Thursday, December 15, 2016

2003 Toronto Film Festival Report, part six

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in October 2003)

L’histoire de Marie et Julien (Jacques Rivette)
77-year-old Rivette is one of my all-time favourite directors. His films have a choreography and poise that walk an often-magical line between naturalism and artificiality. He seems to me a highly uninsistent artist – his films aren’t conventionally passionate or prescriptive; they reflect the open-mindedness of someone who has a generously expansive vision of both life and cinema. The new film, once again, is uniquely his. It commences as a (to be honest, not overly engaging) study of a relationship, focusing on Julien as he tries to rekindle a past relationship with the enigmatic Marie. It slowly transforms itself into a supernatural reverie.

Julien is a repairer of old clocks, living alone with his cat; he’s also a blackmailer – an exploiter of secrets – and while I detected a certain fairy-tale-like element early on, I thought the model might be one of those stories where the princess ends up imprisoned in the tower. But Rivette starts to invest the movie with sex scenes that (although mild by contemporary standards) are more vivid than we’re used to from him, and as they make love, the two create fantastic narratives, redefining their relationship. Around this time, the film’s logic becomes gradually more dream-like, with Marie holding the key – at one point, she admits that she doesn’t know how the (highly arbitrary-seeming) rules actually work – she only knows what they are. And later there’s a secret sign that utterly transforms reality.

This is highly reminiscent of the magic candy that triggers the other world in Celine and Julie Go Boating, and there’s no doubt that Marie et Julien will be most rewarding for a Rivette fan. If you’ve accustomed yourself to his particular kind of enigmatic elegance, you could watch it forever. It’s almost as if he’s working through the genres in late career – Secret Defense was a thriller, Haut bas fragile was a musical – and the films all possess an elemental joy at the explorations he’s undertaken. Like Celine and Julie, the new film seems like a pure creation of cinema – someone refers to Marie, in her past, as a “prisoner of the image she cast for others,” and Rivette’s films, with their labyrinthine implications, always provide the sense of a creative process that’s invested to an unusual extent in the viewer. And the film demonstrates his profound affinity for femininity. It has chapter headings that explicitly identify the shift from the real to the supernatural with a shifting focus from the man to the woman. Emmanuelle Beart (who starred in his La belle noisseuse) is the perfect Rivette heroine – beautiful, not glacial like Catherine Deneuve, but leaving no doubt that our understanding of her stretches only so far.

This is obviously a review written by a fan, so I hesitate to say that Histoire de Marie et Julien is the best film I saw at the festival. I guess I should just say it’s my favourite.

The Event (Thom Fitzgerald)
Fitzgerald burst on the scene with the acclaimed Hanging Garden in 1997, since when his reputation has stagnated. This year’s The Wild Dogs, a scrapbook of odds and ends about a Canadian pornographer in Budapest, received virtually no attention at all, but it was the first of his films to persuade me he might have staying power. Reminiscent at various times of Kusturica, Fellini, Egoyan and Loach, it can be faulted in so many different ways I don’t know where to start. But the raw elements are fascinating, and the movie ultimately comes to resemble a troubled, rough-edged sculpture where the personal and the political fuse into a semi-recognizable dream landscape.

The Event, which has already opened commercially, seems like an equally personal project, about a man who’s died of AIDS, and the assistant DA who suspects it was an assisted suicide; her investigation focuses on the blow-out party that occupied his last evening. The film was reportedly meant to shoot in Toronto, and then moved to New York after the funding fell through – maybe this accounts for a cast that bizarrely combines Canadian stalwarts like Don McKellar and Sarah Polley with Olympia Dukakis (as McKellar and Polley’s mother!) and Parker Posey. This somehow sums up the film’s oddly dislocated quality. Compared to The Wild Dogs, it’s a fairly concentrated story, and it runs nearly two hours, yet everything about it seems to be given short shrift: characters, locations, themes all fail to register, with much time spent on barely meaningful vignettes and digressions. And sadly, the film (set in 2001, although it feels like earlier) doesn’t provide much valuable perspective on AIDS and its consequences either. If The Wild Dogs gave you the sense of a director running himself ragged, The Event seems like its exhausted aftermath.

Out of Time (Carl Franklin)
Franklin’s thriller, with Denzel Washington making another festival appearance, has also already opened commercially. The program book sells the movie valiantly, referring to “refreshingly rich characterizations,” “emotional investment from the audience,” and “phenomenal flair.” Well, it just looked like a serviceable suspense piece to me. Washington plays a small-town police chief who bends the rules to help his girlfriend, and then finds himself framed for murder; he works frantically from within to impede the official investigation, while tracking the real crooks on the side. For added refreshing richness: the detective in charge of the investigation is his estranged wife! The movie opens in lush, languid mode, and then cranks up the pace; Washington’s manipulations are highly entertaining, but then the film resorts to a hackneyed and fake-looking struggle on a rapidly collapsing balcony, and after that it goes through the motions.

I spent much of the movie musing on Washington’s star image. He’s regarded both as a bona fide sex symbol and a great actor, but his filmography contains a disproportionate amount of low-wattage action filler (The Siege, The Bone Collector, Fallen, Virtuosity, now Out of Time), as though he feared his vaunted coolness left him with something to prove. And yet, he doesn’t invest the roles with the relish that might help make the case. Too me, he walks through these movies, seldom seeming engaged or perturbed; in Out of Time, even at the height of the crisis, he barely breaks a sweat. But he seems immune to conventional assessment. The two women he romances in the new film (Eva Mendes and Sanaa Lathan) are 20 and 17 years his junior respectively, but no one’s been making the conventional observations about how Hollywood privileges the older male – it just seems like the natural order, Denzel-wise. As Out of Time becomes increasingly abstract and detached from plausibility, as virtually all thrillers do. Washington’s remove takes on the contours of a philosophical challenge. Albeit a challenge considerably less bracing than that of the Rivette film.

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