Aye!—you make my festival experience sound like a superhuman toil! If anything, I'm seeing less than you, as you get the pleasures of catching up with the crème de la crème of Cannes. It seems like I see a lot because I'm often reporting on a slew of shorts, but remember, the Wavelengths shorts programs so central to my (any many others') TIFF experience are only four strong, over nearly as soon as they start, the Monday after the festival's opening night. Don't you see what I'm actually doing here? I'm luxuriating in your taking the pressure off me, handling all the much anticipated films by the big auteurs while I get to relax, scribbling notes in the margin about the smaller movies: you make my life easier! That being said, there are still some major films I need to tell you about, to begin wrapping the festival experience up. I'll begin with three aggressively disturbing films, before slowing things to a more meditative pace.
Alleluia, Fabrice Du Welz's sensual, brutal version of the "lonely hearts killers"—made into a 1969 film by Leonard Kastle, The Honeymoon Killers, and Arturo Ripstein's 1996 Deep Crimson—was a highlight of the Directors' Fortnight at this year's Cannes, and I was able to revisit this gem again in Toronto so as to interview the filmmaker (stay tuned!) and write a bit about it. Shot close in intimate 16mm, the film juggles tones deftly to capture the loneliness, desire, horror, humor, and absurdity in an amour fou between two single sociopaths who find in each other an intense, primal attraction. But both persons are so distorted, and the love between them thereby turning so distorted, that it leads not to the greatest, strangest love affair—though you could call it that, I suppose—but the most perverse: the man sets up a scheme to seduce and rob women, and the woman, quickly beset by manic jealousy, to kill them.
The two stumble and trip their way through several murders which try them physically as well as spiritually, testing their blind love and body chemistry to the limit by inciting ever higher levels of tottering emotional precariousness as the man (Laurent Lucas) is tempted back into the fold of normal domestic love, and the woman (Lola Dueñas), who was pulled away from her life alone in her home with her daughter, is pushed to take more and more extreme steps to keep them together. It's a frenzied and exhausting film expertly done, the tight camerawork achieving all that the jittery handheld "naturalism" of action-Hollywood and social art-house movies fails to do, going not for realism or immediacy but complicity (as between the lovers, so between us and them), intimacy, and myopia. Above all, it is the actors and du Welz's supreme dedication to their earthy carnality, the contours of their faces and fervor of their bodies, that so convince that this is love, lust, and insanity.
Insanity also rules in Goodnight Mommy, the combo-directorial debut of Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala, which echoes Christian Petzold's Phoenix, also shown in Toronto, in capturing the trembling uncertainty of identity—and the violence which can follow—in masking loved ones. It begins fundamentally the same: a woman returns home from a surgery with her face wrapped in bandages, and the voice she speaks in, the tones she uses and the character that hence comes forth is not recognized by her family. Here, they are her twin boys who quickly determine that the behavior of this masked woman is not that of the "mama" who left them. Franz and Fiala conduct a wonderful evolution of tone, from ghost story all the way nearly to comedy: it felt good, in a film I kept assuming would turn into one about an oppressive and repressive mother figure haunting her children, for the boys to turn the tables on her, start pranking her, and try to ferret out her identity. But then they take it further, much further, in a clear and much deserved parody of Funny Games where the limits of love are tested, and how suspicion of a love's betrayal—and family bonds—can push one to bloody extremes. For me, the film eventually went too far, holding its cards to close to its chest but simultaneously increasing the violence to an implausible degree and effacing its dexterous uncertainty. But the pathway followed felt inspired and surprising. Very Austrian, no doubt, but a very clever, tricky debut.
The Look of Silence
Let's conclude the disturbing section of this missive, shall we? Because I also saw Joshua Oppenheimer's follow-up to The Act of Killing, The Look of Silence. Following a victim rather than, as in the previous film, a perpetrator, the film lacks much of the craziness of mise en scène that superficially grabbed all the attention of that 2012 documentary. While the new film does include walkthroughs of crimes by killers and reenactments of past crimes, these are shown to be old footage the director made in the mid-2000s and is to some degree more observational than the much more dubious collaborative creativity between killers and filmmakers that so stunned in The Act of Killing. And yet this film is just as questionable.
Adi, whose brother was killed in the Communist purges of the late 1960s, acts as a director surrogate asking killers and their families about their roles and responsibilities, for which they are cagey, dodgy, and, despite repeating "the past is the past," quite terrifyingly carrying an atmosphere that the bloodily repressive Indonesia of that era still pervades present everyday life. Even though, based on this concept, The Look of Silence is mostly made of interviews, Oppenheimer severely constructs his mise en scène so that, for example, whenever some killer or killer's relation says something horrifying, the film will cut to Adi's face, but it's never clear whether his reaction in this shot is actually recorded in this moment. The majority of the film's form operates under this shot/reverse-shot mystification, including key scenes of Adi watching images on TV of the killers talking about how they killed during the purge, but the images are matted onto the TV, not actually playing, and the reverse shot edits could again have been taken of Adi from any time. This manipulative approach to showing a victim "silently" watching and ingesting the justifications and deflections of the people who killed or ordered the killing of his brother, or did similar killing and ordering, does Adi a disservice as the person baring the burden of being witness, interrogator, victim, and conduit for impassioned humanity, as well as, no doubt, taking the personal physical and emotional risk of approaching these people.
If we can't trust his reactions, who can we trust? And yet, and yet...as with The Act of Killing, the means to get these horrible people on camera talking about crimes and expressing, however evasively, how they live day to day with this bloody past behind them, is a historical, humanitarian coup. Interviews with and documentary observations of Adi's very elderly parents—his centenarian father is nearly crippled, nearly blind, and nearly deaf—achieve a far more eloquent and less ethically disturbing expression of the spiritual and bodily trauma suffered by even the smallest atrocity. Unfortunately many of The Look of Silence's triumphs are undercut by the film's seeming need to suture its uniquer conversations and admissions into a personal story of a single man, which deforms the construction of the film and forever muddies the water of the accomplishments the filmmakers make.
A documentary of a much more serene distance from the subject, Amie Siegel's Provenance, a 40 minute video installation that is part of the Future Projections strand of the festival, could easily have been included in a Wavelengths program as a "film" rather than a gallery piece on loop. Strongly reminiscent of Heinz Emigholz's subtly narrative but unnarrated documentary essays on architects and architecture—which feature no explanative texts beyond place cards, and no voiceovers, or other context—Provenance similarly without explanation takes the viewer through the use, commerce and origin of some of the most beautiful interior designs ever made, Le Corbusier and Pierre Jeanneret's early-mid 20th century furniture.
Moving backwards in, yes, provenance, we see ambient shots of the designers' chairs, desks, lamps and more placed currently in various very upscale apartments and houses, see them at auction ($90,000 for a desk!), at a restoration shop, on a transportation ship, and languishing in their original factory in India. Siegel's images are less acute and "thinking" as those of Emigholz and his editing, which always quietly seem to be actively working their way through his spaces—the material of his films—whereas Provenance is more content to observe and then order. But this observation is enough for me, to see the static, utilitarian and/or designed existence of these pieces at the same time as experiencing a larger, editing-based movement of their existence as objects of lifestyle, consumption, and construction. (Olivier Assayas' Summer Hours briefly comes to mind.) Somewhat hidden away by its exhibition in a gallery space including a few other pieces by Siegel that's a 30 minute walk away from the festival center, Provenance was one of the festival's best kept secrets.
And now to fully bring us back to Wavelengths—the eternal return! While Adam Cook saw and reported on Tsai Ming-liang's Journey to the West from this year's Berlin International Film Festival (and interviewed Denis Levant about it), I was finally able to catch up with this masterpiece, by far one of the year's best, here in Toronto. Since both Adam and Michael Sicinski have written well about it, I'll tell you a bit about the adventurous program this brilliant, languorous feature was paired with, artist Margaret Honda's film debut (in 70mm!), Spectrum Reverse Spectrum.
Beginning in total blackness, this silent 20 minute film slowly fades into the deepest shades of violet and proceeds to ebb and morph its way through the color spectrum all the way to red, followed by another brief layover in blackness, before flowing back again from red to violet. Honda explained how she made the film in a post-screening Q&A, but the Arsenal's description makes it even clearer: "a cameraless film made by exposing 70mm print stock to precisely calibrated colored light in a film printer, resulting in a uniform field of color with no frame lines."
The experience is akin to watching one of artist James Turrell's sculptural installations of ambient light evolution, but here tightly tied to the material confines of film stock and the temporal, non-looped experience of watching a film with a beginning and end in a theatre. The evolution of the shades and hues, as in Turrell's work, is so subtle it often escapes notice until you discover, too late, the color has changed before your eyes. I'm not sure, Fernando, if it was where I was sitting in the cinema (to one side but near the front), a trick of the eyes, the actual film, or a combination therein, but the screen never seemed a pure color but rather almost imperceptibly splotchy shades within itself as it transitioned from one central color to another. I'd blink and, the previous color having slowly burned some imprint on my eyes' rods and cones, my eyes would over-lay some of these previous perceived colors onto the next noticeable color change, making it even more difficult to experience, if one could, some kind of pure movement of spectrum color.
I'm not sure how much I actually liked the film and its central, rather basic guiding idea, but the experience of settling into its fluid rhythm and total absence of space was one of the most memorable at the festival, and set the state of mind and body perfectly for the pacing and slow motion spatial play of Tsai's Journey to the West. In the audience Q&A that followed the pairing, one man commented that Spectrum Reverse Spectrum's run-time was almost precisely that ascribed as the required minimum length of meditation in several religions before one becomes really aware of one's body, its breaths, and its existence. That, to me, was one of the best insights I've heard here at the festival.
I want to say "that's all" for me, but to be honest, I'm still preparing some thoughts on my favorite feature of the festival, Christian Petzold's Phoenix. I'll be sure to share those with you, Fernando, as soon as I can!
Until then, warmly,