Monday, September 19, 2011

A Final Potpourri of films from Toronto's 36th

By Sarah Sluis

Film Journal International contributor Erica Abeel reports from the Toronto Film Festival.

Underlining Toronto's role as a launch pad for awards season, this year's fest featured a batch of high-profile films that look on track for the Oscars. Also on tap were plenty of quirkier, less mainstream works unlikely to nab prizes, but most of them richly deserving of attention. Several filmmakers were drawn to characters on the verge - or flat out crazy - who inhabit a world in which fact is braided with imagination and hallucination.

Among this group is Martha Marcy May Marlene by Sean Durkin, a Sundance darling which offers a breakout performance by Elizabeth Olsen as a young woman who flees a faschistic commune in upstate New York, taking refuge in the upscale Connecticut home of her sister and husband (Sarah Paulson and Martha marcy the superb Hugh Dancy). Though she may have escaped the physical place, Martha's sinister experiences there have left her shattered and unable to adjust to "normal" living. More comatose than awake, she walks in on her hosts mid-coitus and generally behaves like a loony, yet can't articulate her awful secrets.

Shifting fluidly from present to past, Durkin skillfully pays out the story behind Martha's traumatized condition. After joining a close-knit, cultish collective on a farm in the Catskills, she was apparently subjected to some sort of drugged sexual initiation by the patriarch, who remained her partner for a time before moving on to the next recruit. There's worse, including a possible murder and implied infanticide. Durkin wittily contrasts the upscale, stressed-out lives of Martha's well-meaning sister and brother-in-law with the cult's hippy-dippy sharing and austere routines, implying that the socially sanctioned go-getter style has drawbacks of its own. Throughout, the director weaves a mood of menace, all the creepier for its vagueness, so that by the alarming final scene the viewer feels as disoriented as Martha. Durkin brilliantly taps into a current sentiment that even the most protected environments remain vulnerable to unknown predators.

On the face of it, The Woman in the 5th has much going for it: director Pawel Pawlikowski (of the sublime My Summer of Love), Kristin Scott-Thomas, Ethan Hawke, Parisian setting. But unlike Martha, which maintains a balance between fact and imagination, Woman seriously misfires by turning so incoherent it mainly inspires a big "Huh?" Hawke plays a writer who travels from the States to Paris to reunite with his daughter by a French wife. But he has apparently committed so heinous an act (never elucidated; we know only that he was "sick"), the wife has a restraining order forbidding him access to the kid. Meanwhile Hawke is seduced by an alluring Hungarian translator (Scott-Thomas), who may or may not be a creature of his imagination. Fatally, the story never comes into focus, sunk by its own obscurity.

In Toronto, scheduling usually presents impossible choices, as time slots for must-see films tend to overlap with equally enticing others. Alexander Sokurov's Faust ran up against Bruce Beresford's Peace, Love, & Misunderstanding, but after Sokurov's big win in Venice, a crowd of journos opted for his 134 minute take on the iconic work. And to judge by all the walk-outs, some made it a quick round trip (a common practice in Toronto that leaves those who remain feeling like jerks). Perhaps it was that early graphic scene of a dissection to locate the seat of the soul that sent journos fleeing - especially those who managed to gobble lunch.

Sokurov's Faust has less to do with Goethe than the filmmaker's own asynchronous version of a story about a restless doctor (Johannes Zeiler) searching for knowledge, love, immortality, you name it. Teasingly leading him on is a sniveling devil figure (Anton Adasinskiy), complete with satyr's tail, who offers him ravishing blonde Margarete (Isolda Dychauk) in exchange for his soul. Mother and Son and Father and Son testified to Sokurov's gift for capturing on screen a strange limbo between dream and reality. Again in Faust, images are fascinatingly skewed and distorted through Sokurov's anamorphic lens, perfectly conveying the doctor's tortured soul. The influence of Flemish and Dutch painting is evident throughout; one light-struck shot of Dychauk comes straight from Vermeer. A shot of her and Faust falling in love - literally falling together into a lake - is to die for. There's even a touch of levity in Hanna Schygulla's cameo as the devil's wife. But generally the narrative remains too opaque for all but intrepid Sokurov fans.

Pivoting from the sublime to the delightfully ridiculous, Whit Stillman's LOL Damsels in Distress also creates a world all its own. In the much-anticipated film - following a long pause after 1998's The Last Days of Disco - a charming Greta Gerwig anchors a nutty parody of college life that could exist only in Damsels in distress Stillman-land. Vaguely set in perhaps the 70's - the women's prissy, button-down styles give little clue - Damsel unscrolls in a retro campus universe, where frat house doofuses never learned to distinguish colors in kindergarten and Gerwig and her merry band run a suicide prevention clinic (that prescribes tap dancing and doughnuts as cures), when they're not obsessing about offensive male odors. Plot such as it is kicks off when Gerwig and friends adopt new girl Analeigh Tipton, enlisting her in their efforts to reform the male population of Neanderthals and comfort any co-ed who's been dumped. With her upscale Brit diction, clique member Megalyn Echikunwoke is a hoot in her dimissals of hapless frat boys; equally so Gerwig, her stilted speech spoofing sophomore pretentiousness. "I'd like to thank you for this chastisement," she says, when Tipton calls her arrogant. There's also a hilarious French boyfriend who styles himself a medieval Cathar, insisting on certain sexual practices he claims are prescribed by his religion. A screwball comedy relocated to a parallel reality, Damsels shows that Stillman still has plenty of arrows in his quiver.

To judge by 360 from Fernando Meirelles (City of God), Arthur Schnitzler's play La Ronde continues to inspire spinoffs. In this version, toplined by Jude Law and Rachel Weisz, the lovers are linked not so much by a daisy chain but through a broad webbing of circumstance and locale that eventually circles 360 law weisz back to the character in the first story. She's a woman driven by economic need to internet prostitution, and her travails kick start a series of vignettes that largely examine global styles of infidelity, sometimes in humorous fashion. Meirelles applies the same headlong, hand-held manner from City of God to urban malcontents and adulterers, but the stories, some more captivating than others, fail to climax in a unified whole. Also falling short of expectations is Oren Moverman's Rampart, a Woody Harrelson starrer about a corrupt racist cop with no discernible redeeming values. It's a brave portrait of a macho figure who's outlived his time and alienated his daughters, but it's an ugly one. James Ellroy is credited with the story, while Moverman wrote the screenplay, and you sense something got lost in translation.

Far more successful is The Deep Blue Sea, Terence Davies's adaptation of the Terence Ratigan play. Set in post-war London, it's the story of elegant Hester Collyer (a luminous Rachel Weisz), who discards a cossetted, luxurious life with her staid older husband (Simon Russell Beale) for dashing Freddy Nash Deep blue sea weisz (Tom Hiddleston) a former RAF pilot and party boy. Freddy's inability - or reluctance - to match the intensity of Hester's love drives her to a suicide attempt in their dreary little bedsit. Toggling between present and past, it's revealed that in fact the pair is radically mismatched; "you know we're lethal to each other," he says. It's also implied that with Freddy Hester has experienced sensual satisfaction for the first time. Weisz's victimized Hester is of course a bit retro and pathetic for today's viewers, but even so the pleasures of Deep are manifold. Relying on a sepia-toned palette that seems the very color of remembrance, Davies recreates the look of post-war London with painterly detail, down to the flowered wallpapers and fringed lamp shades. He includes to rousing effect such period songs as "You Belong to Me" and "Molly Malone," drawing as well on the sonorous melancholy of a Samel Barber cello concerto. In Deep Davies recreates the same mesmerizing fever-dreamscape that he captured in Of Time and the City, his exquisite recreation of his native Liverpool.

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