Toronto Film Festival: Bad Romance From Stillman, Maddin, Payne and More

By Karina Longworth in Festivals, Reviews
Monday, September 12, 2011 at 1:46 am
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Greta Gerwig in Damsels in Distress

Tragic romance is a big TIFF theme this year. Soured love tied to death and/or suicide and/or beautifully-lit misery has popped up in eight of the nine films I've seen since I last blogged. At the festival midway point, I've seen so many movies hinged on mad/bad romance, rejection and infidelity, that they all threaten to blur into one massive, incredibly melancholic scare campaign. You have been warned: open your heart at your peril.

Some of these films (like Philippe Garrel's That Summer, or the long-awaited Whit Stillman romantic-musical-comedy Damsels in Distress) really deserve more careful consideration than I can give them whilst under the scheduling demands of a film festival. Others (like, say, Alexander Payne's The Descendants) don't. With that caveat, and the promise that I'll dig deeper into few of these movies when time allows, here's a notebook drop from my last 48 hours in Toronto.


On the subject of the bad romance blur, we must start with Keyhole, the new feature from Canadian nostalgia pastiche artist Guy Maddin. Rendered in Maddin's signature B&W phantasmagoric style, it's a loose, noir-inflected gloss on The Odyssey, with Jason Patric as Ulysses and Maddin muse Isabella Rossellini as his wife. The odyssey itself takes place entirely in their house where, with the help of a beautiful clairvoyant who believes she's drowning, Ulysses navigates a minefield of children, ghosts, bizarre inventions and scenes from his own marriage.

Maddin's dream logic is masterfully total--as far as I can tell, there's no discernible waking point here, no dominant narrative through-line, no key to help the viewer distinguish between living characters and dead ones, the hallucinated and the "real." But maybe I shouldn't be trusted. For the first hour of Keyhole I was more or less with it, and then at some point I started to doze off, and for the remaining thirty minutes or so, as I drifted in and out of consciousness, I lost the ability to distinguish between the film's dream state and my own. Falling asleep happens at film festivals (five films a day on, at best, five hours of sleep eventually take their toll), but I almost never write about movies that I fall asleep in. That said, based on Keyhole's first hour, I almost wonder if my experience falls in line with Maddin's expectations. At the very least, when I say the movie is hypnotic, you know it's not hyperbole.

In Mia Hansen-Løve 's Goodbye First Love, self-styled "melancholic" teen Camille (Lola Créton) is crazy in love with Sullivan (Sebastian Urzendowsky), a dark, laconic ne'er-do-well who pledges undying love, but refuses to abandon a plan to backpack around South America with his bros which will leave the college-bound Camille behind. When Sullivan departs, Hansen-Løve stays with Camille, following her as Sullivan's passionate letters taper off and then stop coming altogether. Years pass, Camille hits bottom and then slowly finds herself, first in her work and then in a professor-turned-lover. And then Sullivan returns.
 
More than a lovely, slow-rolling paen to the heart wanting what it wants in defiance of time, geography and common sense, Goodbye is an almost methodical study of how identity is shaped, bit by bit, by work, love and "the journey." The actors are never less than a pleasure to watch; at the same time, curiously, they don't visibly age as the characters grow older, with both leads looking about 17 (Créton's actual age) even as their characters must be nearing 30. You have to assume this is a directorial choice: Urzendowsky's character is obviously an embodiment of Camille's past, representing a permanent adolescence she can either run towards or leave behind, and in some sense her difficulty fulfilling the promise of the film's English language title may only seem like a credible conundrum because Créton isn't fully credible as an adult woman.

But Camille's journey might have felt more complete if the character was played by an older actress, or at least one more capable of assuming maturity. As it is, the film's final scene is a bit of an anti-climax --weightless in both subject and affect.

Wuthering Heights is more of a mixed bag. While Andrea Arnold's take on Emily Bronte's novel has attracted attention for Arnold's casting of two black actors as the child and twenty-something versions of romantic anti-hero Heathcliff, the filmmaker's choice to bookend her adaptation with Heathcliff's arrival on the Earnshaw farm and his assumption of its lease--thus omitting about 20 chapters--is perhaps just as radical.

Even within this truncated version of Bronte's epic, Arnold is uninterested in linear storytelling. The film's first half is thick with gorgeous, often screen-filling, shots of mud, livestock, insects, hair, grass--all conduits for Catherine and Heathcliff's unspoken but unmistakable attraction. Then, following Bronte, there's a temporal ellipsis, after which older actors assume the lead roles, weakening our relationship to the characters and opening the door to some jarring histrionics.

I admire Arnold's talent and instincts as an extraordinarily visual filmmaker, but her cutaways can verge on self-parody, and after so much of the movie works to channel feelings through non-literal imagery, the final act's big-acting melodrama feels unearned.

Speaking of Big Acting: The Descendants, Alexander Payne's first feature since 2004's Sideways, is pure oatmeal--lukewarm and mushy--and so, depending on your palate, either comforting or dead boring. This story of a middle-aged dad (George Clooney) bonding with his daughters in the last days before his comatose, cheating wife dies, gets its title from a tertiary plot which forces Clooney to face a Summer Hours-esque choice regarding an inheritance. Big surprise: where Olivier  Assayas explored the tension between sentimental attachment and the realities of the global future, Payne's film firmly embraces the old, couching the sentimental choice as the morally correct one, and brushing over complexities that might color Clooney's character as less than heroic. It's a movie that thinks children swearing is a joke in and of itself--a good one, apparently, as it's recycled endlessly--and that catharsis is measured in volume of on-screen tears. A handful of scenes in the film's second half are at least lively in their lack of realism: so implausibly scripted they almost play as wish fulfillment fantasies, they effectively draw out genuine emotions which would in real life likely remain repressed. But Payne seems to stumble in to these vague conceptual victories -- anything that might actually challenge the viewer to think about what they're watching is generally off limits (oh, the voiceover, the booming, redundant, white noise voiceover...)

Adultery-punished-by-coma dramedy The Descendants seems to be among the most beloved films of the festival thus far; Take This Waltz, the adultery-punished-by-lecture-delivered-by-Sarah-Silverman dramedy directed by actress-turned-filmmaker Sarah Polley and also starring Michelle Williams and Seth Rogen, is amongst the most divisive.

To be sure, the film is hampered by screenplay problems--the movie's main ideas are delivered via clumsy dialogue several times over, lines which are then made redundant by a few lovely pieces of filmmaking. I hated much of this highly affected film while it was happening, but Polley's story of a young couple threatened by the wife's (Williams) attraction to an irresistible neighbor nearly redeemed itself for me in its final few scenes. In the hopes of not giving too much away, Waltz doesn't tell the audience that the character who holds the point of view is actually its self-destructive villain until very late in the game--which is risky, and courageous--and when it does, I think it justly punctures much of the overly-precious fantasia it's up to that point trafficked in with some real insight on the madness of desire. What Polley eventually does right (including a late-inning montage many are referring to as "the threesome stuff," which shows the protagonist's journey of cycling through her every fantasy of freedom from her marriage only to land more or less in the same rut she started in) doesn't completely compensate for all that she does wrong, but I don't think the movie deserves to be written off, as some have, as pure twee-mongering bullshit.

Shaping up as another love-it hate-it divider is Stillman's Damsels in Distress. Wildly ambitious (yes, there are actual musical numbers) and yet still of a piece with Stillman's now-classic filmography (he hasn't made a feature since Last Days of Disco in 1998), Damsels is built around a tour de force performance from Greta Gerwig, whose facility with Stillman's distinct, nearly affectless patter is as impressive as her song-and-dance stylings are comically charming. As is usual for a Stillman effort, Damsels is a film-length referendum on dating mores and philosophies of social correctness couched in an episodic romantic roundelay in which the swapping of suitors is a path to moral determinacy. Unusual for a Stillman film, the movie's subjectivity swaps, too, about halfway through, from one damsel to another. Doug Emmett's sun-dappled cinematography offers a distinct visual style to match the fractured fairy tale elements of the story, which build steadily towards a Busby Berkeley-esque, musical medley, narrative-swallowing finale. Oh--and there are running jokes about anal sex, delivered with Stillman's patented WASP prudery. It may be my favorite film in Toronto thus far.



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