(originally published in The Outreach Connection in September 2007)
This is the third of Jack Hughes’ reports from the 2007 Toronto Film Festival.
La fille coupee en deux (Claude Chabrol)
Chabrol is probably the least intellectually esteemed of the three French New Wave veterans who brought films to this year’s festival, having spent much of his efforts (and he’s been amazingly prolific) on melodramatic material of somewhat uncertain thematic value. Inevitably, the precision that marked classics like Le Boucher has eased off now, to be replaced by a sense of relative effortlessness that might yield either grace or fuzziness (based, it sometimes seems, on little more than how the wind blows). The new film is another unwieldy concoction, with Ludivine Sagnier as a TV weather girl who has an affair with an esteemed, much older author, while being pursued by the more age-appropriate but unstable heir to a chemical fortune (played, bizarrely ripely, by Benoit Magimel). The film mostly bumps along, with a confusing sense of time and psychology; some of its more interesting avenues are barely explored, whereas much of the plot turns on some “depraved” actions presented here with a rather doddery-seeming discretion. None of it is dull, but it again carries a sense of near-randomness, with the different tones and structures never coalescing. It just doesn’t feel as if Chabrol tried very hard to think his way into these people and situations, which leads here to overall hollowness, rather than masterly transcendence.
Les amours d’Astree et de Celadon (Eric Rohmer)
87-year old Rohmer has said this may be his last film, and if so he may have chosen an almost perfect parting note. Adapted from a 17th century novel and set who knows when, this is a simple tale of love lost and regained between two shepherds, apparently shot in extremely modest circumstances, and for a little while it seems perhaps too flighty for this great director. But we soon see how this might all along have been the blueprint for almost all his wonderful comedies and proverbs, turning on another moral dilemma which gives rise to delicious plot complications. The film involves some suspension of disbelief, or at least the ability to think oneself into a different frame of reference. But since the opening titles gently caution us that this has been shot in an alternate location because the true setting is now inadequately preserved, we’re clearly compelled to bring our contemporary sensibility to the table. The closing sequences are some of Rohmer’s most unrestrained celebrations of love, not to mention being unusually erotic for him. Overall, if it’s not as complex or completely fulfilling as his very best work, there’s no doubt that Rohmer’s vision for the film, and for its place in his wonderful career, has been completely achieved.
Ne touchez pas la hache (Jacques Rivette)
A mere 80 years old, Rivette’s film by contrast doesn’t feel at all like a wrapping up work (unless one counts the presence of several key past collaborators in supporting roles), but rather like a quite surprising new direction. As concentrated as anything he’s ever done, this is an adaptation of Balzac’s novel The Duchess of Langeais, about what we would nowadays call a distinctly passive-aggressive relationship between the duchess and her military suitor. He obsessively devotes himself to her, winning only minor concessions; when he turns the table and starts to ignore her, she becomes obsessed with regaining his devotion. The film is superbly controlled and well acted by Jeanne Balibar and Guillaume Depardieu, but I must confess it strikes me as second-tier Rivette. In his best films, which are just about as good as anyone’s, he’s constructed a unique cinematic universe: elegant, literate, mystical, playful. It’s only at the very end, when the officer and his friends set out on a seafaring quest, that Ne touchez pas la hache really works in that classic vein. But as with just about every Rivette movie I’ve ever seen, I suspect it will take multiple viewings to open up all the rewards here.
Before the Devil Knows you’re Dead (Sidney Lumet)
83-year-old Sidney Lumet is perhaps the oldest working American director (you can see there’s a theme to how I make many of my selections – I call it “always buy brand names”). Never recognized as an auteur, Lumet’s best work nevertheless exhibits a terrific fusion of form and content, a great feel for the contemporary pulse, and of course often-brilliant acting. The glory days of Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon et al are a while ago now, although his last film Find Me Guilty (which I haven’t yet managed to see) reportedly recaptured some of the old flair for atmospheric logistics. The new film certainly does so in spades. Philip Seymour Hoffman and Ethan Hawke are brothers (which as imaginative casting goes, works way better than Lumet’s casting of Sean Connery and Dustin Hoffman as father and son in Family Business), both suffering major money problems, which they aim to solve by knocking off their parents’ jewelry store. Needless to say, things go wrong, but if some of the plot mechanics are broadly predictable, Lumet’s masterly handling of the steadily darkening tone certainly isn’t. The film does some jumping around in time, which seems obligatory of all thrillers now, but never becomes a prisoner of its structure: the director has a great feeling for the lives and the settings and coaxes several of the actors (Hoffman, and the magnificent Albert Finney as their slowly tuning-in father) to an Oscar-worthy level. Amazing to say, but this might ultimately rank as one of the best of Lumet’s fifty or so pictures.
And here’s one I caught up with in its current commercial release
Across the Universe (Julie Taymor)
This is certainly a film of very high imagination and quality of execution, weaving thirty or forty Beatles songs into a narrative about young people in the 60’s, against the backdrop of Vietnam, the draft, and the evolving counterculture; glamorously turbulent America is contrasted with drab industrial Liverpool. Certain sequences are breathtaking in their surreal vision, and Taymor – who ascended to major fame with the stage production of The Lion King – unleashes the entire range of her gifts here. But you may detect a certain stiffness to this praise, and unfortunately the film is hardly as galvanizing as you’d want. Structurally ingenious as the narrative may be, it brings as much fresh insight to its period and characters as The Lion King did to the serious study of African ecosystems. The acting and musicianship are mostly bland, the premise soon gets tired (the lead character is called Jude…the women around him are called Lucy and Sadie and Prudence…eventually you can’t help rolling your eyes), and even Taymor’s virtuosity sometimes seems merely like undisciplined fiddling at the digital keyboard. All you Need is Love, of course, provides the finale. As they say, if a thing’s not worth doing, it’s not worth doing well.