by InRO Staff Featured Festival Coverage Film

Toronto International Film Festival 2017 – Dispatch 3

September 22, 2017

For our third and final dispatch from the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival (here’s number one, here’s number two), we take a look at the film that caused(?) bomb threats at its Cannes premiere this year: Michel Hazanavicius’s nose-thumbing Jean-Luc Godard “biopic.” This dispatch also includes a couple of Canadian films (this being TIFF and all); a prize-winning debut from the Locarno Film Festival; and one selection from the New York Film Festival’s main slate. (Our full coverage of that fest will begin next week.)

feliciteAlain Gomis, a French director of Guinea-Bissauian and Senegalese descent, knows the value of a good face. This is why he fills so many of Félicité‘s frames with the visage of Véro Tshanda Beya (a singer, making her film debut). Beya plays the title character here, who’s also a singer, and Gomis follows her active performing life in the DR Congo capital Kinshasa, where she lives in admirable solitude. Félicité has a son, and when she receives a call that he’s been maimed in an accident, her routine is ruptured. As she enacts the mortifying stations of gathering money for an operation, Gomis and DP Céline Bozon’s fleet camera stays trained on Beya’s expressive/enigmatic face, with its weary scowl (when scrounging) or dissatisfied grimace (when observing the drunken customers at her band’s performances). One of those plastered patrons is womanizing handyman Tabu, with whom Félicité forms a tentative bond, despite his penchant for picking up bar randos and getting her son drunk. It’s Tabu who nails it when he says her face “is like an armored car.” Félicité resembles a particularly grueling Dardennes or Cristi Puiu film when it becomes about the woman’s quest for cash. “Before the operation, we need part payment,” says the surgeon who is to operate on Félicité’s son, despite any delay being life-threatening; a wealthy, estranged brother has Félicité dragged from his house screaming before tossing her some pity bucks; and an aunt asks, “How did you get his ugly?” Overlong, with too many repeated beats, Gomis’s is a film of many hues, with surreal, symbolic flashbacks, local color (a very real traffic robot) glimpsed during motorbike and car rides, and the ever-present medicine of music in the air. Justin Stewart

lean_on_peteAbove all else, Andrew Haigh has proven himself a deeply empathic artist; whether tackling 21st century queer identity (LookingWeekend) or the devolution of a decades-long relationship (45 Years), he revels in micro details as a means to inform macro cultural ideations. With Lean on Pete, it’s clear Haigh is working with a much broader canvas than ever before: there is an expansiveness of story here that feels a bit mismatched for the director’s sensibilities, and the narrative beats reflect a hurried adaptation of the source novel. Yet, despite the protracted nature of this material – which involves the young, poverty-stricken Portlandian Charley (Charlie Plummer) and his companionship with the titular, over-the-hill racehorse – the director manages to stay in his own lane as much as he’s able. A particular standout sequence finds Charley’s father (Travis Fimmel) synecdochically apologizing that he only has a few dollars to give his son while he’s out of town, a moment that absolutely wrecks you with its unassuming authenticity. This is cause for frustration, then, as the film’s final third abandons these minor devastations in favor histrionic tics, a la The Diary of a Teenage Girl. There’s no denying that Haigh’s latest may meet harsher criticism than is entirely fair thanks to the blossoming talent he’s so recently evinced, but even as Lean on Pete proves sometimes affecting, for any director it’s little more than a faltering, diversion. Luke Gorham

redoubtableMichel Hazanavicius has somehow made a relatively successful career out of feebly imitating established genre tropes or broadly recreating old forms of filmmaking, with The Artist being his crowning achievement: a lazy homage to the silent era laced with as many eye-rollingly obvious references as possible. With Redoubtable, Hazanavicius now takes on the French New Wave—or more specifically, its poster boy, Jean Luc-Godard. A romantic comedy that abruptly switches gears into melodrama, Redoubtable uses the real-life marriage between Godard and actress Anne Wiazemsky as its plot, while Hazanavicius uses a shitty approximation of Godardian technique as an attempted send-up of its targeted auteur. Large-font text appears on screen, fourth walls break, and occasional ironic sound-cues are employed, all for the sake of bald-faced mockery. Redoubtable is the cinematic equivalent of making fun of somebody by saying their words while speaking in a funny voice. There’s some semblance of an ambition here to build-up legitimacy surrounding Wiazemsky’s criticism of her former husband (Hazanavicius based this film on her autobiography), but it isn’t clear how this brand of crass whimsy really accomplishes that. This isn’t a film that’s ever interested in taking sides, or clarifying history; like Hazanavicius’s others, it’s about an opportunity to riff on someone else’s work for laughs, blowing raspberries all the while. As one supposed intellectual says in Redoubtable: “God invented shit!” That’s certainly the case here. Paul Attard

cocoteAwarded the “Signs of Life” program’s top prize at this year’s Locarno Film Festival, Carlo de los Santos Arias‘s Cocote moves from a wealthy estate in Santo Domingo to the town of Oviedo, using a personal tale of revenge to examine political, religious, and cultural tensions in the Dominican Republic. The film follows Alberto (Vicente Santos), an evangelical Christian who returns to his hometown after receiving news of his father’s murder. Although Alberto intends only to be present for his father’s burial, he ends up participating in Rezos, a nine-day mourning ritual (which goes against his beliefs), and slowly getting drawn in by his family’s desire to punish the corrupt officials responsible for the murder. Throughout, de los Santos Arias toggles between multiple aesthetic textures, shifting between color and black-and-white; alternating from distanced to symmetric to claustrophobic compositions. TV coverage of local happenings (a rooster that purportedly says “Christ is coming”) punctuate the main story. And although the film can often feel clumsy and scattershot, its visuals are undeniably dynamic and the filmmaking occasionally thrilling. Cocote is vital in a way that goes beyond “good” and “bad”—in the landscape of contemporary world cinema, de los Santos Arias’s talent is worth recognizing. Lawrence Garcia

life_and_nothing_moreDirector Antonio Mendez-Esparza’s Life and Nothing More is a minimalist portrait of mother-and-son strife, but that emotional center is contextualized by a larger exploration of the complexities of a Trump-era cultural landscape. The film delivers mixed results in its use of non-professional actors, particularly the lead duo. Regina Williams delivers an immensely affecting performance as a mother vacillating between angry resignation and hopeful determination regarding the future of her increasingly trouble-prone son (Andrew Bleechington). But her authenticity feels undermined by the hollowness of Bleechington’s Andrew, a few candid scenes with friends providing the only dimension to an otherwise blandly-written character. Still, Life is a film of both great feeling and provocative intellectual considerations, and Mendez-Esparza navigates these with a subtlety that actually enhances the film’s impact; he builds his film from hurt and hope, and no moment feels calculated or manipulative. Even Life’s climactic scene feels thankfully small by any cinematic measure – no swelling music or narrative twist, a decision that is representative of so many small moments here that tremble with the painful reality of America’s grand tradition of inequity. L Gorham

skin_so_softDenis Côté’s A Skin So Soft is the kind of documentary that lives and dies by its subject: here, the niche subculture of bodybuilding as seen through the lifestyles of a few Québécois athletes. Côté’s rigorously and precisely portrays the regimens of various men and women, shown in their home and in their professional lives. Eschewing direct-to-camera interviews for a more observational mode, this method remains attentive to the (quite literal) form of the film’s subjects. In one instance, the camera circles around a bodybuilder modeling for an art class, capturing his musculature in an appropriately monumental manner; in another, Côté cuts between two men at a gym, wryly observing as they eye each other with mutual envy and contempt. The filmmaking is undeniably accomplished, but it’s also oddly unmotivated—an “exercise” in the most basic sense of the term. Even that designation, though, is not without its own sort of resonance: The film’s lingering impression is of Herculean effort expended on a task that may look utterly pointless to an outsider. The ending makes is message explicit: to push on each day, that takes commitment. L Garcia

porcupine lakeSlovakia-born Canadian director Ingrid Veninger‘s Porcupine Lake is a sensitive, sun-dappled summer idyll (with dark undercurrents) on themes of coming of age, preteen-love-fumblings, and the inevitable realization of the adult world’s fallibility. Newcomer Charlotte Salisbury (palpably raw and naturalistic) plays Bea, up from Toronto in the cottage country of Port Severn with her mother (Delphine Roussel) to help decide the fate of the family-owned gas farm and diner. Dad (Christopher Bolton) is already there, and his furtive swigs from a spiked milkshake (and then just the flask) reveal some cracks in his energized, fatherly facade. Bea’s introspective loneliness is rent by the attention of the much brasher Kate (Lucinda Armstrong Hall), who quizzes Bea on her preferences (“mountains or ocean,” “hot chocolate or coffee”) and eventually teachers her how to French kiss, though the hesitant, birdlike result is far from Blue Is the Warmest Color. Darkness intrudes in the form of Kate’s older brother, fond of lynching dogs and calling girls “cockteases,” a charge Kate parrots. The vital gift Veninger possesses is an ability to access universal truths of growing-up through weird ultra-specifics. A few rote characterizations contribute to a sense of slightness in Porcupine Lake, but the film’s relaxed tone rhymes with its pleasant ambiance of lake-breeze idleness—and any veteran of adolescence knows that the comments or glances that may appear minor to the outsider are actually of the utmost consequence. JS

A Worthy CompanionA Worthy Companion, the first film by Carlos and Jason Sanchez (Montreal brothers with nearly identical fine art photographer CVs), spins a thrillery setup concerning a kidnapping, obsession, and young lust into a finely probing character study and acting showcase that rattles and titillates. Julia Sarah Stone plays (barely, Canadian) age of consent-cracking 16 year-old Eva, whose unhappy home life is dominated by a frosty mother and incessant piano practice. In protest, she runs away with the cleaning lady, namely 30 year-old Laura (Evan Rachel Wood), whose close attentions, cool haircut and above-it-all mien magnetize the teen to her. Trouble is, Laura is a hot mess, moonlighting in rough sex prostitution and soon feeding Eva pot and screwdrivers, not necessarily to ply her, just because it’s all she knows. Laura’s intentions are capitally dubious, but it’s still a slanted love story, even if Eva does end up locked in a basement. Wood (Thirteen, Westworld, Mildred Pierce) is in control here, winning you to her side before challenging your loyalty with every awful, self-pitying, damage-driven decision. As her quietly exasperated father, Denis O’Hare is the other MVP. The Sanchezes’ taste in pretty establishing shots is unimpeachable, their riskier gambits (generic slo-mo dancing, metaphorical underwater sinking shots out of Under the Skin) less so, but the performances and evenly distributed empathy lift A Worthy Companion. JS