TIFF '07 - Day Five: Contemporary Classics

Eastern Promises

“Had I been blind and deaf, or did it take the harsh light of disaster for me to find my true nature?”

-- Jean Dominique Bauby

I am a guy who isn’t particularly afraid of being in touch with his sensitive side. In fact, there are days where the people who know me best might even say that I take it one step too far. I rarely cry at movies, especially in the theater in front of a groups of strangers (at home, well, that’s another story). There are certain features I can recall that evoked that response from me, and made me break my “no crying in public/be a man” rule: American Beauty, The Royal Tenenbaums, Thelma and Louise, and Dead Man Walking (damn you, Susan Sarandon!) each broke me down.

This is probably something that is so much more common place than I am giving it credit for, but today I found myself bawling at one film in the theater, which somehow was OK because the entire theater seemed to be weeping; and getting extremely choked up over two others. Now liberated of any shame, and still able retain my dignity in the face of public sobbing, let me share my findings on four of the Toronto International Film Festival’s finest offerings with you:

Again, there are major spoilers ahead:

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (dir. Julian Schnabel, 2007)

When I woke up after less than five hours of sleep, my feet covered in blisters (mental note for next time: bring more sneakers rather than good-looking but torturous white leather boots), burned out from seeing an onslaught of fine filmmaking and sightseeing; I did not want to get out of bed. The last thing on my mind was a sure-to-be depressing French film that started at 9 AM that featured a lead character who could only communicate through blinking his left eye.

I literally flung myself from the bed, tried to check my crap attitude by grabbing a gigantic cup of coffee, and hit the street like every good little reporter should. After forcing myself to see The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, and being more moved by it that almost any other film in recent memory; I felt like an ungrateful, spoiled dilettante.

Here I was watching a film about a man (Elle magazine editor Jean-Dominique Bauby) who suffered a massive stroke and became “trapped inside” his own body, who blinked out (in code, to an assistant, letter by letter) the entirety of his autobiography, from which the film takes its cues; and I had the gall to almost miss the screening for an extra hour or two of sleep. Director Julian Schnabel gave me a wake-up call that pretty much instructed me to appreciate what privileges I have. Funny how timing works with things like these isn’t it?

From the opening scene (created personally by Schnabel, a renowned artist) of antique x-rays to the scene immediately following (jaw-droppingly photographed by Academy Award winner Janusz Kaminski) immediately following, where “Jean-Do” (an astonishing Mathieu Amalric) awakens from a three week long coma (curiously, the second of the festival) –- only to think that nothing is wrong, the director and the technicians are able to transport the audience into another world. This is the kind of thing that I personally love about film; the ability to really connect and experience someone else’s life, visually and emotionally. Schnabel and crew miraculously do this in the first two minutes of the movie. Diving Bell feels like another world and visually, it looks like no other film.

It takes a solid fifteen minutes or so to become fully oriented to the film’s pioneering visual style, likely a deliberate move on the filmmaker’s part to get us to empathize with the man’s predicament. Characters move up to the camera, getting close to Jean-Do’s face to talk to him, but essentially, they are talking directly to us.

In Jean-Do’s mind, he is still OK. We experience his thoughts through Amalric’s narration as if nothing major has happened, but then are dealt a devastating blow as the doctor’s inform him of his condition. They assure him everything will be fine. It is a strikingly filmed opening montage, especially when Jean-Do comes to the realization that he can no longer speak or move, and that no one can hear the inner monologue happening exclusively in his head.

The hard truth is that Jean-Do is paralyzed from head to toe and will never speak again. “It’s just one of those things”, says a callous doctor, at a loss for words while explaining his condition. This randomness echoes as images from the man’s childhood, and his mind's eye come crashing all around him with a fragmented urgency; a point of view which he referred to as “the butterfly”.

Henriette (an incandescent Marie-Josee Croze) is Jean-Do’s speech therapist, who calls him “the most important job she’s ever had”. She gets him to learn the blinking code (first a simple “one blink” for “yes”, two for “no”), and makes him answer inane questions (which the narration hilariously skewers, unbeknownst to her). He flashes back to his life as a fashion director for the magazine.

After such a sweet recollection, we are confronted with more ugly truth: Jean-Do’s right eye must be sewn shut to prevent the cornea from being destroyed. Since the point of view the audience experiences is lived directly from the man’s eye line, we too get a birds-eye view of an eye being closed forever, and it is shocking. Everything is mercilessly taken away from this once-successful man.

The dedicated Henriette begins to teach him a more advanced version of the blinking code, this time the alphabet, through a board that is set up by frequency of letter usage. In a scene where she has a breakthrough with him, thrilled at the prospect of communication with the man; she ends up not getting the kind of responses she had hoped for -- Jean-Do wants to die. In a lush scene on the beach (where the hospital is located in France), she convinces him that there is still purpose in life. It’s a very tricky speech; one that could have been contrived or sappy, but Croze underplays it with supreme elegance.

The unpredictability of the accident is mirrored in the unpredictability of the imagery in Jean-Do’s mind. A glacier dissolving and crumbling into the sea, a sumptuous green valley, a flower being pollinated; these seemingly unrelated shots all figure in prominently with the poetry of the man recalling his life (and the poetry of the Oscar winning scripter for The Pianist Ronald Harwood). He tells us that some of it is real and some of it is made up, but it keeps him alive. “I can imagine anyone, anywhere”, he says as more odd pictures are displayed onscreen.

He imagines a life that is not really his own, but that of Marlon Brando; until we finally get a chance to see what his life was like when he wasn’t strapped to a chair. At this point, the point of view changes once again, and Jean-Do becomes a character in his own story. He begins to dictate his memoirs to a nurse, feeding her poetic ruminations on the life he once led, and freeing himself of past shackles in the process. He recalls, in touching fashion, a day with his 92-year-old father (a brilliant Max Von Sydow), where the men talk about living to be old; then there is a telephone scene between the two men that had many audience members reaching for the Kleenex.

Amalric is able to convey more pathos with one eye (and his voice in the narration) than most actors can do with their entire body. With this performance (and solid work in the under-seen Kings and Queen), the actor proves to be one of the boldest, most talented working. With his privacy stripped, completely dependent on others for everything, and everything taken away from him, Amalric’s Jean-Do cleverly figures out a way to become expressive once again, and it is genuinely beautiful and heart breaking to witness not only the death of a man, but also his artistic rebirth that gives him grace in the end.

The director is particularly adept at putting all of these pieces of film together like an assertive artist with a distinct vision. The film plays out like a painting in many scenes -- a smattering of soft blue here, a touch of fleshy pink there; and it all comes together bathed in a golden halo of sunlight. This is more special than the hundreds of other run-of-the-mill bio films that have been produced ad nauseum over the last few years. Schnabel continues to innovate, and this is hands down his best film.

Schnabel’s previous two efforts (Basquiat and Before Night Falls), both highlighted the true-life stories of creative types (one a painter, the other a poet) who have to overcome insurmountable odds to release their demons and turn their visions into art (it is rumored that Schnabel’s next adaptation will continue along these artistic lines with an adaptation of The Lonely Doll with Naomi Watts and Jessica Lange). These films are all tied together with the thread of art and what it means to be or to become a true artist, and each has Schnabel’s distinct stamp of personal artistry on it.

The final deluge of choppy imagery, as Jean-Do lay dying, and is visited for the final time by his loved ones, is some of the most haunting, beautiful photography I have seen this year and I will carry them with me for a long, long time. I don’t think a director (other than maybe Ingmar Bergman) has ever so eloquently captured the personal experience of dying as Schnabel has here. “I wanted this film to be a tool”, said Schnabel. “Like his book, a self-help device that can help you handle your own death. That’s what I was hoping for and that’s why I did it.”

He takes us right up to the end, through the fear and through the acceptance. Even though Jean-Do was totally immobile and survived much longer than anyone expected, it is still tragic to learn that he died only 10 days after his book was published.

Margot at the Wedding (dir. Noah Baumbach, 2007)

After getting all worked up at Diving Bell, I figured I would cool down with some literate laughter from director Noah Baumbach’s newest offering, Margot at the Wedding.

Since this was a film by the same guy who delivered the goods with the whip-smart The Squid and the Whale (my favorite film of 2005, which mixed family dramatics with high-brow humor), I thought that I could expect non-stop chuckling throughout. Wow, was I wrong.

There are a lot of jokes in Margot, but they aren’t light-hearted, whatsoever. What Baumbach has done instead (wisely), is avoided relying on his past glories in favor of exploring something fresh and uncharted for him.

Margot has some moments of sublime gloom that will possibly scare people thinking that they are in for some sort of light-hearted romp about two sisters getting together for a girly reunion on the eve of one’s wedding. This film is sort of like what Bergman would have made had he been a French New Wave-era filmmaker. Yes, that means it is absolutely spectacular.

In a stark, bleak look at familial wounds and the seething bonds that hold sisters together, Margot (a top-form Nicole Kidman) is like a storm on the horizon as she gathers herself (and her adoring teenage son Claude, played nicely by Zane Pais) together to rain all over Pauline’s (Jennifer Jason Leigh) wedding to Malcolm (Jack Black).

The sisters have had a major falling out and have not spoken in a long time. Neither of them is willing to admit blame. The two have shared a rocky, desperate past with one another, as abused children and as adults who find sport in inflicting emotional damage on one another and then making up. Every word is like a poison dart. Every interaction between the sisters has some hidden meaning. Their connection is mysterious, but the actresses run with it, obviously thriving on the co-dependency.

Even though they have been estranged for an unspecified amount of time (it is implied that has been years), the bossier-than-hell Margot appears for Pauline’s special day, even though she talks nastily about her fiancée behind Pauline’s back. Pauline, meanwhile, lies to people when she refers to her sister, a famous writer, as her “best friend”. The two tell little lies to one another constantly, make hurtful jokes, and are constantly second-guessing and sniping (not just to each other -- to everyone). It is their dysfunctional way of showing affection, apparently.

Both women have gotten really good at pretending. Margot, though she claims to be brutally honest about everything, all the time; is lying to everyone (including her impressionable son) about the wrecked state of her marriage to Jim (John Turturro). She is carrying on an affair with one of Pauline’s neighbors (Ciaran Hinds), and insists that neither he nor the discussion of her newest writing at a local bookstore had any influence in getting her to come out to the house they grew up in for Pauline’s wedding; even though Pauline herself has her doubts.

The brisk 92 minute film starts from this simple premise and explores, cannily, the intensity of the women’s relationship, and how they are inherently tied to one another, whether they like it or not.

Baumbach, who also wrote the script, has an ear for unusual, awkward language; as well as uncomfortable situations. As was the case with The Squid and the Whale, he demands that his players show everything. There is no narcissism in the acting, only in the two lead characters -- which come off as realistically self-obsessed and even immature at times. It is this sort of bravery in creating a dark character on the page and seeing it through until the finished product that Baumbach should be credited for. His characters may not be showy, but they are an actor’s paradise.

Kidman, though she has a terrible habit of making really bad Hollywood films (and yet somehow she gets away with one big budget bomb after the other), has surprised me before with her skills. It took me a long time (probably like the rest of the world) to get over the whole “married to Tom Cruise” thing, but I remember seeing her in both Moulin Rouge and The Others in 2001 and thinking that she had really shown considerable range. With Lars Von Trier’s Dogville, the actress went to some unexpected, experimental heights, and again showed chops.

Her performance as the title character here, who is obsessed with knowing if people are talking about her (even though she is constantly gossiping about them) ranks with her greatest achievements. This is character she was born to play: cultured to a fault, prissy, nosy, icy-as-hell and mean. She is often snippy and hurtful with her son, repeating a cycle of abuse that is hinted at when we meet her. Hidden behind her shellacked veneer is something truly sad: a woman who has everything who can be destroyed by simple things like someone laughing at her. Kidman knows that this is chance to redeem some of her box office sins, and she runs with it, making this terribly unsympathetic woman human rather than a power-bitch caricature.

The absolute highlight of the daring film is the loving way in which Baumbach directs his spouse Leigh to perhaps the most nuanced, relaxed role of her accomplished career. The actress has been known to get down and dirty with her roles, and really disappear; but here she seems so poised and ordinary, it’s easy to forget that she is acting. Margot is the showier part, but as is the case here, and in countless other films in which people take the more quiet supporting roles; showy doesn’t always equal better. Leigh has somehow never been up for an Oscar, despite at least ten viable roles throughout the last seventeen years and it is beyond a crime she wasn’t up for one in 1995 for her tour-de-force in Georgia. This year, hopefully will not add to the shameful list of egregious awards snubs towards one of the most challenging, honest actresses I can think of. If anyone has paid their dues, it is Leigh.

Paranoid Park (dir. Gus Van Sant, 2007)

There are many moments in Gus Van Sant’s Paranoid Park where you just don’t know what is going to happen next. Alex (fresh-faced Gabe Nevins, who the director recruited through MySpace stunt casting) has some sort of secret that he isn’t telling people. He’s a smart, good kid, but it feels like he is getting away with something big.

A Portland homicide detective drags him out of class to gently interrogate him about the recent death of a security guard, who was run over by a train near a dangerous skateboarders hang-out called “Paranoid Park”. This is a place where all of the kids whose parents don’t care go. They’re skaters, druggies, and castaways. They built it themselves. They have claimed it as their own have created an urban legend out of the place. “No one’s ever really ready for Paranoid Park”, says one boy to the cop).

The way the film unfolds is mysterious, and watchable. Van Sant tells the small story with striking images, and a slight flashback structure that never feels overly slick or un-organic. You might wonder, from the loving shots of pretty little skater boys in their boxers or in the shower if you are dealing with a director who is just nostalgic and reverent with his subjects or if he is just a dirty old man. Thankfully, it is the former. Don’t mistake the up-close-and-personal shots of the boys’ faces and bodies for anything other than a master approaching his subjects with loving care for detail and mood.

More honesty is folded into the mood by allowing the actors to be completely naturalistic (other than the screeching Taylor Momsen as Alex’s girlfriend). There is a shot of Alex, borrowing his mother’s car to go to the park to skate, alone, driving and listening to loud music, that is so reminiscent of that period in one’s life where being alone driving around, having your freedom, and doing what you want within reason is intoxicating and entertaining enough. It’s a brief, sweet scene, and the actor lets it happen unforced.

What could have been just another bogus, preachy after school special (adapted from Blake Nelson’s novel) has found a champion with the visually modern-thinking Van Sant and his new partner in crime, the masterful cameraman Christopher Doyle -- who has shot for, among other projects, Wong Kar Wai’s spectacular In the Mood for Love. The marriage of photography and direction is one of the most important elements in personal filmmaking like Paranoid Park; without the marvelous mix of Super 8 (to mimic skate videos), and luxuriant 35 mm footage, the film would have just been another low budget, predictable, straight-to-video for the teens outing. The shots that build tension, the lighting, and even the way rustling grass is shot by Doyle gives the proceedings a more meditative mood, rather than chaotic. There is a very Zen quality to the look of the film.

Van Sant is no stranger to turning ordinary stories into extraordinary films: My Own Private Idaho, Drugstore Cowboy, and To Die For all blossomed in the director’s hands. Along with the Cannes triumph Elephant (which Paranoid Park will unjustly get compared to), the Portland native shows that he has the market cornered on telling the stories of teenagers in the most realistic way of any working director. He has a feel for youth counter culture that other directors just miss completely.

Like in Vadim Perelman’s In Bloom, being at this peculiar in between age is seen by Van Sant as a time of great reflection and great exploration of one’s own conscious. The scene where Alex wrestles with his own questions as he leaves the park is a marvel of sound editing (as is the rest of the ambient mixing used throughout). He is trying to rationalize this crime in his own mind, deciding for himself what is right and what is wrong. It seems like this could be the first time he has been left to his own devices like this, no mom, no dad to bail him out.

Both films employ successful flashback structures, and both are similarly informed by the traumatic effects of violence (albeit accidental), on someone so essentially innocent (and In Bloom does owe a lot to Elephant. While calling these films and their themes “coming of age” is probably not appropriate -- as that arouses connotations of bad memories of teen flicks past, it is safe to say that Van Sant is concerned with portraying the developing moral compass of a jaded youth with a heartfelt sincerity and a steady hand.

The films by the directors I watched today are setting them up to be the most fascinating, erudite, and inventive men working in the medium and each has found their respective niche. It can’t get much better than today at the festival -- it was like Halloween came early and three great directors just put three different full-sized candy bars in my trick or treat bag. But if we are talking the best of the best, and talking about someone who has definitely carved out a specific niche market over the years, we can’t have a discussion without bringing Mr. David Cronenberg to the table.

Eastern Promises (dir. David Cronenberg, 2007)

Cronenberg seems to just get better and better as the years pass. After 2005’s scathing A History of Violence, it didn’t seem possible for the Canadian native to possibly be able to top himself, but with the bold, tight Eastern Promises, he actually does.

A compassionate, yet bloody look at codes of honor among Russian gangsters in London, Cronenberg sets the stage for exploring another microcosm of operatic themes played out in an tight-knit, secretive community; without a trace of fat encumbering the script (lean and mean by Steven Knight) or interrupting the flow of the film.

When Tatiana, a 14 year old junkie prostitute (who is also hugely pregnant) wanders zombie-like off the streets into a local chemist and passes out in a pool of blood, she is taken to a hospital where she is placed under the care of midwife Anna (Naomi Watts), who is able to deliver the girl’s baby but loses the mother.

A clue is left behind to speak for the tragic émigré: her diary. Luckily for Watts (or perhaps not so luckily), she is half Russian and can call on her vodka drinking uncle to translate the pages. In a ghostly fashion Cronenberg makes the choice to let the voice of Tatiana tell the rest of the story as the mystery of who she was unfurls.

A business card found on the dead girl leads Watts directly to the doorstep of Semyon (the terrifying Armin Muehller-Stahl -- who has all but cornered the market on Eastern European old man scariness), a seemingly helpful restaurant owner who tries in vain to use his criminal charisma to pull the wool over the eyes of the innately curious, justice-seeking Anna. He tries to play every angle in the book to get her to hand over the diary, to no avail.

Anna tries to elicit some help from Semyon’s chauffeur and lackey Nikolai (a career-best Viggo Mortensen), with whom she shares a raw chemistry. Outside of the restaurant, she also meets Semyon’s son Kirill (Vincent Cassell, adventurous as usual), a vile, aggressive, and impotent drunk who likes to get wasted and force Nikolai, technically his employee to have sex with prostitutes while he watches. A good employee, Nikolai complies.

The homo-eroticized power dynamic between the two men plays out many times throughout the film, quite cleverly (and it becomes obvious that Kirill is a repressed homosexual in love with Nikolai). Another scene imbued with hints of gayness, though it by no means is sexy at all, is the sure-to-be-buzzed about sequence in which assassins are sent into a steam room to get Nikolai. A totally naked (and brave) Mortensen plays this meticulously-choreographed ballet of skin being filleted and multiple stabbings taking place like a seasoned dancer; writhing and panting while nude and wrestling the men. It is an incredible feat of physicality that I seriously doubt any other Hollywood actor would be willing to tackle (the camera really gets up close and sees everything in an unforgiving light during this scene). Major kudos to the Lord of the Rings star for raising the stakes and tipping the scales a little bit as far as cinematic nudity goes.

Anna gets the distinct feeling that Kirill has something to do with Tatiana’s murder, and she tries to get Nikolai to help her out -- despite her furious uncle’s warnings about how dangerous these men really are. Cronenberg puts it best: “think of Kirill like Sadaam Hussein’s son; too much power, too little depth, and a lot of insecurities -- a very dangerous combination.”

Their dealings find them tied to all sorts of intense business; slave trading is only the tip of the ice berg. These are men, who in reality, conspire with other Eastern-world criminal sects (such as the Chinese or Turkish) to make a living illegally. Their grasp is far-reaching, and once Anna begins her quest, there’s no turning back. These Russian gangsters are unforgiving when it comes to messing with their secrets. Anna doesn’t even seem to care that her family is at risk, she wants to know what happened.

From the get-go, this is a swift affair touched by revenge and the search for justice for the innocent; Cronenberg and company don’t mess around when it comes to telling a good story. What makes Eastern Promises Cronenberg’s best film is the masterful way in which he creates this universe: each detail, down to the star tattoos on the men’s chests, to the borsch being served at Semyon’s restaurant, is placed deliberately to give a sense of what this reality is like.

In what has become a trademark for the director, he employs a clinical, bloody, observational point of view. He definitely shocks the audience with gore, but in a way that cinematic cousin and fellow intellectual auteur Michael Haneke does -- the scenes of violence or tension all are hyper-realistic, which is getting mistaken for "shock value". You can have action films where hundreds of people get massacred and still not get the same reaction out of people as one grisly death in a Cronenberg film. Why? Because he shows it without glamorizing it.

What is so disturbing about these scenes in a Cronenberg film is that he makes them easy to access -- you feel like you're there because it isn't stylized or glamorized like, say, in something like the new Coen Bros. film. Just because the guy has a specific style, at which he excels, does not equal him being up to any "old tricks". This is new, uncharted Cronenberg, and it is exciting.





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