As I mentioned earlier, it is practically impossible to decide how best to spend one’s time when so much is being offered at this festival. Do you see the big studio movies that will be released in December or later? Do you choose foreign indies that will never play on any even remotely big screen close to where you live? Do you opt for covering round tables and press conferences where you will be privy to the same rehashed, recycled information as everyone else? Or do you accept the task of conducting private one on one interviews, should you be fortunate enough to be chosen, during the middle of screening madness?
These are all tough questions, but there is an even more pressing conundrum that we writers here at TIFF must eventually face: to walk out of a film screening or not to walk out of a film screening. This is the eternal, burning question of every film critic here whose time and energy is precious. Today’s film writer has to be a juggler, and almost impossibly flexible, but when it comes down actually deciding to get up and leave a theater before the movie is over, what you have is a knotty ethical issue. On one hand, it is incredibly disrespectful to the people involved with making the movie. On the other hand, I’ve done it myself in the past and probably should have done it a lot more often considering some of the trash I have actually sat through.
Shockingly, it was not me walking out of the newest from legendary auteur Jean-Luc Godard, Film Socialisme. Those of us waiting in the press line for this complete mindfuck from one of the most recent, controversial Honorary Oscar recipients were repeatedly warned by somebody rolling their eyes, smirking and wearing a headset that “the film is in French and there are no subtitles,” in a smug tone that thoroughly smacked of xenoglossophobia, as though they were actually discouraging the few people there to see this challenging piece of work from the same masterpiece-crafting madman that brought audiences films such as Breathless and Contempt. It felt disrespectful and I am no fan of Godard’s by any measure, merely an admirer of his dedication to true art. Indeed, there were multiple people jumping ship at the last minute because of this pronouncement and a large number of walkouts; more than I have seen with probably any other film at this festival in the years I have covered it.
Subtitle misunderstandings aside, the images constructed by Godard and put to screen were evocative, if also utterly nonsensical. Swirling black pools capped with white froth open the movie, churning like acid and bile in the rotten gut of a desperately sick man. These stark, formless abstractions give way, within minutes, to a clear expanse of midnight blue sea, sparkling with a jewel-like tone. Right off the bat, the sequencing of the images tell a beautiful, visual story. They tell this story on their own, using rich, surprising color combinations; the serious interplay of light and atypical sound distortion/assault; the manipulation of materials (using varying shutter speeds and depths of field); and best of all, deliberate usage of dialectical montage to evoke feeling from the spectator, to provoke them, even. These images succeed without having every single word meticulously translated. There were select subtitles in the film, by the way, but who cares?
Do I have any idea what the film means? No way. This is a complicated visual objet d’art that needs much more careful consideration than the festival film criticism cycle permits. This is not an easy piece to put into words or clever little blogger soundbites. I enjoy absurdity, artiness, and the challenging of cinematic conventions, modes and forms, so I was very intrigued by these experiments. I do not think any other filmmaker would ever be allowed to so brazenly toy with a spectator’s comfort zone in such an wild manner, but Godard must be respected – if for nothing else – for making something so completely strange, infuriating and, yes, beautiful. I find it completely stupid that people would walk out of something that didn’t offer them a pleasing, traditional, pretty little narrative arc. Again, this is all coming from someone who finds this director vastly over-praised.
Go ahead and roll your eyes and chortle about how obtuse the film is so you can leave feeling better about being completely lost and completely closed-minded. I for one am happy a film such as Film Socialisme exists at all. Perhaps it does not make any sense but let us remember please that this is not a documentary, and we do not go to the cinema to necessarily indulge in absolute reality. The cry for realism in movies is a paradox that never has made sense to me. Go ahead and giggle about that old rapscallion Godard being hopelessly out of touch, and a rude bastard for even daring to suggest that he might not gratefully fly to Hollywood to pick up a token honorary Oscar from the same people who snubbed what is arguably his best work, for decades. It is quite clear Godard does not give a fuck what you or I think and that is really exciting in a maddening, mannered environment of industry ass-kissing
What is so offensive about that? My theory is that any movie that requires outside the box thinking makes viewers much too upset to deal. When you compound this problem, as Godard does, by requiring active, engaged participation, you are just a filmmaker begging for trouble. You run the risk of turning everyone off. To me, turning people off does not happen nearly enough in contemporary cinema, so in this respect, Film Socialisme turned me on despite being fragmented and oblique. Incorporating vintage documentary and newsreel footage, Patti Smith playing guitar on a casino cruise ship, and insertions of Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potempkin (a film that practically defines “dialectical montage” – a topic that Eisenstein is known for in his writings), among other jarring and erratic pieces in this collage, Godard’s newest is like nothing you have seen from him and nothing like anything else you will see this year. For this reason, the end result is completely impossible to slap a rating on.
Rating: Cannot compute.
Much more traditionally-pleasurable was Sylvain Chomet’s follow-up to the Oscar-nominated The Triplets of Belleville, the lush The Illusionist. This antiqued, animated gem is gorgeous, soft in texture and bold in color. Lest you think that my aversion to both Godard and Chomet’s first overly-precious feature points directly to me being an anti-Francophile, let me just point out that animated features rarely register with me on a deep level. They can be fun or exciting or cool to look at, but there is a part of me that just doesn’t go for cartoons despite a boyhood spent reading super hero comics.
It pleases me immensely to say The Illusionist, with its somber themes, engaged me very personally. By employing stunning art direction and a broad, expert use of sound on this project Chomet has created a brilliant silent comedy aesthetic that is never overly-reverent or syrupy. Taken from an original script by French national treasure Jacques Tati (Playtime, Mr. Hulot’s Holiday), your breath will be taken away from the get-go. The titles go from gray tones to warm hues, transitioning from dark to light almost immediately, but retaining a hard edge throughout, telling a magical story about magic.
The way in which all of the classic elements of cinema interact with one another and are incorporated by the director and his illustrators into the mis en scene could have turned out as pukingly sweet as the steeped-in-nostalgia Triplets, but instead it turns out to be lovely and moving. We meet the title character, who is down on his luck, maybe a bit world weary, but kind, as he plays dingy bars, second-rate, ramshackle theaters and just barely scrapes by. His heart is his undoing, and when he takes a shine to a curious young domestic, the lonely old man finally finds a companion on whom to focus his fatherly attention on. This would have probably not worked as a Tati vehicle as the magical milieu needs to remain firmly unreal in order to fully impress, but Chomet’s The Illusionist definitely put a miles-wide smile on my face when I was feeling like a crab-apple and broke my heart by the end with its heartfelt, artisinal style. The animated bumbling here is better, more refined and filled with more spirit than a thousand plastic Toy Story 3‘s and in a just world would be the front-runner for Best Animated Film at next year’s Oscars.
Rounding out a trifecta of French cinema for me was writer-director Guillaume Canet’s Little White Lies a kind of ineffectual, all-over-the-place Parisian dramadey about a group of pals on summer vacation that struggles to ever really find its sea legs despite a prevalent marine theme. Unsettled by a clashing of styles, and bogged down by about a hundred dangling subplots, horrible dialogue, clunky direction, and one too many thin, maudlin characters, Canet’s work, while possessed of occasional moments of visual pleasure, is bloated at two and a half-plus hours in length.
What makes this completely uninspired movie work at all is the game nature of the fine cast of French actors Canet has assembled, including François Cluzet (Tell No One, Benoît Magimel (The Piano Teacher and Oscar-winner for La vie en Rose Marion Cotillard, who has such an expressive face that I now believe she can save any crappy movie from oblivion and make it at least entertaining. Her first scene, set at the bedside of a friend in the intensive care unit following a very predictable and cliched opening shot that could have used a much more subtle hand, finds the actresses’ face half-covered by a surgical mask, but Cotillard, in true Tim Gunn fashion, still makes it work.
Being able to register in a dull film, using only half of your face is a nasty challenge, but miraculously, Cotillard does it somehow. I am pleased to say that she is a rare Best Actress winner who actually follows through on her promises, in terms of choosing interesting, vibrant characters to play in a variety of films, continuing to grow in each new role since her breakthrough in 2007. In the terrible Nine, she found a beating heart amidst the waxworks. In Public Enemies she gave a strong character turn. Now with Inception, she’s even got a bit of box office clout. While it is great to see her exploring these new women in a mix of studio and indie, English and French, and while her performance in Little White Lies is certainly capable, she and her character are let down by turgid direction and a script that gives her very little to work with.
Like a distaff Big Chill, complete with an overbearing soundtrack that could have been trimmed in about five instances, Little White Lies is long on style, short on everything else. Between the actors and the cinematography, the most credit it can be given is that it is mildly entertaining, and then only at times. By the end, most of the audience was bolting for the exits, that is the audience that hadn’t already walked out.
We all know how critical it is to keep independent voices alive and strong on the Internet. Please consider a donation to support our work as independent cultural critics and historians. Your donation will help PopMatters stay viable through these changing and challenging times. Thanks everyone.