Toronto Film Festival Report #1

Mon, Sep 14, 2009

white material
White Material (Claire Denis, 2009)

Toronto Film Festival Report #1
by Dave Filipi

I was a late arrival to the festival this year, arriving Sunday evening. I think Chris Stults will be writing more of a post-festival round-up because of internet access issues so I'll provide some brief thoughts on the films I've seen over the past day.

Like You Know It All (Hong Sang-soo, South Korea)
Many of you may remember the Hong retrospective that Chris organized a few years ago. I, like those I've talked to, found Hong's latest to be his most accessible but least rigorous narratively and formally. The film draws on Hong's life, telling the story of a filmmaker dealing with his past and lack of self control when it comes to women and alcohol. True, it isn't as ambitious as Turning Gate or Woman on the Beach but I thoroughly enjoyed it and I think negative reactions to the film are a result of the high expectations Hong has created for himself.

The Misfortunates (Felix van Groeningen, Belgium)
This will be the pleasant surprise of the festival for me. Think A Boy's Life directed by Aki Kaurismaki. The film is about a family of adult, working-class brothers who all live with their elderly mother and who have all screwed up their lives in one way or another – primarily by drinking non-stop every single day. The film is told in voiceover flashback by the son of one of the brothers, an obviously bright kid prone to writing who gradually realizes that he is destined for a life like this father and uncles if he doesn't get out of the house. The film is at times incredibly bleak and at others laugh-out-loud funny. Much of the humor is scatological (one scene shows the son turning over his passed-out father, finding his face filled with vomit, wiping it off with a pair of underwear while a kitten laps up the dad's lost dinner – trust me, it's funny). The film is expertly directed and always stops short of becoming too dark or too sentimental – especially at the end of the film. The film's warm ending is earned.

Every Day is a Holiday (Dima El-Horr, France/Germany/Lebanon)
This is a film that sounded promising with comparisons to the work of Elia Suleiman and a note in the catalog that Apichatpong Weerasethakul is a fan of the film. The film follows a busload of Lebanese women on route from Beirut through the desert to the men's prison to visit their husbands, sons, fathers, etc. The film relies almost entirely on symbolism and allegory and if one isn't completely fluent in the specific cultural references it is almost impossible to evaluate. I would have liked it more if El-Horr gave the audience a chance to warm up to any of the characters and tried to explore some broader, humanist themes.

Should I Really Do It? (Ismail Necmi, Turkey)
The screening I attended started out with about 50 people in the audience. Five minutes in people were leaving in droves and by the end of the film I was one of maybe 5 – 8 left in the audience. This is usually a clear signal to me that the film is going to be great but not this time. The film follows a free-spirited artist/hair stylist in Istanbul and her frequent sessions with her therapist who wears a bondage mast and variety of wigs during their meetings. We gradually learn that she has a twin sister who lives in a German village and who is dying of cancer. The film is actually quite touching when the sisters are together, dealing with the one's impending death and the care of her beloved dogs once she's gone. But after her death the film moves back to Istanbul and the frequent sessions with the wine drinking, coke sniffing therapist. Ultimately, it was a bit of a self-indulgent train wreck but it had its moments.

White Material (Claire Denis, France)
The latest by Denis (we're showing her previous film 35 Rums in October) follows a family that owns a coffee plantation in an unspecified African country that is being ripped apart by civil war. Isabelle Huppert stars as the woman charged with running the plantation. All signs to the contrary, she is convinced that the family can harvest one more crop before the area descends into complete violent chaos. The film is filled with stark visual contrasts – beautiful African landscapes often populated by gun toting soldiers or barely adolescent rebels. The film is a perfect vehicle for Huppert – she's perhaps the only actress that could pull off her character's blind zeal and failure to acknowledge what is going on around her, not to mention her character's action in the film's final moments. Though her method varies from film to film, no one makes the human body appear more beautiful and compelling than Denis and examples abound in White Material. If you'll permit one moment of name-dropping, I happened to bump into Madame Denis right after the screening and she definitely remembered her visit to the Wexner a few years ago.