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TIFF Diary: Remembering Chabrol, Potiche, I Saw The Devil, Monsters, Brighton Rock

by Meredith Brody
September 16, 2010 5:53 AM
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Thompson on Hollywood

In her ongoing Toronto journal, day five, Meredith Brody starts off remembering Claude Chabrol:

So I realized trudging home from the subway last night that the reason I hadn’t remembered that the Toronto subway doesn’t begin running until 9 a.m. on Sunday was that I never had been obliged to use the subway on the way to an early-morning screening before.

I don’t know why it had taken all day for this revelation to hit me. I hadn’t heard about the death of Claude Chabrol until I got back, either, and read an email from Allan Arkush, off filming a new television series called Hellcats in Vancouver, that began “R.I.P. Claude Chabrol. Let’s raise a glass of vin rouge to you for Violette, Le Boucher, The Story of Women, A Comedy of Power, and so many, many more…”

In Paris last spring, I was thrilled to discover, in a bookshop window, a book that I felt had been written just for me: Chabrol se met à table, a collection of interviews, essays, photos, and recipes about food in Chabrol’s movies and his life. I carried it away – it was the only copy they had in stock, though I wanted to buy a couple more copies. One was supposed to be destined for Dieter Kosslick of the Berlinale, and another for Thomas Struck, the head of the Berlinale’s special section called Culinary Cinema. Struck somehow manages to not only program new films about food (both narrative and documentary) every year, but pairs them with a complementary (not “complimentary” – but reasonable! -- menu served in a turn-of-the-century wood, velvet, and crystal tent set up across from its screening venue.

When Ernst Lubitsch died, it is said that Billy Wilder murmured “No more Lubitsch,” mournfully, at his funeral, and William Wyler replied, “Worse than that – no more Lubitsch movies” (which may be the only time that Wyler said something wittier than Wilder). I feel the same way about Chabrol. Toronto reliably supplied me with “the new Chabrol” for many years – though I saw his last feature, Bellamy, which I believe was the first time he’d worked with Gerard Depardieu, last November in the San Francisco Film Society’s New French Cinema Now series.

Thompson on Hollywood

So it seemed appropriate to begin the day with a French movie, Potiche, starring Depardieu, among others, by the prolific French director François Ozon, 42 years old and director of a dozen feature films, a dozen-and-a-half shorts, and at least one documentary. Not quite on track to equal Chabrol’s almost 70 features, but an impressive and diverse body of work. A rough translation of “potiche” would be “trophy,” and Catherine Deneuve, at 66, plays a fiftyish trophy wife of faithless Fabrice Lucchini, who now heads the umbrella factory started by Deneuve’s father. When a labor strike sends Lucchini to the hospital with heart trouble, Deneuve, who has had adventures of her own (notably with the communist mayor and MP played by Depardieu), takes over the factory and improves the hell out of it. When Lucchini seizes power from her, Deneuve (in a third act added by Ozon to the original 1980 boulevard comedy) runs for MP opposite Depardieu--and wins.

It’s not quite the light-as-air farce it wants to be, but it’s great fun to see a whole cadre of excellent French actors – including Judith Godreche, Karin Viard, Jeremie Renier, and, in a sly cameo, Sergi Lopez – having their way with intricate, literate French dialogue.

Afterwards my anticipated program went to hell in a handcart. I planned to see The Butcher, The Chef, and the Swordsman, a Midnight Madness title whose catalogue description began: “Who would think that haute cuisine would be a source of conflict in the martial arts world?” and referenced the films God of Cookery as well as Tampopo, and “kitchen scenes nothing short of culinary erotica.” I was so there.

But I found myself unable to stay there. The cutting was so intense, the colors so dusty, the stylization so fierce, that I felt trapped in a noisy pinball machine (OK, bowing to the 21st century, video game), and was unable to make it through the initial butcher section to the arrival of the chef.

I tried the American independent Dirty Girl, whose comic-book colors and cheerful vulgarity didn’t suit my mood, either.

The third try, Monsters, a UK independent by a first-time feature director, Gareth Edwards, was, in the lexicon of Goldilocks and the three bears, just right. I liked the premise: alien life forms are quarantined in a zone of Mexico near the US border, and a newspaper photographer tries to escort the daughter of his mogul boss back to the US through the danger zone. I loved the grungy production design and the rather lush, even romantic cinematography (by the director himself). The unknown-to-me young actors were charming and believable – and the Mexican actors, even in bit parts, were excellent. I had intended to leave early and see Jerzy Skolimowski’s Essential Killing, per my original plan, but I stayed riveted to my seat.

The Skolimowski, playing in one of the smaller theaters (139 seats), was fully booked, and I couldn’t bluff my way in – nor did I really want to arrive 15 minutes in.

So instead I watched the 2-hour-and-twenty-minute Korean serial-killer epic I Saw the Devil, by Kim Jee-Woon, of The Good, the Bad, and the Weird fame. I always say that I like violence in movies, since that’s where it belongs, but even I began to feel soiled and a trifle guilty as this one wore one, as though by watching it I was somehow condoning or participating in its actions.

It was grim enough that I didn’t have the heart to blithely spend a couple of hours with Ken Loach’s vengeful Iraq veteran in Route Irish, again as planned, and instead went to Tom Twyker’s Three, hoping for something glossy and light and fast-paced and funny and stylish. The story of a longtime male & female couple, together for twenty years, that accidentally both begin affairs, unknowingly, with the same somewhat elusive male scientist, kept me at arm’s length.

Afterwards I thought I’d just give in and see Robert Redord’s The Conspirators, what the hell, it was right there and boasts an excellent cast (James McAvoy, my personal favorite). But I was rescued from my lazy commercial instincts because the screening was canceled.

And I actually crossed Toronto and, thanks to a generous publicist, got into a sold-out screening of Brighton Rock at the Winter Garden, an eccentric old vaudeville theater lined with artificial foliage, perched atop the larger Elgin Theater on Yonge Street. Another fully-booked screening of Rabbit Hole was lining up at the same time, awaiting the arrival of Nicole Kidman, Aaron Eckhart, Dianne Wiest, Giancarlo Esposito, director John Cameron Mitchell – that crowd.

But at last I got a taste of the starry TIFF experience, with graceful introduction by CEO Piers Handling, director Rowan Joffe, and two of his stars, Helen Mirren and Andrea Riseborough, wearing what seemed to be each others’ outfits – Mirren, with white-blonde bob, in a younger-than-springtime short strapless floral number, and the not-yet-thirty Riseborough (who’s in two other movies at TIFF this year, Made in Dagenham and Never Let Me Go), in a floor-length Grecian-goddess draped beige Oscar-worthy number, trimmed with glittery jewels.

I had mixed feelings about Brighton Rock, which had to contend not only with my memory of the 1947 British film (in which Richard Attenborough did his best work, I think, as Pinky), but the several months I spent adapting the novel with a writing partner in the eighties – one of those development deals that start with much excitement and end up in turnaround. But it did briefly transform the mean streets of Toronto (well, Yonge, anyway) into a continuation of Brighton’s sleazy combination of cheap holiday thrills and petty crime, enhanced by a whiff of what the English would call drains. And I was pleased to find the brightly-lit ABC Books still open at close to 11 p.m. I purchased what is at least my third copy of Brighton Rock, a nice Vintage Classics paperback marked down to $7.99 from $21.95 Canadian, and am just about to read myself to sleep with it.

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