The Diving Bell and the Butterfly
Amidst the sea of flickering Blackberries being lovingly fondled by the throng of jaded industry professionals, one thing stood out for me at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival: the films seemed to be dominated by strong women; particularly by actresses of all shapes, sizes, and ages. After being subjected to a long, hot summer filled with the smell of testosterone in the theaters, the ladies are back with a vengeance. And they are ready not only for their close-ups, but also for their accolades.
There are always cries about how women are getting the shaft in film. There’s not a year that passes where there is some wag insisting that it is “a weak year for actresses”. While this might have an unfortunate grain of truth in most typical years, 2007 is shaping up to be unusually warm to the idea of women as equal partners in terms of cinematic importance. The playing field this year may mercifully be leveled, thanks in part to the tremendous achievements of a handful of women who brought their offerings to festival crowds this year.
Most of the buzz this year will revolve around the dozen or so expert performances that had their North American premiere at the TIFF. Most major films had at least one outstanding role for an actress somewhere (or, as was the case with Joe Wright’s Atonement, there were at least four), while many will be competing for spots in the female acting races early next year at the Oscars.
The Brave One
Getting a jump on the competition, Neil Jordan’s polarizing The Brave One, starring the excellent Jodie Foster, showed on day one, proving to be more than just another standard Foster-big budget extravaganza. A tale of revenge and love that owes a debt of gratitude to modern Asian language cinema as much as it does to the classic Western, The Brave One has been criticized by many as being “over-the-top” and “unbelievable”.
Even though most critics have unanimously cited Foster’s performance (which was more natural than anything the actress has done in recent memory) as one of her best—and many, like me, are calling for a deserved Oscar nomination, the film itself has been widely received in a more lukewarm manner than it was by the festival crowds I saw it with; in Toronto, there was nothing but surprised enthusiasm over this one.
Ang Lee’s beautifully made sex thriller Lust, Caution, adapted from one of Eileen Chang’s novels, didn’t quite live up to expectations, despite being technically very solid. Almost every person I spoke with regarding this film found it disappointing, as a whole, but there was universal praise for the debut leading performance of Tang Pei. The actress had a vivid character to play: a naïve young actress that becomes a political radical and ends up using her sexuality to exert control over a government official. The demanding role required Tang to simulate various, intimate sex acts (that come across as looking quite real), as well as hit dramatic highs and lows. Thanks to Lee’s masterful knack for casting, the newcomer pulled it off beautifully, dignity intact.
Noah Baumbach, of The Squid and the Whale fame, offered up one of the strongest displays of female acting at the festival with his newest, Margot at the Wedding; giving his wife Jennifer Jason Leigh and Nicole Kidman their best roles in years as sniping sisters who are inexplicably connected despite years of emotional terrorism towards each other.
Margot at the Wedding
Unremittingly dark and unapologetically unafraid to show the main characters as unsympathetically damaged and flawed; Margot (which has more than a few Ingmar Bergman overtones) is a two-woman showcase for Kidman and Leigh to flex their acting muscles as two very different, yet fundamentally linked sisters who share a turbulent history with one another. Leigh, who is always a pleasure to watch, should be up for the Oscar that has eluded her for more than fifteen years (in a just world). Her Pauline is one of the actresses’ finest creations: earthy, natural, and soft; a welcome change from the risky actress known for her portrayals of intense, damaged women. The range and maturity that Leigh conveys is astounding.
Kidman, who can be hit or miss, is on fire as Margot. Not since her role in 2001’s The Others, has the actress found such a perfect character with which to harness her natural iciness and neuroses. Margot is a tangle of nerve endings about to explode. She is brainy, lonely, and what this boils down to is a veritable field day for any actress. Kidman realizes the opportunity and plays the part beautifully. This is a character who would have been right at home in a film in the 1970s by John Cassavetes or Woody Allen, and Margot is the perfect marriage of actresses, director, and script.
In Bloom, director Vadim Perelman’s follow-up to 2003’s House of Sand and Fog, can be seen as a success in that it highlights three strong, unique female performances: Uma Thurman, Evan Rachel Wood, and Susan Sarandon’s daughter Eva Amurri play three women coping with the effects of a high school shooting. Each brings something unusual and strong to the bleak, sometimes off-kilter film. Perelman, as he did with his first feature, shows a clear affinity for working with capable actresses.
While Anton Corbijn’s Control may have been about the boys club of Joy Division, it was co-star Samantha Morton who quietly stole the show as Ian Curtis’ young wife Debbie. In a film where the boys all got to go out and play rock and roll, sleep with all of the groupies, and get all of the glory, it was Debbie’s story that kept the biopic rooted firmly in reality. Morton, in yet another fully-realized portrayal, never lets Debbie slink into the trap of being just another “wife role” –- something that Terry George could have taken pointers on when making Reservation Road, a film that sadly relegates Oscar winners Jennifer Connelly and Mira Sorvino to the supportive sidelines in routine “spouse” roles.
The same, unfortunately, is true for Reese Witherspoon (who won an Oscar for playing “the wife” role in Walk the Line) in Gavin Hood’s Rendition. The actress has very little to do as the put-upon wife of an Egyptian national who is mistakenly labeled a terrorist, other than play a second-rate, shrieking Nancy Drew alongside Peter Sarsgaard. Not even the presence of Meryl Streep (venturing awfully close to self-parody in her essentially stock role) can save this sentimental, clichéd disappointment. What wants to be an edgy, timely examination on Middle East policies and modern warfare instead devolves into an overly-liberal stinker.
For real political edge, the film to turn to at the TIFF this year was an animated one: artist Marjane Satrapi (along with co-director Vincent Paronnaud) adapted her own autobiographical graphic novel Persepolis to resounding success. Spanning decades, beginning in Iran as the Shah comes to power and the Islamic fundamentalists seize control of the government, Satrapi examines what war means for a young, outspoken woman in a country where men dominate almost everything and women are second class citizens.
The second half of Persepolis finds Marjane sent away to Europe by her politically-active parents and taking a pointed look at racism towards people of Middle Eastern descent. There are a lot of bold ideas happening in the film, which is peppered with a droll sense of humor and an assured artist’s touch. Every element that was essential to the success of the books has been gloriously transferred to the big-screen version intact; and while this isn’t a frame-for-frame recreation of the novels, Persepolis never suffers from refusing to be slavishly devoted to its source materials.
While the clear presence of women could definitely be seen in the acting achievements, there was also a major feminine impact in the director’s stakes: Satrapi, Julie Taymor, Tamara Jenkins, Robin Swicord, Alison Eastwood, and Helen Hunt all debuted films at the TIFF this year, to varying degrees of success. But the major thing to remember here is that when you stroll into a local multiplex, and choose a film, it is highly unlikely that a major studio film is going to be directed by a woman. So to see five ladies, all confidently in control of their visions, get a chance to show five very different films at a major festival like this, there is a glimmer or hope for the directorial future of women; even if some of the films ended up as grand misfires.
Across the Universe
Taymor’s film, Across the Universe provoked another love-it-or-hate-it reaction from most festival-goers. The visionary director (whose Titus and Frida were both visually stunning) was given near-unanimous praise for its visually stunning uniqueness. The music (culled from the back catalogue of The Beatles) was the real star of the show, as most fans would point out; but the film’s script received a lot of criticism for being of mediocre quality, with laughable dialogue.
Across the Universe garnered some attention earlier this year when the film was taken out of Taymor’s hands (by studio executives), and handed over to another editor to whittle down the three-plus hour running time. While the director and the studio eventually found a happy medium, as far as length goes, the fact that the film was taken away from the artist shows a glaring discrepancy from the way a male director’s film might have been received: with Taymor, her film was taken away because of a perceived incompetence. Had this been a male director’s film, he would have been called an auteur.
The director will have another battle on her hands when the film is widely released: will the public pay to see what is essentially a two and a half hour, grand-scale music video for The Beatles? Is there a viable audience for this music anymore that will come out to support it?
Jenkins fared much better with her biting, effective The Savages, her first feature since 1998’s The Slums of Beverly Hills. Tackling sibling rivalry, the state of elder care in the US, and familial bonds during times of crisis, Jenkins was able to scale back all of the obvious emotions tied to these often taboo subjects and strip everything down to it’s bare bones; creating an indelible, funny, and often touching film about the titular family.
Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Laura Linney, as the brother and sister who must come together and stop being self-involved when their ailing father (Phillip Bosco) becomes their dependent, give career-best performances in The Savages, thanks mainly to Jenkins’ impeccable script – which gives the actors a chance to cover all of the bases.
Swicord is known mostly for being a screenwriter (she famously adapted Memoirs of a Geisha and Little Women), which is why the mild The Jane Austen Book Club, her feature directorial debut, comes off as a bit disappointing.
Despite having a solid cast of women (including Amy Brennenman, Maria Bello, Kathy Baker, and the great Emily Blunt), the film is so conventional and poorly-edited that even the biggest supporters of the “chick flick” will likely be unsatisfied with this lumbering adaptation.
Then She Found Me
Hunt fares much better in the directorial debut and novel adaptation stakes, mainly because of her familiarity with the genre: the romantic comedy. Then She Found Me is a light, confident directorial debut that shows Hunt at the top of her genre game: the actress directs not only herself with a strong touch; but also gives beloved veteran Bette Midler a chance to prove herself as a character actress after being sadly put out to pasture for the last few years as a performer.
Hunt’s graciousness in turning each scene Midler is in over to the respected, gifted star is a very smart (and bold) move for both women. The idea of a female director (who is also the star of the picture) supporting another woman of another generation so generously is one that needs to be explored more in feature filmmaking, and Hunt makes it look effortless and fun.
Clint’s daughter, Alison Eastwood, gave it a game try with her directorial debut Rails & Ties, but the formulaic, unbelievable plot and plodding television movie editing kill the film’s emotional pull, despite a very nice performance by Marcia Gay Harden and a less successful one by Kevin Bacon, as a husband and wife who illegally take in an orphan after a train accident.
Films made by male artists, Julian Schnabel’s sumptuous The Diving Bell and the Butterfly and Canadian director David Cronenberg’s expert Eastern Promises, focused more on male lead characters, but still offered up strong female characters with balance and poise: Promises boasted yet another canny, capable performance by Naomi Watts (who has been on a hot streak for a few years now); while Diving Bell featured four strong supporting roles in a film about a male author: Emanuelle Seigner, Marina Hands, Anne Cosigny, and the amazingly talented Marie-Josee Croze all took advantage of their relatively smallish parts and made each woman stand out.
I’m Not There
Oddly enough, the festival’s most talked about female contribution came from a woman playing a man: Cate Blanchett as “Jude”, a distaff version of Bob Dylan in his electric, drug-addled era; had everyone frothing at the mouth. Blanchett, who showed amazing range this year playing two legends (Dylan and Queen Elizabeth I in Elizabeth: The Golden Age—which everyone expected to be her runaway success), soared to new artistic, surreal heights as Dylan, out-performing the entire cast that included Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, Julianne Moore, Michelle Williams, Charlotte Gainsbourg, and Richard Gere.
“The image of Dylan is so well-known and so woven into our cultural fabric now that I felt the sheer shock of it that people must have experienced at that time is gone,” said Haynes. “I wanted to find a way to re-infuse it with true strangeness – the eeriness and sexual uncertainty and diffusion. And that’s why I wanted to have a woman play the part. And it took Cate Blanchett to transform that tall order into something more than a cinematic stunt.”
While the casting of the triumphantly weird I’m Not There could be misconstrued as “stunt-y”, director Todd Haynes has directed one of our generation’s most capable actresses to perhaps her most daring, experimental performance to date. In a career that already includes playing Katharine Hepburn (in Martin Scorsese’s Oscar winner The Aviator), Queen Elizabeth (twice!), Nora and Hedda (onstage in Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House and Hedda Gabler), and key part in the Lord of the Rings trilogy; Blanchett’s work in Haynes’ visionary re-telling of Dylan’s story just might be her riskiest maneuver to date—albeit one that pays off handsomely.
It’s refreshing and satisfying to see, for once, a woman getting one of the year’s most interesting, and talked-about parts; a role that theoretically (on the page) should have been played by a man. It is the kind of female contribution to the movies that makes the possibilities for actresses seem limitless.
// Notes from the Road
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