The new George Clooney showcase Up in the Air, the excellent Partir, the engaging Micmacs, and four short films from the National Film Board of Canada.
Things I overheard while eavesdropping during the festival so far include:
(Some film student-looking guy): He has more than… double my knowledge of international cinema!
(Some jaded and quite famous film reviewer): One year, I swear, I’m going to get a button that reads: “It’s just a fucking movie!”
(Some industry guy, talking loudly on his cell phone while in line ahead of me): I saw Roger Moore’s [sic] film last night. Well, you know I agree with his politics, I mean totally. But he can be so childish. This one was good though, not too didratic [double sic].
(Some local film reviewer with perhaps ironic facial hair, regarding the popular midnight madness public showings of horror films): I cannot watch a movie with that audience. (His friend): What, you mean like real people? (Mustache man): Yeah.
(Industry guy, looking a bit peaked, as we exited The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus): Oh, what a horrible mess. (Weird looking lady behind him): Yeah! Didn’t you just fucking love it?
(Reviewer from some obscure website unavailable outside of the mighty U.S. of A., to a helpful unpaid festival volunteer): So, am I to understand that no one in Canada has ever heard of the Huffington Post?
(Some serious film fanatic, as he sat down in front of me at a 9 a.m. screening): Only for Herzog would I do this. I was up till like three in the morning.
Up in the Air (dir. Jason Reitman, 2009)
Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) had always believed that if you put everything you needed into a backpack, you should still be able to walk. But what’s heavier than love? Jason Reitman’s new film (based on a novel by Walter Kirn) is a clever and attractively mature study of man who has nothing, and couldn’t be more pleased. Clooney’s Bingham works for a hateful company which offers professional “employee termination” services. In other words, he is constantly travelling by air to rustbelt American cities in order to break the news to employees that they’ve been fired. When one of them asks “Who the fuck are you?” he responds, “good question”, since they’ve never met and never will again. As he sees it, his job is to “set people adrift”—undoubtedly a topical theme in our present economic climate—but he seems to have convinced himself that maybe he is actually doing these people a favour. Life, for him, is scientific, rational—you pack just enough so that you’ll never check a bag. You know just which line to stand in, which cab company, which hotel chain. So, getting laid off just means you now have a chance to take control of your life. Clooney’s star wattage keeps us interested in this ugly character just long enough for a love story to come along and spin him around until he becomes human. Vera Farminga, excellent as his female foil—“think of me as you, but with a vagina”—complicates everything by showing him, without ever meaning to, that some things just aren’t rational. Though Jason Bateman is miscast as Clooney’s dickheaded boss, Anna Kendrick is a revelation as a plucky upstart at the company who tries to streamline the firing process even further by doing it over the internet.
Shades of Lady Chatterley abound in Catherine Corsini’s great film about a wealthy woman and a working class man whose physical and emotional attraction wreaks havoc on everything around them. Kristin Scott Thomas continues her string of remarkable performances in French dramas with her turn as a housewife aiming to get back to work, a re-emergence (as it were) from twenty years of domesticity, but who abruptly and inexorably falls in love with an immigrant labourer. While her husband, an important local official, “forbids” her to leave him, she sneaks away, eventually giving up everything - her kids, her beautiful home, her comfort and security - just to be with her lover. Though reduced to working for a pittance on a cantaloupe farm, selling her jewels to buy gas, and stealing from her husband to make ends meet, her confidence never seems to waver. Love, it seems, will conquer all. Partir (“leaving” in French) is fascinating cinema, impressively sexy and darkly cerebral. Is this an allegory for a housewife’s broken spirit? A critique of marriage as ownership? An attack on class-based expectations about the relative suitability of marriage partners? A spirited tribute to love’s power to overwhelm us, to override logic and reason? Or, is it merely a character study of a woman who, as her children think, has lost her mind?
Micmacs à Tire-Larigot (dir. Jean Pierre Jeunet, 2009)
Offering imagination, inventiveness, and political conscience in equal measure, this is the kind of film Terry Gilliam used to make (think Brazil, or The Fisher King). In his best work, France’s Jean Pierre Jeunet (Amelie, Delicatessen) re-imagines our world in ways both recognisable and utterly far-fetched. The result, more often than not, is a kind of realistic fantasy, or a fantastic realism. When it works, we get so enchanted by the oddness of it all that we begin to forget that it was ever odd in the first place. Micmacs à Tire-Larigot (which translates roughly to “a big mess”, but is based on slang expressions long out of common use) pits a quirky band of homeless scavengers against two rival arms manufacturers in an effort to exact revenge for their capitalist exploitation of human suffering, or something. But, if the plot is thin, and the characters sketchily drawn, the magic that surrounds them more than fills things out. Though there are too many not-so-funny running gags (one character speaks only in clichés, which just never works) most of the dialogue is inventive and very well delivered buy Jeunet’s team of veterans (including Danny Boon, Jean-Pierre Marielle and Dominique Pinon). A run of cleverly-executed schemes leading to a fairly satisfactory conclusion, this one carried me right through to the end. Though, the more I think about it now, the less I care—somehow, that little universe, fun as it was, stayed back there in the theatre.
The Spine, Chris Landreth
This immensely weird animated short gives up its secrets only grudgingly. A group therapy session, a broken down old man revived through art, a pushy fat woman, a raft of bizarre images. At the root this is a film about love, need, and fortitude—the spine is a metaphor, if course. But, for what? Weirdly beautiful, but ultimately unsatisfying.
Runaway Train, Cordell Barker
In this fun animated short, a train pulling two cars rockets through the mountains. In the first car, aristocrats. In the next car, the poor. As the train runs out of control, pulling up a steep hill, the coal-shoveller runs out of fuel. Faced with the prospect of rolling all the way back down, the aristocrats convince the poor to give them everything they have, so that it can be used to feed the fire. They pay them huge sums of money in exchange for the clothes right off their backs. But, once they are stripped bare, the aristocrats take back the money and unhook their car. The train clears the top of the hill, only to fly uncontrollably over the other side, rocketing downhill. A metaphor for capitalism, perhaps?
Vive La Rose, Bruce Alcock
A five-minute stop motion and paint animation music video, of sorts, vaguely dramatizing an old-sounding but apparently recently-written French Canadian folk song about a dying woman. Apologies to those who must have slaved over this piece - one imagines it was terrifically labour intensive - but I just didn’t get this one at all. The song lives in a drawer? In a cabin by the sea?
Night Mayor, Guy Maddin
Guy Maddin, beloved Canadian director of such films as My Winnipeg and The Saddest Music in the World brings us this ultra-creepy 13-minute journey into the mind of an inventor. A recent immigrant from Serbia, the narrator (who refers to himself as the Night Mayor (or, is it nightmare?) has found himself drawn to the Canadian landscape, and the mystery of lights in the sky. So, he has built a machine through which the aurora borealis (or northern lights) can be made into visible music, into images we can hear. This briefly unites the country, as all can share in the commonality of elemental image and sound, until the government steps in to break it apart. A critique, perhaps, of recent budget cuts to Canadian national arts funding projects? Whatever the political backdrop, what we are really asked to enjoy is the experience of slipping into Maddin’s black and white, heavily stylized imagination. An exhilarating, if mostly confounding, exercise in dreamy experimentation.
Stuart Henderson is a culture critic and historian. He is the author of Making the Scene: Yorkville and Hip Toronto in the 1960s (University of Toronto Press, 2011). All of this is fun, but he'd rather be camping. Twitter: @henderstu