Our second dispatch from the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival (here’s our first) includes several more competition titles from this year’s Cannes that we’ve been eager to get to see (Kleber Mendoça-Filho and Juliano Dornelles’s Bacurau, Elia Suleiman’s It Must Be Heaven, and Justine Triet’s Sibyl), along with buzzed-about fare making its way over to the us from the Lido (Pablo Larrain’s Ema and Kôji Fukada’s A Girl Missing), one film that saves itself from being a total waste of time because it has Nina Hoss in it (Katrin Gebbes’s Pelican Blood), and finally, a movie that features a mustachioed Robert Pattinson and lots of farting (Robert Eggers’s The Lighthouse).
Much like its titular character, Pablo Larain‘s Ema is a bit of an enigma: a seemingly complex character study that offers little in the way of understanding the woman at its center. To say that this has been done by design is obvious, but also makes any criticism lobbed against it moot and ultimately exasperating. Mariana Di Girolamo stars as Ema, a professional dancer who, as the film opens, is dealing with the fallout of giving up the young boy she had adopted with her choreographer husband (Gael Garcia Bernal) after a suspicious accident. What starts as a portrait of toxic love and damaged souls soon takes on the air of something more sinister, as Ema schemes to get back her son, at any cost. But Larain isn’t out simply to make a standard domestic thriller; his film’s genre trappings are used solely to highlight the contradictory nature of his lead character, a woman who is both emotionally-fueled and borderline sociopathic, who is highly-sexualized yet a deeply committed caregiver — the mother and the whore. Much of Ema plays like a feminist rallying cry, with a heroine who straps a flamethrower to her back and sets fire to the streets of Chile in the name of love and identity. But the longer things go on, the more difficult it becomes to discern if even Larain knows what to make of his protagonist. With 2016 biopic Jackie, Larrain was able to reveal the complex inner life of Jackie O’Nassis, a woman seemingly defined by surfaces. Here, the filmmaker becomes too enamored with those surfaces, which prove to be his film’s most memorable aspects: the striking imagery (a flaming stoplight framed by breaking dawn, a dance performance set against a backdrop of intergalactic awe), the throbbing score by the great Nicolas Jaar, and a passionate and profoundly funny monologue delivered by Bernal on the evils of the Reggaeton scene. Plus, of course, the committed performance by Di Girolamo. But Ema, ultimately, is spectacle posing as profundity. Steve Warner
There’s an undeniable sensuousness to the surfaces of Bacurau: from the music choices (including a John Carpenter composition, speaking volumes to the film’s influences), to the mixture of genres, and the various twists and diversions that the film takes, cinephiles, especially, will appreciate what Kleber Mendoça-Filho and Juliano Dornelles are up to here. Bacurau takes place in the titular small Brazilian village; the matriarch of the community has just passed, and her funeral and wake provide an opportunity to see the people grieve together. We’re introduced to many of the characters at this point, including Domingas (Sónia Braga), who throws a passionate, drunken tantrum about the recently deceased. Later, this small town suffers through a series of strange problems: the town itself disappears from satellite maps, the internet and phone signals become spotty, the truck that brings clean water gets shot at, and some nearby farmers are found dead in a bloody massacre. Bacurau halfway introduces the element of chaos: a group of foreign paramilitary forces, led by a general played by Udo Kier, are slowly destabilizing this village, for reasons that aren’t immediately clear. These plot points serve to constantly shift things around, especially in the second half of Bacurau, setting up some fantastic sequences of strategic violence, and even touching on political talking points. But whenever the film focuses on the outsiders, instead of the villagers, any richness and uniqueness deflates, as the filmmakers succumb to the exact clichés that one would expect, and write derivative dialogue sequences that seem to be transplanted from this film’s influences. There’s a singular universe in Bacurau, the village, and the interruption of “the villains” of this story impedes its construction and depth, hindering what at first feels like a unique genre film that’s rich in local color. Jaime Grijalba Gomez
The Lighthouse is, in some ways, the last film we need right now. A male-centric chamber piece, Robert Eggers’s latest revels in the grotesqueries of guydom: farts, hooch, and fisticuffs all make repeated appearances throughout. The film is even shot in such a way as to signal masculinity, with its sturdy, 4:3 aspect ratio, its frequent close-ups on mustaches and beards, and its favoring of the dramatic low angles pioneered by Orson Welles in his own emphatic presentation of a blowhard newspaper man. The Lighthouse’s sound design is built around the ceaseless groans and swells of dissonant bass horns, and is supplemented by the hyper-literate and historically masculine seaman patois chewed on by Willem Dafoe’s character. Thematically, this is all comfortably in Jack London and Joseph Conrad territory, relishing the man-versus-nature/man-versus-himself dichotomy present in those writers’ texts. But Eggers is up to far more here — or less, depending on your appreciation for the blunt-force artistry on display. While this film does function as something of a gonzo takedown of the XY id, there’s also plenty of opportunity to unpack the symbols and the power dynamics on display. Eggers doubles down on his saturating affects by employing the provocative-imagery-by-way-of-dream trick, but this is new weird genre territory, and the filmmaker has intentionally crafted a maximalist sensory experience. He refashions Universal horror film vibes with something of a Guy Maddin influence, and blankets the proceedings not only with a commitment to scatological humor, but also a pervasive claustrophobia. The camera never strays far from its subjects, utilizing the close quarters and verticality of the interiors to keep tensions high — while also brilliantly emphasizing the expansiveness of the ocean, which becomes a surprisingly analogous symbol of entrapment. The would-be comforts of a meal are rife with palpable unease and tainted water; a night’s sleep is interrupted by creature dreams; and the outdoors are home to accursed gulls. This overall, and specific, ostentatiousness will be a roadblock for many. But Eggers doesn’t mind his film being the province of only those who can tune into its particular shanty horror wavelength. Luke Gorham
Elia Suleiman: actor, director, “citizen of the world.” It Must Be Heaven follows Suleiman as he journeys from his native Palestine to Paris, and then to New York, using his artistic status as a passport and a platform from which to broadcast empty truisms about the universal nature of human experience. But, you know, with laughs. Comedy is, as ever, a matter of taste, and so while I’m forced to concede that Suleiman’s bromidic drolleries must constitute someone’s idea of a joke, I’m not inclined to grant him the validation of even a stray chuckle: Has any popular concept been more thoroughly bankrupted by our present moment than the bland, totalizing credo of “global citizenship?” Can anyone really feel the warm fuzzies because yet another movie flattens the contingent inequities of time and place in order to tell us, with a smile, ‘we’re all really the same’? It certainly doesn’t help that Suleiman, as messenger and lead actor, is a lifeless gnome-like presence. A generous description might label his style Keatonian, though Keaton didn’t need a foppish scarf and an immovable sunhat to act as sartorial stand-ins for a screen personality. As director, Suleiman possesses maybe two or three visual ideas, though he strongly prefers one: sometimes things over here look like things over there. Because warmed-over humanism is his chosen mode, his facile symmetries are meant to reinforce — as the press notes say — the “unexpected parallels” that he discovers while travelling the globe. They’re also meant to be funny. That they fail as comedy is perhaps forgivable. That they turn disparate places and people into easily readable mirror images, which provide us the comfort of the familiar only because they reflect back a portrait of ourselves, is more worthy of condemnation. And even if It Must Be Heaven is too dull to be offensive, it is shockingly deluded about the current state of affairs — and that’s no laughing matter at all. Evan Morgan
If nothing else, A Girl Missing demonstrates yet again that formal and structural invention can only do so much to rescue a truly dire script. For about half an hour, writer-director Kôji Fukada keeps matters productively ambiguous, deftly braiding two parallel timelines, each centered on Ichiko Shirakawa (Mariko Tsutsui), a middle-aged home-care nurse. In the first, Ichiko lives a life of seeming contentment: she has plans to marry a local doctor, is proficient at her work, and even maintains a close relationship with her ailing patient’s two granddaughters, Saki (Miyu Ogawa) and Motoko (Mikako Ichikawa). In the second, set at some point in the future, she seems downright unhinged, at one point exhibiting bizarre, positively Lanthimosian behavior. How did it come to this? Saki’s abrupt disappearance would seem to provide an answer — but in fact, it’s when she’s found that the film’s shape truly starts to emerge, since it turns out that Saki was abducted by Ichiko’s teenaged nephew, Tatsuo (Ren Sudo). From this point forward, as the media vultures circle the story — for her link to Saki’s family, Ichiko is accused of orchestrating the entire sordid affair — A Girl Missing transforms into a limp, tawdry melodrama. A few more betrayals follow that initial reveal, with Ichiko’s relationship to Motoko becoming ever-more prominent. But what once looked like an incisive examination of emotional co-dependence — one might think briefly of Yorgos Lanthimos’s grief-surrogate parable Alps — reveals itself to be a pointless tale of ruined innocence. Throughout the film’s distended runtime, Fukada proves himself a strong imagemaker, with a talent for discombobulating compositions, canny plays with perspective, and disorienting edits. But in writing his script, he might have done well to take a page from the media folk that he so single-mindedly vilifies: When the story isn’t good enough, rewrite the narrative. Lawrence Garcia
Nina Hoss is an absolute treasure, one of the great actresses of contemporary cinema; her collaborations with Christian Petzold produced some of the decade’s best films. It’s truly a tribute to Hoss’s abilities, then, that Pelican Blood is watchable, even intermittently touching. Katrin Gebbe’s film begins as an effective, realistic depiction of a nontraditional family unit. Wiebke Landau (Hoss) has an adopted daughter, the preteen Nicolina (Adelia-Constance Giovanni Ocleppo), and is preparing to adopt a second, the younger Raya (Katerina Lipovska). Wiebke is a working single mother, and is therefore not allowed to adopt a German child, so she travels to Bulgaria to pick up Raya — who is adorable, but comes from a horrifically traumatic background. Wiebke is determined to give Raya a safe, stable life, no matter what. So far, this is the stuff of interesting drama. But all is not as it seems, and faster than you can say The Bad Seed, Raya’s reign of terror begins: she destroys things, attacks her new mother and sister and the family friends, her classmates, and anyone else she pleases. Gebbe lays it on pretty thick, shooting nighttime scenes like a horror film and using ominous music whenever Raya starts staring off into space or glaring at a potential victim. Pelican Blood is glacially paced, and quickly turns into a tedious exercise of waiting for the other shoe to drop, replete with obvious ‘evil child’ movie clichés. Just how bad does Raya have to behave before Wiebke returns her to the adoption agency? Wiebke tries using her expertise as a horse trainer to systematically break down her child — there’s a lot going on here, much of it boring, until the film really goes off the rails and starts introducing the possibility of supernatural possession, with black magic, spells and potions, and a climactic exorcism. It’s absolutely ludicrous, a severe left turn after the mostly realistic drama of the first half of the film, although Gebbe continues playing the proceedings perfectly straight. The only thing to keep this from spiraling entirely into overheated camp territory is Hoss’s deeply committed performance. She’s so stoic, so regal, that when a smile finally escapes from her pursed lips, it’s a beautiful sigh of relief. Likewise, when her magisterial façade crumbles into desperation, you really feel her misery. Hoss carries the film on her back, for whatever it’s worth. Gebbe has a great eye, composing unfussy frames with minimal camera movement, and a keen sense of the human body moving through both intimate spaces and sweeping vistas alike. She just needs to layoff the clumsy metaphors and heavy-handed symbolism. Daniel Gorman
Victoria, Justine Triet’s last film, opens with Virginie Efira curled up on a couch asking her therapist where, exactly, her life became unstuck. Efira occupies the psychiatrist’s chair in Sibyl — the French director’s latest, in which she again plays the eponymous lead — but she still can’t hold things together. In fact, she might not want to. Professional success, a twelve-step program to help keep the proverbial plug in the jug, and domestic stability with hot dad Paul Hamy are sober pleasures when measured against the intoxicating vicissitudes of the writer’s life. After years of artistic abstinence, a troubled patient and an equally troubled film shoot prove too much temptation for Sibyl, who spies some worthwhile material, picks up her pen, and promptly dives headlong into a breakdown. Triet, for her part, lacks a juicy authorial angle of her own: Sibyl’s backlot drama never achieves the whirligig energy that made Victoria such a superlative screwball, and while most movies in this genre tell us that filmmaking is a job like any other, the particulars of Triet’s own profession seem to blunt her otherwise sharp sense for credible, if slightly exaggerated, work-life detail. The result is a movie that feels richer at the margins than at the center. Hamy, for instance, needs only a handful of scenes to steal the show: one or two puppy-eyed glances are sufficient to communicate that he long ago resigned himself to playing second fiddle in Sibyl’s life — and that he loves her deeply nevertheless. The film set backdrop, with actors milling about everywhere, does, however, deepen the impression that Sibyl’s personal and artistic crises are more performative than acutely psychological: her return to writing is itself a kind of fiction, one which allows her space to enact forms of discontent and self-loathing that might, in the context of her day job and her domestic situation, lead to ruin. Making a movie or authoring a book, no matter how mediocre the material — and the glimpses we get suggest that these works-in-progress are very mediocre indeed — grants us permission to vogue around in emotional attire that we wouldn’t, or at least shouldn’t, flaunt at work or at home. If Sibyl wears her neuroses like a strange fit, well, I’d venture that that’s precisely the point. Triet makes movies to assure us that our lives aren’t always the shambles that we pretend them to be. Unless, of course, we prefer them that way. Evan Morgan