(originally published in The Outreach Connection in November 2002)
This is the seventh and last of Jack Hughes’ reports from the 2002 Toronto Film Festival.
Femme Fatale (Brian De Palma)De Palma’s closing gala feels like a self-parody even by his standards, although with him it’s hard to know whether that’s an insult or a compliment (I mean it as the former). Starting with an intricately choreographed jewel heist at the Cannes festival, it jumps forward seven years as one of the perpetrators (Rebecca Romjim-Stamos) finds her past closing in on her; Antonio Banderas is a photographer who gets caught in the web. The film must have less dialogue than almost any Hollywood work since Mel Brooks’ Silent Movie – it’s pure design. In something like The Untouchables and Carlito’s Way, you accept De Palma’s set pieces as a complement to the film’s central thrust, but in Femme Fatale there is no thrust. You register split screens, and camera angles, and references to Vertigo, and clever juxtapositions and logistical daredevilry, but it amounts to nothing. Towards the end, the plot twists become particularly dumb, but I’ll at least give the movie credit for a striking finale. As with anything else, you start from your own aesthetic ground rules in judging cinema, and you can certainly imagine a set of such rules under which De Palma’s fetishization of style would render him the best director in the business. Trouble is, I think the last person to hold that opinion died around the time of Blow Out.
Le Fils (Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne)The Dardennes’ latest documentary-style film belongs in the Howard Hawks tradition of men expressing themselves through their work, although there’s nothing Hawksian – nothing at all Hollywoodian – about the Dardennes’ minimalist approach. Olivier Gourmet won best actor at Cannes for a role that’s famously observed in large part from behind the back of his head – he’s a carpenter and instructor of delinquents who takes into his class the juvenile killer of his own young son, five years earlier. There’s some suspense attached to the question of what he’ll do with this knowledge, but the film doesn’t play that up. Even compared to the Dardennes’ previous films La Promesse and Rosetta, this is an extremely low-key work, the larger part of which consists of Gourmet and his charges handling wood. It finds its way to a note of renewal; le fils refers primarily to the dead son, but the killer (not knowing his teacher’s identity) also asks Gourmet to be his guardian, and the man’s morbid fascination with the kid expresses itself in a way that overlaps with paternalism. The title could also allude to Gourmet himself as a disciple of his own methodology and minimalism. I found the film very interesting, but it’s too narrow and circumscribed to be considered a major work.
Sex is Comedy (Catherine Breillat)Breillat’s last film A ma soeur (Fat Girl) was banned in Ontario because of an extended sex scene involving a teenage girl. Her latest is built around the filming of that scene, with Anne Parillaud playing a proxy for Breillat herself and actress Roxane Mesquida repeating her role. The movie illustrates the tensions and mixed motivations that underlie the portrayal of desire in cinema; the director’s rapport with the male actor in particular veers across the spectrum from near-seduction to open hostility (but then, we’re told “antagonism is a tonic for desire.”) It’s just a job of course (he refers several times to being well paid for it) but the demands it makes verge on cruelty, even if you momentarily think yourself their master (she says actors frequently accept a part for the nude scenes, but then fear always sets in). The final scene sums up the film – the actress seems genuinely traumatized through identification with her character and the direct demands that have been made on her, but this suddenly melts into sheer satisfaction at a job well done: pragmatism and joy virtually coexist with self-loathing. Prior to that, viewers may get some easy laughs from the actor’s prosthetic penis, and the film is certainly one of Breillat’s lighter works, but it’s as troubling as it is funny.
Festival SummaryThere are a million festival stories in the big city, and here’s mine. Objectively, I was probably too busy to take time off this year, but hey – it’s the film festival! So I decided I’d stick to a disciplined routine of three movies a day, no more no less, and then go into the office at least once a day. As it was, I generally ended up going in twice a day – zooming in for an hour, hurling through messages and five-minute meetings, then zooming out – or else catching up late at night. On one occasion I came in at 5 am, before the movies started, and passed a presumably festival-related party still in full swing at the Rosewater supper club.
My work objective worked – I didn’t fall behind on anything. And I saw those three movies a day – no more, no less (if you noticed I’ve written more than thirty reviews of film festival movies across these seven articles, it’s because I cheated by adding in a few that I saw afterwards, in commercial release). Not surprisingly, I tired myself out to a possibly hazardous extent, and dozed off for a few minutes during a dozen or more movies (usually about twenty minutes in, regardless of their quality). Does this sound like a recipe for misery? If so, the cake didn’t rise: it was probably my best festival ever.
I stayed pretty close to my basic strategy – brand name directors, not necessarily avoiding movies that might open later, but privileging those that likely wouldn’t, adding in some choices based on strong advance reviews, and a few wildcards based purely on the time slot. I only saw a few American films, and they were mostly disappointments (In America, Femme Fatale, Auto Focus). My favourite was Takeshi Kitano’s Dolls, a movie that hasn’t received the attention it deserved (I didn’t see the People’s Choice winner, Whale Music). Others in the top flight include Talk to her, Lilya 4-Ever and 9/11/01. Lost in La Mancha, for a movie fan, was one of the festival’s most straightforward delights. Many others had numerous points of excellence. If I were doing it all over again, I’d probably have avoided La derniere lettre and My Mother’s Smile, but that’s about it. I especially regretted not fitting in Divine Intervention and Chihwaseon, and it took substantial discipline to wait for the commercial release on a few others (particularly Far From Heaven).
Well, bring on 2003!