TORONTO—Thanks to a court ruling last spring, Ontario’s once fearsome censor board seems poised to pass into history—and not a moment too soon. Along with its customary cinematic bounty, this year’s Toronto International Film Festival included at least a half-dozen features calculated to burst a bluenose capillary.
John Waters’s A Dirty Shame, which had its world premiere at Toronto and opens here this week, is a nonstop raunchfest with a surreal premise and a provocative agenda. A timely concussion transforms repressed Baltimore housewife Tracey Ullman into a walking libido—sexually avid and hilariously impulsive—until another concussion reverses her madcap disinhibition. Ullman, whose daughter (Selma Blair) is already famous in the local biker bars for her “criminally enlarged” boobs, becomes a foot soldier in an ongoing war between the local “neuters” and their erotically pumped neighbors.
Spiced with tacky hallucinations and references to arcane practices—”Ever heard of sploshin’?” someone asks—A Dirty Shame is promiscuous in its means and ridiculous in its tolerance. Waters’s far-from-phallocratic sexual democracy is not so much hilarious as goofy and more rousing than arousing—although as a date film, A Dirty Shame would certainly serve to break the ice. Seen as Waters’s contribution to the 2004 election, however, it’s his most radical film in 25 years.
A more genteel argument for sexual diversity, Bill Condon’s Kinsey—another TIFF world premiere, due this fall—stars Liam Neeson, electric hair crackling over his noble profile, as the pioneer sex researcher Alfred Kinsey, who rebelled against his own fundamentalist upbringing to become “the most dangerous man in America.” Condon’s biopic doesn’t have the erotic snap and crackle of Dusan Makavejev’s great Wilhelm Reich picture W.R.: Mysteries of the Organism. The tone is staidly reverential, and yet the middle part—with Kinsey crusading for campus sex education, getting interested in boys, enabling his young assistants to swap wives—is pure Waters. So is the movie’s spelled-out message: “Everybody’s sin is nobody’s sin.”
Both A Dirty Shame and Kinsey can be construed as contributions to current political discourse. Michael Winterbottom’s Nine Songs, which had its first public showings in Toronto, is more hardcore and less programmatic. A structural film, it alternates the mass ecstasy of rock band performances at Brixton Academy with the supposedly private fucking and sucking performances of an attractive young couple. The man’s memories of the affair, recollected as he flies over the snowy wastes of Antarctica, introduce a third formal element. Artistically shot in digital chiaroscuro, this real sex in more-or-less real time encompasses light s/m and a lap dancer. Kieran O’Brien is more grim than his giddy, nonprofessional co-star, Margot Stilley. Dialogue is realistically insipid, and although the 65-minute spectacle is not exactly boring, it’s in no way affecting.
As crass and confrontational as Nine Songs is romantic and lyrical, Lukas Moodysson’s A Hole in My Heart, another world premiere, blatantly bids to drill a hole in your head. It’s chamber drama with a vengeance, shot on the set of the world’s most amateurish amateur porn film. From the opening strobe burst of pocky-looking naked people through the mega-close-ups of labial surgery to the climactic food fight, the Swedish director’s fourth feature is a calculated barf bomb that makes Makavejev’s once scandalous Sweet Movie seem a model of sweet reason.
“I think it is the best film I have ever seen,” Moodysson told his audience, before fleeing to the airport. Be that as it may, the festival’s strongest example of erotic body horror was Anatomy of Hell, by veteran provocateuse Catherine Breillat. A young woman (model Amira Casar) attempts suicide in a gay disco, then hires the man who disdainfully saves her (fuck-film veteran Rocco Siffredi) to watch her where she is “unwatchable.” Anatomy of Hell gives a feminist twist to a French literary tradition that goes back to the Marquis de Sade. It’s also svelte, assured filmmaking—inserts are literally inserts—with a primal insistence on bodily fluids.
Despite the used tampon as a tea bag, Anatomy of Hell is essentially philosophical. The most disturbing thing about Breillat’s treatise on misogyny may be its unique juxtaposition of the cerebral and the visceral. Perhaps that’s why the American distributor chose to preview the film on a cruddy video transfer that reduced the elegant cinematography to the level of hotel room porn. It’s supposed to open here in October.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on September 14, 2004