I have witnessed visitations by quasi-crustacean extraterrestrials in Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival, the apparition of a dead brother in Olivier Assayas’ Personal Shopper, a mother en route to reunion with her long-estranged daughter in Pedro Almodóvar’s Julieta, and a compulsive comedian father in the hairy Hungarian creature costume holding out for a belated embrace in Maren Ade’s magnificent Toni Erdman. It would seem that 2016 is the year we make contact. I’m writing this column at nearly the midpoint of the 41st Toronto International Film Festival and this reaching-out motif seems to dominate many of the more interesting films I’ve seen—not a bad fad for a year afflicted with so much terror and Trump.
Mind you, we need to distinguish between the act of reaching out and really touching. In Arrival a transparent barrier resembling aquarium glass or an anamorphic movie screen separates the aliens from Amy Adams, while some grossly overstated dialogue keeps an immensely fascinating story and inventive visualization of a human-alien struggle to communicate from touching our tenderest sci-fi cinema soft-spots. In Personal Shopper, an American living in Paris, played by a mostly not-too fidgety Kristen Stewart, is haunted by her recently deceased twin brother, but it may very well be all in her mind: this is as much a character study about grief and self-actualization as it is a ghost story. In Julieta, based on a brilliant trio of interrelated stories by Alice Munro, the aforementioned mom only gets a hot lead on her errant daughter toward the film’s rather anticlimactic ending, with the bulk of the film devoted to a decades-spanning, often intriguing backstory about chance, love and the vagaries of parenting.
It’s only in Toni Erdman that two figures in opposition actually physically touch, and Ade’s comic masterpiece needs about two and half hours to make it happen. That rare film to receive unanimous critical praise, Toni has a premise that might sound like boilerplate Hollywood hokum: a chilly, ambitious businesswoman is reminded to loosen up and enjoy life by her wacky dad, a senior citizen with a penchant for playing jokes, donning funny wigs and wearing giant fake teeth. But the film’s construction is exquisite and its plot generous with surprise and insight. It is also frequently hysterically funny. Don’t let the lengthy duration—162 minutes, to be exact—turn you away: the time we invest is more than rewarded with some of the most richly developed characters you’ll see on screen this year—presuming the film, which is rumoured to be an Oscar contender, gets released by year’s end. Fingers crossed.
A far less amiable yet no less compelling father-daughter relationship lies at the dark, dark heart of the highly provocative Elle, the latest from generally provocative Paul Verhoven, the Dutch director of so many smart mainstream movies (Robocop, Black Book, Basic Instinct). Verhoven tried to make Elle in Hollywood but no one wanted to play Michelle, the middle-aged video game company boss who gets raped in the film’s opening moments but spends its remainder doing anything but playing the victim. (Michelle is also infamous for being the offspring of a notorious serial killer.) Thankfully Elle was made in France instead, with the ingenious, ever-fearless Isabelle Huppert as Michelle—as if you can imagine anyone else in this singularly challenging role. Elle is the most character-driven film Verhoven has ever made and Huppert is arguably the finest collaborator he’s ever worked with, infusing Michelle with frenetic activity and transfixing focus. This is a difficult, complex, flawed, trigger-laden and ferociously entertaining work with lots to unpack. (And we’ll help you get started unpacking when we run my interview with Verhoven and Huppert when Elle receives its theatrical release.)
Among the other favourable feats of programming at TIFF 2016 are two new films each from two excellent filmmakers. Double-double! First, from Jim Jarmusch comes Paterson, the quietly seductive study of a guy named Paterson, a Paterson, New Jersey bus driver played by Adam Driver. (More doubles!) Paterson writes poetry but keeps it secret, while his delightful Iranian girlfriend quite openly makes cupcakes, paints every object in their house and is striving to become a country singer. The film’s tone is decidedly low-key and its charms are many, while its seemingly casual encounters with a bevvy of supporting characters in bars and on public transit possess an undercurrent of existential reflection: what does one sacrifice when one chooses to construct their life on a series of strict principles (e.g.: not sharing one’s art with the world, eschewing modern technology, etc.)? Also from Jarmusch comes Gimme Danger, a rollicking documentary about legendary rock monsters the Stooges that I am going to declare as the single-most entertaining thing at the Festival this year, thanks in large part to Jarmusch’s interviews with wildly witty and secretly very intelligent front-man Iggy Pop, some of which are executed in a laundry room.
Also doing double duty at this year’s TIFF is Chilean director Pablo Larraín, who over the last decade has made a mostly dazzling array of films—such as Tony Manero, The Club and the Oscar-nominated No—examining his country’s fraught recent history. Larraín continues the project with Neruda, not a bio-pic about the titular Chilean poet and political figure but, rather, a deliciously peculiar sort of detective story starring Gael García Bernal as the lead investigator in a sort of show-hunt for Neruda following a warrant for his arrest for ostensibly subversive activities. Moody, unsentimental, gorgeous to look at and a little meta: I loved it. I also hope to love Jackie, Larraín’s first English language film, starring Natalie Portman as the most famous First Lady of the United States—yes, that same United States that backed Chile’s communist purge and the coup that ousted Salvador Allende and installed Pinochet and 15 years of murderous repression. I see Jackie the day after I file this report and will follow up next week. Watch this space. Meanwhile, I will be watching movies.