Twenty-five this year, the Toronto Film Festival has managed to integrate its various identities—Hollywood junket, Perspective Canada, Cannes catch-up, Venice replay, NYFF preview, Planet Africa, the largest public film festival in North America. Or rather, this vast cinematic array has accepted that it can no longer be perceived as a unified whole.
There is no one Toronto. A journalist can zero in on almost any theme—dysfunctional families, celebrity worship, bad girls, the new new Iranian cinema. As if to dryly acknowledge its own ascent from provincial film society to mega movie event, the festival opened with homeboy Denys Arcand’s Stardom—a superfluous satire about a North Ontario lass who rises from high school hockey to high-fashion supermodeldom. More impressive were the dozen pre-screening “preludes,” made by leading local filmmakers to mark the festival’s anniversary. Some—namely Guy Maddin’s trailer for an imaginary Soviet silent melodrama—were as good as anything in the festival.
Toronto is where the studios preview their offbeat fall product. DreamWorks unveiled Rod Lurie’s enjoyably lurid political melodrama, The Contender; 20th Century Fox brought Tigerland, in which Joel Schumacher effected his own unconvincing synthesis of Dogme asceticism and Viet-era basic training; Lions Gate showcased E. Elias Merhige’s Shadow of the Vampire, a potentially ridiculous gloss on Murnau’s Nosferatu redeemed by Willem Dafoe’s Wooster Group-level performance.
Only a few auteurs choose Toronto for a world premiere: The prolific François Ozon’s Sous le Sable was a surprisingly mild (and mildly supernatural) tale about love and death as well as a valentine to Charlotte Rampling, who appears in almost every shot. Tsui Hark’s hyperkinetic Time and Tide was billed as a world premiere although the HK veteran had already shown his spectacular action film in Venice. A festival all its own, this hit man extravaganza begins by impersonating Wong Kar-wai and moves into the territory that Tsui pioneered in the early ’80s with erstwhile associate John Woo. Time and Tide‘s most remarkable stunts anticipate a Hollywood movie that hasn’t been made, namely the long-awaited Spiderman.
Fresh from its Venice triumph, Jafar Panahi’s The Circle was only one evocation of rebellious women. Arturo Ripstein’s ambitious Such Is Life transposed Medea to the slums of Mexico City to overtheatrical effect. The festival imported Catherine Breillat’s unreleased Une Vrai Jeune Fille (1975), an adolescent awakening awash in bodily fluids, as well as the most recent French scandale, Virginie Despentes and Coralie Trinh Thi’s Baise-Moi. A more existential Thelma & Louise made as cruddy-looking hardcore, Baise-Moi has its two porn-star heroines engage in a mad rondo of senseless fucking and sucking and robbing and killing, all the while criticizing their own lack of imagination. Scarcely the worst film in Toronto, Baise-Moi reproached the coyness of movies as disparate as The Contender (where a political savant maintains that “one thing the American people can’t stomach is a vice president with a mouth full of cock”) and Benoit Jacquot’s Sade (in which the Marquis is an avuncular roué devoted mainly to bringing young people together).
The most outrageously aestheticized movie I caught was Tran Anh Hung’s follow-up to Cyclo, The Vertical Ray of Summer—a sensually meandering Chekhov story set in present-day Hanoi, where a surreally beautiful brother and sister combo wake each morning in adjoining beds and do their tai chi exercises to early Lou Reed. The most successfully aestheticized was Terence Davies’s exquisitely precise adaptation of The House of Mirth, the tragedy of a beautiful woman suffering under social constraints as severe as any corset. Less sardonic than Wharton, Davies imbues the novel with a subtle sense of romantic doom, building up to a quasi-religious finale. X girl Gillian Anderson gives a highly intelligent performance, holding herself in reserve for the pathos of her last few scenes. Too hermetic, the movie misses greatness—but it came as close as any I saw in Toronto.