I sympathize with your addled, festival-endorsed mind state of fevered exhaustion and oneiric boundary blurring! I'm glad you brought this up and I'm so, so glad you caught—and really liked—the Jim Jarmusch, because that was the last film I saw in Cannes this year, and while I think I loved it, the film had to pass through an even more extreme state of fatigue. And as you perhaps could tell by my silence about the picture in May, there is little of it in my mind, let's say, left alive. But on the contrary, Toronto is always a relief for me, flying from New York: such a short flight and within the same time zone means that I am able to arrive at the festival in a state of relative lucidity, and dive right in. Which may be why the first films I saw were equally lucid.
Abuse of Weakness is Catherine Breillat's bravely bald, unadorned admission of, first, her own lone infirmity and then, later, the grave mistake of a mysterious trust, an unconfirmed bond between herself and a young stranger.
The practical fact of the drama is the swindling of hundreds of thousands of euros from film director Maud (Isabelle Huppert's character inspired by Catherine Breillat herself) by a charmingly brutish conman (Kool Shen as "Vilko Piran") she saw on TV after his release from prison and whom she wants to star in her next film. But the treatment of this swindled money, for both the character and the film, and the exactitude of the supposed poverty Vilko drives Maud into, are as abstract as the newly invented currency of Rossellini's The Age of the Medici. This exploitation is the supposed scandal of the story, of the autobiographical reality of what happened to Breillat after she had a stroke. But the director's calmly stark ending, of Huppert, red-eyed, honest but uncomprehending, facing a baffled audience of children and lawyers, confounded at Maud's persistent distance between her rational understanding of her exploitation and her debt, her foolishness, and the fiscal gravity of what happened to her, reveals a different fear behind this true story.
Maud admits that the person who signed the checks was her and not her, that she didn't truly, consciously do it, but that who else could have, so it must be her. This remove, this admission of a kind of schizophrenia, folds back into the film's chronicling and enactment of the filmmaker's strokes and partial paralysis. That is, the rebellion of or the lack of control over the body, a story as much the core Abuse of Weakness as is the dramatic relationship between Maud and her actor-conman. What follows this rebellion which Maud confidentially, with an almost off-hand brazenness, conquers, is her quiet fascination with a man, a fasciation Breillat never fully explains through Huppert or the drama but hints at as a simmering undercurrent of psychology and psyche, of soul and sex, of masochism and sadism, and profoundly of physicality. Was this attachment also the result of a kind of daze after the disruption—violation?—of her body? The relationship does not seem so much a result of Breillat's injury as a parallel inroad into her person, two challenges, one inside her and one outside. While her body is inexplicably and uncontrollably attacked through the stroke, Maud seems to choose to be enfolded, with a wry detachment and often genuine pleasure, by this strange man, so clearly a mountebank. In this way, the simple presence of the conman is a physical manifestation of both the woman's inner strength and handicap, just as her permanent limp and tightly gripped left hand are. All this is held behind the almost demure surface of the film, which keeps its characters' interiority a secret one cannot solve, and makes Breillat's lucid confession a sympathetic, honest appeal of bewildered abashment.
Closed Curtain was another film of mental and physical turmoil projected with considerable restraint and confidence into a drama. Another Jafar Panahi film stuck inside a home, another image of Panahi himself stuck, trapped, behind curtains and doors. A drama of isolation and despair which reveals itself halfway through to be purely expressionistic, the actors literal projections of fears and thoughts of the mind and soul. A door is opened to the night and the poor quality digital camera cannot handled the darkness, which bursts into flames of unstable black pixels, a portal to unknown threats and blank emptiness. In a mirror, Panahi steps into frame and gradually replaces the older man (a timid screenwriter, protectful of his outlawed dog) and young woman (a complex figure: suicidal and a snitch) as the central protagonist whose thoughts—or is it just his house?—are occasionally filled with the words and worries of the two. But the director-actor's demeanor, despite the sorrow, is as unflappable and open as always: a gentle, warm presence, the intimations of suicide seeming almost antithetical to the simple tone of the man's body, his aspect. Which is why the admission of such darkness, of such solitude and doubt comes across with such force. And I cannot tell if the closing image, free and jailed at once, is a hope or fact.
After such minutely personal, confessional visions, it was a relief to turn to a much broader canvas with Frederick Wiseman's epic At Berkeley. Wiseman's bipartite portrait of a complex, living organism—a public university in California—is a characteristically wide-ranging yet pinpoint exploration of the dynamic between people and an organization. "Education" in 2010, when the documentary was filmed, is what unites the system with its participants, a large and abstract calling awkwardly defined in the film's first scene by a teacher trying to explain what makes the mission of the University of California Berkeley different from that of East Coast Ivy League school. The term is replete with meanings moral, ideal, practical, and theoretical, and is only further complicated by Wiseman splitting his story between the administrators meeting and discussing budgets, tuition, campus policing, tenure policies and teachers benefits, and classrooms where the students engage with a range of topics from poetry and political science leadership to institutional racism and advanced astronomy. In a brilliant conceit, each of the classroom scenes is simultaneously made of the literal subject under discussion—say, the motifs of Walden or the possibilities of humans traveling to distant stars—and works on an analogical level where each subject indirectly engages with core ideas of how to educate, how to use education, and what meaning it has for the students now as youths and for their futures in the outside world.
That world itself remains abstract throughout; the UC campus, hilly, rambling, architecturally diverse and geographically fragmented, remains a fiefdom unto itself (unless Berkeley city police are needed, as they later are, for large scale campus trouble), with its own leaders, politics, police, currency, and citizens. Theory is the subject at hand—the staff debating how to run the school, the students debating how to run their lives (or the world)—because the campus is so big, the buildings so many, the subjects so polyphonous. Wiseman's images are the concrete proof of the system, and inside those frames the system is engaged with directly and indirectly through words and debate. Progress isn't captured so much the flowering of discussion in an environment so fertile that even those tasked to run it are immersed in discussing the nature of its mission. Interestingly, praxis, the turning of theory into action, is mostly left aside in the face of an environment that encourages, if not requires, constant evaluation and self-evaluation from above (administrators) and below (students). Despite a misguided student protest which shockingly predates by a year the inspiring but confused muddle of the Occupy Wall Street movement, the sense of the campus, ultimately, is of a truly inquisitive world, and one absolutely present: a place where all discussion on all levels centers on how to live in this very place.
All of which makes me wonder, in a day to day experience weaving between the staff and the audience of TIFF, when will we get Frederick Wiseman's Film Festival?