Head in the clouds


Breaking from its customary early September chill, Toronto has finally taken revenge on the polar vortex. The highs have been in the 30s. I would under any normal circumstance savour the pristine skies and hot sun, but I’ve spent the last several days happily lost in the clouds. The Clouds of Sils Maria, to be precise. My best consecutive three hours in the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival thus far included a relaxed, extensive interview over good coffee with the ever-engaged and engaging Olivier Assayas, Clouds’ writer and director, followed by a live, on-stage, career-surveying conversation between TIFF CEO and programmer Piers Handling and the luminous, fiercely intelligent Juliette Binoche, Clouds’ star and, to some extent, its subject. Clouds follows a successful French actress in middle age who accepts a role in a remount of the play that made her career. Except that where once she played the ingénue she’s now in the role of the older woman with whom the ingénue tumbles into a fiery erotic entanglement. Most of Clouds is set in a remote Alpine cottage where Binoche runs lines and runs into some eerily parallel relationship with her assistant, played by a remarkably good Kristin Stewart. Elements of Persona hover over Clouds, but Assayas infuses the film with a strangeness and resonance entirely native to this particular story, its ghostly location, its lead actress and chief collaborator, and its sense of what it means to immerse oneself, at risk of losing oneself, in the liminal space between play and reality.

It’s not lost on me that that last bit also summarizes the experience of attending a major festival like TIFF. Movies-movies-movies, interviews, the hunt for free drinks, the remoteness of sleep or a balanced meal. Head in the clouds. No complaints. I’ve seen a number of good bigger films coming soon to a theatre near you. Foxcatcher fuses keyword elements from director Bennett Miller’s earlier features, Capote and Moneyball. Depicting the fateful convergence of multi-millionaire John Eleuthère du Pont (Steve Carell, with prosthetics) and Olympic wrestlers Mark (Channing Tatum) and Dave Schwartz (Mark Ruffalo), it’s a true-crime sports movie, a critique of American entitlement blanketed from frame one in absolute inescapable dread. Speaking of dread, I’ve also seen pabulum disguised as humanist social study: Men, Women & Children, Jason Reitman’s ensemble drama about suburban white people’s sex lives in something dressed like the digital age, is not good, and unfortunately it is not not-good in the sort of hypnotically appalling way that Labor Day was not-good, or, rather, bad. Alas. The title suggests that it’s “for everybody.” I’ve also beheld the weirdness that is David Cronenberg helming a Hollywood satire. Julianne Moore gives a truly gutsy performance as a popular actress panicking in middle age (yes, there’s a few this year, and why not?) and Cronenberg makes this odd choice of project fascinatingly his own, but the script feels out-dated and unfocused. Of course, I’m probably still going to watch it several times. It’s Cronenberg. He’s never not-interesting.

But a perfect day at TIFF still speaks to me in Spanish. Or whatever that shushy variation of castellano is that Argentines speak. And man, can they speak. Most especially if they’re in a Matías Piñeiro movie. Have you heard of him? This charismatic, prolific and rather ingenious young porteño crafts taut, fluidly photographed films packed with incredible aural and visual density. The Princess of France is his third film to deposit fragmented Shakespearean comedies into a contemporary Buenos Aires full of young people talking about love and reading and art-making. There is a tremendous amount of kissing in this dizzyingly cryptic but utterly delightful spin on Love’s Labour’s Lost. There’s also soccer, Schumann, and dancing in the dark. No such mirthful activities are to be found in Jauja, Liverpool director Lisandro Alonso’s wonderfully creepy and visually stunning chronicle of a doomed Patagonian exploration undertaken by a 19th century Danish engineer—played by Viggo Mortensen! He gets lost in the wilds searching for his errant teenaged daughter and speaks excellent broken Spanish with a Danish accent.

But before I close this first of two TIFF reports, lets get back to the monarchy. If The Princess is easily one of this festival’s best films, The Duke of Burgundy is not too far behind in the ranking. Berberian Sound Studio director Peter Strickland’s third feature is set in a world without men, a sly conceit that allows him to tell this tale of long-term love heightened then hampered by sadomasochism without the distraction of having to represent gender or homosexuality in a story that’s really about something else. Like Clouds, the film’s women interact with the mediating device of a kind of theatre, a script that dictates the narrative of their elaborate erotic fantasy life. The film generates suspense through the ambiguity of what’s scripted and what is, for lack of a better word, genuine. But to reduce The Duke of Burgundy to a story synopsis is to ignore what really animates Strickland’s fecund imagination. The film is rife with beguiling flurries of images of forests, lingerie and butterflies, with sounds of clocks, sighs, heavy heels on wood floors. It’s intoxicating, funny, bizarre, yet totally relatable. Yes, a love story, that evergreen of film types. I’ll be back next week to tell you about at least two more of those, one godawful, and one you will really have to see.

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