Credit: Courtesy of TIFF
by InRO Staff Featured Festival Coverage Film

TIFF 2023 — Dispatch 3: Menus-Plaisirs: Les Troisgros, The Holdovers, In the Rearview

September 15, 2023

Menus-Plaisirs: Les Troisgros

For most of Frederick Wiseman’s career, the master documentarian has focused on the lives and institutions of the United States. His films have painted a nearly 60-year developmental portrait of an evolving America, full of imagined utopias (Aspen), too-real dystopias (Public Housing), and the flawed systems that offer varying degrees of hope (Juvenile Court). It isn’t often that Wiseman takes his focus away from his home country, but he seems to also feel at home in France. These French excursions are comparably low-stakes, almost like a vacation for the 93-year-old director (though never made with less effort or curiosity), and most focus on his love for performance: La Danse, Crazy Horse, and La Comédie-Française. Now, he has returned to his second home to document a different sort of performance — the gastronomic ballet of the fine dining experience.

Menus-Plaisirs: Les Troisgros mostly follows head chef Michel Troisgros through all of his administrative duties in running his three-Michelin-star La Maison Troisgros in Roanne, an idyllic community just outside Lyon. While this means that plenty of attention is given to the restaurant itself — a nice, modern building with floor-to-ceiling windows to show off the local vegetation and lend an air of en plain air dining — Wiseman also follows Michel on his field trips to farms and markets. Ingredients mentioned and fought over in the market scenes suddenly make another appearance in conversations about the menu in the restaurant itself, making it then triply gratifying to see those ingredients suddenly gracing a dish three hours into this four-hour exploration of modern French cuisine. And, this being a Wiseman venture, scenes of meticulous phone calls and scheduling are thankfully left in, such that a similarly gratifying feeling may come when a call to a wine rep results in Michel’s tour of a vineyard, which opens up a conversation about what wines La Maison Troisgros has kept in stock, which finally culminates in a waiter’s spiel about the local wine being served to inquisitive customers. Behind every dish and behind every ingredient is a character and a story — a schmaltzy line every fine dining restaurant touts on their website’s “About” page — but here, Wiseman is keen to associate each part of the experience with a character, a meeting, a tour, a scene.

Sadly, this documentary lacks the drama that comes with the territory of something like City Hall or the celebratory nature of Crazy Horse. Though this is certainly not a fault of the film itself, there’s not exactly a dearth of footage of the backrooms of kitchens and the private frustrations of restaurateurs. But while this may be familiar material to those who binge shows on Food Network or the Travel Channel, Wiseman’s style removes the need for empty visual flourishes of each dish (most of which are hardly visible once they’ve left the kitchen) in favor of seeing the restaurant at a wide enough angle so that all of its vital organs are on display, moving and pumping and helping it live. So many recurring characters — sous-chefs, pâtissiers, servers, managers, and the hotelier of the Troisgros estate (as well as Michel’s wife), Marie-Pierre — reverently collaborate with Michel, though they are no strangers to outright argumentation if they know it’ll make a better product, Michel’s word be damned. It’s through those dialectical arrangements that the film’s true pleasures emerge, as, at the end of the night, after the all-too-pleased Americans have settled to roost, and the evening rush has finished their wine, Michel can recollect the history of his new building to a curious gourmand, who’d just finishing tasting his personalized menu: the result of arguments, schedules, construction, tours, plants, cows, dirt, and fire. ZACH LEWIS

Credit: Courtesy of TIFF

The Holdovers

​The faux-retro affect of Alexander Payne’s new Vietnam-era film, The Holdovers, could never be mistaken for something genuine. Regardless of how it’s meant to be taken, the fabricated studio logos for Focus Features and — given the series of abuse allegations against Payne — Miramax in particular are bracing anachronisms. The film’s opening credits, its film grain, and its period-appropriate soundtrack may be attractive, but there’s an undeniable phoniness to the affect. And that phoniness hangs over the entirety of this film — even if the resulting effect doesn’t completely infect what Payne is attempting to do. And he does manage some unambiguous successes with The Holdovers, particularly in guiding the essential performances of the film’s three lead actors.

That trio consists of Paul Giamatti, as a teacher assigned (as punishment) to supervise a group of students left at a prestigious boarding school during the Christmas holiday of 1970; Dominic Sessa, as one of said students; and Da’Vine Joy Randolph as Mary, a cafeteria worker grieving the loss of her son, a recent graduate of the school who was killed in Vietnam. All three characters are archetypes, but Giamatti’s Paul Hunham is conceived as an outright caricature: he’s smelly, lazy-eyed, proudly unlovable, and ineffectual. When Angus (Sessa) suggests that it’s absurd to assign additional material over the break to make up for an exam most of his classmates failed, Hunham simply cancels the makeup. Rendering this character as a cartoon version of a jaded boarding school teacher seemingly divests him of the capacity for virtuous redemption, a trope often seen in this kind of character-driven film and which prevents the characterization from ever emotionally cohering. But there’s an integrity and pronounced humanity to Giamatti’s development of Hunham, which allows what seems to be a superficially slight arc to stealthily build affecting depth. 

Secrets are a notable motif in Payne’s film, and Hunham and Angus also bear several for much of the runtime; for his part, Angus’s obscure the reasons for his acting out — which go beyond run-of-the-mill teen angst — and render him something of a cipher. But Sessa’s adolescent rage, not a quality intuitively quelled by Giamatti’s irascibility, is similarly, surprisingly grounded. Indeed, the novelty of this duo’s dynamic, based not quite either in similarity or in opposition to the other, but rather in a sort of disjointed malaise, is the film’s greatest asset. Mary, meanwhile, is both far more conceived in cliché and is often sidelined throughout, but Randolph’s performance manages to feel as lived-in as Giamatti and Sessa’s, elevating the material she’s given more than she has any reason to. And, though the optics of a woman of color playing the clear third lead to two white men aren’t ideal, what exists of her character arc does feel firmly and specifically rooted, rather than existing only to serve those of her co-stars.

​Indeed, the pleasure Payne finds in these character arcs is worth further dissecting. The shifts we observe in these characters are realistically incremental over what seems like a set timeline, occasionally counted in days via chyron. When the ball drops on New Year’s Eve, no drastic or definitive change has been evinced, but simply a satisfying sense that briefly opening the channels of communication between them has led to productive expansions of their worldviews. The film makes the mistake of continuing into a final half-act that introduces a conflict that requires the drastic and definitive change the film has heretofore eschewed, and though this move doesn’t ring quite as false as the ludicrous opening production cards, it does lead to a far less satisfying conclusion than Payne’s restraint has suggested up to this point. By surfacing a specific conflict, the director exposes that both the thematic content undergirding The Holdovers is fundamentally underdeveloped. Conversations and compositions gesture toward discourse surrounding mental health, the Vietnam War, class, pedagogy, and more, but none are actually explored in any meaningful way, and so when such topics are dragged into the climax, it rings quite hollow. And so, despite surface impressions that range from blithely pleasant to genuinely moving or even hilarious in moments, The Holdovers never quite feels effectively or fully conceived, stuck in some nebulous territory between the slight coming-of-age comedy it presents as and a more serious-minded look at an era and its people in crisis. JESSE CATHERINE WEBBER

In the Rearview

Death and destruction are the mainstays of war, but it is war’s fatigue — long-drawn and uncertain, for both its combatants and victims — that often proves the most dehumanizing. When Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, 2022, paving the way for the latter’s military retaliation, popular discourse centered around the invasion’s moral and legal illegitimacy, as well as the threats of nuclear escalation; today, some 18 months after, these issues remain, but they have receded from the collective imagination, now encountered with largely numb indifference. The existence of a collective imagination implies that war has a spectatorial dimension, too, and with the confluence of technological connectivity and widespread democratic peace in our time, war’s spectators have found both morbid fascination and placid disinterest in the endlessly documented travails of ordinary humanity forced to bear the extraordinary cross of political folly. Ever since 1991, when Jean Baudrillard famously declared that the Gulf War did not take place, our perception of war has fundamentally shifted: now, everything is seen, but little felt.

In such times as these, human dignity is hard to come by, and it’s to the credit of Polish documentarian Maciek Hamela that his feature debut, In the Rearview, manages to co-opt its broader sociological framework into a modest but ultimately majestic affirmation of personhood. In the Rearview follows Hamela across the span of days, maybe weeks, as he and a rotating team of camera operators flit in between Ukraine and Poland, following several Ukrainian families in the early days of the invasion as they evacuate their homes and sojourn westward for safety. “Following,” in ethnographic parlance, connotes a kind of emotional distance, but Hamela’s job here is twofold: he not only documents these families, but also actively helps transport them away from untold carnage. Serving as shelter and temporary reprieve — and on occasion as makeshift ambulance — his vans gradually reveal war’s forgotten microcosms: neighbors and family members callously shelled by bombs, accounts of rape and aggression perpetuated by occupying Russian forces, and so on. But more tellingly, they convey the tense passing of time — time in the wake of great loss and displacement, but also time living on the precipice of even greater uncertainty for the future.

The result is a quietly devastating act of resistance amid tragedy, as the film lingers not so much on particular families or even particular stories, but imprints the muted cacophony of emotions undertaken on their journey into memory. Relief from imminent death is painfully undercut by parents and children alike grieving for the dead and tussling with perpetual anxiety, although it’s the shell-shock and numbness that induces the greatest devastation — a little girl no longer speaks after her apartment was bombed, and another girl on the same ride attempts to cheer her up with cartoon drawings, despite being brutally acclimatized to the sound of planes: “We’ll die, that’s all.” The little girl responds with a smile and a small wolf’s howl. Here, Margaret Atwood’s pithy aphorism, that “war is what happens when language fails,” may be inverted and generalized to describe the impossibility of communication, even relation, between those who suffer and those who do not. In the Rearview offers ever so slightly a reprieve against this failure of language; its minimalist and peripheral designs capture the tentative resumption of everyday testimony, in tenuous hope for the resumption of everyday life. Tellingly, Hamela’s title — the rearview, as opposed to the frontlines of war — eschews shock value, both pacifism’s greatest poster child and its undoing. For it is against the backdrop of war that humanity is most easily forgotten, yet most doggedly lingers on. MORRIS YANG

Credit: Courtesy of TIFF

Mademoiselle Kenopsia

Looking over the 25 years’ worth of productions by French-Canadian auteur Denis Côté, one discerns a kind of creative restlessness. Not only is Côté a prolific filmmaker; he’s also someone who has thus far avoided developing a clear, signature style. There are certainly thematic similarities across many of Côté’s films, most notably an interest in outsiders or those hovering in the margins of society. But if you offered viewers a blind taste test, it’s very likely they may think what they’re sampling are the works of several different filmmakers. From experimental documentaries like Bestiare (2012) and A Skin So Soft (2017) to patiently observed art films, such as Carcasses (2009) and Curling (2010), to rather accessible arthouse fare like Boris Without Beatrice (2016) and Ghost Town Anthology (2019) or one-off experiments like Wilcox (2019) and Social Hygiene (2021) — Côté appears to get an idea, go with it, and carry it no further.

While I’ve always admired Côté’s films, I have yet to completely embrace one. His most fully realized, in terms of character and atmosphere, is probably Vic + Flo Saw a Bear (2013), which again bears little resemblance to others that he’s made. While watching his latest, Mademoiselle Kenopsia, it occurred to me that Côté’s tendency to move all around the aesthetic gameboard has kept his filmmaking in a rather inchoate state of development. Whereas another filmmaker would look back at Kenopsia (or any of the other films), identify its strengths and weaknesses, and then build on those strengths, Côté just keeps moving on, and this results not only in a general unevenness in his oeuvre, but also a sense of underdevelopment. Each subsequent film could be better, but Côté chooses instead to begin again from the ground up. The only other filmmaker who exhibits this tendency to the same extent is probably Takashi Miike, whose audience is not entirely distinct from Côté’s — though the former’s fans do tend to come to the movies with quite different expectations.

At the start of Mademoiselle Kenopsia, Côté gives us fixed-frame shots of various unpopulated corners of a building that has fallen into disrepair. That’s to say, the space stands alone and asserts its own unique ambiance well before we’re introduced to our unnamed main character (Côté regular Larissa Corriveau). We observe the woman walking around this empty building, gazing at its peeling paint and disused fixtures; we admire the subtle ways that light dapples the barren walls. Although most of what we see tells us that the building is a decommissioned church, there are other spaces that look like a medical facility, and still others that resemble a business office. It’s fairly evident that Côté is employing creative geography, editing the space together out of several different locations. Corriveau’s watcher-wanderer is the only constant.

These early portions of Kenopsia are reminiscent of James Benning’s films, especially his recent Maggie’s Farm (2020), a structural study of empty spaces at his place of employment, Cal Arts. But soon, Corriveau is on the telephone speaking to an unseen, unheard interlocutor. She articulates all the themes and ideas that Kenopsia had left implicit up to that point: the beauty of decay, the loneliness of abandoned spaces, the overwhelming sense of hauntology permeating the film. Even if we allow that Côté is not intending to make a non-narrative film and is more interested in a Beckett-style drama about dislocation and time, there’s still a nagging disappointment that Kenopsia’s text works so hard to tell us what we’re supposed to be seeing, when it’s right in front of us. (Near the end of the film, we hear a radio show host actually define “liminal space.”)

“Kenopsia,” of course, is a philosophical concept relating to the sad nostalgia one experiences when seeing spaces that were once bustling with activity but are now just standing vacant. This is a popular idea right now, since the rapid shifts of hyper-capital have resulted in a plethora of modern ruins: defunct shopping malls, abandoned theme parks, old sports stadiums where the roar of the crowd has been replaced by the dull echo of room tone. One aesthetic outgrowth of this has been the “Backrooms” genre of web-based cinema, which treats empty buildings as portals to another, possibly sinister dimension. So Côté’s film is certainly stepping into a particularly robust cultural conversation.

However, Mademoiselle Kenopsia can’t seem to make up its mind as to exactly what it wants to say. At some points, Corriveau seems to be a supernatural being, protecting this realm in perpetuity. At other points, she seems like an all-too-human caretaker, so overcome with cabin fever that she’s about to jump the bones of a workman (Olivier Aubin) who has come to install a camera. In the middle of the film, she finds a stranger (Evelyne de la Chenelière) who delivers a single-take monologue about embodiment. Instead of allowing the viewer to draw their own conclusions about Kenopsia, Côté provides a surfeit of explanations and invites us to adopt our favorite. 

Mademoiselle Kenopsia is a film besotted with minimalism and absence, so it’s ironic that a primary criticism of it would be that its maker forgets that less is more. The film’s most compelling aspect is Côté’s use of film and video projection to create flickering, kinetic light particles in tucked-away corners — as if actual spirits were trapped in the forgotten walls. But as seductive as these moments are, they specifically recall another film, Pat O’Neill’s criminally underseen The Decay of Fiction (2002), and its spectral tour of the interior remains of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. That film refrains from verbal explanations and just charts the hollowed-out halls of a structure with historic import, letting its ghosts hover along the corridors. O’Neill’s film avoided literal explanations and allowed the walls to speak. If Côté had taken a similar approach, Mademoiselle Kenopsia would have been that much more haunting. MICHAEL SICINSKI

A Normal Family

In a movie titled A Normal Family, one thing can be certain: the family is obligated to abnormality. Hur Jin-ho’s newest film, an adaptation of the Dutch novel The Dinner by Herman Koch, attests to this. The source material’s title explains why the film’s early marketing so heavily depends on the monthly family dinners between two brothers and their wives — though many of the film’s most memorable images have nothing to do with their dinner routines. These adult-only dinners — once a month at ridiculously expensive restaurants—come to reveal a disturbing ethical dilemma at the film’s center, one that their multi-household family must gamble their future unity on.

Screenwriters Park Eun-kyo and Park Joon-seok’s adaptation of Koch’s story leaves plenty of seeds to suggest that the Yang family is not and never has been a normal family. The aging matriarch struggling with dementia almost flippantly comments to one of the wives to be weary of her son’s violent streaks, a trait heretofore unwitnessed. The son of respected physician Jae-gyu (Jang Dong-gun) and the willingly gullible Yeon-kyung (Kim Hee-ae), Si-ho (Kim Jung-chul) squishes a beetle with glee and lacks in the friend department. Even earlier, in one of the film’s early scenes, Jae-gyu’s criminal defense attorney brother, Jae-wan (Sol Kyung-gu), has no problem imagining complex stories for his clients to use to excuse their crimes. Something doesn’t just feel off with this family; something is off.

The professionally conniving Jae-wan and his younger and weight-obsessed wife Ji-soo (Claudia Kim) parent two children together. The elder daughter, Hye-yoon (Hong Ye-ji), of Jae-wan’s first wife, proves to be quite the problem; the baby boy that Ji-soo favors, by contrast, is little more than an ornament to the production design. When the conflict emerges, both the script and Jae-wan relegate Ji-soo to a backseat role; Yeon-kyung, meanwhile, assumes a more active role than her much younger sister-in-law. She even acts with such an independent agency that she takes a stance in opposition to that of her husband on the moral quandary.

The instigating incident begins after Si-ho walks in on his cousin making out with some strange nameless boy at a high school party. This clearly frustrates him — and as the cousins leave the party, they find trouble together. (Nothing more will be said here, but what happens won’t be a spoiler for anyone familiar with the source material.) Beyond this single episode, and perhaps also Hye-yoon’s power role as a tutor to Si-ho, the screenplay never really hints at any more profound cousin-Oedipus complex — yet, the incident rather clearly seems related to Si-ho’s instinctual emotional reaction to walking-in on his cousin with another boy. Even though the incident involves the two children, they are more or less perfunctory vessels for psychological drama and empty symbols for the dilemma the parents must come to reckon.  

As expected from seasoned writer-director Hur Jin-ho (Christmas in August; The Last Princess), A Normal Family is a pretty film with occasionally impressive cinematography. Hur composes the first meeting at the dinner table with a series of tone-setting, straight-on eye-level shots: discordance, like the uncomfortably close camera, is the norm at this communal place. The wives occasionally embody gendered stereotypes, especially in their relationship with each other. Their age difference and social comfortability, combined with Ji-soo’s distanced status within the family as an outsider (following in the footsteps of Jae-wan’s first wife), result in incessant bickering. They simply can’t bear one another and just play the social game for the sake of their husbands. Even the third major female character, Hye-yoon, receives less care and screen time than her male cousin. The men are at the crux of this picture. 

But at least the two male leads give damn good performances for two hours. Sol, as always, captivates. He’s one of the best actors working in South Korea, and here delivers one of his best performances in years. When the two brothers eventually flop positions on the quandary, Sol sells the switch more than Jang, who admittedly has the more difficult transition as Jae-gyu; the latter’s perspective change has only a single precursor. In the most startling image in the entire film, Jae-gyu — who saves lives at work — takes the life of a small deer as it hits his car, shattering his windshield. He chooses not to alert any authorities or to go to the emergency room, and instead drags the bloody animal carcass to the side of the road, leaving a thick trail of red. The bird’s eye view lends the shot a certain unsettling quality: Why does it feel like he’s hiding the animal? Has he done this before? From what (or whom) does he hide? 

It’s a powerful image, not unlike the memorable blood paths in the 2022 Turkish film Burning Days (an underseen film this writer caught after its Cannes premiere last year). And like that film, the attractive cinematography here is almost (but not quite) enough to forgive the contrived development that the final act hangs its worth on. As it stands, A Normal Family ends up just a good half-hour shy of nailing the thrilling conclusion to what could have been one of the great 21st-century South Korean crime dramas. JOSHUA POLANSKI

Credit: Courtesy of TIFF

The Daughters of Fire

Pedro Costa’s new eight-minute short film The Daughters of Fire is more daring, more formally complex, more beautiful than almost any other recent work one could think of, regardless of length. It begins with a fade in on three panels, arranged from left to right as follows: a shoulders-up closeup of a woman in half-profile, walking (or gliding) past what appears to be a glowing red wall (more on that below) as the camera moves slightly in front of her, following her movement; the second: a woman laying prone on dark, ashy ground, the horizon behind her a kind of glowing orangish-red with swirling black clouds hovering ominously; the third panel is another closeup, this time of a woman peering from behind a doorway or wall, staring directly at the camera. Three distinct compositions, one of movement, one of stasis, the other a bold acknowledgment of the audience.

Each panel displays Costa’s favored mode of digital cinematography, a rich chiaroscuro with intermittent blotches and fields of color emerging from darkness. After establishing each composition, music starts playing and the women begin singing, separately at first but gradually overlapping and then syncopating; the song is a somber reverie about a “terrible day” and being alone, and the need to carry on in the face of death. Suddenly, at around the six-minute mark, the song tapers off and the three panels fade out, before cutting to something entirely different. Three images give way to only one — the classic square academy ratio, the muted colors, and the tell-tell flicker of actual film immediately signify archival footage. This two-minute epilogue observes men walking around rocky terrain, a volcano looming ominously in the background.

The music of the first section comes courtesy of the group Os Musicos do Tejo, who Costa has collaborated with on a series of stage productions. The women — played by Elizabeth Pinard, Alice Costa, and Karyna Gomes — are singers, but also from Cape Verde, intrinsically linking them to Costa’s larger body of work. Taken alongside the silent footage of the second section, Daughters reveals itself as a study in contrasts, certainly, part of Costa’s ongoing pursuit of finding harmony in disharmony. The velvety digital textures of the first movement give way to the tactile physicality of 16mm film in the second; likewise the deep, saturated colors Costa and cinematographer Leonardo Simões (Costa’s DP since Colossal Youth) have conjured versus the blown-out, muted palette of the archival film.

In a wide-ranging interview with curator and Outskirts Magazine editor Christopher Small, Costa reveals the genesis of the short — that it was intended as a proof-of-concept for a longer feature-length film, that the women all filmed their sections of the triptych on a studio soundstage, and that the flickering, undulating colors were actually created via rear-projection. Here, Costa explains that the documentary footage was shot by Orlando Ribeiro, who was present for the aftermath of a 1951 eruption, and that Ribeiro was actually one of Costa’s professors in the 1970s. As Small observes, the non-English translation of the film’s title is As Filhas do Fogo, which names both a volcano — Pico do Fogo — and the island where it is located, off the coast of Cape Verde. Costa has a long-standing fascination with the volcanic, and its presence here undoubtedly links Daughters not only to his own film Casa de Lava — and therefor Tourneur’s I Walked with a Zombie — but also Rossellini’s Stromboli. And of course, a documentary coda that recontextualizes what has come before it can’t help but recall Kiarostami’s Taste of Cherry. The Daughters of Fire is a startlingly complex mélange of 20th-century modernism, a series of influences and references repurposed into something bold and original. It’s a small, succinct, and yet somehow still expansive masterwork from one of the greatest of our contemporary filmmakers. DANIEL GORMAN