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Toronto International Film Festival 08: Day Three

Multiculturalism is fun! Familial tensions, not so much...

Summer Hours (L' Heure d'été) (dir. Olivier Assayas, 2008, France)

I couldn’t wait to spend an afternoon watching a film crafted by one of our most exciting contemporary directors, Olivier Assayas that featured a triad of top-notch French performers: Jeremy Renier, Charles Berling, and the virtually incandescent Juliette Binoche.

At turns elegiac, radiantly warm, and infinitely relatable, Summer Hours finds Assayas visiting the at once similar, yet wildly divergent territories he passed through and conquered with his marvelous studies in cross-cultural communications, Demonlover, Irma Vep, and the brilliant Clean, both of which starred his ex-wife, the brilliant Maggie Cheung.

With a penchant for magnanimously-detailed story telling, the bright director is one of the heroes of modern cinematic innovation, and one who is constantly questioning the concept of “home”. Assayas’ perception of “home” in all of his films reflects a newly-emergent sensibility that “home” for many people nowadays is not the place they grew up, or even necessarily the place of their choosing. “Home” may be devoid of wistfulness, but that’s exactly what the director has in mind when telling the elegant tale of the Berthier clan. Is home confined by international borders? Is home something that no longer exists when older generations die or when younger generations leave? Assayas is unafraid to explore these topics with the eye (and heart) of a true visionary artist, from his singular viewpoint.

Summer Hours immediately begins fresh and intriguing and with a sense of energy and a combination of fluid movement and contemplative stillness that has come to be expected from Assayas’ camera. There is a feeling of intimacy established from the get-go, as the camera focuses on children running in the country sunlight, carefree and lost in their innocent games, you can almost smell the fragrances emanating from the stately gardens. This is a less hard-edged, less overtly globalist perspective than the director usually traffics in, but the sweetness is perfectly ripe, never fettered by syrupy sentiment or cliché.

His previous films shrewdly explored modernity and the growing sense that international borders are becoming just lines on a map, and that more than ever, human beings are truly becoming citizens of the planet or cultural hybrids, rather than staying tied to one particular spot their entire lives. In other words: nostalgia is dead. Move on. But the miracle of this particular film is that it isn’t as bleak as it sounds, and Assayas makes the potentially maudlin concept of familial struggles with property in the wake of death surprisingly tender, and, at times, even a joyous cause for celebration.

Originally, the script for Summer Hours was commissioned by The Musee d’Orsay and conceived as a four-part series of short films, which the director abandoned because of what he called “technical reasons”. The foundation of the film, which he says was built around the connections shared by the work and the museum and between the patron and the objects, resulted in something universal, but also uniquely specific.

Summer Hours is fundamentally about relationships: between siblings, between parents and children, between the old and the young, between art and money, but most of all, between possessions and their owner. What do we hold on to? Why do we cling to it? “Ancient forms of the family are transfiguring,” said Assayas. “It is no longer a question of fighting to possess family heritage, but rather knowing how to get rid of it. How does this past, which no longer represents much, all of a sudden jump on us from behind? What do we do with it?”

Opening at a country manse on a glorious, sunny afternoon, the elliptical, brisk images glide by, reminiscent of fleeting recollections of childhood memories, a distinct joi de vivre, and the vitality and excitement of faded youth that is replaced with responsibility and often turmoil. It is a light, pure feeling that invokes a basic instinct, and that immediately seduces the viewer into the story that follows.

Helene (a smart, moving performance by Edith Scob, who establishes her character brilliantly in a short amount of time) is celebrating her birthday surrounded by her entire family, children and grandchildren, everyone in good spirits. Frederic (Berlinger) and Jeremie (Renier) have brought their wives and children, while Adrienne (Binoche) has traveled from NYC to reconnect with the family on this important day. The vivid, lived-in dialogue in this crucial opening sequence, as well as the exuberant pace, sets the tone: the Berthiers are a charming and genuinely affectionate family despite the geographical distance between them. The viewer gets a sense that the family is full of traditions, memories and special rituals specific to only them. It is an intimate feeling.

Helene, in a private moment, takes Frederic aside to discuss another tradition: the passing of possessions from one generation to the next. She feels as though her life is coming to a close, and since the family has amassed a grand private collection of historic, important French artifacts, Helene decides to have the necessary conversation that everyone dreads having to hear from their parents: who gets what? How will her possessions be divided?

The inevitability of possessions causing grief, in a time of grief, to those who inherit them, is something the woman wants to avoid. She wants the history of the art collection to end with her; she does not want this family legacy to burden her modern family, who visit France but once a year or so. As she ascends a tree-lined stone staircase, while watching her family leave her once again, Assayas is able to communicate volumes on the loneliness of the empty nest with just a single elegant shot. This will be the last time anyone sees her.

This is fundamentally a moving tale of loss and grief, but also, largely, about nationalism and globalization. The themes are packed into the film, but it never feels fat, Assayas’ touch makes it lean. The intuitive, neatly-paced little details, like the secret handshake the brothers share, or the way everyone cracks up when Adrienne announces her engagement, make the family dynamics seem warm and believable -– there is a whole sense of familial history in these performances.

Known for pushing the envelope a bit in his other works, Assayas employs a more classical, less experimental feeling, but the overall effect is no less fresh and thematically rich. Summer Hours feels like a poised, polished culmination of all of the things the director does best. There is a fraught mood of anxiety when strangers enter the estate and begin to catalogue the goods, and assess each rare item’s value for an impending auction and for sale to a museum. When the family’s long-time housekeeper Eloise (Isabelle Sadoyan) returns in the end, we are offered yet another perspective –- how do you dismiss someone who has spent their life serving you? Do you simply give them a vase and some money and that’s it?

These are the delicate questions that the filmmaker faces with candor, and in the end, possessions ultimately only mean something to those who have lived with them forever . To others, they are simply found objects. This highlights that letting go is the hardest thing to do, but in the end it will unshackle you. We can almost let go of people (like Eloise) more easily than our “things”.

Eventually, when homes are not filled with these lives and objects, they are but empty shells that offer comfort no more.

Rachel Getting Married (dir. Jonathan Demme, 2008, USA)

Thanks to a malfunctioning streetcar (insert “Matt Mazur/Blanche Dubois” joke here), I ended up getting to the screening of Jonathan Demme’s new Rachel Getting Married much later than I planned, but just in time for it to start pouring rain whilst I stood in a line several blocks long without an umbrella. Where was my corporate sugar daddy Visa or my freshly-dipped bon bons today when I really needed them? I guess having a Visa card wasn’t as special as I thought yesterday.

Since Demme has not made an original dramatic feature in ten years, I had to catch this. It was my number one pick for the entire festival. His dabbling in documentaries (the excellent 2003 film The Agronomist is a must see) and remakes (like 2004’s Manchurian Candidate) has made me long for the days of easy, dare I say, quirky comedies he once cranked out with spirit.

All of the reviews I had read up until this screening indicated that Rachel was his return to form, that it harkened back to the time when Melanie Griffith was still a good actress (check out Something Wild if you don’t believe me!), and his actors were winning pre-Silence of the Lambs Oscars (Mary Steenburgen in Melvin and Howard). Films like those, and Married to the Mob, made him the premiere director of offbeat mélanges of drama and comedy that could turn on a dime in the span of seconds. All of this “return to form” business is a little off, honestly – Rachel is a much different film than he has done in the past, refreshingly so, showing another color of a director who already paints with so many tones and techniques. It is a pivotal, substantial film for the director and a step forward.

Demme’s scant work in the 90s after his Best Director win for Silence did not yield many fruitful endeavors, though, in my humble opinion, his adaptation of Beloved is one of the great underrated gems of the entire decade. After that high profile film was widely and unfairly dismissed as a failure by audiences and critics, Demme’s glory days began to fade from memory.

Written by Jenny Lumet (daughter of director Sidney and granddaughter of Lena Horne), Rachel explores the relationship between the titular character (Rosemarie DeWitt) with her black sheep sister Kym (Anne Hathaway in a breakout performance) on the eve of her (you guessed it!) wedding. Kym is being released from rehab especially for the occasion.

I am all for films that explore sisterly relations, family relations and the chaos that surrounds a wedding, but there are moments of this film, that, while very good, seem to be borrowing heavily from another film I loved from TIFF 07, Noah Baumbach’s far superior Margot at the Wedding. Wealthy, privileged East Coast family? Check. Hand-held, grainy camera movements following people from behind to big, gloomy houses? Check. Bitchy snipes aplenty? Check. Lots of picking off of festering sibling scabs? It’s all here. This is a slight gripe as the two films do have major differences, but since this one has a more light tone, and more likable characters, it is bound to (unfairly) be received better.

One of the nicest things Lumet treats us to with her energetic script is a cast of completely multi-racial, multi-cultural, multi-talented character actors and musicians. This is one of the recurring themes this year at the fest, and in my opinion, the film that wins the contest is the one that features on of my favorite performers, Anna Deveare Smith, who gets a nice chance to grab screen time as the girls’ step mother, while Bill Irwin plays their music industry papa perfectly.

Rachel is marrying Sidney (Tunde Adebimpe of the band TV on the Radio) in an elaborate Hindu ceremony at their family estate, and as her dad is in the biz, the place is filled with creative types, who are constantly playing live music throughout, which jangles Kym’s nerves, having been away at rehab for nine months and seeing her family for the first time has her understandably anxious.

Hathaway, who I have never really been partial to, deserves every scrap of Oscar buzz she has netted from here in Toronto, and also from the film’s recent premiere at Venice. She is a spoiled, snappish little slip of a thing who is in a desperate state of transition, and whom no one trusts. They all have good reason for that, too: Kym, who must always be the center of attention, is responsible for an unspeakable family tragedy due to her drug addiction and general petulance.

Kym’s scenes in Narcotic’s Anonymous and her dealings with rehab, and the legal system (and of their condescending bureaucracy) are well-handled by the proficient young actress. People who have been through these things in real life will appreciate Demme and Hathaway’s insistence on properly detailing the meetings, the probation officers and the people in charge who just think of the sardonic Kym as a stupid, screwed up little girl will find a particular realism and hopefully some resonance. These are very tiny details, but they are the kind of attentive pieces of a character puzzle that add up to a large pay-off.

Her family doesn’t really know what to do anymore, or how to behave around her, which causes Kym even more stress. The way that familial bonds and wounds are gauged in Rachel, and the way these obstacles are overcome, are the most interesting component of the film. Why do we allow those closest to us to hurt us the most? Why is it ok for someone in your family to apologize over and over, to maybe not even mean it, but to continually get away with behaving badly? Rachel would like everyone to forget about Kym for just one day and focus on her wedding, but even she wants to know when her responsibility for her sister will come to an end. She doesn’t even really want a happy medium, she just wants one day.

Abby (Debra Winger, roaring back, thank God!) is the girl’s distant mother, and almost instantly, you can see why her daughters have turned out slightly screwy. Winger instantly embodies a character she hasn’t tried to tackle before –- the uptight, socially proper type who would never want anyone to know what a terrible mother she actually is. During a particular train wreck of a rehearsal dinner, where Kym derails publicly, Abby looks as though she is about to crawl out of her skin.

This is a Stepford-y, unsentimental turn from one of the greats of the business who just walked out of her career, and one can surmise it is much like the way she walks out of her fictional daughter’s life. She plays her few scenes with an aristocratic aloofness that helps add up to a performance. It’s “the mother” role, but a new take: her life no longer revolves around her children, and she likes being away from them. If Ruby Dee, Vanessa Redgrave, and countless others who have turned virtual cameos into Oscar nominations in the past, then Winger should merit the same year-end consideration for her return.

Even Abby, though, must eventually face up to some of the glaring problems that she has passed on to both Rachel and Kym, and in her final scene, Demme wisely chooses to go with his gut and give true realism, rather than sloppily pandering to the audience’s emotions – the three actresses share a single beautiful, moving moment together where nothing is really resolved, but there is a fleeting feeling of comfort for but a second.

The dance sequence that ends the film, filled with booming music, is terrifically-shot and overall, Rachel has many qualities to admire, and is filled with some appealing, if not fully explored themes. It is mainly worthy to bear witness to Hathaway’s one-woman wrecking crew of a star turn plow through everything with a complexity she hasn’t really been afforded the chance to explore onscreen as of yet. As a performer, she hints at a fine dramatic maturity that will surely lead her to her first Oscar nomination.

“Maturity” is a good word for Demme’s style here as well –- it has evolved from his maverick indie-king days but still feels special and home-made, if not as overtly curious as his older films. He heartily walks the trapeze of drama versus comedy without a net, and he does it better than most. His Rachel is robust, brimming with life, and a joyous reason to celebrate: Demme’s back and he’s brought out the best in Hathaway!

Tomorrow, it’s time to bring out the men folk: co-writers/directors Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden follow up Half Nelson with the surprisingly strong Sugar, while Stephen Soderbergh gives us four and a half ponderous Terrence Malick-esque hours of Che starring Benecio Del Toro, while Darren Aronofsky turns in his career-best, The Wrestler, featuring Marisa Tomei, Evan Rachel Wood, and, in the performance of a lifetime, Mickey Rourke. I’m not even kidding in the slightest. I can’t even believe I am saying this, but Rourke is literally on the fast track to an Oscar with his magisterial portrayal of a professional wrestler fallen from grace.

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