Surveying the Hits at Toronto's Midpoint: "My Summer of Love," "Brothers," "The Assassination of Richard Nixon," "Mysterious Skin," and More
by Anthony Kaufman
The Toronto International Film Festival isn't over yet, but this year's front-loaded event is all but finished for most industry folk after tonight's screenings of Lodge Kerrigan's "Keane" and Francois Ozon's "5 X 2" (with the exception perhaps of the late-week premiere of "The Libertine," starring Johnny Depp). For those seeking discoveries, however, the festival persists in a paranoid haze of competitive pursuit to find the next big thing in cinema.
With so many movies screening simultaneously in Toronto, you always feels the need to survey theater audiences to gauge whether you have chosen wisely. Is Sony Classics' Michael Barker in the house? How about Roger Ebert? Do critics for Newsweek or the Chicago Tribune know better than those from Variety or Premiere? For example, while sitting in a Spanish Freudian sex romp surrounded by 70-year-old women, with not a colleague in sight, you get the distinct sensation that you should be elsewhere -- and you quickly leave the theater to find the more popular choice. This lemming mentality may account for the largely homogenous coverage that comes out of film festivals, but it also simply may be the result of the small number of films that actually deserve two hours of our time.
After winning a top prize in Edinburgh, Pawel Pawlikowski's "My Summer of Love" was not surprisingly well worth the 100 minutes. A follow-up to his strong debut "Last Resort," Pawlikowski follows one summer, in a small Yorkshire town, in the lives of Mona, her born-again brother Phil and a beautiful wealthy summer resident named Tamsin. An intriguing examination of passions, both fake and authentic, "My Summer of Love" suggests that religion and capitalism are equally full of false promises. But "My Summer of Love" is not overtly political: the power plays, loving embraces, and humorous exchanges between the three leads reveals more humanity than ideology. As Pawlikowski says, "You don't need films to tell you what's going on in the world; you need films to create authentic, ambiguous, complicated, and rich characters that you can believe in, and counteract bad cinema, above all."
Despite Pawlikwoski's need to avoid politics, discouraging current events supplied the subtext for a number of festival films. Aside from the more obvious "Apocalypse Now" in Iraq documentary "Gunner Palace," Danish director Susanne Bier's "Brothers" uses the war in Afghanistan to reproduce the successful formula of her first film "Open Hearts": inflict a potentially catastrophic loss on a family and watch the participants spin out of control. In "Brothers," older sibling Michael, an upstanding soldier, ventures off to Afghanistan and disappears in a helicopter accident, while the younger brother, a screw-up without a job, finds himself taking Michael's place. A popular premiere here, "Brothers" may start out with some predictable twists, but ends up delving into far darker territory about the repercussions of war. Shooting mostly in the affective handheld manner of her Dogma 95 predecessor, Bier evocatively intercuts between domestic zone and battle zone, and darkens the borders of the frame, giving the film a moody, gloomy edge reminiscent of Kieslowski's "A Short Film About Killing."
First-timer Niels Mueller's "The Assassination of Richard Nixon" more directly connects with the politics of the present by looking back at the turbulent period of the 1970s. After premiering at Cannes, and being acquired by ThinkFilm, the version that screened in Toronto is about 7-9 minutes shorter with a greater emphasis on humanizing the main character, according to ThinkFilm's Mark Urman. Sean Penn plays the idealistic Samuel Bicke, another failed younger brother who tries to win back his ex-wife and get a job as a furniture salesman, while hoping to open up a business that is missing the lies and deception that he sees all around him. Penn's meek everyman, coiled up and ready to explode, is far more harmless than "Taxi Driver"'s Travis Bickle. He's a sorry and sad boob who -- in one of the film's most hilarious moments -- goes into a Black Panthers office, and suggests sympathetically they change their name to the Zebras in order to embrace whites and double their base.
Such darkly comic, topical moments enliven the first half of the movie, as Nixon is described as the 'greatest salesman' for selling the American people on his ability to withdraw from the Vietnam War -- in two subsequent elections, and the dead-on Cohen brothers-like dialogue ("I smell success and you have the odor"). Mueller also seems to be taking a jab at the U.S. government's "failure of imagination" on 9-11. Here he shows, way back in 1974, a disgruntled young man attempting to crash a plane into the White House.
A must-see for the morbidly curious in Canada, Lukas Moodyson's "A Hole in My Heart" was also unabashedly activist with its explicit expose of abuse and exploitation in today's world. When an amateur pornographer relentlessly abuses a young actress, the porn director's shy young son is helpless to stop the injustice. With its graphic depictions of horribly disturbing sexual imagery (in the end, a man vomits in the woman's mouth), some viewers left the movie devastated, while other audiences walked out bored, deadened to the overt and unremitting battery of violent images.
A more subtle and tender look at sexual abuse, Gregg Araki's "Mysterious Skin" interweaves stories of two boys with very different responses to incidents of childhood sexual abuse committed by their Little League baseball coach. While one becomes a male hustler, the other blocks out his memories and instead believes he has been abducted by aliens. Araki's wry and wild sense of humor, particularly in the alien abduction storyline, is on par with his earlier doom generation fantasias, but the film's examination of sex and death and trauma is more mature and palpable than perhaps any of his previous work. One distributor went so far to call "Mysterious Skin" 'Araki's comeback'.
While the young girls in Lucile Hadzihalilovic's "Innocence" are never violated, the threat of abuse is always looming. The film imagines a dark fairytale world of prepubescent girls, trapped in a forest camp, trained in ballet under a strict set of foreboding rules ("always follow the lamps at night") and ominous threats ("obedience is the only path to happiness"). The girls all dress in identical white outfits, distinguished in age groups by different colored ribbons. As old grandfather clocks chime in the background, we wait, slowly, for the girls to graduate or escape from this prison/ballet school. Weighted with some of the artful pretension of her director-boyfriend Gaspar Noe's work ("Irreversible"), "Innocence" still contained some of the most striking images of the festival. The final shot shows a young girl stepping into a pulsating fountain and feeling the force of water erupt through her hands in orgasmic intensity. The sheer energy of the shot was enough to make anyone forget who else was in the audience.