Yesterday, like every other day here in Toronto, I woke up nice and early and, nursing a mild hangover, made my way down to the Varsity cinemas for a day of screenings. The films were hit and miss, but all had something in common; every movie I saw yesterday dealt with the complications of love and married life. After watching four films in a row that deal with the complex battles constantly being waged in a married relationship, I have to confess that, as an unmarried man, I found myself wiping my brow with relief. If the films at this year’s festival have any bearing on the reality of married life, I think we’re all in big trouble.
First up was Gentille, a sweet and tender romantic farce starring Emmanuelle Devos (of Kings and Queen fame) as Fontaine, a doctor who is constantly dealing with the coincidences and mistaken identities of her Parisian existence. Director Sophie Filliéres does a nice job of keeping things light, but the film suffers from its reliance on a single joke (the constant use of mistaken names and words gets old after a while) and despite some fun, winning performances, the script’s lack of real wit undermines the overall ability to connect with the characters and their search for love. There is a lovely scene in which Michel (Bruno Todeschini) tries to leave an engagment ring for Fontaine, but things go terribly wrong and Fontaine must go to unique measures to recover her ring and finally make a decision about her relationship. Of all of the day’s films, this was the lightest of the bunch, and I bet a small domestic release would do just fine among fans of sweet French comedies.
Next up was one of my favorite films in this year’s festival, and perhaps the bleakest in terms of its devastatingly real take on the end of a relationship; Nobuhiro Suwa’s Un Couple Parfait. The film is a co-production between France and Japan, and Suwa’s unflinching, unmoving camera is the perfect compliment for this story of a married couple who, having decided to end things after 15 years, arrive in Paris for a friend’s wedding. Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi and Bruno Todeschini (in a much grittier performance than in Gentille) are pitch perfect in their painfully honest performances, and the film captures something I have never seen executed so masterfully; I watched as a real relationship dissolved right before my eyes. Most of Un Couple Parfait takes place in a cramped hotel room, and the camera holds steady as the actors walk in and out of the frame, arguing, apologizing, kissing, longing, and regretting every word they speak. The confusion and anger so prevalent at the end of a relationship is the prime dramatic force in the film, and when the final shot arrives, the classic train platform departure scene is stood on its head and completely revolutionized. This is not everyone’s cup of tea, but Un Couple Parfait is an outstanding achievement in acting, direction, and the perfection of tone. Unsparing and powerful.
After the knock-out downer of Un Couple Parfait, the haughty melodrama on display in Hur Jin-ho’s Wae Chul (April Snow) felt like a step backwards. As one colleague put it, the film is essentially a modern Ozu film, without any of the modulations of character and tone that Ozu delivered. The film centers on two strangers whose spouses are hospitalized when the car in which they were travelling togther crashes. The strangers discover that their spouses were having an affair and they decide to support one another and ultimately fall in love. The film thematically resembles In The Mood For Love, but it is missing the sumptuous visuals of Wong Kar Wai’s film. Instead, moody performances capture the grief of betrayal and the desire to forgive a cheating spouse, but the story feels like a color by numbers romance; there is no doubt where the story is headed, but there is little en route to the conclusion that surprises or delivers any thrills.
Crash Into Me: In-su (Bae Yong-joon) and Seoyoung (Son Ye-jin) learn of their spouses’ affair in Hur Jin-ho’s Wae Chul (April Snow)
Finally, a brisk walk to the Royal Ontario Museum, and it was time for the final film of the day, Doug Block’s exceptional 51 Birch Street. Block uses his camera to document his parent’s marriage and, after his mother’s death and his father’s quick re-marriage to a former secretary, to uncover the hidden secerts of his parent’s lives. This film should become a huge hit on the festival circuit, because its central question is universal; if you could learn everything about your parents’ lives, would you really want to know? Block confronts this issue head-on when, upon his mother’s sudden death, he discovers 20 years worth of her highly detailed journals which expose her unhappiness in her marriage to Block’s father. The film is structured around the central mystery of the parent-child relationship, of our tendencies to idealize out parents, and Block’s editing ends up making the film play almost like perfect fiction; by the time the movie has ended, our alliegances to the characters, our understanding of own desires, our opinion of Block himself have all shifted significantly. This is wonderful non-fiction storytelling and just what I was hoping for from the film.
After watching all of these married couples struggle, it was off to help host the Sarasota Film Festival party at Sassafraz. The party was a big hit, with lots of friends and colleagues stopping by to talk shop, try some food, and sip some Absenthe, our party’s sponsor. Kudos to JS for making the event into a special night (as always)! It was off to bed at 2:30am, and up at 8:00 for films by François Ozon, Jim McKay, Takashi Miike, and John Turturro, but more on those later. The bed is beckoning me… Must… sleep…