With the De Palma and Anderson, and then later the films by Bellocchio and Malick, defining “direction” indeed has become a key discussion point at the festival this year. Bellocchio's Dormant Beauty, as you indicate, is the special case: quite simply he directs the shit out of that movie. The screenplay and “hot button” topic are structural and political fodder for introducing and then orchestrating and nimbly evolving this engrossing melodrama of morality, Catholicism, contemporary Italian politics, media images and multiple characters across churches, hospitals, mansions, clandestine government backrooms, television performances, protests and seedy motel rooms. The film was compulsive; it was impossible not to get caught up in its energetic valences. I'm still haunted by just where Bellocchio chose to end each of the mini-stories caught up in the fervor of (real) events in the film—brooding, dark, complex and unresolved, yet with an image of hands removing shoes and a pair of feet pulled onto a bed, ending with a strange, moving possibility of hope.
The Master you read well, though I was surprised the film generally seemed absent of what many are here calling Anderson's “show stopping moments,” which may explain my reaction to it as something less than fiery and gripping. What it does have, of course, and I'm shocked you didn't mention, was essentially the sculptural study of an actor, namely Joaquin Phoenix, the revelation of whose physicality is the film's greatest expression. “Stroheim” is a fantastic connection: Phoenix (and to a lesser sense the constantly flushed Hoffman) have a fleshy materiality that the 70mm close-ups peer at with a fascination nearly independent of the actual story. Eyes caved in so much that to converse he needs to tilt his head back and squint at his interlocutor, arms dangling and crook'd behind him, a frail body bent in some twisted parody of “sea legs,” Phoenix is the embodiment of a neurotic mind and discomfited spirit misshaping its bodily casing. Suddenly I'm thinking of Vincent D'Onofrio in Men in Black! I'll leave the stricter criticisms of the film to a longer piece from a writer who has seen this more than once, but one thing to note was how the De Palma, Anderson, and Terrence Malick all rely on virtuosic scoring to connect scenes and sequences of moving images that essentially lack connective dramatic/aesthetic flow.
Malick's To the Wonder has what looked like thirty or so music cues, according to the credits, which makes sense in the context of a film that turns out to be the least realistic, nominally dramaturgical, melodramatic or story-based the director has ever made. Thus a soundtrack that functions as a tonal mixtape smoothing over edits between shots and sequences in an attempt to unify disparate footage that has little structural support from the film beyond evolving emotional tones.
This obviously is not rare for Malick, but To the Wonder is the least grounded of all his work. Films like The Thin Red Line and The New World have provided a more concrete and strict context for their characters' search for, discovery of, and loss of a sense of...whatever you want to describe it as: wonder, joy, unity with the world (or a sense of unity), etc. Context is the grounding of this journey, both in historical details of reality—building a fort, sailing a boat, attacking a hill, decamping a bivouac—and a genuine story progression: John Smith's failed attempt to integrate Pocahontas into his civilization, the US Army's path through Guadalcanal. The Tree of Life to a degree does away with this, as much of the material in the 1950s has a plotless quality, a general vagueness, and the dialog scenes between characters begin to seem like awkward intrusions breaking the natural enunciation of the filmmaking. But this sense is grounded through the idea that these enunciations are memories and that those are of childhood—so a double context. Its Texas house is barely a concrete context though, which can make some of this section of Tree seem arbitrary and unfounded. The film “solves” this issue by structurally elaborating on ideas inside the Texas drama via the evolution of the cosmos and life on earth; in other words, putting the wandering vision of humans in a context.
Where I'm leading with this general, short and loose reading of recent Malick films is that To the Wonder has essentially no story or context to ground its flowing search, and that this is an important point to make when trying to figure out what works or doesn't in the film. Much like De Palma's Passion, I fear that many negative impressions of the film will be based on misreading what the movie's trying to do. To the Wonder is a portrait of a relationship between the American Ben Affleck and the French Olga Kurylenko, but one with very few actual real world details. We don't know why they like each other, how they met, how they live, nor, eventually, what happened to stop their love. They, with the film, move from their time together in France—presumably where they met—to Affleck taking her back to middle America. Their joy there and later their falling out has no plot points—it just happens.
The film thereby becomes a tone piece, an evocation of waxing and waning affections, the sensuality of abstractly motivated but highly tangible feeling moments. Rachel McAdams is a love of Affeck's that comes in between a temporary break in the central relationship (or before or after—chronology is never clear in the film, which includes such confounding/intriguing vague details as Affleck and Kurylenko seeming to live in at least four different houses through their story but without actually moving or any explanation). Her presence as a being is quite simply one of these moments, extended in the film's time, a reverie of discovery and then loss; just as is running through a sunny field, stalking around a creaky and empty house, and peering around abstractly trying to identify an unseen sadness. Javier Bardem is in a simultaneous throughline as a priest which sees his relationship to God being analogous to the downturns of the Affleck/McAdams and Affleck/Kurylenko relationship—namely, when a love in the world is mysteriously missing even when the traces of that love remain to remind you that they existed and still, perhaps can. This is therefore the smallest and most intimate of recent Malick (as well as the most relentlessly sad), and perhaps suggests the results of his cinema if its scope is hampered by budget and the limitations of the high productivity he now seems to have.
Incidentally, the “plotting” of this tone reminded me of Joss Whedon's Much Ado About Nothing, where characters' feelings, motivations and actions turn on invisible dimes. Whedon's adaptation is ostensibly mirthful and light until one considers the implications of such sudden fickleness, of the gaffs in morality and the mistreatment of humans in the scope of a “comedic” attitude towards life. Malick's film seems to make this its subject, which results in the downcast, often desolate tone (rhymed to remarkable sequences of empty/nearly-empty small town middle America streets which push towards “context” before moving away). Whedon's does not seem to be unaware of this, but his film and its characters are so caught up in the momentary joys and angers of the turns that the idea of future repercussions or the meaning of the past is notably absent.
Excuse this horrible seg about Shakespeare, but I need to say something about my favorite discovery here, Matías Piñeiro's Viola. It is my first film by this emerging Argentine director—who Ricky D'Ambrose wrote on some weeks ago on the Notebook—so I have little background in his cinema, but I loved what I saw here.
It is a short feature, predominately starring a small panoply of women in their 20s working in the arts, and its meagre plot but rich plotting begins in an all-women Shakespeare performance melding texts from various plays. It there transitions that drama (and text) to the backstage from which it moves effortlessly into a Rohmerian discussion of the relationship between romantic ethics and one's life philosophy, before breaking roughly in half to focus on the titular girl who bikes around the city hand delivering/selling either her own movies or bootlegs of movies (I wasn't clear on which it was) to several people, an audience eventually including the actresses from the opening play.
A highly mysterious film, Viola is held to this earth by long takes of flattened space letting the actresses' faces shift around and move across the image plane as they navigate their texts. Lines from several Shakespeare plays are apparently also integrated across all of the film's dialog, yet it retains a sinuous ensemble of lovely, highly acute and intelligent performances that are able to flow between quotations, rehearsals, repetitions, and ostensibly normal dramatic dialog with a beguiling naturalness. The structure of the film, its movement from a group to an individual, only for her to reach the group again, for a dream to appear—a dream of rehearsals, and, suddenly, personal accusations and challenges—and for that dream to find its role in the reality outside it, but still among artists and performers—the structure is of a most complex surface which yet appears utterly limpid. It ends like one of Rohmer's short Mortal Tales with a lesson taken (or revealed, discovered), but the undercurrent, poetic flow that holds these people and their little incidents together speaks of a more indefinable and ultimately mysterious movement. In a marvelous scene that is probably my festival favorite and which gives away Viola's hand, a van's door is slid open to reveal that the world outside isn't sunny as it had appeared through the windshield a moment ago, but rather the weather is raging with wind and rain. Enter a new woman, a new text and a new possibility.
Viola was programmed in Wavelengths' admirable and crucial mid-length features section—Wavelengths this year is made up of shorts programs, features and then these slots, which include a short feature and a short. This is a key section, as films over 25 minutes and under 65 seem to scare off most festivals and programmers, leaving them in a lurch to fill out somehow already determined time slots. Only a handful of smart programmers at smart festivals are willing to proudly carry the torch for such films, and one look at the mix of high profile and up-and-coming names in this section at TIFF—Apichatpong, Mati Diop, Athina Rachel Tsangari, Gabriel Abrantes, Piñeiro, Tsai Ming-liang—is a resounding testament to the need to allow festival and programming space for such films, as well as encourage audiences that, yes, these are works of cinema too. Why so many 2 hour+ films are allowed in but not under 70 minute features or over 25 minute shorts confounds me.
In this section I also saw the new Tsai, Walker, which like his 2011 short Madame Butterfly is shot digitally by the director himself. It is of the utmost simplicity: Lee Kang-sheng, dressed as a monk and holding a plastic bag of takeaway in one hand and breakfast sandwich in the other, walks the streets of Hong Kong in slow motion. Not that the film itself is shot in slow motion—though Tsangari's equally performance-based short The Capsule, which preceded Walker, does—but rather, Hong Kong moves at its usual bustle while Lee, with the utmost attention and concentration, head bowed, arms held stiffly up, walks as if his movement was being slowed down.
The effect is moving and funny, this bodily intervention in a graphic splash of orange peering intently down at each inch traversed while those around him either impassively walk by or stand and indifferently stare. Tsai's compositions play off the eerie slow effect Lee has mastered, following full body, performance-appreciative shots with ones that crop his body to just his head or his torso, which then looks like they are magically floating forward untethered, a material ghost. A jump cut to an elevated vantage point is a game of Where's Lee Kang-sheng? until his syrupy-slow orange blob is discernible between the implacable urban greyness or passing crowds and cars; a later shot expands the scale by framing his bent, monkish body against a gigantic advertisement of a topless male model. The short is first and foremost a document of a public performance, but after setting this up–a centerpiece in the form of a long real-time shot of Lee approaching the camera amidst a large viewing crowd—Tsai provides such variations both as visual puns and urban contextualization, a bit of protest, a bit of intervention, a bit of resistance. Lee's pacing infects the film and the audience: I found myself sensorially adapted to his movement, relating to this sad, outsider and his human perseverance; I soon found his surroundings the alien presence rather than him.
I know you've seen some work by masters in the meantime and am looking forward to your thoughts on them! As the festival is winding down, are you finding yourself more exhausted or more relaxed? For me, there are still a good number of films I'm excited to see coming up, but the pace here has slowed, necessity is ebbing away and the days are sunnier and warm. Still, I wish I'd gotten to see Spring Breakers.