Credit: TIFF
by InRO Staff Featured Festival Coverage Film

TIFF 2020 — Dispatch 2: Pieces of a Woman, Summer of 85, New Order

September 17, 2020

Pieces of a Woman

Director Kornél Mundruczó knows how to open a film (see the otherwise underwhelming White God, for example), and with Pieces of a Woman he sets out to obliterate his previous benchmark. After quick, separate introductions to Shawn (Shia LaBeouf) and Martha (Vanessa Kirby), a young married couple expecting their first child any day, Mundruczó balls out with a 30-minute long-take detailing the final stretch of a home birth. It’s an audacious, yet controlled sensorial assault: Martha bellows and bawls and burps through contractions; a patient camera roves the halls, ducking into and out of doorways, slowly following the action as if afraid of intruding. Roughly 20 minutes in, this raw, detail-attentive opening slows for a brief interlude: Martha, who has just moved to the bathtub, asks Shawn to get some music. As Sigur Ros’ “Untitled 3” washes over the scene, momentarily supplanting all other sonic textures, the pair join in a modified embrace: shot in tight close-up, their hands both caress and seek purchase, their noses briefly kiss, and they finally pull back to gaze into each other’s eyes, before Martha’s flit away as a new contraction begins. It’s the proverbial calm before the storm, a moment of deep, shared intimacy that works as tragic contrast with what follows. 

Any number of films have tackled the topic of grieving parents navigating the loss of a child, but far fewer have explored the loss of a baby mere minutes after birth. But rather than guide this starting scenario into new territory, Pieces of a Woman instead indulges in simple misery porn. Despite the first half hour’s undeniable ostentation, Mundruczó executes its Euro-arthouse cum melodrama mashup with deftness (it even pads its indie cred with supporting turns from Benny Safdie and Jimmie Fails). But the following 90 minutes doesn’t possess the same confidence of vision. There are brief moments of clarity — the film slowly shifts from Shawn’s churning despair to Martha’s largely silent grief and hollowed-out emotional core, fulfilling the title’s promise — but Mundruczó and screenwriter Kata Wéber (also the director’s real-life partner) do little else to distinguish their material. Instead, the script supplies a catalog of generic consequences: Shawn relapses into drug and alcohol abuse; domestic flaccidity results in an affair (with a family member, no less); and simmering class resentments between Martha’s well-to-do family and Shawn’s working-class background begin to boil over. 

In this way, Pieces of a Woman is a tale of two films. Its first quarter bears little resemblance to the rest, which seems constructed largely as a stage for an actors’ showcase. Quiet honesty is replaced with broad emoting. LaBeouf is an actor seemingly incapable of subtlety, and he’s one of a few actors who thrives in this gaudy mode, but he’s given little to chew on here. Shawn is a self-proclaimed boor with deep recesses of feeling, but his arc is too shallow for the actor to generate much power. Kirby fairs better thanks to the less communicative nature of her role, but she too is poorly served by a closed-off character who emotionally sleepwalks through most of the film. It was never going to be easy to capture the entropic fallout of the film’s central cataclysm or to tonally match its initial burst, but there’s no salvaging the tired, formulaic grief-centric domestic drama that it becomes. Pieces of a Woman feels like a distinctly personal film, but it communicates little in the way of psychological or emotional acuity. What remains instead is a film troubled by its unfulfilled possibility. Luke Gorham

Summer of 85

The trailer for Summer of 85, the latest from Cannes perennial François Ozon, makes the film look something like Call Me By Your Name (2017) transposed to the crime-thriller key of René Clément’s Purple Noon (1960) — a fairly intriguing proposition in itself. When first introduced, angel-faced Alexis (Félix Lefebvre), a working-class teen who lives on the coast of Normandy, is spending the afternoon on his friend’s boat, though the sight of an approaching storm soon causes him to panic and capsize. Fortunately, debonair David Gorman (Benjamin Voisin) — an 18-year-old who later displays a taste for danger and a talent for dissembling — swiftly sails to his rescue, after which the two strike up a friendship and, eventually, a covert romance. All this is conveyed in extended, past-tense flashbacks, since the film periodically pulls back to the present, where David is dead and Alexis is being investigated for some crime. Naturally, Ozon plays coy with both the nature of and the circumstances surrounding each, but here, he has a face-saving justification: the story framework is being provided by none other than Alexis, a promising literature student who, at the encouragement of his teacher (Melvil Poupaud), purges his remembrances into fervid prose. Because how else could this torrid summer’s tale possibly be told.

Apart from a reference to Ozon’s own 1996 short A Summer Dress, the result is about what you’d expect given the basic setup and the storytelling verve of an angsty teen with literary aspirations. Alexis’ blissful recollections are everywhere shadowed by the threat of death, and when things go south, as they inevitably must, Summer of 85 broaches the familiar matters of romantic and creative projection. For the film’s unsophisticated narrative and patently ridiculous ending, Ozon can perhaps share the blame with British author Aidan Chambers, who wrote the 1982 young adult novel, Dance On My Grave, on which Summer of 85 is based. The perfunctory treatment of Alexis’ social world and class standing, however, falls squarely on the filmmaker. But in this, as in everything else, Ozon has a potential out: Summer of 85 ends on yet another boat ride, with Alexis now musing meaningfully on a desire to “escape [his] own story,” redoubling the possibility of imaginative distortion on his part, and plausibly, if glibly accounting for the selective realization of his home life. The impression of this final fillip, though, is not so much of a daring postmodern flourish as of a merely careless, neglectful gesture. In rendering Chambers’ source novel as a weightless trifle, Ozon has ensured that his own audience remains out at sea. Lawrence Garcia

New Order

The refinement of taste, an ongoing exploration of one’s personal experience, while all well and good, always runs the risk of becoming solipsistic, of neglecting the areas of exploration that fall outside of one’s interests. This is at least one way of justifying an encounter with the Cannes-anointed output of Michel Franco, whose warm reception on the festival circuit has, over the years, become something more like a red flag. His latest, New Order, which arrives hot off its Grand Prix win at the Venice Film Festival, seems about as good a place to start as any other. Though having now seen the film, I should add: as good a place to end, as well. 

What immediately stands out in New Order — especially to a viewer whose only previous exposure to Franco’s work is the hilariously glib ending of Chronic — is not the director’s retrograde politics, which equates working-class revolution with the machinations of the neoliberal police state; or his hackneyed dramatic instincts, which pile one hot-button topic upon another (health care, class resentment, surveillance, to name only a few); but rather, his unimpeachably competent art-house stylings. For better or worse, the man can serviceably direct chaos. And New Order which follows a wealthy, sealed-off family, who have gathered for a wedding as a populist uprising brews outside of their door, eventually spilling over — offers myriad examples of this dubious mastery. A crane shot fluidly follows the patterns of elegantly arranged corpses; sudden, loud gunshots disrupt distended periods of bourgeois bliss; and panoramas of ominous, vacant urban spaces suggest the pangs of a populace under siege. In all such moments, Franco seizes upon the one thing the liberal commentariat never fails to see as profound: ambiguity, that one-size-fits-all sentiment, capable of stoking the sympathies of the Blue Lives Matter crowd even as it solicits pathos for the dispossessed. That Franco clearly sees his title as ironic tells us everything we need to know about what side he’s actually on. In politics, aesthetics, and the intersection between them, New Order stands with the old guard. Josh Cabrita 

Shiva Baby

North American film festivals are always stuffed full of movies that look like Shiva Baby — droll indie dramedies, built around topical, high concept premises and shot in an unassuming manner reminiscent of contemporary TV aesthetics. It’s pretty easy to be skeptical of such content, as so often these movies aren’t much more than acting reels for untested comedians, or a writer angling for a series. So yes, on paper Shiva Baby does appear to be made from this dubious mold, but it blessedly dodges the worst clichés of such films, guided by writer/director Emma Seligman’s distinctive, assured voice.

Expanded from Seligman’s 2018 short of the same name, Shiva Baby sets out to juggle an impressive number of ideas and interpersonal conflicts over the course of its 77-minute runtime. Most of this is spent at a shiva attended by Danielle (Rachel Sennott) and her parents (Fred Melamed and Polly Draper) who, while well-intentioned and affectionate, also fail to recognize their latent conservatism and tendency to infantilize. This tension is strained to tense extremes when it turns out Danielle’s ex, Maya (Molly Gordon), and her current (married) sugar daddy are sitting the very same shiva as her and her parents, which brings about dueling conflicts. On one side, Danielle is warding off her mother’s homophobic needling (she insists on repeated assurances that Danielle and Maya’s relationship was just some “experimenting”), and on the other, she’s attempting to maintain the ruse that she and her sugar daddy are only passingly familiar with one another. Arguably, these dynamics could create enough narrative momentum to keep a feature film afloat, but Shiva Baby’s screenplay makes the risky choice of piling on additional conflicts (the sugar daddy’s wife and baby show up, professional envy between Maya and Danielle, constant body shaming from distant relatives). A less refined screenplay might get overwhelmed trying to give proper attention to each angle of this scenario and collapse under its own weight, but Seligman has thoroughly mapped out her narrative. Expertly timed out and never contrived, it plays out like a very dry screwball comedy. 

The film’s closing moments are perhaps the closest Shiva Baby comes to getting too wacky (the cut to credits comes just as its crossing the line), and even at its slim runtime, the film eventually starts to feel like its looping back on itself. But these flaws never overtake the film’s appealing honesty. Sennott’s performance also lines up with Seligman’s vision nicely; probably most famous as a Twitter-based comedian, Sennott underplays this role just right, fashioning herself into a conduit for the audience’s anxiety and exasperation. The qualities of her performance reflect Shiva Baby’s strengths in macro: an insistence on staying away from easy choices and sensationalism (even more essential when you consider that this film is one of only a couple films at TIFF directed by an LGBTQ identifying person). Shiva Baby proves Seligman and Sennott to be adept storytellers in their own savvy, parallel ways, precisely the sort of artists that festivals should be fostering. M.G. Mailloux

Preparations to Be Together for an Unknown Period of Time

Preparations to Be Together for an Unknown Period of Time opens with a grand romantic gesture. After 20 years in the United States, Dr. Marta Vizy (Natasa Stork) has returned to Budapest to meet the love of her life on the Liberty Bridge. She knows it’s crazy; they’ve only met once, at a medical conference in New Jersey, but she’s almost 40 and can’t deny the connection she felt. Marta abandons her job and friends and impulsively hops on a plane, checks into a hotel, puts on makeup, practices her smile, strolls over to the appointed time and place and… no one is there. Flustered, she decides to track down her beau, Dr. Janos Drexler (Viktor Bodo), at the local hospital. She confronts him, demanding to know why he didn’t keep their date. He stares at her, apologizes, and says that he has no idea who she is. She simply must have him confused with someone else. But what begins as a simple case of he said/she said, with Marta earnestly investigating the possibility that Janos has simply forgotten her due to a mental malfunction, becomes complicated by her eventual admission that she has romantic fantasies. Gradually, writer-director Lili Horvát allows that subjective uncertainty to seep into and destabilize the narrative, making her second feature a deeply strange, totally beguiling investigation into love as neurological phenomenon (or disorder).

Horvat is playing a fascinating game here, as if presenting the viewer with an underdetermined set of algebraic equations. Is Janos lying? If so, why? Or is Marta so desperate for a connection that she has made it up, willing it into existence (something she admits has happened before)? In some respects, the film is a character study of a profoundly unknowable person. Stork plays Marta like an alien who’s just begun trying on human emotions for the first time, and her performance is fascinatingly implacable, and the quotidian quality of the film’s formal construction belies just how deeply subjective an experience it is. One thinks of Abbas Kiarostami’s Certified Copy, another film that turned narrative gamesmanship into a deeper consideration of how we construct relationships. It’s almost a disappointment when Horvat finally reveals the film’s secrets, giving the mystery a definitive reading, until one realizes that the film’s unwieldy title is actually referring to its cryptic ending. Critic Jake Cole has compared Preparations to Christian Petzold’s “anti-erotic thrillers,” as well as Kieslowski “in the way its ambiguity is manifested as a strange game.” The estimable Amy Taubin suggests that it is “not simply a romance between two people, but with consciousness itself” and that it “turns Vertigo inside out.” Bold claims, for sure, but Preparations earns them. It is a major discovery. Daniel Gorman