Another couple of days, another pile of screenings, meetings, conversations and perennial discussions of “what have you seen that you’ve liked?” and I’m doing just fine, thankyouverymuch. I feel in a somewhat uncomfortable position making any pronouncements about Toronto this year, mainly because I have chosen to steer clear of the bigger, most highly praised titles at the festival because my mission here exists outside of the glitz and glamour of the festival’s main screenings; Since my festival’s in April, and the biggest, high-profile titles are coming out before December, I wouldn’t be doing my job if I wasn’t here taking chances. In return for focusing on my mission, I have been in a cycle of trying out several films I just didn’t appreciate (they’ll always remain nameless) while finding a few films here and there that I truly enjoyed. The last couple of days, I have been avoiding the party circuit altogether (we threw our own party tonight) in order to try and sample as much of the festival as possible. My perception of the overall reaction here is very mixed, which tells me the programmers are doing something right, taking chances on unknown films and presenting a diverse array of movies for this very tough audience at the Press and Industry screenings.
In the past couple of days, a few standouts; Callas Assoluta, a highly conventional documentary portrait of the great American soprano Maria Callas, has moments of absolutely searing beauty, almost always when we hear the great woman singing. Her tragic life story, which seems the archetype of the tormented artist cliché, is told using the usual “archival footage/still photo/interview with friends and admirers/voiceover narration” technique, but there is something about Callas’ gift as a singer and a painfully honest artist that pushes past the films’ limitations and really soars. There is a quality to Callas’ face that absolutely harbors no bullshit and like any great performer, her face betrays her mind; The result is a person as fascinating as her gift, a life lived nearly as tragic as the great Medea Callas portrayed on the greatest stages in the world.
La Divina: Maria Callas
As promised, I also took in Michelange Quay’s Eat, For This Is My Body which was a very unexpected (and appreciated) detour into a completely different sensibility; Think Matthew Barney meets L’Untouchable with a healthy dose of 1970’s African cinema’s political symbolism in the style of Med Hondo. Not everyone’s cup of tea by any stretch, the film had some moments of overwhelming beauty (the opening aerial shot montage, for example) and some truly great moments (old women performing a hip-hop remix of traditional Hatian singing while Quay’s camera does non-stop 360 degree pan). This is an art film with a capital ‘A’, and its technical choices are stellar, but it’s also a somewhat difficult movie, if only because of Quay’s decision to tell his story exclusively through metaphor, a decision that places the film in a grand cinematic tradition, is one that is almost extinct in movie theaters today. For many, especially those who have not seen the Cremaster series, I think the film was too much, but for me, it was wildly entertaining, primarily because I wanted to see what Quay would do next, which slice of colonialism he would expose, how much history he could condense into beautiful images that were at once highly theatrical and telling the truth.
A film that I found extremely moving was Jacques Nolot’s Avant que j’oublie (Before I Forget), the story of an aging gay hustler and his search for meaning in his own life when his lover (and sugar daddy) passes away. The film is, I think, a profound meditation on the way in which routines and roles in our lives end up defining us; When Pierre Pruez (Nolot, in a terrificly droll performance) loses his lover, he is left out in the cold of his own experience and facing an inner-crisis. No longer young and beautiful, he is too old (and too wise it seems) to hustle for sex, but desire (and the need to be desired) lingers within him, giving way to a humorously sad lifestyle involving writing, paying young hustlers for sex and visiting with old friends to remember the good times and compare notes on their lives today. The film has an air of deep experience and inarticulate longing at its core, and the humanity of Nolot’s performance and writing gives the film a sense of profound loss, as if time itself had stripped everything away. I agree with some of my colleagues that the film’s final few moments feel incongruous to the story as a whole, but that doesn’t come close to undermining the deep emotional reaction the film inspired in me. We all want to be young and beautiful forever but we, like all things, fade away. Strand Releasing picked the film up, and I hope to see it in a theater again soon.
Céline Sciamma’s Naissance des pieuvres (Water Lillies), although I much prefer the literal translation “The Birth of the Octopuses”, was picked up by Koch Lorber and Red Envelope at Cannes and was one of the highlights of the festival for me. At once funny and troubled, the film is a note-perfect examination of teenage desire, a genre that is so common these days that to be able to praise the film is no small feat in and of itself. What Sciamma gets right are the pace and tone of teenage longing, vulnerable and unable to be spoken, which is a universal hormonal experience. Sciamma understands all of her characters, from Floriane (Adèle Haenel), the gorgeous object of male and female desire to Marie (Pauline Acquart), the younger, boyish admirer who will do whatever is required to please the object of her sexual fixation and even the pudgy wild-child Anne (Louise Blachère), who places herself squarely into Sciamma’s triumvirate of need. There is a palpable chemistry between the Floriane and Marie, and the movie’s credibility rests on the small, intimate moments that pass across their faces. The film, set in the world of synchronized swimming (which is a terrific metaphor for conformity and the competitive urge among the characters), is a small marvel that features moments of visual transcendence, none more so than when Marie slides under the surface of the water to watch the synchronized movements of the seemingly disembodied swim team (a moment which probably gave the film its French title).
Water Lillies: The Girls of Céline Sciamma’s Naissance des pieuvres
I am finally off to bed after our festival’s party tonight; A nice event that featured many familiar faces and a lot of excellent conversation. Thanks to Keri Nakamoto for making it all possible. Sleep now, and more tomorrow…