Toronto 2007 | Family Ties

by twhalliii
September 7, 2007 6:42 AM
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Toronto is exploding. Everywhere you look, cranes are hunched over the husks of buildings, feeding construction workers their materials like baby birds in nests of made of steel and glass. Condos, office space, so many reflective surfaces everywhere that the city seems to be admiring itself. The value of the Canadian dollar, which yesterday exchanged at the airport for a rate higher than my US currency, must have something to do with this growth, but as the lake shore begins to look like Miami Beach and the population seems to be climbing straight up into the sky, there is no denying that there is an energy here that feels almost unstoppable. Even the Toronto Film Festival is getting in on the action, with the recent naming of their very own contribution to the proliferation of new spaces, The Bell Lightbox. As a festival programmer, the enormity of a building project like this is not lost on me, and as this annual event (and their year round programs) begin their migration into a beautiful, permanent home, the Toronto Film Festival, already a behemoth, seems to be growing while its roots grab more tightly to the city's firmament.

My first day, and already, something subconscious is taking place in front of my eyes; Four films today, and all of them about families and death which, naturally, seems far too coincidental to be chance and maybe simply an extension of my own fears and desires? Maybe so. First up, and the best of the bunch, Fatih Akin's The Edge Of Heaven which tells the stories of three families stricken by heir tragic interconnections. What films like Babel, Crash and Amores Perros get wrong, with their ham-fisted scenarios and their metaphysics of coincidence, Akin has gotten oh so right because he understands that the film's BIG IDEAS are not about the politics of global interplay reduced to a lowest common narrative, but about the deeply personal connections forged between everyday people across the expanses of an ever-shrinking world. The Edge Of Heaven is a powerful story that weaves together the search for reconciliation between three sets of parents and children; A father and son who have emigrated to Germany from Turkey, a mother and daughter living apart, the mother in Germany and the daughter in Turkey, and a German mother and daughter who follow a different path altogether. Instead of telling us that life has become untenable in the brave new world, Akin shows us that life is as it always was; That connections are made between strangers in strange countries, tragedy strikes with a foreseeable suddenness (each of the film's three sections are given very revealing titles), and that, no matter what, life goes marching onward despite the indelible marks that our experiences make on us. There is no hokey metaphysical nonsense here (despite my concerns when the film won the Ecumenical Jury Prize in Cannes) and the writing and performances are masterful while the direction is terrific and rarely hits a false note (one of the film's 'reveals' in the final minutes of the movie goes over like a lead balloon, but only for overstating what we already know). There is a generosity and humanity to Akin's work that makes these stories universal, and his refusal to allow anything grandiose in his narrative and his visuals to interfere with the reality of his character's lives sets this film apart. It simply feels like the intimate truth. As a first film at this year's festival, I am not sure I could have done much better, but it will be hard to top this one. Tremendous.

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Fatih Akin's The Edge Of Heaven

Next, I took in Amos Gitai's wildly disappointing Disengagement, which is basically two films sharing a cast and neither of them convincing. Despite a very promising opening scene which, upon its conclusion, is never referenced again, the first half of the film plays like Cries and Whispers had it been written by Jean Genet. Juliette Binoche, who gives herself over to her director's demands, is given a character that is told to travel from blithe nonchalance to deep guilt and grief in a single sentence (spoken here by Jeanna Moreau), and while she does what she can with it, the scenario fails her miserably. The daughter of a wealthy Jewish Parisian who has recently died, Binoche's character flits around his well-appointed apartment like a butterfly, dancing, laughing and doing her best to make the dialogue sound something like passable. Her brother, an Israeli Special Forces soldier, arrives and their share a moment of reconciliation that is ruined by sexual overtones, before Moreau tells Bincohe that her father's will left a sizable sum to Binoche's long-lost daughter who is, living on the very kibbutz in the West Bank from Binoche's brother must execute a "disengagement", or a forced removal of Jewish settlers. Of course, that means its time to pack up the Volvo and head to Israel, where the lithe, "comic" refusal of the characters to grieve their father's death is replaced by guilt, love and an extended sequence where very religious Jewish settlers are forcibly removed from their kibbutz by the Israeli forces. The second half works much better than the first, particularly a scene in which Gitai himself appears on screen and chides some soldiers into allowing him to pass through a checkpoint, but the two halves are wholly independent, and the extended nonsense in Paris doesn't raise any stakes in Israel because it follows no narrative logic; Everything here feels like a mood swing, which ultimately undermines the gravity of the moment when Binoche and her daughter (the lovely Dana Igvy, who I last saw in Or ) finally reunite. There is the seed of something powerful here, but the connections never feel true. Another family, more death, less convincing.

A quick break, and then on to Christophe Honoré's Les Chansons d'amour, his follow up to Dans Paris, which I really loved. The new film reunites Honoré with Louis Garrel and also reunites Garrel with his regular Lovers co-star Clotilde Hesme. Les chansons d'amour is a love song to sexual freedom in the literal sense of the word; As if living in a musical, the actors break into songs (written by Alex Beaupan) and express their innermost feelings through some lovely music. That said, Honoré refues the route of, say, a Tsai Ming-Liang (whose work on The Hole and The Wayward Cloud were homages to big, period musical numbers) and instead stages rather mundane performances, where actors simply walk down the empty streets of Paris and rarely engage in anything more dramatic than a teasing wink. This makes sense on paper (if you're going to build songs into the narrative, why change the narrative to accommodate something showy?), but after a while the songs tend to become little more than glorified monologues and dialogues, where the actors simply state their feelings into the void of everyday life. This has the effect of making the songs seems almost immaterial, since the words could be spoken or sung without any interruption in the film's visual flow, and since the narrative feels almost like a re-invention of a 19th century novel, I wish that Honoré would have chosen to go big with these feelings or to avoid the songs altogether, because the story itself is very interesting. A love triangle among some beautiful young Parisians is broken up when one of the trio dies (again, a title card tells us what we need to know well in advance) and the impact is felt deeply in the relationship and in the deceased girl's tightly-knit family.

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You'd Think That People Would Have Had Enough Of Silly Love Songs: Christophe Honoré's Les Chansons d'amour

Once his lover is gone, the film belongs to Louis Garrel's Ismaël, and Garrel once again provides enough rakish charm to channel Jean-Pierre Leaud and easily carry the movie in his quest to re-connect with his feelings and an unexpected lover. But again, his transformation feels a little too sudden and his grief too understated to convey the depth of his character's need and again, the script lets him down. Honoré does get in many of his signature references to movies of the past (a delicious nod to La Dolce Vita sets Ismaël down the road to emotional recovery) and his stylish look at the generosity of love is really a charming film that I really enjoyed. If only the middle path had not been taken and Honoré had the courage of his convictions, the film might have been exceptional. Cest la vie. Again, a dead sister, a family loss. Three for three.

Final movie of the day was Baltasar Kormákur's Jar City, an Icelandic noir procedural about cops working hard to solve the murder of a very shady character. The film, which, for all its style points is something that is easily solved, does have its moments of grace and lyrisicism, especially when it lets its main hero, a down-on-his-luck detective named Erandur ( a terrifically gruff Ingvar Sigurdsson) and his team work with the other actors; Against the gorgeous, desolate landscape of Iceland they are no match! The film, which I place in the "no crime where we usually work" genre of films like Fargo, Memories of a Murder and L'Humanite, is significant for making its narrative intentions clear very early on and providing very few unforeseen suprises, yet working as a movie because its characters are so finely drawn and its juxtapositions so clever. Several sequences make light of the Icelandic diet of 'whatever meat is available' and the good work of Björn Hlynur Haraldsson as Sigurður Óli provides plenty of comic relief. What no American audiences would buy as an American procedural set in, say, Montana, the exoticism of Iceland makes palatable and, once the film's family ties are finally (and obviously) revealed, the story is at once credible, modern and somehow a fable. It's a fun movie, one that holds few surprises but delivers its family drama perfectly. Four of four. A theme confirmed.

A full day tomorrow; Dinner with my fellow programmers and bloggers tonight was a lot of fun. Sleep now, and five more tomorrow. Must rest.

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