TORONTO 2001 REVIEW: Dirty Deeds; Opener "Last Wedding" Celebrates Sullied Couples
by Mark Peranson
(indieWIRE/09.06.01) -- Daringly opening the Toronto International Film Festival, normally the turf of migrating geese, red violins or Atom Egoyan, British Columbia director Bruce Sweeney's anti-romantic comedy "Last Wedding" is sure to send Armani-suit-wearing sponsors into a petulant frenzy. Like other B.C. filmmakers, Sweeney states with his films that theory is irrelevant: the contradictions of human beings will suffice. (His 1995 "Live Bait," which won Best Canadian film at the TIFF, featured a university-age slacker losing his virginity to a senior citizen.) With his third film, Sweeney returns triumphantly with a raw black comedy about middle-class relationship disintegration and male weakness. Almost entirely constructed of interiors, it's got leaky condos, architects in crisis and sexual and professional jealousy -- with nary a mountain or beach in sight, it's the Vancouver left out of tourist brochures.
Besides their rawness, often revealed in abrupt sex scenes (one of which is antagonistically situated outdoors beside a dumpster), what is most striking about Sweeney's films is the space he gives his actors to create and explore their characters. In "Last Wedding," the characters are close enough to the actors' own personalities that they are almost extensions of themselves. Sweeney's filmmaking is influenced by a master class with Mike Leigh; "Dirty," Sweeney's scabrous sophomore film, was generated from a series of improvisations, much like Leigh's methods. (Each actor devised their own character's background; each was only aware of what went on in their own scenes, etc.)
"Last Wedding," however, grew on the page, as Sweeney wrote the script himself -- save an erotic poem delivered by Marya Delver; workshops with the actors, all theatre-trained, helped out, with the film's texture. Rather than bearing the influence of Leigh (or, to step back, John Cassavetes), one could say that "Last Wedding," for better or worse, feels like Sweeney is fresh out of a master class with Neil Labute, or Woody Allen on a revealing day.
Sweeney's script for "Last Wedding" is almost as schematic as "Your Friends and Neighbors" -- three couples are presented as variations on one theme: the nature of middle-class relationship disintegration. But unlike Labute, Sweeney brings a depth and humanity to his film, aided in no small part by the complexity and range of his actors.
The wedding of the title belongs to Noah (Ben Ratner) and Zipporah (Frida Betrani), who are taking the plunge six months after meeting each other. Noah waterproofs homes -- an allusion to Vancouver's leaky condo scandal -- and when he moves into Zipporah's own horse-decorated private space, itself a gusher, the road to ruin is set. Noah's friends, Lit prof Peter (Scholte) and architect Shane (Vincent Gale) are also ensconced in their own live-in relationships -- Peter with a librarian, Leslie (Nancy Sivak), and Shane with another architect, Sarah (Molly Parker, the only addition to Sweeney's cast post-"Dirty"). When Noah and Zipporah's relationship starts to implode, the other dominoes fall.
Abruptly but deftly shifting tones, the impetus to the disintegration of each relationship comes from the outside, often work-related rejections. In Sweeney's worldview, these always involve humiliation. Zipporah's aspiring country-rock career is dealt a setback when an executive tells her she's awful; Peter falls for a student, Laurel (Delver); and Shane reacts negatively to Sarah's less-than-scrupled professional success. All along, there are perennial intrusions of privacy, as characters always seem to be knocking on doors, trying to pry into others' intimate areas, and really only succeeding on a bodily basis; the film examines what happens when incompatible people have to share the same space.
As in "Dirty," the suppressed issues all come to a head at a dinner party, where the typical Sweeney tropes of food, sex and privacy are linked -- politeness is forced on people, who have to do something when confronted by uncomfortable silences. The telling response is to ratchet up the level of discomfort by exposing the truth of the situation.
"Last Wedding" may indeed be dirty, but it's not sordid, and certainly not nihilistic. It is the way that his wayward Alpha males are architects of their own demise that paradoxically moves Sweeney's films beyond cynicism, and towards something very human. And like Leigh, Cassavetes et. al, ultimately the human is found in the actor: the ensemble cast is excellent. Three years in the making -- as a result of money being pulled away by two Canadian funding bodies -- "Last Wedding's" debut is all the more uplifting. Look at what can be done in this country, where making films is often a concatenation of ultimately resolvable roadblocks -- a potential crippling situation that suspiciously sounds like what could happen in any personal relationship.
[Mark Peranson is the editor of *Cinema Scope* magazine.]