by InRO Staff Featured Festival Coverage Film

Toronto International Film Festival 2017 – Dispatch 2

September 20, 2017

Our second dispatch from the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival (you can find the first here; the third and final one will be up on Friday) includes a new collaborative film from a French New Wave legend; a domestic drama that’s much closer to a horror film; a “near three-hour Portuguese drama about labor in a capitalist society” (that’s also kind of a musical); a documentary about “the failed social and criminal policies of a thoroughly unwinnable war against narcotraffic”; a “cinematic approximation of a traditional African fairy tale”; an intimate formalist family drama (reminiscent of the “Berlin school” staple The Strange Little Cat); the true story of an 18th century Austrian musical prodigy; and a body-swapping stoner comedy in post-apartheid South Africa.

custodyIn Xavier Legrand‘s Custody, viewers may get the sense that instead of the domestic drama this has been billed as, what they’re in fact watching is something much closer to a horror film. After the court hearing that opens the film, Miriam (Léa Drucker) is ordered to share custody with her husband Antoine (Denis Ménochet), a man whom both she and her children have claimed is a hot-tempered, abusive brute. Over the next few weeks, Antoine spends time with his 11 year-old son Julien (Thomas Gioria), who makes clear his disinterest for any contact with his father and consistently tries to shield his mother from his stalker tendencies. Legrand proves masterful at building tension throughout; he shoots primarily in semi-close ups to enhance the sense of claustrophobia everyone feels around Antoine, while also accentuating his immensely imposing burliness. As the film progresses, Antoine is shown to be clearly unstable, unraveling with increased speed until the film’s final third, in which the horror influences here abandon any pretense of subtlety. Controlling men are among the least pitiable humans, and Legrand smartly and organically builds on cinematic expectations of conflicted characters, demonstrating wonderful control and sense of pace, before definitively exposing Antoine for what he is—a true monster. Luke Gorham

high fantasyThe no-budget, dually high-concept premises of Jenna Bass’s High Fantasy: four South African twentysomethings (two women of color, a white woman, and a black man) go camping in some arid Northern Cape preserve, argue loudly about race, gender and apartheid issues, then wake up in the morning having swapped bodies, the characters shooting both the before and after on iPhones (with interspersed “confessionals” presumably conducted by an off-camera Bass). The metallic silver-and-purple stoner metal font of the title expresses the film’s whimsical side, but except for a mini talent show, a pizza slice air mattress, and some joint passing, the foursome’s getaway is largely an occasion to indict each other for insufficient intersectional awareness and repentance. Post-swap (literally “woke”), they’re forced to walk in each other’s shoes, or more to the point, skin. (When a black woman wakes up white, her first statement is, “What is this white shit all over me?!”) The gender-swappers are naturally quick to fondle themselves, though the woman screams, “Don’t you touch my boobs!” to little avail. When a fifth camper joins them, they botch attempts to stay in “character,” eliciting the self-awarely on-the-nose rejoinder, “You’re not woke at all! You guys are all problematic!” Idea-centric and fully engaged with the aftermaths of apartheid that still affect every South African, High Fantasy’s novelty nevertheless begins to wane well before its 71 minutes of faux-naturalistic posturing and screeching for the shaky cameras are up. Justin Stewart

Faces Places2Working with famed French photographer JR, formative French New Wave auteur Agnes Varda has one goal for her collaborative film Faces Places: to create indelible images. One way the two accomplish their objective is by having Varda document JR placing massive pasted murals of strangers’ faces around various villages (a continuation of the Inside Out Project he started in 2011). But the most memorable of the film’s images results from capturing the pure joy these two artists share whilst traveling throughout the country together. The people they encounter are the every men and women of France: coal miners, mail carriers, and housewives, all equally appreciated and honored here, their bodies becoming high-art pieces on the visages of community property. The film builds up a heavy emotional undercurrent, as each new mural brings with it the carefully sketched backstories of both the subjects and of the two filmmakers’, who reveal much of their personal lives. JR’s 100-year-old grandmother confirms he does indeed never take off his glasses—and in the most powerful scene of the film, which involves a trip to Jean Luc Godard’s house, some painful memories are revisited. Faces Places delicately balances its emotional content, arriving at a general feeling of wonder for the possibilities artist can bring to the world. Paul Attard

nothingPedro Pinho’s The Nothing Factory is a Marxist, near three-hour Portuguese drama about labor in a capitalist society. That description might make the film (which took home the FIPRESCI prize following its premiere in Cannes’ Directors’ Fortnight) sound like a relentless slog. But for those on its very particular wavelength, The Nothing Factory might well be one of the most unexpectedly invigorating cinematic experiences of the year. Pinho’s vision—which uses the impending closure of a factory as its starting point—turns out to be a remarkably protean one: He weaves together the straightforward drama of the workers with documentary-like interviews of the “actors” (most of whom are factory workers in real life); lengthy, discursive conversations on the economy, labor and Marxist theory; and rambunctious musical interludes. Alternately despairing and joyous, The Nothing Factory is also notoriously digressive. This is the kind of film that recognizes the traditions it’s working in (a filmmaker character serves as a stand-in for auto-critique) and that mines them for maximum, though occasionally exhausting effect. All told, Pinho uses this debut as a means to give a resolute middle-finger to the very notion of marketability, allowing the film to stand as its own strange, singular object. That, certainly, ain’t nothing. Lawrence Garcia

CocaineVioleta Ayala‘s fascinating documentary Cocaine Prison doesn’t have anything particularly new to say about the failed social and criminal policies of a thoroughly unwinnable war against narcotraffic. But it does boast a heartbreaking worm’s-eye-view of some of the people most caught up in it. When young Bolivian woman Deisy Torrez’s brother Hernan is caught smuggling a couple kilos of coke, she tries to find some meager legal defense for him while he’s hustled off to the notorious San Sebastian prison, an overcrowded open-air slum where inmates aren’t even guaranteed a cell. There he meets Mario, another cocaine worker. Ayala relies on clandestine GoPro cameras smuggled into the prison for some truly amazing footage, showcasing not just the inhumane conditions on the inside but a Bolivian culture that’s totally fused with cocaine production. It’s entirely normalized; at one point Deisy even has her fortune read with coca leaves. So even while the film’s conclusion offers a glimmer of hope for these characters, there would appear to be no chance whatsoever of cutting out such a deeply ingrained part of the culture. Matt Lynch

WitchVacillating between brutality, mysticism, and comedy, Rungano Nyoni’s I Am Not a Witch offers a cinematic approximation of a traditional African fairy tale; it tells the story of a strange orphan girl, Shula (Maggie Mulubwa), who stumbles into a typically superstitious, rural Zambian village and is immediately branded a witch. Mr. Banda (Henry B.J. Phiri), the government official who essentially runs the town, seeks to profit monetarily and gain influence by emphasizing the rarity of such a young witch. Smartly, Nyoni contrasts the polemical thematics of a capitalist, self-sabotaging country’s ruling class with an accessible filmmaking style and a light tone to craft something anachronistic: Witch utilizes close-ups that accentuate the traditionalism of this culture and wide shots of natural, undeveloped vistas while also carefully regulating its inherent darkness through comedy and compassion in the way all the best fairy tales do. If the end feels a bit inelegant—Nyoni blunts its emotional impact by cycling through several potential endings—it’s only a minor blip of an issue for an otherwise stunning feature debut. L Gorham

34Ilian Metev’s 3/4 opens with a plastic bottle skidding across the sunlit pavement of a schoolyard. A group of young boys bob in and out of the frame, shouting “Shakira,” followed by an action (e.g. “lie down”) as they kick the bottle back and forth. That brief sequence alone illustrates what’s so impressive about the Bulgarian director’s debut: minimal information (why Shakira?), sharp editing cadences, meticulous soundscapes, and (most importantly) a precise use of offscreen space. Like Ramon Zürcher’s The Strange Little Cat, this is an intimate (almost cloistered) family drama that continually gestures to what lies beyond the frame. Although Metev focuses on a family of three—Mila (Mila Mikhova), a teenaged girl preparing for an important piano audition; Niki (Nikolay Mashalov), her rambunctious younger brother; and Todor (Todor Velchev), her aloof father—3/4 doesn’t feel “small.” (The mother’s briefly mentioned absence, for example, is felt throughout.) Befitting the incompleteness suggested by its title, Metev’s film is a beguiling experiment in isolation and negative space, an attempt to find the “infinite” in absence. “We have to catch the same rhythm,” Mila tells Niki at the close—and by then, we’re fully attuned to Metev’s own. L Garcia

ParadisMademoiselle Paradis tells the true story of the titular musical prodigy, an Austrian contemporary of Mozart, during a most strange period of her life. Blind from the age of three, Maria Therese Paradis (Maria-Victoria Dragus), at the behest of her embarrassed, vapid parents, temporarily undergoes an experimental treatment for her condition. Thrust into a Freaks-like world of misfits with medical anomalies, Mademoiselle Paradis is patiently paced, reveling in the decadence of this new environment and introducing us to a servant class of characters as contrast to the superficiality of 18th century Viennese society. As Therese begins to regain her sight thanks to Dr. Anton’s (Devis Striesow) treatment (which resembles little more than reiki), director Barbara Albert expands her canvas, addressing issues of class, gender, and scientific inquiry, as well as their cultural prejudices. This does mark the point at which the film begins to feel a bit schizophrenic, its tightrope walk of biopic convention and subversion muddling intent. Still, Mademoiselle Paradis is a satisfyingly left-of-center trifle, indulging the stylistic pomposity of this society while also ruthlessly critiquing it. L Gorham