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A Look Back at the Toronto International Film Festival: Part Two: An online exclusive

An online exclusive

A still from Claude Chabrol's A Girl Cut in Two


Friday, September 21, 2007

By Patrick Z. McGavin

Toronto is a festival with a lot of contours and sideway compartments, though many observers — sales agents, specialized distributors, critics — lament how the revolution over the past two decades of American independent cinema has been achieved at the expense and availability of serious, aesthetically demanding, foreign-language art cinema.

Screen International, the London trade magazine for which I contribute festival reviews, publishes a festival travel guide; the numbers are staggering, and it is possible to spend a year traversing the globe attending film festivals. Festival culture has mutated and expanded so rapidly in the last 10 years that festivals now function as an alternate distribution and exhibition apparatus for talented, if commercially negligible, filmmakers.

With technology now making available new distribution and delivery models (particularly pay per view) directors are sometimes forsaking traditional distribution by using the industry and cultural clout of festivals to introduce their work into the marketplace and utilize different means to get them to the discerning masses. (French director Jean-Claude Brisseau’s The Exterminating Angels, for example, has recorded some 70,000 pay per view downloads through Independent Film Channel’s First Take program.)

Krzysztof Kieslowski, Wong Kar-wai, Abbas Kiarostami, Bela Tarr and Hou Hsiao-hsien all made their reputations in the West because of their exposure on the festival circuit. Toronto is open enough to administer a significant chunk of its programming to hardcore art cinema — or “festival cinema” — typically highly naturalist, rigorous filmmaking that plays to a very limited though necessary market. In the foreign-language offerings at Toronto, three of the founding members of the French New Wave — Jacques Rivette, Claude Chabrol and Eric Rohmer — had the North American premieres of their new films. The Chabrol and Rohmer premiered in Venice; the Rivette was first shown in competition in Berlin.

That all three men, who range in age from 78 to 86, are still making films is something of a revelation. That each continues to expand and experiment with their art is even more satisfying. Rivette’s Don’t Touch the Axe is his fourth adaptation of a source novel by French master Honore de Balzac. The story of an illicit affair between star crossed figures, an officer in Napoleon’s navy and a bored aristocratic wife, the film is constructed as a dazzling array of dances, literal and figurative, in which the man and woman conduct an elaborate pas de deux of flirtation, gamesmanship and erotic possession. Rivette’s lighting and camerawork is typically severe and exquisite; the storytelling is also hypnotic, using interpolated material from the novel in the form of intertitles that function as literary jump cuts, exploding time and space.

Chabrol’s A Girl Cut in Two is infused with a malicious dark wit and sharp pincer attacks about French social codes, class distinction and sexual manners. Playing the wondrously titled Gabrielle Deneige (French for snow), the intoxicating Ludivine Sagnier is a liberated free-thinker caught between an older, suave though reptilian seducer (Francois Berleand), a celebrated writer and a young fop (Benoit Magimel), a scion of privilege and wealth whose family honor erases evidence his own repellant behavior. The movie is gloriously “French,” using the serpentine and voluptuous language as a point of attack that stratifies all lines of demarcation about honor, masculinity, sexual role playing and independence. The plot pivots on a well-known historical incident during the Roaring Twenties of a young woman’s alleged moral dissolution at the hands of an older rake. Chabrol remains the most acid-toned of the original Nouvelle Vague directors; he’s a brisk and incisive portraitist of hypocrisy and social mores that balanced with a visual imagination that gives the movie’s title a particular snap.

Rohmer’s Les amours d’Astrée et de Céladon is one of his subtle, exotic and atypical historical works, like Perceval and The Marquise of O. Like those films, the visual design is deliberately flat, the focus on nature, particularly landscape and wind, turns the work into a pastoral comedy that re-imagines parts of Henry IV, Twelfth Night and A Midsummer Night’s Dream in a wholly different context: fifth century rural France. In telling a story of love and rapture, Rohmer maintains some of his customary themes, argumentative and digressive explorations of sexuality and movement and the tension that results from declarations of love and fidelity. It’s an exceedingly odd film, a contemporary interpretation of how the 17th century imagined and thought of the distant and unknowable past. Rohmer was always the most culturally conservative of the Nouvelle Vague figures. Even so, his cinema retains a sensual power and gentle eroticism.

French actress Juliette Binoche originally burst into American consciousness with her performance in Philip Kaufman’s adaptation of Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being. She solidified her status as a festival superstar with her haunting, sexy role in Kieslowski’s Blue, playing a young widow who achieves freedom and liberation through the most profound and painful loss. Binoche continues to work a great deal in French cinema, but she has passed over, and has the range, flexibility and daring to apparently try anything. She’s fantastic in Hou Hsiao-hsien’s Flight of the Red Balloon, and she’s the only reason to watch Amos Gitai’s Disengagement. The Israeli-born, French-based Gitai has talent and verve, but his best films (Kadosh, Kippur) are very specific and precise. Of late, he’s been fascinated by the issue of Israel’s existence, as a moral and spiritual issue. In Disengagement, Binoche plays a French woman who goes to the occupied territories to find her daughter. Binoche is fearless and brazen, and she’s completely unafraid to play weak-willed, eve pathetic characters, finding a humanity and danger about them. The movie is too mannered or muddled to tether her actions and feelings into anything dramatically revealing. The movie’s a train wreck, but you can’t take your eyes off of her.

The last film I saw at the festival proved one of my favorites, Useless, by the great Chinese director Jia Zhang-ke (Platform, The World). A companion piece to his previous documentary Dong, the new documentary studies, like the director’s fiction work, the collision of history and the profound personal and social changes wrought by China’s evolving identity as a market economy. In moving from one space, showing the lives of Chinese garment workers captured within their claustrophobic factory conditions to a wholly different kind of creativity, the creativity and imagination of the Chinese designer Ma Ke, Jia explores the very personal repercussions of art, utility and commerce, and what it means. He uproots the very issue of individuality and personal expression and cautions against larger dehumanization of mass production. In weighing the physical and natural deterioration of China’s resources, Useless is a revealing and frightening portrait of industrialization. It also proved that whether working in nonfiction or fiction, Jia is one of the world’s essential filmmakers. He proves that against all odds, his brand of cinema must not only exist though flourish, by whatever means necessary.



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