2012 Toronto International Film Festival
by Richard Porton

Athina Rachel Tsangari's The Capsule

Athina Rachel Tsangari's The Capsule

Cinephiles accustomed to grousing about the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) seem to have come up with a formula to enable them to stop worrying and enjoy, if not always love, North America’s largest annual showcase for new films. The secret for keeping one’s head above water during the 2012 edition involved a certain obliviousness to the glitz that often threatens to engulf the festival and a willingness to focus on the more adventurous sidebars, particularly the refurbished edition of Wavelengths inventively programmed by Andréa Picard. Wavelengths, expanded to include documentaries and unclassifiable art films as well as experimental cinema, featured such tantalizing fare as Nicolas Rey’s autrement, la Moloussie, a highly unconventional adaptation of a novel, The Moloussian Catacomb, by the novelist Günther Anders. A cross between a science-fiction scenario and an antifascist allegory, the style resembles a Michael Snow epic while each screening proceeds with reels projected in a different, aleatory order. Alternately, Wavelengths mavens could savor the immersive charm of Leviathan (reviewed in my Locarno communiqué) or Athina Rachel Tsangari’s The Capsule, a high-fashion (the film was commissioned by the DesteFashion Collection), tongue-in-cheek lesbian vampire film.

Forays into more mainstream art-house fare proved more precarious at TIFF. Upon arriving in Toronto for the festival, I discovered that Pieta, Kim Ki-duk’s new film, was one of the few viewing options in the early evening time slot. Although I’ve been continually underwhelmed by Kim’s penchant for fusing grisly violence with maudlin plot contrivances (ironically enough, Kim’s film was part of a Toronto section labeled “Masters”), I crossed my fingers while entering the screening and hoped for some sort of miraculous aesthetic transformation. None was forthcoming—although Kim’s perverse Catholic sensibility ordains that some unlikely occurrences of not-so-divine grace are shoehorned into the narrative miasma. Like many critics and audience members, I was dumbfounded when such a mediocre piece of claptrap won the Golden Lion at Venice. It’s possible that Pieta’s account of debt collector Kang-do’s metamorphosis from a brutal killer into a near life-affirming softie once his long lost mother (who, spoiler alert, turns out not to be his distraught mom at all but a woman seeking vengeance) arrives on the scene could be credible in the hands of a director less willing to alternate between ham-fisted violence and bathetic plot twists. It’s difficult to fathom why Pieta is considered even incrementally better than other Kim failures such as Bad GuySamaritan Girl, The Isle… well, one could go on for a while listing misbegotten films by this director. What is particularly infuriating is that Kim’s output receives lavish attention in the West while a much more talented director like Kim kyungmook—whose Stateless Things was one of the most notable films on the festival circuit last year—remains virtually unknown.

A Korean film with a much lower profile proved much more satisfying. The TIFF blurb for Kang Yi-kwan’s Juvenile Offender, which compared it to classics such as Rebel Without a Cause, The 400 Blows, and L’enfance nue, does something of an inadvertent disservice to Kang’s admirable film. The appeal of this refreshing twist on the teen angst movie is generated more from its nuanced portrait of an antiheroic protagonist than any aspirations to speak for a disenchanted generation or disseminate insurrectionary bromides. Ji-gu (Seo Young-ju), the eponymous “offender” —or, to employ outdated lingo, “juvenile delinquent”—is actually a screw-up without a cause. At the film’s outset, the orphaned sixteen-year-old, on probation from a detention center, attempts to deal with an ailing grandfather’s diabetes and the pangs of first love as he confides with his girlfriend. Before long, Ji-gu’s poor choice of friends leads him to end up sentenced to another term in “juvie”; the poor kid even proves ineffectual as a petty thief.

When Ji-gu’s mother, a woman who alternates between bouts of nervous giggling and protracted temper tantrums, turns up unexpectedly to release her son from detention, Kang’s movie is transformed into a complex pas de deux where the audience is encouraged to empathize with this pathetic duo without excusing their flaws. The strength ofJuvenile Offender lies in its refusal to depict its protagonists as either victims or culprits. To a certain extent, it’s clear to a Western audience that Ji-gu is spurned by a society where academic and social failure is considered a disgrace. Nevertheless, he and his equally hapless mother are never condescended to as objects of pity. They are given autonomy as characters and allowed to sabotage their own lives. Juvenile Offender’s low-key naturalism is the perfect antidote to the moralizing that is often an integral component of the “social problem film.”

Many TIFF films are reprised from the Cannes Competition and Jacques Audiard’s Rust and Bone exemplifies the middlebrow complacency of many highly touted Cannes titles. Audiard no doubt believes that his crowd-pleasing films combine the best elements of genre cinema and art-house sophistication. For at least a vocal group of naysayers, however, they synthesize the worst of both worlds—the generic aspects of the films are usually much flatter and more formulaic than decent popular cinema and the “art-house” components just end up seeming like pretentious aesthetic filigree. Whereas Audiard’s prize-laden A Prophet was an unsatisfying prison film pastiche, his latest, Rust and Bone, is a bombastic reinvention of the melodramatic imagination.

Marion Cotillard and the audience take a pounding in Jacques Audiard's Rust and Bone

Marion Cotillard and the audience take a pounding in Jacques Audiard's Rust and Bone

Although I haven’t read the Craig Davidson short story that Audiard Gallicizes (or, according to the credits, was “inspired by”), it’s doubtful that the source material is as ploddingly schematic as the movie. The narrative’s trajectory is set in motion when a hustler/con artist named Ali (Matthias Schoenaerts), who divides his time between seedy boxing ventures and illicitly installing surveillance cameras in local businesses, encounters Stephanie (Marion Cotillard) at a nightclub and prevents her from being mauled by some moronic bruisers. Meeting cute, this clichéd beauty-and-beast pairing cannot, quite predictably, help falling in love. When Stephanie, who trains killer whales for a living, loses both her legs in a horrific accident, it’s not being insensitive to report that she and her paramour’s sex life receives an unexpected boost. These supposedly erotic sequences, accompanied on the sound track with the worst pop music imaginable, are probably designed to move the melodrama to a visceral level. Yet Peter Debruge’s Variety review provides an unintentional glimpse of the unbearable nature of Audiard’s stab at aesthetic frisson. Debruge observes that “(L)ike Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler a few years back, Rust and Bone blends Dardennes-esque naturalism…with more conventional plotting and compositions.” The last thing we need is the sort of Frankenstein monster that results when a sloppy emulation of the Dardennes is crossed with sexed-up versions of the hoariest plot twists in film history.

Even more laughably inept and derivative, Wayne Blair’s The Sapphires has to be seen to be disbelieved. Snapped up by the Weinstein Company before Cannes, presumably because they viewed it as an Australian variant of Dreamgirls or Sparkle, the film is both badly made and manages to recycle every girl-group cliché under the sun. Bound up with the travails of an aboriginal quartet as they overcome racist hurdles in Australia and eventually tour wartime Vietnam as triumphant songbirds during the Sixties, this miniepic about Motown imitators who are fortuitously named “The Sapphires” becomes bogged down in squabbles between the members—particularly sisters Gail (Deborah Mailman) and Cynthia (Miranda Tapsell)—and the supposedly witty banter of Dave (played by Chris O’Dowd), their hyperkinetic manager with a weakness for lame jokes.

Perhaps the most offensive aspect of this otherwise forgettable enterprise is its tendency to make the horrors of the war in Vietnam a mere backdrop for The Sapphires’s rise to fame and fortune. (The complications of bad blood between the sisters and their “ half-caste cousin” Julie is dispatched in a perfunctory fashion.) An evening at home listening to The Supremes would be a much more pleasurable option than enduring this misfire.

Fortunately, TIFF also pilfered some considerably more scintillating titles from the Cannes lineup Alice Winocour’s Augustine, first screened during Cannes’ “Critics’ Week,” is an intriguingly ambivalent portrait of Jean-Martin Charcot (Vincent Lindon), the neuropathologist whose treatment of women plagued with “hysteria” had a great influence on the subsequent research of Sigmund Freud (one of Charcot’s most famous students). From one vantage point, Charcot could be viewed as a humane doctor whose work disproved hidebound assumptions that such women were possessed or witches. Yet despite the “progressive” elements of Charcot’s therapeutic approach, he examines his female patients like specimens in a laboratory and puts them on display for the delectation of Parisian high society. The film focuses on Augustine (played, with great restraint, by the French singer Soko), a kitchen maid suffering from symptoms of hysteria whose beauty made her one of Charcot’s favorite patients. Lindon never reduces the admittedly lascivious doctor to a caricature; he fleshes out the complexities of Charcot’s fusion of sadism and altruism with aplomb and could be deemed a precursor of Carl Jung, whose affair with the similarly troubled Sabina Spielrein provided the cynosure of last year’s A Dangerous Method.

Documentaries frequently redeem a festival. At this year’s TIFF, Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing was by far the most provocative nonfiction offering, one of those rare films that ignited heated arguments among audience members not rendered speechless by the shocking events depicted on screen. Oppenheimer’s film would be an eminently useful and dutiful historical artifact if it merely chronicled the massacre of 500,000 suspected Indonesian “Communists” in 1965–1966, a period immediately preceding the ascendancy to power of Suharto, a right-wing dictator who reigned despotically for over thirty years. Oppenheimer, conspicuously influenced by innovative documentary filmmakers such as Jean Rouch, Werner Herzog, and Errol Morris (both Herzog and Morris eventually signed on as executive producers) encouraged a group of the surviving “gangsters” responsible for the massacres to reenact their crimes on camera. Enamored of Hollywood movies, they’re not in the least reluctant to boast of their extermination of communists and relish their opportunities to become tinsel-town idols in their own right. (The most shameless and garrulous is Anwar Congo, a man who admittedly emanates a peculiar charisma.) In a country that has never experienced the equivalent of a “Truth and Reconciliation” commission, the victorious thugs still enjoy the status of heroes.

Not surprisingly, a film that consciously excluded the testimony of victims and allowed murderers the opportunity to re-create their trail of mayhem inspired mixed critical reactions. Still, it seems difficult to claim that Oppenheimer is trafficking in sensationalism, rationalizing the gangster’s macabre transgressions, or violating some unwritten code of documentary ethics. Instead, his protagonists’ lurid reenactments—the repellent antics of Congo and his friends—are self-deconstructive warnings against the lure of mindless authoritarianism.

Nothing is more dispiriting than a well-intentioned clinker. Little pleasure can be derived from proclaiming that Margarethe von Trotta’s tepid Hannah Arendt (a TIFF “Special Presentation) fits the bill with mind-numbing predictability. Like Rosa Luxemburg (1986), her earnest but clumsy biopic inspired by the life of the great German revolutionary, Hannah Arendt embodies the paradoxical perils of a “great woman theory of history.” By attempting to provide a humanizing feminist gloss—where the cozy preoccupations of “the personal” take precedence over politics and the life of the mind—the career of one of the twentieth century’s most combative intellectuals is both sentimentalized and trivialized. Why should the average filmgoer care that many of Arendt’s friends abandoned her after Eichmann in Jerusalem was serialized in The New Yorker when her most controversial assertions concerning the collaboration of the Judenrat with Nazi officials and the “banality of evil” are invoked without being adequately explained? Given the clunky flashbacks that outline Arendt’s youthful romance with Martin Heidegger, the father of existentialism who became a member of the Nazi Party in 1933, the naïve viewer might well accept the baseless accusations of former allies like Hans Jonas and Gershom Scholem that she had become a self-hating Jew.

There is admittedly a certain kitsch value to what might be the only film that will ever feature Mary McCarthy, William Shawn, and Norman Podhoretz as supporting characters—even if McCarthy (Janet McTeer), one of the wittiest American writers of the postwar era, is reduced to functioning as a gangly Agnes Gooch to Arendt’s dour version of Auntie Mame. With its conservative aesthetic and simplistic ideas concerning intellectual inquiry, von Trotta’s stolid movie is as old-fashioned as any Thirties biopic. And despite Barbara Sukowa’s game performance as the crusty philosopher, this is a film destined to please no one; Arendt aficionados will find it hopelessly cartoonish while everyone else will merely shrug their shoulders.

As is perhaps inevitable at any festival that features approximately three hundred films, it’s a decided challenge for the visitor to avoid the superfluous titles and consume a nourishing cinematic diet. Some of the best films were revivals—the French anthology film Far from Vietnam (1967) and a sparkling new print of Roman Polanski’s Tess(1979). Other noteworthy offerings such as Oliver Assayas’s Something in the Air and Rodney Ascher’s Room 237 will be covered in future issues of Cineaste. For better or worse, the trek to Toronto has become a necessary pilgrimage for most North American critics, distributors, and film buffs.

Richard Porton is a Cineaste Editor as well as an occasional contributor to Cinema Scope, The Daily Beast, and Moving Image Source.

Copyright © 2012 by Cineaste Magazine.