Montreal Faces Flight Strike, Lack of Biz, Few Standouts
by Stan Schwartz
The 22nd edition of the Montreal World Film Festival came to a close on
Monday, September 7, and despite screenings of literally hundreds of films
from all over the world, the most excitement had little to do, alas,
with films. As bad luck would have it, Air Canada, the official
Festival sponsor, went on strike mid-festival, thereby stranding scores
of directors, producers, distributors and journalists. From that
point onward, a good deal of the buzz in the lobby of the Hotel
Wyndham had more to do with the frenetic search for a flight out of the
city rather than what daring cinematic discoveries were made at that
day's screenings. Notwithstanding the logistic difficulties imposed by
the strike, there was plenty to see, and some of it was interesting.
One favorite was Craig Monahan's "The Interview" (in the Official
Competition), an Australian psychological thriller which had everyone
thinking of "The Usual Suspects." Tight, stylish and superbly acted,
the film won for its leading man, Hugo Weaving, a much-deserved Best
Causing slight ruffles with some locals because of its satiric look at
serious Quebec issues was the Canadian opening night offering, "No,"
directed by the world-renown Canadian Theater director Robert Lepage.
Taken from his mammoth theater piece of a few seasons back, "The Seven
Streams of the River Ota," " No" cuts back and forth between Sophie, a
young Montreal actress who is appearing in a Feydeau farce at the
Canadian Pavilion at the 1970 World's Fair in Osaka, Japan, and Michel,
her sweetly pretentious writer-boyfriend back home. She's just found
out she's pregnant but he's busy helping his friends be terrorists in
connection with the Quebec nationalist movement. The film is funny,
elegant and poetic in an intellectual sort of way, and perhaps better
than the original stage version. But it's historical framework is so
specific, viewers outside Quebec may wonder just what the point is.
Rakhshan Bani-Etemad's "The May Lady" was another film that was
extremely cultural-specific. Made by an Iranian woman about the plight
of women in modern Iran, this touching and fascinating film focuses on
the touchy relationship between Frough, a 42-year old, divorced
documentary filmmaker, and Mani, her devoted teenage son who can't
accept the idea of Mom taking on a lover. Meanwhile, Frough is pouring
over her videotaped interviews with woman on the subject of Motherhood,
and she can't help feeling their ironic jabs at her own personal
situation. It may sound like a Godardian exercise, but it's actually
quite moving, and the actors are first-rate.
Particularly striking was "Sitcom," the newest offering from Francois
Ozon, France's 31-year old enfant terrible whose previous "See the Sea"
is currently garnering raves States side. The new film is an outrageous,
dark sex farce that, in its way, makes the brutal "See the Sea" look
like Disney in comparison. It's deliberately over-the-top, perverse,
and guaranteed to offend many. The same material in lesser hands would
be positively unpalatable. But Ozon's elegant touch and masterly
control over a superb ensemble cast (who play the script's excesses
with hilarious understatement) make it clear this kid's someone to watch
Out of competition was the Australian "Dance Me to My Song," directed by
Rolf de Heer, an extremely risky and often hair-raising tale of Julia
(Heather Rose), a wheelchair-bound cerebral palsy victim who relies on a
voice synthesizer as her only means to communicate with the world. A
bizarre love-triangle/rivalry ensues when Julia's pathologically abusive
caretaker starts competing for the attentions of the same man. Ms.
Rose's performance is remarkable.
From France, out of competition, was Laetitia Masson "A Vendre" ("For
Sale"), a stylish thriller that doubles as a pessimistic meditation on
male-female relations. Ms. Masson again uses the always-excellent
Sandrine Kiberlain, here playing a mysterious young woman who disappears
after having deserted her finacé at the altar. Sergio Castellitto plays
the embittered private investigator hired to track her down. The script
never quite takes off, but with its gorgeous cinematography, the film is
a pseudo-triumph of style over substance. And Ms. Kiberlain is radiant.
The Festival offered up two tributes of note, one to the legendary
Swedish director Ingmar Bergman in honor of his 80th birthday last July,
and the other to the American actress Sandra Bullock for career
achievement. We'll give the Festival authorities the benefit of the
doubt by calling such a maneuver, well, eclectic. I never dreamed I'd
type those two names in the same sentence.
The Bergman tribute was highlighted by the North American premiere of
his newest TV film, "In the Presence of a Clown," screening next month
at the New York Film Festival, a sometimes ironic, sometimes melancholy,
but ultimately moving hall-of-mirrors parable about the redemptive
powers of Art, which features a stellar cast of many Bergman regulars.
There were also two fascinating documentaries: The Making of "In the
Presence of a Clown" which showed indisputably and perhaps surprisingly,
just how much fun everyone was having making the film, and Jorn Donner's
"Ingmar Bergman -- On Life and Work," a straight-forward 90-minute
interview film. Both are musts for any Bergman devotee.
The presentation of the annual Career Achievement award to Sandra
Bullock was a fun if slightly odd affair. When the doors were finally
opened only minutes before the scheduled starting time, enthusiastic
fans practically stormed the auditorium with a frenzy usually reserved
for rock concerts. One young woman yelled out "We love you Sandra" at
regular intervals throughout. The evening, which included film clips
and an interview session, was as perky and bouncy as a late-night talk
show segment. Ms. Bullock was characteristically charming and modest,
but even she seemed slightly bewildered when Festival President Serge
Losique intoned her name amongst the list of past winners including
Marcello Mastroianni, Gerard Depardieu and Liv Ullman.
By the time Monday night's closing night ceremony and screening of
Claude LeLouch's "Hasards ou Coincidences" came around, many out-of-town
festival-goers had already left on account of the ongoing Air Canada
strike. Many industry insiders had to figure out how to get to the
Toronto festival which falls immediately upon Montreal's heals and
which, for the moment, at least, is plagued by the same Air Canada
troubles. But this much was incontestable: over the course of the
Festival, the local Montreal public enjoyed themselves immensely, as
evidenced by the crowds and sold-out shows. And it was clear they take
their cinema seriously -- how often do you find crowds lining up for a
fairly obscure foreign film at 9 a.m. on a Sunday morning after
carousing till God knows when the night before? And after all is said
and done, isn't that what any festival is about?
[Stan Schwartz lives in New York City, is a playwright, and has written
about film for Time Out New York and Film Comment.]