(originally published in The Outreach Connection in October 2005)
This is the fifth of Jack Hughes’ reports from the 2005 Toronto Film Festival.
A History of Violence (David Cronenberg)
I don’t really think of myself as a big David Cronenberg fan, but maybe I’m getting there, because in recent years I’ve watched several of his movies for a second time. The most rewarding revisit was Crash, which I’d hated the first time, but which after a few years seemed utterly fascinating in how it constructs its own language of desire and engagement. In a way the movie’s impact is based on sheer persistence as much as on its specific achievements, and the emphasis on celebrity car crashes seems to me to be making a conventional point about star worship, but overall it’s still a stunning vision of tragic displacement. People often disparage sex films for not actually being erotic – but here’s a film that really merits the distinction: it’s hard to get aroused when the sexuality is so completely about negation. I don’t quite know how meaningful Crash may be as a metaphor for anything real, but at the very least it’s one of the great gloomy fantasies of the age.
His last film Spider seemed much more self-effacing than his other films (excepting perhaps his motor racing movie Fast Company, which I’ve never seen), and as such did perfect service to its peculiar protagonist’s inner world. I admired it immensely, but unusually for a Cronenberg film I felt I more or less “got” it at first viewing, which left little reason to want to see it again. Taken at face value, A History of Violence seems even more susceptible to this kind of reaction; in most ways it’s his most classically controlled, seamless film. Viggo Mortensen plays a small-town diner owner and family man thrown into the media spotlight when he displays amazing prowess in taking on a couple of out-of-town thugs. The attention attracts more shady characters, claiming that Mortensen is not who he says he is, but rather a Philadelphia mob enforcer who disappeared years earlier. Mortensen maintains his denial, but after another encounter pulls him into further brutality, his world’s quiet surface further ruptures.
The theme is in some way obvious – that any appearance of serenity in American life is inherently built on violence and thus potentially unsustainable. Mortensen’s performance is masterfully restrained, allowing any number of interpretations regarding the true extent of his suppression (his wife is a lawyer and presumably the major breadwinner, and there are subtle hints that his situation is one of willing emasculation). When the violence erupts, it’s always with extreme sudden intensity, and Cronenberg focuses afterwards on details of the bloody aftermath, disrupting the comfortable distance normally allowed us by generic convention (and providing the film’s most obvious visual links to his earlier work). A subplot with Mortensen’s son, harassed by a school bully but finding his own reserves of unsuspected brutality, establishes the malaise’s recurring nature, how for all the nurturing appearance of family, it’s as effective in passing down what is suppressed as what is visible.
The film is generally quiet, eerily precise, conveying the thin line between picture-book stability and sheer alien despair. And Cronenberg manages to transmit the full warped power of the mob without tripping over into showy cliché or crass glamour. At the end of the day, the material remains somewhat predictable, and the general ideas are in one way or another well covered in contemporary cinema (Clint Eastwood’s Mystic River is an especially eloquent recent example). But Cronenberg suggests here an acute analytical prowess, which could herald an excitingly expansive next phase in his career.
The Sun (Aleksandr Sokurov)
Sokurov’s film (the third in a series of studies of twentieth century power, with Lenin and Hitler already covered) is a fairly astonishing dramatization of Japan’s Emperor Hirohito at the end of World War Two – a time when Japan’s defeat is clear, and he must be the medium for its enforced transition into the modern world; but by virtue of his officially divine status and intensely isolated existence can barely comprehend the task before him. The Emperor’s life mingles ritual meetings with personal diversions (such as studying marine biology) that, while on one level banal, express his intense inner meditation on his status. The film is composed primarily of ghostly yellow – there are virtually no other primary colours on the screen – and frequently carries the visual and aural texture of science fiction; the evocation of Hiroshima and subsequently of the devastated Japan are simply overwhelming. Ultimately, the Emperor reaches a determination that marks both a personal deliverance, and the spiritual death of the nation that he embodied. The film’s Americans by contrast appear flippantly certain of their entitlement to the modern world. The film is a wholly convincing psychological evocation, and simultaneously a supernatural postulate of immense dimensions, with a uniquely ominous governing tone; it may be one of the major works of recent years.
Everlasting Regret (Stanley Kwan)
I’ve only seen one of Kwan’s films – Lan Yu, which played at the 2001 festival. That one was mainly interesting for its very existence – an unabashed gay love story, Chinese style, encompassing full-frontal nudity and relatively little angst. It carried off its chosen project so successfully that I felt it could have accommodated greater ambition (although I may not be fully aware of what it took to get the film made at all). Kwan’s most famous film is the earlier Actress, which I haven’t seen. His new film sees him in lush melodramatic mode, tracking a former Miss Shanghai from the 1940’s to the 70’s, registering partners that come and go in her own life and those around her, incidents of joy and sadness, with regret (particularly for a separated best friend) serving as the predominant emotion. It initially moves very quickly, almost to the point of narrative shorthand, then later slows down a little, while continuing to leap across decades and major incidents. Political events register primarily as points of emotional demarcation – actions rooted in free will intertwine with those imposed by institutional or other circumstance, into a barely differentiated whirl of incident.
This is all shot in a knowingly artificial, pastel mode, almost all in interiors; an initial preponderance of social events such as dances and high living yields to the staid (but not embalmed) rhythms of middle age. As with classic Hollywood melodramas, the style appears inherently political in exposing the cracks permeating the official version of Chinese history, although I think the official version may now be sufficiently discredited that the project can only arouse so much interest. I found the film watchable, but not of great weight – Kwan’s style seemed to me too undifferentiated, resulting in a narrow intellectual and emotional impact. I will admit though that of all the films I saw at the festival this year, this is the one where I most wonder whether I just didn’t get it.