2007 TIFF Day 8

I’ve liked, to varying degrees, each of the films in Gus Van Sant’s “post-Bela Tarr epiphany” trilogy. Following his brief stint in Hollywood in the mid- to late-’90s, Van Sant has taken a refreshingly reckless approach toward film form. Under the spell of the mad Hungarian but also those guys from Taiwan and Tehran (Hou and Kiarostami, in particular), his films are unlike anything else coming out of the States. And God bless him for it. When I watch these movies, I feel like a lucky volunteer in one of Van Sant’s mad experiments. “Yeah, Gus,” I think to myself, “let’s see what happens when, during a five-minute tracking shot, we shift suddenly into slow motion. Let’s meld unironically beautiful music with images of teenage life just to see what kind of frisson we can generate. Matt Damon and Casey Affleck walking silently through a desert for minutes at a time? I’m with you. Let’s go.”

Any ambivalence I’ve felt toward Van Sant has usually been a by-product of his subject matter. Paranoid Park picks up exactly where the trilogy left off: at a moment of sudden violence. This time it’s an accidental death resulting from a run-of-the-mill act of adolescent rebellion. As was the case with Gerry, Elephant, and Last Days, I’m not sure why Van Sant is so fixated on violence, and I’m not totally convinced that he has anything particularly meaningful to teach us about it. When she introduced Une vieille maitresse, Catherine Breillat told us she was interested in “the kind of Romance that isn’t pink and flowery but deep red and black and always close to death” (I’m paraphrasing), and I see Van Sant operating in a similar realm. He’s become our Ann Radcliffe, trading out her castle in the Pyrenees for a skate park in Portland but with the same goal in mind: the Sublime. Paranoid Park is my new favorite of Van Sant’s films, but I remain ambivalent about his subject matter. One last thing: seeing Christopher Doyle’s 4:3 compositions projected on a three-story screen at the ScotiaBank Theatre was a real treat and confirmed my thoughts about Reygadas.

Help Me Eros gave me everything I’d expected of it: an amusing and sympathetic, low-key performance from writer/director Lee Kang-sheng; long, mostly-silent, static takes; inspired design; out-of-left-field musical numbers; and some good old-fashioned transgression. Lee plays a Bible-quoting day trader who went bust during Taiwan’s economic downturn and now spends his time smoking home-grown marijuana, talking to a counselor at a suicide helpline, and flirting with the girls at the betel nut stall below his apartment. Lee told us after the screening that much of the film is autobiographical — that in order to keep himself occupied between films, he’d made and lost a great deal of wealth in the market, and that the one time he called a helpline he got a busy signal. “I wondered how many other people in Taiwan were suffering,” he said. With Tsai Ming-liang acting as producer and production designer, it’s impossible to not speculate about his influence on the development of the film. But I suspect their partnership is a generous one, and Help Me Eros makes me think that Lee should, perhaps, be considered more seriously as a co-auteur of Tsai’s recent films. Help Me Eros fits comfortably alongside their other treatments of contemporary alienation and is distinguished, mostly, by its final image, which is more symbol-heavy and explicitly religious than anything we’ve seen from Tsai. The film drags a bit in the final act, but, all in all, it’s a solid and interesting effort.

A quick story: While waiting in line for Naissance des pieuvres, I met a 70-year-old woman from Toronto who was seeing 50 films at the festival. She used to see even more, apparently, but her children made her swear off Midnight Madness. When I asked her what film she’d really liked, she said, “Oh, I loved Mongol. Talk about violence. That guy makes Tarrantino look like a pussy!” I was sipping from a bottle of water at the time and nearly died. Anyway, she and I had a conversation I’ve had many times over the years. When I mentioned how much I’d liked Secret Sunshine and Flight of the Red Balloon, she told me, “I traded those tickets away. I heard they were depressing.” I think what she actually meant was that they were “slow, boring, and/or sad.” They’re not, but that’s beside the point.

I blame Bergman. When he came to prominence in the States in the late-1950s his films contributed greatly to the creation of a certain stereotype in the popular imagination: the Important Art Film — a dour, high-minded, angst-ridden thing that must be consumed like bitter medicine. (I hate to think of all the people over the years who have rented The Seventh Seal because of its reputation and never made a second trip back to the Foreign Film aisle.) The influence of that stereotype can still be felt at today’s festivals, both in the lines, where even devoted film buffs dismiss movies that might fit the mold, and in the films themselves.

This is all a long and unfair preamble to Nanouk Leopold’s finely-acted family drama, Wolfsbergen. It’s about an aged man who has decided that he is tired of life and eager to be reunited with his long-dead wife. He informs his family that he will soon die, and the film follows the ripples of his decision through the lives of his children and grandchildren. They are a dysfunctional lot, to say the least, but had Leopold given each character the same time and careful attention, all could have been interesting enough to carry a film on their own, I think. Instead, some are barely fleshed out at all, and I found myself becoming increasingly curious about the people who were too often left off screen. Wolfsbergen wears the old stereotype well, and even I was a tad depressed by it. The final scene is a good one, though — good enough that I was forced to reevaluate my response to the film as a whole. And one last note about film aspect ratios: I have no idea why this film was shot in Cinemascope. Leopold often divides her wide frame in half and pushes characters to one side. This, I guess, mimics their alienation from one another, but too often she seems unsure about how to fill the image, and so we end up looking at out-of-focus walls and doorways. I wonder if the aspect ratio was chosen to accommodate the last shot, which does put ‘Scope to great use?

The less I say about L’Amour Cache, the better. I programmed it because Isabelle Hupert is one of the few actors I treat as an auteur, but she is wasted here. This film is a disaster. In fact, it might be the first film I’ve ever seen that gets demonstrably worse with each and every cut. Poorly written, poorly directed, and incompetently edited. I never thought I’d see a boom mike in a TIFF film from a First World country.