(originally published in The Outreach Connection in September 2007)
This is the first of Jack Hughes’ reports from the 2007 Toronto Film Festival.
The Man From London (Bela Tarr)
I’ve seen only one Bela Tarr film, The Werckmeister Harmonies; I especially regret not seeing his seven-hour (OK, it’s a qualified sort of regret) Satantango, most famously championed by Susan Sontag (note – I subsequently rectified this). The new film, which made it through numerous production challenges, is his first since Werckmeister, seven years ago now. Based on a George Simenon story, and a mere two and a quarter hours long (and sadly feeling no shorter), it tells of an ordinary man who witnesses a crime, retrieves a suitcase full of stolen money, and gets drawn into the consequent spiral. In interviews, Tarr expresses a complex set of ambitions for the film – “it deals with the cosmic and the realistic, the divine and the human…” – but I don’t think these are fully realized. His notoriously exacting technique – shooting in pristine black and white, involving very long, deliberately paced, meticulously orchestrated takes – seems rather constricting here, and the story is too generic for the “cosmic” aspects to soar very high. Amid an authentically unhealthy looking cast, the presence of recognizable (and badly dubbed) Tilda Swinton as the protagonist’s wife just seems like a mistake. A couple of very long close ups of a secondary female character might oddly be the film’s most riveting moments, but suggest a latent desire to have taken all this in a different direction entirely. Sadly, you get the feeling that the struggle to make the film may have slightly calcified a great artist’s intuition.
Les chansons d’amour (Christophe Honore)
This is the first film I’ve seen by young French director Honore, and it certainly goes down easily. He seems to be aspiring here to be a modern-day Jacques Demy in presenting the tangled love lives of a few young Parisians, who frequently articulate their feelings by bursting into song. Louis Garrel (who has a real throwback quality about him, sometimes reminding me of Truffaut’s original muse Jean-Pierre Leaud) is the centre – a young professional who travels through superficial bliss, through terrible loss, to a state that’s far less definable but perhaps more sustainable. He’s surrounded by an endlessly shifting network of plausibly needy, uncertain, flawed people, and the movie is a great uncliched hymn to Paris. Honore’s vision and style aren’t as joyously all-encompassing as Demy’s (and the songs aren’t as memorable either) but he certainly takes advantage of contemporary pragmatism while exhibiting a classical good humour and emotional curiosity. The film’s closing line – “Love me less but love me a long time” – is a nice summing up of its underlying sense of neediness, and given where the film begins (a deliriously attractive guy-and-two-girls-in-a-bed set-up), one would never guess the parties to that final exchange, nor its setting.
The Past (Hector Babenco)
This is an unexpectedly intimate work from Argentinean director Babenco, best known for his Hollywood stint that produced Kiss of the Spider Woman and At Play in the Fields of the Lord. It starts with a young married couple undergoing one of the all-time amicable breakdowns, after which he (played by Gael Garcia Bernal) initially falls on his feet more comfortably than she does. But as he goes through a string of break-ups and personal reversals, all somehow linked to the periodic reappearances of his ex-wife, it starts to seem their fates are still linked after all, something that she attributes to his failure to provide adequate closure when he ignored her parting request to help sort through their old photos. At times then it resembles a morality tale; at others it functions as a tribute to feminine patience and fortitude; the pieces are often melodramatic, and yet the protagonist’s reinventions of himself (his transition from overweight crapped-out alcoholic into a sleek personal fitness trainer is particularly startling) almost have the feel of science fiction. It’s certainly interesting, although never really fulfilling. Gael brings a lot to the essentially passive main character, although the actress playing his ex-wife, with far fewer scenes, dominates the film, creating a character who seems capable of lurching at any given moment in any direction, and yet is still true and moving.
Le voyage du ballon rouge (Hou Hsiao-Hsien)
Hou has been moving recently from his original project of dramatizing the political and social history of his homeland Taiwan toward a more universally-based immersion in cinematic joy; the new direction may be less rigorous in some ways, but it’s starting to look as if Hou should perhaps be counted as being two of the world’s best directors! The new film is a tribute to Albert Lamorisse’s 1956 The Red Balloon (which I’ve actually never seen), and it’s Hou’s first to be made outside Asia. It’s breathtaking under those circumstances that it’s suffused in such easy naturalism. Juliette Binoche (in one of her most colourful, magnetic performances) is an actress and single mother who engages a Chinese film student as a nanny for her young son; scenes of everyday life around their wonderfully cluttered Parisian apartment contrast with vignettes of the red balloon, which may or may not belong to a short film the student is making. There’s little plot and no narrative closure as such, and the pace is serene, articulated through Hou’s usual long takes (which are so much more intoxicating than Bela Tarr’s), but the film swells with possibility and connection. It deconstructs cinematic magic by laying out some digital tricks, but only to remind us (and virtually every character in here is a creator of some kind) how our sense of beauty in art is enhanced rather than dulled by an appreciation for the underlying process. This is easily one of the best films of the last few years.
The Walker (Paul Schrader)
In my preview article I cited this as being perhaps my top pick among the festival’s English-language offerings; consequently, it ends up perhaps being the greatest disappointment of the films I saw. On paper it sounded great, bearing some echoes of Schrader’s early success American Gigolo. The (gay) scion of an esteemed political family (Woody Harrelson) now spends his life as an amusing bauble on the arm of Washington’s wealthy older women; but when he’s caught up in a murder investigation, in which he’s protecting a compromised senator’s wife (Kristin Scott-Thomas), it all starts to unravel. Lauren Bacall and Lily Tomlin are in the mix as well, so it’s certainly an interesting cast, and Harrelson’s stylized performance becomes more persuasive as it goes on. The sexual and political themes of Schrader’s best work are certainly implicit in the material, but the handling is dull, and the whole thing becomes increasingly swamped by (often barely penetrable) plot mechanics, yielding only the vaguest and most generic of insights into the devious workings of the machinery of power. I’ve enjoyed Schrader’s work most of all when his famously turbulent psyche has been closest to the surface – his delirious version of Cat People being the prime example – but The Walker is just too drab and conventional to be any fun.