Dear Danny and Kelley,
The Rider sounds lovely, and I’m happy to hear Chloé Zhao has built on the melancholy promise of her first film, Songs My Brother Taught Me. Artists with a gift for empathy create anticipation for new works. Artists whose single stylistic tool is shock, on the other hand, cause only dread. So it goes with mother!, Darren Aronofsky’s latest suite of seizures and my noisiest, least rewarding experience at TIFF so far. Genius is like fire in that it is born from what it burns, says Malraux, so this allegory on the malefic artistic process opens with the subtlety and maidenly restraint expected from the maker of Requiem for a Dream: a full frontal glimpse of an incinerated woman, her blistering skin suggesting a melting gold effigy. The drama proper belongs to another wax dummy, an unnamed young wife played by Jennifer Lawrence in an unending procession of distressed close-ups. Her husband (Javier Bardem) is a poet, presently creatively constipated. Their home is an isolated Victorian cottage rather like a mix between the abodes in Funny Games and Antichrist, which only hints at the invasions and madness to come.
Ingmar Bergman used to stage such danses macabres of creators and muses. (Indeed, his Hour of the Wolf feels like a direct model for mother!) Aronofsky scarcely has that old chamber-music conductor’s patience—like a demented bolero player, he moves his circular stories upward, accelerating all the while. So the torment experienced by the heroine is not elucidated or even passably visualized, merely multiplied. Unwanted guests arrive and stay, first a curiously insinuating couple (Ed Harris and Michelle Pfeiffer) and then a crowd upon crowd of admirers, twits, and fanatics. Floorboard cracks resemble oozing wounds, the wife stumbles through the war zone that used to be her living room, and the poet finally has his masterpiece. “I don’t want to interrupt. I’ll just be setting up the apocalypse.” The disintegrating psyche is Aronofsky’s preferred terrain, and the wanton piling of grotesqueries here shows a filmmaker at least not afraid to run his concepts to their limits, to push beyond the ludicrous for the transcendental. There are occasional prodigies of sheer viscera along the way, harrowing Bosch-like visions to keep Lawrence hyperventilating for her Oscar nomination. Because its thesis on demonic auteurs is so humorless and self-serving, however, mother! tests the patience more than it haunts the subconscious. The lingering impression is not the ash and crystal of savage art, but sweat from a director already worried about how to next squeeze the audience.
The high-decibel finickiness of mother!’s sound design (growling furnaces! screeching sinks!) is put to shame by the uncanny calm and quiet of Vivian Qu’s Angels Wear White, a far more unsettling film. Its setting is a small beachfront town in China so hushed that the sounds of crashing waves dominate the night, and dawn is announced by the scritch-scritch of workers sweeping the sand. Under these placid veneers, Qu lays out a grid of muted menace as pitiless and enveloping as a Kiyoshi Kurosawa phantom yarn. Taking her friend’s place at a motel’s reception desk for the evening, a young cleaning woman (Wen Qi) checks in an older man and two schoolgirls. Staring at the surveillance footage with glazed over eyes, she casually wields a cellphone to record proof of the customer pushing his way into the room of his underage companions. Divided between the heroine’s not-quite investigation of the events and the aftermath struggle of one of the girls (Zhou Meijun), the film’s deceptively understated drift belies a wrathful panorama of exploitation and injustice. Shot through the outsider camera’s gaze of Belgian cinematographer Benoit Dervaux, the pale shores and milky skies have a pastel ethereality constantly cracked by mysterious sights—a character’s pensive rest suddenly interrupted by a series of bridal-themed photoshoots, or a motorcycle ride around the poster-festooned ankle of a towering cement statue of Marilyn Monroe. This is only Qu’s second film, yet her lucid spareness and yen for revealing female dynamics already mark her as a director of rare gifts.
If the motel in Angels Wear White suggests a bloodless hub of human transactions, the one in The Florida Project evokes a shimmering wonderland filtered through the low angles and roving zest of a child’s perspective. In his followup to Tangerine, Sean Baker amplifies that film’s raucous timbre and lo-fi effulgence with a frequently captivating miniature canvas of life and fantasy on the American margins. The seedy Orlando inn where the six-year-old protagonist (Brooklynn Kimberly Prince) roams may lurk on the shadow of Disneyland, but that hardly keeps her and her friends from locating an amusement park of their own in the site’s lavender-hued corridors, swimming pools, and nearby swampy scrubland. Spitting at cars, sharing ice creams, venturing into abandoned houses and generally hurtling through the muggy summer of childhood, she’s blissfully unaware of just how fragile her made-up world is—an illusion of enchantment fiercely held up by her volatile mom (Bria Vinaite) and gruffly patrolled the harried manager (a truly wonderful Willem Dafoe). Studded with kitschy capitalist detritus (fast-food domes shaped like giant oranges or mermaids) and graced with flashes of detailed yet ephemeral beauty (a fireworks display at night, a pair of children approaching a bovine herd amid tall grass), Baker’s film overflows with euphoria and sadness.
Over to you, my friends.