Memory and Desire


TORONTO—Derailed a year ago by the September 11 attacks, the Toronto International Film Festival last week found itself fumbling to accommodate rituals of remembrance. Screens remained dark Wednesday morning, trauma counselors set up shop, and evening galas were given over to thematically appropriate material. This being a film festival, controversy was reliably close at hand: One of the anniversary items, the shorts compendium 11’09″01, turned up pre-certified by Variety and the New York Post as “anti-American.”

As it turns out, the French-produced omnibus—11 films from 11 countries, each lasting 11 minutes and nine seconds plus one final frame—was neither especially polemical (apart from Youssef Chahine’s blustery sermon on U.S. foreign policy) nor as trivializing as most self-styled aftermath art (notwithstanding marquee contributor Sean Penn’s idiotic let-there-be-light reverie).

Two entries distanced themselves from the pack. In Ken Loach’s segment, a Chilean exile in London writes an open letter to the loved ones of the 9-11 victims recounting the bloody 9-11-73 overthrow of Salvador Allende’s elected socialist government by the Pinochet-led, CIA-backed coup. The even-keeled, plainspoken missive concludes with a pledge and a plea: “On September 11, we will remember you. I hope you remember us.”

Orchestrating a traumatic black-screen requiem, Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu floods the soundtrack with a sickening crescendo of prayer chants, news reports, eyewitness hysterics, and final phone calls; the only images are flash cuts of bodies falling from the twin towers. After a year of narcotic CNN immersion, González Iñárritu’s vortex-like film—a genuine shock to the system—seems both disjunctive and unmediated. He presents the horror in near-abstract terms, and in so doing, renders it, once again, all too real.

Last winter, Anne Nelson’s autobiographical play The Guys, about a writer who helps a fire chief compose eulogies for the men he lost, served not least as a Lower Manhattan mourning rite. It’s harder to ignore the flaws in Jim Simpson’s film version, which resembles a Times Portrait of Grief that repeatedly shifts focus to the journalist who wrote it. Sigourney Weaver’s protagonist goes from myopia to solipsism. “This is all I know how to do: words!” she tells Anthony LaPaglia’s firefighter, describing her “crisis of marginality”—a condition for which there is apparently no better cure than a stiff dose of self-congratulation.

Elsewhere, the crisis of marginality was being explored in more expansive ways. Lee Chang-Dong’s Oasis, a highlight of the strong Korean sidebar and a multiple winner at Venice earlier in the week, chronicles the forbidden romance between a mildly retarded troublemaker and a young woman with cerebral palsy. Lee’s film has a generosity and bitter lucidity worthy of Fassbinder—equally attuned to the dreamlike textures of the couple’s secret life and to the petty cruelties of the fraudulent world that has no place for them.

Doomed love is also the subject of Dolls, Takeshi Kitano’s Bunraku-derived triptych of romantic injury and superhuman devotion. His sparest and most painterly film yet, characterized by emotional rather than physical violence, it reveals itself as a beguiling search for visual exaltation—patiently biding its time as seasons change (and in effect sentimentalizing the infinite quest of Gus Van Sant’s Gerry). Shinya Tsukamoto (Tetsuo) strives for tawdrier thrills in A Snake of June: A prim help-line counselor becomes phone-sex slave to a former client. At one point, she shops for phallic produce with a vibrator inside her while he operates the remote control.

Sex is most forcefully linked with abject terror in the miserablist double whammy of Lukas Moodysson’s Lilya 4-Ever, a relentlessly feel-bad evocation of cyclical despair in the former Soviet Union by the erstwhile Swedish maestro of feel-good, and La Vie Nouvelle, French director Phillipe Grandrieux’s seamlessly wretched tour of an Eastern European sex club and its apocalyptic environs. Shot in quavering camera paroxysms and under owl-vision levels of illumination, Grandrieux’s film prowls a netherworld of battered prostitutes, murderous canines, and silent screams that go on forever. Reprehensible as its uninterrogated explosions of violence may be, the tactile, ferociously sustained atmosphere of dread and fear is unforgettable. You don’t watch La Vie Nouvelle so much as squint and flinch your way through it—which perhaps counts as its own kind of recommendation.

But who says art film is all joyless fucking? Ecstatic, sex-positive displays were in surprising abundance. In Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s lackadaisically rapturous Blissfully Yours, a leisurely road trip and jungle picnic give way to uninhibited outdoor sex. Claire Denis’s Vendredi Soir, meanwhile, uses a Paris traffic jam as foreplay to ardent, fully clothed sex in a budget hotel. The real star of Denis’s film, a marvel of microscopic, magnified gesture, is Agnès Godard’s camera—alive with possibility whether trained on overheating engines, wet asphalt, or the alien landscape of a naked body glimpsed for the first time.

Speaking of which, the festival’s most heartening surprise, Ken Park, sees co-director Ed Lachman presumably playing the role of tenderizer to Larry Clark’s chicken hawk. Unlike Kids and Bully, Ken Park (from an old script by Harmony Korine) averts moralistic payback and invests unprecedented compassion and pathos in the characterization of its teenage fuckups: the boy who spends his mornings contentedly eating out his girlfriend’s mother, the sensitive skate kid abused by his thuggish dad, the bondage queen with the Bible-thumping father, the auto-asphyxiator (and literal money-shot provider) given to unconsolable fits of rage. Ken Park‘s much discussed hardcore ménage à trois arrives without explanation, but its vision of painkilling sex in an erotic safe haven is irresistibly logical. (Clark’s clueless absentee parents are replaced here by troubled aggressors.) The sequence unfolds like a lazy-afternoon daydream, in a cresting wave of euphoria and sweet release. For all its confrontational flirtations with pornography, this sad, funny, moving film ends up advancing the most modest of proposals—that love just might be the drug.

More Voice Coverage of the Toronto International Film Festival:

Fling Time in a Quiet Town
‘8 Mile’ Lines and On-the-Job Bondage in Toronto
by J. Hoberman

Body Blows
Looking for Trouble
by Jessica Winter