect with the film, didn't like any of the characters and their journeys and tribulations seemed petty and misguided. The last part especially suprised me because I think overcoming someone's death and bringing new life into the world is monumental and should carry an intense emotional weight. Therefore, it really is a 'tribute' to screenwriters Ozon and Mathieu Hippeau for making them seem utterly unimportant.

The last film I saw at the festival was Andrea Arnold's gritty council estate drama Fish Tank, and at a 9am Saturday screening no less. The film has already received raves for Arnold's direction/writing and the acting of Katie Jarvis, Michael Fassbender, Kierston Wareing, and Harry Treadaway. I think it's the best British film since Anton Corbijn's Control (2007). What struck me most about the film was Arnold's updating of the British New Wave aesthetic, and the feminising of the Angry Young Men of that same era into the volatile Mia (Jarvis). The British New Wave established that it was 'grim up North', focusing almost exclusively on the North's (mainly Manchester and surrounding area) poor and using the constantly grim weather as reflective of the lives and opportunities of the people who live there. These films were based, most often, on plays or literature that formed the basis for the Angry Young Man of the 1950s. Arnold takes these precedents, which are integral parts of modern films as disparate as Trainspotting and Billy Elliot, and focuses on the the grim council flats of Somewhere (unspecified) in Essex.

Instead of an Angry Young Man who violently vocalises his discontent with Britain's social order, Jarvis's Mia says very little, yet reacts just as rashly and violently as Richard Harris and Richard Burton did 50 years ago. Arnold's Essex is bathed in sunlight for major sections of the film, but it does not make Mia's environment any more welcoming, hospitable or cheerful. Arnold's writing, direction, and casting are incredible and the changes she makes to the formula of lower-class kitchen sink drama make this a completely modern film that fits perfectly into the traditions of English realism. I think this is an instant classic, sure to be viewed in the future as another example of lyrical and angry responses to England's class divides like masterworks Room at the Top and Boys from the Blackstuff.

So now I say goodbye to TIFF. I am sad to see the attention shift from my amazing hometown back to LA and NYC, but happy that the lines in Yorkville will once again be manageable.


ePastor James said...

Can't fucking wait for Fish Tank. I really hope it gets awards love when it's released states-side.

Anonymous said...

a friend of mine saw Le Refuge at TIFF, too, and was equally disappointed.

Mish said...

I saw Fish Tank at TIFF as well and was equally impressed, particularly with first-time actress Katie Jarvis. I wrote a review here (warning: spoilers)

amir_uk said...

I too was blown away by Fish Tank. There's so much going on in there, technically, stylistically and symbolically. The year's first 5-starrer for me, I think.

I'd go one further and say 'best British film since Atonement.'

Toronto Furniture Rental said...

I can't wait to see Fish Tank. Andrea Arnold is pretty talented. I also liked her Red Road from 2006. It was a decent movie but this new one really sounds like a hit! Thanks for the review Mish, I'll give it a short look and hope I'll avoid the spoilers.

Take care, Ella