(originally published in The Outreach Connection in October 2005)
This is the sixth of Jack Hughes’ reports from the 2005 Toronto Film Festival.
Where the Truth Lies (Atom Egoyan)
Much of the local commentary on Egoyan seems rather bemused, the gist of it being something like: he’s a genius obviously and it’s great that he’s ours, but you know, it’s not really my kind of stuff. The commentary gets snippier as notional rival David Cronenberg’s long-problematic reputation finally consolidates. The Globe and Mail recently published a largely pointless comparison between the two, allotting an easy overall win to Cronenberg. I won’t argue – I didn’t think Egoyan’s last two films had much of anything going for them. Ararat in particular evoked a disgruntled academic grudgingly translating his theories onto celluloid; it had some structural interest, but was visually and tonally undistinguished, with so little sense of the real world that you’d think Turkey’s 1915 atrocities were the ongoing number one conversation topic in our city. Maybe this will seem like a snide dismissal of a distinguished director, but Egoyan’s films seem increasingly shifty and uncomfortable to me. Where the Truth Lies (which has already opened commercially) extends this, in spades. The subject matter at least seems enterprising: a young reporter investigates a 1950’s Martin-and-Lewis-type comedy team whose career ended after a young woman turned up dead in their hotel suite. But the treatment is deadening. It has an intricate time hopping, revelation-layering structure, but never generates even a fleeting sense of true complexity or materiality. Everything carries a consistently inert, plastic feeling, and the controversy about the rating-busting sex scenes is rather hilarious: you could frequently imagine the movie had been made by people whose entire knowledge of sex came from other movies. It’s painfully obvious that Egoyan thinks he’s making a smart, provocative movie; that he’s bathing our senses in period atmosphere and visceral pleasure while simultaneously teasing our intellect and engaging with our mature sensibilities. But he’s delusional, indulged, and at this point drastically overrated.
North Country (Niki Caro)
Caro’s follow-up to Whale Rider, also now in commercial release, is a chronicle of a landmark sexual harassment class action suit, brought by a group of women who worked at a Northern Minnesota mine; Charlize Theron plays the prime mover. The mine here is depicted as a physical and moral hellhole, but of course for all their swaggering attitudes the men almost rank alongside the women as victims – they’re all locked in pathetic received notions (possibly, the movie hints at least a few times, based in sexual insecurity), and perilously narrow horizons. One of many nice moments has Theron’s mother (Sissy Spacek) switching off the Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill hearings (all too conveniently playing in the background of the action) with a shocked: “That poor man’s family!” The film is mostly conventional in its approach – standard-issue conflicts, several dramatic changes of heart, courtroom revelations – and its visual impact comes mainly from the dispiriting vistas of the mine. Although inevitably engaging, with good performances across the board, it’s ultimately the kind of middlebrow creation more interesting as a discussion springboard than as cinema.
Gentille (Sophie Fillieres)
One of my wild-card selections, the film follows a Parisian anesthesiologist (Emmanuelle Devos) whose boyfriend wants to get married, but she’s not sure what she thinks of it. She habitually indulges her intuitions and her affinity for mysterious rearrangements of the elements – in the film’s first scene she mistakenly imagines she’s being followed (and then invites the guy for coffee); in the second she’s mistaken for someone else, although since she in turn misidentifies the other, it takes an extensive conversation to establish this – and the prospect of marriage (all too symbolically embodied in the ring he tries persistently to offload on her) looms as a direct threat to her self-determination. The film is always light and digressive, but Fillieres’ microscope is more exacting than it initially appears to be. She strips Devos naked, in most unflattering circumstances, on several occasions, and as if that wasn’t elemental enough, has her searching through her own excrement after inadvertently swallowing the ring (and isn’t that a symbol about the pernicious nature of what marriage might do to her insides!) Ultimately it’s a thematically modest work, but the good-hearted examination of human quirkiness is a cinematic well that never runs dry, and Fillieres draws from it with more panache than most.
Un couple parfait (Nobuhiro Suwa)
Another French film, although this time with a Japanese director. It tracks a couple who’ve been together for 15 years, on a trip to Paris to attend a wedding; they’ve decided to separate and are sleeping in separate beds, but it seems they are hardly committed to this decision, and they move between irritated recrimination and falling back into long-established behaviour patterns – when they tell another couple of their decision over dinner, they seem more intuitively connected than the couple they’re talking to do. There’s little anger in the film – it’s shot in a small number of long takes (perhaps 40 at the most), in naturalistic low-key lighting; maybe this is overreaching, knowing the director is Japanese, but it’s tempting to see the influence of Ozu both in elements of the style and in the generally restrained but intense psychology. The movie provoked a fair number of walkouts when I saw it, and might be regarded by many as a one-trick pony, but if you succumb to its particular aesthetic it’s quietly mesmerizing.
Vers le sud (Laurent Cantet)
Cantet’s first two films (Time Out and Human Resources) stuck close to the heart of contemporary France, but Vers le sud is a substantial departure. It’s set in late 1970’s Haiti, and focuses on a resort where well-off middle-aged women come to avail themselves of willing local men; an arrangement in which the women overlook the social and racial exploitation inherent in this behaviour for the sake of a fullness of experience (even if fleeting) denied them elsewhere. When one woman goes too far in demonstrating her affection for one of the boys, the edifice soon collapses, although we never learn all the facts underlying what transpires. Implicit in that is the impossibility of tourists presuming to know Haiti or its inhabitants – a land in which one character calls dollars more effective weapons than cannons, and says of the privileged guests that “everything they touch turns to garbage.” The film is an effective evocation of a fascinatingly specific time and place, laying out its issues with meticulous efficiency, although sometimes (as in the scenes of various characters addressing the camera directly) it exhibits a certain strain. I think some will also find its emotional impact a little muted, but this is not necessarily inappropriate given Haiti’s wretched plight, and the shallowness of the bargain that the women cut with the country.