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TIFF 2014. Correspondences #1

Our annual Toronto International Film Festival correspondence begins with films by Costa, Alonso, and Assayas.

Horse Money

Caro Danny,                                 

Festival time once more, for me the most valuable time. Time to soak in contrasting cinematic visions from across the globe, of course, and time to run into old and new friends. My first couple of days at a place like Toronto, I’m rather ashamed to say, mainly consist of playing catch-up. Not just catching up with titles which have already received coverage in other festivals, but also with fellow writers and cinema-lovers whom I practically only get to see once a year. As lonely as the basic act of movie-watching can be, to me the atmosphere here has always been an intoxicatingly communal one. The joy of leaping from screening to screening is matched only by the pleasure of discussing those discoveries with others—a dialogue that flows fluidly from contemporary releases to classic obscurities and gives a festival as vast as TIFF the intimate sense of shared exploration.

So seeing faces, familiar as well as unfamiliar ones, is important to me. And the most striking one of all materialized onscreen at my first film, namely Ventura’s in Pedro Costa’s Horse Money. His scalp adorned with a sprawling scar, his sunken eyes burning above a sparse, snowy beard, the aging Cape Verdean immigrant who first appeared in Costa’s Colossal Youth makes one hell of an entrance, emerging from the bottom of a darkened tunnel and ambling towards the camera for a Giacomettian close-up. What at first looked like a series of medieval catacombs turns out to be the sanatorium where the ailing Ventura is interned, supposedly recuperating but actually lost “on the road to perdition,” as another anguished wanderer puts it.

The asylum setting is telling, for this unrelentingly expressionistic horror story can stand with The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Encircled by the deepest chiaroscuro I’ve ever seen (more silent-film linkage: like Griffith, Costa uses darkness to reshape the frame), characters recite birth and marriage and death certificates in desperate murmurs, attempting to reinforce their existence as something other than phantoms. A doctor’s brightly lit office is suddenly invaded by looming shadows, an escape into the woods gives way to a deadpan police roundup involving a tank—there’s little logic from one shot to the next, other than the nightmarish logic of people suspended between spaces. At once a Chaplinesque figure of endurance and a man horribly weighted down by a brutal past, Ventura finds himself face to face with the personification of that past in an unforgettable elevator ride. (A sustained burst of pipe organ plays like Ventura’s long-suppressed scream, followed by a hushed song: “Another day in the darkness, my conscience and me…”) By the time the film reaches its devastating final image, I was trembling as much as the protagonist.

Another face: Viggo Mortensen’s in Lisandro Alonso’s Jauja, like a rounded granite boulder atop an azure military overcoat yet softened by graying whiskers and the escalating confusion in his character’s eyes. He’s the first international star employed by the Argentine director, who previously peopled his beguiling landscapes with nonprofessionals and here teases the audience by introducing Mortensen’s Danish engineer in 19th-century Patagonia with his back to the camera, resting by his teenage daughter’s side. The opening sequences contain possibly more dialogue than all of Alonso’s earlier films combined, and build a misleadingly sturdy, Fordian premise that the rest of the film proceeds to luminously dismantle. (When a character declares that “the desert devours everything,” the effect is not one of foreboding threat but of magical potential.) You’ve already delved into Alonso’s radical narrative shifts in your report from Cannes, Danny, so for now I’ll just luxuriate in the film’s remarkably sensuous textures (one early tableau: seaside rocks covered in vivid green moss and set against a pale blue sky, with a shirtless lieutenant in bright scarlet pantaloons hilariously throwing off the composition) and its narcotizing feeling of mischief, which suggests Apichatpong Weerasethakul reimaging his favorite Hugo Fregonese Western.

Lastly, two more faces: Juliette Binoche’s and Kristen Stewart’s in Olivier Assayas’ Clouds of Sils Maria, the former an often anxious but still formidable lioness (particularly in the later sequences, when her short hair brings to mind a matured version of her troubled character from Louis Malle’s Damage) and the latter a deceptively blank springboard for marvelously furtive line-readings and darting glances. It’s a film about acting and actresses, and in your review you aptly mentioned Persona, where Bergman famously staged a literal face-melt between Liv Ullman and Bibi Andersson; I was more reminded of All About Eve, less for any definitive meditation on female rivalry or life-meets-art-meets-life complexity than for the wise, assured lightness of Assayas’ touch. Like Irma Vep, still my favorite of his films, this is a fleet comedy where people move like drops of mercury against a referential backdrop of screens and masks, with an analytical melancholy replacing the earlier film’s roving energy even as the French director clearly has fun whipping up glimpses of TMZ-style gotcha! videos and CGI-laden superhero blockbusters. Though less immediately impactful than my other screenings, I have a feeling that it will grow equally rewarding with subsequent visits.

I look forward to your discoveries.

Fern

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