There’s a television columnist at the San Francisco Chronicle who I absolutely love – Tim Goodman – who, like most of his ilk, has to travel twice a year to Los Angeles for the Television Critics Association press tour, a dog-and-pony show interspersed with many bibulous parties. He calls them the Death March with Cocktails.
Don’t get me wrong, I love love love the Toronto International Film Festival, but, like Goodman’s Death March with Cocktails, once you get on the ride, it’s hard to get off, and there’s a relentless rhythm to one’s days. It’s a Death March without cocktails, for me. Dorothy Parker said “Another drink, and I’ll be under the host,” but one drink for me and I’ll sleep through a couple of reels.
Years ago the press and industry mingled more with the public; as of last year, most of the P&I screenings are in two big new buildings a couple of blocks away from each other, the spiffy new Bell Lightbox, with five theaters of varying sizes, and a multiplex called Scotiabank. Both boast large screens and excellent projection.
As usual, even though, thanks to Telluride and some pre-Toronto screenings in SF, I’ve seen almost twenty movies in the lineup, my first barefoot run through the catalogue yields a hundred titles to which I feel entitled. I’ll be lucky if I see forty of them.
And the vagaries of scheduling mean I’ll probably see some movies I wasn’t initially drawn to.
The day before the screenings start, I spend a leisurely couple of hours going through the Fellini: Spectacular Obsessions show in the Bell Lightbox Gallery (once I’ve convinced the ticket takers that a press pass entitles one to free admission. Toronto’s much-vaunted niceness does not seem to be on display this year). It’s an orgy of photos and noisiness. The show is extra-heavy on La Dolce Vita and paparazzi, though the cameramen seem tame in relation to today’s media-mediocrity. I leave wondering what somebody who had never seen the films would think. (Of course, there was a Fellini and Neo-realist season programmed along with the show.)
I’m happy to run into Wim Wenders in the tiny book-and-gift shop on the ground floor of the Lightbox, who has changed his crumpled linen suit for a lovely fresh blue one, which he’s wearing with a denim shirt and chic blue-framed eyeglasses. I thank him again for Pina, and tell him I first saw her work during the Olympics Arts Festival in Los Angeles in 1984. “They’re doing ten of her dances at Sadler’s Wells in London during the Olympics, next year,” he tells me. Somehow I don’t think I’ll be there.
Where I am, on the morrow, is enjoying Lars von Trier’s (that troubleseeking jackanapes!) Melancholia, in a pretty packed house, at a 9:30 a.m. press screening. I find it beautiful and rather enthralling, with a solid, believable central performance by Kirsten Dunst. Gee, I wonder why there are so many apocalyptic stories floating around these days? I note that von Trier is now dining out on his unfortunate notoriety: recently he was cheered when he said that there have been a lot of Palme d’Ors awarded, “but how many persona non gratas?”
Afterwards I go from the packed 548-seat house at the Lightbox to a sparsely-occupied 392-seater at Scotiabank, to see Bruno Dumont’s Outside Satan. I have to glance several times at the person seated to my right before I can figure out whether it’s Atom Egoyan or a teenager who wants to look like him. It’s indeed Atom, and we catch up: he’s working on a new play starring his wife Arsinée Khanjian, and directing an opera. I tell him his bit in a trailer thanking the Toronto volunteers – he can’t open a locked door to walk onstage at a tribute – got laughs at the Melancholia screening. He hasn’t seen it yet – this is his first movie of the festival. Arsinée joins us, and tells me that they reminded Wim at dinner last night that they still have the $5000 check —framed -- that Wenders received for Wings of Desire in 1987, which he gave to Atom because Wenders was so impressed with Egoyan’s Family Viewing. (I’m impressed that they didn’t cash the check. But Atom tells me he tried to, but couldn’t because it was made out to Wenders. So a new check was issued to him in his name and he framed the original.)
The Dumont is, well, classic Dumont: simple rural people in pastoral landscapes, interesting compositions, brutal sex, brutal violence, brutal religion. I like it, anyway more than I did his last film, Hadewijch, which won the International Film Critic’s Award at TIFF 2009, but which only gave me an envy for an enormous Parisian apartment that seemed underappreciated by its heroine. (I often wonder if I would enjoy or anyway understand certain films more if I’d had a religious upbringing – for instance, Tree of Life.)
Afterwards we run into Brian de Palma, a Toronto fest stalwart who was also watching the Dumont. I tell him I’m looking forward to A Separation, and Arsinee and Atom say they loved it, too, but he’s teaching a student class when it’s press-screening later today.
At 3 I get in line behind Atom, Arsinee, and Geoffrey Rush to see as much of I can of Ralph Fiennes’ modern-dress Coriolanus, complete with right-off-the-evening-news Middle-Eastern-seeming locations, tanks, machine guns, TV cameras, generals communicating through computer videofeeds, and the seemingly-ever-present Jessica Chastain and Vanessa Redgrave. It’s very respectable, but I find it easy to leave after 90 minutes of its 122-minute-running-time to slide into A Separation.
There are numberless twists and turns in this story of a messy divorce and subsequent cascading problems, small and large, in modern-day Iran, and all of them completely believable. The wife wants to emigrate to the US; the husband feels bound to stay and take care of his father, who has Alzheimer’s. Their adolescent daughter is torn between the two of them. A woman, briefly employed to take care of grandpa, is pushed out the door of the apartment when she leaves the elderly man tethered to his bed. She suffers a miscarriage, and her out-of-work, hot-tempered husband brings a legal complaint. I was on the edge of my seat for two hours. And, since the ending was cleverly ambiguous (the lady or the tiger?), I find myself figuratively hovering there.
Day Two dawns with Footnote, a stylish academic dramedy from Israel, featuring dueling Talmudic scholars who happen to be father and son. The witty script won best screenplay at Cannes. As in A Separation, problems arise that would give Solomon a headache. Again with the ambiguous ending!
Although usually I tend to stick with a movie, I can’t connect with Roland Emmerich’s lavishly mounted but to me plodding and somewhat incoherent Anonymous (though I’m pleased that Rhys Ifans is well-nigh unrecognizable and beefily handsome as Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford – and I enjoy mad-eyed Vanessa Redgrave in her turn as Queen Elizabeth the First).
I stumble, briefly, into what appears to be a run-of-the-mill coming-of-age French comedy, J’aime regarder les filles, and then I switch to my first real delightful surprise of TIFF: Free Men, a stylish thriller set in occupied France in 1942, among the North African and Muslim men and women who work with the Resistance. It stars Tahar Rahim (The Prophet), Michel Lonsdale (as a famed Muslim cleric!, and a double agent one at that), and a host of excellent unknown supporting players, against a seductive backdrop of Paris cafes, clubs, and the picturesque Great Mosque of Paris, a little bit of Casablanca hidden in plain sight in the 5th arrondissement. I love everything about this movie – script, sets, acting, camerawork, subtext -- and I’d never heard of it (or its director, Ismaël Ferroukhi) before I picked up the TIFF 2011 catalogue.
Then I see the Dardenne brothers’ The Kid With a Bike. They can’t make a bad movie, but I find this, while satisfying, fluidly shot, and exceptionally well-acted, a bit of a fairy-tale, especially in the personage of Cecile de France, a blonde hairdresser who plays fairy godmother and rescues a seemingly incorrigible young boy who’s recklessly acting out his pain after being abandoned by his feckless father.
Afterwards I join my friends David Pendleton of the Harvard Film Archive and Greg Kachel as they search for tickets for that evening’s screening on Dumont’s Under Satan. We run into Michael Barker and A Separation’s Asghar Farhadi in the Lightbox lobby; compliments and cards are exchanged, and Farhadi is extended an invitation to Harvard.
While we wait in line at the Press & Industry box office, I’m gifted a spare ticket to Michael Winterbottom’s Trishna at 10, conveniently located in the same theater where I’m seing Elles, starring Juliette Binoche, at 7 p.m.
We celebrate with a quick drink. Death March with cocktail – I down a Manhattan, straight up, oxymoronically.
Elles is shown in a new venue for this year’s TIFF, the Princess of Wales Theatre, a very plush legit house where I believe I saw Miss Saigon many many years ago. Juliette Binoche plays a journalist whose researching of an article about prostitutes makes her vaguely dissatisfied with her own life: successful handsome husband, huge Paris apartment, two boys, one young and cute, the other adolescent and cute. My heart bleeds borscht for her. Amazingly, all of the johns of the two pros she interviews are attractive. My hear bleeds borscht for the sex workers, too. The entire crew onhand – Polish director Malgoska Szumowska, her co-screenwriter, a female producer, and Binoche – are tall, gorgeous, leggy, and dressed in chic flowing black.
During the Q and A I am dubious when they said the project was a hard sell because of its subject matter – yeah, I think, because sex doesn’t sell as film material. But I do enjoy Binoche’s feisty answer to an audience questioner who referred obliquely to a lengthy auto-erotic sequence by asking if she did her own stunt work. “You mean the masturbation?”, Binoche said. “Malgoska helped!”
Winterbottom’s Trishnais an adaptation of Tess of the D’Urbervilles, set in modern-day India and starring Frieda Patel and Riz Ahmed (and a star turn by Roshan Seth as Ahmed’s father, who creates more of an interesting character in a few minutes of screen time than the two youngsters do over two hours). Winterbottom never makes the same movie twice, but I don’t think he quite managed to make this one once. I found myself thinking longingly of Polanski’s overheated 1979 version, starring Nastassja Kinski, Peter Firth, and Leigh Lawson. The Q and A is this time clueless: the audience disses poor Trishna (“simpleminded”, one girl calls her), doesn’t seem to understand the mysteries of love and passion (“What did he see in her? He could have had any girl in India!”), and suggests alternate endings.
It’s 12:30. Does the subway shut down in Toronto, I wonder, as I walk towards it. Anyway it’ll be running in the morning when I ride towards my first screening – I’m trying to decide between the sure-fire pleasure of Alexander Payne’s The Descendants or the more problematic Wuthering Heights, a British production by Andrea Arnold, who cast her Heathcliff with a young black actor. They’re both on at 9 a.m. Or there are even darker horses possible. I’ll decide in the morning.