I, Daniel Blake
Has it already been a year since we last exchanged notes and opinions on the film festival circuit? Toronto in September is this movie lover’s favorite place and time, and, despite a literally damp start (out of the airport and right into an abrupt, monsoon-style downpour), the appetite for discovery remains as insatiable as ever. TIFF for me has always been an escape—not just from my very non-cinephile work but also from the limitations of the multiplex, where hackneyed would-be blockbuster follows hackneyed would-be blockbuster in a seldom interrupted procession of mediocrity. The range and variety of festivals function as heartening correctives, reminders, as a friend recently and succinctly put it in response to yet another cinema-is-dead pronouncement, that movies aren’t just Hollywood or just what can be seen right now. I’m often anxious as I enter TIFF, yet I always leave it in euphoria, feeling enlarged and lifted by the sheer diversity of visions I’ve been privileged to experience.
So let me begin this festival with an invocation of another—namely Cannes, where Ken Loach’s I, Daniel Blake was awarded top honors. I’ve seen nearly twenty of his films, and I must confess to a bit of trouble in keeping them from blurring together in my mind. (I might wonder “Which Loach has the proletarian underdog and the callous public institution?” in the same manner I might wonder “Which Ozu has the generational crisis and the evocative seasonal title?”) The English director’s resolute dedication to working-class struggles has endured for five decades, and a recognizable tenor of activist outrage has long emerged. But consistency does not equal roteness, and the familiarity of his scenarios is almost always charged with battered urgency and salted with biting humor. Pushing 80 now, Loach still wields an agitator’s ardent camera.
Prickly and kindly in the face of grinding bureaucratic torments, the eponymous protagonist (played by stand-up comedian Dave Johns) is the latest in a long line of put-upon Loachian scrapers, a widowed Newcastle carpenter with a feeble ticker and a state-enforced catch-22: Avoid work or risk another heart attack, seek work or lose welfare benefits. When waiting rooms and government offices are filled with coldly impersonal jargon (recurring mentions of “decision-makers” strike quite the Orwellian note), people on the margins must fight for their very existence. They revolt by travestying the system, like the young neighbor who runs a scrappy business of counterfeit sneakers, or defacing it, like Daniel with spray can in hand for an angry display against “the posh dicks in the mansions.” Mainly, however, they revolt by simply showing each other the compassion they’re denied everywhere else—as in the delicately platonic relationship between Daniel and a distressed single mother from London (Hayley Squires). Loach crafts all of this with patience and anger; scarcely a fashionable trait with most movie buffs, his bleak naturalism looks more valuable than ever.
Even more valuable: Paul Verhoeven’s sneaky cackle, felt all through Elle, another Cannes catch-up for me. From the very first image, in which the main character’s brutal violation is reflected in the slit-eyed gaze of her pet cat, it’s obvious that the Dutch veteran has lost none of his knack for provocation. Yet what’s surprising is the calm, even elegance with which his camera surveys a traumatic situation, a contradiction perfectly attuned to the blazing-steely intensity of Isabelle Huppert’s Michèle. The title’s mighty “She,” Michèle runs a video game company specializing in psychosexual fantasies, carries the weight of horrific past events, unabashedly enjoys sex and friendships and corrosive self-amusement… and feels, to put it mildly, complicated toward her own rape by a masked invader. Fear flashes across her face when obscene messages continue to infiltrate her phone and computer, but so do vengeance and lust. The mystery of her attacker’s identity is solved early, but the mystery of her desire only twists and deepens. Creamy facades reveal such knotted impulses that, when the heroine’s mother scolds her for insisting on what she dubs “a sanitized view of life,” the line gets a hearty guffaw. “Sanitized”? For this director and this actress?!
You already wrote quite perceptively about Elle back in May, Danny, but the beauty of this beautifully slippery and oddly tender film is in how it resists being pinned down, leaving the prospect of a definite interpretation as fluid as blood on a bubble bath. It wears the skin of Gallic suspense (to the point of often resembling a most suave Haneke send-up) yet its spirit, embodied by Huppert’s impeccable, blade-like turn, feels generously comic. This is a story, after all, that features Huppert diddling herself while peeking at a married neighbor holding plaster Nativity statuettes, and closes on a wise exchange between women who’ve had their share of male chumps. Such thorny flashes of subtlety and ambiguity should come as no surprise fro the auteur behind RoboCop, Showgirls and Starship Troopers—perhaps only a profoundly sardonic artist to attain Elle’s simultaneously hard-edged and impishly humanistic view of relationships. Verhoeven is now the same age as Buñuel when he directed That Obscure Object of Desire. May his French period last even longer.
Tangled relationships are also at the heart of Raja Amari’s Foreign Body, which kicks off with a saturated, disorientating flurry (people sinking in the ocean: Accident or massacre? Nightmare or memory?) before switching to washed-out Parisian asphalt. Samia (Sarra Hannachi), a young Tunisian woman with an incarcerated jihadist brother, arrives in France and promptly starts working for a local widow (Hiam Abbas), who in turn becomes interested in her possessive beau (Salim Kechiouche). Abbas’ gaze can be as frank and complex as Huppert’s, and Hannachi exudes a sullen opaqueness that she turns like a dial from haunted to sensual—one moment contemplating her scars while sinking in a bathtub, the next hitting the dance floor like a smoky odalisque. Unfortunately Amari, whose Satin Rouge had a swirling vibrancy, opts for a sedate approach that dulls its tantalizing, vaguely Chabrolian elements. It’s constantly on the verge of getting riskier and more interesting, but keeps instead falling back on its tepid triangle and topical murmurs.
So that was my first day, my friend. How was yours?