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September 7, 2001 2:00 AM
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TORONTO 2001: Crab in the Head? Canadian Film Tries to Clear Its Mind

TORONTO 2001: Crab in the Head? Canadian Film Tries to Clear Its Mind

by Jason Anderson



(indieWIRE/ 09.07.01) -- There may very well come a day -- maybe it's come already -- when there are more Canadians making Canadian films than actually watching them. According to Liz Czach and Stacey Donen -- the programmers of the Toronto International Film Festival's Perspective Canada series, which opens Friday with the world premiere of Andre Turpin's "Un Crabe dans la tete" -- the number of domestically made features submitted for consideration by the festival has nearly doubled over the past five years. Last year, there were 113. This year, there were 147. And with the continued popularization of cheap digital filmmaking tools, plus the federal government's brand-new Canada Feature Film Fund, which has an annual budget of $100 million, the figure will grow even larger.


That must seem like good news to the Canadian film industry, yet there isn't always strength in numbers. The new influx of films and filmmakers may add to the sense that the industry seems to be permanently fledgling, unable to develop either a stable environment for veteran directors or a devoted domestic audience for their works. Judging by the fact the majority of filmmakers represented in Toronto are first- or second-time directors, it would appear that the system has an easier time cultivating talent than sustaining it.


Moreover, the roster of Canadian works at this year's Toronto festival -- with the heap of submissions whittled down to 27 features and 27 shorts -- lacks the presence of a heavyweight Can-film auteur like Denys Arcand, whose "Stardom" opened last year's fest, or Atom Egoyan, whose "Felicia's Journey" did the year before. Though many expected the opening gala spot to go to "Picture Claire," a comedy by local favorite Bruce McDonald shot in Toronto with a big budget and American stars (or former stars) like Juliette Lewis, Gina Gershon and Mickey Rourke, instead, it was snubbed in favor of "Last Wedding," the third film by the relatively little-known Vancouver writer-director Bruce Sweeney.


Besides being nervy, acerbic and very funny, "Last Wedding" is also notable because it's not the sort of sumptuously decorated event movie that often draws attention at the festival, like local productions "Sunshine" and "The Red Violin." For that, we can be thankful. The one new attempt to emulate the lavish production values and pretensions of "The Red Violin" -- David Weaver's ambitious debut "Century Hotel," in which six storylines set in the same hotel room compete for space -- is kneecapped by slapdash dialogue and the wildly disparate abilities of the cast members. This year, more intimate, smarter and nimbler films such as "Last Wedding" and the Perspective Canada highlights "Un Crabe dans le tete," "LOLA" and "Rare Birds" are the most vital Canadian fare.


"Un Crabe dans la tete" is the second film by Andre Turpin, who is better known as the cinematographer on the two most visually arresting Canadian films in recent years: Denis Villeneuve's "Un 32 aout sur terre" and his Genie-winning "Maelstrom." Turpin's film shares the same cool, blue look of his work for Villeneuve, which is also a balance of verite-style immediacy and ghostly, mildly surreal imagery. The fact that the film's central character is an underwater photographer provides Turpin the opportunity to create some gorgeous, largely silent scenes that take place beneath the surface.


Recovering in Montreal after a diving accident has disturbed his equilibrium and possibly allowed a crab to get stuck in his head (hence the title), Alex (David La Haye) weaves his way through a circle of friends and lovers. He works hard to be charming but the strain is starting to show, and his romance with a journalist proves less fruitful than his relationship with his best friend's hearing-impaired girlfriend. "Silence fascinates me," Alex tells her. Turpin wrote, shot and directed the film with equal aplomb, and while "Un Crabe dans le tete" doesn't match the crackpot majesty of "Maelstrom," it still has the vigor and panache that are hallmarks of a new school of Quebecois filmmaking.


Vancouver director Carl Bessai made an auspicious debut at the festival in 1999 with his unofficial Dogme movie "Johnny," set among street youth during a Toronto blizzard. With "LOLA," he makes a big leap forward in terms of craft without sacrificing any of "Johnny's" edginess. Flighty, irresponsible and deeply unhappy, Lola (Sabrina Grdevich) has no direction, as her snippy husband (Colm Feore) is all too eager to point out to her. She surrounds herself with interesting stuff in their trendy loft but can't seem to amass a life. Then she meets Sandra (Joanna Going), and after they spend a night out in East Hastings (the rough side of Vancouver, and yes, there is one), Lola ends up on an unexpected new path. With his taste for overamped visuals, Bessai makes startling use of his settings in Vancouver and the B.C. interior and his story and characters are much more fully conceived than they were in "Johnny." There are echoes, certainly, of Antonioni's "The Passenger," another movie in which a character slides out of his or her life and into another's with perplexing but fascinating results.


As strong as they are, "Un Crabe dans le tete" and "LOLA" will do little to appease industry-watchers who despair at Canadian filmmakers' irrational preference for art-movie modes over more commercially acceptable approaches. Given the right kind of marketing, "Rare Birds," by the Icelandic-Canadian director Sturla Gunnarsson, could turn out to be the sort of whimsical low-key comedy hit that Ireland and the U.K. cranks out by the barrelful. An adaptation of a novel by Edward Richie, "Rare Birds" takes place in a Newfoundland inlet town populated by a crew of sadsacks and eccentrics. The former category is best represented by Dave (William Hurt), a boozy chef with a failing restaurant. As for the latter, Alphonse (Andy Jones) is more eccentric than most, and he comes up with a plan to save the restaurant involving a rare duck and a "recreational submarine vehicle."


Jones' wild performance constantly turns the film upon its head, which is fortunate because the bland romantic subplot involving Dave and waitress Alice (Molly Parker) often kills the film's comic momentum. It ain't perfect, but "Rare Birds" could be the crossover international hit that the Canadian film industry sorely needs. Surely a place as packed with whimsical oddballs as Newfoundland deserves its own "Waking Ned Devine."


[Jason Anderson is a regular critic at Toronto's eye Weekly who also writes for the Globe and Mail and the National Post.]

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