Validation is something several films of the most important films here at Toronto seek, but I’m not speaking of critical or audience praise, but rather of a search within the films themselves. They desire clarity of a situation on the surface, the meaning of life underneath. The Coen brothers, in A Serious Man, frame this through the Jewish faith of small town Midwest in the 1960s—what do our actions mean within the world around us? Will changing a student’s grade or leaving your spouse for someone else bring doom upon those who make that moral choice? Despite the specific Jewish context, the question ultimately isn’t religious as much as it is existential, but the Coens’ programmatic feature negates the ultimate mystery of its own question by taking the form of a mathecinematical proof. In a world this staged, one doubts that anyone would ever question their existence in it at all.
Over in the French countryside, and later in Paris, Bruno Dumont, as usual, seeks an expression of the spiritual in the physical bodies of his actors. The despair over the absence of a tangible God for Hadewijch’s eponymous heroine forces her to challenge the spiritual through the physical—enacting real violence on others and on herself, looking for God in the action and its result. The film is more interested in the actual corporeal, human expressions of its heroine’s suffering and pain than A Serious Man, which does little but provide storybook illustrations on its theme when compared to the female face that dominates the whole of Hadewijch.
Dumont finds much in the abashed continence of actress Julie Sokolowski, her silent, soft exterior expressing deep interior pleas. The texture of her face bodily rather than pictorially tells of her question, which is so similar to that of A Serious Man’s Leonard Gopnik. But in direct opposition to the Coens’ cinematic strategy, Hadewijch fails to detail in world, character, or even form a context, in-road, or structure for Hadewijch’s pliant bodily suffering. Her words and actions, and the form the film gives her story, fail to do what, for example, Bresson is able to in his similar Diary of a Country Priest, which brings full force a tactile asceticism and sense of absence for its miserable hero. With the audience of the film kept out but kept witnessing, Hadewijch’s final test for meaning and presence in our world—like Gopnik’s—ultimately holds no power.
The direct gaze of the Coens and Dumont spoil their respectively lifeless and formless examinations of questions of how choice appears and functions for individuals, but Hong Kong director Cheang Soi, in Accident, shows how genre, which uses such ideas for mechanics and character rather than as ends in and of themselves, carries a far looser, less spiritual or religious, and more paranoid angle on these concerns, with richer results. A genre context—about a gang staging hits to look like accidents—expands to psychic and formal proportions as what starts as a job dangerously evolves into a way to question life itself. Our hero’s confident talent to fake fate is given a bloody turn when he no longer lacks the perspective to be able to see what is in our hands and what is out of our control. The devolution of such a professional man goes by way too quickly in the film, with much dramatic implausibility, but with Cheang’s formal engines all firing, the grandeur of Accident’s final set-piece and the brute intimacy of its epilogue strikes a more profound note than the above films ever reach.
Ironically, we have to travel outside the realms of narrative cinema in Toronto to find a “character” that best evokes this recurrent theme of choice in our world. Karl Kels’ short film in the avant-garde Wavelengths program, Käfig (Cage), with a few minute 35mm record of a rhinoceros emerging from behind the door in his pen at a zoo, wandering around his tiny habitat, never interacting with a closed door to the immediate right of the door it came in through, and finally leaving the frame, does something none of the above films do: continually re-invent not just the approach to this question of choice and result, but perhaps even re-phrase the question itself.
Kels flashes short intercut segments of his original footage rhythmically and discontinuously, and we see normal’s frames of film as well as black and white negative versions. Questions continually bubble to the surface throughout the stuttering film: what is the rhino doing, where did it come from, where is it going, what is its relationship with the opening/closing door on the right and the permanently closed door on the left, how the varied rhythm of the normal/altered stock effect our perspection of the rhino’s world, and, finally and ultimately, how will Kels end this kinetically claustrophobic experience with the rhinoceros. Käfig, at each moment of its brief existence, pops new, subtly revised variations on such a broad and universal theme with remarkably concrete, real-world specificity and formal cinematic invention and beauty. After being continually surprised at the difficulties with which so many stories and psychologies in A Serious Man, Hadewijch, and Accident try to pin down a flush expression of existentialism, Käfig reminds me, once again, of the power of experimental cinema to explore human questions that we so naturally associate with conventional storytelling.