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TIFF 2012. Correspondences #1

Our two-critic dialogue kicks off at this year's Toronto International Film Festival with new films from Kiarostami, Haneke and Korine.

Dear Danny,

So here we are in Toronto, with a week and a half of cinema ahead of us. I make no secret of how eagerly I wait for this time of the year, which to a cinephile with my usual limited access to international releases plays like a veritable banquet. Even before the festival's first screening, however, the fact that this year the two of us are writing for the same outlet had me worrying over how we’d go about covering it. Who gets what? Do we do capsule reviews? Can we both discuss the same film? I liked your one-word solution: “Correspondence.” A report of what we’d seen, sure, but also a dialogue, a catalog of contrasts and overlaps, a record of experiences.

On to the first day, then, and on to the strange, remarkable Like Someone in Love. As that fantastic opening sequence unfurled—with its multiple levels of focus, disembodied voices and characters moving from background to foreground and back, it’s virtually a mini-Tati movie—I was reminded of how much is always going on beneath the skin of Abbas Kiarostami’s apparent simplicity. The setting, Tokyo and its surroundings, makes for even more slippery terrain than the Tuscany of Certified Copy. When the young heroine rides in the back of a taxi impassively listening to half a dozen voice messages (mostly from a neglected grandmother) and then suddenly asks the driver to make an unexpected turn, the mystery of the sequence stems not just from an opaque narrative that we’re still trying to crack, but also from the sort of mixture of rigidity and impulse that beguiled Japanese artists as different as Ozu and Oshima.

Kiarostami here is a distant observer, to borrow Noël Burch’s phrase, a very cool poker player giving out just enough bits of information (some of it funny, some of it menacing) to steer you in one direction while he—as befits a film of alluring empty zones, identity games, and punchlines forgotten and misunderstood—goes another. As you mentioned in your review, it’s best to go in knowing as little as possible about it and allow yourself to be blindsided. By contrast, in Michael Haneke’s Amour (what can I say, I guess I wanted to get those damn Cannes heavyweights out of the way on my first day) I knew not only exactly where it was going, but, worse, what every shot would look like. Of course, it’s utterly idiotic to criticize a filmmaker for being consistent in his visual style. It’s slightly less idiotic, I hope, to criticize him for cultivating a style so not-a-hair-out-of-place suffocating that even a lost pigeon’s flapping wings strike me as too immaculately choreographed.

It’s practically impossible not to be shaken by the spectacle of emotional bonds facing grinding mortality, especially when Emmanuelle Riva in her beautiful eighties is a dead ringer for my own grandmother, whose dolorous decline I witnessed as a teenager. (Not surprisingly, everyone I speak to about Amour seems to be reminded of a loved one who underwent a similar ordeal.) The encyclopedia of physical and mental indignities and excruciations is certainly as grueling as it’s meant to be, yet it’s also peculiarly unmoving. I’m an easy crier, so how could such a story not bring me to tears? Could it be that Haneke, for all his compositional exactitude and earfuls of Schubert, has such an arctic view of humanity that he can’t feel much for it even when he sees it painfully decaying? Talk of his “tender” and “humanistic” side feels hollow; to me he’s the same masterful, sadistic manipulator, still torturing his characters and his audiences for their own supposed good.

And then, for something completely different: Spring Breakers. In Amour, flesh is the soft, pale matter inexorably disintegrating on polished hardwood floors and cushy leather chairs. In this Day-Glo reverie from Harmony Korine, flesh is bronzed and humid and packed into noisy, jiggly pyramids. The opening beachfront bacchanalia, with its countless slow-mo beer ejaculations and middle-fingers pointed directly at the camera, kicks off the frenetic combination of bliss and bile that continues, unresolved, throughout the film. It’s all about phosphorescence. The insane glow of dorm rooms, lecture halls, nightclubs and pools, the light bouncing off the silver grill in James Franco’s idiot-shark leer. Sometimes it resembles an airhead’s slapdash vacation medley on YouTube, sometimes it suggests Hou’s Millennium Mambo. Brimming with bursts of pungent lyricism, it nevertheless makes me wonder how much of this aggressive, teeny gumdrop vacuity is being ironically sent up by Korine. When in the nuttiest bit Franco plays a Britney Spears song on his baby piano and the three heroines twirl around him in matching pink ski masks, that old exchange from The Simpsons springs to mind: “Are you being sarcastic, dude?” “I don’t even know anymore.”

Speak soon,

Fern

Very much agreed on “Amour.” I found it utterly predictable, and more suited to a director with some sensitivity for human feeling. I really like Haneke’s recent films (“Cache” and “The White Ribbon”) with their metaphysical and ever-expanding mysteries, so I suppose this film’s setback, in the context of Haneke, is its straightforwardness.
I’m an easy crier too, and don’t remember tears during Amour, which I loved. But that’s because it’s a horror movie, one that reminded me more of Cronenberg’s The Fly than anything else. Thanks for reminding me of the amazing and heart-breaking phone message sequence in Like Someone in Love. The opening and closing shots of that film are so astounding (in very different ways) that I had forgotten almost everything in between. And talking of in between, it sounds like a double bill of The Inbetweeners and Spring Breakers might be interesting.

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