With my time at the Toronto International Film Festival - or TIFF, as we insiders refer to it - drawing to a close, it's time to ramp up my screening attendance.
So the day starts off promptly at 9 am with a showing of Useless, the latest documentary from Jia Zhang-ke, the mainland Chinese director drawing the most intense interest these days. Jia works in high (very high) definition digital, which gives his film's surfaces a watery, almost glassy surface, though also providing, as if in emotional compensation, a technically unlimited deep focus. This worked remarkably well on the three-pronged drama Still Life (last year's grand prize winner at Venice). Set mostly around the construction of the Three Gorges dam, which is flooding a plain's worth of villages beneath a stunning enclosure of cliffs, the movie's digital sheen provided a suitable contrast between human intimacy and mass industrialization.
Useless, though, is a documentary about China's burgeoning fashion and mass-produced clothing industries. The movie begins at a vast factory where off-the-shelf shirts, pants and dresses are made under grueling, then profiles a young designer at both her Beijing workshop and Paris fashion show debut, finally settling on a depiction of several tailors who work in country towns. It's pretty clear where Jia's sympathies lie (with the tailors, of course), largely because it's the only part of the movie imbued with any warmth. Jia probably also feels for the factory workers, but a series of long, slow tracking shots along the factory floor end up aestheticizing his subjects and their circumstances. His approach to the designer is positively clinical but she largely asks for it with her conversation, which is loaded with ideologically loaded terms (“creativity” chief among them) that are passed off in capitalist societies as neutral.
It's tough to criticize a filmmaking technology whose low cost makes many films (including some very good ones) possible which otherwise would never be made. But there's little question that the seemingly unavoidable gloss of digital imagery subverts the intentions of Useless.
From there it was on to the more conventionally made Days and Clouds, an Italian film from veteran director Silvio Soldini. Margherita Buy - the sort of mature, fleshy beauty that only Italian cinema seems to produce - stars as Elsa, a middle-class woman in early middle age who has just received her doctorate in art history. Working as an unpaid volunteer at a church restoration project, she and her husband Michele (Antonio Albanese) depend on Michele's income as a partner in a shipping firm to handle all the expenses of the comfortable, though hardly luxurious, household.
This pleasant life comes to an abrupt end when Michele is forced out of his business when his two partners turn on him. In his late 40s, he's essentially unemployable in the world of modern business, so he and Anna begin a slow but steady descent down the economic ladder, selling off possessions and finally the lovely apartment where they spent most of their married life and raised their only child.
Somehow Soldini and his screenwriting partners (there are three of them) keep all this from degenerating into TV movie platitudes, at least most of the time. Obviously, a great deal of the credit goes to Buy, who emotes judiciously yet feels ferociously. The movie's biggest shortcoming - and it's a significant one - comes courtesy of Soldini's curious shooting style. Whether he's using a stationary of hand-held camera, the director stays right in his characters' faces, to the point of excluding most backgrounds and virtual all interior décor. It's pretty clear the filmmaker is planning a pay-off long shot at the movie's climax, but when it comes, frankly it's no big deal. That's the problem with stylistic preoccupations. They may seem like a good idea in a movie's planning stages, but once shooting begins, may it's best they be discarded the better to react spontaneously to the act of creation.
Next came one of the festival's highlights: one of the most perverse (in a good way - a real, real good way) thrillers yet from the aging, but ever-fecund Claude Chabrol. La Fille coupée en deux (A Girl Cut in Two) is a loose remake of an American film, The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing (1955), which in turn was based on a notorious real-life murder case. As you might suspect, though, the material has been thoroughly Chabrol-ized.
Ludivine Sagnier stars as a Lyons television weather girl named Gabrielle Deneige (which is translated into “Gabrielle Snow” in the subtitles, lest we lose the point). She becomes the object of desire to two very different, but similarly unbalanced men: Charles Saint-Denis (a wonderfully sinister François Berléand) and Paul Gaudens (Benoit Magimel), the impulsive, arrogant heir to a pharmaceutical fortune.
As is nearly always the case, Chabrol's chief interest is the woman who finds herself slipping into an increasingly lethal dilemma. Gabrielle, in her innocence, doesn't see any reason why she shouldn't satisfy her sexual curiosity with the same unsanctioned freedom that men enjoy. If that means going a little beyond the bounds of propriety just as an experiment, well, what's the harm.
The harm, of course, is considerable, as Gabrielle finds herself being reduced to a pawn between the two men. At the same time, as rumors of her private life circulate, she loses her social and professional standing. Somehow, no matter what transgressions the men commit, it's her and her unknowing transgressions of propriety that are blamed.
Chabrol is interested in salaciousness, but not in being salacious himself. This sets his films apart from other similarly-themed French thrillers (Henri-Georges Clouzot's Les Diaboliques being a prime example), which try to distance themselves from the actions of their characters through a clinical, morally smug detachment. In an almost palpable way, Chabrol embraces Gabrielle just as he has so many other of his mistreated heroines, women who thought, perhaps foolishly, they would be judged by the same standards as men. Gabrielle takes a particularly taboo-strewn path (there's a lot of sex in the movie, though most of it is off-screen or implied), but one that has a lot of male footprints on it.
Chabrol closes with a reference to Max Ophuls final masterpiece, Lola Montes (also 1955). Like that movie's titular heroine, Gabrielle is left with nothing but her story and even that has to be marketed on stage.
George A. Romero's Diary of the Dead (the director's name is part of the title) marks the first time the dean of Pittsburgh's independent filmmakers has worked entirely in a digital format. Romero has built a reason for that into the movie's storytelling structure; we're supposed to be watching the video diary of a film student and a few of his friends as they try to drive a Winnebago from the University of Pittsburgh to Philadelphia along zombie-infested roads (the film was actually shot in and around Toronto). But it might also be the Romero is trying to get away from the increasing rigid structures of contemporary films, including (especially?) horror films, which have long since traded in their outsider status for a place at the Hollywood table. Using lightweight digital cameras allows Romero to turn back the clock, in a sense, to 1968, when he was 28 years old and shooting Night of the Living Dead in black-and-white on hand-held equipment.
Despite having as many scenes of zombies munching on the (for the time being) living as an aficionado could hope for, Diary of the Dead has a brooding, introspective tone largely because its told in two different “voices.” The first voice is literally a voice, that of a young woman named Debra (Michelle Morgan) who is narrating the film as she uploads it onto the internet. It's a reproachful voice, with most of its ire directed at Debra's boyfriend Jason (Joshua Close), who is the de facto director among the group, the one most insistent that the cameras stay on all the time in order to record the “truth” of the bloody carnage around them. For all Debra's angry assertions that Jason has become a death-and-violence junkie, the rookie filmmaker has one riposte: Under the circumstances, what else can he do but film?
All of Romero's films are multidimensional, but Diary is positively prismatic in its views. There is, as you might expect, the 67-year-old filmmaker's reservations on modern media culture, with a surfeit of stimulation invading the Winnebago through television, radio, video playback, security cameras, cell phones (and cell phone cameras), and the ever-present internet. The resulting background of aural and visual white noise allows for a lot of commentary to shadow the main action, often in ironic counterpoint.
Diary of the Dead, though, is a sort of fairy tale (kids traveling through a night filled with monsters) about the moment when young people first realize to the marrow of their bones that not only other people die, but someday they are going to die too. And further, at that moment of terrifying insight, in what context will that tragic knowledge rise up? Will it be on television screens showing news footage of war? Will it be at the site of a highway car wreck? Or at home within the family? This is that rarest of movies, an old man's horror film. Superior in itself, as a virtually unique, one-creature species, it's to be treasured.
Blood Brothers is a period gangster film set in 1930s Shanghai, directed by U.S. educated and based Alexi Tan, financed by a Taiwanese company, shot at China's largest studios, and produced by the Hong Kong/Hollywood directing-producing team of John Woo and Terence Chang.
That backstory is considerably more original than Blood Brothers', which is the familiar one of childhood friends (from the impoverished countryside rather than the slums, this time) who become gangsters and then fall out, fatally, once they start climbing to the top. While the sets look a little too tidy and the colors a little too cheerful to evoke much in the way of a plausible underworld culture (the inevitable nightclub sometimes looks as large as anything in Vegas) and the characters never rise above type, the action does zip along, occasionally with some panache.
If you've seen five movies in one day and two of them have been superb, one intriguing, and two not bad, then you are surely tempting fate by squeezing in a sixth. Alas…
The Walker, the latest from writer-director Paul Schrader is as bad as bad can be, a self-important disquisition on what real bad sin is and what it isn't (you'll be glad to know that the film considers murder more objectionable than being gay). Even that would be excusable if the movie's masquerade as a suspense thriller was convincingly colorful. But it's drab and slow, contrived without being outrageous.
Woody Harrelson plays Carter Page III, the “walker” of the title, a middle-aged gay man who is available as a “date” for married society women whose husbands are too tied up with business to go out to the opera, a show, dinner, what-have-you. The society in question is Washington D.C.'s, where Carter retains a respectable social position thanks to his late father's long and distinguished political career. Page II represented Virginia in the U.S. Senate, and his offspring's accent is damp magnolia, part of his appeal for the twittering society dames (Lauren Bacall, Lily Tomlin, Mary Beth Hurt) who meet with him every Wednesday for cards and gossip. One of those ladies, though, played by Kristin Scott Thomas, is more than a foil for Carter's wit; she's an old friend who depends on Carter for moral support when her life goes into an emotional tailspin. That tailspin turns into a full-out crash when, while Carter waits in the car, she goes into her lover's house only to discover his bloody corpse. Terrified that being found with the body will harm her senator husband's career (the most reasonable emotional display by anyone in the movie), she turns to Carter for help.
The movie becomes, as it should, the adventure of an amateur sleuth who has to find a killer, as much to keep himself out of prison as for any other reason. But Schrader doesn't handle those particular plot mechanisms well; nor, for that matter, is he adept at portraying the political conspiracy that motivated the murder. Schrader seems mostly determined to assert that just because Carter is gay and doesn't have a respectable job doesn't mean he's not capable of mustering moral gravity. You may think that goes without saying, but once you see what Schrader perceives as gay art (Carter's boyfriend takes pictures naked men with their arms tied and canvas bags over their heads), you can see that Schrader might just be reassuring himself.