by InRO Staff Featured Festival Coverage Film

Toronto International Film Festival 2018 – Dispatch 1

September 7, 2018

This year’s Toronto International Film Festival, it has to be said, looks as if it may be one of the strongest slates since our site first started covering the fest, a full 10 years ago. There are a number of reasons why this could be: As with many of the fall fests, TIFF’s programming draws in part on films from the earlier part of the year, and notably from an exemplary 2018 Cannes Film Festival line-up. This year also feels like something of an intentioned response to charges last year that, in the process of what most saw as a necessary scaling back of an unwieldily selection, the fest was cutting in the wrong places (say, the downsizing of Wavelengths, or the elimination of the Vanguard section). Whatever the reason, this year’s TIFF gives us plenty of cause to be excited, whether it be over the robust number of new Chinese films (including Jia Zhang-ke’s Ash Is Purest White, Hu Bo’s An Elephant Sitting Still, Bi Gan’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night, Zhang Yimou’s Shadow, Jiang Wen’s Hidden Man, and Wang Bing’s Dead Souls), the premiere of some auteur-helmed, big franchise reboots (Shane Black’s The Predator and David Gordon Green’s Halloween), some buzzed-about feature-length films from exciting voices in the avant-garde world (Jodie Mack’s The Great Bizarre and Andrea Bussman’s Faust), or the stacked line-up of great directors found in the “Masters” section (Jean-Luc Godard, Jafar Panahi, Hong Sangsoo, Mike Leigh, and Nuri Bilge Ceylan, among others). You’ll find some of the aforementioned in our first dispatch — and many more over the coming weeks to come.

GIRL“I don’t want to be an example. I just want to be a girl,” says Lara (Victor Polster), the title character of Girl, Lukas Dhont’s highly acclaimed debut feature about a teenage transgender ballerina. Given the Belgian director’s attempts to sidestep glib representation and focus on the exigencies of Lara’s situation — namely, the specifics of her ongoing hormone therapy and the demands of her education at the Royal Ballet School Antwerp — the statement might well be the driving force of the film itself. Indeed, unlike Sebastian Leilo’s misguided A Fantastic Woman from last year — a simplistic film that put its title character through a series of punishing indignities — Girl maintains a distinctive physical intensity, which is no small feat, given the familiarity of adolescent coming-of-age stories. Doctor’s visits and therapist sessions alternate with rapidly cut ballet sequences, breathless whirls of pliés, posés and arabesques. Although Lara does experience minor slights throughout the runtime, she is, for the most part, ably supported by a network of family and medical professionals; the film’s conflict thus remains largely internal. It’s a shame, then, that Dhont feels the need to up the ante by playing the same dispiritingly rote narrative beats that plague the international arthouse scene. And in doing so, he ultimately transforms Girl into yet another example of what he seemed to be so promisingly attempting to avoid. Lawrence Garcia

SHOPLIFTERSWhile it won the prestigious Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, there’s nothing especially radical about Shoplifters that sets it apart from the other domestic dramas that Hirokazu Kore-eda has made over the years. The new film lacks the complexity of Still Walking, keeps the frantically cramped visual style of Like Father, Like Son, and at times feels as languid as Our Little Sister — yet, there are moments here, like in all of Kore-eda’s films, that are so specifically attuned to his laid-back sensibilities that it almost makes the whole film worth it. Take, for instance, a small moment between the angsty Shota (Kairi Jō) and his newly adopted younger sister Yuri (Miyu Sasaki), where he’s just stolen a package of gluten cakes (her favorite) and tells her he’ll teach her the family trade of stealing “someday.” Or when the two are caught at a local shop trying to take some candy, and suddenly Shota’s expected to play protector for his new family member. In both instances, Kore-eda favors the mundane, focusing in on the slowly growing bond between the two that doesn’t feel like it’s contributing to the central narrative of the film, but more giving these characters a little breathing room. In another director’s film, these might be smaller moments within a more assertive narrative — for Kore-eda, it’s the only mode in which he operates for nearly the entire film, generally disallowing even the slightest escalation in tension. It’s only in the last reel that Shoplifters tries to reach something of a climax, accelerating the otherwise deliberate pace by indulging a series of narrative contrivances, all at once, seemingly to make up for lost time. It’s a change of pace for sure, but one so forced with unnatural conflict that it feels fraudulent compared to the more naturalistically intimate moments that came previously; a betrayal of the minutely tuned drama the Japanese auteur has become known for. Paul Attard

IMAGE BOOK2At least for awhile, the new essay film by the pushing-90 French auteur Jean-Luc Godard plays like a liberally abridged version of his magnum opus, Histoire(s) du cinéma. The Image Book, too, combines film clips ripped from JLG’s memory via his archives or whatever digital reserves he had handy with his own croaked, doom-laden voiceover, delivering statements both general (“War is here”; “I prefer the poor because they are the defeated”) and seemingly personal (“They are not men of their word…they told me I was everything…it was a lie.”). Having buried language in 2014 with another home-cooked experiment (Goodbye to Language), Godard here dissects and laments “the image” and its failure to slow humanity’s death drive. The 2014 film’s 3D whimsy and its diversions involving Godard’s dog (who does make a split-second cameo here) are supplanted in The Image Book by the considerably less “fun” atrocity footage (ISIS home videos, etc.), which Godard splices with film-historical clips to make a point about cinema’s impotence, or possibly its complicity. For cinephiles, there is fleeting pleasure in I.D.-ing footage sources (Ivan the Terrible, Kiss Me Deadly, Salo, L’Atalante, Johnny Guitar, Freaks, La Strada, Elephant…Jacques Tourneur’s underrated Berlin Express, which was shot in a bombed-out postwar Germany), but Godard isn’t particularly interested in pleasing, a point emphasized by his degradation of the imagery herein via hyper-saturation, digital obfuscation, display ratio shifts, bleaching, and whatever other means his software provided. He divides his film into parts (part 1 is called “Remakes” — meant to invoke both modern Hollywood and warmongers’ attempts to remake societies with bombing and bloodshed), and almost the full final third is devoted to “joyful Arabia,” in Godard’s view a region still misunderstood and abused by the West because “the world is not interested in Arabs — Muslims either.” It is very possibly my own failing in this regard that I found this section the least compelling, with its dwelling on a hypothetical pan-Arabic ruler and real, recent “terrorist” footage (“Throwing bombs seems normal to me,” intones JLG). But no even casual clocker of Godard’s career or cinematic contributions could fail to be touched or disturbed when his raspy voiceover becomes an actual phlegmy hacking cough, segueing into a final image from Max Ophuls’s Le Plaisir of a dandy spinning and collapsing on a dancefloor — the end of an epoch. Justin Stewart

BURNINGDo we really need another portrait of a frustrated sad-sack young man, even if it comes in the form of one of Lee Chang-dong‘s typically haunting, deliberately paced character studies? Jong-su (Yoo Ah-in), an aspiring writer, reunites with Hae-mi (Jun Jong-seo), a crush from his youth just in time to sleep with her before she heads to Africa and asks him to feed her cat. She comes back with a new boyfriend, Ben (Steven Yeun), a rich asshole who may or may not actually just be a total psycho. Burning spends all of its energy diagnosing Jong-su’s dreary existence and cataloging his own hopes for a future triggered by his one night with Hae-mi, about whom we wind up knowing materially nothing, making both her nebulous fate and the success or failure of Jong-su’s unrequited love some sort of psychic Macguffin, forcing the character to do stuff that turns him basically into an allegorical pawn. Reminiscent of Kim Ki-duk’s equally acclaimed and equally stultifying mid-2000s work, like 3-Iron, this is another in a long line of formally precise, vaguely genre-inflected films loaded with signifiers about thwarted masculinity and socioeconomic struggle: occasional grace notes like a sunset dance seem calculated merely to add some layer of class to the thriller bits, while obvious elements like hearing Trump on the radio and setting this near the North Korean border don’t make this somehow political by sheer dint of their appearance. Is this a pensive, deliberately paced exercise in suspense and ambiguity and a referendum on modernity in South Korea? Or is it a two-and-a-half-hour slog about a dork who takes out his frustrations on a bully? Does it matter? Matt Lynch

WILD PEARTwo decades on now and Turkey’s Nuri Bilge Ceylan has become something of a genre unto himself. To those that concern themselves with film festivals and prestigey world cinema, his name carries with it a check list of thematic interests and formal predilections. Lord knows there will be some long takes, some deep-focus cataloging of Turkey’s superlative natural beauty, a lot of Dostoevskian philosophizing, and petty disputes between the inert intellectual class and the despondent proletariat. None of that changes with The Wild Pear Tree; in fact, this film furthers one of Ceylan’s new hallmarks: an indulgent runtime that, in the case of this film, is entirely unearned. One of the joys of Ceylan’s previous film, Palme d’Or-winner Winter Sleep, was taking in the precision of the dialogue (the translation of which was excellent, as is the case with this one), each exchange a carefully constructed bundle of coded passive aggression and venomous subtext. Wild Pear Tree operates on a similar principle, but provides us with a baldly loathsome protagonist, as played by Aydın Doğu Demirkol, who smirks his way through a 188-minute runtime that sees him on the screen almost constantly. Demirkol plays a recent college grad who returns to his hometown intending to write a (seemingly exploitative) novel and reconnect with a father he holds deep disdain for. The film proceeds to play-out as a glacially-paced, high-minded Garden State, bluntly spelling out obvious metaphor, delivering its characters to saccharine redemption, and forcing the audience to spend unbearable amounts of time with a contemptuous lead. Let us hope that Ceylan’s depictions of ineffectual artistry aren’t predictive of his future work. M.G. Mailloux

TOO LATEThe primary appeal of Dominga Sotomayor’s Too Late to Die Young is its seductive portrayal of a liminal state. Set in a bohemian commune in the Chilean countryside, a year after the downfall of Pinochet’s dictatorship, the film (which won the Golden Leopard for Best Director at the 2018 Locarno Festival) revels in that familiar sensation of being on the cusp of a transformative encounter that, as yet, remains frustratingly out of reach, so one searches elsewhere—destructively, impulsively. Sotomayor’s main subject, here, is Sofia (Demian Hernández), a young woman who longs to leave her rural confines and the hold of her luthier father for the peripatetic urban wanderings of her absentee, musician mother. Like the films of Lucrecia Martel (particularly La Ciénaga), Too Late to Die Young ebbs and flows with a particular attention to sensorial pleasures. Sotomayor has a similar talent for composing frames and deploying narrative elisions that pull the viewer in; her rhythms, though, are far more languid, better to conceal the characters’ rumblings of discontent. Despite its various formalist pleasures, Too Late to Die Young ultimately offers little genuine insight. But its finale is a stunner: one way of life going up in flames to make room for another. LG

An ElephantAn Elephant Sitting Still, Hu Bo’s bleak epic of lives spent swimming upstream in modern economic conditions, is an exacting depiction of depression. Even without knowing the circumstances behind the film (its director took his own life last October), the unrelenting nihilism of both narrative and tone couch Elephant in a pocket of double-downed hopelessness for nearly its entire runtime. But while the film toes the line of miserabilism, Hu’s commitment to intimacy makes it feel far more like an emotional and psychological audit than a cudgel used against its audience, an attempt at exorcising the demons that dictate this reading of the world. The director’s chief aesthetic commitment is to remain close to his characters, both literally and figuratively. His patient approach allows the characters to hold lengthy, unabridged conversations, punctuated by uncomfortable silences and deflections, reveling in the micro temporal setting of a single day as evidence of a macro existence. Visually, Hu prefers soulful, floating Steadicam shots, ghostly navigations of cramped quarters and decaying city streets, and swirling shots that almost seem to be searching for a better view. And yet Hu’s camera still turns away from much gratuitous violence (a brutal dog attack and a beating that one of the characters suffers both occur offscreen), a self-aware nod to the internal violence already borne by his subjects. And while certain narrative contrivances (two suicides and an accidental murder occur in this 24-hour span) and constant self-reflection of circumstance and misanthropic philosophizing by the characters sporadically undermine the film’s power, Hu shatters this established POV with a poignant and devastating final moment that serves as a pointed rejection of the previous four hours’ hopelessness. Luke Gorham

DOGMAN“What the fuck are you thinking?” a police chief asks dog groomer Marcello (a cartoonishly wide-eyed Marcello Fonte) about halfway through Dogman. He asks this question after Marcello has allowed the brutish, coke-fueled Simon (Edoardo Pesce) access into his business after hours in order to rob an adjacent jewelry shop — though the question posed is broadly applicable to any situation in which he puts up with the violent antics of his “friend,” where the absurd lengths gone to protect him become tiring rather quickly. And this is director Matteo Garrone’s central goal here: to demonstrate the submissiveness of humans burdened by fascism and their willingness to protect their subjugators, taking this idea to its most absurd conclusion. However, once you remove the political allegory from the center of the film, there’s nothing left here. Garrone’s gambit proves effective for roughly 20 minutes of a nearly two-hour film, in which viewers are constantly subjected to watching a spineless man do mental gymnastics in order to defend abhorrent behavior. The grueling nature of this relationship dynamic is only worsened by Garrone’s often garish visual style, which tends to favor needlessly long takes that are more aggravating than technically impressive (the most notable example being when a frozen dog is resuscitated, a weirdly toxic mix of realistic technique and absurdist comedy that’s too obnoxiously gross to be funny or heartwarming). There’s rarely a choice made that isn’t displeasing in some regard, making Dogman torturous to endure until the end — when viewers are rewarded with Marcello being fully ostracized because of his actions. It’s a fitting punishment for the crime of being a total chump. PA