Rushing from screen to screen with TIFF’s closing weekend just around the corner, that mix of excitement and exhaustion (a condition Manny Farber once dubbed “Festivalitis”) does indeed become more and more pronounced. Fortunately, the ratio of excitement has for me remained high even when my eyes occasionally grow heavy, thanks largely to alternately stirring and maddening films like Terrence Malick’s latest vision of Eden lost.
Malick’s To the Wonder feels curiously anchorless, which is especially weird as its story aims for the tightest focus on romantic couples since the days of Borzage. “Love makes us one,” go the murmurs on the characteristically dense soundscape as the camera swirls and swoons with the characters’ rush of infatuation, following them from Mont St. Michel to Oklahoma. The vertiginous impressionism accelerates, but the lack of character detailing—the lovers played by Ben Affleck and Olga Kurylenko become abstractions, not a couple but The Couple—robs the central relationship of intimacy and brings the film’s amorous lyricism a tad too close to Claude Lelouch terrain. Fascinatingly, Malick places these gorgeous creatures literally gliding through the film next to naturalistic devastation and “documentary” glimpses of dilapidated locals. (That said locals often take the form of hayseeds out of an early Harmony Korine sideshow is a can of worms to be opened in a later, longer essay.) If the filmmaker doesn’t exactly question his own poetic beauty, he nevertheless allows it to crumble a bit by situating it not in memory but in a present tense of fast-food chains, motel lodges and sludgy pollution. It’s a continuous search for the ineffable (“I write in water what I dare not say”) that alternates between the banal and the sublime, irritation and rapture, unfurnished homes and cathedral skies.
The festival’s ultimate old man’s movie, Manoel de Oliveira’s Gebo and the Shadow opens with a lovely, green-tinted still-life of a stationed battleship, piled-up crates and a rusting anchor by a port. The rest unfolds almost exclusively inside a wretched Portuguese clan’s oppressive household, with the camera never moving away from extended two-shots of commiserating characters. The patriarch (Michel Lonsdale) is mostly stooped over a paper calculating their expenses, his wife (Claudia Cardinale) complains of rituals and poverty, the daughter-in-law (Leonor Silveira) serves coffee to visitors (Jeanne Moreau and Luis Miguel Cintra). “We talk and we work.” In steps the estranged young son (Ricardo Trêpa), bringing with him hints of menace and freedom. By now, Oliveira has transcended technique itself: even the unmistakably rasping voices of Cardinale and Moreau seem to emerge less from the actresses than from the serenely balanced composition, with its thick, dark hues and oil-lamp lightning. A time-machine movie, a prison movie, and a frontal example of (to borrow Cocteau’s definition of cinema) “death at work.” To see the 103-year-old director recording these heavy husks of actors sitting around a table in lengthy takes is to feel his acknowledgement of mortality, as well as his search for lasting images. As one character says, simply: “Art consoles.”
Even more claustrophobic is Leviathan, an immersive documentary by Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel which churns pungently, indelibly from the ethnographic to the Biblical to the Lovecraftian. The beginning is reminiscent of the nightmarish netherworlds of the Alien films, a mass of knotty tubes and clanking chains where the all-engulfing blackness outside can be the sea one moment and the air itself the next. In the bowels of an industrial fishing vessel, the confrontations of humans, nature and machinery become viscous spectacle for the camera’s uncanny eye. Except for a handful of views (one inside an exhausted laborer’s cabin, another looking from from the top of the ship’s mast), virtually all vantage points are disorientating: sliding around with the crustacean cargo that’s just been lifted out of the waters and dumped on the ground, watching from under the foamy waves as gory chunks of fish and stingrays flow from the deck, then up in the air with dive-bombing seagulls suddenly turned upside-down. (What Hitchcock would have done with this footage!) Scaly, feathered, rusty textures, flesh battered and tattooed, even the most familiar surface is like a part of a huge, glistening demon. Often suggesting Franju’s Le sang des bêtes aboard Melville’s Pequod, it’s a thing of propulsive, infernal force.
A different form of discovery: Ritwik Ghatak’s 1960 Indian drama The Cloud-Capped Star. I love that TIFF now has a Cinematheque program with restored classics running side by side with current films, so that Rossellini’s magnificent Stromboli could be seen on the same screens as the other hits of this year’s festival. Hopefully we'll see more extended and ambitious programs to come. No less than Leviathan, Ghatak’s film is a work of sensations. Breaking from the graceful realism of compatriot Satyajit Ray’s concurrent miniatures of Indian society, the story—the gradual dissolution of a family in the face of shifting times—is filtered through fevered montage, jump cuts, baroque frames (a multi-plane, deep-focus composition involving a riverbank and a locomotive puts Ghatak on the level of Kurosawa and Wajda), and, most striking, the frequently contrapunctual play of image and sound. There are the voices on screen (the layabout son’s lush ballads, the matriarch’s cries of disapproval), and then there is the soundtrack, where sitar notes seem to plaintively stroke the characters when not snapping at them like whips. Were you able to discover any older films, Danny? This one shed some light on a national cinema I know shamefully little of, and pointed me in the direction of a director whose other work I will be soon tracking down.