TIFF 2012 – Day 1

I’m covering TIFF for Senses of Cinema again this year, so later this fall I’ll publish a much longer and more thoughtful report there, but I’m determined to capture initial thoughts on everything I see this week. I will, inevitably, fail in this effort.

In Another Country

Dir. by Hong Sang-soo
There are two great pleasures in watching any film directed by Hong Sang-soo. The first, oddly enough, is suspense. I say “oddly” because he makes talky movies about love and jealousy and the pained confusions of life. Hong’s writing and his cinematographic style, however, drop us into a uniquely unpredictable world. “So these things really happen?” a young woman and wannabe screenwriter asks in the second shot of In Another Country, soon after being told some bad news about her family. Hong captures her and her mother in a medium shot for several seconds before a jump zoom reframes them. It’s the first of many long-duration, single-take scenes in which Hong’s camera pans, tilts, and zooms from a fixed position, constantly recontextualizing his characters. A Korean man flirts casually with a visiting French director (the first of three roles played by Isabelle Huppert) before the camera pulls back to reveal that his wife is also sitting with them. Huppert #2 sits on the beach, whispering “beautiful, beautiful” to the sea until the camera pulls back to reveal her lover, who enters, impossibly, from outside the frame in what we soon learn is a fantasy. Hong’s narrative path consists only of blind turns.

The other pleasure is tied directly to the first. The long takes and narrative suspense allow room for spontaneous and surprising performances. This has always been the case with Hong but adding Huppert to the mix shakes up the now-familiar chemistry of his films. My favorite moment comes at the end of the second story, when Huppert alternately slaps her lover’s face and declares her love for him. Huppert has until that point played this character, this version of the visiting Frenchwoman, as a relatively meek and flighty suburbanite. But in her final confrontation, she becomes Isabelle Huppert — all unpredictable intensity — and momentarily breaks the film. It’s great fun to watch.

Laurence Anyways

Dir. by Xavier Dolan
With another decade or two of life experience under his belt, I can only imagine what kind of filmmaker 23-year-old Xavier Dolan might become. By that I don’t mean to damn him with faint praise because Laurence Anyways is a very good film. Based on this and Heartbeats (2011) — I haven’t yet seen his debut, I Killed My Mother (2009) — Dolan already has a remarkable visual imagination and, more impressively, a mature-enough understanding of form to execute it on screen. Before watching Heartbeats for the first time last week I expected him to stumble occasionally into interesting images; I was surprised, instead, to find a very young director in control of the film.

I have a weakness for movies like Laurence Anyways — melodramas that combine realistic performances with explosions of expressionism. At this point in his evolution, Dolan excels at the latter, particularly when he takes camp to ecstatic heights. He’s at his best when the soundtrack is thumping and when the images subsume, temporarily, the characters and become the drama. If the realistic portions of the film drag at times, there is at least a marked progress here from what I saw in Heartbeats. Dolan has a talent for using reaction shots — both in generating a range of emotions from his actors’ faces and cutting them effectively in sequence — so much so that it’s in danger of becoming a crutch. In this new film, though, he’s progressed beyond that and built some nice, complex moments.

Argo

Dir. by Ben Affleck
I’m the wrong person to write about Argo. At this point I honestly can’t tell the difference between parodies of Hollywood dramas and the real deal. Argo is competently made and occasionally fun, and I’m still hopeful that Ben Affleck will prove himself to be an interesting director, but this film is an exercise in manufactured suspense weighed down by a humorless lead performance by Affleck. That it treats the Iranian revolution like the Star Wars bedsheets, rotary dial telephones, and thick mustaches that lend the film its period detail might be forgivable if the film weren’t so boring. But, again, I’m the wrong person for this film. It will be a critical hit, I’m sure.

Tabu

Dir. by Miguel Gomes
I’ve been anticipating Tabu since last February when it premiered in Berlin, and that feeling of anticipation never quite left me throughout tonight’s screening. I’m not sure what I mean by that, exactly, except that I wanted this film to be more formally daring or more politically complex or more opaque than the relatively simple film Gomes made. Now this is damning with faint praise: I wish Tabu had been around in 1997 when I was taking a graduate seminar in post-colonial literature. Memory, history, guilt, privilege, religion, symbols of captivity, dreams of hairy monkeys (!), a black woman improving her literacy by reading Robinson Crusoe (!!) — it’s all here, rendered in beautiful shades of gray. The sound design alone makes the film fairly compelling from moment to moment (although I’ll own up to being bored by sections of part 1), but I wanted more.