by Kenji Fujishima Festival Coverage Film

Toronto International Film Festival 2014 – Dispatch 2

September 12, 2014

With a film festival as stacked to the gills as the TIFF, thematic trends are bound to pop up. Last year, doppelgängers appeared to be a trend, with films like Enemy, The Double and A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness. This year, with the first three films in this second dispatch (here’s the first), the spectacle of older filmmakers pontificating on the younger generation dominates, with wildly mixed results.

MEN, WOMEN & CHILDRENFinding an opportunity to summon his inner Paul Haggis, Jason Reitman —adapting, with the help of co-screenwriter Erin Cressida Wilson, Chad Kultgen’s novel Men, Women & Children — uses a Crash-style network narrative to try to make a grand statement on How We Live Today in regards to technology and its effect on human relationships. Alas, as was the case with Crash (and Traffic, and Syriana, and Babel, and — you get the idea), this generation-spanning cast of characters seem less like flesh-and-blood people than mere constructs to demonstrate Reitman’s points. And what are his points exactly? Oh, it’s the standard “get off my lawn” technophobia. Social media is diminishing our ability to relate to each other on a human level, even as it theoretically allows us to always keep us in touch with others; it’s turning younger folk into narcissistic monsters looking for little more in life than talent-free stardom; and so on and so forth. Reitman’s finger-wagging is too busy misogynistically turning, say, a fame-hungry cheerleader (Olivia Crocicchia) into a slut and having a dissatisfied housewife (Rosemarie DeWitt) carry on an extramarital tryst with a stereotypical sexy black man (Dennis Haysbert) to bother much with nuances. In essence, Jennifer Garner’s super-controlling harridan of a mother represents everything that’s wrong with Men, Women & Children. The problem isn’t so much that she’s a caricature, but that, in Reitman’s vision, her well-meaning efforts to protect her daughter from online harm are painted in the broadest of villainous strokes. When the human elements fail as spectacularly as they do here, no amount of condescending Emma Thompson voiceover narration and outer-space imagery can possibly will Reitman’s topical mosaic into the kind of timelessly universal tract he so desperately intends.

WhileGranted, While We’re Young, the latest dramedy from Noah Baumbach, isn’t entirely free from some generational finger-wagging of its own, especially in a last act that bizarrely becomes a thriller of sorts, plot twists, suspense-filled cross-cutting and all. Thankfully, though, Baumbach has much more of a ken for complexity than Reitman does. Jamie (Adam Driver) may be revealed to be a manipulative narcissist, but there’s no denying his and girlfriend Darby’s (Amanda Seyfried) genuine youthful energy, which draws in the central middle-aged couple, Josh (Ben Stiller) and Cornelia (Naomi Watts), as friends their age all seem to be preoccupied with comparably dull family-related concerns. Baumbach’s filmmaking reflects this youthfulness, to some extent: Certainly compared to, say, Greenberg, there’s a irresistible sense of verve to Sam Levy’s camerawork and Jennifer Lame’s editing that is quite enlivening. But While We’re Young isn’t just about generational divides and middle-aged anxieties. Josh, for instance, gradually reveals himself to be another prickly Baumbach male antihero, swimming in male insecurity, as exemplified by an ambitious documentary project that remains unfinished in part because of his defensiveness toward constructive criticism and rigidity toward an arguably old-fashioned approach to documentary ethics. Non-fiction filmmaking, in fact, gets as much attention as the character dramas in this film, with Josh expressing confusion toward the newer mode of first-person, subjective documentary filmmaking that Jamie is more interested in practicing through occasionally questionable means. And yet, unlike Jason Reitman, Baumbach doesn’t necessarily prize one perspective over another. If Baumbach is ultimately more predisposed to empathizing with Josh and Cornelia, both sides of this generational gap are observed to have their positive and negative points.

La SapienzaLa Sapienza, the newest film from avant-garde filmmaker Eugène Green, features a disenchanted older couple and a more-energized younger couple interacting with each other, with the former duo ultimately drawing strength from the latter. On a literal level, the title of Green’s film refers to Rome’s Saint Yves at La Sapienza Church, designed by Francesco Borromini, an architect that Alexandre (Fabrizio Rongione) particularly idolizes. But the title also fits La Sapienza on a broader level: The film is a journey toward greater wisdom — or, at least, toward getting back on a wisdom-seeking path for Alexandre. For all of its dips into art-lecture didacticism, though, Green’s film is also a relationship drama at heart, one in which burnt-out Alexandre and his wife, Aliénor (Christelle Prot Landman), through a brief separation period, gradually rekindle their love for each other as they each spend more time with the younger couple they meet while vacationing in Ticino, Switzerland: aspiring architect Goffredo (Ludovico Succio) and dizzy-spell-prone Lavinia (Arianna Nastro). Green’s approach to evoking the chill between Alexandre and Aliénor has a certain dry formal fascination; dialogue is delivered by the two actors in a deliberately unemotional manner, and Green uses an increasingly predictable series of shots and cuts — beginning scenes with a two-shot, then alternating between over-the-shoulder shot/reverse-shot set-ups before switching to Yasujiro Ozu-esque pillow shots — to capture these scenes. If anything, Green regards the many buildings he captures with more visible passion, Raphaël O’Byrne’s camera roving about these architectural marvels with all the sense of wonder Alexandre has lost. As Alexandre and Aliénor come out of their shells, however, La Sapienza itself goes into relatively wilder directions: a historical-flashback sequence in which human voices are only heard on the soundtrack as the camera focuses on objects and shadows; a cameo by Green himself playing a seemingly out-of-time Aramaic-speaking oracle who converses with Aliénor. Somehow, for all its detachment, Green gathers all these elements for a final reconciliation that manages to break through the film’s carefully erected emotional wall with a vivid sense of a renewal of infinite possibilities.

DukeThere’s another love story that has been making waves here at TIFF, and it comes in the form of Berberian Sound Studio director Peter Strickland’s latest, a pastiche of 1970s European erotica that gradually manages to carve out its own identity as it becomes progressively stranger, more elusive, and somehow, more affecting. At first, the relationship between Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen) and Evelyn (Chiara D’Anna) appears to be of the master-slave variety, with Cynthia forcing Evelyn to do all sorts of cleaning tasks and punishing her by, among other things, urinating into her mouth when she has done a less-than-immaculate job. But then, at some point, we see them both making love to each other, and we realize that this has all been an act: perverse love rituals Cynthia and Evelyn have been enacting for a while now. Much of the first half of The Duke of Burgundy focuses on observing these erotic games and the power dynamics they suggest and Strickland, for his part, is hardly shy when it comes to evoking eroticism. Close-ups of legs and faces in romantic ecstasy abound, taking place in front of Pater Sparrow’s extravagantly colorful production design and scored to the Baroque-sounding strains of Cat’s Eyes. The effectiveness of these scenes in evoking an air of decadence is even more impressive considering how little physical nudity there is; Strickland proves to be as much a master of tremblingly sexy cinematic power-of-suggestion as Wong Kar-Wai was in In the Mood for Love (also a period piece, tellingly).

At some point midway through the film, though—during a meeting with a third woman who sells specially made sexual devices — signs of trouble begin to pop-up in this self-contained, amber-hued paradise, as the sexy playfulness goes out of their rituals, and Cynthia begins to act cold toward Evelyn. The last act of The Duke of Burgundy, thus, becomes a journey of reconciliation for these two, one that involves a feverish, David Lynch-like dream sequence that climaxes in, of all things, a tribute to Stan Brakhage’s 1963 avant-garde classic Mothlight. That last point isn’t mere random whimsy, however; Cynthia and Evelyn both share an obsession with the winged creatures, one that occasionally dovetails thematically with their love rituals. The most heartening thing about The Duke of Burgundy, though, is just how seriously it takes its central romance. Strickland isn’t shy about milking his premise for maximum sexual heat, but there’s no mockery towards Cynthia and Evelyn’s emotional movements. As in most romances, these two eventually discover a need for compromise in order to make their relationships work in the long run; a final close-up and subsequent cut to black, in that regard, suggests much in the way of one character’s willingness to relinquish her desire for control in order to keep their love going.

It FollowsBoth It Follows and Tokyo Tribe were a part of this year’s Midnight Madness section at TIFF, and by all accounts, the former film — which premiered at Cannes to surprising sleeper acclaim — garnered a more enthusiastic response from audiences than the latter. No surprise that It Follows would work well with a crowd; if nothing else, it has some of the most technically impressive suspense set pieces of recent years. But David Robert Mitchell also tries to load up his film with subtext, and in that regard it’s rather less satisfying. The premise promises much: 19-year-old Jay (Maika Monroe) has a sexual encounter which leaves her not only seeing ghostly visions, but also being menaced by a persistent paranoid sensation of being, well, followed. The only way she can get rid of this curse is to basically have sex with someone else. Mitchell certainly knows how to manipulate sounds and images to wring a maximum sense of foreboding out of this scenario. But however novel the idea of generating suspense out of a girl trying to avoid having sex is, It Follows mostly seems to coast on the assumed ingenuity of its premise, doing little with it beyond throwing a series of standard-issue stalk-and-slash sequences together. What’s missing is a deeper thematic resonance of the kind that makes some of the great slasher films — Black Christmas, Halloween, and so on — add up to more than the sum of their well-executed parts.

Tokyo TribeTokyo Tribe may not necessarily be a thematically richer film than It Follows, but it’s certainly a more delirious and overwhelming one. Though the appearance of Shota Sometani, the tortured lead actor of director Sion Sono’s Himizu (still sporting his gray hoodie, to boot) establishes a link between Sono’s more-serious Fukushima Daiichi disaster-related films, his latest is resolutely in the maximalist vein of 2013’s the glorious movie-about-moviemaking, Why Don’t You Play in Hell? If anything, Tokyo Tribe, more often than not, even manages to top the blissfully insane pleasures of its predecessor. Imagine a Warriors-style rap musical set in a dystopian Tokyo, in which various street gangs are ruled under the frothing-at-the-mouth control Lord Buppa (Riki Takeuchi) and his two crazy sons. If the concept didn’t already sound crazy enough, then dig Sono’s execution: the ambitious long takes that build up this distinctive, futuristic world; the many bits of random WTF invention (perhaps most memorably a female servant that indulges in some off-the-hook beat-boxing); and the wall-to-wall energy level that courses through even the stretches where Sono’s inspiration seems in danger of flagging from sheer sensory overload. One can certainly derive plentiful enjoyment by simply basking in the nuttiness, but there is still a sneaky intelligence to to Tokyo Tribe. Note, for instance, the palpable weariness with which Shota Sometani’s MC delivers his gobs of rap exposition in its opening moments — a strangely poignant reflection of the ennui that has overtaken this junkyard future-Tokyo. And of course, Sono’s operatic emotional intensity is still very much present — no more so than in the film’s big blow-out finish, which climaxes in a final confrontation that not only reveals the villains’ ultimately petty motivations (it’s all about dick fear), but also yet again confirms Sono’s guiding belief in the triumphant power of love.