Another year, another insanely packed Toronto International Film Festival. While there are certainly titles premiering at TIFF this year that interest me, my festival experience so far has mostly been spent catching up with titles that played at Cannes, which, sadly, I was unable to attend this year for boring personal reasons. In fact, the first film I saw at TIFF was this year’s Palme winner…
Winter Sleep, the latest from Turkish filmmaker Nuri Bilge Ceylan, picks up, stylistically at least, where his last film, the police procedural Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, left off: The landscapes are vast, the pace portentously deliberate, the human drama slow-burningly subtle. This time, though, Ceylan applies his meditative style to a relationship drama: the splintering marriage between Aydin (Haluk Bilginer), a controlling former actor/current hotel owner and writer, and his long-suffering wife Nihal (Melisa Sözen), who desires to break from her husband’s clutches and establish an existence of her own. With its panoramic landscapes that engulf the human figures contained within them, the opening shots of Winter Sleep are bound to put some viewers in an Andrei Tarkovsky-like frame of mind. But whereas Tarkovsky tended to deemphasize character and dialogue in favor of a broader spiritualism, Ceylan aims for the novelistic in his contemplation of these people and the underlying belief systems that drive them. Aydin, for instance, has apparently, over the years, become so defensively cynical about humanity that he has essentially argued himself into his current state of deadening professional and personal stasis. Nihal, meanwhile, has latched onto a particular fundraising project in a last-ditch attempt to hold onto her own idealistic belief in the essential goodness of people. Instead of coming off as mere thesis-paper tentpoles, however, Ceylan, by virtue of his leisurely pace and close attention to nuances of behavior, brings these people to vivid-enough life that Winter Sleep gradually acquires the weight of a classic Greek tragedy. By the end of the film, these characters will find their tightly held world-views challenged in ways both constructive and destructive.
Force Majeure details a similar impending marital breakdown — this one, however, taking place in a French ski resort rather than the Turkish countryside. And instead of tapping into Tarkovsky, Ruben Östlund’s film, at least structurally and thematically, reminds one more of Julia Loktev’s The Loneliest Planet. As was the case with Nica and Alex in Loktev’s film, the threatened fissure between Tomas (Johannes Bah Kuhnke) and Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli) hinges on an impulsive decision made by the latter at a particularly fraught moment — in this case, an avalanche that momentarily endangers the safety of the family — that calls into question Tomas’s masculinity. Östlund, though, carves out his own aesthetic space with Force Majeure, using a visually playful style and a penchant for finding humor in unexpected places. Montages of everyday goings on at the ski resort are scored to electronic renditions of Vivaldi; a craggy-faced custodian observes some of the characters’ more outwardly outrageous actions from his broom-holding perch; Tomas’s best friend (Kristofer Hivju) gets so intensely roped into Tomas and Ebba’s marital troubles that he begins to question his own girlfriend’s loyalty. None of these amusing bits are made at the expense of Östlund’s chief concerns: Ebba’s loss of respect for Tomas; Tomas’s own acknowledgment of his momentary failure as a patriarch; and, on a broader level, the emptiness of traditional societal gender roles. A tantalizingly open-ended conclusion, involving an incompetent bus driver going down a mountain hill, ends Force Majeure on a note that suggests a final, ambiguous leveling of the playing field.
It almost doesn’t matter that Bruce Wagner’s screenplay for Maps to the Stars is a half-baked melange of tired Hollywood satire and incestuous family drama wrapped up in vague mystical mumbo-jumbo. David Cronenberg turns this third-rate material into yet another building block in his perverse-humanist vision, applying the similarly eerie sheen he applied to the spiraling-out-of-control life of a New York banker in Cosmopolis to the arguably even more soulless environment of Hollywood, one in which everyone seems to be using everyone else and authentic human relationships often seem few and far between. Howard Shore’s Brian Eno-esque ambient droning in the film’s opening credits sets the tone: As ever with Cronenberg, relationships are observed with an anthropologist’s detached eye. Though the film features the expected quotient of wannabe stars (Robert Pattinson’s limo-driving Jerome Fontana, for instance) and desperate has-beens (Julianne Moore’s Havana Segrand, gunning for a comeback by trying to land a biopic role playing her own mother), Maps to the Stars turns out to be a twisted family drama: The return of scarred schizophrenic Agatha Weiss (Mia Wasikowska) throws her father (John Cusack) and mother (Olivia Williams) into disarray — no surprise, considering she tried to burn them to death as a child. The situation is hardly helped by surviving son Benjie (Evan Bird), a monstrously spoiled child actor who is the kind of person who feels threatened by an innocent supporting-actor kid just because he fears he’s stealing the film from him. This family is an unsavory lot, to be sure — but Cronenberg, as is his wont, manages to display unexpected moments of empathy toward them. Agatha’s sincere desire to “make amends” is thwarted by both figurative and literal ghosts of the past; perhaps even more weirdly poignant is the mother/daughter-like relationship that develops between Agatha and Havana, which leads to tragic consequences when it eventually curdles. In a world dominated by appearances and ruthless emotional manipulation, Maps to the Stars suggests, in the most twisted way possible, the enduring vitality of authentic family ties to transcend it all.
“Mia Hansen-Løve’s Something in the Air” was the first thought that popped into my head after Eden, and not necessarily in a complimentary way. If Something in the Air, (Hansen-Løve’s husband) Olivier Assayas’s memoir of life among young Europeans after the May ’68 demonstrations, often seemed too beholden to recreating history to be all that engaging on a human level, Hansen-Løve’s epic chronicle of a DJ’s rise and fall during the height of the “French touch” generation (of which Daft Punk is the most ubiquitous exemplar today) in the 1990s onward is at times similarly alienating in its eschewing of the psychological in favor of the temporal. The first half of Eden is event-packed and beat-laden, but we’re always kept at a remove from main character Paul (Félix de Givry), as he finds himself wading deeper into the DJ world, tapping the house-music zeitgeist and achieving increasingly greater success while more or less shucking his college studies. It’s a sign of how under-imagined Paul is that we’re barely given a clue as to why he gravitates toward this profession; we’re instead meant to accept this character at face value and groove on Hansen-Løve’s impressionistic evocation of her characters’ lifestyles, in all their ecstatic highs and drab lows. This makes for a frustratingly remote experience, at least in Eden‘s early going. By the film’s second half, however — as the initial thrill of success gives way to disillusionment, music trends move away from Paul’s preferred garage music, and gigs start drying up — the film begins to gain emotional resonance. Like Hansen-Løve’s previous film, 2011’s Goodbye First Love, Eden is at hear a coming-of-age tale, with Paul’s love of house music driving him the same way the initial stirrings of adolescent romance drove Camille in the earlier film. But if Camille eventually found her own identity through a gradual trial-by-fire maturation process, Paul’s destination is ultimately less sure in the end. Having focused so much of his energies on DJing as a teenager and early adult, he finds himself ruinously adrift when he discovers how unsustainable his lifestyle (along with his coke addiction and his philandering ways with women) is. His neon paradise of flashing lights and booming beats isn’t enough in the face of harsh practical realities.
The title of Roy Andersson‘s previous film, 2009’s You, the Living, might as well apply to his latest, A Pigeon Sat on a Bench Reflecting on Existence. The longer and more specific title, though, offers a sly indication of the Swedish filmmaker’s grand subject this time around: the debilitating effects of working-class life in a capitalistic world in which happiness is measured simply by how much money one earns in order to survive, day-to-day. As always with Andersson, death is everywhere in his immaculately designed and choreographed tableaux; in fact, the film opens on “three meetings with death,” which feature people reacting in different ways to either witnessing or experiencing dying. But Andersson’s obsession is ultimately less with the physical than with the spiritual. Two businessmen skulk through the film wearing perpetually depressed facial expressions as they try to “sell happiness” with their pathetic set of goods (a balloon and a horrifying mask are among their set of merchandise). There’s no happiness to be found in Andersson’s world, however, with immobile long takes and purposefully dull interiors infusing Pigeon with a wholly visceral sense of inertia; even the people’s faces occasionally appear caked in distorting make-up to emphasize their soullessness.
All of that sounds like the ingredients for an unrelentingly bleak experience. But while it would be a stretch to call this film uplifting, there’s something genuinely rejuvenating about the sheer playful comic invention with which Andersson puts his vision across. Based on this, You, the Living, and his preceding film Songs from the Second Floor, Andersson, it seems, has a limitless imagination when it comes to mining existential angst for deadpan black comedy. But he isn’t simply dipping into the same stylistic well for a third round with Pigeon. The recurring characters here are new for him, as is the dive into full-on anachronism when King Charles XII and his army suddenly march into the present. Perhaps most notably new, though, is the turn to serious-minded heavy-handedness in the closing stretch, especially with a sequence involving African slaves being led into a fiery furnace that has the effect of wiping the smirk off one’s face. A concluding scene in which a character pontificates about how life is meaningless if we don’t know what day of the week it is offers both a grimly amusing parting shot and a driving home of deeper, humanistic philosophical concerns.